Ravencon Panels (I actually DID do): Using Tropes to Tell Stories

Of note:  I am aware this blog is running late, even with the planned week off last weekend.  I’ve decided to officially reduce the posting rate for this blog to every other week (which is probably closer to how often I’ve really been posting my blogs, anyway), so my next blog won’t be until July 2nd, at the earliest.  Now, on to the interesting stuff….

As part of the promotion for the new World’s Enough: Fantastic Defenders anthology (which, contrary to my post last time, is still at the $2.99 “Balticon Special” eBook price; I’m not sure why it hasn’t gone up, but if you don’t have a copy yet that means you’re in luck), I participated in an interview with my fellow author Martin Wilsey. One of his questions asked about my favorite websites, and I just had to mention TVTropes.  I really do enjoy looking through it at times, and I’ve discovered a fun story or three I’ve never read, before, thanks to it… (but boy is it a time sink).

There are lots of ways to define tropes, but I think most people think of them, from a literary perspective, as a non-pejorative form of ‘cliché’.  In other words, they are a literary device that is observed in enough works as to be recognizable.  Or, rather, these could be seen as the “building blocks” for story construction.  I think it’s more that a when executed badly, this sort of thing gets seen as a cliché, but if executed well it is recognized merely as a trope.

As a writer, I think other writers should study the various tropes enough to be familiar with them.  Not only can it help you recognize the signals you’re sending your readers (you don’t necessarily need to follow the tropes, but you might want to find a way to tell your audience that you aren’t going that way), but they can give you a great frame of reference when trying to strengthen story points, or to figure out the important things to tell your readers when marketing your book.

Suppose, for example, you are trying to plot out what your villain (or even your hero, if you’re writing so-called “competency porn”) is planning to do.  You want to come up with a complex plan for them, but you’re just not quite sure you know what kind of plan to enact.  Well, tropes might give you an idea of what your villain is capable of.  Perhaps your villain knows your main characters very well — they might be capable of enacting a Batman Gambit.  Or perhaps your villain is very competent and would rather die than lose; he might create a Xanatos Gambit, so that no matter what happens he wins in some way… (though some ways might be preferable than others).  Do they make it all up as they’re going along?  It might seem like an Indy Ploy.

And then, when the book is done, knowing what a Batman Gambit is can help you in your marketing; you can explain the similarities between your villain and the oft-admired Batman-Gambit-using Star Wars villain, Thrawn, if you know what you (and your villains) are doing.

There’s a lot more I could say on the subject of tropes, but I think I’ll save that for the next time I’m speaking at a convention on the topic.  Speaking of which, I just got a guest invite to another convention; I’ll give the name of the convention and other details about this, soon, once certain things are taken care of.  Talk to you all again in TWO weeks.

I Promised a Post This Week…

So, I promised a blog post this week, and here it is.  Unfortunately, it’s not the one I was hoping for — namely, a blog on the panel topic, “Mythology as the Basis for Speculative Fiction.”

It’s already a week and several days late, and it really isn’t moving as well as I was hoping.  I have a lot of things to say on the topic, but my views seem… disconnected, somehow.  I’m having trouble finding ways to transition from point to point.

If these posts on the panel topics were REAL panels, there would be no issue.  I’d be led by a moderator through his questions.  Or if I were the moderator, I would be asking different questions — ones which regular followers of this blog would have already heard my answers to several times.

I mean, if you don’t know (for example) that, when confronted by an editor who insisted that Elves and Dwarves and Dragons were played out, I drew from the mythologies of Japan, Finland, aboriginal Australia, Inuit, and Shetland Island folklore to fill out a replacement set of mythological creatures (Kitsune and Wulvers and Bunyips, among others) as I constructed the world for The Kitsune Stratagem, then you haven’t been reading here very long — I’ve certainly mentioned it often enough.  In front of a new audience like a convention panel, however, I could expound on that and, for them, it would be fresh material.

Again, though, I still had a number of points to discuss; things on mythological allegory, things on the different types of Elf you can find in mythology (High Elves from the Norse, brownie-like Elves from Wales and Elizabethan England, etc.), a discussion of the different mythologies that were brought together for Tolkien (he drew from Norman, Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Arthurian myths, among others, while putting together what he considered a “British” mythology.  Finally, I wanted to talk about how the fiction popular in modern geek culture was re-interpreting or forming mythologies of its own, citing fiction like Dragonball, Superman, and Star Wars in the process.

But… none of those points seemed to fit together.  I’m not happy with what I have, either in the structure or in the depth of my content.  I’ve been working on it for two weeks, and it’s not worth posting.  It’s been distracting me from my other writing projects, and it’s already too late to start a different blog to be ready Sunday.

So… this is it for a blog this week, no blog will be available next week, and if I do continue this series I’ll be skipping this panel and moving on to “Using Tropes to Tell Stories.”

Finally, some business:  I just learned that the current ebook price of the new anthology I’m in, Worlds Enough: Fantastic Defenders, is a special introductory price.  It’s expected to go up THIS THURSDAY, first to a (still discounted) $3.99 and ultimately up to $4.99 in another few weeks’ time.  So, if you haven’t bought it yet, NOW is the time to get your ebook copy.  (Or you could go ahead and get it in print, but any discounts of that will be Amazon’s call)

Ravencon Panels (I actually DID do): Swords Not Required

Note:  As I was writing this blog last night, I learned that the print edition for the anthology World’s Enough, Fantastic Defenders, in which my story “A Gun for Shalla” appears, had appeared in print on Amazon.  This was a bit of a surprise for me, even if I knew it was SUPPOSED to be released soon (I was told the book launch would be at Balticon, which is next weekend), because I was expecting at least one more communication requiring my response before it was released.  But, hey, it’s out!  There are several good stories in this anthology in addition to my own, so buy your copy, today!

And now on to the regularly scheduled (and delayed for an evening) blog….

When I saw this panel on the long list of possible Ravencon panels, I was quick to pick it.  And, it turns out, it became my first panel (as a pro) ever.

Now, if you haven’t read my books you might not guess it (after all, I have a series I’ve called the “Law of Swords” series), but I frequently use weapons other than swords in my fiction.  So I was quite ready to discuss the topic…

And then I was made moderator.  While I could pick which questions to ask the panel, time management issues meant I couldn’t answer them.  I wasn’t really disappointed (I got all kinds of interesting discussion based on the questions I posed), but I do want to give my own answers to my “questions for the panel”:

I.  Why are Swords so compelling in fantasy fiction, and which of those characteristics would you recommend when considering a different type of weapon for your main character?
There are many reasons swords are a great weapon for the main character of a sword-and-sorcery style fantasy series (beyond just, well, the word “sword” is used in the genre name).
1. For one thing, it is the iconic weapon of the middle ages (though it probably shouldn’t be; the iconic weapon SHOULD be the English Longbow, or the horse-mounted pike, or… well, several other options which would have been more commonly and effectively used by the warriors of the middle ages, but because they were the weapon of choice for symbolical reasons during the crusades; after all, the cross guards used in the swords of the time made them look like crosses).  Most sword-and-sorcery fantasies are set in the middle ages.  So, it just makes sense.
2. Tactically, swords are equally good offensively and defensively.  My fellow panelist (and Ravencon Literary Guest of Honor) Chuck Gannon brought this up and discussed it extensively.
3. Swords have been used (are still used, though mostly ceremonially, today) for thousands of years, though for long stretches of time they were more of a secondary weapon.   Outside of some style differences, a “sword” is a fairly universal thing; if you are writing a fantasy, it doesn’t matter where in the technological timeframe you set your fiction, a sword of some sort would be available.  This wouldn’t necessarily be true (for example) of a handheld crossbow, or many types of throwing weapons used (theoretically) by ninja, or other more exotic types of weaponry.  And we know they have really be used in combat, unlike, say, the military flail.
4. Now, this is a bit of a “chicken or the egg” thing, but swords are popular for writers (or movie people) to use as a weapon because their use is already popular enough that people can easily visualize how swords work.  It’s almost impossible to grow up without being exposed to some sort of sword fight in movies or television, and while I’ve heard on occasion that the style of sword fighting used in movies isn’t historically accurate, people will be able to picture SOME kind of sword fighting as you write your fight scene.
So, to sum up, some of the characteristics that might be useful for you to consider when choosing a weapon for your character are:  Symbolism, effectiveness both offensive and defensive, does not appear out of place in the technological timeframe of your fantasy, and the audience understanding how it works.  We’ll touch a bit on some of these in the next few questions, so let’s leave it there for now.

