Archive for November, 2008

Two more panels from WF 2008

November 25, 2008

I’m combining my reports on these panels, perhaps an indication only of a degree of personal interest. I hope what I remember is useful to some of you. The next posting will summarize what I learned about new writers attaining a place in the program.

Forgotten Fabulists – panel – David Hartwell, Daniel Olson. Jerad Walters, Chris Roden.

What are some of the great old tales (and tale tellers) that are out of print and should be reproduced?

The obstacles to reprinting older fiction lie mostly in the realms of avarice and pride. The first, economic, reason is that the stories never commanded a strong enough following that they were profitable to keep in print. In most cases the author has aged and moved on or died, so the holder of the rights may be difficult to identify – and without the agreement of these it is illegal to reprint the works.

In some other cases the family or descendants hold the rights and either expects too much money for them or is actually ashamed to be associated with the author and wants the stories to die with them. The example of one author who wrote stories of magic and witchcraft, whose Christian fundamentalist family actively sought out his writings to destroy them, was given.

The fact that some older works had been turned into money making movies meant that the present holders of the rights to contemporaries set their sights too high and priced the works out of range. The reprinters of these older works are all small presses who do not have large sums to hazard on single titles – which means it is more practical for them to republish anthologies of short stories, than to place the whole wad on a single larger work.

The reluctant consensus of the panelists – almost all involved in saving and reprinting these forgotten writings – seemed to be that having one’s works published originally was no sure way to create immortal fame.

Tie-ins – panel – Robert Shearman, Mark Morris, Chandra Rooney, Doselle Young

How do you make fiction out of a strictly limited process with a plethora of rules? Be it film to book or console to page, how much of the story can be your own invention and how much does the universe bible rule your prose?

The panelists included writers who had worked on the productions of Dr Who, Superman, and Tarot Café – as well as having written their own original works. They laughed off the accusations of pornography and prostitution of craft, but it was easy to see the underlying defensiveness born of many accusations where the screen had failed the promise of a book – as well as those of saddling themselves to trash in order to commercialize inferior originals.

As a writer who would be very reluctant to turn a novel of mine over to some production company who might reduce it to a Gilligan’s Island of inanity, I was somewhat reassured to hear the points of view of writers involved in creating works for the screen and other media. The panelists believed that in adapting a property the first task was to find the heart of the work and create a screen adaption that remained true to it. Not identical, because a film is not a novel.

Despite this it is unavoidable that many compromises have to be made in cutting a 400 page novel to a 100 page screenplay. Many of the technical methods of novel writing do not translate to the screen and so require a new treatment. I remember older movies where monologues were used to try to render the closeness of the written POV to the thoughts of the character – with varying success. As well, the screen can open up storytelling possibilities not open to the novelist – the plethora of special effects possible today come to mind – so their comment of finding and preserving the heart of the work was reinforced.

It was also interesting to hear accounts of what production crews were working to create or patch for new actors in certain series, of Dr Who for example, that had broken with past productions of the same series. The process is more complex than novel writing, if only for the many different specialists who must sign off on the project.  It was clear to this listener that it seemed foolish for a writer to attempt to leap into this craft without having a solid background in the technicalities of the various production methods.

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Another panel from World Fantasy 2008

November 21, 2008

Genre Hopping – panelists – Barbara Hambly, Jo Beverly, Karen Dudley, Jean Marie Ward

This panel’s topic question was “Mystery to History, Romance to Elvish Dance. After writing in one genre, what tools do you take with you when moving on to another?”

The panel focused on the prohibitions coming from publishers, agents, critics, and fans that deterred writers from genre hopping, rather than the question about what was transferrable. With an industry holding the shibboleth of ‘branding’ they spoke more on overcoming the resistance to writing in different genres than any commonalities – although they seemed to regard the techniques and crafts used to be more or less universal.

Branding regards any move away from strict conformity with what one has produced in the past to be a dilution of the author’s marketability. Barbara Hambly, who has written in many genres, was foremost in denouncing this idea as nonsense – however she did caution that the most fanatical purists were often one’s existing fans. A writer hopping to a different genre, or to a cross genre that strayed beyond the works they were known for, had better make plain – on cover blurb, fan site, or bookstore poster where this novel differed from those a fan may have read before. Fans can be the the most inflexible of all. For example, the devotee of erotic romances would be disgusted to find no eroticism in a new title of romantic fantasy.

