TFOB Part II – Kick Ass Ladies & Tough Guys

Okay, so in the last installment, I talked about the first panel I sat on, Writing Heroes of Diversity.  It was a good launching pad for the first day of the Festival.  I spent some time strolling around, talking to some authors and attendees, including a half-clown, half-cowboy pimping Bernie Sanders for the upcoming Arizona primary.  As I said in my tweet at the time, it takes all sorts….

Later in the afternoon, I took in a pair of interesting panels, titled, “Kick Ass Women of Science Fiction,” and “Tough Guys of Science Fiction.”

I went to these actively seeking a different perspective from the panelists.  I’m one of those folks who doesn’t believe that the differences between guys and gals is 100% societal conditioning and that we – gasp – have some inherent differences.

(Muse:  You’re just asking to get pilloried, aren’t you?)

Quiet, you.

The first panel featured Yvonne Navarro, Beth Cato, Jeffe Kennedy, and Judith Tarr.  They answered some general-interest questions on genre lines and best advice they had ever received, most of which was straightforward (“Write every day,” “Persistence is key,” etc.)  Judith Tarr had a great point about staying on top of the business and writing world, which I am terrible at doing.  It was a good reminder that I need to be better about this.

The best question came from the a guy in the audience, who asked for advice on how to write the best kick-ass female character possible.  This earned a semi-snarky response from the moderator, who told him to buy the panelists’ books to see how it was done.

Beth Cato stepped up, though, and said the best way to do it was to give the protagonist agency – you know, make her the character that takes decisive action to drive the plot, not the object swept along by everything going on around her.  I agree, though I think this should apply to your protagonist regardless of gender.

Jeffe Kennedy echoed this and gave me my favorite quote of the whole weekend, which was, “Don’t concentrate on writing a kick-ass female, but rather a kick-ass character.”  Perfect answer.  Besides, anyone who wears broad-brimmed hats so well can’t be wrong.

When that one let out, I hustled across the festival to the other one, the “Tough Guys of Sci-Fi”, featuring Jonathan Maberry, Weston Ochse, Jon Proudstar, and Sam Sykes.

This one was good right from the beginning.  The first question was, “What makes a tough guy tough?”  They all kind of agreed that this was a character trait, not a matter of body count or muscle size.  Sam Sykes noted that modern media has conflated the notion of a tough guy with that of an action hero, and though the two may overlap, they aren’t the same thing.  Weston Ochse postulated that a tough guy was a good man who could be moved to extreme violence (physical or emotional) under the right – or wrong – circumstances.

When asked about their personal tough guys heroes, Weston Ochse named a guy I had never thought of:  Ernest Hemingway.  He’s right, of course, Papa being the quintessential man’s man.  Sam Sykes nominated Cersei Lannister from Song of Fire and Ice, by virtue of her fighting be accepted in a man’s world and her sheer ruthlessness.  I found that one odd, since even though she was hard and feared very little, Cersei wasn’t all that bright and very blind to her own weaknesses.

When asked if tough guys stand outside society, Jonathan Maberry gave an interesting answer.  He said that war and violence are uncivilized and by their very nature, break societal taboos.  That breaking has a cost on the soul of the tough guy and that cost separates them from the very society they often protect.  When one thinks of the kids that come back from war to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, the wisdom in this thought is clear.  He also notes that vulnerability is critical for a tough guy, since the contrast between tough and vulnerable gives the character depth.

So….  Kick-ass ladies and tough guys.  Another installment on the Fetsival coming, if I can get myself roused to do it.


TFOB Part I – Writing Heroes of Diversity


I finished the Tucson Festival of Books.  Whirlwind experience, so much to see and take in. From the pavilions, to the big name authors present, to the “Cowboy For Bernie” walking among the throng, it was something to see.

Sadly, some things didn’t happen.  I never managed to get face-to-face with Chuck Wendig and thank him for his insane-yet-insanely-helpful ramblings on his blog.  Also, I wanted to ask authors residing in the state if they had considered a “spec fiction writers of AZ” association, or even one for the southwest.  Outside one brief discussion, the opportunity didn’t materialize.

(Muse:  They probably have one and just don’t want you in it.)

That would be safest for everyone!

I got to sit on some great spec-fiction panels.  The first one on the first day was titled, “Writing Heroes of Diversity.”  The panelists were Austin Aslan (The Islands at the End of the World), Beth Cato (Clockwork Dagger) and Jon Proudstar (Tribal Force)–hereafter referred to as AA, BC, and JP, because I just spent a day on the road and am feeling even lazier than normal.

It was interesting.  As I suspected, a lot of the discussion centered on the idea of writing from a cultural or gender perspective other than one’s own, and cultural appropriation.  The central question: can you do the first and avoid the second?  I found this topic timely, considering J.K. Rowling being under fire just last week for this very topic.

