At the Feet of Masters: The Writing Track at JordanCon 2011 (Part 2 of 3)
Today I’m going to continue sharing my experiences and thoughts on the various Writing Track panels I attended. I attended all of them, though some of them I was a little late to, for various reasons. Saturday had already been off to a great start, but then I was ambushed by Lunch Time.
Keeping a Long Series Fresh
Jana Oliver headlined the next panel, after Saturday’s lunch, to which I was late. She advocated keeping a “story bible” to keep all the details and events straight when working on a long series – “because otherwise you will forget important details”. This was something I was already doing, thankfully. I have a story bible for “Project SOA”, and I’ve recently started working on one for “Book of M”. What goes in the story bible: a bit of everything. Descriptions of the character both physical and internal, notes about the history of the world, geography, the plot outline – you name it, I’ll put an entry for it in the project bible. Right now the bible for “Book of M” is in its nascency, with only a handful of unfinished entries. I’ve mentioned my project bible before, I believe, and I won’t go into too much detail about it for now.
The purpose of the bible, as she explained it, was to help keep everything straight. But you could also keep new notes and bits of inspiration there as you happen upon them, to help you inject some of that much-needed freshness.
Jana also recommended treading carefully when killing off characters: not that you should never kill off important characters, but to make sure you know what you’re doing and that it’s important for the story. “Because”, she said, “you will get letters.”
The last note that I recall from this discussion was the issue of expectations surrounding new writers and long series. The industry is in sort of a weird place, with regards to expectations about series. The book publishers like series, because they have a tendency to trend sales upwards over time – as more people discover the new books, they go back and buy the older books, too. However, publishers continue to be, understandably, nervous about investing too much in writers of an unknown quality – that is writers who have never published before and whose ability to sustain an audience over a long series is untried and unproven. There is also the concern of dropping an underperforming writer in the middle of a long series – and the negative impact that can have on fans and the publisher’s image. Or at least I and others would anticipate this being a part of the concern of publishers. Regardless, there are these two competing economic interests. The equilibrium point seems to have settled on the trilogy. Publishers seem to like new writers to churn out trilogies, because they can gain some of the sales benefits of a series while mitigating some of the risk of potential underperformance. This, then, is part of the reason why the fantasy trilogy is such a staple of the genre: it’s an accommodation of the industry.
Just the same, Jana’s advice was to keep the first installment more-or-less self-contained, if possible. The reason for this goes back to that risk of underperformance. From an author’s perspective, you’ll want to mollify your readers somewhat, if possible, by providing a satisfying conclusion in a single volume in case your publisher pulls the plug after just one book. It’s better for the readers and its better for the writer.
The next panel was all about the nuts-and-bolts minutia of the business as writing. First up: being a writer is being a business-person. There’s no two ways around that. You make a product, and you get paid when you deliver that product. You have to manage cash flows and business contracts.
The business side begins when you start marketing your product – and that starts with the Query Letter, so David Coe spoke first on that. My only notes on the topic: it should be 1 page, single spaced. Ultimately, you want to skip the query-letter process if possible – and you do that by meeting editors and agents in person at cons and finding a way to pitch to them live. If they like what they hear in the pitch, they may ask you to send them a partial, or a synopsis, or whatever it is they prefer to see.
So we also talked a bit about some of the cons you can attend. Worldcon was mentioned – David mentioned this one is more fan-oriented – as well as World Fantasy Con, which is more professionally-oriented. The attendance at the latter is capped each year to 850 attendants – which means planning attendance well in advance. (The 2011 event around Halloween is already capped out, for instance.)
There was also an enlightening discussion on the financial realities of the business. I’ve pointed this out before, but you can’t go into this industry expecting to make a living off of writing. It’s very difficult to make that happen. But David broke it down into fine detail. The standard advance for a first-time author, he said, is about $7,500. That’s not enough to live on – I’m sure you can do that math on your own. But here’s the real rub: you don’t get that all at once. Rather, it’s broken up into 3 installments: One-third due upon signing you get when you sign the contract. One-third is due upon “Delivery and Acceptance”, meaning you’ve gone through the back-and-forth with your editor and you’ve fixed up the book and everyone agrees on what the finished product is going to look like. That could be anywhere from six months to a year later, depending on how fast each round of edits goes. Then the final third is due upon publication, which because the publishing schedule is probably already full with books coming out from established authors at this point will probably be another whole year away. So that first-time advance is stretched over two to three years.
Then there’s the royalties. Obviously, you don’t see any royalties until after your book earns out its advance. Many books don’t, but many do of course. Even so, royalty statements are calculated semi-annually, several months in arrears. So the first royalty statement won’t be available until a year-and-a-half after publication. Don’t expect to earn any royalties by then. Because even if you do earn out, the publisher will hold royalties in reserve against returns – because those books haven’t necessarily actually sold yet – or more to the point the business system is screwed up such that the publishers don’t really know what’s sold and what hasn’t, they only know what they delivered to distributors and booksellers. (There’s more room for business process improvement. I frankly can’t believe in this day-and-age that publishers don’t have a system in place that allows them to know the location of each and every book at any given time right up until final end-consumer sale. That’s rather a bit of a travesty, these days. It really isn’t that hard to do, in all honesty, not since most of the technologies needed to do it have become so standardized across the retail industry.) So you won’t get paid a red cent until the publisher knows with confidence that those books aren’t being returned. (That’s another rant – a distribution system that allows for these kinds of returns arrangement is rather antiquated. In what other industry can retailers return unsold products for a full refund? Only books, music, and possibly movies, as far as I am aware, follow this flawed model.) Yes, this means, most likely, yet another year before you’ll see royalty income.
