Tag Archives: DragonCon

For the Love of Star Trek

logo-startrek-50_884x381

This month marks the 50-year anniversary of the classic Star Trek series.  The story of the starship Enterprise, first envisioned by Gene Roddenberry, and its five-year mission to “explore new life and new civilizations” has endured for five decades – spurring numerous TV series, nine movies (and counting), and a throng of Trek conventions. It’s also inspired a new generation of people to pursue the stars as scientists, astronauts and engineers.

As a writer born in the year of the Apollo landing, I have pursued my own passion for space, covering technology and space trends for the satellite industry. In April, I watched from Cape Canaveral as a SpaceX Dragon  rocketed into orbit on its mission to resupply the ISS. Within minutes SpaceX successfully landed the first phase on a drone ship.

Organizing a Birthday Worthy of a Vulcan


Fortunately for me, I married a Trekkie who had the good fortune to turn 50 recently. I marked my husband’s special day around our beloved series, complete with a “Live Long and Prosper” birthday cake, Spock ears for the guest of honor and party guests who got into the spirit by wearing T-shirts and even costumes in homage to the show.

It was so fun, replacing my spouse over the face of Kirk in the famous Spock death scene in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” when he utters the famous words, “I have been and always shall be your friend.”

I pulled together a Captain’s log for everyone to sign, and handed out “irradiated tribbles” as party favors for the youngest celebrants.

Meeting Captain Kirk

The next weekend was Dragon*Con, the world’s largest fantasy/SF convention, held annually in

William Shatner speaking at Dragon*Con 2016.

Atlanta, and whose guest of honor the last day was none other than Captain Kirk himself – William Shatner. My sister and I attended his standing-room-only talk, where he shared some of his recent activities, including working on “The Truth Is In the Stars,” a feature documentary   currently in production expected to be out by the end of 2016. The program poses the question of whether our society has the capacity to live up to Star Trek’s optimistic, inclusive vision for humanity’s future.

Shatner examines the impact of Star Trek on popular culture, human innovation, discovery and creativity through one-on-one interviews with famous innovators, celebrities and politicians. He told Dragon*Con attendees about his conversation with Stephen Hawking, the world’s most famous theoretical physicist, who also is a big Star Trek fan.  A sufferer of ALS, Dr. Hawking has no muscle control, so talks using a small sensor activated by a muscle in his cheek. He uses this sensor to ‘type’ characters and numbers on his keyboard.

Shatner recalled how when Hawking asked him to share his favorite episode of Star Trek, his first reaction was to admit that he hardly remembers individual  shows, but then he thought more and realized that it was “the ones that expressed those brilliant ideas that tackled social issues like the stupidity of racial hatreds.” Shatner pointed to the episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” when two aliens from the same planet are differentiated due to one being black on the left side and white on the right and the other being the opposite.
“These stories appeal to our senses – these are the most powerful because they are based on something human,” he says,

Shatner then asked Hawking to share his favorite episode, to which he responded not too surprisingly, “Anything to do with black holes.”

Star Trek TNG character Data (played by Brent Spiner) with Stephen Hawking.

Interestingly, Hawking is the only person to ever play himself on Star Trek. In the Star Trek: TNG episode, “Descent,”  Data, Albert Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton, and Stephen Hawking are playing poker.

Shatner demonstrated his humor and seemed to really enjoy his interplay with the fans during the Q&A session. When asked if Kirk had ended up with one woman in Star Trek, whom would she be, he responded, “Given Captain Kirk’s proclivities he would have liked to have ended up with all of them.”

leonard-book-jacketWhen the Q&A turned to his long-time collaborator, Leonard Nimoy, Shatner shared that he, like many men, struggled to have close male friends, and how their relationship grew over many years.

“He was my best friend,” he said, recalling how a heartfelt friendship developed and grew when the two actors’ paths continued to cross even after Star Trek was cancelled but then gained new life in syndication, which led to films and convention appearances.  Shatner said he wrote the memoir, Leonard,  in honor of their 50-year friendship, soon after Nimoy’s death in February 2015, to get as many memories down as he could.

