Shadow Con: Writing Advice from the Literary Underbelly of Salt Lake Comic Con 2015

Posted September 25, 2015 in
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It’s easy to get caught up in the naked enthusiasm of Salt Lake Comic Con. Even in the first few moments after I set foot in the Salt Palace, I could sense a sudden release of pent-up excitement and joy. People from across the state—and even from far-flung reaches of the world—congregated on Salt Lake Comic Con, twittering excitedly as they adjusted their homemade costumes. Complete strangers posed together for group photos while plainclothes geeks peered down the halls, seeking out their next panels.

However, while Salt Lake Comic Con may be celebrated for its endless legions of cosplaying geeks and rightly criticized for its narrow-minded focus on celebrity, there’s a secret side to the convention that has so recently nestled its way into the heart of our salty city.

The Con Within A Con

Salt Lake Comic Con is secretly one of the best places for aspiring authors to get a reality check, courtesy of solid writing advice from local and national authors who genuinely care about the craft. Hidden in plain view among the collection of big-name actors from popular franchises are a cabal of Utah’s burgeoning scene of authors and small indie publishers. Even bestsellers like Terry Brooks, R.A. Salvatore, Jim Butcher and Tracy Hickman barely go noticed as, year after year, a second, secret con seems to form in the shadow of the celebrity-centered juggernaut.

Last year, I faced Utah fantasy darling Brandon Sanderson in a tense game of Magic: The Gathering long after the con closed. I got to check out two sessions of a three-part Writer’s Workshop panel and left feeling like I needed to get back behind my keyboard and start writing some fiction again.

This year, the amount of local authors seems to have increased, and the number of writing-focused panels has swelled prodigiously, but the buzz was still all about Chris Evans. This community of writers is building, and we’re likely to see even more interest in these panels as the con goes on.

Writing Advice: The Good, The Bad & the Very Ugly

This panel kicked everything off with a solid start. The six authors behind the mics looked a little nervous, but moderator Michael Ray Collings quickly brought the panel to order. He laid down the law with his sharp wit and keen sense of humor, getting some laughs from the audience even as he explained that he would gladly cut off any questions if they sounded like statements. “This panel isn’t about you,” he said rather bluntly, but his smile betrayed an easy, non-judgmental demeanor.

He then proceeded to introduce the panelists, all of whom are active published authors with ties to Utah. Brian McClellan smiled through his light brown beard and calmly introduced himself as an author of the epic fantasy series The Powder Mage Trilogy. David J West followed, a laugh on his voice as he described his various published works. After his brief introduction, Wendy Toliver introduced herself, proudly proclaiming her most recent book, Once Upon A Time: Red’s Untold Tale, which originates from the same universe as the television series. Her declaration brought a brief swell of cheers from “Oncers,” a demographic of TV geeks I never knew existed. Loralie Hall joined in, describing herself as a primarily self-publishing author of urban fantasy. I recognized Peggy Eddleman from her participation in last year’s Writer’s Workshop panel, and she showed us a couple of her published works. As the final introduction, Julie Wright greeted the audience with her evident charisma, making short mention of a few of her romance works.

The focus of this particular panel was somewhat loose, but it seemed to work out pretty well. Collings would ask each panelist for the best, worst and most realistic writing advice they had ever received, and their responses ranged from amusing anecdotes to genuinely inspiring exhortations to the audience. McClellan, in particular, seemed to reach out to my personal struggles with writing fiction, citing one of my favorite authors even as he explained that “write what you know” is tricky writing advice. “It’s just one of those things that’s easy to say,” he said. “Write whatever you think is cool, and do research on it if you don’t know it.” He went on to explain that this writing advice isn’t straight-up terrible, but that aspiring writers shouldn’t let it become a barrier to writing what they feel passionate about.

Similarly, Toliver’s writing advice on doing research rang with poignancy as she explained that doing research as a writer goes far beyond an extended Wikipedia search. “I ‘go there’ and ‘do that,’” she said with a laugh. Her research involves getting truly invested and involved in her subject matter—touching ashes, visiting morgues, spending time talking to experts in-person, visiting vampire bars—you know, the usual stuff. When another panelist tried to crack wise at her mention of smelling places, she backed it up. “Places have a smell,” she said, explaining that even if we don’t notice it, we respond to that smell in small ways.

