Friday, October 29, 2010

Monster Dreams

Something woke me. I lay there for a moment, confused, disoriented. What had I heard? My dad making tea to deal with insomnia? My sister, tossing and turning in the next room? One of the cats padding across the driveway in search of mice?

When whatever had happened didn't happen again, I tried convincing myself I'd woken from a bad dream, that it had been a one-time noise, that I could go back to sleep without worrying. But everything that should've calmed me only got me more worried. There was something out there I needed to be concerned about. I just didn't know what.

I pulled back my covers and walked to the window. I pulled the Venetian blinds up carefully, scared of waking my family, and looked down on the back yard. I was just tall enough to look out without having to stand on tiptoe. Moonlight lit up the driveway, the vegetable gardens, Dad's car, the neighbours' yard. It must've been two or three in the morning. There was nothing out there that could've woken me. 

Okay, I thought. It's okay. Back to bed. It was nothing. Probably the cat.

And then came the distinctive sound of someone stepping on gravel. Crunch, crunch. Someone was at the top of the driveway, where the trees blocked my view! I had to see who before running down the hall to my parents. If it was the guy across the street and I cried burglar…

So I waited, hearing footfall after footfall until the figure came into view. Tall, shadowy, male. I couldn't see more than that. I waited some more, as my heart started pounding in my chest. Every step the figure took raised my anxiety. Should I get my parents now? Now?

Finally the figure reached the widest part of the driveway, the part we used to turn the cars around or park guests. It looked up at my window, straight at me, with a face covered in hair, barely human, and a body too tall and naked and hairy. My heart stopped beating. 


It lowered its head again, purposefully, and walked straight to the boot room door. It was coming inside! It was going to find me! Kill me, then my sister, then my parents! It was—

I was ten or eleven, and yes, this was just a dream. Cliché, I know, to end a story that way.

The story properly begins with a cliché too—"But Mom! I'm nearly done this story! Can't I stay up a few minutes later?" I'd been reading a book of real-life Sasquatch encounters, signed out from the town library. The story in question was about a group of Sasquatch in Oregon, who'd taken offense at a group of hunters and had started rock-bombing their cabin in the middle of the night.

In hindsight, it's not really surprising that I had a nightmare.

I spent much of my pre-teen years reading books from the paranormal/unexplained section. The Cottingley fairies. Hauntings. Unsolved mysteries. Mummies of all shapes and sizes. Roswell and other close encounters. Loch Ness. Monsters and fairies from around the world. Verified hoaxes. Urban legends. I couldn't get enough of the stuff. My parents took it more or less in stride, bless them.

I drifted out of the phase once I hit high school, but I'm starting to get back into those stories thanks to urban fantasy. I love seeing folklore, myths, legends, and fantasy creatures transplanted into the modern world, even if it tends to be the same root stories again and again — vampires, werewolves, demons, witches, the odd ghost or fairy. There's a lot more out there to play with, though, and I hope we'll get to see books about them as the trend continues.
  • human vs. an angry brownie
  • human vs. god
  • a detective who takes Nessie or Bigfoot on as a client
  • a PR rep who's contacted by (insert folkloric creature here)
  • mummies (as hero or villain or sidekick) and not just the Egyptian ones either
  • human vs. haunted house
  • the phantom hitchhiker
  • any other urban legend re-enacted
  • stories based on documented cases of possession, haunting, etc.
I know there are probably stories like this out there already. If you're reading this and know of any, let me know.

But to bring things back to Sasquatch, because they're one of my all-time favourite monsters—why haven't they shown up in a big way? They're primarily a Pacific Northwest monster, but have been sighted through much of North America. (The Pacific Northwest of course being known for its rainy, foggy atmosphere and collection of urban fantasy authors.) Sasquatch lurk at the edges of our world, in the forests, like so many other monsters. The Native legends are often of boogiemen—don't go into the forest or they'll carry you off. Like the Oregon hunter story that set off my nightmare, there are documented cases of Sasquatch aggression, though generally they seem shy and peaceful. It's not an Old World monster like vampires and werewolves, though there are wildmen stories there, too. 

For one possible take on the modern-day Bigfoot story:

For another: someone's publishing his memoirs.

With such a host of legend and evidence, and such a range of possible settings, I'm surprised no one has taken Sasquatch on as a topic, yet. For that matter, I'm surprised no one's tackled cryptids or other legendary creatures in a big way yet. But today, I want Sasquatch! Give me Sasquatch! I'm not going to have to write this myself, am I?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

In Defense of Reading Bad Writing

You cannot be a good writer unless you read. This is pretty much a given, yes? You need to know how other people write so you can 1) learn from the pros and 2) figure out your genre/market. It's very much an osmotic kind of process—you'll absorb a lot of information about craft and style without really realizing it. Or at least I did.

But I'm of the opinion that you can't just read the good stuff. Sorry, but you can't. You have to read crap as well, and by "crap" I don't mean "trashy books". There are a lot of well-written trashy books. You need craft to write fluff novels, weekend reads, romances, and off-the-rack thrillers, just as much as you need it for literary fiction, commercial fiction, and the like. It's a different style, yes, but it's still craft.