The electronic spying mechanism, where sales of individual titles in specific venues are recorded in publishers’ databases – the big brother of IT – are relatively easy to fool by the use of an open pseudonym. “Jane Doe writing as Hortense Wickersnif” is enough to keep poorer sales of a series yet to catch on away from one’s bread and butter titles and prevent the bean-counters from labeling the author as failing or going down in popularity. This subterfuge is essential to avoid the next novel’s advance from being reduced by waning expectations. The fans understand and accept the reason for the different mask.

That gave rise to a question from the audience about other reasons for hiding one’s identity behind a pseudonym – academics writing fiction were given as an example. The panel agreed that an academic writing anything but scholarly tomes had better be very careful when venturing into fiction. Not just a professor of divinity writing erotic romance – if such an author exists – but any academic required to present a sober face to the world would need to hide the fact that they also wrote fantasy. The answer is the closed pseudonym, where every measure is taken to ensure only the principals at the publishing house know who Hortense Wickersnif actually is.

The other aspect of genre hopping is the novel that contains aspects of two or more accepted genres that have never been partnered before. This is where erotic romance stood when the first author bridged the genres. Barbara Hambly suggested that no one knows what is possible and can become sought after until someone succeeds at it. When both the writing and the selling make a splash then plenty of other writers eagerly jump on the bandwagon.

More WF 2008 Convention

November 17, 2008

The Language of Fantasy – panel – Carol Berg, C. L. Wilson, Farah Mendlesohn, Kay Kenyon.

This panel opened my eyes to the deeper aspects of writing fantasy. When I started my fantasy novel, Rast, I jumped in with both feet and carved my own path, learning from mistakes along the way. As I usually do. Perhaps I’m lucky that this process resulted in a novel of which a publisher said, “I like it. A lot.”

To set the tone of the panel I should mention the frequent references to the proscenium arch, which to me at that time, meant only that it sounded very old and very Greek. The term refers to the forward part of the theatre stage, today that portion forward of the curtain toward the audience and in ancient Greece the whole structure of arch or arches forming the rear of the stage. You might guess I learned a great many new things in the panel – and in reading Farah Mendlesohn’s book, “Rhetorics of Fantasy” that I was able to buy in the dealer’s room. Actually, in this account, my memory of the panel is probably aided and coloured by my reading of that.

What does proscenium arch mean for the language of fantasy? My understanding, such as it is, leads to the  comparison between the presentation of the mythical or fantastic quality of the story and the normal world of the reader. One goes to the theatre as one’s self, sits in the relative safety of the audience while the created illusion of the production unfolds before one’s eyes across the other side of the proscenium arch – an involving experience yet safely separate. In fiction it refers to the separation between creation and audience, the page and the mind – the separation the writer must coax the reader to forget if he or she is to become immersed in story.

The language in which fantasy is written must draw the reader across that arch and into the story world. To this end, the demotic language of the crime thriller or adventure often gives way to some level of elegiac or elevated language. Somehow I had instinctively done this when I started Rast – it seemed to me that the story came with its own language. Luckily my local writing group was run by a poet who was quickly able to bring my elegiac excesses back to earth. The language of the commons, demotic or ordinary, is used in fantasy only to present the fantastic as familiar. As Farah Medlesohn said, “There are no fixed rules, but every story demands an appropriate technique”.

It is acceptable to vary the language within the story according to the nature of the character who speaks or listens. It’s no surprise that each character has their own voice, but their perceptions also affect what they hear and understand. There also can be a level of the story that has to be discerned by the reader according to whether the character relating the information can be relied on to tell the truth or may deliberately or unknowingly contribute falsehoods.

The elevated tone of fantasy can extend far into other techniques the author might use. Metaphors tend to replace similes and some of the story meaning can be conveyed by allegory. The reader expects to be taken to a more fantastic place – Oz or Minas Tirith – where profound secrets are guarded and people wiser than ourselves interact. If the reader is completely captured by story then they might actually, for a short time, visit these extraordinary places and experience truths they would dismiss in real life. I know that I am only one of many readers who felt profoundly moved and given new insights many years ago by my first reading of “Lord of the Rings”.

