Writing Basics: Two writing panels at Oasis 14
by Joy V. Smith (Pagadan)
Guaranteed Rejection? Panel:
Moderator: Jim Rogers. Panelists: Jack McDevitt, Adam Troy Castro, Richard Lee Byers, and Linda Evans.
The title was suggested by McDevitt. Basics: Don't worry about putting a copyright notice on your ms. (This is the mark of an amateur, and editors don't like it.) Stories are often too padded, and there's too much description at the beginning. Professional writing is economical, says McDevitt. Don't put in book marks, paper clips, etc. to check if the editor read that far; don't say: I have a dog (first sentence of one CL); if you don't publish my ms, I'll sue you;... Don't use different colors and shapes of paper or cut your ms into the shape of a dog, ... These are extremes, of course. Send in a professional ms.
Characters should solve their problems themselves. Heroes can't be perfect; they must have problems. You do need someone to root for; have hero do gutsy things, but worry while doing it. Don't tell about action off scene. Don't have a boring train wreck. Don't repulse an editor in the first sentences of a story unless he knows you. Shock for shock effect is a turn-off. Don't keep secrets from the reader. Something important must be at stake.
Avoid author intrusion (something the hero can't know). Less description is better today. (Mark Twain anecdote: In a lengthy descriptive scene, he puts in a floating sarcophagus.) In a children's book describing a boy's first look at a mansion, the boy would not describe the columns, etc. Example from a book: a big birthday cake of a house.
Avoid coincidences unless it causes a worse problem. It must not be convenient but wonderful. It renders the protagonist irrelevent. Viewpoint: Hard to do first person of a different sex, says Evans. (She runs a story like that by men she knows.)
Cover letters: One story in ten that Castro sends out has a CL. Do mention if it's a sequel, if you have expertise to back up the story, etc. Cover letters can alienate an editor. Don't send letters listing all the magazines you've been published in, ...
Symbols: They arrive spontaneously, and then I use them continuously (Evans). Don't make the symbols blatant.
Character Sabatoge panel:
Moderator: Dick Spelman. Panelists: Evans, Haldeman, Delaplace, Goingback, and McDevitt.
Do your characters do what you tell them to? McDevitt is asked if he outlines. No. He does have to write a synopsis for the publisher though. Evans once had a heroine refuse to kill the nasty alien she was supposed to kill. Delaplace said that in short stories it's harder for a character to wander off than in a novel. Haldeman often writes short stories in his head. He says a prospectus is a marketing tool to give the publisher; then he puts it in a drawer. He often collaborates, and once a collaborator killed off a favorite character, and he had to deal with that. He writes quirky stories; his genie would live in a carburetor.
Goingback writes a 40-50 page outline for a novel; recently he killed off a romantic interest in the last chapter... Evans collaborates with Robert Asprin; she's changed characters from his conceptions.
Haldeman wrote a Star Trek novel; and he had to change something Spock did because it wasn't Spockian. He then had to go back about 3 1/2 chapters to rewrite it. Goingback says his stories write themselves. Haldeman prefers to have less characters in short stories, and he went back to cull them in a story to five, but ended up with six. I believe this was the SF story that he set in the wild west (he loves westerns); he loves the characters in this story.
The moderator asks: Do you start with plot or character?
Evans starts with characters. Delaplace once used a real character she didn't like and ended up feeling sorry for her. Evans, in her first Jack the Ripper book, went back to how he became a psychopath (his childhood in east London...). Not an easy book to write, she said.
McDevitt said he prefers an antagonist to a villain; show his side; this adds more depth. There could be a legitimate difference of opinion. Movies like good guys and bad guys. Haldeman once had a villain he looked forward to killing. McDevitt once killed a wonderful character; another character said: She's now with the gods she didn't believe in. And a different character replies: They'll love her the way we do.
Evans writes Bolo stories and must make them vulnerable. She mentioned a story (not sure if it was hers) where the Bolo machine dies while protecting a girl, and you felt sorry for the machine.
Authors are not their characters! They told anecdotes about how fans confused what a character said or did with the author... Goingback writes mostly fantasy and horror; he puts normal people in abnormal situations.
Re: reading. Thank God for Harry Potter! Make reading fun in school; don't make it painful. Goingback has two books being read in the Orange County Correctional Institute. He asked why when they contacted him (he's gone to the Institute to talk to the guys), and they said the books have spirituality between the lines, and he talks about Native Americans, respect for the earth, etc.
Evans mentioned a book about a girl going back in time to the Holocaust. This book helps kids connect with that time. Haldeman wrote a story dealing with a deaf culture. The people had lights on their fingers to sign in the dark. Deaf kids love the story.
The moderator asks: What about aliens as characters?
McDevitt keeps his aliens distant and mysterious. For a look at a good alien, read Hoyle's The Black Cloud; that's a real alien. Evans said: There are two ways to deal with aliens. 1) Use them to comment on human society. 2) Make them really alien.
Sometimes aliens are just humans in fur or rubber suits. Haldeman writes a lot of funny aliens. Writers need characters to have motivation. Goingback also writes about aliens who have vanished and lost cities. There's a sense of mystery. Lovecraft is mentioned. Delaplace said how much she enjoys a radio show with sound effects. (There's one on a Gainesville station she listens to.) You use your imagination.
They talked about the biology in a recent Star Wars movie. Form follows function, people! Also, there was no plot. To make Walking with Dinosaurs (Haldeman bought it in DVD, and it's fascinating), the filmmakers worked with paleontologists, and they asked: Could a creature do this? Nope. So they didn't do it.
Both these panels were interesting; I learned a lot, and I loved the anecdotes. I also learned about McDevitt's upcoming book, Live From Babylon, which I want to read. Go forth and write and read and get kids to read!