II.  Different weapons have different “best use” characteristics — bows and arrows are better used at range, ninja tools are best used for the assassin type, spear-and-shield are best used in group tactics, and so forth. Does the choice of weapon you give your main character affect their personality, and if so how?

I really should have asked whether the weapon “affects or is affected by” their personality when I asked this at the convention, because you might not decide on a weapon until after you’ve finished designing all the other aspects of your character.  Regardless, the weapon you choose to arm your character with can easily shape or be shaped by the character’s personality.
If your character is a pikeman (spearman, part of the shield wall, whatever), you had better be able to get along with your fellow soldier or you aren’t going to live very long; while you can apply some other polearm styles to a spear and use it successfully, they really aren’t intended for one on one fighting.
If your character is using assassins’ tools, they (or their trainer, if they’re still learning how to use them) probably have some significant secrets in their background.
If your character is using a bow and arrow… well, they either need a secondary weapon for close in fighting (most commonly a sword or dagger, as seen by Legolas in the Lord of the Rings and Robin Hood in most versions of his tale.  It doesn’t have to be a sword, however; in The Kitsune Stratagem, I gave my male lead a bow and arrow with a modified version of a ninja tool for close range fighting) or they need to hang back from the center of the action.
I could go on, but I think you get the point.  The tactics required to use the weapon, the style of combat suggested by the weapon, the range of the weapon, and so forth all make differences in how you expect the character to behave.  If they break the expected behavior, you have to justify that.  So, if you have an anti-social spearman, you’re going to have to justify that.  If your character is an assassin who blabs out everything about his life at the bar every week, you’re going to have to justify that.  Well… you get the idea.

III.  Certain archetypal fantasy races have weapons they’re expected to carry — a significant plotline in my Law of Swords series came about because of an argument I had over whether Dwarven Axemen made tactical sense or not. If you give an atypical weapon to your fantasy race character — for example, a heavy warhammer wielded by a stereotypical high fantasy elf — how much explanation do you think is necessary?

You know, I spent a lot of time answering OTHER moderator’s questions with “it depends,” it is fitting I need to give that answer to one of my own questions.
If all you’re doing is giving your Dwarf a nice sword, or some kind of ranged weapon, or something of that ilk — something that you would expect them to be able to handle, even if you were expecting them to have an axe or a warhammer — you don’t really need to give any explanation.  On the other hand, if you’re giving, say, a zanbatou to a hobbit, you need more of an explanation than the Rule of Cool.
But you might WANT to explain why your characters are being armed with atypical weapons.  There’s a reason you picked those weapons, right?  If it’s anything more than a whim, don’t you think your audience might also be interested?

IV.  No-one thinks twice if your magically-inclined characters decide to use a small twig — also known as a wand — in battle, even if small twigs were never used that way in real life combat. Do you think — IN FANTASY — that you can get away with inventing a completely original type of weapon for your non-magical characters?  If so, what cautions would you suggest authors consider when inventing these weapons?
An admission:  I asked this question because I did this, myself (sort of) in The Kitsune Stratagem.  I took a real life weapon, a ninja tool (though a variation that was typical of the legend rather than the accepted historical form), and altered it to be a little more portable.
So, obviously my answer to this question is “yes,” I do think writers can get away with inventing original fantasy weapons.  But I think they need to be careful:  Don’t throw your readers out of your universe by making too complicated a weapon, or something too anacronistic.  If no other society in your world is using gears, having someone carry around a clockwork-powered repeating crossbow would throw your reader out of place.

And that’s how I WOULD have answered my own questions.

Edit:  Comments closed due to too many spam attempts.  If you would like them re-opened, please contact me.

Ravencon Panels (I DID do): Why I DIDN’T Get a Book Launched

This was supposed to be a post on my first Ravencon Panel, “Swords Not Required.”  Those panel posts are going to be very long, however, and for various reasons this was a short week for me.  So, I figured I’d explain some things I didn’t get around to in last weeks post.

I mentioned during most of my panels that I would have had another book (a sci-fi novel) out, but I had to reject the cover art a month ago and therefore it was delayed.  That was… uh, not the full story (to put it mildly), but there was too much to discuss when just introducing myself.  But I can expound on it here, without restriction.

While I did not ask the convention for a book launch space, back around January I was hoping to launch a book at Ravencon.  That book was the long-delayed The Merrimack Event, which I’ve been talking about on this blog for years (literally).  It is a novel that’s actually older than my first-released novel (In Treachery Forged) but has been in the self-publishing version of development hell since before I filed the DBA for Fennec Fox Press.

I approached an editor for it; I checked him out, found I liked his style, negotiated a price for his service, and… he disappeared before signing the contract we’d agreed to.  Vanished off the internet, never responded to any more e-mails, etc.  I hadn’t paid him, nor had he seen the full manuscript, so it’s not like he was stealing from me… he just, well, vanished.

I like having different editors and cover artists for each novel series; I’d not had the time to investigate new editors, and every cover artist I queried with this book in mind (just to see if they were available, not even yet mentioning the project) never gave me any reply at all.

But around January, things were looking up.  It may have been piecemeal using beta readers, it may have been done in fits and starts, it may have partially been edited through a self-editing procedure I would normally never do because it was too labor intensive, but The Merrimack Event had reached a level of “edited” that I felt it was acceptable for release.  There were some minor tweaks that still needed to be done before the book could be built, but those tweaks were the equivalent of running a last spellcheck and fixing a few minor inconsistencies brought about through all the various edits.  The book could be released within days… if I could get cover art.

Then my budget was hit after I broke a tooth (or rather re-broke a tooth that had previously been repaired), and the money for the cover art went away.  I could pull the money from somewhere else, but that would slow one of my other projects.  However!  I had an option.  A professional artist was willing to do the cover for free (well, sort of; no money was to change hands, anyway).  Book covers weren’t their usual medium, but I’ve had success using artists who didn’t specialize in covers in the past.  So I said yes.

Unfortunately, come the start of April, their cover proposal showed up and was unacceptable.  It wasn’t completely hopeless, but you could tell this wasn’t the artist’s usual medium.  I tried working with the artist to maybe get it revised into something acceptable.  While things were getting closer and closer, I could tell the artist was getting frustrated.  I was struggling to get them to make the right changes (I am not an artist, myself; I have enough of an eye that I could see a problem, but I wasn’t sure how to explain that problem so that the artist would understand what I wanted).  I was taking more and more of their time away from the art projects they usually did.  Finally, I decided enough was enough; I pulled the plug and rejected the cover completely.

That’s not the end of the story, though.  There was still a month before the convention.  Both my mother (a professional quilt artist) AND my brother (who, for his first few years of college, studied mechanical design) decided they would make a go at trying to put something together; I might not have been able to get the print book out at that point, but if I could get an acceptable cover by the 25th I could submit the eBook and it would be for sale by the start of the convention.  Both of the cover proposals I received from them had possibilities, but both would need work… just like the first cover option did.  I didn’t want to go through all that again, so I just said “no” to both covers.  I’ve re-established a budget.  I’ll be hiring a professional cover artist… IF I can ever get one to reply to my e-mails, and then the book will (FINALLY) be out.

