September 12, 2014

Casual Friday: Not Your Dad's Comic Con

Comic Cons have long been the refuge of the geek. Mecca, for all things nerd. Last week, I had the opportunity to attend my first, and I have to say, it both was and was not what I expected. Sure, the geekdom was there. And it was fabulous. I cosplayed. Got my photo taken with John Barrowman, and in the TARDIS. Stood in line for hours, and wandered the many, many booths on the exhibition floor.

What I didn't expect were all the writing panels.

In its second year, Salt Lake Comic Con is already rivaling SDCC as one of the biggest conventions in the nation. And if you saw the guest list, you'd believe it. But beyond the hype and the celebs and the cosplay were some hard-core writing panels. Honestly, I came out of the weekend feeling like I'd been at a writer's conference, not a comic con. And it was amazing. I talked to authors, connected, listened, live-tweeted...and it was beautiful. So here, my lovely Misfiteers, is the summary of my weekend, and all the writing advice I could glean from many, many professionals.

Thursday was a light day, only a half day, which was good, since I spent 2.5hrs waiting in line just to get in (despite the early entry). I ended up late to my first panel, with notable guests Brandon Sanderson, David Farland, and Larry Correia. Which was a shame, because they were talking rising action & plot, and I missed most of it. Oops. Next I caught 2 women-centric panels - Keeping the Feminine But Adding The -ism (geared more to film, but there was a lot of character creation discussion) and Women of Sci-Fi and Fantasy: More Than Just Strong. These were both amazing panels on characterization, and the basic message was this - write people first, gender/race/orientation/etc second. Don't fall into tropes, just write real people.

My last panel of the night was on Writing Suspense, with Larry Correia & Bree Despain (among others). They talked a lot about the generation of suspense with and without threat - using promise, surprise, anticipation all leading to a payoff, and that in its most basic form, suspense is found everywhere from picture books to thrillers. Good suspense, however, requires the reader to care about the characters, to feel invested. Your story should ask questions, or make the reader ask questions. Keep them partly in the dark, all while leading them forward. Drop hints, but hide the larger picture.

Friday was awesome. I cosplayed for the first time (yeah, FemShep, baby!), met up with a whole other group of Mass Effect cosplayers, and attended a ton more panels. Started out the morning with Fight Choreography, which was a lot of fun to watch. Next I headed into a panel questioning Is Epic Fantasy Still Relevant to the Genre? The answer, as I'm sure none of you are surprised to hear, is a resounding yes. Besides Brandon Sanderson (an undisputed king in this genre), we also got to hear from literary agent Michelle Witte. Sanderson broke down the 4 main types of high fantasy:
  1. Heroic Fantasy - the 1 vs. many, with low magic and big heroism, lots of fights. These kinds trace their lineage back to stories like Beowulf.
  2. Doorway-to-Fantasy - stories like the Narnia books, where the hero steps through a door & enters a magical world.
  3. Urban Fantasy - the more modern type, which has apparently grown to encompass horror as well. Tends to the darker, more gritty stories.
  4. Epic Fantasy - these are the Tolkein-esk stories, big quests in big worlds, often with groups of heroes, large character casts, lots of magic, and a big evil that must be defeated.
There was a lot of talk that honestly, went too fast for my notes, but touched on the differences in YA & Adult fantasy, prologues (the ever present prologue question!), etc. The answer to prologues, since this is the genre they're most found in, is that if the information is elsewhere in the book, you don't need it. If it doesn't move the plot forward, you don't need it. But if it presents information that you can't find anywhere else in the story, keep it. (There was also some discussion on how to hide your prologue as a first chapter, or a stage setting.) Sanderson also pointed out that good fantasy needs 2 things - an element of the strange, and of the familiar. Wordcounts: large word counts need to be extraordinary stories. If you can tell a more concise story, do it. Trilogies are still overdone. Series less so, but the phrase you want is Stand-Alone with Series Potential. In other words, have a complete story arc in bk1.

In the same vein, Magic, Myths, Legends, Archetypes and the Supernatural (also with Michelle Witte, and Jill Williamson of GoTeenWriters) also played with the spec fic wheelhouse. As far as market goes, PNR, Fairytale Retellings, and Dystopian are way over-saturated right now (and don't even mention vampires. Really). There are a lot of tropes and archetypes out there - put a new twist on an old version, or go back to the root. Myths and legends evolve, and what we know them as today is usually vastly different from where they started. Also, explore the lesser-known ones. The example of Red from Once Upon A Time was mentioned - Red Riding Hood, who is also the wolf.

Saturday was insane. Biggest day of the Con, with so many people you could hardly move. Started off the day with another female character-centric panel, discussing the different types of strong. Again, the point is to create a person, with assets and flaws. The rest is secondary. Flaws are necessary in every character, but at the same time, don't make them all flaw. Give them a strength to balance the weak. Redeeming qualities & redeeming circumstances. Character arcs are vastly important. Growth, conflict, failing, persevering, overcoming... We read for the emotional connection of the arc. What are you going to do to let your character earn the reader's trust? Don't wait until the end to do this. Characters need objectives. They can't just be there. Don't write characters that just sit there looking pretty. Also, remember that your villains have a backstory, too. Strong characters (female or otherwise) don't have to be the hero. Strong villains, strong secondaries. Write characters you respect.

Building A Move-In Ready World was all about worldbuilding. This panel again featured Jill Williamson, and also debut author Shallee McArthur (her novel The Unhappening of Genesis Lee releases in November). First major point was Don't info-dump your worldbuilding. Let it come out with the story. Your world isn't just about the facts. It's about the people, how they react & interact with their surroundings. Rituals, heroes, history, symbols, etc can all be part of a well thought out world. Consistency is key. Find a balance between your world & your story. Don't info-dump. Focus on what's important to the character, and remember that the little details make all the difference. Your world can & should be a character all its own, but remember not to overwhelm your readers. The world, like everything else, should always be in service to the story. (I met David Farland after this panel. He's a really nice guy.)

The Teen Hero was a fabulous panel on YA, with Jacob Gowans, Renee Collins, Michelle Witte, and Courtney Alameda (who recently guested here, and whose debut Shutter comes out in February. I got to meet her after, and she's fabulous). The question of why teens are so great to write, and why we find them so relatable, is huge. It's a fast-paced, frenetic, awkward time of life. We've all been there, a time where change is constant, everything is extreme, everything is emotional & bigger. But the best thing is how it's full of possibility. Teens aren't who they'll end up yet, everything is fluid, and anything can happen. When writing teens, remember that they screw up. We all did. They're anti-heroes, reactionary, immature - but they're also deep, sometimes older than their years, talented, and essentially walking contradictions. As capable as they are, there's also insecurity & hubris. Teen stories are all about change, firsts. They are flawed & complex - but not stupid. (No more than any of us are, anyway!)

My last panel was on the Whedonverse, and why we love Joss. Basically, it's his talent for story, for character, for making us care. But we all knew that.

And there you have it! My virgin Comic Con experience, boiled down into a not-so-short blog post. I had a ton of fun, met a lot of great writers, and came away with new friends and a new appreciation for my geekhood. So if you have a chance to go to a con, I highly recommend it, not just to geek out, but because you never know what you'll find.

Happy Friday!


Shallee said...

It was so great to meet you there! I'm glad you enjoyed your first Comic Con. :) I had an absolute blast, myself!

Anonymous said...

Thanks! It was pretty awesome, wasn't it?

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