No, what I mean by "crap" is anything containing purple prose, talking heads, repetitive sentences, clichés, and anything else that makes brains leak out of ears, eyes start skimming, and publishing professionals post "don't do this" blogs. It's the kind of stuff amateurs write, the kind of stuff you find pages of on, the kind of stuff we all write at some point. And reading it can be very educational.

If you* read a badly written book while unaware of what constitutes Bad Writing, you may or may not notice. At the very least, you might not realize why you've started skimming, why you don't want to pick the book back up again, why you're confused, and why you're left unsatisfied at the end.

If you read several badly written books while unaware of what constitutes Bad Writing, you'll start to see the trends. You'll notice the technical mistakes (clichés, dialogue tags, etc.) and you'll notice the plotting weaknesses (climax comes on too suddenly, Chekov's Gun is missing in the first act, etc.), and, I hope at least, you'll notice where you're doing similar stuff in your own work. You'll probably even have some ideas about how to fix the problems, because you'll start thinking things like, "Why didn't Bob hint about Immensely Important Plot Point instead of just springing it on us?", "Where the heck did Josephina come from?", and "This would read so much better if there weren't all these adverbs."

If you read a badly written book while aware of Bad Writing, you'll be more attuned to the errors, you'll likely notice more of them quicker, and you'll be thinking of solutions (or possibly saying, "I could do this better!" That's also good.). Reading several bad books while aware of Bad Writing is not particularly advisable for your sanity. You'll know when you should stop—and I by all means advise mixing Good and Bad, emphasizing the Good by a long shot.

Something else I've found helpful in terms of learning from Bad Writing? Editing it. It's one thing to read a book and think of fixes for a problem, and another thing to read a book and have to fix the problem. Or at least suggest fixes for the writer. I find I learn more … concretely when I have to write my ideas up, knowing that my ideas might be accepted and used, so they'd better be good. Also, I may not always be aware of, say, my adverbs, but I'm definitely aware of somebody else's, and editing them makes editing me easier.

Of course, "crap" is a subjective term. You may find even the best written "trashy novel" to be absolutely horrible, and that's fine. You're probably not intending to write that kind of book. You're destined for other things. Or you might spend years gladly, willingly, enjoyingly reading what I call "crap" and not care, not notice, not want to change your habits. That's also fine. We'll agree to disagree. But (and this is my main point, take notice): if you want to improve your own writing, reading flawed writing of any sort** will help.

* And by "you" I probably mean "I". I'm extrapolating, generalizing… I know this, and if my ideas don't fit your reality, my apologies.
** I know, I didn't mention short stories, screenplays, stage plays, blog posts, or fanfiction, but they also count.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Writing Influences

@hannahnpbowman challenged me to write about ideas from my favourite books that have influenced my writing.* That was on Friday. I've spent bits of the weekend thinking about the subject, and pretty much drawing a blank. I've probably lifted something at some point, but honestly, I try not to do anything bigger than allude to something. There are certainly tropes that I have in common with other writers, but that's because they're tropes and half the writers** out there use the same ones.

Books that have inspired me in more general ways, however? Those I can write about. Observe.

Most of the books that have inspired me have inspired my theory of magic—what it is, how it acts, what it does. A lot of books went into the theory, but a big one was The Golden Compass. There was something about Dust that seemed magical to me when I first read it (and still seems magical today). My idea that magic is a sort of particle that's attracted to belief stems directly from that story.

Another book with a great sense of magic (though there may not actually be magic in it) is The Secret Garden. I cannot tell you how many times I read that growing up, but enough that the cover's pretty damaged—and I never damage covers if I can help it. There's such a sense of natural beauty and presence and life coming back to people and places …. That's how magic feels, to me.

Other books I read a lot as a kid: The Hobbit, and most of the "true" paranormal, cryptid, and UFO stories in the town library. I credit Hobbit with getting me into fantasy (and I think it might've been the first novel I read on my own), and I credit the "true" stories with fueling my fascination with the macabre and creepy. They didn't start the fascination—I'm not sure what did, possibly the Egyptian Mummy phase—but they definitely spurred it along.

There are a lot of more scattered influences (urban fantasy novels in general, for example) but I want to close on this note: I really, really want to write as awesomely as Neil Gaiman and Lois McMaster Bujold, and would dearly love to be half as funny as Terry Pratchett. Honestly. I covet Gaiman's imagination and penchant for eerieness, Bujold's … everything but mostly her characterization, and Pratchett's satire and dialogue. Then again, if I ever to reach their level of craft and someone tells me this, I might explode from happiness and that would be bad.

Who's influenced you?

* Yes, another Twitter topic.
** If not more.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Creating Characters

Sometimes topics for blog posts come to me. Sometimes they're easy to think up. And sometimes, topics have to be solicited on Twitter.

Fortunately, the people who follow me are obliging and give me good ideas for multiple posts so that I'll have stuff to talk about next week, too. Today's topic comes from @worldofhiglet. Got to give credit where it's due.