 

Watching Spock Documentary

plaza_spockinlights-jpg-large

My husband and I capped off our month-long Trek lovefest by heading to the screening of “For the Love of Spock,”  a documentary and moving tribute to Nimoy written and directed by his son, Adam, which he funded through Kickstarter.

The screening, at the Plaza Theatre, Atlanta’s landmark and the city’s longest continuously operating movie theatre, was the perfect backdrop given its vintage feel. The documentary shed light on Nimoy the man, including his work ethic and family struggles.

I found the interviews with the elder Nimoy toward the end of his life especially moving as well as the many tributes from the original show and present-day cast of Star Trek, including filmmaker JJ Abrams.  Walter Koenig, who played Chekov, recalled how Nimoy stepped in when Koenig, Nichelle Nichols and George Takei were not cast in the 1973 animated Star Trek series.  Noting that the spirit of Star Trek was embracing diversity, and that the very cast members who most signify that diversity were being excluded, Nimoy refused to participate unless they were included.

There were many other behind-the-scenes tidbits revealed during the film, including the origin of the Vulcan greeting, which Nimoy devised from a letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

I knew how hard Nimoy worked throughout his career, how seriously he took his craft, and the long hours spent on set and doing appearances.  Nimoy was the only actor kept when NBC rejected the original pilot, “The Cage,” as “too intellectual.”  NBC was interested enough in the concept to give Roddenberry the go-ahead to try again with a new cast that included Shatner as captain in place of Jeffrey Hunter.

During the documentary viewers see an excerpt of Nimoy laughing as he read the original Variety review of the show, which dubbed “Star Trek” a “dreary mess of confusion” and called Shatner’s performance “wooden” – hardly the description people use to describe Captain Kirk.  Overall, this documentary is definitely worth a viewing for those who loved the series and the character of Spock.

As for me, after catching up on some of my favorite episodes on the Star Trek marathon shown on the BBC America channel, I have resumed my normal routine with many fond Trek memories.

Thanks, Roddenberry, for your brilliant storytelling vision. It’s been quite a voyage!

 

 

 

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Dragon*Con 2015 — Memorable Moments

StormTroopers

300 BC

I attended my fourth Dragon*Con this past weekend after a two-year hiatus and it didn’t disappoint. The event – dubbed “the wildest geek convention on the planet” by TripAdvisor – drew 65,000 fantasy and scifi fans to downtown Atlanta.

Sherrilyn Kenyon and I.

In honor of the annual Labor Day weekend spectacle, The Writing Well is sharing a few pearls of wisdom from some of the literary set of speakers who I heard present on author and writing panels (see last section of post).

Touching Tributes to Nimoy, Lee

Before going there, I want to pay homage to some of the entertainment panels I attended this year. As a fan of classic Trek, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, I was thrilled to attend the tribute to Leonard Nimoy and iconic British actor Christopher LeeChristopher

Lee, who passed away in February and in June of this year, respectively. A few interesting notes about Lee I learned: he spoke seven languages, made a heavy metal album and was the only Lord of the Rings cast member who actually met J.R.R. Tolkien (and read the books every year).

Nimoy
As for Nimoy, I could devote an entire blog to my favorite scifi actor. He was much more than the token alien cast opposite Captain Kirk on Trek; he was an accomplished director, photographer and poet with seven books under his name. He touched all of those outcasts in the world who were nerdy before nerdy was cool.

He also had a record album produced named appropriately, Highly Illogical. He was well liked and respected by his cast members – he was accepting of certain cast members who were not well liked.

He hated being typecast as Spock in the early years but grew to appreciate the character and what Spock symbolized well beyond the series– a half-human and half-Vulcan who struggled to balance his warring halves and to belong. His final tweet to followers before his death on Feb. 27 reflected his wisdom and humanity: “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.” He signed the tweet off with “LLAP,” a nod to his famous Spock moniker, “live long and prosper.”

Snodgrass and Star Trek TNG
Vendor_StarTrekArtworkI also attended Melinda Snodgrass’s highly entertaining session on her early work as a screenwriter for “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” A good friend to author George R.R. Martin, Melinda got her break when she penned “A Measure of a Man” on spec.

