Events are winding down as the con starts to come to an end. However, we did attend some pretty neat panels today…
This morning we went to the “Buffy and Angel” panel that was to be comprised of James Marsters (“Spike”) and Armin Shimerman (“Principal Snyder” or “Quark” in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). James Marsters ended up having to cancel at the last minute, so it was a full hour with Armin Shimerman…and it was excellent! Mr. Shimerman was a great speaker, really down to earth and funny. He promised to answer all questions truthfully with “no BS” and lived up to it…he was given some delicate questions about some of his cast members on his various shows. He was honest, but always classy, even when his opinion wasn’t exactly complimentary. A nice way to spend a morning.
Next up, after about a thirty minute wait in line, was “An Hour with the Tams” where we got to hear from Summer Glau (“River Tam”) and Sean Maher (“Simon Tam”) from the “Firefly” television series. Both were very nice and gracious and, interestingly enough, seemed kind of shy. They had good senses of humor and, in the way they would play off each other, you could see the chemistry they had on-screen playing brother and sister. My only complaint was that they really needed to turn up Summer Glau’s microphone…she is very soft-spoken and it was hard to catch everything she was saying. Other than that it was an enjoyable panel.
The final panel of the day was a writer-track discussion of “Ingredients for Good Fiction” or how to spice up your fiction. The panel consisted of:
- Graham Watkins (moderator)
- Mike Resnick (author)
- S. M. Stirling (author)
- Janny Wurts (author/artist)
- Anne Sowards (editor)
- Seressia Glass (author)
- Claire Eddy (editor)
- A. C. Crispin (author)
- Diana Gabaldon (author)
The discussion was interesting, though not ground-breaking. Most of the advice was very common-sense and very much in line with things I’ve heard from other successful authors on creating compelling fiction. Here are some of the fine points from the discussion:
Plot vs. Character
- All of the panelists came firmly on the side of character over plot…but also emphasized that a good, memorable story cannot be written without both. The problem is that so much of science-fiction/fantasy/genre fiction becomes so plot oriented that character development, which is the emotional base of the story, suffers.
- Characters are the emotional heart of the story. Without them, the reader won’t care about what’s going on.
- It is also important to know your audience…if you fall too heavy into characterization and forget to have the character actually do something, you may alienate your reader.
- It’s great to create layers of character, and symbolism, and such, but you also have to have a story that can stand on its own without these things. Some readers won’t bother to look for it or aren’t interested. Those that do bother and are interested will appreciate it.
- Not only must the reader relate to a character, but they must also relate with the problem that the character is dealing with. It must grab them emotionally as something they can identify with.
- You have to reach through to the character, and reach down within yourself as the author to discover what you empathize with regarding the character and bring this out on the page.
The “empty character”…
- There seems to have been an increase in the use of an “empty character”, a character so devoid of personality that its purpose seems to be to allow the reader to insert themselves into the story.
- Two-dimensional/flat characters are nothing new…it’s poor literature, but not a new phenomenon. Even the ones that are somehow popular.
- If the characters lack resonance, something else (drive, pacing, etc.) better have the emotional “oof” required to overcome bad writing.
- One example cited was the character of “Bella” from the Twilight series of novels. This may have even been purposeful on the part of the author to allow teen girls (and, apparently, their mothers) to project themselves into the story. It somewhat explains the popularity of the series despite many authors and critics finding the writing to be so bad.
- However, the editors on the panel pointed out that there is always a place for different types of books for different types of readers. Some like layered, emotionally resonant works. Some want “popcorn reads”. There is a place for both styles of writing.
- Another aspect of the discussion is that our culture often embraces the short attention span. This style of characterization can allow readers to drop themselves into the story quickly without much thought or effort.
- Movement is the key here. We are primates, hard-wired to be attracted to movement. The plot or the character development must constantly move to keep our attention. The movement in the story can be on the surface (like in pulps) or in the layers (like more literary works).
- One audience member pointed out that you never hear “this story has too much characterization”.
Plots That Don’t Make Sense
- As you write more, you read and view stories differently…you learn to “read the plot” and often see things that casual readers don’t notice or even care about.
- Remember Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of science-fiction is crap…and if you extrapolate that, 90% of everything is crap.
- The pulps, which many in the sci-fi/fantasy field venerate, had a lot of crappy stories…but then there were the nuggets that we hold dear and keep coming back.
- Many times, if the plot doesn’t make sense, it’s because the editor either didn’t catch it (they are human) or the author needed to have a beta reader or writing group look at the work before turning it in. Sometimes what an author knows isn’t always provided, making for a plot that seems to jump to some very unrealistic conclusions (at least for the uninformed reader).
- At the same time, be careful of over-plotting…if you plan everything out too much, and it is too logical, the reader will get to your conclusion before they finish and the story becomes too predictable. Know where you are headed and roughly how to get there, but leave room for inspiration. Inspirational thinking helps keep the reader from guessing where you’re going.
- Most writers are a combination of “plotters” or “pantsers” (writing by the seat of your pants, sans outlines, etc.). Give yourself room to work things out along the way.
- “Just vomit it up and clean it up later…”
- Stuck on your plot? Do something else for a while; don’t let the brain lock up by over-focusing. Keep an “open focus”…movement actually gets the brain working.
- Keep in mind that genres exist because, ultimately, people like some predictability.
- Inspiration is important, but mechanics count as well. If you can’t tell a good idea well, then the story fails.
- Writing is work, but it had better look like fun on the page.
Other Points from Audience Questions
- There have been changes in narrative structure with the advent of texting, gaming, etc. The reader’s expectations often shift. Victorian novels are very different from modern ones. Even the shift from typing to word processors have affected novel lengths for some authors.
- Do character’s write the story? For some of the authors, the answer was a definitive “No.” For others, they have had this happen on rare occasions. Much of the answer boils down to how the author works. It can also be not so much of the character writing the story but that, as an author, you know the character so well that you make your plot choices based on that knowledge.
- Keep in mind that the writing market is a long-term cycle. Don’t write to the market now because by the time your story hits the shelves, it is no longer marketable. You’re an individual…tell your story they way you want and the market will either embrace it or you bide your time until the cycle comes back again. Keep writing in the meantime.
Overall, this has been a very enjoyable con. Tomorrow we’ll probably start our trek back to the Serial Distractions Underground Bunker/Bingo Parlour/Chainsaw Repair Shop™. Then we’ll be going back to our regularly scheduled programming…at least until FenCon in mid-September.
Thanks for reading!