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At the Feet of Masters: The Writing Track at JordanCon 2011 (Part 1 of 3)

April 21, 2011

Wherein I share and elucidate the mysteries revealed unto me whilst attending the Writing Track at JordanCon 2011.

The main panelists for the writing track were Guest of Honor David B. Coe, Eugie Foster, Jana Oliver, and Brandon Sanderson.  (The details of who taught what are in my blow-by-blow account linked above.)  Attending the writing track was definitely valuable for me, as an aspiring fantasy author.  But what was surprising, in some ways, was how little I learned about the craft of writing as compared to what else I learned by attending these panels. 

Which is not to say I didn’t learn quite a lot about writing during these panels.  I suppose I was expecting to learn more about the craft.  But what I did learn, I believe, will be enough to push me up another level – or so I hope.  But let me save the big, revelatory take-aways for the end, and let’s start with an account of what I learned along the way.  Which is a long account, so expect this to go on for several posts – this is considerably more detailed and thorough than my pictorial blow-by-blow.

Writing for Younger Readers

The first bit of craft advice I learned when I ducked into the Writing for Young Readers panel a little late.  The panelists agreed that you should write your protagonist at an age one or two years older than your target audience – specifically when targeting younger readers.  This is because younger readers are aspirational – they are interested in what people older than they are think and do.  However, the older YA readers tend to read more and more like adults, so the lines get blurred considerably.  They also pointed out that mushy stuff like romance: kids totally go in for that, whatever you may think.  Yes, even the boys. 

There was also a discussion of length.  This is apparently an ongoing issue within the industry.  YA and Middle Grades novels tend to be shorter – but “tend to” is sort of a euphemism.  Publishers (and booksellers) are looking for shorter works – less than 100K words – but not because that’s what the market demands.  The panelists pointed out that younger readers actually seem to prefer longer books.  If that’s the case, I asked, why do publishers prefer shorter ones?  The answer: because booksellers demand shorter books – because they can fit more on the shelf that way. 

So publishers won’t take longer books from newer authors until they’ve proven their mettle.  Which presents a sort of Catch-22 for new YA authors: the young readers are likely to be less-interested in your industry-enforced shorter book, and less likely to buy it, which will hurt your sales potential, which hurts your chances of getting picked up for more, longer books in the future.  A silly cycle caused by business exigencies driven by silly accounting rather than market demand.  As an MBA I can say this without any hesitation:

This. Is. Dumb. As. Crap. 

And a sure-fire way to hobble the growth potential of your industry.  It doesn’t make sense to ignore the demands of your end-consumers because a middle-man in the bookselling industry is more worried about accounting than consumer’s desires.  Then again there is a lot of evidence that the business-people in charge of the bookselling industry are out of touch with the market demands.  So this should come as no surprise. 

Still, I am hopeful that business practices will change during this period of industry upheaval – and more people who are market-oriented rise to the top, pushing away from the tendency to treat books as commodities.  The more the industry treats them as commodities, the more the problems of price-pressure and the other challenges of commoditization will hurt the industry.

The Industry (Blogging and Platform)

During the Industry panel, I asked about blogging and building a platform.  John Scalzi’s blog was cited as a specific example, where he can sometimes get very  political.  But his is also one of the biggest blogs in the speculative fiction community, and is frequently an example of how to build a platform through good blogging.  Although I phrased my question in terms of being political or not, what I was really driving at was how does one go about (a) building a “platform” and (b) blogging, and what, if any, is the relationship between the two.  The answer to the latter is simple: you blog about whatever humanizes you, whatever you think will be interesting to your readers.  David Coe mentioned several times he’ll sometimes blog about the Mets – because that’s something important to him.  You can be “political”, too, if you want, if that’s something that humanizes you and makes you interesting (most of the panelists were, from time to time) with one caveat: you have to be respectful of differing opinions.  Just remember… Rule 1 of the Industry: do not piss off your readers. (For all two of you who hadn’t seen that yet; and yes, this came up during the panel.)

