Sunday, February 28, 2010

Highlights of Life the Universe & Everything (Saturday)

Saturday, February 13
I got to the convention early so I could mill around the registration area in case any world-famous writers happened to be hanging out, and I got to meet Brandon Mull. We struck up a really nice conversation.

Brandon is one of my heroes. I told him how I picked up a copy of Fablehaven in Smiths, looking for something to read because so much out there stinks. I opened it to page one and liked some of the imagery that he used, and after that I was hooked.


Brandon graduated BYU the same year I finished my master’s work. He got a degree in public relations and got a job doing pretty much that. I then pointed a finger and said, “Ah ha! That explains a lot. You know how to sell yourself, don’t you? You came up with a concept you could pitch, and went out and sold it.” And that was pretty much it.

I am a firm believer that success stories don’t happen by accident. All successful novel ideas start with a solid concept. What is Fablehaven’s concept? A nature preserve for fairies and magical beings. If you look around you, you can see concept in just about every story that is successful. The concept behind Twilight is a forbidden romance between a young girl and a vampire lover. The concept behind Spiderman is a young man who gets spider-powers, who learns that with great power comes great responsibility and it becomes his duty to be a hero and a protector. The concept behind Star Trek is a crew of space explorers whose five-year mission is to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and civilizations, and to boldly go where no Man has gone before. The concept behind the Dresden Files is a wizard living in Chicago who works as a private investigator solving paranormal crimes.

Concept.

As readers, most people aren’t even aware of it, but as a writer you need to have it firmly fixed in your mind. Why is concept so important? Because having a clear concept in your mind means you can clearly pitch the idea behind your story in 25 words or less. Because when publishers and editors hear your concept they can create an image for your story and build a marketing campaign around it. Because when you go to sell your idea to the world and a reader picks up your book they have a clear idea what kind of story they can expect.

Fablehaven Presentation. This was a presentation by Brandon Mull. As a kid, he really wasn’t all that interested in reading, for him it was kind of lame until he got a hold of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Right around that time he went on vacation to his grandmother’s house and thought, “If there’s any place I’m going to find a magical closet or a wardrobe, this will be it.”

He went to BYU and majored in public relations. He became a writer for the divine comedy troupe, doing humorous sketches. I think that is significant because humor is so important in writing YA. Humor will make anything fun to read. You don’t have to use it in every story, but I believe it is one of the ingredients that made Harry Potter so addictive. People love reading something enjoyable that makes them laugh.

Using Fantasy and Science Fiction in the Classroom: Reaching Reluctant Readers. This was part of the educator’s conference. Most of the people in the panel discussion were teaching K-12.

It was golden.

I sat in there listening to their questions and reading between the lines.

I have a theory of success that goes like this. You publish a YA novel. You get it into the schools as part of their reading curriculum. Kids love it (I hope), then they take it home. Parents see it and say, “Hmmm, what is my kid reading?” They investigate and get hooked. Parents tell their friends. Friends tell their friends. In the end, kids learn to read, adults have a good time, and I make lots of money. Everybody’s happy.

I believe that this is the mechanism by which Harry Potter became the phenomenon that it is today.

There are a few critical pieces to success using this strategy:
you must be able to tell a story so that it knocks the reader’s socks off.
you must have interesting characters
you must have a comfortable inviting realistic and immersive milieu that the reader will crave spending time in.
you must make good use of humor and repartee
you must have a solid concept that you can pitch to the world
ABOVE ALL: When an adult picks up your book, they must not at any time feel like they are reading a “kids book.”

So, when I went to this discussion I was basically trying to figure out how I can make a book appealing to a teacher. That led to the question of, what is the purpose of using fiction in the classroom? Fiction creates a desire to read. Having a desire to read means that a student will develop greater comprehension and vocabulary. Having a good comprehension and vocabulary means a student can learn faster.

Every educator knows this.

In a nutshell, reading is a fundamental gateway to acquiring knowledge. You can teach a child knowledge, but that’s like giving a man a fish. You’ve fed him for the day but the next morning you’re back where you started. If you teach a child to read, it’s like teaching that same man to fish. The child can begin to learn on their own. Reading is the very lifeblood to vocational training and the foundation for any form of higher education.

And it all starts with a desire for story.

