CanCon 2015 day 2: Magic and magical systems

Panellists: Leah Bobet, Kate Heartfield, Jim Davies, Leah Petersen

KH: Why do we choose to systematize magic?

LP: There are so many ways to approach it. I think the goal is to bring something unique to readers. Generally, epic fantasy means systemic magic.

KH: Have reader expectations changed over time?

LP: If you know what you’re aiming for, you have to dig in.

JD: In Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, magic is inexplicable. It’s more wonderful because it’s not explained. Observation yields magic. Understanding saps magic of its wonder. The best solution is to have your magic system generate questions in the reader.

LB: Where do you want to go today? Patricia McKillip is more mystical. Lev Grossman is more systemic. Your story is going to dictate the nature of the magic in it. Magical realism liberated the idea of what magic could be. I could be organic. You need the right tool for the job. People read books for different reasons. Is the reader looking to be challenged or are they looking for the familiar?

JD: I read role-playing game books for pleasure. I had trouble getting through Harry Potter because I felt that there wasn’t anything that couldn’t happen.

LB: Authorial fiat may damage your world building drastically. You might end up with one foot on the cliff and one foot in the air.

KH: The question asked in Grossman’s The Magicians is, who gets to have the magic? Harry Potter never explored that question. How do modern authors address this?

LP: In a book I’ve read recently, every culture within the world had its own magic.

JD: The charm of hidden world stories like Harry Potter is that it could be happening right now. Writers could also be lazy.

LB: Some magic systems play with magic and class. Scarcity implies privilege. What would it be like to be special? Knowledge can be magic. Music can be magic. If magic is important in your story can the average person get it? I am special – magic is internal and only the gifted can access it. This thing is special – the magic is external and anyone can use it. Our systems are a reflection of our enthusiasms as authors.

LP: Increasing diversity means that everyone looks at magic differently.

KH: A great example of that is Aliette de Bodard’s House of Shattered Wings.

LB: In The Shadow Speaker, the pathways to knowledge are difficult.

Q: Can magic and technology work together?

LP: Yes. Look at the Powder Mage trilogy. As technology increases, so does magic.

LB: Elizabeth Bear had one of her characters use divination by MP3 shuffle. That would be cool – an app for magic.

KH: Steampunk conflates technology and magic.

Q: How do you decide that the story you’re writing needs magic?

LB: I had an idea for magic using resonance and chords. It was cool stuff theory. Editors make you justify your bullshit, though.

KH: You have to get into the how of it. Science and technology is to science fiction what magic is to fantasy, generally speaking.

LP: I had to think about how the magic in my story world worked, but do my readers really need to know this?

Q: How quantified does the system have to be?

LB: Theme can be your guide. Like Water for Chocolate used food magic. In [Gabriel Garcia] Marquez, the landscape is magic. In The Cooler, the magic was the character’s ability to dampen luck.

JD: How systematized is systematized? Even if you use spells, unpredictable results may render the magic non-systemic.

LB: Magic cooking would be yummy.

Q: When do you go subtle and when do you sensationalize?

JD: Stage magicians are sensational. People who want you to think they have power work more subtly.

LP: It will depend on the story.

LB: If everything is at a 10, they everything is really at a 1.

Q: Can you talk a little about consequences?

LB: Magic can have social consequences, sour relationships. It can be small, cumulative things. Check out Resurrection Man.

KH: The magic user can get to a point where they’re forever changed by the magic. In The Fisher King legend, the king is linked to the land, so the consequences are not just for him, but for all his people.

LP: The price could be to lose your generative ability. You’re sterilized as an initiation. It’s all up front.

JD: In The Runelords, the cost of magic comes from someone else.

LB: For Ged, in the Earthsea trilogy, the cost is his morality.

And that was time.

Next week: Blood spatter analysis (!) A constable from the OPP explains how it’s really done 😉

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Ad Astra 2015 day 2: Cutting contracts and shaking hands

The business basics of writing

Panellists: Greg Wilson, Monica Pacheco, Gail Z. Martin, Leah Bobet

Cutting Contracts Panel

Q: Do I need an agent?

LB: First, you have to ask yourself what you want. What will your career look like?

MP: If you want a Big 5 publishing deal, film rights, foreign rights, etc., you need an agent.

GZM: Can you do your own taxes or do you have an accountant? An agent has specialized knowledge that’s critical in the publishing industry. Their 15% commission is well worth it.

LB: I have to clarify my response: if you want to self-publish, no, you don’t need an agent. If you focus on short fiction, you don’t need an agent.

MP: Short fiction is excluded in publishing contracts.

GW: The stuff that used to be done by acquisition editors in the publishing houses has shifted to agents. There are many ways to achieve the same result. Having an agent can free up more time to write.

GZM: I don’t need an agent for short fiction, but if I notice something hinky with the contract, I can run it by my agent. He gets paid if I get paid, so he’s invested in my success.

