Sunday, 19 September 2010

Final Aussiecon insights

OK, final post about Worldcon. Need to summarise (for my future benefit!) the insights gained from panels about writing -- both general fiction and fantasy in particular. I've boiled it down to three main panels that resonated with me the most.

Write what you know
This panel shot off in a direction I hadn't anticipated, as the panellists (in particular Guest of Honour, KSR) proceeded to mainly dismantle this rule, or at least reinterpret it. Basically, the "what you know" part comes down to what the writer understands of human behaviour and emotions, which are then projected onto imagined or heavily researched scenarios. KSR was critical of placing too high an emphasis on "experiential research", as it can rob the writer of faith in the imagination. Who wants to read what become essentially "biographies"?

The panel then became more about research -- how much you need to do (lots), how much you need to convey (about 10% of what you know), and how you can let findings influence the plot. For example, sometimes, little gems of fact will take the plot in unexpected directions. One comment I particularly liked from KSR was: "the writer is a conduit or receptacle channelling humanity into this one story." The panellists also emphasised the importance of using telling detail to enrich the world; by selecting unique observations about the world or little-known facts, the story is much more credible to the reader (than if you trot old the same old tropes).

Thinking in trilogies
This turned out to be a considered discussion of trilogies, especially in a fantasy context, and their role in modern genre fiction. The panellists -- all Australian HarperCollins Voyager fantasy authors -- made what I felt were some interesting points:
1. Trilogies (or series) help establish a new author, since they improve the percentage of readers that will go on to read past the first book. (Obviously this is a benefit to publishers who invest in new writers too.)
2. There is increasing demand from readers for trilogies to come out at a book every month or so . . . obviously this is more likely in the event that an international publisher picks up an already completed/published trilogy from another country. (Most writers aim for about a book per year; some freaks, um, gifted authors can write four . . .)
3. Stand-alone fantasy novels from new authors are few and far between. Stand-alone novels seem to be the luxury of the established writer.
4. The question of whether or not the first book in a fantasy trilogy/series needs a complete resolution, or whether it can end on a cliffhanger, was debated without resolution.

Anachronistic attitudes: writing thought and belief in historical fiction
This panel discussed essentially how "realistically" character attitudes need to be conveyed in historical fiction, and whether this is the same for fantasy. Kate Elliott (revered US fantasy author) was on this panel and every time she opened her mouth she said something amazing.

On the subject of relationships between women and men, it seems that even in some genres of historical fiction, readers are not interested in reading about the subjugation of women, and so many authors will create female characters that buck the system. Fortunately, we have much more leeway in fantasy than in historical fiction, but as KE said it needs to be consistent. Characters must be "of their place and time". This means the world building needs to be well thought-out and the characters must still act according to that framework.

"Character and culture cannot be separated," Kate said. "Figure out what the key things are . . ." And then she followed up a little later with: "People's basic emotions are the same, although attitudes towards them might differ [depending on culture]."

Two random insights
Of the other panels I attended, here are two more interesting insights:
1. [on writing YA] most YA authors said they didn't set out to write for a specific audience, the story determines its own shape and finds an audience. (Write what you're passionate about.)
2. [on characters] some authors find them as they write; others build them with care. I liked Kate Forsyth's terminology of waiting until the characters "quicken", inspiring a surge of revelation.

Overall it was a great con, with lots of things to think about. Now I need to execute the grand plan . . .

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