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Ad Astra 2013 wrap-up April 9, 2013

Posted by thejinx in conventions, writing.
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I have been to numerous conventions now. I don’t just mean multiple visits to the same convention in different years, but I have been to at least half a dozen different conventions. The focus and topics of these conventions vary; some are geared toward comics, some toward anime, some toward science fiction. (All, of course, are based in some area of geekdom; I don’t try to pretend that’s not where my interest lies.)

Panels and workshops are a large part of these conventions, as anyone who has attended one will know. To tell the truth, however, largely I am not very interested in attending panels. I’m not overly interested in discussing or hearing discussions on pop culture or media, nor am I interested enough in things like sketch-offs or trivia games or other such events to want to spend time with them, and largely any panels that relate to writing or other interests of mine are either on very basic aspects of it that I don’t feel I need to spend an hour covering or otherwise just don’t quite match what I’m looking for. Part of it I think is the intimate nature of panels and workshops, being with a smaller group and therefore closer to and more directly involved with the people there, rather than the refreshing anonymity of the crowd of general attendees milling about. And, of course, these days I don’t simply attend conventions anymore; I’m there to sell, and even if I have assistance with doing so, I still usually don’t want to leave my table for a panel.

Ad Astra last year, however, was an entirely different matter. The sheer number of panels held at the convention that I would have loved to listen in on blew my mind, and I feel like I could have spent almost the entire convention going from one panel to another. It is, of course, a matter of focus. Ad Astra is a scifi/fantasy literary convention, so the entire event is largely centered around what interests me most. As a result, the panels went into more detail on aspects of writing than all other conventions I’ve attended, and offered a slew of very interesting topics. Alas, I was stuck behind my table with no one else to watch it for me for the weekend and didn’t have the opportunity to attend any of them.

This year, however, I had a second person manning my table and was talked into not just attending panels, but sitting on them. Having rarely even attended panels before, as well as for various personal reasons, I was quite nervous about the idea leading up to them. After having done it, however, I can say that it was a very positive experience. The panels were very thought-provoking and informative and it was an excellent opportunity to meet some very interesting people, both other panelists and attendees of the panel. I think they all went quite well and it seems that everyone there learned something new or got a new outlook on the topics covered.

I Love to Hate You: This was the first panel I sat on. This panel looked at villains and discussed both good and bad villains, as well as the difference between villains – the characters who command the basic conflict of the story – and antagonists – those characters who aren’t necessarily involved with the central conflict but still serve to get in the protagonists’ way. Examples of good villains included, of course, Darth Vader from Star Wars – though mention was made of diminishing his impact through overuse of the Force strangling technique in The Empire Strikes Back – as well as classic literature like Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello and Grendel from Beowulf. The idea of blurring the line between traditional notions of “good” and “evil” as well as not compartmentalizing characters and conflicts into such simplistic definitions was discussed, although some readers do prefer to have a clear idea of who the ‘good guy’ and the ‘bad guy’ are in fiction.

What to take away: Villains are an integral part to fantasy and scifi literature and they must be given as much care as the protagonists. An author must know everything about their villains, even if the details of their motives and history are never revealed in the text, and in fact that can be used to great effect when hints of the existence of those things are sprinkled throughout. When one does get into the reason why a villain is doing such evil deeds, however, one must be careful to avoid their actions becoming petty or obsessive as their backstory is revealed. Also, unscrupulous or villainous characters can be used as protagonists and keep readers from completely despising them as long as there is some nugget for them to like, even if it is something as simple as the character is nice to their pet cat.