Incidentally, I had other observations from Ravencon which didn’t fit into last weeks recap:

  1.  I had produced some swag, but most of the other authors had much more than me.
  2. I did not ask for any book signing or reading times (during which an author can sell their book), nor did I rent a table in author alley to sell my books from, but maybe I should have (though I might need to replace my phone to something that will allow the use of a credit card reader, first).
  3. I was a little worried that I didn’t have the ‘pedigree’ to be a guest, but there were a number of guests at Ravencon who had the same sort of writing portfolio I had.
  4. Apparently, the end of April is the wrong time of the year for me to go down to Williamsburg; I have a lot of family in the area, but none of them were able to see me while I was there due to scheduling conflicts.  I like Ravencon, and plan to return, but maybe I should look into other conventions the area as well.
  5. I still need a name for my mascot fennec fox (stuffed animal).  Fortunately, no-one asked me what his name was when I was wearing him on my badge lanyard all weekend.

And… well, that’s it.  I’ll get that first “panel” page out next week, hopefully.  Until then….

Ravencon 2017 Recap

I’m going to start this recap with something that happened after the convention ended: I got con crud.  I’m usually very good about avoiding that, but somehow it hit me this time.  Ugh.  If this blog is less coherent than normal, well, that’s why. But for now… back to the beginning.

THURSDAY

I left for the convention on Thursday.  It’s about a 3 hr drive from my home to Williamsburg (a little less, actually, if you drive non-stop), and I got to the hotel a little before 2pm.  I found a full parking lot, because the previous event (some sort of meeting for Greenway planners, I think?) hadn’t broken up, yet, and my room wasn’t open right away.  I was told to try again an hour later, so I ducked into the hotel bar to wait it out.

You may recall, if you read my post on last year’s Ravencon, that my biggest complaint was the dining.  The food wasn’t bad, but it was slow.  I made efforts to prepare for a repeat of that experience, actually buying a microwave and lugging it down to Williamsburg with me (complete with a half-dozen cans of soup) so I’d be sure to be able to eat something as the convention was going on.

But, until I had my room, I couldn’t pull out that microwave, and I was trying to kill time anyway, so I figured I might as well have lunch.  The bar was empty, save for the bartender.  I let her know I was there for Ravencon, and asked whether they would be opening the restaurant this time.  I was told that it would, with buffet dining and a special Ravencon menu for most of the weekend.  “We learned our lesson from the last time,” she told me.  As it turns out, she was right — I never wound up using that microwave during the convention, and the food was actually much better than I remembered from last year.

After lunch, my room was ready for me to check in.  I let my Facebook friends know I was there, then unpacked, and rested up a bit.  I tried to make contact with some family who lives in the area to see if we could meet up, but that proved impossible.  I also tried to get to my e-mail, but found that the hotel wi-fi servers and the webmail access for my usual e-mail server were incompatible.  This proved to be important (as I’ll discuss later), but I spent about an hour trying to get things to work unsuccessfully.  So, with nothing else to do, I decided to try and find the spot where Con Ops was being set up.

I’d received an e-mail saying Con Ops would be in “Room M.”  I checked the hotel map — there was no Room M.  I checked the hotel’s posted activities list, and saw there would be set-up in Room J… but that room was empty.  I tried a few other locations I thought it might be at, but couldn’t find any evidence of the con set-up.  I finally gave up and (my settling-in having taken several hours) decided to have an early dinner.  So I was back to the bar.

Dinner was fine, but uneventful… until I was on my way out the door, where I ran into another Ravencon guest (and fellow panelist), Jennifer R. Povey.  I mentioned that this would be my first convention as a professional guest, and we traded stories about travel and conventions past.  I then joined her to again try and find Con Ops.  Which we did find… but only after Con Ops had shut down for the night.  It was in Room 8.

And that was it (for the con-relevant part, anyway) for Thursday.

FRIDAY

I learned why there was so much confusion about the rooms early on:  The hotel’s convention rooms are nice and laid out okay, but the normal room number system was confusing.  The Ravencon staff, after the problems from last year (another thing I mentioned in last year’s Ravencon Recap), decided to re-label the hotel’s room numbers to make things less confusing.  Which is fine, but they didn’t have those new room designations up Thursday… so Con Ops was in Room M, but only after the rooms had been relabeled on Friday.  The new room numbers made a lot of sense, actually, but that didn’t help on Thursday.

Badge pick-up was supposed to start at 1pm.  I met Jennifer R. Povey again at Badge Pick-up about five minutes before then, and started waiting.  And it did open at one… but not for guests.  The “guest packets” hadn’t been put together, and so we couldn’t pick up our badges.  While frustrating (and somehow tiring; I was more worn out waiting for my badge to finally be made available than anything else that I did over the weekend), the time wasn’t a total waste; instead, I learned a few tips about being a panelist from someone who had been on a few panels, herself (the aforementioned Jennifer R. Povey).

It was about three hours later that I was finally able to pick up my badge.  The guest packet included our badge, a copy of the programming booklet (which is the same whether you’re a guest or an attendee), a few letters to welcome the guests, our “final” schedule, and a folding paper nameplate.  Following one of those tips, I’ve kept the nameplate for future conventions which might not be quite as well prepared.

Now armed with a badge, a schedule, and a nameplate, it was time for the convention to begin.  The first event was authors-only:  A meet-and-greet in the Green Room.  I had high expectations for this, but it started out a bit dull; there wasn’t as much meeting and greeting as I had expected (possibly because there wasn’t enough seating for everyone to eat while they met and greeted one another, or possibly because several of us just trying to get something to eat before our panels).  After having a few snacks, however, I noticed a couple of people that I thought (correctly) would be on my first panel sitting — Jeanne Adams and Nancy Northcott — and went to introduce myself.  I was scheduled to be moderator (again, my first panel as a professional and I’m moderating?  Ack!), so I took the opportunity to briefly go over my plan for that panel (as Ravencon’s moderator instructions recommended.  I will note that, in the five other panels I was on, the moderator only did this once).

The meet and greet was interrupted (for me, Jeanne, and Nancy) for that first panel of the evening:  Swords Not Required, a discussion about arming your fantasy characters with weapons other than swords.  The three of us were joined by Chuck Gannon, the Literary Guest of Honor, adding just a touch of star power to my first-ever panel.

Now, over the next few weeks (health and time permitting) I intend to write blog posts on each of the panels I worked at Ravencon, so I won’t be covering the contents of each panel today, but I AM really looking forward to covering this one.  As moderator, it was my job to manage time while keeping the panel on topic and direct questions (either my own or the audience’s) to the panelists.  I figured I would let the panelists introduce themselves, then go through four or five of my own questions, and try to preserve about ten minutes for audience questions.  I was keeping a very close eye on the time.  While the panelists had plenty of time to come up with answers to my questions, there was no time left for me.  I was willing to cut people off if time was going to be an issue, but I wasn’t going to cut people off just so I could speak.  So… I never got to give my own answers.  Well, that’s partly what next week’s planned blog post is for — I’ll be answering giving my own viewpoints on the questions I asked my fellow panelists.

I think the panel went well enough.  My fellow authors, as well as some of the people from the audience, all gave me kudos for handling the moderation duties well.  I… well, my own case of imposter syndrome has me thinking that most of that praise was just people being polite to the newbie, but I’m willing to accept that I didn’t mess things up too badly.

