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Writing: Marketing at Cons

Literaryliaison sent me this question:

cosplay, fantasy conventions, fans, SF, marketing writing

Dressing like this might get you the attention of an editor. Creative Commons: Florian Fromentin, Flickr

This year, I will be going to my first con. My sister and I will be dressing up as characters from The Hobbit, but we were wondering if a con is a good place to market fantasy. Have you had a lot of success in the past? Do you dress up as one of your characters? We thought that might be a creative idea.

I thought I’d actually write a post about cons and marketing your writing. First, there are three “world” cons. There is World Fantasy Con, World Horror Con and Worldcon. All three move from city to city and sometimes country to country. The first two are what is called a professional con. These conventions are mainly for the publishing industry. The industry is composed of writers, editors, artists, agents and publishers. Therefore your percentage of professionals to fans ratio is very different than Worldcon or any other fan cons. While fans may attend WFC or WHC, they are small in number. But yet, there are still fans but in this case those fans are writers of differing degrees, from the new writer with a first story to sell to the seasoned pros who come to mingle, be on panels, check in with their agents and publishers in person.

Professional cons tend to not have any fan tracks. There will be no gaming, no movies going on, no costume contest, etc. Therefore, there will be no costumes. What has been a somewhat snobbish view in the publishing industry is that if you show up at a pro con in costume you’re just a fan and not really a writer. I don’t agree with this and it’s my pet peeve that WFC is held around Hallowe’en every year and they don’t do costumes. Except last year, in Brighton. I’m also not all knowledgeable in this and it could be attitudes are changing. Those of us that go to the pro cons might affect weird contact lenses, flamboyant clothing and jewellery. I’ve been known to wear a pink brocade tricorn hat. It’s not a costume; it’s my clothing. ūüėČ It’s sort of a subtle way of circumventing the costume rule.

Now I should say I’ve only attended one Worldcon and that there are other very large conventions in various cities, such as Dragon Con in Georgia or Comic Con. The last, while more comic oriented is huge, filled with media stars and people wearing cosplay. I don’t know what writing/pro tracks they have but the norm is costuming.

fantasy authors, writers, professional conventions, World Fantasy Con

Do you think George R.R. Martin cares what you’re wearing? No. But he might not buy your novel either. Creative Commons: dravecky

You could always do a combo at the cons. Definitely dress up, have fun and, if you can manage it, do go as one of your characters. While agents or editors might look askance, or be drawn to your outfit, the other fans will eventually be your reading audience and they count. Writers won’t care. Maybe editors won’t care, especially if you’re wearing one of the skintight outfits of female superheros, or the bare-chested brawny male hero version. Also if they have panels to do with writing and marketing fiction, attend them, even in costume. These panels can give you a wealth of info and you might get a chance to talk to an editor or agent and see what they want. Sometimes there are publisher parties. Another good place to chat with editors and find out what they’re looking for.

If you’re self-publishing, use every gimmick you have to spread the word. Bookmarks, free giveaways and dressing as one of your characters is a good way to make people aware. These days, there are thousands of books and authors, and not everyone who is successful writes great works. Some have good publishers, agents and marketing. Marketing matters, even for people with large publishing firms.

I’ve not dressed up as one of my characters but then I haven’t written a character that I look like at all, but it’s a great idea. If you do happen to go to World Horror or World Fantasy, you might tone down the costuming because you’ll stick out like a sore thumb but with all other cons, you’ll be part of the fun. I do hope though that a good editor or agent would not miss the opportunity to find a great writer just because of a costume. Good luck!

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Writing & The Process

I recently had what can only be classified as a brain fart. I’ve been working on several stories. Sometimes this involves a simple idea, or maybe a what-if. Sometimes it involves an image. In this case I have one to do with elephants and monkeys and a primate researcher. The other has to do with a physicist and cats (no not Schrodinger).¬† The first came as a combo of someone I know and of reading about a third type of elephant, after African and Asian.

So, okay, I started thinking about the elements of the story, what is the conflict and what each character brings to it. I always believe a story is better if it has an internal and an external conflict. The protagonist must battle something (the elements, a person, a culture, a creature) as well as something within themselves. They may win both conflicts. They might win only one, and they might lose both, as often happens in horror stories.

As I started to write my monkey/elephant story, I kept stopping and ruminating. This isn’t uncommon for me. Some stories fly through my fingers, unwinding in one long skein of imagery and action. Others are like an old car that putts along, then coughs and stops, then starts again. These stories take way more thinking time than writing time and I have too many that sit half finished because I ran into a conflict/resolution issue.

I recently had to write an erotic story for an anthology. Stuck for an idea, I asked my Facebook friends. It’s interesting to see that most people will interpret a request for an idea differently. I elaborated and said I needed¬† a story idea, meaning something that has a conflict and a resolution. What I often received was atmosphere and setting. A setting is not a story; it is merely background. So, if you say, what if you had a world where people floated upside down and ate by way of umbilical cords that they attached to plants? Okay, but what happens that brings out a story, that makes this world integral to the plot?