She suggested talking about my characterization techniques. I'm taking that to mean two things: how I create my main characters before I start writing, and how I show who they are when I'm putting words on the page.

Creating My Characters

Creating characters is the first thing I do after I know the basic plot of the story. Knowing who the characters are determines how they're going to react in any given situation, and their reactions fuel the plot points between "bad thing that kicks off the story" and "epic battle fight thingy", so I need to know who my main characters are before I can start what passes on this computer as a plot outline.

The first things I write down are physical descriptions, jobs, and whatever parts of their personalities the characters have chosen to share up to that point. From there, I start digging deeper based on what I know. What are their hobbies? Their favourite TV shows, movies, and music? What are their pet peeves? Their relationships to other characters? How was their childhood and family life? I also flesh out appearances, from "tall, blonde, overweight" to include "oily skin, thick and damaged hair, small nose, big smile, piano hands".

By this point, names have come into play. I generally come up with first names first, either based on gut feeling or baby name databases. If I know X is of a particular heritage, or has a certain kind of parent, then I'll go looking for names that would fit the heritage/parents and choose one that also works for the character's personality—or one that totally doesn't work but necessitates a nickname that does. Last names can be tricky, depending on what I know about the character's background. Naming average Americans is harder than naming people of a particular background, because there are so many more names to choose from and I try to pick non-Anglo-Saxon names, for variety.

Then I go deeper still, by applying psychology and playing characters off each other.

  • If Susanne spends a lot of time with Gary, gets annoyed whenever someone puts their feet on chairs, and needs to have conflict with Gary… then Gary's the kind of guy who puts his feet on chairs. 
  • If Martha has a domineering father, how will that affect how she sees men, and what will it do to her love life? 
  • If Kelly and Joe are married, what is it about their personalities that allow them to remain so (or not)? 
  • If Wilbur works in construction, what does he think about his job? What kind of person would he have to be to enjoy the work?

Eventually I reach a point with a character's bio where I feel I really know who they are, or that I don't need to go further. Main characters get about a page, single spaced, point form. Secondary characters get about half a page. Supporting characters, if they're important enough to need a bio at all, get a paragraph or so.

Writing My Characters

My main characterization trick is to let the characters do what they want. I have enough of a sense of who they are that they just kind of come through when I'm writing. I channel them. So the ways they move, and talk, and react, and gesture … they go down on paper without my really having to think much about it.

Occasionally I have to step back and ask myself, "Okay, how is she going to react to what she just heard?" or "How does his body language change when he's angry?" I revisit the mental version of the bio and try to picture them doing whatever. Sometimes I even act it out, stand up, move around, say the lines, and see what happens. And sometimes, I skip the questions and acting and pick whichever option is going to screw things up for the characters down the line.

A lot about someone can be gleaned from how they move and how they talk. I've spent a lot of my life listening to people rather than participating in conversations (shy, introvert, linguistics major). As a result, I've got an ear for dialogue* and can write each characters' words distinctly**, usually based on their background or perception of themselves. In the WIP that's out for beta, I've got one character who drops subjects and articles like you wouldn't believe, another character who doesn't have a great relationship with verb conjugation, and a third who uses "man" way too often. Fortunately, that last guy only has one scene, or I might throttle him.

I slip motion and movement in wherever I can. Everyone has a nervous gesture of some sort. Lots of people have difficulty with empty hands (where do we put them?). People have to go places and do things all the time, and whenever it seems appropriate, I say what they're doing. For instance, driving. If a story's set today, there are going to be cars and people are going to be in them. Do they turn the wheel gently? Do they stomp on the gas? Do they flinch every time someone tries to pass them?

One other thing I think needs mentioning: For me, these two steps (bio and writing) are a feedback loop. I learn things about the characters from the way they talk and move, which then influences further actions. When I gave into the character who drops subjects and let him do it, I learned a whole lot about his personality that I hadn't known before.

How do you create characters? Same or similar method, or something vastly different? Share! I'd love to hear what you do.

* apparently
** I hope

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Lessons in Creativity

When I was 8 or 9 or so, my parents decided I wasn't getting enough stimulation in the classroom. They probably decided this because I was almost always bored and never had homework. My school didn't have much of a gifted program, so my parents hit on the next best thing: Odyssey of the Mind. I credit that program, and Destination ImagiNation, which spun out of it later on, for the bulk of my creativity.

Both programs follow the same model: Get a group of kids together, get them to choose a "challenge" from a list, and then have them solve that challenge before a certain date, when they'll present their work and maybe move to a higher level of competition. Each challenge is essentially a short play based around a statement like "Music can tell a story" or "Travel is a constant theme in fiction". Challenges come with a set of requirements that vary each year (don't set it in your country, don't use verbal communication, build something that moves across the stage, write a song) and requirements that never change (one challenge always involves building a vehicle, another always involves building a structure that'll hold weight, all challenges have a budget). "Solutions", as they're called, get scored on creativity, and there are few enough constraints on the teams that they can do pretty much anything they want to. There's also a secondary challenge that's much more spur-of-the-moment, and again, creativity will get you extra points.