All three kind of hedged their answers, saying you could, if done with care.  I got the impression they wanted to say, “No,” but as they all had done so, they really couldn’t.  AA said the best way to approach it was with humility, to do your research and talk to people living those perspectives.  BC and JP basically agreed, the later saying,  a good writer “spills their own blood and will give to get.”  Or in other words, nothing comes to those who sit on their ass.  Sweat equity in your research will reap rewards in terms of authentic representation.

JP made an interesting observation.  He said that while writing Tribal Force, he found himself writing about characters that all looked like him, omitting the pale people, and that he didn’t want to go down the same road so many authors did.  I thought that notion kind of profound.

A question from the audience came on avoiding stereotyping.  BC recommended seeking critique readers from various backgrounds.  AA simply said the best hedge against that was that all characters–good, bad, and ugly–should be three-dimensional, and not flat representations.

So all this got me to thinking: how diverse is my writing?

I write a lot of second-world fiction but the ones I set in our world, I usually don’t mention race at all.  Often, I don’t even describe the physical appearance of the characters, aside from genders.  Is that worse?  Better?  I’ve heard both opinions.

And on gender, I looked at the last dozen short stories I wrote.  Exactly half featured a female protagonist.  Pilgrimage to Skara has a male protagonist but features strong female movers and shakers.  Princess of the North has dual female leads. One is Andoyan (essentially Scandinavian), the other half-Andoyan and half-Darzish (essentially Arabic).

I guess I have yet to write a gay or trans protagonist.  No reason, other than it has never come up.  No, I lied, I wrote a horrible story with a gay protagonist a few years ago.  It was execrable and I have never let it see the light of day.  Not because of the lead character but because the plot sounded much better in my head than it came out on the page.  And yes, that character’s orientation was essential to the plot.  When that’s the case, I make note of these things.  The rest of the time, I usually don’t bother and let the reader draw the characters in their own head.

Do I need to do more?  Austin said-

(Muse:  You said you were going to use initials.)

Shut up before I stuff you back in your hole.  Austin said, “Beware of writing diversity for the sake of diversity.”  That’s what I thought I was doing, or not doing.  Now I wonder if was working with big ole fat blinders on.

So now I am really confused.  Should I write more diverse characters or shouldn’t I?  Or…should I just write what I write and worry less about this topic, and let it sort itself out?

Anyway, it was a good panel and I am glad I chose to attend it instead of the other one in that same time slot that had caught my eye.

(Muse:  It was a good panel because it left you with more questions than answers?)

Sometimes, just having something to ponder is enough to keep you searching for the answers.  And that’s life’s great journey, isn’t it?

A Bear and an Agent Walk into a Bar (Part 2 of 2)

So….last time, I posted about arriving at the Festival and seeing the first panel discussion.  Sometime during the panel, my sister had texted Dad and me, saying she was at the Festival.  We told her we would hook up with her after the panel and when it ended, and since there were a few hours before the next panel I wanted to see, we wandered over to the student union to meet her.

I chatted with her and my niece and nephews for a few moments before she introduced me to her friend.  Her friend – a nice woman named Kathryn – told me that she had a friend over in the Horror Writer’s Association tent, who had self-published a book and Kickstarter’d another.  She said I should go over and say hello, so I did.

Turned out to be a great move.  The author in question – John Mulhall – sat and talked to me for about twenty minutes about how he had launched his book and marketed it.  It was great information and I was happy that he was so willing to share.  In fact, the two ladies flanking him at the Horror Writers Association tent both joined in the conversation and offered tips and helpful advice.  They were both just as pleasant and friendly as could be, and I curse myself that I cannot remember their names.  I picked up John’s latest book, Dark and Broken Things.  I haven’t gotten too far into it but it’s pretty good.

I talked to John for a few moments before moving around the table and speaking to R.J. Cavender for a bit.  He’s the Editor-in-Chief over at Cutting Block Books and has been editing and promoting on the horror writing scene for some time.  Like the others at HWA, he was pleasant and helpful.  I came away from the discussions feeling pretty positive about having made some network connections.  While writing horror is not my favorite thing, I seem to sell more of it than anything else.  I wasn’t so dense, I guess I’d take the hint.

The second panel I sat on was called How to Score an Agent, which featured two literary agents (Arielle Ekstut and Michael Larsen), who, for 45 minutes, were peppered with questions from the audience.  Well, it was less than that; the moderator (who I think missed his calling as a prison warden, given his disposition) had a list of common questions that had been submitted in advance, which took up about 30 minutes. Many questions were pretty standard, such as asking what caught an agent’s eye, was it all right to deviate from the requested submission format (Arielle and Michael disagreed on that one a little), etc.  A lot of the information confirmed what I already knew.  Michael noted that agents often had two slush piles:  one for the the correct submissions and one for those that were not formatted correctly, did not give the right information, or those that did not research their agents (such as sending sci-fi to an agent seeking non-fiction).  Obviously, agents were only pulling from the former while the latter were automatic discards.  Both Michael and Arielle agreed that strong writing would always grab the attention of an agent, pretty much regardless of anything else.