After that panel it was time for the opening ceremonies.  Now, this may have been my first ever convention as a pro, but obviously I’ve been to conventions as an attendee (and, many years ago, as a fanfic panelist) many times over the years, having attended a few dozen conventions all told (I stopped counting at twenty or so).  However many conventions I’ve been to, however, I’ve ALWAYS skipped the opening ceremonies; they’ve never held any interest for me.  But I was a guest, and they were expecting me to attend, so there I went, not knowing what to expect.

Ravencon has over a hundred guests most years, and they promote a lot of guest turnover from year to year.  I figured I might have to stand up and be seen, but with so many guests — many of whom were, like me, first-time guests — I was NOT expecting to have to say anything.  But no, there I was, being asked to introduce myself (alongside twenty or so other new Ravencon guests) to a crowd of people interested in the convention guests.  I drew a complete blank about what to say, only mentioning the basics (that I was a self-published author and would be doing several panels that weekend), and was very glad when it was over.  Of course I thought of a million things I COULD have said, far too late to say any of them.  Next time I’m a guest at a convention, I’ll have to remember to be prepared to speak at the opening ceremonies, even if it seems like it would be impossible for me to do so.

Off the proverbial hot seat and with opening ceremonies (thankfully) over, I rushed off to the restaurant for dinner.  I’d had some snacks at the meet-and-greet, but those were just to tide me over.  I only had two hours until my next panel, and remembering last year I was afraid I barely had enough time to eat.  As it turns out, I had plenty of time:  I got to the hotel restaurant, and was shown a nearly empty buffet with no lines and almost no wait time for the staff.  The food was excellent (I had both the fish and the chicken; neither were overcooked, neither were dry, and both were well-seasoned and flavorful; you can’t ask for more than that from a buffet) and I was done with much more time to spare than I thought possible.

So, I went to attend my first panel on the “fan” side of the table, the “Economics of Self-Publishing” panel.  Ravencon has had this panel for several years, now, and it was moderated (as it had been last year) by the inestimable Chris Kennedy.  Now, for a very long time, the draft schedule for the convention had me listed on this panel; it was only in the last few weeks before the convention started that I was dropped from it.  That was fine, as it wasn’t my favorite aspect on the topic of self-publishing to cover (I was scheduled for a different panel on self-publishing later in the convention, which I figured was more my speed), but I’d been mentally preparing for this panel for weeks.  Most of what was covered by the panelists were things I was already well acquainted with, and there were a few things I’d thought of that I never heard mentioned during the panel.  It kind of made me regret not pushing harder to be on this panel; I think I could have contributed.

And then it was time for my Mythology as the Basis for Speculative Fiction panel.  Again, I will discuss the contents of the panel in a later blog post, but here are a few off-topic comments on this panel:  This was my panel alongside Guest of Honor Mercedes Lackey.  That was a great experience, but it’s entirely possible that I caught the con crud from her:  She had a cold (well, I gather it was a little more serious than a mere cold), and was warning people that she would be our “patient zero” for the convention.  Even the moderator said that we should keep at least two seats between her and us while we were setting up.

Other than Mercedes Lackey, my fellow panelists included Jennifer R. Povey, Christopher L. Smith, and moderator Bishop O’Connell.  The difference in experience between the Guest of Honor and the rest of us panelists became stark when we started talking about our publication credits.  A few short stories and anthology credits for a couple of them, four books for the moderator, three books for myself (and an anthology story theoretically coming out at Balticon in May, and one more novel I nearly had ready before Ravencon.  I mentioned a simplified version of why I didn’t get that book out in time during my panels, but the full story of what’s going on with that is worth a blog post on its own).  Then Mercedes Lackey mentioned her book total:  128.  (Well, she pointed out, 129, but the 129th wasn’t yet available for sale)

At any rate, all of the panelists had something to contribute to the panel, and the audience seemed to enjoy themselves, so I’d call it a success.  And as for me, it was the end of my evening.

SATURDAY

I started the day by ordering a room service breakfast that actually arrived in time for me to eat it (another sign that the hotel learned some lessons from last year).  I needed it fast, because I had a panel first thing that day:  Using Tropes to Tell Stories.

The panel consisted of myself, Bishop O’Connell, and Jim Bernheimer.  We were short a panelist (someone must have cancelled at the very last second), and it started a bit slow — we all needed coffee or something, I think — but we rallied, and in the end it was a success.

I went back to my room after that and had that cup of coffee (hotel room coffee… which wasn’t as bad as what I’ve had from some hotels, but still wasn’t great), spending the next hour getting myself better prepared for my next panel:  Building Worlds for Fiction with Dave Joria, Rob Balder, Mark Wandrey, and myself.  It was an interesting panel, though I kind of wish I had been moderating this one for one reason:  Two of us panelists were novelists, two were in webcomics.  I was hoping to get more about the different perspectives on building a world when writing prose versus when you could use illustrations for a portion of your worldbuilding.  I don’t think that topic was touched on, much, during the panel.

I had a long break after that panel, and decided to go to the hotel restaurant for lunch.  I almost chose to use the buffet, as the dinner buffet from the night before had been so good, but I wasn’t all that enthused by the buffet menu and went into the bar, instead.  This may very well have been the most fortuitous decision I made during the entire convention.

The bar waitress was showing me to my seat when, from what was the largest table in the room, I heard someone call, “Hey, are you here by yourself?”  I wasn’t sure they were talking to me at first, but once I was sure I indicated I was.  “Well, then, get your butt over here!”  I was being invited to sit at his table.

The person calling me was Baen Books‘ consulting editor, Kelly Lockhart.  Also at the table were Baen Books science consultant (and proponent of scientific outreach) Dr. Tedd Roberts, and Baen authors Mike Massa, Kacey Ezell, and Christopher L. Smith.  (There were also a couple other people at the table who I have yet to identify).

There were discussions about a number of things — other Baen authors, other conventions, a few scientific anecdotes from Tedd Roberts, and far too many other things to discuss in this post.  There were interesting conversations going on all sides of the table, and it was hard to keep track of everything being said.  Needless to say, this was an unexpected and welcome event in and of itself.

But lunch eventually broke up, and it was back to the convention proper.  I’d signed up for a wine and cheese tasting at 2pm, largely because the wines involved were coming from Three Fox Vineyards (as my self-publishing company is called Fennec Fox Press, you might guess that I have a bit of an interest in foxes), so I went straight there.  Unfortunately, things were horribly disorganized at first — I was “carded” three times, by three different people (twice by the panel organizers, once by someone sent down from Con Ops just to ensure everyone had been carded), they didn’t have the cutting board they needed for the cheese selection, they had to get the hotel staff to find them a couple pitchers of water before they could start, and so forth.  With the tasting running long, I wound up having to leave in the middle to make it to my next panel.

That panel was Self-Publishing 2017, with fellow authors Thomas A. Mays, Toi Thomas, myself, and (replacing the two expected panelists I mentioned in my last post) Christine McDonnell along with moderator Jim McDonald.  Now, as I’ve said before, I’m not going to be discussing panel content in this write-up; that’s for follow-up posts over the next few weeks.  There’s not much to say about the content of this panel which wasn’t mentioned somewhere in my Self-Publishing Roundtable blog series from a couple years ago, anyway.  There was something I wasn’t able to discuss at this panel, however, which will be in that topic:

In preparation for the convention, I had contacted my local library system about resources they were making available to self-published authors.  My local library is very supportive of the local author scene, and I wanted to know if there was anything they particularly wanted discussed.  I got an e-mail with all of that information… on the 28th, when I was already at the convention and couldn’t read it.  So, in place of a “Self-Publishing 2017” blog post, I’ll be making a “Self-Publishing and the Local Library” blog that week.

