19 September 2010

Con report: day 2, part 1

First session I attended was "Keeping pace: maintaining momentum in fiction" with Peter Brett, Jay Lake, Howard Taylor and Carrie Vaughan. Taylor talked about how every character and setting has an arc. I always give my characters arcs, but I hadn't thought about settings and how they might be changing (well, beyond the obvious seasonal changes). But it hit home because my husband came home the other day after three days away, and one of the houses in our street was gone. I'd seen the bulldozers and cranes, but all he got to see was the vacant block, which rather startled him. Something more to think about. My characters go away on a journey, a quest, so what has changed when they return? I'll be certain to make sure some things have.

Taylor also talked about getting his readers to read and highlight places they think he has made a promise to the reader, and that sometimes they'll come up with something he thought was a throwaway line. I'd never thought about this -- but what he says is important, especially given that his readers had different ideas to him about what had been promised.

Taylor also talked about using chapter endings to control pacing -- that one friend has cliffhangers all the time to keep readers immersed, but another, who writes epic fantasy, designs his chapters so readers can come up for air.

And he talked about using POV to give further character penetration, for instance by comparing things to things in a character's past, but that this should still inform the story. It's like everything -- the more multifunctional it is the better.

I liked his analogy for remembering that we meet a character for just a small portion of their lives, that we have to remember they had a life before the story started and will have one after it ends: that a story is like looking through a keyhole at a character as he or she walks past. The character was doing something before and after they passed by, but we only got to see that brief fragment of time.

Vaughan talked about the list of questions she asks herself about her scenes. Many of them were ones I already thought about -- scene purpose, character goals etc. But one she asks that I hadn't thought about is what keeps readers invested in these characters? (So what keeps them turning the page?) Because, of course, readers must care about what happens to characters or the book won't move them, and we, as writers, need them to be moved. It's something I will take back to my scenes: I've set up reasons a reader should care, but what reinforces those? What will keep the reader caring?

She also talked about the counterintuitive effect of suspense -- that to increase suspense you slow down the pace, which you can do by layering in description. Ah yes -- just imagine how excruciating that can be for the reader who can't wait to find out what happens. Some may cheat, but that's their business; others will keep at it till the end. (And I've always loved Miss Snark's take on suspense, which was something along the lines of: want to know how suspense works? I'll tell you tomorrow.)

Lake talked about the difficulties associated with using multiple viewpoints, and then about how he got two characters into a difficult situation that he couldn't see a way out of, so he did it with a transition. Three days later, having fixed their insurmountable problem... (my words, not his). Wow, you wouldn't want to do that more than once in your career. It reminded me of a favourite author who did something similar and nearly lost my readership. He said that surprisingly he hadn't had one complaint about it, which surprised the other panelists.

Brett talked about how description can be a character, but that if two characters are sitting on a mountain enjoying a magnificent view and what's interesting is their dialogue then description of that view is just getting in the way of the story. Just so. I think those of us who love description can sometimes lose sight of that, and conversely those of us who eschew it can leave it out when it is crucial to the story. One of the best examples I've seen of setting being crucial to action is the accident at the beginning of Nicholas Evans's The horse whisperer.

Overall, a fantastic session -- one that I nearly didn't make, because I started in a different session and realised I'd completely misread the title. (And it was about the only panel in the program guide that didn't have a description.)

My next panel was "Foundlings and orphans" with Mur Lafferty, Sarah Parker, Delia Sherman, Gillian Polack and Mary Victoria.

One thing that came out of this panel was a discussion on the orphan state and how it is treated by many writers as a blank page when it shouldn't be. The prime example was how Harry Potter, given his upbringing, should have been a complete worm. This was not a criticism of the books per se (well, I suppose it was) but it was also put out there that they are amazing adventures, and I suppose would have been far less entertaining and completely different types of books had he not been the feisty character that he is. Although I hadn't thought of this before, I think it's true. One writer spoke about the subconscious effect of growing up without one of her parents and how this had coloured her fiction writing -- something someone else had pointed out to her.

Discussion revolved around how the central relationship -- the central romance -- in a children's story is with the family, and how kids with one or no parents feel adrift. The fantasists then use this to show kids that they too can go out and kill a dragon. This led to an appreciation of why the orphan story tends to be YA -- after this age, the protagonist isn't trying so hard to find out where they fit in to the world, and absence/presence of parents makes less of an impression. This led to a definition that a quest story is about finding out where you come from, and a non-quest story is about finding out who you are. The someone said that girl protagonists traditionally don't save the world -- that their problems are smaller-scaled and more domestic, but ultimately they end up saving their own world.

The final discussion rounded on a theory that cultural differences might explain the popularity of the orphan/foundling trope -- that Pokemon, which is of course hugely popular, is about a ten-year-old who goes out and fights monsters, but in Western society this wouldn't be allowed. Parents wouldn't let their children go and do this -- so it's a matter of how different cultures view the child alone.

Plenty to think about in this session too -- stuff that would make me approach this kind of story in quite a different way than I otherwise might have, which means it was worth every minute that I spent in there.


Ellen said...

They do sound like they were good - I'm sorry I missed them! Thanks for the summary :-)

Tracey said...

No worries. I'm sure yours were equally good. There was too much interesting stuff, which was always going to lead to clashes, but much better that than hours where nothing really grabs you. As an organiser, you must be feeling proud of what you all achieved.