Ultimately, however, the answer to the question of platform, opined David Coe, lies in what you write.  The best platform of all is a great book.  A great, must-read book covereth a multitude of platforming and blogging sins (but not the sin of being a jerk, by-the-way).

Peer Review

The Peer Review, to which I brought a copy of “PFTETD”, was one event where I was really expecting to learn a lot more.  I wasn’t expecting anyone to get through all 12,100 words of “PFTETD” – maybe because I’ve become a slow reader, it always surprises me how fast others can read – so it was to my surprise that my peer review partner completed my story.

What I learned from my peer review partner pretty much confirmed my earlier suspicions.  Which is to say, the beginning of that particular story needs work.  This suggests a general weakness in my writing, I believe.  I often feel that my beginnings are frequently the weakest element of my story – but once I get going it gets better.  This was what my peer review partner said: the story got really good later on.

What this doesn’t tell me is what, specifically, I need to do to work on my beginning and improve it (and already the current beginning is a huge improvement over the original draft).  I guess time, and experience, will tell.

Brandon Sanderson’s Fantasy Writing Crash Course

Brandon has done these crash course classes in both of the last two JordanCons (some of which are posted on YouTube).  This year, he started out with, in his words, “the inaugural lecture on Sanderson’s Second Law”.  This is the follow-up to his better-known “First Law” – better known because I don’t believe he has posted anything about his “Second Law” yet.  So, I’m a little nervous being the first (am I the first?  Google doesn’t tell me otherwise) to post something on this topic… but here goes.  [Note to Team Brandon, if perchance you happen across this: if my posting this isn’t kosher, please let me know and I’ll remove this section.  Thanks!]

If you’re familiar with Sanderson’s First Law, you know it has to do with designing “magic systems” for fantasy novels.  But understood a little deeper, it’s about more than just magic, it’s a story-telling principle.  His second law is similar in nature.  Brandon summarized his second law with this equation: “Limitations > Power”.

What he meant is this: magic systems are more interesting for what the magic can’t do than what they can.  He breaks this down into three components: Costs, Limitations, and Weaknesses.  Costs are what you have to pay to use the magic.  Limitations are what the magic can’t do, or what limits its power.  Weaknesses are what negate the magic’s power or prevent a character from using the power.  Weaknesses are usually the least dramatically interesting of the three.

The lesson here is that what makes a magic system unique is not the power and what it can do, nor how it works, but what it takes to use the magic or what limits it.  The Aristotelian Elements are the most common “magic system” in all of fantasy.  But the spice that makes any such magic system feel “new” or unique is in what it costs to make that magic work.  Costs like “fatigue” and limitations like “skill”, likewise are very common.  To make the magic unique, you need something new.

What makes this work, however, is in picking costs, limitations, and weaknesses that have real story consequences.  The costs and limitations need to affect the story and produce conflict and struggle for the characters.

Brandon went on to draw a Venn diagram consisting of 3 circles that all intersect at a single point.  One is “Plot”, one is “Setting” and one is “Character”.  The point of intersection is the point of conflict, and this is where good stories happen.  Good stories pit elements from each of these three circles against each other.  Lesser conflicts lie within the intersection of any two of these circles.  The idea is, your driving conflict needs to draw from all of the major elements of your story, and this will in turn drive the design of your magic system.  Ultimately, Brandon said, you as the writer have to struggle to make it work.

The greater story-telling principle is that what makes a story interesting is not found in how your character is competent to solve the problems they face, but in how they lack competence.  This doesn’t mean just whether they can use magic to solve a problem, but in whatever tools are at the character’s disposal.  If solving a problem is easy for your character, then it’s not an interesting conflict.  Solving the problem has to be a struggle, and should force the character to make difficult decisions.

