Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Home from GenCon

I made my third visit to GenCon in Indianapolis last week.

I wasn't born a gamer, though I've always like games. You might say I married into it, just like other women have married into golf or sail-boating or real estate speculation, or other hobbies they never used to do when they were single. It was my husband who first introduced to me to the wider world of gaming, through GenCon 2006, the year we married. I played in the Dreamblade tourney and joined the world of gaming

This year, I was there without him. Sadly, he couldn't escape corporate deadlines this year. That was definitely lonely and strange, but I'm still happy I went.

Since I just signed a book contract with Curiosity Quills, my focus was on the Writer's Symposium, a sort of side conference within the larger gaming conference featuring writers who are there to hawk their wares in Author's Alley, and to help those of us who write (or aspire to) learn about the business and craft of the field.

The sessions are the same sorts you'd see at any writer's conference: publishing and market information, how-to sessions on various aspects of writing (action scenes, character development, etc.), networking and social media advice. Unlike a lot of other writing conferences the overall focus is on speculative fiction. After all, GenCon is a gaming convention, and the preferred reading of many gamers is "genre" fiction. The book I'll be publishing is superhero fiction, so I was definitely in the right place.

I love the Writer's Symposium. The writers involved are so generous with their time, and willing to talk with you about their work and career and share any lessons they've learned along the way. I attended some great sessions, and, even the sessions that turned out not to be exactly up my alley had something of value of in them. I love the way that it still feels small and personal, even though it draws a large number of participants.

There's amazing variety among the writers who attend, from big names in the field (the guest of honor was Jim Butcher this year), to people who have yet to publish a book, but have other experience to share. There are also people who work in the field as publishers, editors, and marketers. I find it inspiring because I can see the person who is only one step ahead of me as well as the people who have really made it to the big time. It helps me get a sense of the big picture.

So, here are some highlights of my experience at the GenCon Writer's Symposium. I attended a few sessions on Thursday and full day's worth on Friday and Saturday.

THURSDAY: Editing Your Work, with Kelly Swails, Geoffrey Girard, Howard Andrew Jones, Troy Denning and Kameron Hurley

I chose this one for the topic, and because Kameron Hurley was on the panel. The other writers were not writers I was familiar with before GenCon. I enjoyed listening to how different writers approach editing and comparing it to the way I'm doing things. My take-aways:
  • Finish stuff! You can't edit a blank page. (I know this, but it bears repeating)
  • Editing is not just proofreading (sadly, it's not that easy)
  • Learning not to take criticism personally is a big part of writing success. Sometimes your critics are right. (so true!)
  • Mentors are invaluable. Being critiqued by a professional is enlightening. (My book is with a professional editor now; keeping my fingers crossed that its more enlightening than discouraging)
  • Critiquing others will improve your own work (I know this to be true from my own critique group experience)
  • Trust to the process and keep going or you'll have a perfect beginning, but never finish
  • Each story teaches you how to write it. (I've heard that before, but definitely am learning that it's true as I try to write a fourth book that is a totally different critter than any of the first three)
  • We all come at this differently. Any approach that works for you is valid. 

FRIDAY: Creating Your Image, with Elizabeth Vaughan, Jaym Gates, David Farland, Geoffrey Girard, and Maxwell Alexander Drake.

So the funniest moment in this panel was the look on Geoffrey Girard's face when he realized that most of the other panel members were not using their real names. Like me, he's a teacher, publishing under his real name.

Since I write in two very distinct genres (literary fiction and speculative fiction), I've thought about using two names to distinguish the types of work (not that this is a problem yet: no one is asking to publish my literary fiction yet). That's what David Farland (AKA David Wolverton) has done.

Jaym Gates and Maxwell Alexander Drake were undoubtedly the most social-media-present of the panel members, and they seemed to have put the most thought and care into that public persona.

I'd been stressing a little about the idea of developing a public persona, so I liked hearing that audiences appreciate authenticity and the importance of being who you are. In a way, it's like my classroom persona, which is me, but a particular facet of me. In the classroom, for example, I *only* wear Converse sneakers on my feet. It's my thing, my schtick. It's legitimately me--I do prefer Converse sneakers--but it's exaggerated a little, made more of "a thing." For Farland, it's as simple as his choice of hat. Just a little something to identify him in the crowd. That helped me feel less nervous.

FRIDAY: Working with a Publisher, with Kelly Swails,  Jaleigh Johnson, and Larry Correia.

After watching Kelly Swails moderate other panels, I was happy to see her again here, doing a great job keeping the conversation on topic (one of my only complaints about GenCon Writer's Symposium panels: the tendency to go off on tangents). I had never heard of Jaleigh Johnson, but I'll be looking her up now, and I was pleased to see Larry Correia, about whom I had heard a lot.

All three writers had a lot to say about a variety of publishing experiences, from the self to the small to the big, and what jobs fall to the writer (besides writing) in each setting. I liked Larry's comment about publishing being like getting asked to the prom. Sure, you want to go to the prom, but that doesn't mean you have to go with the first boy who asks, especially if he asks too much of you or is an ass.

SATURDAY:  Persistence and Reality of Being a Writer, with Elizabeth Vaughan, Kameron Hurley, Toni KelnerDB Jackson, and Stephen Kelner.

This was both the most encouraging and discouraging of the sessions I attended.  The writers talked about how long it took them to feel established (for most of them, about five books), rejection, and their own journeys in publication-ville. I appreciated how forthcoming the authors were, not sugar-coating the difficulty of eking out a living as a writer. Only two panel members were full time writers with no day jobs (Toni Kelner and DB Jackson).  As I mentioned above, I went into this conference already admiring Kameron Hurley, and I was surprised to learn how little money she has made so far, especially given the list of awards she has won or been nominated for!

Quotable moment: Elizabeth Vaughan said that getting published was like having a NASCAR team descend on your book, making it the best vehicle it can be. I love picturing my team at Curiosity Quills in matching jackets with their GenCon and Samantha Bryant patches, all using their various tools on my novel. :-)

SATURDAY: Advanced Characterization and Is Your Story Ready to Sell, both with Mike Stackpole.

These were definitely the most practical sessions I attended. Stackpole used a checklist sort of approach, listing things to look for and use in your story. He's obviously spent a lot of time thinking about and developing his checklists, and they are very helpful. I also appreciated his advice about the right and wrong reasons to self-publish.

I hope Mike won't feel insulted if I say he reminded me of my father. That's a good thing! I think it was his organized and list-making approach that made me think of my dad.

Although Stackpole doesn't write the same kinds of things that I do, I still found his advice about betrayal as a plot point sound, and his list of characteristics for characters that endure interesting. I am also still thinking about what he said about incremental vs. dramatic character growth. Pacing the growth appropriately to the length of the work (single book? series? trilogy?) is not something I had considered before . . and I'll have to: I've got a sequel to write!

All in all it was a great experience. Maybe next year I can be on the other side of the panel table.

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