I was still grateful to my friends. After all, they’re not writers and it’s not their jobs really to give me my plots. And mostly they didn’t. They gave me ideas though; images, events, settings. From those I was able to pull out a plot that did involve some of the imagery offered. That’s also why some of my stories sit unfinished, because I had a cool idea about a world or maybe even a situation, but no idea what to do with it.

This brings me back to the brain fart. Many stories take months to write because of working out the idea. Some people can write them out in point form. I tend to often imagine the story unfoldng, write a bit, then unfold a bit more because characters and events change when I write them down. In this case my brain hit a wall. I forgot how to write. Suddenly I didn’t know how to write a story any more. How do you order the words? How do you progress a story? What is the structure of a story? It’s like I had forgotten how to talk. So finally I asked a writing friend, confessing my bewildering amnesia. What makes up a story? She said simply, “Beginning, middle and end.”

Okay, that is the most basic aspect, plus conflict or plot. But, I said, how do you get there? And I realized as I asked these questions that it wasn’t that I didn’t have a plot. I do. It wasn’t that I didn’t have conflict and resolution. I do. In fact, I pretty much have the skeleton of the story, the bones upon which I must lay the words. I realized what had stalled me somehow was that I couldn’t figure out which scenes were needed to progress the story forward. Which scenes are integral to making the story work, showing the character’s inner conflict, showing the world in which she lives? When I finally realized that, I felt I could move forward again. I had remembered how to write.

That doesn’t mean the story is done…yet. I’m still working out the scenes, still doing checks and balances to figure out the right emphasis, and will the story convey the emotion I want. If I do it well, I’ll sell it. If not, it will wander the lanes of the markets for a while or a long time. Of course I could also have done it right but may not be a big enough name to sell the story. That happens a lot (and more in these tough times) to many writers. But if it doesn’t sell in two to three submissions to markets, I’ll start to look at it again and again and again.

I remember Connie Willis once saying she’d rewritten a story forty-seven times (or some such number). There are others that say, move on to a new story. But I can identify with Connie. There are stories I have rewritten so often that I don’t actually know how many times. But I also have new stories to write and they’re like buds waiting to open. Right now I can count at least five stories in different stages of thought (and two of those¬†partially written). Then I want to write a steampunk story but have no idea at all yet.

And hopefully I’ll remember how to write; the basics at least and have a beginning, middle and end to each of my stories.

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Writing: What Constitutes Fantasy

Discussion has recently come up on my writer’s list about fantasy stories. One of the members asked a range of questions, not because she needed advice but because I believe she’s had discussions with other writers on what constitutes fantasy. Most of the members had close to the same answers here so I’m listing her questions and how I view each of them.

1.     Should a writer write down to an audience, or just use their own conversational voice?

¬†I took this to mean, should a writer condescend to, take on an instructional tone in explaining to an audience that may not know as much. Or should the writer¬†use the author’s voice. However, I believe she meant, use your regular writing voice, thought that wasn’t clear. I have elaborated on my original answers.

I’d think neither. You’re writing using characters so your characters should help reveal the world. A character has a personality and a unique voice and depending on the point of view, that will affect what voice is used. You could have a condescending narrator; in that case yes he/she would talk or write down to the audience.

To explain the particular setting/technology/society of a world requires deft revelation, some of which may be through a particular character. Albeit, some exposition is required in a novel, but it shouldn’t be talking/writing down so much as making sure your regular reader understands the functioning aspects of the world as needed to understand the story. Example: I recently edited a book for someone who had all sorts of words/slang about airforce planes but on a level most of us (unless we were pilots) wouldn’t understand. He needed a bit more info in context so that the reader could understand what was going on.

¬†Unless you (the author/narrator) are an integral part of your novel, the authorial voice should not be there. When author’s drop into their stories it’s disconcerting and pulls the reader out of the world. Terry Pratchett from time to time uses an authorial or omniscient narrator (as you suspected, dear reader). It takes skill to use it in a way that enhances a story as opposed to detracting from in and ruining the atmosphere.¬†¬†

2.     Should a fantasy novel assume lack of science and technology?

No. Even a world of magic has some technology or science. Whether it interacts with the story is another matter. Cups, weapons, dyes,¬†plows, walls, etc.,¬†are all a science when they’re discovered/invented. Pre-industrial societies had science and or technology. Stories that involve alchemists (as an example) often mix science with magical properties. Books have been written where magic and science blend equally.

If you mean the logic/science behind how magic works in a particular world, then yes it still has to make sense and work in the story. But science does not negate magic necessarily.

3.     Should a fantasy novel assume a pseudo-medieval milieu?

No. It can, as is evidenced by numerous novels, but some are of far earlier societies. Some are integrated in later worlds and some are just plain ole alien. I read Brandon Sanderson’s novel, Mistborn, which had a plantationesque era and established magic. There was science as well. I really liked it for being of a different milieu.