After concluding this part of the lecture Brandon opened the floor to questions and general discussion. One of the first questions lead to Brandon’s prescription to cure “Worldbuilder’s Disease” (that malady that affects Planners – writers who outline and plan the details of their story before writing it – which is excessive planning in which each detail that is decided on opens the door to new and more esoteric details that get less and less important to the story).  And that is: (1) Look for the conflict.  Worldbuild around the conflict.  (Ergo: when your worldbuilding no longer touches on the conflict, stop.)  (2) Put characters in the middle of the conflict. 

Later, I asked a question on a subject that I’ve long struggled with.  It gets to the heart of my troubles with the-novel-I’ve-been-writing-since-forever, “Project SOA”, and that is: “How do you tell the difference between a common trope that’s a necessary element of the genre – one that you need or it won’t be considered part of the genre and won’t be read – and a cliché that’s so trite, boring, and over-used that readers would flee your book as though it had been laced with anthrax?”  (This is a slightly more eloquent version of my question than what I actually asked, but the heart is the same.)  In answer, Brandon opined that when fantasy was still young and new, and Tolkien had burst on the scene like the prototypical Harry Potter, nobody knew what to make of it.  The subgenre of Epic Fantasy was born, and people instantly wanted more of it – and the initially gravitated to more of the same.  In other words, they favored epic fantasies that felt familiar

He drew another diagram, this showing a continuum between “Familiar” and “Different”.  Traditionally, epic fantasy readers wanted something closer to the “familiar” end of the spectrum.  Movie critics, as a contrast, always seem to want something smack dab on the “Different” side.  It was Brandon’s opinion that the trend in Epic Fantasy was a move away from the mostly “Familiar” side of the spectrum and toward the “Different” side – and that it would find it’s balance somewhere in the middle.  (I can’t recall if he found the balance settling just to the left or just to the right of the middle, but he drew the line near the middle.)  The key, he felt, was what he had discussed earlier during his “Second Law” lecture: the more you focus on the points of conflict and the limitations and costs of action for your characters, the more you’ll appeal to that “different” side while still keeping one foot on the “familiar”.

And that’s all there’s time and room for today.  Next time I’ll talk about the next three panels: “Keeping a Long Series Fresh”, “Business Realities”, and “Crafting Villains”, which should go live tomorrow.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2011 7:50 pm

    The “Second Law” makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve always thought that magic that is too powerful lacks story impact. Like when it comes to superhero’s… it’s the vulnerabilities, and problems that come with power, that make them more interesting (at least to me).

    Good question too. I always wondered about the balance between traditional and different in a story. I’m not sure (with my odd reading tastes) which side of the spectrum I fall under when I write anymore LOL

    • April 22, 2011 8:59 am

      Funny you should mention Superheros – that was the very topic Brandon turned to to demonstrate the 2nd Law: What defines Superman for us? What do we think about? It’s not that he’s super-strong, can fly, has laser vision, or is invulnerable. Those are just his powers. No, when I say Superman, the first thing that comes to your head is probably either (a) Kryptonite or (b) Lois Lane. Kryptonite is his weakness. Lois Lane is his limitation (i.e. his love for Lois is a limitation – he can’t do anything to violate that, and if she’s in danger he has to saver her). His other major limitation is his moral code. And it’s when we see these elements incorporated into a story that a Superman story becomes interesting. I think in Fantasy the question of the difference between “familiar” and “different” is a difficult one for us to answer, probably because the history of the genre is so weighted toward the familiar side. That makes it hard to figure out where we, today, should lie on the spectrum.

      • April 22, 2011 6:33 pm

        Huh, though you alway associate those things with Superman, I guess I never thought of him that way before! That’s great, breaking down his character into weaknesses and limitations. Makes you see heroes a little differently. 🙂

        When you’re planning your story, it seems important to focus on these things. Though when you’re writing the thing it can be easy to forget them in the grand scheme of “getting the story done.” Lots to think about!