After the Self-Publishing 2017 panel, I had a brief break.  After my lunch at the “Baen table,” I very nearly stopped by the Baen Books Traveling Roadshow (a regular panel at many conventions I go to).  That panel wasn’t supposed to actually start until 4:30pm, though, and I had a panel at 5; I would have had to leave shortly after they started.

My 5pm panel (my last as a panelist, this convention) was on the Mechanics of Magic in Fantasy & Science Fiction, coming full circle with fellow panelists from my first panel Nancy Northcott and Jeanne Adams.  Along with us was Joe Wetmore, one half of the Instant Replay Live Youtube channel, which does lets-plays and game reviews (an odd panel for such a guest, but it worked out well for us).

Now, I had planned on attending a bunch of other panels after that, but I was exhausted.  I went back to my hotel room, rested up a bit, had dinner, rested up some more, went to sleep… and overslept the next morning.

SUNDAY

Well, “overslept” may not technically be right (I didn’t set an alarm, or have any particular place I had to be that morning, so I didn’t miss anything; had I been scheduled for a panel, I would have had alarms set and room wake-up calls going before I went to bed the night before), but I woke up so late that I couldn’t go to any of the morning panels.  After a much less eventful lunch than Saturday (skipping breakfast because I woke up so late), I went to a final convention panel as an attendee:  The Mad Scientist’s Revenge!

This panel consisted of Carolyn O’Neal, Samantha Bryant, Tedd Roberts, and his grad student going by the psuedonym of EvilPenguin.  Two writers, two mad scientists.

I felt a bit sorry for the writers.  The moderator (who was one of the writers) didn’t seem to recognize that this wasn’t going to be a different kind of panel.  She was trying to ask questions as if this was a standard writer’s panel, but based on the write-up (“Presenting preposterous theories for world domination and evil conspiracies”) it was intended to be more of a silly, story-telling humor panel to close out the convention with rather than “education for creatives” like so many of the other panels were.  Tedd Roberts and EvilPenguin, however, had such strong personalities and such interesting anecdotes that the panel worked more as I believe it was intended than it otherwise might have.  The other writer, caught between the two big-personality scientists and the moderator who didn’t understand what kind of panel she was on, barely got a word in edge-wise.  Still, from the audience’s perspective, it was fun and entertaining…

And then the convention was over.  Well, for most of the attendees, anyway.  There was one more event:  The Dead Dog Dinner.  Basically, as you might guess from the name, it’s a dinner, at which guests and staff who were staying at the hotel for the night could get together and chat about the convention.

I wound up sitting at a table with the programming director, the assistant to the con chair, and several other staff members; there were other panelists at the dinner, but somehow all of them wound up at different tables.  Still, it was nice to be able to have a conversation breaking down some of the things that happened during the convention with the staff.  (And I got some “gossip” about the state of the convention which I won’t discuss here, because I’m not sure how much of that was in confidence).

And then I was done for the day.  I spent the rest of the day packing and resting up, and then returned home on Monday.

And by Tuesday I knew for sure I had come down with con crud.  *sigh*

Health permitting, next week I’ll start my next blog series on Ravencon Panels (I DID do).  Until then…

Ravencon Panels I AM Doing: Next Week’s Schedule

So, Ravencon is next weekend (so I PROBABLY won’t be doing a post next weekend for that reason, but there is a chance; more on that later), which means I’ve run out of time for the series on Ravencon Panels (I’m NOT Doing) so I can talk about the Ravencon Panels I AM doing.

The schedule may still change (I’ve been at enough conventions to know that schedules sometimes get altered minutes before the panel begins, though I haven’t known Ravencon to be quite that bad), but it’s as set as it ever is.  So, if you’re at the convention and want to find me, here are the panels I’m on (complete with current room locations (the most likely thing to change), Amazon links to my fellow panelists, and the panel descriptions:

I. Swords Not Required
Location:  Room G
Time:  Friday, 6pm-7pm
Guests:  Nancy Northcott, Jeanne Adams, Charles E. Gannon, and myself (Moderating).

Panelists discuss ways to arm characters in fantasy worlds without always relying on swords.

(Yes, I’m moderating my first panel at my first pro-appearance at a convention.  Gulp)

II. Mythology as the Basis for Speculative Fiction
Location:  Room 8
Time:  Friday, 10pm-11pm
Guests:  Mercedes Lackey, Bishop O’Connell (moderating), Christopher L. Smith, Jennifer R. Povey, and myself

Our panelists take a look at mythologies around the world; discussing their similarities and why some of them are so appealing to modern speculative fiction authors. Should myths be updated for a modern audience, or do you respect them as canon and hold to their roots? Does an understanding of mythology make better speculative fiction, and what is its current role within SF writing?

III.  Using Tropes to Tell Stories
Location:  Room 8
Time:  Saturday, 9am-10am
Guests:  Jim Bernheimer (moderating), R.S. Belcher, Bishop O’Connell, and myself

Cliches in fantasy and science fiction are a big no-no… except when they aren’t. The internet contains a lot of rants against tropes, but are tropes really that bad? What happens to a fantasy story that tries to avoid every trope? Is such a story revolutionary or unmarketable? Is it even doable? Panelists discuss the use and avoidance of tropes in developing storylines. What are the most-used tropes in SF/F? Why are they so overused? Are they always bad? Are there ways they can be twisted to say new things about the genre?

IV.  Building Worlds for Fiction
Location:  Room G
Time:  Saturday, 11am-12pm
Guests:  Dave Joria, Rob Balder, Mark Wandrey (moderator), and myself

Building a comprehensive world—whether it is for a novel, comic, or serial—can be a huge challenge. Join our panelists as they discuss tools, strategies, and both successes and failures in world-building.

V.  Self-Publishing 2017
Location:  Room G
Time:  Saturday, 3pm-4pm
Guests:  Philippa “Pip” Ballentine, Alex Matsuo (Moderating), Toi Thomas, Thomas A. Mays, and myself

This panel discusses today’s self-publishing options and business models. Our panelists include authors who are both self- and traditionally published, in fiction and nonfiction, including people who are making an income entirely by self-publishing. We’ll discuss why we made the choice to self-publish, the pitfalls and lessons learned, and which business choices we’ve made on our respective self-publishing efforts.

VI.  Mechanics of Magic in Fantasy & SF
Location:  Room E
Time:  5-6pm
Guests:  Joe Wetmore, myself, Jeanne Adams, Nancy Northcott (Moderating)

Does a magical system for a story need rules? Costs, unintended consequences, social factors? What about reliability issues? How can we avoid worn-out tropes? How should magic in an RPG and story differ? Is some of the tech in SF “magic” and should the same considerations apply?

So that’s six panels, including a couple alongside the guests of honor.  Not bad for my first convention as a pro.

There are still quite a few panels that I’m NOT doing that are on topics I’m interested in.  I mean, I made up a schedule for myself, and if I did all the panels I’m scheduled for AND went to all the other panels I’m interested in, I would have a grand total of one one-hour break during the entire weekend (not happening; while I’ll be poking my nose into some of those panels as a fan, I’d wear myself out AND starve for the weekend if I tried going to all of them).  Unfortunately, if I haven’t gotten to those panel topics on this blog by now, I’m probably not going to any time soon, as I’m going to move into the Ravencon panel topics I will have actually been on.

I’d been trying to get The Merrimack Event done by Ravencon itself, but the cover art is going to be late (among other issues) and I don’t know if I’ll be able to finish building the book in time, even if it shows up between now and then.  I haven’t been talking about the possibility that often because, without the book cover, I don’t have anything I can show you guys… so maybe, if I DO get a blog post out next week, it will be with a Surprise! Book Release! Announcement.  (Heck, I don’t have anything scheduled for Sunday, currently, even if I’ll still be at the hotel… if the cover art comes in, and everything else is ready, I might spend the day putting the book together).  If not… well, it’s not like I asked Ravencon to fit a Book Launch into the schedule… (I thought about it, but thankfully didn’t; that would have been a mess).

And then, the next weekend following the convention, maybe I’ll start a new series:  Ravencon Panels (I DID Do):  My Final (?) Words.

Edit:  The convention is now over, and comments are closed because spambots keep trying to spam the comment section.

Ravencon Panels (I’m Not Doing): One Man’s Villain Is Another Man’s Hero

This is the fifth in my series of blogs on panels at Ravencon I’m NOT doing.  For further explanation, see my earlier blog here.  (I noted last week I had apparently been cut from several of the panels I was originally scheduled for; well, the program guide has been… well, not quite finalized, because these sorts of things tend to change at the last minute, but close enough — they’ve made a PDF of the schedule public here. In the end I was put back on some of those I originally feared I had been cut from, and should now be on listed on six panels, which (assuming nothing changes) I’ll mention next week.

One Man’s Villain is Another Man’s Hero

Here is the Ravencon write-up for this panel:

Twirling mustaches and obvious evil plans are a thing of the past. Today’s villains and heroes are as complicated as the world we live in. Discuss with our panelists what makes the difference between villain and hero, and how thin that line can be.

Once again, we’ve got an interesting topic.  Now, I’m not sure you’ll find many complex villains in my own novels (I try to focus on developing the heroes at the start of a series, with the villain getting more development later in the series.  Unfortunately, it’s still very early in all of the series I’ve released, so my best villains haven’t shown up yet.  That’s partly why I didn’t sign up for this panel), but I do know something about the topic nonetheless.

It’s actually fairly easy to advise people on how to make a complex villain.  “Give your villain a sympathetic back story,” and “everyone is a hero in their own story; your villain must think he’s doing the right thing” are things I’ve repeatedly heard.  That seems to just be common sense… although (a) common sense is not common and (b) sometimes the story you’re writing doesn’t make it easy to show your villain’s point of view.

There’s also the matter that, well, there have been plenty of popular stories with popular villains who aren’t exactly complex.  While a powerful force of nature and a great danger to all of the people of Middle Earth, Sauron is a fairly straight-forward villain who didn’t need a sympathetic back story to become the main villain of Lord of the Rings (now, he did GET an interesting backstory when the Silmarillion was released, but that wasn’t published until almost twenty years after Sauron was introduced to the reading public).  While the now-non-canon expanded universe did eventually fill out his story, Boba Fett was a villain who became a cultural icon from his physical appearance alone.  His past was a mystery (some people actually think his character was weakened when it was filled in), his motivations were unclear, he had a tiny role, and yet he developed a fan following as big as many of the major villains of the series. (In fact, much of the backstory for him was created BECAUSE he became so popular, if I understand things correctly)

And the villain doesn’t have to be a person.  A “villain” can be a natural disaster, for example, or simply surviving alone in the wilderness.  While not typical of fantasy or science fiction (my main genre), there have been a number of stories where the big struggle is surviving against the odds, and those odds aren’t someone else at all. It can, though — one of the biggest hits in recent years is The Martian, which features a struggle to survive in an alien landscape.  Mars itself is the villain of the story… well, sort of.  “The elements of Mars,” perhaps?

But this topic is specifically about creating a complex villain, and saying (effectively) “give them a sympathetic back story” might not be enough help. It’s a great piece of advice; if you’ve ever seen Batman: The Animated Series, their sympathetic treatment of Mr. Freeze took a Batman villain often considered a comic laughingstock and made him into a major villain that many people could hope succeeded some day.  In fact, I’d argue that series is a virtual blueprint for creating sympathetic villains.  But just that line itself — “Give them a sympathetic back story” — is, well, not enough.

It’s too generic of a piece of advice, and honestly it isn’t always true.  I’ve read many an amateur effort at writing (thanks to my background in fanfiction) where the writer tries too hard at giving the villain a sympathetic back story, and while the villain may be “sympathetic” (or not; if the ‘excuse’ for becoming a villain is too weak, it feels like “Really? That’s it?  That’s why this guy is trying to take over the world?”), but if you make things go too far your villain can appear… well, pathetic, not sympathetic.  So perhaps just “try and give them a sympathetic backstory” isn’t the best piece of advice.

So, what else can you use to make your villain seem complex? Well, how about using other techniques for making a villain compelling and complex.

In the Lord of the Rings, we know next to nothing about Saruman’s back story… except that he was supposed to be a good guy, in fact a leader of good guys, who turned traitor when he thought he was going to lose.  As a villain, he is more complex and compelling than Sauron.  It’s a common technique for the creation of a villain; TV Tropes refers to it (using wrestling parlance, of all things) a “Face-Heel Turn.”

One of the best-known villains in the world of mystery novels has almost no backstory, sympathetic or not, but he is thought to be complex and compelling because, well, he’s basically a villainous version of Sherlock Holmes (I am, of course, referring to Moriarty).

If your villain has a complex, intricate plan, and your reader can follow along with it (even if they may not know the villain’s true end goal), that can make them seem complex and compelling. It’s a method a lot of television shows with a-plot\b-plot formats (the episode has a specific “a” plot that is the focus of that episode’s story, but there’s also elements from an overall seasonal “b” plot) use.

So, there are many ways to create a complex and compelling villain… if you need one.

Ravencon Panels (I’m Not Doing): Editors, Publishers, and Readers: What Rules to Break and Which Ones Don’t Apply

This is the fourth in my series of blogs on panels at Ravencon I’m NOT doing (of note, I’m keeping track of the schedule changes as they happen, and it appears there are a few more panels I’m NOT doing.  I started out scheduled for seven panels; the schedule is still changing, so I don’t know what the total will be, but it looks like I’ll be on fewer than that).  For further explanation, see my earlier blog here.

Editors, Publishers, and Readers: What Rules to Break and Which Ones Don’t Apply

Okay, this is a topic I might have considered being a panelist for (in fact, I’ve touched elements of it on this blog before), but it’s running opposite of another panel I’m scheduled for. So… let’s talk about it, here.

The panel is officially described as:

Many new authors have heard the rules: One POV per scene, don’t use adverbs, Limit the POVs to no more than three per story. These “rules” have been taught for over a hundred years, but who came up with them and do they still apply to the modern reader?

So, let’s cover some of these rules, shall we?

The panel description mentions:

A.  One POV per Scene:
Your options with Point of View are determined by your perspective.  In first person (unless you’re writing first person omniscient, which is… uh… possible, but unusual) changing POV mid-scene is, well, NOT something that can be done — a story written in first person is, by definition, one written from a single point of view (the narrator).
Third person unlimited perspective is all about head hopping.  The narrator knows everything, including what everyone thinks.  If you know what everyone thinks, there is no head hopping.
And 3rd person limited perspective does its best to mimic first person POV, but allows you to change that perspective between scenes.  So, in theory, no POV changes… aka, no head hopping should happen.
But sometimes, it’s unavoidable; you write a scene entirely from a certain character’s perspective, but then you need one more sentence to show something that happens the moment he leaves the scene, or when he’s not looking.  The question becomes:  Do you break the scene for a single brief sentence or two, or do you head hop?
You can BREAK THE RULE (gasp!) and head hop, like many authors do (including, infamously, one of the most successful writers in the world (Nora Roberts)), or you can follow the rule and make a one sentence scene to show that little thing, as many other successful writers would.  You’re the author.  As long as readers can tell which character’s perspective is in use at any one time, they won’t complain.

B.  Don’t Use Adverbs:
If you use significantly more adverbs than your story can support, then it can read really weird.  Usually, this can make the writing appear slightly weak.  Oddly enough, a significantly large number of writers actually use adverbs even while frequently protesting their use.
The thing is, an overuse of adverbs really does make your writing weaker (as seen in the paragraph above).  Moderate use of them, however, can be a powerful tool in the writer’s arsenal.

C.  Limit the POVs to no more than three per story:
I’ve never heard this rule, to be honest.  I can’t really comment on it, other than to say… really?  No, don’t bother with this rule.  Well, I suppose if you have a different point of view for every scene, and your 400 page book averages two or three scenes every page, and you have a new POV for EVERY SINGLE SCENE, that would be… hard to parse (though if you ever wanted to try your hand at experimental literature, there’s a suggestion for you to experiment with).  Again, moderation is key.

I could go on, citing rules from the likes of Stephen King and Elmore Leonard, but I think I’ve made my point.  The “rules” you see do come from somewhere, usually, but are usually overstated.  If you’re just careful in how you break them and apply a little moderation, you can get around just about any one of the so-called “rules of writing” that you hear.

The truth (as Kristine Kathryn Rusch points out here) is that no-one but authors think much about these rules beyond that bit of moderation and care.  That’s not to say there are no rules anyone should ever follow (you should pay attention to your grammar, although even there you have some flexibility — the University of Chicago, APA, MLA, Strunk and White, Harcourt’s, etc. disagree on several key issues; many publishing houses have their own “house style” that compiles elements of some or all of these.  And that’s just using American English — factor in the variances caused by the British and Australians (and possibly others, but those are the two I know of) having enough variance in the dialects to have their own set of grammar styles, and you’ll realize that you have a lot of options.  I’ve got my own house style, even, which I will be editing all of my works to.  Eventually.  In software parlance it’s still in Alpha, so it’ll be a while before I do that)

So, the rules exist for a reason… but the rules are also made to be broken.

Ravencon Panels (I’m Not Doing): Gearing Up For War

This is the fourth in my series of blogs on panels at Ravencon I’m NOT doing.  For further explanation, see my earlier blog here.

GEARING UP FOR WAR

This panel is described in the (still just a draft) write-up as “Depending on the time period, terrain, and the nature of the fight, you’re going to need different kinds of kit. We’ll discuss how human beings prepare for battle physically and mentally — and what that says about their society.” I really feel under-qualified for the topic of mental and physical preparation, and I don’t even want to touch the one about what these preparations “say about society” (talk about a land mine for those of us who try to maintain politically neutral public faces!).

But discussing military kit? That I can do, if only from the perspective of a military history buff who’s done enough research into this topic to know (at one time) what people were supposed to receive in a few historic kits by heart. (Okay, so, um, my focus was the history of the US Sailing Navy, but sailors needed kits, too!  And it has been a while since I last studied this, so don’t test me; I probably can’t recite everything from memory, any more)

Now, one of the things to remember is that, until the last century or so, a soldier’s “kit” was largely theoretical. Some bureaucrat somewhere would write up a list of what was supposed to be in a soldier’s kit and set a budget (usually below what was actually needed) for obtaining these supplies; some lesser bureaucrat elsewhere would receive the money to put these kits together, skim some of it off the top, and then toss it down the chain. Each toss down the chain to the next layer of government usually meant less money for each kit, to the point that soldiers and sailors rarely received much the kit they were assigned.

But, for the sake of our sanity, let’s talk about what was SUPPOSED to be issued to soldiers and sailors throughout the various eras we have records for… and we have records, in some cases, dating back to Roman times.  Sometimes the government paid for these kits, sometimes the soldier or sailor were responsible for paying for these things themselves; sometimes the kit was required to fit a uniform standard and design, and sometimes the soldier or sailor (or, especially, feudal lords\knights) could customize or fit themselves out on their own, and sometimes some things were provided and you had to pay for others.  Usually, the only ‘advantage’ of paying for your own kit is the ability to customize things.

Regardless, whether you were a Roman Soldier or a member of the modern military, there are several things which are common to every soldier’s (or sailor’s) kits:

Some form of weaponry.  Whether that’s swords, spears, bows and arrows, or firearms, you would get a weapon (sometimes more than one).  At times in history, the weapons would not actually be issued with the kit, but handed out right before battle; regardless a weapon of some type should be considered part of the kit.

Body armor.  Note that this isn’t always a part of your kit; early Roman infantry soldiers wore none to increase speed and ease of movement (and as a cost-cutting measure), though later on various different types of armor were developed and issued.  Sailors from the Napoleanic era certainly didn’t wear armor into battle (though Spanish officers sometimes did).  Frequently, armor was something the soldier would have to pay for out of his own pocket (or get docked out of his pay), as it often had to be custom-fit to the person wearing it.  Today, soldiers are usually issued body armor (bulletproof vests) as part of their kit, though occasionally soldiers may purchase “civilian” gear if the issued equipment is defective or insufficient and replacement gear is slow to arrive (this is technically not permitted in the US Army, but the rule has been relaxed and\or ignored at various times of crisis).

An “entrenching tool” (aka, a shovel) were part of most soldiers kits (though not most sailors, as you obviously aren’t going to be digging through your wooden ship’s decking; in its place, however, sailors were issued tools for splicing rope or similar Naval tasks).  A soldier needed his shovel to be able to dig out camp latrines, dig in temporary fortifications and trenches, and more.  Plus, they could work as a backup weapon in a pinch.

Usually, soldiers were also issued clothing.  This could be something as simple as basic livery to go over your armor, or multiple types of uniform for use in different times of the year and on different occasions.  This can include not just the obvious uniform pieces, but also things like socks, shoes, underwear, belts, etc.

A water containment device (whether that’s a waterskin, a canteen, or something else).

Cooking gear of some sort.  You might not have the tools for gourmet cooking on hand, but some way to build a fire and hold food over that fire is quite handy.  You also need some method of eating food given to you, so a bowl for soups and stews, a spoon, a knife, a fork if they’ve been invented… that kind of thing.

An axe or saw for cutting wood.  Because you need some way of getting fuel for those cooking fires.

A satchel\backpack\bag of some kind.  Because you’ve got a lot of gear you need to carry around.

Bedding.  This could be anything from just a simple blanket to a full-on kit for a tent, a sleeping bag, a rain tarp, and more.  The most original bit of bedding kit I recall is from the American Civil War, where soldiers were each issued HALF of a two-person tent; if your buddy lost his gear, you were out of luck.

Frequently, sewing supplies were a part of a soldier’s kit.  Soldiers and sailors were responsible for the maintenance of their clothing, so having a needle and thread were handy.  Plus, it gave you something to do in your downtime.  Macramé may popularly be thought to have its origins in the fringe work of arabic carpets, and in modern times is often stereotypically found in some hippie peacenik fashions, but making it was an extremely popular hobby among 17th, 18th, and 19th century sailors.

Finally, most soldiers starting out get a small supply of consumables — some hard tack biscuits or similar emergency rations, a half-a pint of rum a day (usually watered down into grog on shipboard), gunpowder when needed to support a black powder weapon, oils for maintaining equipment, soaps for keeping clean, etc.  How regularly these consumables were replaced (or whether they were replaced at all) varied from army to army.

Specific parts of the military might get special items, as well.  For example, if you were in the horse cavalry, you’d probably get special gear for your horse (while I know this is true, I’m fuzzy on the particulars of what would be issued).  Scouts might be issued some form of looking glass (binoculars, special sights, etc.).  Etc.

Of course, even if the military provides all of that, there were still things soldiers and sailors loved to add to their kit whenever possible.  Games (such as chess sets), cards, small musical instruments, and other material designed for entertainment were often more of a necessity than the shovels, cooking gear, and spare underwear, but rarely would any government service give them to their soldiers for free.

