Gen Con Writer’s Symposium 2013, Thursday and Friday in Review


WKS1345344 (Fiction Fundamentals Part 1: Plotting and Planning on Thu at 08:00 AM – 3 hours)
Lawrence Connolly, William Horner III
“In-depth workshop: learn how to avoid extra work by planning your story and all of its elements from the beginning.”

This was easily the most useful of the day’s programs to me, although all of them added something to my arsenal of writing tools. I’ve read Story Structure Architect, but Horner’s overview on building plot spelled it out a bit more clearly for me, and Connolly’s character worksheet was the best one I’ve ever seen. I reworked a character that I have in progress while I was sitting in the seminar, and it completely lit the path to how I’ll approach writing that story.

SEM1345352 (Writer’s Craft: Don’t Tell Your Story, Show It! on Thu at 12:00 PM)
Maxwell Alexander Drake
“In-depth seminar: join author Maxwell Alexander Drake as he “shows” you some tricks to a more immersive writing style.”

Also an incredibly useful seminar – “Show vs. Tell” is something I’ve only understood in abstract, but Drake did a great job of illustrating the difference with examples that make the concept more clear, and he gave us some tools to go over what we’ve written and identify points where we’re telling more than showing. This will help especially with my NaNo novel to make sure I’m getting images on the page instead of exposition.

WKS1345347 (Writer’s Craft: The Structure of Scenes on Thu at 01:00 PM)
Brad Beaulieu
“In-depth seminar: learn everything you need to know about structuring scenes to create compelling stories.”

I’ve never felt like I had a problem writing scenes – most of mine are pretty satisfying. So I was surprised that I was getting a lot out of this particular seminar. I’ve never looked at a scene as a way to make the protagonist’s problem worse, but that’s completely true when you look closely at it – the protagonist is trying to accomplish something and every scene is a setback as the story moves forward until they work out the problem at the climax. Framing every scene like that and looking at the elements of it really helps see what’s going on.

SEM1345249 (Writer’s Craft: Should You Plot or Not? on Thu at 03:00 PM)
George Strayton, Jim Hines, Larry Correia, Scott Lynch
“Discover the benefits and pitfalls of plotting in advance and letting the plot unfold as you write.”

The short answer to the question that the seminar posed is “yes, you should plot” given that all of the writers there advocated plotting and no one was arguing the counterpoint. But it was still an interesting panel, as all members came from slightly different backgrounds. All of them had some insight into the plotting process, especially the tension between plotting and letting characters drive story – Hines noted that he plots extensively, begins writing, sees where the characters are driving the plot and then adjusts plot to make sure the characters still get where they’re going. Someone on the panel noted that some famous writer called plotting “light posts in the fog” which seems particularly apt. I thought they were quoting George R.R. Martin, but in hunting around for the quote, I discovered that Martin is one of the “letting the plot unfold as you write” advocates:

I hate outlines. I have a broad sense of where the story is going; I know the end, I know the end of the principal characters, and I know the major turning points and events from the books, the climaxes for each book, but I don’t necessarily know each twist and turn along the way. That’s something I discover in the course of writing and that’s what makes writing enjoyable. I think if I outlined comprehensively and stuck to the outline the actual writing would be boring.

SEM1345063 (Writer’s Craft: Literary Alchemy on Thu at 05:00 PM)
Brad Beaulieu, Gregory Wilson, James Sutter
“The right words can make a reader laugh, cry, or leap for joy. Explore the uncanny power of words.”

I always get a little more from seminars than I do from Panels, and the interplay between panel members sometimes loses the threads or takes you off on tangents. This one was didn’t quite catch me, as it wasn’t specific enough with examples. They broke down authors they thought were alchemists because their writing was “transparent” in the sense that they stripped down the prose to the essential, vs. writers who were more poetic with turns of phrase, but their concepts were still fairly abstract for me.

Thursday Summary:

Overall, Thursday’s panels alone were worth the cost of the four-day badge for me, because I’m getting enough out of it that it’s helping me recognize ways I can improve the stories I’m working on, and I’m inspired to sit down and tinker in a way that I haven’t really been since November’s NaNo.

Now let’s talk about women and Gen Con for a second.

Until I got the GenCon catalog today, I didn’t really have a breakdown of the speakers at the Writer’s Symposium. There are 52 authors doing presentations as part of the Writer’s Symposium. Of them, 11 are women. That’s less than 25%, slightly more than 20%. That’s problematic, as 51% of the population is women. A 30% gap between the number of women on the planet and the number of speakers at a symposium is too big a gap to write off or chalk up as a fluke. I’m sure the problematic imbalance at Gen Con is a reflection of the problematic imbalance in sci-fi and fantasy that has grown wider over the last 15 years or so… there used to be a lot more well-known women writers in those fields, even if there has long been a gender imbalance. Marion Zimmer Bradley, Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey have all died, and a new generation of women has not stepped into the limelight to replace them. I’m not sure why that is, but it certainly has a ripple effect that makes it’s way to Gen Con. I don’t know exactly what Gen Con might do about that imbalance other than being aware of it and trying to attract women to speak on panels as much as they can to offset what’s going on in the sci fi and fantasy publishing genres as a whole.

