Tag Archives: Aaron Allston

Writing Tips from the Masters: Part I of My DragonCon Wrap Up

I am still in recovery mode coming off the high of DragonCon 2012, which drew more than 60,000 SF and fantasy fans this weekend to downtown Atlanta.While the “people watching” at the world’s largest fantasy/SF convention never disappoints, the real highlight for me is hearing from leading storytellers today in these genres.
Panels that stood out for me this year were a Young Adult (YA) author panel that discussed The Hunger Games’ journey from paper to screen, a “Creating Memorable Characters” panel, and a Saturday morning chat with the “First Ladies of Fantasy.” The Writing Well will be featuring highlights from these sessions in my expanded DragonCon wrap-up coverage starting tomorrow.  

Writing wisdom from Richard Hatch

Richard Hatch.

I also met one of my childhood heroes — actor and writer Richard Hatch, who played the character, Apollo, in the original “Battlestar Galactica” TV series and who first brought the story forward 20 years into the future with his novels.  Richard was a fount of information and inspiration for the writers in the room.

“Great writing is like great drama – being in situations where you don’t know what the solutions are,” says Richard, who urged us to get out of our heads and “tap into the deeper well of creativity.”
“Do you know how many artists paint, write, and it’s wonderful but nobody gets it. I think the art of the writer is to take something complex – something profound – and find a way to translate into a language that is understandable by people on a number of levels.”
Case in point: the film, “The Matrix,” could be enjoyed as an action flick on its own merit, but it also offered something else to others who could delve into the deeper aspects of the movie.
“When you have the ability to communicate on multiple levels, you really have found that art form that is the art form of life – it’s really what leverages you into the marketplace,” Richard says. “The greatest joy you will ever have is sharing your work with someone who gets it. You have to have the courage to step up to the plate, de-cloak, become visible, and share your work.”
Aaron Allston and Mike Stackpole.
My biggest time investment was attending several one-hour writing workshops taught by talented SF novelists, Aaron Allston and Michael Stackpole.  

Strive for Unattributed Dialogue

In his “Talk to Me” dialogue workshop, Aaron advocates establishing a distinctive voice to your character so that readers will know the character without you having to use attribution. You can accomplish this by repetitive use of language patterns in how the character speaks, and even through unattributed dialogue. You can also do this through punctuation, by having your character end a sentence as a question.  “You want as much unattributed dialogue as possible – it shows your proficiency as a writer,” Aaron says.
A sudden change in how your character speaks lets the reader realize that something has changed or is about to change. “Always be aware of what your character’s normal vocal mode is and deviate from it to get impact,” he says.
If you think your dialogue is going on too long, set their manuscript aside and come back to it with fresh eyes later, advises Aaron. Generally speaking, action scenes should have shorter dialogue while “sitting” scenes can be longer.

Write — Don’t Rewrite

One pointer from Mike Stackpole’s Writing Rules session that stood out to me was “don’t rewrite before you finish writing.” How often do you find yourself self-editing mid-chapter or even mid-page? For me, plenty! Mike urges you to avoid that practice and just get your story down first. If you have a question in the area of research, highlight it in yellow –you can always go back and fill in those details later.  “Never take the easy way out – have characters change or grow due to their experience. Readers have to connect with them,” Mike says.   
I found his session, “Writing a novel in 21 days,” amazing. The session included 21 exercises that address all the major building blocks of your story – the first 11 days focus on characterization; the next four days deal with world building; and the subsequent days focus on plotting. At the end of the 21 days, you have an outline from which to write your book.  
“Every single word you put down is one word closer to the end,” Mike concludes. He advises you to keep chapters short – targeting 2,500 words and then “get out.” His reason? It keeps readers turning the page. Novels are approximately 100,000 words, while digital books are 50,000. You should also focus on three viewpoint characters not any more given the target book length.
“Speed is not important – every writer writes at a different speed. As you write more, you will get faster,” he says.

Identify these 13 Plot-clogging ‘Sins’

The final workshop I attended on Sunday was Aaron’s 13 sins that clog your plot.
Whether the culprits are issues of preparation, characterization, plotting or writing, the outcome is the same: “your characters stop interacting with you,” he says.  
Common culprits that stall a plot include not doing your research, not laying out the rules of your story, or leaving out an essential ingredient, such as writing characters that your readers can’t get behind or villains who aren’t identifiable to readers.
“Conflict is also important – a novel without a conflict is kind of like a novel without readers,” he says.
Two major plotting sins are setting up a situation that is too simplistic that leads characters to interact in very predictable ways, and plotting with what Aaron calls “Styrofoam peanuts,” or relying on overused plot twists that are cliches.
The most memorable of his sins was #13 – being unwilling to abuse your characters as your plot demands.  “You have to be willing to inflict pain on your characters.” Growth only comes with pain.