By which time, if you’re any good, you’ll have another book or two in the pipeline, and you’ll start to receive advance payments from that. So, basically, for the first several years of an author’s career, the income from novel writing (at least in the traditional publishing market) are slow and small. Over time, they’ll eventually ramp up, if your writing is embraced by readers – and your advances should increase in size with the size of your readership. Unless you somehow catch a wave, though, they’ll likely never rise above living-wage standard. You won’t be able to afford health insurance, or other benefits. You have to pay all your own taxes. You’ll be living hand-to-mouth. David Coe’s best advice to aspiring authors: “Marry well”.
Alternatively… think of your writing career as a part-time second job – something you do on the side, when you’re not on the clock at your main job. That’s how many writers get by these days (and that’s nowhere near an exhaustive list). Sure, that limits your potential output. But the benefits are nothing to sneeze at.
David’s next bit of advice concerned writing goals. He suggested setting realistic but achievable writing goals: how much can you really expect to write in the time you have available? Sure, you may want to set a stretch goal like 2,000 words per day. But is that realistic? Or is 500 words more realistic? Or just 100 words? It’s better to set a goal you can achieve – and then achieve it – than to set one you’re fooling yourself into thinking you can achieve and then fail, David contends. It’s better to revise your goals upwards after you gotten yourself in a good track record. The industry can be depressing enough for other reasons, he said, there’s no reason to set yourself up for it by setting goals you can’t achieve. Heck, if you’re writing anything, you’re ahead of the game, and you already deserve a pat-on-the-back.
I was a few minutes late Sunday morning for the Crafting Villains panel – and more’s the pity. This turned out to be a great panel; the audience was really engaged and there was lots of great advice. Headlining this panel were Eugie Foster and David Coe.
The first bit is what I’m going to call here “The Mirror Principle” – that’s my own name. This is a simple but profound bit of story-engineering: the villains should reflect the heroes. Meaning they should share some of the same qualities and characteristics, like two sides of the same coin. Humility and pride, wrath and mercy, compassion and envy. When the hero and villain share similar characteristics and qualities, it draws the differences between them in a more dramatic light.
This relates to a trend over the years away from overly-simplistic “Dark Lords” to more complex, nuanced villains. Heroes have had to follow the same trend: heroes need flaws, weaknesses, and a dark side, while still being sympathetic. Likewise, villains may need a “light side”, and to toe the line of sympathetic. This isn’t to say you can’t have a Dark Lord, but today’s Dark Lord has to be more interesting and complex than the Dark Lords of the past.
During this panel, David Coe drew a graph on his placard, which I’ll call “David B. Coe’s Manifestation of Evil & Tension Graph”. It starts at the crest of a small peak before dropping into a valley then slowly climbing back up to a much higher peak. The idea: you need to start your readers out with some exposure to the badness of the bad guys – something that tells the reader “some bad crap is about to go down”. That’s the first, initial peak. Then you ease the reader back in by introducing him or her to the main characters, and the calm-before-the-storm that is their ordinary world. Then you slowly ratchet up the tension again, more fully exposing the true awfulness of your villain.
The panel then digressed into a discussion of sociopaths. Sociopaths have the potential to be interesting and nuanced villains. It allows the writer to explore an alien mindset (assuming the writer is not also a sociopath). But it provides for that nuance, because sociopaths apparently operate in cycle, going through periods of relative calm and normalcy before erupting into periods of psychotic and violent behavior. The main thing that makes sociopaths potentially interesting, however, is that they don’t view what they do as evil. The have elaborate self-justifications for their actions, and have built up their own twisted moral codes that make their villainy into their own brand of self-righteousness.
Now, since your villain is all nuanced and complex that means you’ve got all kinds of interesting, self-justifying back story. You see where this is going, don’t you? Infodump alert. Avoiding infodumps is one of those common bits of writing advice that you’ll find out there on the internet – and with good reason. Nothing kills the tension and momentum of a book like a good a ten-page discourse on the history of such-and-such all for the delicious purpose of explaining this insignificant little detail. Real writers have done this. Even classical writers. (I wanted to like the story referred to there so badly, but I just couldn’t get past the meaningless and aimless infodumps…) You want to avoid that with your villains too – and yes, I suspect that means no monologuing. The panelists suggested an alternative: “Infodripping”, wherein you reveal the details of your villain’s backstory in small chunks, as the story demands. You can weight your infodrips to be more front-heavy or back-heavy – revealing more about your villain and their story and motivations more to the beginning of the story or more to the end, depending on the story you’re trying to tell.
Finally, there was a short discussion the difference between a Nemesis and a Villain. Nemeses can be villains, but strictly speaking they’re not directly synonymous. Nemeses, rather, are the recurring foils for your hero – characters who pop up time and again and put obstacles in the protagonist’s path. They needn’t be evil or villainous, per se. Some nemeses may actually even ben heroic in their own right. More often, though, the hero’s nemesis is usually portrayed as a villain as well. Just the same, this is a trope with lots of room to play with, and having a nemesis can make for an interesting dichotomy all its own.
Next time, I’ll conclude this short series of writing lessons by talking about “Rewriting History” and the 30-second pitch session cleverly titled “JordanCon’s Got Talent”. So be back here first thing Monday morning for the exciting conclusion! Same Bat Channel, slightly different Bat Time.