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 clichés, 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.

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