Many fans consider it one of the greatest episodes featuring the android character, Data, as well as one of the best of Star Trek – the inspiration for the episode was the famous Dred Scott case. Data goes on trial and Captain Picard must prove he is legally a sentient being with rights and freedoms under Federation law when transfer orders demand Data’s reassignment for study and disassembly.

“Trek had never shot an episode like this that was very dialogue-heavy – it was a court room drama. When they finished shooting, it was 13 minutes too long so they cut 13 minutes out of it,” recalled Snodgrass. She was snuck a copy of the director’s cut with the full footage. She kept it until CBS Television decided to do a Blu-ray version of the series and requested her copy back.

One of the scenes in the extended version was between Picard and his first officer, Wil Riker, played by Jonathan Frakes where the two men were fencing. While Patrick Stewart was an accomplished fencer, Frakes wasn’t given time to learn technique for the scene and had to settle for doing the voiceover as an acting double fought Picard.

“I like the scene because I always thought Riker was overlooked and not given proper stature. He often ended up seeming weak,” Snodgrass said, pointing out how the character turned down the chance to command his own ship, preferring to remain on the Enterprise. “I wanted to see some rivalry. Jonathan nailed it – he said, ‘I’m going to beat you. I’m going to win.’ I like what they did in that moment. There was some power there.”

Six - BSGThe long queue line was worth it to attend the celebrity panel of “Battlestar Galactica,” the 2004 to 2009 remake of the 70s hit by Ronald D. Moore. Who doesn’t love Cylons – including BattlestarGalacticathe six impersonators of “Six” in the audience and Commander Adama (played by the incomparable Edward James Olmos)?

 

A few of my favorite costumes:

StarWars_Beauty Outlander The ShiningDragonCon_Constume2 DragonCon_Costume Avatar Mother and ChildSuperman_WonderWomanWeepingAngel_Dr Who

Writing Wisdom from Dragon*Con’s Wordsmiths:

NYT Bestselling Author Panel (L to R) Laurell K. Hamilton, Peter Hamilton, Michael Stackpole and Jim Butcher.

NYT Bestselling Author Panel (L to R) Laurell K. Hamilton, Peter Hamilton, Michael Stackpole and Jim Butcher.

#1 “I think my English literature degree set me back two years – telling a story is not the kind of thing you learn in an English class.” — Jim Butcher, author of The Dresden Files

LaurellKHamilton

Laurell K. Hamilton

#2If I over-outline it takes away the impetus for me to write.” – Laurell K. Hamilton, author of The Anita Blake Series

#3 The characters I have the most fun with are the ones whose views I never share.” – Peter F. Hamilton, Dragon*Con Literary Guest of Honor

 

Carol Barrowman

Carol Barrowman

#4 “When you’re done with your novel, put the whole book on a page, then a paragraph and then a tagline; you should be able to talk about your book in 30 seconds.” – Carole Barrowman, co-author of children’s book series, Hollow Earth, with brother, John Barrowman

#5 “I love drawing on real people. Writers are eavesdroppers and peeping toms (without looking through blinds). A lot of my characters are often amalgamations of real people. I knew a Quaker and I made him a pornographer who does snuff films. He loved it!” — Jonathan Maberry

#6 “[When using beta readers] one of the things I found helpful is to have them assign ABCD to passages – A is for awesome, B is for bored, C is for confused and D is for don’t care.” – A.J. Huntley

Lane and Ruckus Skye, husband-wife filmmakers

Lane and Ruckus Skye, husband-wife filmmakers

#“7How do you write realistic dialogue? How do you make it ‘real?’ Think of what the world would say – eavesdropping on people talking. One trick: they don’t talk in compete sentences – words drop.” – Lane Skye, independent filmmaker

Lou Anders

Lou Anders

#8 “Story begins with a character who wants something – you boil it down to what they want most and what’s the worst thing that can happen to them? And it does.” – Lou Anders

AJ Huntley and Jonathan Maberry

AJ Huntley and Jonathan Maberry

#9 “Books are organic. I allow for organic growth – which often calls for changes in storytelling.”
– Jonathan Maberry

