Friday, September 3, 2010

WorldCon 2010 : Keeping Pace: Maintaining Momentum in Fiction

I must stress, these notes were typing up in real-time, while the panel was happening, so if I've misquoted someone, I'm terribly sorry.  I'll come back at the end of next week and fix up all the typos and whatnot, but, in the meantime, please enjoy these carefully-recorded hour-shortened summaries.  I've tried to maintain some of the personality of each of the panellists so, again, please forgive any idiosyncrasies, and if I've recorded any references to books, films, short stories, people or games incorrectly, that is entirely my fault, not the fault of the panellist I'm quoting.

This is probably my favourite panel of the convention so far.

Here's the blurb from the AussieCon guide for Keeping Pace: Maintaining Momentum in Fiction :

"What keeps the pages turning on a good speculative fiction novel? A panel of authors reveal the tricks and tools they have used - and others they have seen as readers - to keep the momentum of a good story going, and to ensure the reader’s attention. What makes the difference between a tedious bore and an un-put-downable narrative rollercoaster?
Peter V. Brett, Carrie Vaughn, Howard Tayler, Jay Lake"






Jay: What I find interesting is that this is a panel about keeping  pace, and we’ve got a bunch of people here who write fiction of differing lengths, so I think that’s really going to help us.  Carrie, why don’t you start off?

C: Okay, wel, I’m probably most well-known for my series of novels about a werewolf named Kitty who’s a radio talkshow host giving advice to the supernaturally challenged.

H: My name is Howard Taylor, and I’m the creator of a comic called Schlock Mercenary, and I have to write a comic that is interesting and drags you in, and once you’re hooked, you have to keep reading day by day, but I also release books of them, so they have to scan as a coherent story on the whole, which doesn’t qualify me to teach about it, but qualifies me to keep doing it.

P: My name is Peter Brett, and I’ve written a series of books called the Demon Cycle, and I write the kind of books that people use to sit up straighter in their chairs, or prop open doors, and I’m quite new at this, so I’m very nervous.

J: I write trilogies, mostly by accident, but I promise to write one on purpose soon.  And as Peter was saying before the panel, we became writers because we’re introverts, and now they want us to get up and talk?  My last books were about 20,000 words each, so I’m perhaps at the shorter end, but soon I’m releasing a steampunk  one, and some others are coming out soon.  Now, Howard talks about releasing a comic every day, Carrie’s books come out about, what, every 18 months?  And Peter, I don’t know what your publishing schedule is like.

P: It took me 7 years to write the first one, 3 years to write the second one…

H: 18 months! You’re getting there!

J: It’s a parabolic arc.  Eventually you’ll be writing a book every 4 hours. (Laughter) So, Howard, everything in your comic goes somewhere, with plots spanning years, tell us about that.

H: Everything in my comic has to go somewhere, every character arc build to a  point, and sometime they’re not heroic, sometimes they build toward a bad outcome, but everything has to tell a story, I can’t put up a strip that’s just about a punchline, for me that’s not the point.  Except jokes about monkeys, those will just carry the day.

??: Like the headless monkey.

H: Right, like the Headless Monkey.  That was a masterful stroke that I don’ think I’ll ever revisit but, you know, maybe I will.

Peter: What I find interesting is writing from multiple points of view, and you start looking at it from more and more different angles and you become Robert Jordan, and that’s not a bad thing.

H: When I publish a book, I give it to my two friends Dan and Bob and I ask them to go through and look for where I’ve made promises to the reader, and tell me where they don’t pay off.  The book that’s nominated for a Hugo award this year, Longshoreman of the Apocalypse, was a throwaway joke that turned into something bigger, and when I wrote the line, I immediately thought “This is going to have to be bigger than I had planned” and Dan and Bob said “Yeah, this is going to have to be huge, you’ve got to payoff, you’ve got to almost kill everyone” so I had to go back and revise my whole story plan.

Carrie: There’s a fundamental difference in the way that I write, in that my 8th book just came out, but I don’t know how long my series is going to be, and it’s written from first person, so I’m kind of more limited in the aspects that I can explore, and I think length and pacing are completely separate things, so I’m looking more at things like “Is this driving the story forward?” and looking for good places to end chapters, and making sure that the readers are invested, because that’s what’s keeping them turning the page.

J: So is there now going to be a novel where Kitty goes to Xanth?

C: Now that idea will never get out of my head!

H: I can send you puns that you can use.

J: Jay Lake, leaving festering sores on writers’ minds worldwide.

