12 June 2007

Last day of con

It's always a bit sad when a con ends. There's nothing like spending a few days hanging with your friends -- some of whom you don't see very often -- attending panels to hear how other writers approach the craft, or discussing other aspects of writing or something that might illuminate fantasy (such as sword fighting as previously mentioned or, today, blacksmithing). At the end of it you're exhausted but have come away after days of thinking, breathing and eating writing, feeling inspired and ready to go. Pity you have to come home and do class prep, really! Well, all right, most people don't, but I do. And finalise my marks, which is why I'm late to my blog again.

I was all set to be in at 10 for the panel on hooks, but sat for many minutes at Flinders St in a train that was supposed to be departing. Anyway, I was late, which led me to standing outside the panel door, thinking is it worse to be rude and go in, or to miss out? I'm really glad today (as I usually do) I decided to walk in, because today I had an epiphany of sorts. I always go to cons or writing sessions, hoping to hear something new, and once you've been around the traps (to use a cliche) awhile this doesn't happen very often. But today it did.

Anyway, I'll stick to the format I seem to have adopted and go panel by panel:

(i) Hooks -- Pamela Freeman and Isobelle Carmody were both talking about their being two kinds of short stories: those that have a hook and are usually science fiction (and often have a twist and a payoff) and those that don't, but focus on character and have an emotional payoff -- they give a deeper understanding of humanity and what it is to be alive. I've conflated what they were saying together here, but it seems to make a viable whole. Joel Shepherd talked about publishers looking for a universal hook that doesn't exist, but acknowledging that some hooks do hook more people than others. Lucy Sussex talked about how publishers talking about hooks are often really after a sound bite -- the type of thing politicians have to do when they have ten seconds to deliver a message. An audience member raised a question about how important it is to end a series with a hook to get the reader into the next book, and Pamela Freeman says she doesn't do this but rather leaves at a point where it's clear that more is going to happen. This is where I've left my first book too. I would hate to be a reader left with a giant hook and then having to wait twelve months to find out what happens. It was the same when I first saw Empire strikes back and, although it was my favourite of all the Star wars movies, I felt enormously frustrated by the ending. The film felt unfinished. I knew it was the middle of three, but I wanted some kind of closure, the way the first (fourth) movie had done.

Anyway, this, today, led to the moment of epiphany, because Pamela went on to talk about worldbuilding, and how she read a number of fantasy novels and found she often finished the first book and didn't want to read on, but rather to speak to others who had read the book. When she thought about why this was she realised that most fantasy writers do all their worldbuilding at the beginning of the first book and after that point there are no new revelations about the world. Being a fantasy reader, she says she reads as much for the world as the story, and one of the great pleasures is turning a corner. She wanted to offer the idea that this world (of hers) was full of infinite possibilities and so during the last quarter of the first book she puts in new information about the world. Wow! I had never thought of that before. When I caught up with Ellen after the session, she was as blown away as I was. So was her friend Simone. For me, that revelation made going to the whole con worthwhile. Even if everything else had been shitty (which it wasn't), it would've been worthwhile.

Isobelle continued on to say that each book must be as good as the others, and that if the story was going to take three books, there had better be good reason for this, which Pamela backed up by talking about the overall story arch. I think (missed this in my notes) she then talked about each book being part of a three-act structure, which again I'd never heard stated before, but I think I intrinsically knew -- especially from hearing George Lucas talk about his trilogies. He spoke about "middle films", and so I think I had made that leap, but still believe, as the panelists said, that each book should stand alone.

Joel Shepherd made an interesting point about following Tolkien's lead and setting different parts of his story in different places.

(ii) Blacksmithing -- Steve Gleeson. Now, Steve, fresh from his triumphant film debut (or at least debut at this con) was back in familiar territory. Ellen, Lita (fellow SuperNOVArian who's off doing the Inca Trail at the moment), Bren and I did a workshop with Steve in his forge last year, and it was excellent. Bren and I only made it there for half a day, but I loved every minute of it. Well, almost every minute. I do remember the heat getting to me and feeling faint towards the end. So it was really good to have the theoretical aspect to attach to the practical experience. Steve spoke of how he got started, how he acquired his tools, how blacksmiths served their apprenticeships, what attributes a smith needs -- really, all sorts of things. I was the magpie, picking up new terms. There were a few things I hadn't thought of before. Stuff I'll have to google, especially because one of my main characters is the son of a blacksmith. Now, I know why he didn't want his father's business (whereas before I thought he'd left for other reasons). It's lovely to be sitting there, and subconsciously working away on your novel in the background. I didn't think I needed another reason for this character to leave, but I love having more complex motivations because they more closely reflect real life. And I have to say I hadn't heard of a whitesmith before, but maybe that's just my naivete. I also hadn't thought of the beginnings of the phrases "strike while the iron is hot" and "too many nails in the fire". Come to think of it -- I hadn't even heard the second phrase before, so there you go. And now I know the difference between a striker (person) and flattener (implement).

(iii) Fantasy -- this one was about alternatives to European-based fantasy. Joel Shepherd said his fantasy is European-based because historical events drive it, but if doing something more epic, you can do whatever you want. There was some discussion on the difference between trying to subvert the paradigm and playing with the familiar fantasy tropes. There was some dispute about which authors actually did subvert the paradigm, because whenever someone suggested a particular author, someone else was able to give a good reason why they weren't subversive. Then Pamela Freeman, in the audience, raised the question of cultural appropriation. I'm always pleased to hear people talking about this, because I think that we white Australians, living among a people whom we have dispossessed, a people with a living culture who are still hurting from all that has been taken from them, need to be particularly sensitive about this. I've argued with writers who say we should be able to mine anything. But I acknowledge it's not always that simple. When do we cross lines? Is it writing from an indigenous perspective? Probably. (And I have written one story where I have done this -- because it was the only way to tell the story, and it is set in the future; however, because I have done this, I'm not sure I will ever be comfortable about sending it out for publication. I don't know. I really don't.) Is it when we write any indigenous characters into our stories? If so, if we never do this, doesn't that then make them invisible? It's very tricky stuff. And loaded.

Gilian Polack said she does cultural appropriation all the time because she's Jewish and writing stories with a Christian sensibility. She made some great points about learning your own cultural limitations and how it depends on which people you're writing about, how you write about them and how well you understand particular subcultures. Glenda Larke said that writing about Malaysia in a mainstream novel offended her Malaysian in-laws so she moved into SF. Joel Shepherd said that if you didn't know a culture well enough to know whether they'd be offended then you were in for trouble. He talked about Lian Hearn, and all she'd done to learn Japanese culture. Pamela Freeman, who seemed to be the person for me with the off-centre comments that kept striking a chord, talked about setting her novel in Aus but it not working, and she said it's because that was another form of cultural appropriation, and that certain landscapes have stories attached to them, and they're not our stories. I found this harder to accept, because that land is our land now tell, so there we are mired somewhere in the dichotomy of that little statement. She said certain landscapes evoke certain types of stories. Although I disagree (right now) with her take on this being cultural appropriation, I found her comments valid and woth thinking about.

On that, pretty much, the con ended. Ellen, Simone and Lucy Sussex and I wandered down to the bar for coffee, where we were joined by Bren and Claire. And then it was all over, and Bren and I were walking back to the railway station. I'm sure I'll have more to say about the con as a whole, but I'll do this when I'm a bit more awake.

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