#10 “Characters come to life when I know their voice – I know how they will respond to certain situations.” – Naomi Novik

#11 “Story has to come first.” – Delilah Dawson

#12 “Never give up.” – Sherrilyn Kenyon

 

 

Sherrilyn Kenyon Talks Dark-Hunters & Writing Craft at Styxx Book Launch

Last night I joined hundreds of fans of Sherrilyn Kenyon for the launch party of Styxx, the 23rd novel in her Dark-Hunter series. Sherrilyn was in great form in the packed ballroom of theSTYXX Westin Peachtree Plaza on the eve of Dragon*Con.

I fell in love with her Dark-Hunter stories four years ago when I first heard her speak at Dragon*Con — and I’ve been hooked ever since, finishing all of the books in the New York Times’ bestselling series.

With her latest installment, we have the highly anticipated story of Acheron’s brother, Styxx. It should be read in conjunction with Acheron, published in 2008, the story of the Dark-Hunter leader. Lucy Dosch, blogger at Heroes and Heartbreakers, explains the back story of these twin brothers in her post, “Bad Romance: The History of Styxx and Acheron.”

To quickly summarize: Acheron came into being 11,000  ago in the Atlantean pantheon. His mother is the Atlantean Goddess of Destruction Apollymi.  The legend goes that the birth of her son heralded destruction of the Atlantean Pantheon and would bring about the death of all their gods. So the gods ordered Apollymi to kill her unborn son. To save him, she transfers her son into the womb of the Queen Aara, Queen of Didymos, and “twins” him to the son of the King and Queen. In this way tying the two boys’ life forces so they would not destroy him upon his birth.

“The two were born identical to each other, except for one inescapable difference—where Styxx’s eyes are blue, Acheron has the silver swirling eyes of a God, and it was from the moment they opened their eyes that their lives of turmoil began,” writes Dosch.

Sherrilyn and I at the Styxx book signing.

Sherrilyn and I at the Styxx book signing.

Kenyon knows how to world build and put readers into the passionate struggles of her characters better than any author I know. Consider this tantalizing premise for her Dark Hunter characters – immortal and chiseled protectors of humanity who may not get involved with humans. All these physically imposing characters nurse secrets and tragic pasts, who find redemption, usually when they meet their human soul mates.

The Dark-Hunter books are in the process of being adapted into a TV series to air on cable, but Sherilyn was mum on details, joking that television production is a lot like working in government intelligence, where you are constantly evading — never telling the public anything. A co-producer and writer, she’s currently adapting the novels for the screen — not an easily task for a writer who likes to take her time on the page (Styxx is 338 pages in length while Acheron came in at a whopping 737 pages).

“I’m Southern!” she quipped. “Ninety pages- that’s it? Keeping it short is my biggest challenge.”

Writer’s block is not a big issue for Sherrilyn. “I usually walk away from it and within a few minutes I’m back in the chair and it’s resolved somehow,” she said.

There is no typical day to her writing routine, though she told me during a panel two years ago that the noisier it is in hSherrilynStyxxBookLauncher house, the easier it is to write. One thing is clear: she doesn’t sleep much.

“I have a weird sleep pattern,” she said, confessing that in her younger years, she would stay up for three or four days at a time and now that she’s older and a mother, she averages three or four hours of shut eye a night.

“Twenty hours a day I’m doing something writing related,” she said, joking that her nocturnal habit cramps her kids’ style, noting, “It messes with the kids because they can’t sneak out of the house at night.”

Her oldest son, now in college, is working on his first novel. Her advice to new writers is to “never give up” and to trust their instincts — not letting others tell them how to tell their stories.

“Listen to your characters; they won’t steer you wrong.”

Great advice that I’m taking to heart. Is it any wonder Kenyon’s fans are so loyal?

 

Hunger Games from Book to Screen – Did it Deliver?

 

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in THE HUNGER GAMES. Photo credit: Murray Close
 
Watching “The Hunger Games” on DVD this weekend made me think where I was one week ago — attending DragonCon, the world’s largest fantasy/SF convention held every Labor Day in Atlanta.
 