P: First person is a very difficult way to write, I think, because you’re locked into that one point of view, and Robin Hobb gets around this really well, by making her main character psychic, so he can dream about these things that are happening elsewhere, and get that information across to the reader, so you’re a braver man than I.

J: And from a teenage girl point of view! I don’t have much experience of being a teenage girl.

H: It’ll come. (Laughter)

J: This is Australia, I’m pretty sure it’s illegal. (Laughter)  But I write things that can be a novel in 8,000 words, or a really long short story.

H: The way I write is kind of like explaining aerodynamics to a bumblebee, it will crash, because that’s not how bumblebees work, and occasionally I’ll start thinking about it too much, and my wife will come in and pat me on the back and pat me on the back and say “Keep flapping, honey.”  Sometimes I’ll realize I’m in act 3 of the story, and I don’t announce the scene changes to the reader, and they keep the pace going, and sometimes I’ll throw in a narrator box, and I’ll wonder why I slows the pace down, and I’ll go back and read it and go “Right! I’ve called out the scene change.  That’s gone.”

P: I think that’s something that comes from a lot of old comics, is describing what happens in the panel.

H: That came from Stan Lee and those guys, because they’d write the words, someone would throw down the art, and it would come back and Stan Lee  would say, “Oh, look, there’s room for more words!”

P: Exactly, it’s not just over-writing, it’s double writing, and you might have something clever in there that you want to make sure the 5reader gets it, but what you’re really doing is boring the reader, because you’re slowing it down and making them aware of what’s happening, and you don’t want to do that, let the reader experience your story.  You don’t need to tell them twice.

J: I think what we want to take away here is don’t say the same thing twice. (Laughter) Hey, I was just jumping on the grenade there.

C: I think this comes back to show don’t tell, because you don’t want to tell the reader what the character is going to do, then show them doing it, then talk about how they did it, that’s no good, that’s a bad way to keep the reader interested, so you need to show the reader as it’s happening, so they can be involved. 

H: I think there’s an interesting difference there, one of my friends recently got his book on the New York times best seller list, and he writes so that you get to the end of the chapter and you have to keep reading, but he tends to write YA, so it’s a little bit shorter, and the reader just needs to take a breath so they can keep going, but one of my other friends writes epic fantasy trilogies, so he needs to set it up so that, at the end of a chapter, the reader feels they can take a break, or they’d all starve to death.

J: You know how long one of my recent books was? 150,000words.  Know how many chapter breaks there were?  None.  And none of the reviewers have ever mentioned that.

H: That’s because they’ve all starved to death. (Laughter) Jay’s done us all a huge favour.

H: I was reading Peter’s book, and I was getting really involved with this character, and something terrible happened to him, and I wanted to know what happened, but I turned the page and I was with a new character, and I didn’t want to be with this new character, I wanted to be with Arland, but then I thought, well, he’s going to do this to me again, and I don’t know what this new character’s problem is, but I’m sure it will be good, and when I get back to Arland and it will be amazing, and I think that works for some books and not for others.

C: I find that with books with multiple points of view is that sometimes there are lots of characters, and some are my favourites and some I don’t like at all, so I rush through the chapters about the characters I don’t like to get to the ones  do.  But I wonder if everyone has the same favourite characters or not.

P: No, I don’t think so, because I get letter from people saying they love the Arland chapters, but skip the Leyland chapters, and there are people who love Leyland, and it seems like there isn’t a single character that doesn’t have people rooting for them, so as a writer I always try to give each character a chance to show me what they’re made of, so I can care about them, otherwise I feel like I’m missing out.

J: So, Peter, did you write short stories before you started writing novels?

P: No, I’m one of the few novel-length writers who didn’t cut their teeth on short fiction, but I view each chapter as a short story, or a novella, and that allows me to keep the pacing going, and keep it interesting.

J: I think you should make a new genre: epic fantasy flash fiction. (Laughter)

P: Flash fiction has never been my strong point, but I think there’s a lot of advice for new writers telling them to write short stories and get those published to impress editors and agents, but I don’t think that’s a good idea, you’re learning a completely different skillset, and it’s not going to help you in the long run if you want to be a novelist.

H: It’s like trying to run marathons in an attempt to make the Olympic sprinting team, except you can usually run marathons for free.

C: (Q: How do you deal with the exciting part of the book that happens slightly after the beginning?)  This is what I call the page 6 problem, where the story actually start on page 6.  The cliché is starting with the character having breakfast, but you don’t need to have this introduction, because the reader is going to learn about the characters as they act.

H: Filmmakers call this ‘in late out early’ and the best example of this is the introduction of the crew of Serenity in the movie Serenity.  Within 3 minutes, you know everyone.

