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…

Edit:  Comments closed due to multiple spam attempts.  E-mail me if you want it re-opened.