One of the more interesting panels I attended was a spirited debate among Young Adult (YA) authors, including C.J. Redwine, M.B. Wilson, Leah Wilson, Diana Peterfreund and Mel Pichetto, who explored how well Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy translated from book to screen. 
 
The movie was helped by Collins’ close collaboration with director Gary Ross on the screenplay. However, filmmakers always must make tough choices when condensing multi-layered stories rich with characters and back story into a two-hour movie. It’s a process that often brings angst to fans of well-loved books, and “The Hunger Games” was no exception.  
 
“Hunger Games” fans in costume at DragonCon YA panel.
The book and film open on the morning of the “Reaping” – when the story’s heroine, 16-year-old Katniss of District 12, prepares for the lottery that every teenager living in the 12 districts of Panem must enter.  The oppressive government, embodied as the “Capitol,” requires an adolescent boy and girl from each of the districts to serve as tributes for their districts in a televised gladiator battle where only one can emerge victor. The Capitol requires this sacrifice as a reminder of the districts’ rebellion 74 years earlier (the districts are actually remnants of the U.S.).
 
The story’s heroine comes from the poorest of the districts known for coal mining. After losing her father in a mine explosion, Katniss masters hunting with a bow and arrow to help keep her little sister Prim and her emotionally damaged mother from starving. Her hunting companion is her childhood friend Gale, who also lost his dad and must hunt to keep his family alive. Katniss becomes the first tribute to volunteer when she steps up to take her younger sister’s place at the games.
Most of the panelists agreed that the world building — from the impoverished districts to the glittery Capitol — was well done. The movie was filmed entirely in North Carolina, with settings that included both a dense forest and a town that stood in for District 12.
 
Collins said that she first imagined the book while channel-surfing one evening between a reality TV show and footage of the invasion of Iraq. The two “began to blur in this very unsettling way” and the idea for the book was formed, she recalled in a 2010 interview in Publisher’s Weekly.  
 
YA authors discuss “Hunger Games” during DragonCon.
“The Hunger Games” tackles a number of themes, from severe poverty and starvation, to oppression and the effects of war. The characters in the story face difficult moral questions in their quest for self-preservation.

“This was an oppressive society at the beginning of a revolution,” noted Redwine, who was particularly impressed with the 80s influence in the Capitol, from the clothing to the lavish furnishings inside the apartments that housed the tributes. “I thought it was a nice gesture to the excess of the 80s,” she said.

 
A few panelists indicated that they would have liked to seen more focus on food, given the undercurrent of hunger, especially in the poorer outlier districts.  During the Q and A, an audience member said her bakery (Amélie’s based in Charlotte) actually catered the food for the crew, and that they didn’t realize until the film was released that their pastries and other delicacies were used as “food shots” on both the train and in the Capitol.
I agreed with many of the points made by YA writers, including the cinematography and the behind-the-scenes shots of the technology-savvy gamekeepers. They at times showed an appalling lack of humanity toward the tributes as they introduced new obstacles for the teens to overcome in their fight for survival. Case in point: the gamekeepers’ introduction of a pack of vicious mutated dogs called muttations into the arena for the final battle. In the book, Collins describes how the eyes of the dead tributes are superimposed on the mutts’ eyes — a ghastly detail that adds to the psychological warfare of the story. This detail didn’t make it into the film, to the disappointment of the panelists.
 
“‘The Hunger Games’ offers a lot of lessons,” said Pichetto, assistant YA programming director for DragonCon. “The portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder is incredibly accurate.”
 
Cato, male tribute from District 2.
That damage was evident in the last battle scene, when both Katniss and her District 12 counterpart, Peeta, find themselves facing the “alpha tribute” Cato. Born on the more prosperous District 2 and trained as a career tribute, Cato had spent his entire life training for this moment. During the games, he delivered as expected, killing other tributes without remorse. But, the audience gets a glimpse into his damaged psyche and his disillusionment in his final moments, when Katniss is pointing an arrow at him and he’s got Peeta in a death grip. Cato states that he only wanted to bring pride to his district, and that all he knew how to do was kill. Interestingly, his speech was not in the book, but was added to the screenplay.
 