I absorbed that one and leaned back in my chair.  I’ve been over some of my submissions with a fine-tooth comb.  I do everything “right.”  I give the agents that which they ask for, I format properly and research my agents quite a bit.  So why am I not getting any response?  Must be the writing.  Maybe I am just not good enough.

Well, that last thought cast a slight pall over my mood but I can’t complain.  The festival was a lot of fun and I learned a ton.  I am glad I went and plan on spending two full days there next year.

Maybe I’ll even remember to get some good pictures next time….

A Bear and an Agent Walk Into a Bar (Part 1 of 2)

You would think the second one would have ducked.

So, this last weekend, I went to the Tucson Festival of Books. According to the organizers, this is the largest free event of its kind in the country.  The Festival confiscated the outdoor mall of the University of Arizona and set up a whole lotta pavilions.

Using my vast vocabulary and all the writing experience I can muster, I would describe the Festival as one thing:  big.  Thousands of people swarmed through the tents, scooping up books.  Authors signed pages.  Vendors hawked their wares.  Singing troupes performed.  And everywhere, people talked books.  The guest list was pretty impressive.  Some well-known authors such as Noam Chomsky, Dave Barry, Joyce Carol Oates, and Amy Tan were on hand, giving talks and interacting with fans.

So here I was, thrust into this.  The festival staged a number of seminars and I found a few that were interesting.  I was really not prepared and I had an old man (Hi, Dad!) in tow, so I decided not to stay out there all day.  Next year, I plan on hitting both days and a lot more panel discussions.

Anyway, the morning of the first day was one titled The Next Big Thing:  Trends in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror.  The panel included Elizabeth Bear, Brian Keene, Jonathan Maberry, and Weston Ochse.  We got in line about 40 minutes beforehand, which was overkill; the room was full but not standing-room-only, so we could have come later.

(Sidebar:  My Dad looked around the room and said, “What a bunch of geeks.”  I said, “Hey, these are my people.  If they are geeks, what am I?”  He said, “A geek in jock’s clothing.”  Thanks, Dad.  I think.)

I found the discussion illuminating.  Out of the gate, the panel agreed that the reading public is looking for stories outside the Euro-centric paradigm … so that will bolster some associates of mine who are hard over on the same thought.  I did think it interesting they also agreed that standard medieval-style fantasy will have an audience, too.

On the subject of chasing trends, unsurprisingly, they agreed it was a bad idea.  Bear noted that it is incredibly hard to predict what will be hot, citing the decline of vampire fiction until books such as Salem’s Lot and Interview with a Vampire revitalized a slowing genre.  Keene made the point that especially in horror, everything has pretty much been done so the key is for the author to put a unique imprint on the concept, calling out Warm Bodies as a zombie fiction with a twist.  They did, sadly, agree that vampire style romance will continue to be popular as there is “a regenerating crop of teenagers.”

A couple of interesting things came up.  Mayberry (I think it was him, I should have taken a damn recorder) leaned towards seeing a surge in “post-post-apocalypse” stories.  Not what happened after the zombie collapse, but what happened with the next generation, those who grew up with no memory of what the world was before and how their world worked.  Ochse predicted a rise in what he called “MMO fiction.”  Not necessarily based on the mythology of online games but works involving those who live their lives on their electronic gadgets, and the generation shaped by the internet.  Keene made an interesting point about seeing horror diverging back into a separate genre rather then being classified as general fiction as it is at big box boookstores.  He saw that horror for horror’s sake was becoming more marketable.  Ochse concurred at this, saying when he sold one of his books about a military unit that fights angels and demons, the marketing was pitched back to him as a “supernatural military thriller.”  That’s mouthful, rather than just calling it horror.  Lastly, somebody said they expected to see a rise in “fun” spec fiction – you know, the kind where you are actually enjoying it.  I don’t know that they meant pulp-style adventure but just something more enjoyable to read than the grimdark that seems so prevalent now.

All in all, it was a good discussion and even Dad seemed to get into a little.  There were some softball audience questions.  I wanted to ask that since Terry Pratchett’s passing (the person who came to mind when I asked myself who wrote  fun spec fiction), who else did they think was really nailing it?  But they ran out of time before they got to me.

So the first part of the day was enlightening and fun.

(Muse:  You mentioned a Bear but what about an agent?)

Next installment.