I think hearing from more women would have given me a lot of additional insight into writing and publishing that I didn’t get just from the male speakers, as great as they were. I would be curious to hear how women writers feel about job opportunities, querying publishers and agents and networking, and if they feel their experiences are more difficult or more easy than men in those areas.

After I noticed the gender imbalance among speakers on Thursday evening, I spent Friday doing a head count in each of the panels I attended, and got roughly 45-50% women attendees, so there are clearly women interested in writing who seem to be interested in sci-fi and fantasy as genres. I’m hoping asking questions of the organizers to speak to the issue and keep it in mind might improve the situation in future years.


WKS1345345 (Fiction Fundamentals Part 2: Creating Scenes on Fri at 08:00 AM – 3 hours)
Lawrence Connolly, William Horner III
“In-depth seminar: learn everything you need to know about structuring scenes to create compelling stories.”

This was another good solid workshop with some nice fundamentals – how to create tension, how to add sensory detail to help immerse the reader in the story, how to observe and convey emotion effectively, some notes on writing dialog well and some exercises in observing detail to help convey a realistic story. I’m pinning these handout pages up to my bulletin board over my desk so I’m looking at them and thinking about them as I’m writing.

SEM1345260 (Business of Writing: Career Building on Fri at 12:00 PM)
Gregory Wilson, Matt Forbeck, Kerrie Hughes
“Explore ways to make a career out of writing, and learn to build that career once you have it.”

Awesome session covering how those folks got into publishing and how to go about querying publishers and agents, what to put on your author website, how to promote your work, and what to focus on to get your career moving well. Gave me a real sense of optimism about the possibilities and a motivation to get my stuff in order and try to get people reading it and giving feedback. Kerrie was the first woman I’ve seen speak here, and I would have loved some more time to pick her brain about how she felt about women authors in her genre, since they are more rarely published.

SEM1345351 (Writer’s Craft: Point of View – What is the point? on Fri at 01:00 PM)
Maxwell Alexander Drake
In-depth seminar: join author Maxwell Alexander Drake as he breaks this confusing piece of the writing puzzle down.

Drake was great again today. I knew the basics of Point of View, but he did help highlight the advantages of different POV options and how POV should be something that you consciously choose based on your outline, not something you just fall into writing. Some aspects of your story might not be able to be told if you tell from the wrong point of view, so making the right choice can shape how your story goes.

WKS1345348 (Writer’s Craft: Tension on Every Page on Fri at 03:00 PM)
Brad Beaulieu
“In-depth seminar: discuss types of tension, as well as ways to maximize them to keep your reader glued to the page.”

Brad covered some of the same ground that Connolly and Horner did in my earlier session, but in greater scope, which was nice. His explanation of how to vary tension, how to use different types of tension and how to use short, medium, and long tension arcs over the course of the story to keep it moving made a lot of sense to me and made me want to go edit my Nano novel immediately.

SEM1345264 (Writer’s Craft: Novel Outlines on Fri at 04:00 PM)
John Helfers, Jerry Gordon, Saladin Ahmed, Brandon Sanderson, Erik Scott De Bie
“Discover the techniques and tricks for creating effective, compelling, and pitch-able novel outlines.”

It was really fun to watch everyone in the room turn into fangirls over Brandon Sanderson. He has a different technique for outlining than I had heard before, and that I thought it would be interesting to try. He picks key exciting “must have” scenes in his story and writes a paragraph synopsis of what happens in them, then puts three or four bullet points on what has to happen to get him to that scene from the previous one. That’s how he works out his own plots and how he was able to finish Robert Jordan’s work from fairly irregular notes about how the ending of the Wheel of Time saga should go. The other panelists were also strong advocates of plotting, and it was interesting to hear the critique of authors who famously don’t plot out their stories in advance – Stephen King, George R.R. Martin. I think I’m convinced that having a stronger outline is definitely something I need to work harder on. Fortunately I feel like I have a bit more insight into how to accomplish that.

Here’s another cool thing – they randomly select five or so attendees and give them free books in each of the panels, and I won a free book:

Also, I won this free book

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Stranger In a Strange Land

This is a book club, book, so of course I have to abide by the first and second rules of book club and not talk about it before we meet. But I have to write about it soon, or I’m going to forget details of what I wanted to say about it. So, book club members, don’t read below the fold.