The emphasis on creativity is paired with an emphasis on independence. Adults aren't allowed to contribute to the solution, though they're allowed to teach and supervise so the kids don't, say, cut themselves with a saw or spill glue on the carpet. Everything else, from choosing a setting to designing a set, from making costumes to writing a play, has to be done by the team, and the team's aware that they'll be scored on creativity in all areas.

I did OM and DI at least five times (memories of elementary school are a tad fuzzy). I came away with the ability to brainstorm on the fly, which has helped me solve plotting problems more times than I can count; the mantra of, "If they don't say I can't do something, I can"; and a tendency to combine the above so that I'm almost, but not quite, breaking the rules. For instance, nobody ever said we couldn't make a set out of empty boxes….

I highly recommend reading up on these programs, their philosophy, and the challenges. The "instant" or "short term" challenges are especially good for teaching brainstorming skills, if you can get your hands on some. Try them with friends, or your family, or your writing group, and you'll see improvement pretty quickly. (Or I suspect you will. No promises.)

And definitely get your kids involved in one of these programs, if you can. They'll probably hate you at the time, but thank you later. The lowest competition level is kindergarten. The highest level is university. If you don't have kids, volunteer! Teams need managers. Competitions need appraisers, organizers, and people to compile scores or set up sound systems. There are probably more jobs as well.

This is a completely unpaid advertisement, by the way. It's not what I was intending to focus on at all. I was going to focus on the "me being creative" aspects, but … those weren't really as interesting as I thought, so there you go. Plugging. I do this sometimes.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Blogging about Superheroes, and other things

I am a sometime blogger at Science In My Fiction, a multi-poster blog that aims to inject actual science back into speculative fiction. I haven't posted there in an embarrassingly long time, but a new post of mine went up today. You can find it here, and it's about superheroes. I've had them on the mind lately.

You can find links to my other guest blogs by clicking the "me posting elsewhere" tag at the end of this post.

In other news: I got a lot of great feedback on my Friday post, so I'm going to be spending a fair bit of time in the next few weeks reading through links and tracking down books of mythology and folklore. I'm really hoping I'll find the perfect story without a lot of effort. (I'm lazy, and an optimist.) Thanks to everyone who commented (or is going to)!

That's the only progress made on the writing front, I'm afraid. I plan to get back at it this week.

Also, is this not the cutest kitten ever?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Seeking Mythologies

I'm starting a new novel. It is going to be amazing fun to write. I cannot wait to get started on it in earnest.

However, I have a problem. It resulted from the solution to another problem, namely that there were only so many false leads I could send the characters on before they (and my readers) got angry. I needed something else to be happening, and if it fit into the climax—kind of weak right now—so much the better.

I brought that problem up with a friend who kindly serves as a sounding board and helps me brainstorm. And she said, "It's a fantasy, right? Are there any mythologies out there that might work?"

"Yes!" I said. "Yes, that's it, that's perfect!" And then I realized that I only know a handful of mythologies decently (Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian) and that they're somewhat overdone in the fantasy world and pretty familiar to boot. Not a problem! I can read! I've been wanting to read more mythology! But I don't exactly have time (or, sorry, inclination) to read about everyone's myths in depth, and I'm not entirely sure where to start. I'd kind of like to narrow my focus to the ones which might prove most useful.

So I'm going to hope that someone reading this can help me. I'm looking for:

  • myths that involve a cataclysmic event
  • mythologies that involve frequent human-supernatural interaction
  • books that will give me an overview of a number of mythologies or mythological tropes in one go
  • websites that will do the same
  • seminal books on a mythology (the one book people should read, if they're only going to read one)
  • websites that archive myths and folklore
  • really, really cool mythologies that don't get enough press these days
Internet hivemind, the floor is yours.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Writing Advice From 17-Year-Old Me

Imagine, if you will, a young woman sitting in an English classroom. The lesson is one she's heard before, so she isn't taking notes. Unfortunately, her teacher dislikes when students don't take notes, so the young woman has to find something to do with her pen and lined paper. Being of a cynical, sarcastic, slightly angry mindset — she is, after all, seventeen and "learning" things she already knows — the young woman decides to do something she's done before: write satirical verse about English class.

To wit:

A writer to another said:
“Now if you want to get ahead,
Please don't use phrases overdone
Like 'one for all and all for one,'
For if you do (like those before)
Your readers will begin to snore.
Nobody is ‘strong as an ox'
Nor are they ‘clever as a fox.'
And ‘guilty cats have et canaries'?
Now, that's a tale best left for fairies!
The list goes on (what can I say!)
‘If I should die another day!'
‘I love thee how… oh, let me count!'
(Oh, many tales I could recount!)
Poor Hamlet's quest ‘to be or not?'
Good gracious me, the rest's forgot!
'Divines forgive what mortals err'
(Pope tossed that off without a care).
'The springing of eternal hope'
(Oh please, no more, I cannot cope!)
Dies famous in the eyes of all
With one last, tragic curtain call.
‘A poem as lovely as a tree'
Shall never, ever come from thee;
If you but choose to echo all.
From your high perch you then shall fall.
So from clichés you must desist
Although it's hard to them resist!”