Well written F/SF stimulates the imagination and sparks wonder in the reader’s mind, causing them to ask questions and play with ideas in a creative way. It prompts them to imagine alternate realities that function according to different sets of rules. This in turn drives further curiosity to explore the ramifications and benefits of those rules. F/SF provides a medium where children can fully explore their imagination.

Why is all this make-believe stuff so important? Science and engineering is all about using the creative mind to solve problems. You must marry the logical left hemisphere of the brain with the artistic and creative right hemisphere. This is why so many scientists and engineers and researchers were Star Wars nerds or Dungeons and Dragons geeks as teenagers.

The world is filled with problems that as yet have no solution, and if we’re going to fix those problems we need the ability to think outside the established norm and investigate solutions in unorthodox ways.

Saturday Keynote Address by Brandon Sanderson. Brandon began by talking about false notions. To illustrate he told how we all grew up believing that the people in Columbus’s time thought that the earth was flat. We were taught that the people thought if you sailed far enough you would fall off the edge of the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Since about 400BC, educated people throughout Europe not only knew that the earth was round, but they had a decent idea of how big it was, too.

Columbus was merely the first person to try and put that knowledge to good use.

In reality, the resistance he faced was in convincing people that it could be done. How far could they sail before they ran out of food? What dangers would they face? Up until this time, people never strayed more than a couple day’s distance from land.

So, with this example set before us and totally debunked, Brandon presented another false notion. A F/SF writer once stated, somewhat defensively, that F/SF wasn’t all crap. It was actually 90% crap. If you looked hard enough, there were some bits that were actually quite good. (I’m paraphrasing) Well, this notion caught on, and contributed to the idea that no one ought to take F/SF seriously. One author remarked tongue in cheek, 90% of all F/SF is crap and the rest goes to my agent.

Carrying this logic further, this means that publishers have been pushing to market stuff that they fundamentally believe is crap. This in turn means that 90% of all readers are inherently stupid and can be satisfied on a steady diet of crap.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Brandon Sanderson went on to rail against the literary establishment who thinks that commercial fiction is rubbish, and F/SF writers are a bunch of sell-outs and schlock jockeys.

It was really quite good. I wish I’d recorded it so I could capture his reasoning better.

He got an enthusiastic ovation at the end.

I have a theory that goes something like this. Don’t argue with success. You don’t have to like it, but you would do well to understand why it happens. If Dan Brown can sell millions and millions of books with writing quality that a sixth-grader could beat, there’s a reason. If Stephanie Meyer can virtually resurrect a laughable genre that was essentially doomed, and turn it into a multi billion-dollar pulp sensation, there’s a reason.

I got into writing because I picked up a book by L. E. Modesset Jr and after 175 pages said to myself, how did this guy get published? After learning that he successfully cranked out more than a dozen books in the Recluse series I realized that you can’t define success. You can’t put limits on what people will crave. If someone is making a killing somewhere, you don’t have to like it, you don’t have to copy it, but you ought to pay attention. People aren’t stupid, and they don’t flock to crap. When a new phenomenon becomes manifest, it means that there is an area in the market that is un-tapped. It means we don’t understand everything that the public likes. Unfortunately it is something we’re all reminded of again and again and again. Thanks, Lee. I owe you a debt of gratitude for a lesson well-learned.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Highlights of Life the Universe & Everything (Friday)

Friday, February 12
How to Become an Idea Factory. If writers get asked one question more than any other it is, “Where do you get all your ideas?”

One comment that I heard from panelists repeatedly was that they let their ideas stew around in their heads. The good ideas will eventually turn into stories, and the bad ones just kind of go away. I heard comments similar to this from two, maybe three different authors.

All good stories start with a question. What if… In the How to Write a Story That Rocks presentation last night, John Brown stated that you need to come up with a problem that the hero has to face.

Also, you can fuse together two or more unrelated story ideas into a new story. For instance, James Dashner’s Mazerunner book is essentially Ender’s Game plus Lord of the Flies. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series is basically, what if the dark overlord won the epic war, plus Ocean’s Eleven.

Once you can do any of these things, the only difference between you and a bestselling author is learning to pick which ideas are good and which are not.