This is not to say that elegiac language and a heightened sensibility is all fantasy needs. As in all story, the whole must fit seamlessly together. The language is the vessel that carries the reader into the story, but it cannot do this alone. The world building and premises must fit as well. A western could be rewritten as high fantasy, but it will fail if any trace of its origin escapes.

The panel imparted much more than a discussion of semantics. The language of fantasy is the medium through which arcane secrets are divulged and the author has many opportunities and much responsibility for the art he or she wields.

World Fantasy 2008 – another panel from the convention.

November 14, 2008

The Resurgence of YA Fantasy Literature – Garth Nix, Kathryn Sullivan, Anne Hopper, Sharyn November.

The premise of the panel was “Harry Potter aside, YA literature has always been popular. Is YA fantasy riding a wave today? If so, why? And is fantasy literature more appealing to younger readers than other genres?”

The short answer was that the panel disagreed with most premises in the questions. They felt that a return to science fiction scenarios rather than fantasy was long overdue, and signs existed that this was already starting. The Potter look-alikes, the vampires, and the dragons had all outstayed their welcomes and new directions were needed to keep the readers coming.

In that vein, Garth Nix came up with a good aphorism, “A good story badly told can still succeed, but a bad story well told will likely fail”. The editors on the panel held forth at length what a crapshoot it was to try to predict the marketplace. They have to try to predict what readers will want next year, but admit the premise is basically a foolish one.

Many harsh things were said about weak and derivative novels that have done quite well in the marketplace, but I’d better not quote anyone or specific titles on this. For the writers out there beginning to settle on a story and a genre for new work it seems that it would be a good idea not to attempt to jump on any bandwagon. As always – write the story that has meaning for you.

This panel was one of the liveliest that I attended. Sharyn November’s sharp wit contrasted nicely with Anne Hopper’s quiet diplomacy and between them the two editors kept the audience alert with ears pricked. As I mentioned this was my first writing convention and I soon learned that the entertainment value of a panel can be equal to the informational content.

Another observation that might be interesting to others planning to attend their first convention is that there were four streams ongoing through most of the event – two different panels running each hour as well as two rooms where writers read from their own works, a half hour for each. This meant that one needed to plan one’s own participation in the program ahead and expect that a sometimes difficult choice had to be made between competing appearances.

There were name authors from the A-Teams of publishing holding forth or being interviewed most days, and sometimes a interesting panel might need to be weighed against the chance of hearing things from the horse’s mouth. Then again, most days the programs ran right through lunch hour and so one had to balance starving the mind with starving the belly. Every day, a couple of hours were set aside for dinner, so I guess writers are expected to munch a sandwich at the computer while creating, but to pay proper attention to good cuisine and drink at the dining hour.

Overall, it seemed as if the Harry Potter phenomenon has been classified as an exception rather than the rule – no one is expecting another series to come along soon and light up the cash registers in the same way. I must admit to be more cynical than that. I wonder how many copies of the saga were actually read from cover to cover by those lucky ‘young adults’ with such attentive grandparents. I liked Sharyn November’s comment, “If youngsters are not already reading adult books by the time they’re sixteen, there is likely something wrong with them.”

More from World Fantasy 2008.

November 12, 2008

Real Life Villains – panel David Morrell, Anita Siraki, Mark Van Name, Janine Young.

The panel discussion ranged widely, and in my memory, perhaps covered more horror than fantasy.

I don’t recall any specific references to modern fantasy villains in the panel, beyond the usual suspects of Monsters, Vampires, etc. However, even they have been modified by the current fashion of the romance-erotic crossovers who are obsessed with vampire lovers. This is getting closer to psychology than fantasy.

Someone made the point that in the genre classic, Frankenstein, the monster is far less a villain than the good doctor who created him. This led to another main point. Most of the panel stressed that believable villains do not believe themselves to be acting villainously. Many examples of real life villainy followed.

The case of CEOs of business enterprises who callously destroy lives and careers whenever the business model says “cut overhead”. The overhead is almost always taken to be fixed costs –  wages and salaries of staff. I had to agree with Mark Van Name who quoted the example of the head of a company he had worked for who complied with convention and slashed several thousand from the payroll – not without some angst – but with the justification that he had no alternative. I also have had a conversation with a manager who had to ‘weed out’ unproductive workers from an enterprise that had been taken over. He was given the job of turning the operation around or else presiding over its closure, so he had the added incentive of saving his career from the black mark. Here again, the focus was on saving the welfare of those who might remain if the surplus bodies were sacrificed. Not sure if this would fly in a dungeons and dragons story.