Admittedly, this is not my best work. It's a little convoluted in terms of sentence structure and I had to do some strange things to word order to get the rhymes to fall just so. However, I'm proud of the rhyme and meter because, if I wrote this the way I usually write comic poetry, this was done on the fly, barely paying attention to syllables and the aabb rhyme scheme. (Also, given the correlation between my other teenage poems and the classes I wrote them in, I'm betting we were learning about clichés that day.)

I'd completely forgotten about this poem until today.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Discovering the Story

I spent the bulk of last week visiting my parents. Dad and I got to talking about my WIP and trying to sort through my worries, fears, and nagging doubts about my plot… or my story, I should say, because they're two different animals. Plot is a sequence of events. Story is what happens to change the character(s). I'll admit to being a little fuzzy on that still, but that's the general idea.

Anyway, Dad gave me this exercise he gives his writing students, but adapted for novels instead of short stories.* "Let's see what happens!" he said. So we did and we saw and it was cool. Cool enough that I want to share the process, actually, because I think it could help any number of people struggling with plot/story woes.

The Short Story Version says:
  1. Get a piece of paper and a pen.
  2. Write numbers across the top of the paper. One number for each scene.
  3. Draw vertical lines between these numbers.
  4. Create two horizontal rows, one for the protagonist, one for the antagonist. Even if the antagonist is not a physical entity.
  5. Draw a line between the two characters so that each scene column is sliced in two. Don't segment the climax, though. 
  6. In each scene column, write a summary of what the protagonist and antagonist are doing.
  7. Look at what you've written for the protagonist and graph how much power he has in the scene, via a line through each scene. 
  8. Repeat for the antagonist.
  9. Normal short story structure is for the protagonist to have consistently low power until the climax, and the antagonist to have consistently high power until the same point. At the climax, there's a power reversal, characterized by the two graphs meeting, and in the final scene(s) the protagonist will have high power and the antagonist low power.
  10. Another benefit of doing this is that you'll be able to see (and tweak) the plot/story without getting bogged down in details like dialogue, location, story-wide metaphors, etc. You'll also be able to see if your climax is at the end of the story (bad spot for it) or one or two scenes before the end (where it should be).

Dad and I looked at a chapter of my WIP this way, for demonstration, and while it didn't match the structure, we did learn some things about the book through doing that. So, considering that we did learn things and I was worried about the full novel, we thought we'd apply the same principles to a book-length work, replacing the word "scene" with "chapter". We also separated each character's section into "positive" and "negative" actions, though I suspect that's optional, based on the book.

We filled out the chart over two sessions. The first session was for the protagonist, because he has far more narration. We discovered that the real climax of the story, based on a previous talk about what I'm trying to convey, is currently the very last chapter (oops) and that there's an interesting parallel between where the good and bad things happen to him, one I didn't exactly intend but is very cool. 

We did the antagonist yesterday, because we finally had time to between visiting people, cooking, eating, and various work-related things we were each doing on our computers. It quickly became clear that there are some Major Issues with his parts, but ones that should be fairly easily solved because of where his plot and story take him. Basically, I need to add more stuff to his beginning, and maybe take a little out of the end to do it. I've got to make him parallel the protagonist, see, and he also has to parallel himself so that he ends with a mirror of his beginning.

Anyway, Dad and I agreed that this was a helpful exercise to do, which I'm taking as 1) should probably do this with every novel and 2) this will probably help someone else. I hope he doesn't mind me sharing….

*For those of you interested, Dad is an author, editor, and creative writing teacher. I have confidence that he knows what he's talking about, writing-wise.

Friday, October 8, 2010

VCon Report, Day 3

Sunday was the last day of the con, which meant that the time I didn't spend in panels was spent rushing around trying to get all the last-minute stuff done that I wanted to do. Fortunately, I succeeded.


Playing in Someone Else's Sandbox - Also known as "writing in other people's worlds". Not the greatest panel in terms of useful information, but certainly interesting. One of the panelists was double-booked so sent a girl who'd written and published in her universe in her place. She's seventeen! And Cherie Priest was also there, and talked at length about her work on a series that … doesn't seem to be disclosed yet, so I'll keep mum. But it was very interesting to get a behind the scenes look at the process.

How to Write a Fight Scene (Especially If You Don't Know How to Fight) - Four authors, four martial artists (some overlap) talked about writing good fight scenes—what you need to know, what you can fudge, how much detail is too much. Fascinating. I took lots of notes.