I heard Brandon Sanderson mention an anecdote from another bestselling author. A fan approached the man and said, I have a great idea. I’ll tell you, and we can publish a novel and split the profit. The author said, “Ideas for me are a dime a dozen, and I’ve already got way more than I can use. I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you learn how to write, then when you become a bestselling author come see me again. I’ll give you one of my ideas and then you go write the book and we’ll split the profits.

I thought that was a clever repost.

In summary, for an author that is well-published, it really isn’t about coming up with a good idea. Good ideas are everywhere, it’s really a matter of being able to recognize them and turn them into a story.

Brandon Sanderson said when he was in the 4th grade he learned to play the trumpet. When he got to high school he joined an ensemble band and tried to learn jazz. He was really good at trumpet, but he just couldn’t get jazz. His teacher said jazz was a different skill. It comes from the heart, not from notes on a page.

As a writer, coming up with ideas is much the same thing. Being able to write, even being able to write well is more of a skill than anything else. The real art in writing, then, is in learning to bring out the soul.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Highlights of Life the Universe & Everything

I was surprised at how well things went over this year at BYU’s XXVIII-th fantasy and science fiction symposium. Here are some of the highlights for me.

Thursday, February 11
I took the day off and got down to BYU early so I could find good parking. It was already packed.

Style in Speculative Fiction. I didn’t take much away from this and there really isn’t a lot to say. F/SF is really about story.

More important than style is voice. Voice, in my definition, is the attitude and the tone of the narrator. Think of the narrator of a story as sitting in front of you as he reads the story. Is the narrator up-beat or depressing? Is the narrator optimistic or pessimistic? Is the narrator preachy?

Voice, not style is more important in F/SF.

Fantasy without Magic. Can you have fantasy without magic? Yes. Anything with monsters in it can be considered fantasy. Anything where man is in an alien environment and you don’t have technology is fantasy. The best example would be the Anne McCaffrey dragon-rider novels. Two examples from classical fantasy are Conan and Tarzan.

Magic is anything that doesn’t follow the laws of physics in our universe.

Magic is also what the publisher says it is. There was a big discussion on who wins when a writer gets into a dispute on how to classify an author’s novel. Apparently the publisher is always right.

There was also a long discussion debating how much you try and explain magic in fantasy. Tolkien felt deeply that if you could explain magic it wouldn’t be magic, it would be science. I can see his point, and he strove to make Gandalf be the kind of character that made magic seem wonderful and awe-inspiring.

Brandon Sanderson took the complete opposite approach, and once he explained his position I found that I agreed more with him. You establish in your story the limits of what magic can and cannot do. You give enough info so that readers can catch on to how it works and what it can do, then you move on. Sanderson always puts an appendix at the end of his novels that provides more information if people want to dig in deeper.

Along this topic, Brandon Mull made an interesting comment in a discussion panel on Saturday (yeah, I’m jumping ahead a couple days). He said that you need to establish rules of how magic works. If magic can do anything characters’ choices become boring and your story sags. You need to explain the magic in your story just enough so that the reader understands its limits and is able to anticipate how the characters might solve a problem. This allows the reader to feel like they are participating more in the story.

Good panel discussion.

Creating a Wizard that isn’t another Gandalf, Merlin, Dumbledore, etc. In this panel they talked about Joseph Campbell’s mentor archetype within the hero’s journey. Older people had more life experience, which they could in turn impart to younger generations. In this way, a mentor character in a story is one who understands the world.

We also have two basic story types where a mentor appears. In the first type, the mentor teaches the pupil and then he dies. For an example, Star Wars. In the second type of tale the mentor remains around (usually) but the hero has to learn how to solve problems on their own. For an example, think Harry Potter.

Writing Realistic Military Fiction. I grew up an Air Force brat, and I’ve always had a lot of respect for the military. I would love to be able to write good military fiction, but I was never engrained with that culture.

This was a lecture by a Marine officer who yelled throughout the entire presentation. He went hoarse after about 20 minutes and needed to use the mic.

It was interesting.

The weapon says a lot about the soldier. The presenter started talking about the M-16, which requires a lot of training, but is very accurate and comes with tons of attachments. It is a very technical weapon. He compared it to the AK-47, which you can bury in the mud for a month, rinse it off, then take it to war. The Americans use technology and training as a force-multiplier in their tactics and strategy. The enemy’s strategy is overwhelming numbers. The presenter also mentioned the Samurai and the culture surrounding their sword (the sword being the soul of the warrior), and the Jedi who were patterned in many ways after the Samurai.