Stranger in a Strange Land is a Robert Heinlein classic, written in 1960, which had an vast influence not only on science fiction (it won a 1962 Hugo Award, and dramatically change the genre), but on 60’s “Age of Aquarius” culture as well. The classic that everyone is familiar was originally much longer; when Heinlein presented his publishers with the manuscript, they thought it might be too much for people to take in, so they had him re-write the novel, cutting out about 60,000 words and slimming it down. In 1991, after Heinlein’s death, his wife discovered the orgininal, longer manuscript which she had published. This is the version I ended up with from the after putting the book on hold at the public library. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.

The story is that of Michael Valentine Smith, a young man born on Mars after a first, failed space mission to the planet. A second mission years later retrieves Smith, who has been raised by the ancient race of Martians, and who knows nothing of Earth culture or even of women. He manages to make his way in the world with the help of a wealthy Hugh Hefner-esque novelist named Jubal Harshaw, and Harshaw’s harem of women, learning about our terrifying and confusing planet and at the same time having a profound influence on it.

This is an extremely thought-provoking book, that’s for sure. I’m glad I read it. I don’t know that it’s my favorite book, or that I particularly like Robert Heinlein as a person (or at least the guy as he was in 1960). But I certainly spent a number of mornings standing in my shower pondering different aspects of the novel.

One of the first things that struck me is the similarity between this story, and the Bildungsroman narrative from The Who’s rock opera “Tommy” — innocent, naive young man bewildered and buffeted by a loud, greedy terrifying world, but who ultimately conquers it by turning its flaws against it. It also helped that I pictured the whole novel taking place in a groovy space-aged bachelor pad like in the movie, complete with those egg chairs.

The other thing I noticed was that I had the old Heart song “Magic Man” playing in my head throughout reading the book. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that either The Who or Heart had read this novel.

Smith returns to earth and, while still trying acclimatize himself to our atmosphere, becomes a tug-of-war object for political factions of the world. He has two things everyone wants: vast wealth inherited from his dead astronaut parents (who left him pretty set up) and claim rights to the planet of Mars, which everyone wants to invade. The global government has him held captive, while parading around a double. So a kindly nurse in the hospital where he’s held sneaks him out. With the help of her reporter boyfriend, they get Smith to the Harshaw household, where they begin to teach him about the world, and he sets about showing them his special martian-taught abilities – telepathy, telekinesis, and out of body movement being among them.


One of the comic effects of reading the book in 2006, some 40 years after it was written, is that we can compare Heinlein’s vision of the future with technological and social advances that have come since.

Major things that Heinlein missed: the internet, cell phones, and the feminist and gay rights movements, all of which would have had a drastic effect on his story.

He does put the stereo together with the television and give greater abilities to his version of the telephone, but the phone remains firmly anchored to the wall, which would have changed some plot points, like the Ben Caxton kidnapping.

The way that women act and are treated in the book; pissed me off a bit, I have to say. And don’t get me started on what little he has to say about gay people. He expounds a lot on what the future of love relations between men and women are like and should be like, but all through the narrow lens that love relationships are only between men and women, with men being the dominant figures in the equation.


Heinlein does a great deal of lecturing in the novel on the state of the world, which I had imagined was part of the padding that got cut out of the longer version of the book. Turns out after talking to people who read the slimmer version: not so much. A lot of the framework for the book is nothing more than Heinlein expounding on what’s wrong with human society, with Smith serving as the fish-out-of-water lens to expose that.

Stacking the Deck – Smith gets to do a lot of shit that regular humans can’t do, because he has magic Martian powers, and an endless supply of wealth. It’s very easy to set up a free-love “church” to teach everyone martian-speak while getting it on, if you have the cash for a super-cool high-tech love shack and telepathic powers that enable you to control when babies are conceived while you’re doing “it.” I suspect in the real life free-love communes that were set up after this novel came out, they ran into a few difficulties in these areas.

The Old One’s Problem – why doesn’t he ever address this issue? This is the crux of the book; Smith sets about “changing humans” by teaching them the Martian language so they can learn, through the vast store of Martian knowledge, about science, relationships and interaction, with the goal of fixing the “wrongness” that is human kind. But that’s going about it from the back end forwards.

The thing Martians have that we don’t that gives them their vast, benevolent and loving society, is the Old Ones. They have their “dead” folks or “discorporated” in Heinlein-speak, hanging around telling them how to do shit. The vast store of Martian knowledge is ever-present. Rather than fixing the symptoms of the problem by tapping into Martian knowledge, why wouldn’t Smith fix the actual problem by figuring out why we don’t have Old Ones on Earth, or (because we’re omniscient and we know Earth has Old Ones) how to reach the Old Ones from Earth to get them to tell us how to solve disease, build things, and have ESP with each other?

