(This is Part II of a series.  Read Part I here!)

One of the coolest things about creative work to me is that somehow it’s both HIGHLY individualized AND you can learn a TON from others.  I don’t get how it can be both, but it is.  And panels are where you REALLY get to see how others talk and think about your craft.  Getting different perspectives, hearing what other professionals prefer and dislike in fiction, learning that other writers have experienced the SAME problems you have and can help you solve them–it’s productive, SUPER fascinating, and just FUN.

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In the exhausted down time after JordanCon, I decided to jot down a few of the basic ideas I remembered from some of the panels.  This isn’t a full summary of any of the lectures or discussions, but it will serve to give you a good idea of what’s talked about at a panel:


Gritty Writing

– The biggest roadblock to writing grittiness well is EARNING it.

– Earning it means using it to serve the story, building a context for it, building up to it, and foreshadowing it.

– Earning it can alternatively mean grounding the imagery of gritty scenes in CHARACTER IMAGERY.

– An example is not just focusing on the scene of the murder itself but showing the protagonist stumbling out the door, hands shaking, unable to breathe, unable to think, retching, etc.

– Why do people like gritty, dark, and scary stories?  Three different answers: 1) when you experience all that fear and horror through fiction, YOU are still alive afterwards which makes you feel more alive in general, 2) Grittiness makes fiction feel more REAL by bringing out emotions you’re afraid to feel, 3) It’s an adrenaline rush you can experience without really DOING anything.



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– Patrick Rothfuss has a rule for describing characters’ appearances: Shoot for three characteristics.  Why?  Because your reader is NOT likely to remember more than three moving forward.

– Example: “She had freckles, skinned knees, and a wore a powder blue dress.”  These three telling characteristics are simple, memorable, and informative on the character’s personality.

– Editors find that most authors fiddle with their prose and wording WAY past the point where it’s productive.

– There’s even a point where it gets counterproductive and can even be costly, which is when the page layout has already been established and adding a few words can lead to awkward layouts like pages with only a word or two on it or an extra signature (group of bound pages).


First Chapters

– All first paragraphs generally feature (or should feature) one or more of the following six things: action, dialogue, uniqueness, something unanticipated, inordinate attention to detail, the awareness that change is imminent.

– The job of first chapters is to provide a context for change, to make the reader say “Oh, that’s going to be interesting”, to show what will be interesting to follow if they keep reading.

– A hook isn’t something interesting in an of itself, it’s something that will pull you into the next chapters.


Imperfect Worlds

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– A dark world isn’t just a setting, it provides conflict for the protagonist to grapple with.

– Dark worlds aren’t about gritty imagery, but about the feelings and knowledge of what’s going on in that world.

– Example: The end of 1984 when the protagonist puts his hand against the skin of the woman he loved and touching her is like “laying his palm against a plank of wood”.  That notion is darker than ANY of the dark imagery in that book.

– Example: One person in the audience said that he could handle all of the Saw movies until Saw III where a scene opened with a naked woman hanging upside down in a freezer.  He said the NOTION of what would happen was scarier than all the gore and horror up to that point, and he could NOT bring himself to keep watching.

– Dark worlds provide wonderful moments for breathers from the darkness.  E.g. the hot chocolate break when the apocalypse is happening outside.


Pitch Critique 

– (This panel consisted of audience members pitching their books in front of Pat Stevens, an editor from Tor, Harriet MacDougall, editor of the Wheel of Time series, and Brandon Sanderson, who would all give constructive criticism.)

– A good pitch tells you ONE thing about the story.

– Don’t ever hedge.  Don’t be afraid to talk your story up.  Never use wording like “it intends”, “it tries to”, “it’s goal is to”, etc.

– Using other works (this movie meets that movie etc) to give your story a context is okay.  Some editors/agents really like it, though others don’t really care for it.

– References must be specific and accurate.  Do not call your story Lovecraftian if it deals with monsters; only call it Lovecraftian if it deals specifically with tentacley cthulhu-ish monsters.

– Don’t describe anything about your story that is GENERIC.  Describe what sets it apart.

– Don’t tell the whole plot.  Confine it to a premise, a direction of the plot, what the story is generally about, etc.

– Names aren’t important.

– Have different pitches ready for the same story.

– Example:  Mistborn (for a fantasy reader): Imagine fantasy book where the prophesied hero had failed.  What if Frodo got to Mordor and Sauron killed him and took the Ring?  That’s the context of Mistborn.  The Dark Lord won and now rules the world.  The story is about a heist set up by a team of wizards with different skills who want to break into the Dark Lord’s keep, empty his treasury, and get away clean.

Mistborn (for a non-fantasy reader/for a teenage girl): It’s a story about a 16 year-old street urchin who gets trained as a spy and has to infiltrate the nobility.  But she ends up falling in love with one of the targets she’s been sent to investigate.

– These two pitches tell a COMPLETELY different story even though they’re for the same book.

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Young Adult Demographic

– YA includes a HUGE range of genres and kinds of stories.

– YA can definitely be gritty.

– YA is sick and tired of female protagonists.  YA publishers are actively trying to find and publish stories with male protagonists just to be DIFFERENT.


Sanderson’s Rules of Magic

– (This panel was Brandon Sanderson’s lecture on magic systems in fantasy.)

(This is what came up when I google searched for “magic system”, so we’re GOING WITH IT!)

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– The four laws are: 1) The degree to which we understand the world’s magic is proportional to the degree it can be used to solved problems in a satisfying way.  (Gandalf’s magic was intended to provide a sense of WONDER, which meant it was both never explained AND never used to solve any problems.  The exception was the balrog, which wasn’t really “solving” the problem by the way it turned out.)

– 2) Limitations on abilities are more interesting than the abilities themselves.  (Every Superman story is about Superman’s limitations: cryptonite and Lois.  No stories are just about his nearly unlimited powers.  What made Magneto’s abilities so interesting was it was telekinesis that ONLY worked on metal.)

– 3) Go deeper instead of going broader.  (Find new ways to use your magic systems instead of just introducing new rules, much less whole new systems.)

– 0) Err on the side of awesome.  (The “zero-ith” law, ie an overarching guideline: the rules don’t apply if it means sacrificing awesomeness.  If you’re unsure, go with what’s the most awesome.)


So that’s a little of what I learned at JordonCon’s panels this year.  If you’re looking for a better idea of what the convention experience is like, Youtube is FULL of recordings of lectures and panels from all kinds of conventions.

I highly recommend attending conventions as a writer.  You’ll learn a lot, you’ll meet new people, and you’ll have a lot of fun.

Oh, and speaking of people.  I mentioned in the last post I’d talk a little about the dude who wrote THIS book:

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Meeting authors you look up to is always a fun experience.  With Patrick Rothfuss it was a BLAST.  He’s an incredibly entertaining person.  Very funny, very witty, very talky.  He’s the kind of guy you can tell is a GREAT writer just from hearing him talk.

His process is FASCINATING.  His main thing is REVISING.  He goes through anywhere from 150-400 drafts of each book, depending on how you choose to count.  This means reading through each book hundreds and hundreds of times with a red pen in hand.  He talked about how he went through once just to cut “that”s.  He looked at 4000 instances of the word “that” and removed about 1000 of them, which cut THREE SOLID PAGES out of his book.  In this way, but also in temperament he’s kind of the opposite of Brandon Sanderson–he’s snarky, blunt, and honest.

And finally–yes, the beard and hair are TOTALLY as glorious as they look in photos.

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Hope this post helped anyone out there thinking of attending a con!  Maybe we’ll run into each other at one someday!

<< Part I

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