Often there is the accepted trope that in a world that is not industrialized, magics develop in different ways within people. But a world could have magical creatures, i.e., not found normally on planet Earth and still not be medieval. Many medieval fantasies fall into parallel world tropes, where it is the middle ages but some element of magic is real. Many take an Earth like world and values but create fictitious places. Everything from the myths of the ancients up to the modern urban fantasies, like Charles de Lint’s (his name came up often in this discussion) are fantasy but not medieval. And really, a fantasy story has a better chance of selling if it is different rather than the same as every other book on the shelf.

4.     Should a fantasy novel necessarily encompass magic?

Again, it doesn’t matter really. Yes or no, depending on your world. A world can just be “other” or different from the world and the past we know, yet have nothing magical about it. It will still fall into the fantasy category. The lines between science fiction and fantasy can be blurry. Anne McCaffrey’s famous dragonriders of Pernseries started out as a medieval fantasy where people in feudal style societies rode dragons that killed the invading threads. She argued that it was science fiction because it was a different world, where originally the humans came from someplace else.

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books were similar in that they started out in a medieval style world, where some people had special powers. But as she wrote more and more books, there was interaction with people from other planets and spaceports. Fantasy or science fiction? Yes.

5.     Should magic in a fantasy novel be hard or just part of the norm like breathing?

Depends on if everyone does it, or if it’s a gifted few. Are they born with it or like us, do they go through a crawling stage before walking and then flying? Many books have magical talents begin with puberty.¬†In others, the person must study and earn the talent. It could be a world that has an inherent magic in the way it works such as creatures that change shape. It all depends on what is integral to the plot and how that affects the outcomes and solutions the protagonist must find.

Overall, I’d say almost all of these are not hard and fast. It depends on how the world is set up, what tale you’re trying to tell and how integral magic is to that story line. But questions like these are always goods to ask because as writers, it keeps us thinking and examining what we do. And sometimes it pushes us outside our comfort zones and we move beyond the box.

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Writing: Reviewing Reviews

Because I write mostly short stories and poems, reviews are few and far between. A magazine is less likely to be reviewed than an anthology and an individual story even less likely. I’ve never seen a review of any of my poems and I suspect the only way one would get a review is if it was a collection of poetry in a book or chapbook format.

Reviews can be a curse in their own right, with more negative than supportive comments, and it’s a chance any artist takes when putting work into the public forum. Still, I would rather have a review than not. A review can stir up discussion or controversy and some people will decide to form their own opinions (as I often do with movies) than take a reviewer’s. The reviewer is a buffer: I know reviewer A never likes xyz, but I do so if they hate it, I will most surely like it.¬† A review can be used to weed out what you’re going to read or buy. And reviews do give publicity of a sort, whether negative or positive.

Under the review umbrella are a host of chameleons: those written pieces that actually don’t review a piece so much as recap it. I have read reviews that give no indication of whether a story is good or bad, written well or not. All the reviewer does is reveal some of the plot line or all of it. These are not reviews. A review should have an opinion on the storyline and writing. There are the damning with faint praise reviews: this is not very deep, a piece of fluff but was enjoyable nonetheless.

Some reviews take into account that it may be the writer’s first major work. Some discuss the style of writing but don’t go as much into plot, while others will look at the depth and intricacies of plot, the sophistication of writing style and the expertise of the writer’s knowledge in the area in which they are writing.

I know of a few writers who do not read their reviews, afraid that the comments, possibly scathing, will puncture their egos like a helium balloon. I’m happy–well, maybe not happy–to read any review. Perhaps I will¬†learn something about my writing and what I need to fix or change the next time around. Perhaps the reviewer will like it and I’ll feel encouraged. So far, there have been very few reviews of my work, the most probably being “The Fathomless World” in Cone Zero, and those again fell into mostly recapping the stories.

It’s important to note though, that many reviewers are just like you and me. It’s their opinion. Some reviews need to be taken with a grain of salt. I always figured I could be a good art critic because I can look at/read something and personally dislike it but examine the technique and skilled unbiasedly and see if the artist knows their stuff. Still, I would get down to what I don’t or do like about a piece as part of the review.

Some people love steampunk. Some hate elf and unicorn stories. Some hate free form verse or poems about flowers. Others dislike first person stories, or plots involving government overthrows and secret spies. These likes and dislikes will always flavor a review, but the good reviewer will be able to examine the writing as a whole. Aspects that reviewers might touch on are: depth and variety of characterization, plot flow, conflict and resolution, plausibility and depth of storyline, atmosphere, description, language, voice (authorial as opposed to characters), overall readibility and whether the author’s voice insinuates itself, etc.

So, in the spirit of reviewing, if someone would like to review something I’ve already written, please let me know and I’ll send it to you. This is a limited time offer (in case there are millions out there.) I will also post the review, whether favorable or not and then probably crawl away into my hole and rethink my view that I’d rather have a review than no review at all.

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