While this seemed to be drifting away from fantasy, it definitely addressed the mistake of writing even fantasy antagonists as stereotypical nasties. Even monsters, and the portrayal of Grendel as the latest example in the movie Beowulf, have cogent reasons, to them, for their actions.

The discussion continued into the modern horror of the holocaust with two examples from the death camps. Dr Mengele, doctor death who performed horrible experiments on helpless inmates, was reckoned among his contemporaries as a compassionate and humane man. The key to his actions was that he had closed his mind to the humanity of his victims – to him, they were not people (perhaps for irony I might use the word mensch). He focused on the lives his experiments might save in the future. He loved his family and actually saved the life of one Jew – his secretary in the camp.

In this vein came the second example from Dachau. The efficiency of the “Final Solution” was such that the numbers of inmates brought in invariably outstripped the speed of their disposal and the solution was to farm the extra out as domestic servants until such time as their turns came up. During the war, some 30,000 of these domestic slaves were placed among 3000 German families in the area. It’s recorded that the only complaint about the process concerned  the inconvenience of losing the servants soon after their training had been perfected – and not one of the families ever attempted to assist the prisoner servants to escape their fate. Perhaps pointing toward real life horror.

The final villain I’ll mention who was given as an example – again from the experiences of a panel member – resided in detention for the criminally insane. While asking for the reason of the inmates’ acts was generally avoided, the situation with one young man, who had murdered his parents, made the question, why, relevant. The young man thought for a moment and then said, “Because they were home.”

I’ll leave that with you. Fantasy and horror sometimes have strange roots in the psyche.

World Fantasy 2008

November 6, 2008

Over the next few weeks I intend to post my impressions and highlights from this fantasy fiction convention. It’s the first time I’ve attended a convention of writing and publishing (done GIS and Urban Planning ones a few years back) and so I will be doing the wide-eyed and mouth-open report.

First, some of the scope.

The panels included discussions of techniques; genres and genre-hopping; a workshop by an A team author (David Morrell); where the medium has come from – and seems headed; technical aspects of writing (The Language of Fantasy); Fan-zines, Publishers, and Artwork; plus old favorites and the awards ceremonies. Guy Gavriel Kaye was there, as were the artist Todd Lockwood, authors Tom Doherty, Tad Williams, and the two mentioned elsewhere.

Who impressed me on the panels – bearing in mind that I didn’t go to all of them? Doyenne of the field, Barbara Hambly, editor Sharyn November, Mark Van Name on “Real Life Villains”, critic Farah Mendlesohn, Robert Shearman on tie ins were all informative and/or challenging. I’ll post what they and their panel members had to say during the next few posts.

What did I do? I was about the first reader of the convention, on the first afternoon, since I had the starting spot in one of the two reading rooms. I had a good audience (considering people were still en route and arriving) 5 to 6 people and nobody walked out. I read from a sampler of my fantasy novel Rast (to be published in 2009) and then, since the reader for the second half hour didn’t show, read part of the first chapter of my latest release, Arrival, and then pulled up a seat with the audience and we had an informal writing discussion until the next hour’s readers showed up.

I learned that World Fantasy is the serious fantasy con where work is done, while the fans dressed as orcs and Trekkies inhabit other venues. Not that I was without a fan, because someone noted as a promoter of Canadian fantasy and science fiction pulled out copies of my first two novels from under the dealers’ table and asked me to sign them. Nice touch – I began to feel like an author. I approached three names in the industry to hand them copies of my Rast sampler and asked for a sentence or two for the back cover when the book is released. Have to wait and see if I get any of them.

I met new people as well as some I’d met online or at other venues before. Everyone acted friendly and it felt easy to go up to strangers and exchange a few words about the panels or the convention. The dealers’ room had a broad selection of fantasy writing – from early paperbacks and magazines for collectors, to the latest releases in the field. The Sentry Box, a Calgary store and one of the sponsors of the convention, even had a copy of my “The Wildcat’s Victory” that the owner pointed out to me. The artists’ show had a spectacular collection of artwork.

Enough overview. Next time I will test my memory and the scribbled notes I made to provide you with some details.