  • Fights should be communication between characters. It's not about the fighting. Each character needs to learn something or show something to the readers, or both. The way they fight, react, and prepare says a lot about who they are as a person.
  • You do need to know a little bit about the weapons in the fight, but you don't need experience wielding one. For instance, how many sharp edges does it have? Can you club people with it as well as cut or stab them? How heavy is it?
  • Developments in forging technology created developments in weapons technology. We didn't get longswords until we had steel, because previous metals were too soft to hold the length. 
  • Also be aware of culture when choosing weapons. Rapiers showed up when sword fights moved off the battlefield and the swords were adapted for civilian use.
  • You know the sshing sound swords make when they're unsheathed in movies? They don't make that sound in reality—unless you've got a special scabbard made for performance use.
  • Functional, practical martial arts are scientific, not mystical. The goal is to kill the other person before they kill you. Martial arts have to be very quick, very efficient, and immediately successful on the battlefield. You don't have time to stab someone twice when other people are coming at you.
  • Fights are fast. Seconds fast, if the fighters are skilled.
  • Pommels exist to balance the weight of the sword, cap the blade so the wielder doesn't get cut, and to hit people with. In that order.
  • Women who are injured get more psychological damage than men. I suspect this is part of our culture(s) and that societies that don't value female appearances at all will have different reactions. You have to ask yourself what the fighter values about their body. As it stands, women react badly to having their face damaged, and men react to having their hands or arms injured (because that's what holds the weapon, and the weapon's intrinsic to a warrior's identity). Also, women who are used to fights don't have the same reaction as women who aren't. They'll react like a man, or close.
  • Calluses are important to protect hands from wear (from sword hilts, guns, whatever). No callus? You'll bleed from those wear points. Building a callus? Blood blisters.
  • The smell and feel of opponents can throw you off in a fight. Blood especially will unless you're used to it, but so will sweat, bad breath, other odors.
  • Blood is slippery. So is sweat. A man who's gushing blood will be very hard to get a grip on.
  • It doesn't take much to hurt or kill someone, therefore combat is very high stakes and you want the advantage before you attack. You want to be absolutely sure of that advantage.
  • Fights are chaotic and unpredictable. Luck is a big factor.
  • Good fighters know how to deal with errors. Bad or inexperienced fighters, not so much.
  • In combat, you fall to the level of your training. You don't excel beyond your practice sessions.
  • When in doubt, be vague.
  • Don't go into detail about the moves involved. Fights are fast. You can't write them lyrically, or lecture to your readers. 
Academie Duello Demonstration - I mentioned Academie Duello in my last post, for their bartitsu demo. On Sunday, they gave a swordplay demo for an hour and a half, which was at least equally awesome, if not moreso. Short swords, longswords, rapiers, rapiers and daggers, with students showing the moves, engaging in fights at speed, and the head of the school giving explanations and history as they went along. 
  • Everyone who invented metallurgy invented swords.
  • Thrusts developed when armour was more easily pierced than sliced. 
  • Longswords are very good at being versatile and portable. You can do a lot with a longsword better than you can do with other swords. Gripping the blade in one hand and using it as a rod, for instance.
  • Longswords ring when they hit each other the right way.
  • Bucklers are more flexible for attacks than kite shields. You can manipulate them easier and still cover the important bits of your body.
  • Kite shields developed to protect knights on the battlefield, because they're good at blocking arrows. They're tough to fight around, though, because they block so much arm movement.
  • In the beginning, formal duels could be with anything, not just swords, but longer weapons tended to win because they gave you the advantage.
Robert Picardo talk - VCon totally lucked out with this, because Robert Picardo happened to be landing at the Vancouver Airport Sunday afternoon, and the con hotel wasn't very far away. (Robert Picardo is, of course, the Doctor on ST: Voyager and Woolsey in the Stargate franchise.) He was very friendly and personable, teasing several people good-naturedly, and he delivered unto us spoilers I'm not going to talk about. I'm not a Star Trek or Stargate fan, though I like the shows and love the Doctor, and went because I knew I'd kick myself if I didn't.

History is My Playground - This was another panel that wandered off-topic but stayed interesting. It was about using historical facts and research in writing, and wandered into discussions of 19th-century feminism and historical medicine. The biggest thing for writers was a point (made from the audience) that not everyone in a given era would think the way the documents suggest. There would've been progressive feminists and atheists in the Middle Ages, for instance.

Promotion in the Age of Twitter - Interesting, though if you're as much into new media as I think most of my readers are, there wasn't much to glean. Basically, when tweeting (or blogging, or facebooking), you need to give people reasons to participate in the discussion, to visit your blog/account/site, and to care about you. Don't be constantly in people's faces, selling your stuff. Spend most of your time just being you—talking about what interests you, what you're thinking, what you're learning about. People want to connect to a person, and constant ads don't give them a person to talk to.

Closing Ceremonies - There were opening ceremonies too, but they were short—"Welcome!" The closing ceremonies were longer, because the Guests of Honour needed thanking as did the volunteers and organizers, and then there were traditional, humourous awards to hand out, and then there was a charity auction. The awards were maybe a little long, and the auction was a little disappointing in terms of what things sold for. I bid on a gift certificate and got it. I didn't bid on what I didn't want, but I was tempted to, just to raise prices.