As the panel wrapped up, I looked down at pages and pages of notes. Somehow, this candid, off-the-cuff panel seemed to resonate on a deep level, and even as the crowd filtered out, thoughtful expressions and small talk about new ideas seemed to fill the room.

Outlining vs. Discovery Writing

I hustled my way across the Salt Palace and made it to this panel just in time. The group of panelists were joking idly amongst themselves, poking fun at each other’s panel etiquette. Primarily, Larry Correia and Kevin J. Anderson both seemed to enjoy prodding the other, while Sarah E. Seeley and Jill Williamson looked on. Tyler Jolley, the panel moderator, seemed almost intimidated by these two big personalities onstage, but managed to get the panel rolling as Charles E. Gannon arrived with nary a moment to spare. The seat behind Tracy Hickman’s chair remained empty, however, which was slightly disappointing.

This panel got a slow start, but as the writers started to get into their grooves, it became one of the most entertaining—and informative—panels of the day. Correia, Anderson and Gannon all extolled the virtues of outlining fiction before fleshing it out, while Williamson stayed pretty moderate on the issue. Seeley remained the only real advocate for the “pantsing” approach throughout the panel, but unfortunately seemed outnumbered by the other panelists, who all made excellent points in support of “plotting.”

Anderson’s points about outlining resonated deep within the crowd. “I hate to get rid of something I’ve already written,” he said. “I think it’s better to ‘measure twice, cut once.’” His comments underscored the extreme importance of outlining to his personal work, which often works with a whole cast of viewpoint characters and a great deal of story arcs that need to be preserved throughout a work.

Meanwhile, Williamson’s defense of her “mutant” approach became a discussion point for the entire panel. “I need a map,” she said, her mouth curling into a smile. “Otherwise I get lost.” She claims that the outlining she does is more loose, and she really just defines the most important areas of her plot that need exploring, allowing her discovery approach to fill in the gaps.

Gannon, however, thinks that “just because it feels right” is a poor justification for any idea in story creation—especially when a writer is talking to their publisher. “There’s a mystery in every genre of writing,” he said. “But the only person who shouldn’t be surprised by it is you.”

The Q&A portion of this panel ran disappointingly short, but even in their allotted 50 minutes, the panelists gave all the budding authors in the audience something to mull over in their own writing, and gave us all a new approach to consider when we get ready to start a long writing project.

How Gygax Created God – RPGs and Writing Fantasy

As the audience filtered into the room, it was strangely sweltering and humid. Apparently, there had been an almost-full audience for the Harry Potter–themed panel before ours. Similarly, our panel was pretty packed. Nevertheless, I felt a personal twinge of excitement as I saw none other than Tracy Hickman behind the table. He was joined by his wife and co-author Laura Hickman, while Rebekah R. Ganiere sat decked out in full steampunk regalia on his other side. Cody Langille and J. Scott Savage looked a little marooned on their side of the table, but once Daniel Swenson arrived, they seemed to relax a bit. Candace Thomas opened things up with a few pointed questions about the ties between Dungeons & Dragons and becoming a great writer.

While her first few questions seemed like conversation-starters, Thomas didn’t really adapt her later questions to the discussion as it evolved, making for a few awkward moments as panelists seemed to talk their way back to the subject at hand. Each panelist lobbed out their introduction stories to the world of D&D, giving a few scraps of good Dungeon Mastering tips along with the rare scrap of writing advice. This, frankly, seemed like a better focus for the panel, rather than worrying about how playing D&D can make you a better writer. Instead, some of the latter discussions about writing better campaigns seemed to launch into the best discussions about the parallels between the creative process behind both mediums.

Still, it was pretty excellent to hear some of the Hickmans’ anecdotes—these two collaborated on the original Ravenloft adventure module, which is still one of the greatest—and most deadly—adventure modules ever devised. Tracy’s advice for creating dungeons still sticks with me. “Architecture,” he said. “Everyone builds their dungeons like an endless ranch house.” He explains that, if a dungeon is designed with a functionality and purpose in mind, it will resonate more strongly with the players. “This also applies to ruins,” said Tracy. “They were built for a reason, something happened to turn them into ruins.”

The other panelists chimed in, explaining that the strongest villains believe that they are the heroes of the story—they believe unflinchingly in the rightness of their own cause, and rather than being moustache-twirling harbingers of doom, they believe they are righting some wrong in the universe. Ganiere mentioned that she liked to define her villains by something they love or care about, an interesting but memorable piece of writing advice.

Savage explained that, in that same vein, good characters ought to be flawed, and need to avoid the cliché of being a “perfectly ordinary person” trapped in extraordinary circumstances. “Characters need to have jagged edges—scars, wrinkles and weaknesses,” he said.

As the panel wound to a close, it felt like a really interesting conversation had just been cut short. As the audience made to leave, a few reached out to the authors onstage, thanking them for various tips and pointers made through the hour. It’s clear that this is a topic that warrants a bit more than an hour’s worth of discussion, and hopefully next year, we’ll see some more panels on the topic.

Writing A Book Series

I’m not sure what I was expecting to get out of this panel, but as I left, I couldn’t help but wonder what had gone so wrong. The line was long, but the wait was actually pretty short—the floor team for this year’s Comic Con seems to have really stepped up their observance of the strict timeline of each panel.

That said, with such a huge turnout in such an enormous room, it seemed kind of odd to see such a small showing on the stage. Granted, moderator David Farland could have carried an entire panel based on his writing experience alone, but it seemed odd to only see him joined by Rebecca Moesta, James Owen, Britt Winner and Breanna Winner. Meanwhile, the chairs for Laura Hickman and Jim Butcher remained conspicuously empty, leading to some loud complaints at the start about their absence—especially Butcher’s.

Farland kind of stepped back in this panel, preferring to allow the other panelists answer his questions. Moesta’s responses were very matter-of-fact, and rarely lasted longer than a few sentences. Her experience in writing series is well-established, but she admitted that her experience really only extended to writing a series—as such, she was ill-equipped to answer questions that compared series-writing to standalone-writing.

Owen, by contrast, was rather funny, but seemed to stray from the point a bit too often. At one point, he even wandered into the crowd. When he returned, he said that sometimes he has to get up and kiss somebody in the audience in the middle of a panel. This earned him a peal of uproarious laughter, and became a bit of an ongoing gag for the group onstage.

Meanwhile, the Winner twins seemed to have a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but didn’t do much to explain their processes for writing. Their cheerful banter and evident charisma shone through with every question that got sent their way, but many of their responses seemed very similar. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I think much of the writing advice they repeated was indeed valuable, but it just didn’t do it for me.

Granted, much of the blame for this issue could be heaped upon the shoulders of Farland, who seemed to be more interested in the business side of writing a series, rather than the mechanics of writing such a story. Virtually every question brought up in the brief Q&A session following the panel was on this very subject—how does a writer prepare to undertake such a momentous task as writing a series?

While it was nice to hear some candid talk about the business behind the books, it felt like this information overtook the real meat of the panel, leaving little for the audience to chew on as they left.

The End?

While there are plenty of panels left in this year’s Salt Lake Comic Con, it’s clear that the literary underbelly of this event is starting to get more traction. While the Writing Workshop last year felt like an all-access pass to the world of professional publishing, each of these panels offered something new and exciting to think about, and the shorter format made it possible to stay focused on a single topic, rather than bouncing around to every conceivable facet of the industry. Despite a couple of complaints, the quality of these panels is still high.

If you’re at Salt Lake Comic Con and you’re mulling over a book idea you’ve had kicking around in your head for a few years, it’s time to drop in on one of the weekend’s upcoming panels!

If you’re hungry for more Comic Con coverage, check out SLUG’s Salt Lake Comic Con 2015 page!