Ad Astra 2015, day 2: An agent and a publisher walk into a bar . . . who do you approach first?

Yes, day 2 has finally arrived!

First, a reminder of my disclaimer

These posts are composed of my notes. Often, because of the scheduling, I enter sessions after they’re already in progress. I write by hand, so as I’m writing what I believe to be a salient point, I may miss the next one. I do my best to catch as much as I can, but things will be missed. Also, if, in my haste I recorded something incorrectly, please don’t be shy about coming forward and letting me know. I will correct all errors post-hasty once informed of them.


Panellists: Monica Pacheco, Ryan McFadden, Kelley Armstrong, Karen Dales, Mark Leslie

Agent or publisher panel

MP: By the time a book hits the shelves, it’s already 1-2 years old, so to speak. Don’t follow trends. What’s selling now won’t be what’s selling when your novel comes to market.

ML: Is it fair to say that trends are what’s currently selling, plus some kind of twist?

KA: I’ll reiterate: don’t write to trends. There’s no point.

KD: If you focus on what’s hot rather than what you’re passionate about, your readers will detect it. Readers can tell when you’re being disingenuous.

ML: I was at a conference and I pitched my idea for a book without having written it. Dundurn said yes, so I started writing in April. The book was published in October, so that will give you some idea how quickly things can come together.

RM: If I was at the “bar,” I think I’d hit on the other writers. Craft is more important than your ability to sell yourself. Writers will introduce you to their people. Those people can be some very valuable contacts.

KD: I’m working as a freelance editor right now and the way I came by the job was through pitching a publisher. I was talking to an author and asking where I should send my work in progress. The author suggested her publisher. I pitched, and not only was I able to get a contract for my WIP, but I also became an editor for them.

ML: Sometimes I might consider a market inappropriate for me, or a piece inappropriate for the project I’m working on, but for someone else, it may be a perfect fit. I remember working as an editor and having to turn down a great story because it wasn’t suited to the anthology. I recommended that the author submit his story to Writers of the Future. He did, and he won.

MP: We read everything in our slush pile. We’re looking for that gem, and we won’t overlook any submissions.

RM: Networking is everything.

KD: If you’re working with a freelance editor, research them. Develop a relationship. If you’re working with an editor who works with a traditional publisher, it’s different. The money the publisher is willing to invest can change the dynamic.

KA: When you work with an editor for one of the big five houses or their imprints, it’s more important to be aware of what the publisher’s guidelines and preferences are. The individual editor may be gone by the time your book is printed.

ML: What are the differences between Canadian, UK, and US markets?

KD: Canadian and UK publishers are more consistent. In the US, I’m all over the place.

ML: In one instance, the managing editor gave me notes before I even started writing.

KD: The editor has to be an advocate for the author.

KA: Networking, as mentioned, is great, but don’t get sneaky about it. Don’t invite me out to coffee just to get a recommendation, or to ask me to read your manuscript.

KD: Don’t go fishing. Go make friends.

ML: Look at the long game.

MP: So much of the industry is based on relationships.

KA: Don’t do anything electronically that you wouldn’t do in person. Having said that, if someone asks you what you’re working on, be honest. Talk about it positively.

MP: The bottom line is to be professional. Don’t self-denigrate. No scented paper or bribes, please.

Q: Do different publishing houses have different quirks?

ML: Dundurn loves Canadian authors. In fact, you have to be Canadian to be published by Dundurn.

KD: Dark Dragon is interested in good storytelling. They like unique stories and voices.

KA: HarperCollins does amazing covers for their young adult books. Penguin random House is all around great. There was a poll in The Bookseller. Are authors happy with their publishers? The overwhelming response was that they wanted more communication from their publishers. 37% said that if they got an equivalent—not better—offer from another publisher, they’d switch. Subterranean Press is good.

RM: Smaller publishers are better at communicating with their authors. ChiZine, Dragon Moon, and Dark Dragon are like that.

MP: Tor is a dream to work with. Skyhorse Publishing is a good mid-sized, non-fiction publisher. Talos Press is interested in SFF. Simon & Schuster Canada has been very good to Andrew Pyper. They’ve sent him on a national reading tour.


And that was that.

Next week: What happens after acceptance?

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Ad Astra 2015 day 1: The beldam, the hag, and the hedgewitch: Witches in popular culture

Panelists: Derek Newman-Stille, Kate Story, Karen Dales, and Gail Z. Martin

GZM: How has the trope of the witch been used in the past?

KS: In the European tradition, witches were evil. We have a countercultural fascination with them.

GZM: That might depend on your point of view.

KD: The roots of the word witch are from the Anglo Saxon wicce/wicca. It means wise. The vilification of witches came about as a result of the Inquisition and the malleum malificarum (the witches hammer). Disney’s portrayals of witches have cemented the pejorative image witches have.

GZM: Every village had a hedgewitch. Someone wise, who knew about herbs, could deliver a baby, and so forth.

KD: Hereditary witches are still around today.

DNS: In Greek and Roman times, the practitioners were mostly men. They used curse tablets and imported Egyptian and Jewish words.

KS: Nnedi Okorafor writes about witches in her young adult novels. In Nigeria, there are actual witch camps.

GZM: Voodoun and Hoodoo, though they started in similar ways, are very different traditions. Santeria, too, started with the mystification of Catholic saints and ritual.

KS: One of the lenses we’re looking through is the appeal of the witch to young people. It’s the attraction of the unseen, ghosts, supernatural abilities; it’s the longing to see and work with these things.

KD: Llewellyn publications has seen a massive uptake in sales of their informational magic books. In Toronto, we have four occult shops. Young women are attracted to wiccan practice thanks to shows like Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Willow). The attraction is the ability to have a personal relationship with the divine without an intermediary.

GZM: The young protagonist may not even know what’s happening to them.

DNS: There’s actually an organization called the Harry Potter Alliance and they are activists. They do good for a lot of different people in a lot of different situations.

GZM: In Bewitched, the curses the witches made were all to Hecate. The Kathryn Kurtz novel Lammas Night was based on true events.

KD: Sir Terry Pratchett went to the Pan-European Convention to conduct research for his novels.

GZM: Butcher’s Dresden was not an evil character, but, because he was taught by an unscrupulous master, he suffered repercussions for decades afterward.

DNS: We love delving into the darker aspects of the witch. Look at “Dark Willow” from Buffy, and Stephen King’s Carrie.

GZM: A character can find an ouija board and an old book and suddenly there are unforeseen consequences.

DNS: It plays into political conservatism. If you experiment, bad things will happen to you. Essentially, it’s fear of knowledge.

GZM: You have to take responsibility for your actions.

KD: In The Mummy, the characters are told not to read the book. She reads it anyway and releases the mummy.

KS: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Q: Do you find in fictional depictions that it’s the girls who are called to the dark side? Boys seem to get away with anything.

KD: Maybe the guys can handle it and the girls can’t? I’d argue that’s societal bias and not necessarily accurate.

GZM: Our culture is still struggling with women who have power. In reality, there are just as many foolish boys as there are foolish girls.

DNS: Knowledge is still forbidden to women in many ways. In fiction, it’s often a traumatic event that triggers the emergence of power. It reflects institutionalized abuse.

GZM: In Norse culture, it’s okay for women to have power.

KD: In Celtic legends the king could only assume power—and keep it—by virtue of having ritualized sex with the goddess, or her representative.

KS: There’s a South African contemporary dancer who has recently revealed that he is from a long line of shaman. That’s how he channels his dance.

DNS: The curse tablets I mentioned earlier were meant to harness Cthonic powers (under the earth). England is a particularly rich source because they used lead tablets which were then rolled. These have lasted much longer that their stone equivalents. They were stabbed with nails to enact the curse.


And that was my short hand for what was a lively discussion of witches in various popular media 🙂

Ad Astra Day 2: It builds character

Panellists: Karen Dales; Patricia Briggs

Note: Steven Erikson was not able to attend this panel.

Humourous note: It builds the character or it gets the hose.

KD: Characters are the heart of your story.

PB: It’s all subjective, though. Everyone sees something different. The most important thing is that your characters be internally consistent.

KD: Who plays RPGs here? (Pause for show of hands) What the first thing you do in any game? (Create your character!) We have character sheets, even if they’re only in our heads. We have to become method actors for our characters.

PB: We have to step into their shoes. You have to look at the character’s purpose in the novel. If two characters serve the same purpose, one of them has to go. In Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, for example, the title characters serve the same purpose in Shakespeare’s play. They are expendable. Every character has to have a problem to solve. In a series, when one problem is resolved, another has to crop up to take its place. My Mercy, she’s a coyote shape shifter and therefore Native. Her job had to fit. She has her own business. She’s a mechanic for Volkswagons. She likes to fix things.

KD: For my series, I actually used a character I’d built for an RPG in the past. A to Z. What gets them there? Characters have to be complex. Origins need to be pre-defined so we know how they will react to the situations they’re put in.

PB: Characters have to make decisions. With actors, every action has a purpose. What does this gesture mean? What does their body language convey? C.J. Cherryh says every scene must accomplish three things. Mercy was abandoned and taken in by a werewolf pack. She has issues with women and abandonment. She needs to make broken things work. Ben is an obnoxious, misogynist jerk, but once Mercy, and readers, learned why, he became sympathetic. What is the secret the character would kill for or die to protect?

Q: How to you reflect growth in your characters?

KD: Body language changes given circumstances. Everyone has a mask for different occasions. Underlying that is the same core character, though.

PB: You’re limited by word count, though. To fully develop one character takes a hundred pages. Give yourself time.

Q: How do you balance complexity and consistency?

PB: Mercy surprises me all the time, but that’s part of her nature as a shifter. Experienced writers can predict what will happen and how a character will react. Think about your friends and family. How well do you know them? Can you predict what they’ll do? Think about TV shows and the characters you see there.

KD: Circumstances dictate character behaviour, but consistency is where everything originates.

Q: What is your advice regarding negative endings and death?

PB: The reader feels betrayed. Lois McMaster Bujold does this extremely well, though. You have to set up your ending. It must feel like it’s the right thing, the only thing that can happen. The ending must fulfill the character in some way.

KD: I hate Disney’s happy endings. I love tragedy, but it has to have a purpose.

PB: George R.R. Martin does this well, too. It’s what the story demands. Barbara Hambly did it, though, and ended up losing audience as a result.

Q: What do you do about info-dump?

PB: Write it down as part of the character sketch and bring it out as the story demands.

Q: Do some characters deserve to die?

PB: I’ve killed characters who didn’t deserve it and I’ve let some characters who deserved death, live.

KD: Ask yourself what the story needs? One bad guy might need killing, another might not.

PB: Justice must be served. In Pitch Black, for example, the pilot would have sacrificed everyone else for her own survival. When she later dies to save everyone, there’s a sense of justice being served.

Q: My stories are plot driven. The advice I’ve been given so far hasn’t been helpful. For example, I was told that all characters have to have limitations and they have to suffer as a result.

PB: You have to avoid the “super” character.

KD: One must suffer to learn. It’s a common experience, but not necessarily universal. Characters can learn by overcoming adversity.