If you thought Gen Con was just a gaming convention, you would be wrong. In addition to gaming, its Gen Con Writers Symposium features a huge programming track devoted to writing, editing, and publishing, with industry professionals holding roundtable panel discussions to share their wisdom with aspirants to their profession.
In fact, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Most science fiction conventions try to have useful panel rooms, but they generally aren’t big enough to cover a lot of ground. Conversely, industry conventions like BookExpo America are largely professionals networking exclusively with other professionals, without a lot of room for amateurs to pick up hints.
The Gen Con Writers Symposium lands squarely between these two extremes, offering a broad spectrum of discussion topics useful to writers of all skill levels, and a place where professionals and amateurs can have a useful meeting of the minds.
Here are reports on a few of the panels I took in at this year’s convention.
Writer’s Craft: Relationships Between Characters
The discussion focused on ways characters could relate to each other within the context of a story. One point Larry Dixon made early on was that writing for novels is different from writing for role-playing games, or playing characters in RPGs. In novels, it’s all right for characters to be “overpowered.” The relationships they have between other characters will be different from the ones in a RPG party.
Another point was that once you have one or two characters created, new characters’ relationships will often suggest themselves. Aaron Rosenberg compared it to being on Facebook—you “friend” one person, notice some other friends you have in common, and then see other friends they have that you haven’t friended yet and wonder what interests you might share. He said it is almost like a police investigation, working your way through and figuring out how they fit in. (Which prompted Larry to add, “You can learn a lot from stalkers.”)
At one point, the discussion wandered off into whether to outline or write by the seat of one’s pants. By and large, the writers found outlines useful to themselves personally, but treated them as guidelines rather than restrictions—if inspiration struck, they could always adjust the outline later.
Writer’s Craft: Using Foreshadowing
Mercedes Lackey explained that foreshadowing could be described with a stand-up comedy term, “cycling back.” It involved throwing in stuff that seemingly had no relevance to the current plot, then coming back to it later. It could be done by working to an outline, but frequently the writers found they put stuff in their stories that wasn’t in the outlines that turned out to be brilliant in retrospect.
Charlaine Harris used the metaphor of “pouring chum” to describe how she frequently threw lots of stuff into her stories that ended up being useful later. Maurice Broaddus suggested it was a matter of first draft versus second draft. “In the first draft, you throw everything out there, then you come back to it later” to polish it and remove things that turned out to be irrelevant.
Leigh Perry noted that sometimes, reader reactions to one-off events turn those events into foreshadowing for future stories retroactively—a reader points to an off-the-cuff joke about something a character might do in the future, and asks, “Is that the next book?” And the author, struck by sudden inspiration, answers, “Yes!”
Charlaine observed two schools of thought about foreshadowing character deaths—one was to make the characters who die be ones the reader cared about. The other, as used by Agatha Christie, is to make certain characters so annoying that you want them to die.
Elizabeth Vaughan noted that some of the best foreshadowing is the kind that isn’t obvious on the first read, but leaps out on rereads as readers suddenly realize it was there all along but they didn’t see it coming. “That’s my favorite kind of comment,” she said. “It’s not the easiest thing to pull off, but can be very rewarding.”
Writer’s Life: Is Writer’s Block a Myth?
Kelly started the panel off by saying, “I don’t have time for writer’s block; I have deadlines.” Monica contributed that there’s no such thing as writer’s block, just “writer’s avoidance,” and Kelly added that a lot of people who think they have writer’s block actually have clinical depression, which is more like “life block.”
Kelly said that he usually writes between one and three thousand words a day, and if he gets stuck he realizes that usually means he doesn’t actually know what should happen next. (Mercedes Lackey mentioned something similar in the character relationships panel—that writer’s block was usually your subconscious telling you that you’d taken a wrong turn, and you need to back up and figure out where.) So what Kelly does to sort it out is to get up, grab a voice recorder, and start walking away from the house while he talks it out. He doesn’t let himself turn back toward the house until he’s figured out what the problem is, and it usually only takes him a half mile or so. In helping him solve the problem, Kelly credits the difference in kinesthetics triggering a different mode of thinking—he’s walking instead of sitting still, and talking instead of writing.
As the panel went on, the writers discussed the importance of learning to know yourself. Since everyone is different, everyone will have different ways of writing that work for them, and different things that throw them off. Do you write better when you listen to music? Or when you listen to music without vocals? Or when you don’t listen to anything at all? Eventually you should learn to recognize what throws you off-kilter, and evolve strategies for minimizing your exposure to that.
It’s also important to forgive yourself for not being perfect. Monica noted that you should trust yourself as a storyteller, and give yourself permission to write a terrible first draft. That starts removing emotional triggers. The more you can lessen your anxiety, she explained, the easier your writing process will go. Kelly added that you should also give yourself permission to write a terrible ending.
Kelly also called out the difference between being in “editor-brain” and being in “writer-brain”. You shouldn’t let your internal editor take control when you’re trying to pump out words. If necessary, help yourself separate out editing from writing by editing in a different room in the house, or on a different computer, or in some other way that lets you more easily compartmentalize it.
And Monica noted the value of Internet blockers—applications that cut you off from the Internet so you don’t get sucked into spending all your writing time browsing the web after you decide on just one quick bit of research. You should have time allotted for research, and not let it cut into your time allotted for writing.
Those are just three out of the dozens of useful panels spread over the three and a half days of Gen Con every year. Anyone seeking to learn more of the writer’s craft would do well to come to Gen Con and attend the Writers Symposium—and perhaps spend a little time browsing the exhibit hall where all the dealers are, too.
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