The movie also didn’t explain to viewers the real meaning of the Mockingjay, a critical symbol of rebellion that plays out throughout the trilogy. (If you want to read why this mimicking bird is so symbolic, check out this explanation on Wiki Answers.)
 
As a work of literature, The Hunger Games offers a refreshing alternative to stories about dystopian societies that could be great fodder for English schoolteachers. Given the popularity of the book by both adult and teenage readers (it’s stayed on the NY Times bestseller list for more than three years since debuting in 2008), I am hopeful that it will find a place in my children’s literature class one day.
 
“I hope it takes the place of George Orwell’s1984. I’d love to see it become a classic because it is more relevant,” said panelist M.B. Weston.

A Conversation with the First Ladies of Fantasy

 

 

Standing L-R, Nancy Knight, Laurell K. Hamilton, Sherrilyn Kenyon and Mercedes Lackey. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, sitting.
Four groundbreaking New York Times’ bestselling authors – Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Mercedes Lackey, Laurell K. Hamilton and Sherrilyn Kenyon — gathered this past weekend at DragonCon to talk about their craft and journey as novelists in a genre historically dominated by men. Insightful and funny, these talented women spoke candidly about their trials on the road to literary acceptance. 

Fighting for Acceptance

 

Yarbro, a multi-faceted writer best known for creating the heroic vampire, Count Saint-Germain, sold her first mystery in 1968. At the time, the “climate for women writers was chilly.”

Female fantasy writers began to get a better reception after Anne McCaffrey’s won her first Hugo, but even then many male writing counterparts called it a “fluke,” Yarbro added.

 
The first woman to be named a Living Legend by the International Horror Guild (2006), Yarbro spoke highly of her mentor,  Robert Bloch, who penned Psycho, which Alfred Hitchcock later made into a cult film classic.
 
“If you were a beginning writer, he was very helpful – he would talk with you. If you published something, he would read it and send you a note. I adored the man,” she recalled.
 

Riding the Romance Boon

In the 1980s the publishing field started to open up for women – and several panelists said they were pressured to write romance – and many did –under pseudonyms — to pay bills (one panelist said writing a romance helped pay for her divorce).

 
Kenyon, who published her first novel in 1978, still experienced rejections from book publishers even after six New York Timesbestselling books.  The mother of three sons added that there are two things with which she can terrify people  – “pregnancy and publishing — I will scare you off both.”
 
“Thank God I’m a southern Cherokee – we don’t give up, ever. My whole philosophy is there’s always a way around any obstacle – over, under and around,” said the 16-time New York Times’ #1 bestseller, who has more than 25 million copies of her books in print.
 
 
Hamilton said that her publisher waited four years before publishing her first novel, Guilty Pleasures, in 1991, because the bottom had fallen out of the fantasy market. Before then, it had been rejected more than 200 times. When she first envisioned the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series, paranormal fiction and paranormal romance as genres didn’t exist. 

“My editors told me that the vampire market is dead. What they didn’t realize is that the monster always comes back,” Hamilton quipped.  Hers was a steady climb up – with each book sold, she gained more readers. Now Hamilton has transcended genre, according to her publisher, meaning she’s sold enough that she can write whatever she wants.

 

Finding Your Voice

 

The panelists shared insights on how their distinctive voices evolved as well as those who influenced their writing voice.

“Writing a lot was essential. I came to writing out of the theater,” said Yarbro, explaining that you can do anything with dialogue and punctuation in dialogue if that tells your reader how a character sounds.

“The thing about narration is it has to support everything that’s going on without participating in it. You are not a character in your own book — you are a support for the characters who are.”

For Kenyon, inspiration came early from her mother, who was a huge horror fan. She  explained that her father was the kind of man “who dressed up as a zombie and tapped on my window and scream, ‘Ah!’”
 
“To me, any book is a two-way experience.” When advising her 17-year-old son, who is working on his first novel, Kenyon tells him to leverage the internal dialogue in his head – the comments that you never say out loud.  “It’s almost like method acting – it’s like, ‘What would Acheron do?’ ‘What would Simi do?’ You sit there and let that flow and that’s what should end up on paper.”
 
