“When you journey into the unknown, accept the magic.”

Unlike most 2012 DragonCon attendees, I immersed myself in everything that did not have a line. Mostly I spent time at the writer panels that featured Mike Stackpole and Aaron Allston, two scifi writers. However, what they had to say on career and craft applies to all scribblers so take heed. I also hit several steampunk panels, some super-specific topical panels, and bathed in the genius of the genre all-stars. This is a long post so feel free to skip around.

#1. Show, Don’t Tell.

Why is it the rule? Because you want the reader to be an active participant in the story. Like your heroes, the reader should be on quest as well, discovering as they go, grabbing up a constant stream of bread crumbs that you, the cackling author, have provided. “Jack was old” is telling, and the reader is passively digesting. “Jack’s gray hair fought to escape the tight leather clasp” is showing. The reader is actively deciphering your words; they are engaged. “Jack spoke angrily.” No bread crumbs, and a sucky adverb. “Jack squeezed his fists until his fingernails broke the skin.” Ooh, I must know why. Tell me more, O author.

#1a corollary: We know this rule. Why do we ignore it so well? Because we are lazy, ignorant sluts. We would rather write 3 words then 10. But lazy, ignorant writing insults the reader and worse … bores her. And after reading this, you’re not ig’nant so …

#1b caveat: Leave your breadcrumbs, but don’t bury them. Make sure the wit and wisdom in your noggin actually makes it to the page. A clue left in your head helps no one.

#1c conundrum. But you can leave ignorant, lazy writing in Draft 1. I met a writer who writes the title and then “The End,” and then backs up and starts banging that keyboard, always seeing that delicious duo of words close by, reminding her not to waste time with perfection when completion is the goal. Likewise, Senor Stackpole says that editing as you go is knocking dirt into the hole you’re digging. One wretched wordslinger in the audience said, “I’ve rewritten my first chapter six times.” Stahp. “Don’t be a chapterist. Be a novelist,” says Stackpole. That being said, sift your breadcrumbs properly in draft #2.

#2 Alternate History & Steampunk tricks of the trade:

  • Read collections of immigrant letters: “I’m eating meat 3x/week.” “I don’t have to doff my hat to everyman.”
  • Only German Zeppelins stayed up. Brit and US versions sank. WW1 killed zeppelin tech. They should have lasted until commercial jet travel in 1960s.
  • WW1 is so often not used as a setting because readers, authors, editors, and publishers just don’t know it like they do WW2.
  • Why does war make such a wonderful setting for an Alt.-Hist. setting? War magnifies decisions and individual acts, and different classes mix.
  • What would be a dramatic peacetime story look like? Only the Titanic’s sinking comes to mind and that has all the same war-time elements.
  • Steam tech must matter to plot and character

#3 Fighting:

  • The fight must reflect the experience of the fighters. Describe each blow for a novice. For a pro: “I dropped them all.”
  • Choreograph the action scenes, especially fights, to make them believable. That means get out of thy chair and find a lusty yeoman to gird thy loins against. So, your spouse or an attractive stranger. Act out the combat.
  • Most past cultures had revenge/blood feud as a sacred duty. There was no compassion for the enemy.
  • Real fights are quick: 5 seconds.
  • Know stakes in the fight beforehand for highest emotional impact.
  • Reveal character in a fight. Are the opponents sneaky, treacherous, honorable?
  • Show the aftermath and the prepwork for a fight. Have grunts grinding out nicks in a sword, repairing armor, and cleaning gear. Oil and soft cloth are used to protect a sword (oil protects from oxygen/rust). Sand’s good for wiping off blood; also an opponents hair, and soil.
  • It may take weeks or months for wounds to heal. Scars! Weakness afterwards is common. Hands get bruised, and buckets of ice need to be on backorder. Limb damage is the most common wound especially for sword fighters.
  • There are no clean fights.
  • Hit soft things (gut) with hard things (fist), and hard things (skull) with soft things (palm).
  • Resist Hollywoodization of violence: Reload; show wounds and shock and dizziness and hearing loss from gunfire; bad guys can’t hit and on full-auto but good guy’s can’t miss. An equally trained 100# woman should lose to a 250# man. Sorry waif-fu practitioners.
  • Limit gun-porn and ammo-spanking: loving descriptions of guns, knives, etc. Why bother?
  • You can’t fight without getting hurt, a willingness to get hurt, and a need to hurt others.

#4 Characterization:

Characterization is the scifi generational change that activated in the late 1980s. Big names of scifi past did not have character arcs. All you neded was a cool premise, space battles, heroes named Dirk, damsels, and bad aliens. Not so today. Now, people expect a character arc, growth, change, and wit. And not just the hero, but the villains and sidekicks and romantic interests, too. Not enough now to have an external plot, but an internal plot as well.

I asked Stackpole for an example of a new character, knowing the inherent trap, and he demured. Personally, I’m thinking Drizzt Do’Urden. Maybe Hellboy? The X-men? A tough call.

Some character traits and building blocks to consider:

  • Describe their mancave, or happy place.
  • How do they act in a bar?
  • If you list traits as a character, then you must make them gel. He likes sushi and baseball. (He’s Japanese!).
  • What famous person would they meet with, dine with, drink with, fight with, sex with?
  • Stackpole says, “Stephen King is best.”
  • If you start with an archetype, then twist and develop. Know your tropes and surprise your sophisticated readers.
  • Steal the traits of real people, not the entire person. Traits can’t sue.
  • Poll your characters about their desires. Interview them.
  • Give challenges to your characters, not just flaws.
  • Why is your bastard worthy of redemption?
  • Don’t forget that the world continues regardless of story and character.