But of course, the answer to that is obvious; that would defeat what Heinlein’s trying to do — he’s not here to tell a cool story, but to deliver a lecture on what’s “wrong” with humans, and to advocate for free-love to “fix” all of our problems, rather than solving the mysteries of the universe.

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A Feast For Crows: worth the wait

I finished up reading George R. R. Martin’s long-awaited fourth fantasy novel A Feast for Crows today. I’m dying to find out what happens next. The fifth book (A Dance of Dragons) in the “Song of Ice and Fire” series is due out sometime this year, and if it does drop (Martin is notorious for taking his time writing) I may have to break one of my New Year’s Resolutions and buy it.

Every review I’ve read criticizes the fact that this book was split in half; the next installment was originally planned as part of this book, and Martin reworked the story to separate out some storylines in order to tame an unwieldy volume. It was a wise decision; this half is large and complex and I can only imagine what a book twice this size would weigh, let alone how hard it would be to work through.

I mentioned when I picked up the book to read it that I had a hard time getting my bearings and recalling the “who, where and why” of the numerous story lines as they pick up from the first three books (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords). Wikipedia wasn’t quite enough to help me and I ended up re-reading sections of the previous book to refresh my memory.

That was a frustration, but worth the effort. The Song of Ice and Fire series follows hundreds of characters as they live in and fight over the fictional land of Westeros, and the intrigue and machinations of the various families fighting for control of the land is fascinating. Some character’s motives are pure, some are not; some visions and desires are far-seeing and some are not. The chapters move from one character to the next, and the villain you’re despising in one chapter is the narrator you identify with in another. Only you get a glimpse of the big picture, and even then Martin obscures much of it from view. But the part that you can see is pure poetry, and has made me one of Martin’s faithful if impatient fans.

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A Feast for Crows: starting the book

I started reading one of the books I bought with my Barnes and Noble gift cards, A Feast for Crows this week. It’s the fourth book in the fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R. R. Martin. I really enjoy this series because it turns many of the tired fantasy cliches upside down, or simply ignores them. There’s very little magic in the series, and what there is is subtle and in the background. There’s no “farmboy with royal lineage who discovers his personal journey to find the throne while battling a wicked magician who lives in far off mountains,” thank god. Wikipedia gives a better explanation than I could:

A Song of Ice and Fire is set in a fictitious world reminiscent of Europe in the Middle Ages, except for the fact that in this world, seasons can last as long as a decade. Driven by members of the Houses, great and small, the plot is recounted from the perspectives of more than ten main characters and takes place on the continents of Westeros and the eastern continent, the former being the locale of fierce power struggles between several aristocratic families after the death of king Robert Baratheon, who by lineage, marriage and personal relationships had united them all.

The model for the series was England’s Wars of the Roses, and the story follows several different richly-drawn characters on different sides of the struggle. The thing I found compelling was that I sympathized with characters on both sides of the war who would have been allies in other circumstances but who found themselves at odds due to family loyalties and conflicting religious beliefs.

A Feast for Crows is starting pretty slowly for me, because it begins by following some minor characters that I can’t quite remember from the previous books. The gap between the publication of the last novel and this one was large; I read A Storm of Swords in 2002 and am struggling to remember where the series left off. I read over Wikipedia’s summaries, though, and was able to get my bearings, so I have an idea of who and where everyone is.

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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I finished reading the new Harry Potter book last night. Throughout the book I had a notion in my head of the answers to two of the mysteries; who the half-blood prince is, and who dies in the book (don’t yell at me about spoilers; the death is commonly known!). I was wrong on both counts, and regarding the half-blood prince, I shouldn’t have been at all. I should have guessed that one right away (and so should Harry and Hermione, frankly.)

I was so certain about both answers, though, that it colored my impression of the book, and I kept telling Stephanie all the way through that “this is my favorite of all of them!” Well when I found out the answers I was surprised, and it did change the way I feel. I was expecting a quite different ending.

I also thought there was way too much unresolved at the end of it; more so than in any of the others, and I hate that; it’s one of my pet peeves of sci-fi fantasy series novels, that they don’t wrap everything up from one book to the next so you’re left hanging for the release of the next book. If you’re going to do that, just write one big book, instead of chunking it up into pieces. My mind is littered with the half-way points of fantasy series that I gave up on in disgust because they insisted on dragging everything out for the cash from one more mass-market paperback. (Robert Jordan, I’m talking to you!)

In the case of Harry Potter, I’ve never felt like that with any of the rest of the books, and this series doesn’t follow any other sci-fi fantasy genre clichés, either, which makes them enjoyable to read. I know that the next book is the final one, and there’s no way I would miss it.

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