The other advice she gave him was that “you can fix a bad page but you can’t fix a blank one.”  
 
Hamilton loves the clean language of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, her favorite book growing up, and the dialogue of Robert Parker’s Spenser series.  The Anita Blake series author writes exclusively in first-person narration. To get into character, she often will pull out her penguin mugs or wear weaponry while writing.
 
“Do not pick a day when I’m writing Anita to break into the house,” she told her fans, laughing.
 
 
Lackey said after 80+ books in print, she has developed her own voice.” Writers she admires include Charles de Lint and Judy Tarr — “amazing craftspeople and writers.”

All the authors agree that there is no magic formula to finding your voice. “What I think you cannot learn – except by practice and almost by accident — is your voice and an idea that is fresh and speaks to you and is something that only you can write. That is the hardest to come by,” Hamilton said. 

 

Writing Anywhere

Once you find your voice, you can write anywhere. In Kenyon’s case, she wrote through chemo treatments with her mother, during her sons’ soccer games, and while pregnant and hooked to an IV.

 
Louis L’Amour.
Lackey loves to recount a story about Louis L’Amour, who once was challenged to write in the middle of a highway intersection to prove he could write anywhere.
 
“His agent and publisher set him up with a table and folding chair and stuck him on an island in an intersection in New York City. He’s typing away and LIFE comes and takes pictures. In 15 minutes, everyone has gone away and his editor came over and said, ‘Louis, everyone is gone.’ And he said, “Shut up and let me finish this page.’”
 
Looking to today’s current publishing environment, the panelists had differing views on the way forward and the merits of e-publishing.

Debating Merits of E-Publishing, Podcasting

 
E-publishing your work was the kiss of death two years ago, they say.  Not so anymore. “If I was starting out now, I would be e-publishing,” said Lackey.She believes creating podcasts of your book is an even smarter strategy because there are a lot fewer writers using that platform to get their stories out. “Putting (an excerpt) up as a podcast for free will winnow down 95 percent of the people you are competing with.”
While acknowledging that e-publishing has changed the landscape, Hamilton said first-time authors should still pursue traditional publishing first.  “Before you say, ‘I can’t take the rejection’ and go that route, suck it up and try it first. Study the markets – don’t send your manuscript to someone who doesn’t accept your genre. You have to be tough, otherwise, they (publishing industry) will crush your soul.”Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, authors are closer than ever to their audience and the first to receive feedback — good and bad.
 
“We get it first. Technology is a mixed blessing,” Hamilton said.The panelists’ universal advice to writers is to read – constantly. “Don’t just read fiction – read non-fiction; read widely; read words because they’re your tools,” added Hamilton, who even advocates studying dictionaries and encyclopedias to increase your vocabulary.
 
 

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.”

Save

Save

Save

DragonCon 2010: NYT Bestselling Writers Tell All

DragonCon held Labor Day weekend in Atlanta was more than a visual smorgasbord for SciFi enthusiasts as their favorite characters took over four downtown hotels. For writers, it offered some exciting opportunities to hear from the best genre writers in science fiction and fantasy.
On Sunday I checked out a session, “NYT Bestsellers Tell it All,” on how to help boost your book to the NYT Bestsellers List. The panelists are all bestselling authors, who talked candidly about their writing journeys. None of them struck gold immediately, and all of them shared stories of battling their own inner critics that got in the way of their success.  “Perfection is an unattainable goal” was a message that was loud and clear to this writer.

Star Wars Jedi Academy Triology Author Kevin Anderson: Prolific and Connected 
 

Kevin Anderson, who gained fame writing for X-Files and as a co-author of the Dune prequels, penned the Star Wars Jedi Academy trilogy that was the three top-selling science fiction novels of 1994 and the bestselling SF anthologies of all time.  He noted that all the featured panelists are prolific writers who  interact with the fans at book signings and other events.

“We still work a lot, are fans and write like crazy.” He criticized his profession’s tendency to turn on bestselling authors such as Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, and Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code. “I want to stand up for these authors because they are pleasing a lot of readers,” he says (way to go, Kevin!).