#5 Dialogue:

  • Professionals use their own jargon
  • Edumacated folks use longer words, and longer sentences. Yokels use shorter words, shorter sentences and swear more (I guess this makes me a high-brow yokel).
  • 5 year olds use 5-word sentences, etc
  • Angry folk use short sentences and swear.
  • Don’t forget regional dialects. Do you say pop? Soda? Coke?
  • Women are more attuned to color and decoration. Men are more attuned to threats, spatial relationships, and time.
  • In conversation, men attack, women defend. Males talk less, and are blunt. Women talk more, and are opaque. Blanket statements, of course. Please feel free to villify moi.
  • Hopefully, you’re dialogue is so unique to the character that speech tags become unnecessary.

#6 Plot Problems?

  • You didn’t do enough research.
  • You have a brilliant setting with no story or character.
  • You have a brilliant character with no story.
  • You think outlines are stupid.
  • You’re a nice person but you’re not torturing your characters properly.

#7 Description:

Indulge in info dumps is lazy writing. Parcel it out in bits in prose, yes, but also in dialogue, in character reactions (both physical and emotional) and by the characters manipulating the environment (and their clothing and equipment) and through internal monologue, flashback, memory.

“It was a dark and stormy night. Chad looking out the window aggressively. He was confused. The weatherman had lied to him. Jill watched Chad watch the weather. She was a lovely warrior princess, and she was tired of Chad’s promises. She needed him to act.”


“The lightning illuminated Chad’s haggard features. He flicked the window’s lock open and close. Behind him, Jill wished he would be flicking something of hers. She wondered if the fire-jumping and sword duels had begun back in her court.”

Is the second sentence better? Maybe. But it’s less lazy and it might have ripped a chuckle.

“The child was cute.” No. Show reaction of the PoV character to the cute child. “She was disgusted.” No. “She wore an expression of disgust.” Better. “Her face distorted as if she had kissed a tarantula.” Better still, and it also shows tone: humor, horror, etc.

Pain is not always excruciating. Eyebrows do not always cock. Blood does not always curdle. If an adverb or adjective is not perfect, then find a descriptive phrase.

Don’t just write functional sentences, but quality, fun-to-read sentences.


#8 How To Ruin Your Career:

  • Use cliches
  • Be predictable
  • Miss deadlines (if you have a life-altering event, tell thy Editor and act like a Pro)
  • Be lazy with your language and ignorant of your craft
  • Never tell an editor what you’re doing
  • Engage in flame wars on the internet. Be a troll. Feed trolls.
  • Never thank people.
  • Denigrate women (2/3rds of editors are women).
  • Ignore other writers. They can never help you. (People like to work with people they like. People talk. Editors talk. Con organizers talk.)
  • Approach an agent or editor at a Con as it they are there solely for you. Interrupt them while they are macking on a cutie.
  • Be unprofessional, mean, and snippy.
  • Abuse fans, Con staff, and the publisher house staff.
  • Burn bridges.
  • Get the last word.
  • Gratify your ego.
  • Treat socially awkward fans badly (Fan: “I hated your book.” You: Can you give me the short reason why. Speak to their inner child.)

#9 Rejectomancy:

“Don’t take rejection personally.” Fuck that. Take rejection personally. Use your rage to make your story better, or burn the long night of oil and ignored chores to build another story.

Scifi grand dame, Connie Willis, got form rejections from the same publications that published her Nebula-award-winning stories! She told us of her Black Day. She always had multiple stories Out There. If she got one crushed, there were others circulating. Then she got back 9 rejected MSs, and seriously considered quitting. But she didn’t. Why? Because she had pre-paid and addressed several envelopes. So she sent some more stuff out and sold some of those same stories that got rejected that day. So, major authors get rejection form letters too.

“I always interpret a rejection letter by analyzing the steaming entrails of the editor.”
#10 Miscellaneous craft and career bits:

  • For Hire work (for Star trek, let’s say) = 6-9 months (as opposed to original work = 12-18 months). Cover art comes in at 80% completion rate, and you may be told to incoporate it. You can’t change the characters, but you can emotionally & mentally torture them. No negotiation. Take deal = do work.
  • Maintain 2,500 words per chapter on average for good flow/pacing. 30,000 words per PoV character (so 3 max usually).
  • At the Con, authors used I-Pads and E-Readers as promo tools, setting them on the table a la digital biz cards. Awesome. Jealous.
  • On Writer’s Group / Online Feedback: issue is not if they like or dislike; did they understand it.
  • Always show the downside to magic in your world.
  • Workshops and Groups will tell you how they would fix it. You must figure out how you would fix it.
  • Don’t e-pub/self-pub your 2nd rate stories. You’ll dilute your own brand.
  • “This is the Golden Age and Wild West of publishing.” If the market can’t handle your lesbian steampunk psycho-ballad, you’ll find an audience online.

“I’ve now filled a frost giant’s codpiece with authorial tricks and tidbits, but I have not told all. If you want the last few secrets you’ll just have to trek to the ATL in 2013. Later, monkeys. I’ve got lit to scribe.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *