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Currently Reading: The Undivided by Jennifer Fallon

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Lessons from Aussiecon4

I attended Aussiecon4 both as a fan and as an aspiring writer. In the end I feel that the fan took over, which was hardly surprising at my first ever Con, but there were a few panels which really provided insights that I might call new, or they put things in terms that made more sense than I had previously heard.

My Con started really well with a great panel called ‘The balancing act of Speculative Fiction humour,’ moderated by Tee Morris (who stepped up to the role in the room) and including Richard Harland and Howard Tayler. There were many good ideas, though I had already heard a lot of Howard Tayler’s thoughts through the Writing Excuses podcast. The most useful insight came when the panel suggested that the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule should be applied to humour as it is to other elements of fiction (we are, of course, used to telling jokes). The idea is to show the humour, then allow the reader to interact and tell themselves the joke. The panel also suggested that good humour is rooted in character because it allows it to be warm and good-hearted. Snarky jokes quickly become unwelcome.

Kate Elliott moderated a panel titled ‘Steal the past, build the future’ which also featured Catherynne M. Valente and some other contributors whose names I regretfully forget. The focus of this panel, to narrow it down, was to consider how the past can be used in creating Fantasy fiction in particular without falling into the generic Medieval European settings that have dominated the genre. Though this question wasn’t specifically answered, the panel discussed the use and value of folklore and historical ‘stories’ from numerous cultures. They also suggested that our tendency to draw upon the past in creating settings can be explained by the need to ground a fantastical story in a shared historical reality.

The panel took something of a historiographical tangent and encouraged the audience to look at the history that has been written and consider the motives and bias of the writers. The phrase ‘winners write history’ was thrown up as food for thought. The professional historian who sat in on the panel emphasized the fact that the authorial voice of sources tells us as much about the time and place as the content of the source.

On the second day of the Con I attended a panel called ‘Indescribable! Unthinkable!’ which had a horror focus and dealt with the issue of attempting to use language, which is ultimately limited by shared human experience, to describe the indescribable. The panelists were China Miéville, Terry Dowling, Carrie Vaughn and Shane Jaraya Cummings. Given the horror focus of the panel, they were discussing ways in which writers can portray horrific images beyond the reader’s understanding. The basic response is that the best writers can do is hint, and that ultimately this is helpful as it allows the reader to interact with the story and fill the space with their own ideas (the panel called this ‘evocative evasion’). The story teller simply needs to trigger a recognition to stir emotion. Writers inevitably tend towards visual description, often ignoring the power of other senses to arouse response in the reader.

On a linguistic note, China Miéville pointed out that Lovecraft spouted adjectives and avoided nouns, which inevitably label and reduce the object in question (though the panel questioned whether that is a valid technique or simply a failure to describe).

The best panel of the Con, from my perspective, was titled ‘Keeping pace: Maintaining momentum in fiction.’ It was moderated by Jay Lake and featured Howard Tayler, Peter V. Brett and Carrie Vaughn. While I particularly enjoyed the panel because of the great chemistry between the panelists and the good-natured humour they shared there were many valuable thoughts which I took away. The panel suggested firstly that it was vital to remember the difference between pacing and length, so that even a long story can and should be briskly paced. They spoke strongly about creating vivid settings with description but keeping it relevant to the story at all times and avoiding redundancies which kill pacing. The panelists all agreed that every sentence should be as lean as possible without losing meaning (I can see lots of people disagreeing with this idea).

Perhaps the key comment the panel made was that stories need intertwining plots and sub-plots (which I knew already, in theory) so that every scene can serve multiple purposes and drive several plots forward. I always saw sub-plots as a means to flesh out the characters and the world, and didn’t think of their potential to increase the pace of the story. Thank you Aussiecon!

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