My DragonCon Wrap-up: A Genre Writer’s Dream

I am finally taking a breath after the long Labor Day weekend and work week to share some thoughts from this year’s DragonCon.  For the second year, I braved the crowds of avatars, wookies, Klingons and Death Eaters at one of the country’s largest sci-fi conventions to hear from some of the best genre writers in young adult and fantasy. Here’s just a few of the folks who made an impression this year.
Carrie Fisher
“I was never that great of an actor.”

Carrie Fisher and the six Leias.

Carrie shared – with self-deprecating wit – what it was really like playing the iconic Princess Leia (“it was cool being the only girl”), being engaged to Dan Akroyd and her at-times strained working relationship with director George Lucas, who she later collaborated with as a co-writer on “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.”
In her bestselling memoir and one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, Fisher said, “George Lucas ruined my life.” Her disgust with her Star Wars costumes (including having to wrap her breasts) are well documented, with her least-favorite being the infamous metal bikini in Return of the Jedi. “When I laid down, the metal bikini stayed up, so BobaFett could see all the way to Florida.”
Fisher played off the energy of the standing-room only crowd of fans, who heard her talk candidly about her struggle with bipolar disorder. Many fans thanked her for her openness, sharing that they, too, struggled with the condition.
Sherrilyn Kenyon
“I can’t write when it’s quiet – absolute silence makes me insane.”
So says the Dark-Hunter series author, speaking on a New York Times bestselling author tell all panel, fresh from signing a movie and TV series deal earlier this summer (look out, True Blood fans). The prolific author has made the #1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list 16 times in the last three years. She told fans during the  panel that she writes about 100 pages a day.
Kenyon says things were always chaotic growing up as a middle child with eight brothers. That’s not changed now that she has three active sons. She told fans how her 16-year-old son has decided to start writing, telling her, “Mom, writing is hard.” Her one guilty pleasure? Helping her boys find ways to kill off their Dungeon and Dragon characters.
She says making the the New York Times Bestseller List doesn’t change your life overnight. She had to work all types of jobs on her way to literary fame and found herself homeless with an infant even after writing six bestsellers.
In chatting with the author as she signed my copy of her newest book, Retribution, I asked her about the cable TV deal for her Dark-Hunter Series. No news yet on the lucky network that will take on the book series; however, fans can rest easy knowing that Kenyon will have a say on the adaptation since she will be a producer.
Charlaine Harris
“The most important message is tolerance.”
That’s what the author hopes readers get when they read her SookieStackhouse novels, which are the inspiration for HBO’s True Blood series.  She deliberately writes about characters with different sexual orientations for this reason.
During the True Blood Q and A she said how glad she is that fellow southerner Alan Ball got the job directing True Blood.  “It’s like they took my book and gave it steroids,” she says of the HBO adaptation.
Later, during the New York Times Bestselling author panel, Harris opened up about her addiction to Facebook(“it’s a terrible use of a writer’s time”) and her daily routine as a writer, saying she writes every day and doesn’t clean her house anymore but still does her family’s laundry.  Her guilty pleasure? Watching Project Runway.
She takes her writing deadlines seriously (“getting paid is a huge inspiration to me”) and recalls being late once – after her mother died.
You can access the full video of DragonCon’s first True Blood panel here.
Michael Stackpole
“Think bigger than one story.”

Aaron Alston and Michael Stackpole.

That was Stackpole’s advice to writers during one of the more popular sessions in his hourly Writer Workshop delivered over 14 hours with fellow New York Times bestselling author Aaron Allston. (Stackpole has said in a recent blog post that he and Aaron are returning in 2012 – this is GREAT news to writers who want to further their craft).
The session I attended, “Writing Careers in the Post-paper Era,” gave attendees an update on the growing E-book market for novelists, noting that the battle between traditional and digital publishers is not about sales, but about “control and access to audiences.” Stackpole urged people to write in packages that are friendly to consumers – instead of a 120,000-word novel, think in terms of three smaller 50,000-word novels. Instead of focusing on a single story, think about developing “a property” where you can tell more than one story in that world. “Series sell.  They breed loyalty – we always come back to them,” he says.  I will write more about Stackpole’s presentation in a future blog post.
Aaron Allston
“Die adjective, die!”
Allston – not unlike Ernest Hemingway – sees little value in adjectives or adverbs for serious writers, calling them “insulating layers,” that do anything but give the reader a sense of the experience being described. The phrase used to describe this practice is “purple prose.” He urges writers on their first editing pass to “look at every adjective and adverb and strike most of them out.”
Allston shared other advice during his workshop session — from the role of pacing to balancing exposition with dialogue to tell a story memorably. He advises writers to match the length of description to what their character sees.
He also says that you can fill in descriptive passages later after the first draft is crafted.  “Backfill motivation, description and foreshadowing. Vastly limit adjectives and adverbs. Participles are not good. Use active verbs. Keep it simple. Keep it short. I am for transparency – don’t be too stylized.”