After-Party - Surprisingly fun. I sat around for four hours, nibbling and sipping, and chatting with the girl and guy I'd chatted with throughout the con, as well as other people who wandered in and out of our areas. Lots of different conversation topics, none of them dull. I left with their contact info, and they mine. Hopefully something comes of that. Also acquired two books (free), one which will round out a series I've been collecting, and another which adds to one of my Own The Canon collections.

Other highlights: Got through the con with minimal hunger and sleep deprivation. Finally took the time to look at one of the dealer tables and saw that he had actual historical artifacts! That had come out of the ground! Buckles and coins and buttons and such-like. I didn't buy, but it was fun to browse.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

VCon Report, Day 2

Saturday was the longest, fullest day of the con, at least in terms of scheduling. There was a lot to see and a lot to do, and if I'd had a clone … but I didn't, sadly. I attended a lot of writing panels, and in the hopes that people out there care about what I learned, I'm going into detail again.


You Suck! No, You Suck! - An unfortunately titled panel, because it was actually about critique, not vampires. The panelists covered a lot of territory, from how to give critiques to what should be critiqued to how to deal with criticism. There was a lot of focus on writing groups, but I think that was just how the authors themselves rolled.

  • Be careful using "you" accusatorially. The focus should be on the material, not the person.
  • Avoid using "perhaps" because this also comes off as you forcing your opinion on the writer.
  • The main things to look at: entertainment, credibility, believability, working dialogue, and whether the piece as the piece opens and closes in the right spots.
  • Never patronize readers. Always think they're better and smarter than the common denominator.
  • Don't push people into fixing things a specific ways. Suggest they change problem areas, but don't tell them how.
  • To deal with crit: 1) Listen with an open mind. 2) If there are multiple notes on the same thing, fix that thing. If there are multiple notes about many different things, there's probably just one or two spots that actually need fixing. 3) Don't look at your work or the critiques you've received, for however long you need to. 4) Reread the crit. 5) Change what needs changing in a new draft so that if you backtrack later, you haven't lost anything.
  • Ask yourself if the criticism is subjective or objective. If the critiquer says, "I hate this book because it's got a cat in it and I hate cats" or "I don't like this book because I think your personal politics suck", then don't pay as much attention to them as you would someone who says, "I don't like this book because I think these two plot points are unbelievable." 
  • Critiquers who are criticizing you aren't criticizing your book, and vice versa.
  • You don't have to please everyone. Actually, don't even bother trying, because you can't.
Humans in Space - This wasn't a note-taking panel. They got three scientists and engineers, several of whom have worked with NASA, and the well-read editor I mentioned in the last post together, to talk about our chances for space colonization, particularly within our lifetime. In summary, "Not in our lifetime, maybe not ever, unless we get a massively game-changing technology. Right now, it's too expensive." A major subpoint: "It's all politics." 

Good Villains - Not the best panel, but not bad. It kind of got derailed into a discussion of Buffy about halfway through. But basically:
  • Good villains aren't black and white. They're complex, layered people who are the hero of their own story.
  • Good villains can be made from exaggerated human traits. We're all greedy to an extent. Villains can be very greedy.
  • Isn't it interesting that women often get female villains, and men get male villains?
  • You don't always need a villain, but you must have an antagonist.
Beast of Bottomless Lake Screening - I'd been looking forward to this since I'd heard it was going to be showing. The Beast of Bottomless Lake is a comedy about a bumbling cryptozoologist who assembles a team to track down Ogopogo. There's no plan, and Murphy's Law quickly kicks into action. It's presented as a slightly-meta documentary, because we often see both videographers on camera at the same time and they're characters in their own right. It's a funny film and if you get a chance to see it, do.

I didn't stay for the Q & A. I was hungry.

EDGE Launch Event - A fairly standard reading. Four (I think) authors got up, talked a bit about their book, and read a passage. They signed and chatted afterwards.

Bartitsu Demonstration - Bartitsu was a Victorian martial art that combined boxing, kicking, stick fighting, and jujitsu. An instructor from Academie Duello, a local and apparently renowned fighting school, talked about the history and origins, and showed us a number of the basic moves. It was very cool.

Masquerade - This was disappointing. Everyone thought so, not just be. It started late because they had to track people down, then the speakers weren't working, and then it turned out they only had seven entrants. I'd seen way more cosplayers than that as the day'd gone on, and had expected more of them to sign up to show them off. The organizers apparently had too. But there were several absolutely fantastic costumes, and I'm glad I got to see them.

There was a dance after this which I chose not to go to, partly because they were taking forever to set up, and partly because I'm not the greatest when it comes to crowds and loud music.

Other highlights: Wandered back to the dealer's room and bought a copy of an anthology from EDGE. Figured I should probably read more short stories and hey, it's Canadian. Had a brief chat with one of the publishers, which left me feeling positive. Had a good chat with Heather Dale. Had another good chat, for about half an hour, with a guy chilling in the chair next to mine.

Monday, October 4, 2010

VCon Report, Day 1

I survived my first convention this weekend! I enjoyed it overall as well, though there were a couple spots that could've been better. These weren't a fault of the VCon staff, though—they were due to either the venue, or me. For instance, I'd have liked more human interaction in the hallways, but don't like accosting people, and a few of the change-overs to repurpose rooms took longer than I'm sure they'd planned. But I attended more interesting panels that I can remember, watched a couple historical fighting demos, and had some wonderful conversations with people, so—success.