J: I think what you’re asking, as well, is how to get the audience engaged with your characters, and I think characters are important, because if someone falls down a mineshaft, well, why should I care.

P: But you don’t want to have this long scene at the beginning of the  book where your main character walks past a mirror and takes a good look at himself, because that’s going to be boring, because it’s all just description.

H: You’re allowed to do a mirror scene ONCE in your career, at the end.

J: Because we will come to your house and beat you. (Laughter)

P: (Q: how do you write multiple pov?)  You want to limit the number of Points of View.  My first book had 3, my next book had 8, and the books I’m working on now had 12, but my head exploded, so I went in and hacked some out, because it’s just too difficult to follow.  You need to find the people who are always involved in the action, so you can keep it interesting, and tie it all together later.

H: The kind of writing I do is third-person cinematic, because we don’t get inside the character’s heads, but we change scene.  The rule for changing scene is to find the person who’s in the most pain, and concentrate on their reactions to it, and drive the story from that point of view.  You also need to be able to write in a way that’s distinct, because if you can keep your characters straight, and make them distinguishable by their voice alone, you’re in great shape.

C: Something I recommend a lot is reading your work out loud, it’s very good for your character’s voice, because  you get a good idea of pacing, of how they sound, and if it doesn’t read smoothly.  People don’t think about it, but the words will flow more smoothly if they read more smoothly, and that will improve the pacing of your work, because it’s easy to get through.

J: As novelists, we have a page 1.  We always have a page 1.

H: No, you’re right, I have a page 1 every day.  When you go to Schlock Mercenary.com, you’re looking at a strip that is probably a year into the main storyline,  and 4000 strips from the beginning, and I have to be able to tell the story in a way that a new reader can understand what’s going on and think “That’s a little bit cute, funny, interesting” or  whatever, and get it, like they do the first line of a novel.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I don’t know, I’ve been reading the strip for years.

J: (Q: How much time do you spend on the description?) It depends on your style.  If you read Hemmingway, you get “The sun was hot. The road was dusty.” And that’s your description.

C: I think you can use description to slow the pacing down to build anticipation, because they want to get to the outcome of the fight, they want to know what happens, so I end up deferring the resolution to maintain the suspense.

J:  I have to share a story about my second mainstream book, Escapement, where they were trying to get away from an airship, and I had no idea how they were going to get away, so the first draft of that read “Three days later, having successfully evaded the airship…” (Laughter)

H: There’s an excellent example in Tom Clancy about what happens when a nuclear bomb goes off, called Three Shakes, and it deals with three nanoseconds, and when you get to that chapter, you realize “Oh my god, the bomb went off, and now I have to read four pages about this one second” and it’s brilliant.

P: It’s like if your character is climbing a mountain, maybe the mountain is a character, but if he’s just sitting on a ledge having a conversation with someone, then they could be anywhere, the mountain doesn’t matter.  You need to know what the crux of your scene is.  If your character looks a certain way and that influence the people around them, you need to describe it, but otherwise I dispense with it, because it’s not necessary and sometimes it’s boring.

J:  I’m a highly visual person, I’ve travelled the world, and I love unusual things, and describing unusual things.

H: I think the main thing is to write from the point of view of the character, so to describe things in terms of how the character would see them, so in that way the descriptions are both telling the reader where they are, and deepening the reader’s understanding of the world around them.

J: Think about writing this way: “You’re looking through a keyhole at the street, and you see a character walking past, and something happens to them, maybe they get mugged, maybe they find $20, but you have to remember is that they were doing something before they walked into your view, and they’re doing something after they pass out of your view, unless they’re dead, in which case they’re undead, right?”

H: And that doesn’t happen in life, so if you want something that feel real, it has to feel like it could continue, because life doesn’t just stop after a big event.

C: I’m wondering about one exception to that, and it’s a genre convention, in romance, and it’s when the two main characters get together at the end and live happily ever after, and that’s when you need to give closure, so people need to get that ending, even if they’re riding off into the sunset.


Closing remarks:

H: writingexcuses.com, only 15 minutes long because you’re in a hurry and I’m not very smart.

C: Thanks for coming along, and have a great convention.



3 comments:

MelindaG said...

Thank you for your very detailed panel report. I was typing away madly at this same panel, and I appreciate how comprehensive your report is.

Howard Tayler said...

Great work. I was ON the panel, and this meets my recollection really well.

Sadly, from the looks of the paragraph breaks above, I talk way too much.

Lea~ said...

Not in the slightest. :) You were brilliant. Thanks for dropping by!

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