Is the Stand Alone Novel an Endangered Format?: This panel addressed the place of standalone or one-shot novels in a genre dominated by trilogies and series. From an author’s standpoint, there is a clear advantage to writing or at least pitching series, both because readers want more of what they already know and like and because the sales teams for publishers are likely to sell far more books of an installment in a series to bookstores than a standalone novel, for the same reason. Publishers also put pressure on authors who write a successful standalone novel to extend it into a series, again to draw in those same readers who have already been sold with the first book. That said, authors should not feel obligated to extend a standalone book into a series for the sole reason of selling more books, and even discerning readers can be very satisfied with a really good standalone novel. Also, there was frustration on both sides of the table for the way publishers tend to handle series, in particular with how unclear it often is where a certain book takes place in a series.

What to take away: It is a tricky market to enter for authors with standalone novels, and ultimately publishers do not put out nearly as much effort to push standalone novels as series. But, there is still a place for standalone novels and one shouldn’t force a series. When writing a series, particularly a longer series, using the same words and terms to describe characters, while repetitive, can help keep consistency throughout the different books and allows new readers to understand the characters just as well as those who have been following the series from the beginning. Having a central outline for each character that one refers back to for each installment is also recommended, for while characters evolve throughout a series, one should not forget the basic roots of the character. Also, Robert J. Sawyer and Julie Czerneda have wonderful senses of humor.

Writing High Fantasy: This was such a fantastic panel that covered so many different areas of writing high fantasy that I’m not certain I can effectively sum it up. It began with a discussion of the definition of high fantasy and the various ways one can delineate high fantasy from other sub-genres. The “high” in high fantasy can refer to the stakes, which are often world-changing even if the events themselves are fairly small or the decisions made very personal; it can refer to the level of the fantastic in the story, e.g. the difference between a story like Lord of the Rings, rife with magic and dragons and other races and such, and a story like George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, which does have very fantastic elements but focuses far more on the politics of the world in a way that is much more like our own world; or it can even be a reference to the class of the main characters, as in “high” fantasy referring to high-born characters and the story concerning itself with kings and queens and nobility as opposed to the main characters being more common people.

The panelists were also asked to identify what one aspect of fantasy defines the genre to them, with answers ranging from the sense of wonder, otherness, and unknown that we all once held as children, to the world itself, a completely different place from Earth and distinguishes high fantasy from something like historical fantasy. Much discussion ensued on female characters and the often stereotypical way they are presented in fantasy literature, tough female characters either pretty much presented like a man with breasts or having very female-oriented motivations, i.e. rape or pregnancy/childbirth. There was also discussion on the diversity of setting and characters in fantasy – or, often, the lack thereof – along with some examples of recent titles that have explored different types of worlds or races of people, and by that I’m not referring to elves and dwarves. The panel concluded with some pet peeves in the fantasy genre by the panelists and a brief discussion on how a fantasy work originates.

What to take away: Fantasy is an immense canvas with which to explore the unknown but also to address the same issues that we ourselves face in our own world. As such, one should look to our own world to reflect the same level of diversity in an invented world and not be afraid to write stories based in other cultures aside from the much-used medieval Europe. However, when trying to create something new and fresh, one should not just flip an established trope on its head. A mirror image of a cliche is still a reflection of the cliche itself. Female characters should be given all the complex motivations that male characters, and actual human females, have. Ultimately, fantasy worlds, conflicts, and characters should all display the same level of complexity as our world does, and doing so makes one’s fantasy much more rich and believable. Also, when introducing a fundamentally different aspect of life into a fantasy world, careful thought must be given to the impact of that thing on the world in terms of technology and society.

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the launch party for Brain Lag, my publishing company, and I want to thank everyone who came out to celebrate its opening. Overall, I had a really wonderful time at Ad Astra and I am certainly looking forward to returning next year.

Also, if anyone who attended these panels has anything to add that I forgot, please feel free to comment and add your input!

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Comments»

1. K.W. Ramsey - April 9, 2013

Catherine, It was a pleasure to be on the Writing High Fantasy panel with you and I hope we get a chance to converse again at a future convention. I think we both lucked out in attending what has been one of the best Ad Astra’s in recent memory.

Much success in your endeavors!


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