And if you’re a writer, you may need to add a few more unusual items to the kit, depending on genre.  I mean, if you’re writing a sword and sorcery, any magical characters may require certain components for ammo.  In certain science fiction universes (think Star Trek), some sort of portable sensor (think tricorder) would likely be a part of your kit.  That sort of thing.

As a writer, you may never need to let your readers know everything that’s in your fictional character’s kit, but it’s generally a good idea to keep track of the resources your character has as a writer.  Otherwise, you might wind up in a situation where your character has a ridiculous number of little-used items (like, say, Bat Shark-Repellant) that can turn the whole thing into a joke.  And it’s a good idea to get some idea of how much a soldier can store on themselves — it’s probably more than you think, but less than you want — while composing your characters’ kits.

Of course, like every other bit of writing advice you might receive, it’s not a hard and fast rule.  After all, the 1960s Batman is still a popular cultural icon, Bat Shark-Repellant and all…

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Ravencon Panels (I’m Not Doing): Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?

This is the third in my series of blogs on panels at Ravencon I’m NOT doing.  For further explanation, see my earlier blog here.

WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS FROM?

When people find out my mother is a professional art quilter, they almost always say, “Oh!  My grandmother was a quilter!”  And maybe they’ll follow that up with something about patchwork scraps or the like.  Note that my mother uses computer-aided design, state-of-the-art quilting machines, laser-guidance, and all kinds of things your average grandmother-the-quilter would never bother using for a hand-stitched patchwork quilt (nor would my mother, for that matter; they’d be unnecessary).  My mother usually gives some form of “smile and nod” type response, knowing there is no real comparison between what she does and that.

As a writer, there are certain things you hear all the time that the best response is a similar “smile and nod.”  Among them are “Oh, I’d like to write a book some day.  My memoirs would be fascinating!” (The people who live lives interesting enough to make good memoirs are often too busy living those lives to think about writing them) and “Oh, you wrote a book?  Anything I might have read?” (How would we know?  Usually, we don’t even know these people well enough to know whether they read at all, much less if they might possibly have read anything we wrote).

Another question we often have to deal with in the topic of this Ravencon panel:  “Where do you get your ideas?”  And often, as a writer, the answer is a smile, a nod, and some pithy nonsense answer.  Sometimes we’ll expound on it, and yes, following whatever we suggest WILL (usually) give you some ideas.

But here’s the thing:  If you’ve been writing for a while (like I have, and most writers who’ve published have), coming up with new ideas isn’t the problem.  The problem is we have so many ideas that it’s impossible to get around to them all, and usually coming up with an answer to that question gives us even more.

Because ideas come from everywhere, and are in everything we do.  Do you want to know where the ideas have come from for things I’ve written (published and not published)?

  1. I was in the sixth grade.  Inspired by a character from the Danny Dunn books, I challenged some kids in my class to give me a word, any word, and I’d give them a story around it.  The word they gave me was eyeballs.  I gave them a story involving mutant eyeballs taking over the town.  Sadly, like everything else I wrote in my school years, it was lost (at least the handwritten stuff, like this thing; the schools were supposed to keep permanent records of everything I wrote that would follow me from elementary to junior high to high school.  Come high school, my file was “misplaced.”  Shame, that — while none of it was usable at all, some of it might have been worth saving to re-visit some day).
  2. Back when I was in high school, I had a teacher that said “You cannot write from a 1st person omniscient perspective.”  I suddenly felt challenged to write a story in the first person omniscient perspective whose main character was a mind reader.  (This resulted in a short piece, almost flash, that I still plan to publish if I ever find somewhere for it… but it’s far too small to publish on its own, and I have nothing to group it with)
  3. I was in a college.  I had been assigned to read Oedipus Rex for a class.  This was the fourth or fifth time I was being required to read this “classic” piece of dreck.  I heard for the first time, however (and I’ve never bothered to confirm it) that the three plays that are the current “Oedipus Trilogy” are actually the only three survivors of a set of NINE plays (3 interconnected trilogies).  So, to try and get myself through reading the play again, I used it as research for a new prequel (perhaps explaining just why the gods entrapped Jocasta and Oedipus so horribly).
  4. A discussion about whether axes would really be a good weapon for stock-fantasy-race Dwarves, and if so why (and\or in what situations), and if not what really would be a good weapon for them.  This contributed to In Treachery Forged (but was not the sole idea behind that story).
  5. Back before self-publishing became viable (or at least before I recognized the opportunity), I was trying to go for a traditional publishing deal.  I used many tools to find possible places to submit my books and short stories, including a book (the Writer’s Marketplace) which listed what genres each publisher was looking for.  There was one particular publisher which noted they mostly did non-fiction, but they did publish four novels each year “focusing on caves and spelunking.”  I came up with an idea for a story of a fictional cave — whose layout and general location would be based on a composite of the three or four different caves I have been spelunking in — that had been involved in numerous incidents over the millennia (a prehistoric man’s home, a refuge during the civil war, a boy scout-esque educational trip, and more), the cave itself unchanging.  Unfinished; as a compilation of short stories (I’m even slower in the short form than I am writing novels) it’s a slog.  I haven’t given up on it, but it’s very low priority.
  6. I saw one too many anime and cartoons where characters existed who had hair over their eyes.  I started wondering why someone would have that hairstyle.  (Inspiration for Euleilla from In Treachery Forged)
  7. As I’ve said before, The Kitsune Stratagem came about because I ran into too many people who were saying “Elves and Dwarves are so overplayed!  If I see another book with an elf in it I’m going to throw it across the room!” (and similar sentiments).  I figured I’d see just how overplayed it came across if I tried a similar story to one I would have written using Elves and Dwarves and Dragons. but instead substituted in other types of fantastical creatures (in this case, Kitsune and Wulvers and Bunyips, oh my!)
  8. I was watching some long-forgotten TV show where there was a discussion of sawed-off shotguns.  I started wondering what the fantasy equivalent would be.  The resulting story will be appearing in the upcoming World’s Enough anthology, due to be published in time for a launch party at Balticon (May 26-29).  Since I’m not the one who set that schedule, there’s a slim chance it’ll actually be released on time.
  9. Getting a bit silly, and instead of saying the phrase “he brought a knife to a gun fight” I replaced it with “he brought a trebuchet to a sword fight.”  Something unfinished and put off for a while, but maybe I’ll get around to it some time.
  10. I wanted a non-stereotypical hero (think someone like Porkins in Star Wars) in a space-based science fiction novel.  I wrote about half of it before I learned that my plot was almost identical to Night Train to Rigel.  (Well, maybe it was Slow Train to Arcturus.  I always mix those two up)  I liked what I had, but I decided I needed to re-plot the whole thing, so it’s waiting for a while.
  11. I was watching a hockey game, and started wondering how hockey would be played in space.  That was the origin of the Rink of War.
  12. While researching the California gold rush (for the Rink of War), I read the story of real-life character Emperor Norton.  I thought about bringing someone like him into a sci-fi boom-town setting.  The result (Emperor Norton II) makes a brief appearance in the Rink of War, but was a central figure in the sequels… of which four are mostly written, but since there was so little interest in the Rink of War itself I’ve abandoned that project.  I may revisit it, some day, retooling the planned series of shorts (short stories, novelettes, and novellas) as a full length novel.

I could go on.  And on.  And on.  My full idea bank of unwritten\unfinished stories (even just the ones I’ve made some effort to plot out or take notes on) would be ten, twenty, a hundred times that long.  So, yeah.  The idea that ideas are hard to come by seems… alien to me.  Which might be why I didn’t sign up for this panel in the first place….

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