      • April 25, 2011 8:04 am

        Absolutely, it is important to make sure you’ve sprinkled your story with plenty of opportunities to constrain your heroes/heroines. But I agree – unless you’re a very careful “Planner”, it is hard to keep all of this in mind when writing. If you’re not a planner – well, that’s what revisions are for. And yeah, every good superhero has these sorts of limitations and weaknesses.

  2. April 21, 2011 7:55 pm

    Hmmm…I am pondering about what you said in the following:

    “He drew another diagram, this showing a continuum between “Familiar” and “Different”. Traditionally, epic fantasy readers wanted something closer to the “familiar” end of the spectrum. Movie critics, as a contrast, always seem to want something smack dab on the “Different” side. It was Brandon’s opinion that the trend in Epic Fantasy was a move away from the mostly “Familiar” side of the spectrum and toward the “Different” side – and that it would find it’s balance somewhere in the middle. (I can’t recall if he found the balance settling just to the left or just to the right of the middle, but he drew the line near the middle.) The key, he felt, was what he had discussed earlier during his “Second Law” lecture: the more you focus on the points of conflict and the limitations and costs of action for your characters, the more you’ll appeal to that “different” side while still keeping one foot on the “familiar”.”

    In actuality, is there anything on the market that is really different? All stories borrow from each other and/or steal from each other. I think most of the stories today are ideas that have been used before yet present with such a slight of hand that others do not notice that the story has been done before.

    Thoughts?

    • April 22, 2011 9:09 am

      That’s an astute observation – but think of it within the slightly more narrow context of an individual genre. What defines Epic Fantasy, for instance? Does it have to have a young farm boy who grows up to be the king/slay the dragon/save the world/defeat the dark lord? Or is that an overused trope that no longer has weight and meaning? What about Urban Fantasy – does it need a kick-butt post-feminist heroine who fights demons/zombies/vampires/monsters/etc? And so on. So yeah, pretty much every story type has already been told, or at least that’s the old writer’s adage. But how are those old stories mixed and matched in the story you’re trying to tell? There’s an almost endless variety of ways to mix them. Are there certain mixes and changes to the tropes that will break certain genre conventions that the story can no longer be classified in that genre – or more importantly that break those genre conventions that readers of that genre will turn away from that work? That’s what I’m worried about. What conventions and tropes do I need to keep the story grounded in a certain genre and appealing to a certain audience? What conventions and tropes should I break in order to appeal to their craving for new experiences?

  3. April 21, 2011 9:20 pm

    Thanks for sharing this, Stephen. I’m currently using a variant of the Aristotelian Elements in my WIP, so I’ve definitely had to take my approach of this familiar kind of magic into careful consideration. Brandon lists a lot of great things to think about.

    • April 22, 2011 9:49 am

      I’ve used it too (in my “Project SOA”). Now I understand a little better that it doesn’t really matter so much what the source of the power is, but trade-offs the characters have to make and what decisions they have to make that make the story and the magic interesting. That’s really useful to know.

  4. April 23, 2011 12:30 am

    I’ve rarely run into someone who could read a story and tell me how to fix what didn’t work. But the gold is finding confirmation about something on which someone thinks doesn’t work (they may not always be right). I’m more interested in these observations because they tend to be more useful.

    • April 25, 2011 9:11 pm

      It is helpful to have that kind of feedback. I’ll agree – it’s rare that someone can tell you precisely what’s wrong or how to fix it. But what they can tell you is what didn’t work for them, and that feedback can be very useful in diagnosing the problem yourself, and figuring out how to fix it.

Trackbacks

  1. JordanCon 2011 – A Pictorial Blow-by-blow « The Undiscovered Author
  2. At the Feet of Masters: The Writing Track at JordanCon 2011 (Part 2 of 3) « The Undiscovered Author
  3. May Writing Challenge – Get Twisted | Sonia G Medeiros is Doing the Write Thing

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