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.


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.

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