He also talked about the OODA-loop. Orient, Observe, Decide, Act. Whoever goes through this process the fastest will out-maneuver their enemy and win. Whoever comes in second place will always have out-dated information. He also said that you can’t spend all your time orienting and observing because it takes time and your enemy will have the advantage over you.

There is a lot of luck in war.

Putting Romance in your Fantasy. Clint Johnson, one of my writing friends, was moderator for this panel. I congratulated him afterwards on a job well-done, and for daring to even approach subject. At the start of the discussion he announced his qualifications as being the “token Y-chromosome.”

Fantasy stories are usually about saving the world. In contrast, romance stories are centered around a relationship, first and foremost. When you put the two together the fantasy element is there to provide a setting, or a vehicle for the plot. Fantasy elements can also be used to convey social metaphors, or be used as symbols for real-life elements.

Elements of romance stories:
1. Create sexual tension. Take a man and a woman and put a wall between them. Throw up every barrier you can imagine that would keep the two of them from hooking up. Your plot, then, is how the two manage to get together and make things work.
2. If readers fall in love with your characters, then they will believe that the two characters could in turn fall in love with each other.
3. Put the man and woman in a situation where they are forced to work together. They must have complimentary gifts, and both are required to resolve the conflict.
4. Give the man and woman opposing quests. Set one up to undermine the other. For the plot to be resolved, one must make a decision about who he/she is, and change.
5. Give both characters an internal conflict as well as an external conflict.

Writing Strong Female Characters. The panelists started by talking about what a strong woman is.
1. More than just a man with breasts. (I really ought to have gotten more of an explanation out of them for that one)
2. A woman who doesn’t have to act like a man to get what she wants in a man’s world.
3. Centered. Has a well-defined self-image, and is comfortable with who she is.
4. Know what she wants and is willing to make it happen.

In general, strong characters in fiction are the ones who make the decisions and are an active force. They are the movers and the shakers in your story.

There was a big discussion on how to balance historical accuracy, while still remaining sensitive to the values of modern readers. Specifically, women in the middle ages were often thought of as property. How do you write in such a way that you remain true to the period without offending modern readers?

The conclusion was that fiction is not about conveying factual truths of a given period. It is to convey truths about humanity. Its purpose is to portray human nature and explore the question, what does it mean to be human? If a period-specific detail from an ancient culture can be used to illustrate a situation and make a point, then it is relevant and deserves a place in your story.

A friend of mine from the audience quoted me during this panel, which I took as quite a compliment. That gave me the opportunity to add some input of my own to the discussion. The panel was talking about differences in the way men and women fight. Women snipe at each other and fight with words. Men fight by punching each other’s lights out.

I countered that men also fight with words--that’s what “talking smack” is all about. In a well-written story, a clever male hero will diffuse a tense situation using humor. Men are more cautious about letting things come to blows because instinctively, they know that in the next thirty seconds someone could wind up maimed or dead.

No More Dead Dogs (or Mothers). This panel was about avoiding literary clich├ęs, specifically, why are so many heroes orphans (Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Spiderman, Batman, Superman). The feeling was that authors were becoming lazy in an attempt to garner the reader’s sympathy for their character.

I totally agree.

I didn’t find much value in this discussion, so I slipped out and got a quesadilla. 20 minutes later I came back and they’d gone through all the questions and were taking comments from the audience. They still had a half hour to go.

How to Write a Story That Rocks. Presented by John Brown and Larry Correa. This two-hour workshop was one of the highlights for me. It was basically a structured way of brainstorming ideas for plot. It reinforced everything I already knew, and added a handful of key elements that I was missing.

I think I know enough now to write a story that can get published. I think all I lack at this point is the will to follow through and finish. I can’t put it any plainer than that.

During the first panel this morning, of the panelists stood up and asked the room for a show of hands, how many people present had finished writing their first novel. It didn’t have to be published, just completed. I estimated about eight to nine out of ten hands went up. Wow. I’m not so certain as to the quality of all these novels, but that’s at least 130 people in the state of Utah who write F/SF who are ahead of me in the game. I really need to get on the ball.