What surprised me most about the program was how many writing panels there were. I have no idea how many writers were actually in the audience, but man, there were talks on everything from villains to comedy to critique to tense and while I didn't attend them all, I did wish for a clone at one point so I could. I got some information out of them that I haven't really seen anywhere else and since I know I've got a number of writers reading this, I thought I'd share them, along with everything else I did.

Unfortunately, this post is going to turn into a novel if I put all three days down at once, so you're getting a day at a time, all week.


Small Press And Self-Publishing: Not Just Vanity - I almost didn't go to this one, but then I realized I was  at the con with an hour to kill before the first panel I wanted to attend, and everything else was still being set up. So. The panel was composed of small press editors and self-published authors, with one of the editors was also a small press author. There are some points they made that I might contend with, and I know a lot of NYC folks would, but I did get tips and otherwise learn things:

  • Don't ever write "Dear Editor". If you absolutely can't find a name, write "Dear Editor of (Publishing House)".
  • Don't self-publish. This tip was given by one of the self-published authors.
  • Don't mass submit in a single email.
  • There are lots of small presses that take sci-fi and fantasy (not just the ones in New York), and there are lots of anthology and magazine markets as well. There's a good list of these here, and another here (see "Markets" subheading near top).
  • Both self-published writers are using that platform to prove to publishers that there is a market for what they're doing. They're both working hard at selling the book to people, online, at cons, locally, etc.
  • Promotion needs to be just as creative as your writing.
Where's My Flying Car? - Not actually a writing panel, but interesting. This one was about all those classic SF inventions, how possible they are or could be, how they would change the world, and why we don't have them yet. One panelist was a space-related engineer; the other was a very well-read SF editor. Great discussion, but I have no notes for it.

Science Fiction and Comedy - This one talked about how hard it was to write comedy, especially science fiction comedy, and how one should attempt to do this. Basically, it boiled down to, "Don't write comedy to be funny. Write it to make a point." Work that's just joke after joke with no underlying substance gets tiresome and comes off as having no plot. It's plot first, then humour. Also, the best SF (and fantasy) comedy generally has worlds set up so that humourous situations can just happen. It's not forced.

Multi-Author Book Launch* - This was about as good as I'd expected—a bunch of authors in a small room with not quite enough tables, and convention goers milling about trying not to bump into or step on anyone. I had about five minutes of conversation with Cherie Priest, and she signed my as-yet-unread copy of Dreadnought. (Cherie was the author Guest of Honour.) I also petted a dog. 

Heather Dale Concert - This was absolutely wonderful. Heather Dale was the music Guest of Honour and to be honest, I hadn't heard of her before the con schedule went up, and didn't look into her music after it did. This means that the concert was my first time hearing her music and …wow. She's a great songwriter with wonderful stage presence and one of the most beautiful voices I've heard in a long time. She writes Celtic-inspired folk music about legends, history, and magic. Check her out if you're at all into that. (She's also a delightful person to talk with.)

Other Friday highlights: I only got lost for 30 seconds on my way to the convention hotel, and didn't get lost once I got there. I wandered around the art show a little and was impressed by a lot of the work. I struck up a conversation with another young writer, which was awesome and over too soon. We met up again on Sunday again.

The Saturday recap will be up on Wednesday. :)

* Why yes, I am reading straight off my schedule. 

Friday, October 1, 2010

Vacation (Not Hiatus)

Today marks the first day of my vacation this year. Why am I taking holidays now? Because this way I can  attend a local convention and go to my grandparents' for (Canadian) Thanksgiving, and not have to feel bad about taking two weekends off in a row. Also, I get to go home for longer than a day or two.

I'm currently trying to think of anything I've forgotten to put in the Convention Pile. I have note paper, a pen, my camera, directions, a list of events, my ticket, a novel, and a Jayne hat. I think I'm good for the day, but I know I've got a bad track record for these kinds of things.* I may even have a decent novel pitch, should I be called on to describe the book that's out for betaing right now. I don't have business cards, like I'm apparently supposed to, but I think that's more for writer conventions, not SF ones, and I don't see myself running into agents and editors at every turn.**

Other plans for vacation:

  • I have a manuscript to beta for Hannah Bowman. I plan to start this on the trip home, and finish it either at home or at my grandparents'.
  • I'd like to start building another world and then plotting the story set in it—but I'm not letting myself do that until the betaing is finished.
  • Monday will be spent catching up on sleep after the con, and then exposing a friend to Ghostbusters. She has never seen it. I have to fix this problem.
  • I will still be blogging. It may or may not be particularly deep blogging, and it may or may not include pet photos, but I will be blogging.

What are your plans for the next few weeks? Any convention tips?

* I'm not staying at the hotel, as it's only about 20 minutes from my house by transit.
** Plus I've got another 3-6 months on the WIP, most likely, before I'm ready to query.