Anderson himself has more than 11 million books in print worldwide but considers Lonesome Dove, the 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning western novel written by Larry McMurtry, his all-time favorite read. The best writer’s advice he ever received was from Dean Koontz who told him that the first million words you write “is all practice and if you get paid while you’re practicing then great. But, don’t expect that you really know how to be a writer until you’ve written a million words, which is about 10 novels or so. I’ve written about 10 novels and I’m still learning.”

Anita Blake Series Author Laurell K. Hamilton’s Advice: Don’t Give Up

Laurell K. Hamilton, the NYT bestselling author of Meredith Gentry novels and the acclaimed Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter Series novels, says her Anita Blake novels were rejected 200 times by editors in the late 1980s, when she was told repeatedly that the vampire genre was dead. Publishing houses liked her book but didn’t know how to market it, she said until finally Penguin/Putnam Books picked it up.

“I am living proof, folks, don’t be discouraged. If you believe in what you are doing, keep doing it,” says Hamilton, who learned she cracked the top 50 book list on USA Today not from her agent her publisher, but from another editor who had earlier rejected her work.

Hamilton recalls attending a writer’s workshop at a smaller science fiction convention where she brought in a short story and short fantasy novel. “The (workshop) didn’t make me a better writer but at the end of the weekend I was a better editor of my stuff,” she recalled. “Sometimes it is not that you aren’t good at writing; sometimes it’s that you are not good at seeing what’s good in your writing and that comes with practice. That short story I edited after that workshop was the first thing that sold for me. Her advice is simple: “don’t be overly critical of your work; take out as much as you can and send it out, knowing what markets you are sending it out to, and keep sending it out.”

Panelist Jim Butcher, author of The Dresden Files, a fantasy/mystery series-turned SciFi TV program about a private investigator and wizard in Chicago, said it took nine years before his first novel was published. He offers some great organization advice for the beginning novelist on his blog site (see: Putting it All Together.”)

Sherrilyn Kenyon Overcomes Vampire Rejection to Find Dark-Hunter Following 

Paranormal writing pioneer Sherrilyn Kenyon, a NYT bestselling author of The Dark-Hunters series (among others), has claimed the coveted #1 spot 12 times in the last two years. She recalls how no editors or publishers wanted to publish a vampire book – she took their feedback and altered her characters into “daimons.” She also created guardians of humanity in the form of Dark-Hunters and hasn’t looked back since.

Kenyon, who has eight brothers, says she lives in fear of her family coming to book signings. Her favorite authors are British science, horror and fantasy writer Tanith Lee and David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers series of military SF stories and novels.

Jonathan Maberry Shares Two Books that Changed His Life

Jonathan Maberry, a NYT bestselling and multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning author of both non-fiction and fiction, recalls at age 14 reading two books that changed his life – the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, I am Legend, which was later made into a film starting Will Smith, and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes, about the harrowing experience of two 13-year-old boys when a nightmarish traveling carnival comes to their town.

“Those books did more for me than any writing class,” says Maberry, whose first published book was a college textbook on martial arts who later moved into writing about the occult and paranormal. Maberry’s account of his first NYT bestseller was particularly entertaining – it happened after being tapped to write the novelization of The Wolfman to coincide with the movie’s re-release in 2010.
“I got a call out of nowhere from someone at Universal who told me they were remaking The Wolfman and would I be interested in adapting it into a novel,” recalled Maberry, who was very professional on the call but inside was “doing the stupid dance.”  Maberry wrote the book having never seen the movie. He said that the script didn’t have a lot of detail and the studio told him to “write a novel.’ He did, and the book got better press than the movie.

Memorable Advice:  Pay it Forward

Maberry says he received great advice from writer David Morrell, author of 28 novels, a few years ago when he said, “Writing is about art but publishing is about business. If you are going to get anywhere…become a businessman who writes. That was great advice and it genuinely helped my career.” In the same conversation, he told him to always pay it forward by helping every other writer you can find even if they are just taking up a pencil for the first time “because the industry needs more good books.”