LB: Agents aren’t interchangeable. It’s like a marriage. Fortunately, break-ups are rarely acrimonious.

MP: Your agent is also a buffer between you and the editor, you and marketing, etc.

GZM: My agent can play the bad cop.

MP: There’s an imbalance of power.

GW: A bad agent can be worse than no agent at all. You have to believe in what you do. Get the right agent for you.

GZM: I recommend the Guide to Literary Agents.

LB: Don’t take the boiler plate! [Mel’s note: a boiler plate is a standardized contract that frequently offers the worst possible terms for the author.] When it comes to long form contracts, it depends on the publisher, the genre, and the specific rights asked for.

MP: An agent will get a different boiler plate as a starting point for negotiation. Sub-rights depend on whether the agency has a strong film/foreign rights department.

GW: Also look out for audio rights and gaming rights.

GZM: Ebook rights are now a part of the non-negotiable rights a publisher can ask for. It will differ by house. A lot of authors are doing more hybrid work as their careers progress. Your contract determines what you can do (e.g. when rights revert to the author).

LB: Non-compete clauses are something to examine carefully. Looking at the big picture, publishing houses are figuring out how to proceed in the world of epublishing and publishing on demand (POD).

GW: Distribution wars can have an affect on your novel. When Amazon and Hachette were fighting it out, some authors lost out because their books were getting into the stores.

GZM: The sales of your current book will determine how many copies of your next book stores will order.

GW: Titans fight and the peons pay. I self-published and then I got a traditional deal. Publishing and writers are both more flexible. Hybrid will become the norm. You have to have more awareness of the “shape” of the industry.

MP: We used to search WattPad to find the next author. Now, established authors are publishing on WattPad.

LB: I’m interested to see if WattPad will be monetized.

GZM: How does free translate to readers (which translates to income)? Some people read a book a day. They can’t afford their book habit, but if they read and review, they become influencers.

GW: We now have multiple avenues to get our work out there. You can leverage multiple fan bases. The more each author is successful, the more all authors are successful. The rising tide floats all boats.

LB: YA rules are a little different. It’s flush with money. It’s a gold rush. I’m aware of my limits as a writer, though. 18 hour days on an ongoing basis would kill me. Publishing is built on interns. Books are great, but they’re not everything. You have a life outside of books. Your career is your choice.

GZM: Precarious is in the eye of the beholder. I have a life and I do work long days.

GW: Being a college professor is precarious. You have to learn how to work smarter, not harder.

LB: No one knows what the magic button is.

And that was time.

Next week: We move on to DAY 3 (!) and making a living as a writer.

Ad Astra 2015 day 1: Science fiction for a young adult audience

Panelists: E.K. Johnston, Charlene Challenger, Leah Bobet, Jane Ann McLachlan

YA SF panel

Having just been in a session, Leah was a tad late . . .

JAM: Has fantasy done a better job reaching the YA audience? Who is the audience for YA SF?

LB: There’s the problem right there. Is YA about and geared to young adult readers, or do readers just find their ways to it? Adult authors will write YA SF to “convert” younger readers. That’s a bad reason to write YA SF.

EKJ: Girls are starting to look for science fiction in the YA section.

LB: It’s really YA novels that are paranormal at the core. Authors are starting to cater to YA readers bored with standard paranormal.

JAM: Who are the readers of YA? There are a lot of adults who are looking for, perhaps, a simpler plot or a more youthful protagonist.

LB: I wouldn’t trash readers.

Mel’s note: There was a bit of awkweird at that point. Leah confessed to a lack of sleep but continued to make her point. For the record, Jane Ann’s remark wasn’t intended as a slight to readers of YA of any age, nor was it intended as a slight to the authors of YA, of whom she is one.

EKJ: One of the things that YA does well is include something for readers of all ages.

CC: I remembered being intimidated by SF as a kid. Star Trek: The Next Generation made is accessible. [SF] elevates the human condition.

EKJ: It asks the important questions.

LB: SF is no longer about showing your geek pass card. It’s rooted in outsider culture.

JAM: Are there more female protagonists in YA SF? What does this say about the authors? The readers?

LB: Traditionally, SF has had a massive issue with sexism and misogyny.

Q: Would genre crossing novels find readers in YA?

EKJ: Maybe. That’s the charm of YA. It encompasses all genres. It would probably be an easier environment to break through with a cross-genre book.

Q: What makes for a good YA novel?

EKJ: The pacing is faster, length is a little shorter than the average novel in the adult category. The story doesn’t make them feel bad for being a teenager.

LB: In 2014, the biggest trend was adult readers, particularly women readers, reading YA. As a result, the YA market became huge. Advances were five times the advances in other categories. Publishers had the budget dollars for editing and promotion.

EKJ: Check out Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick.

JAM: Most YA share common themes: leaving home, dystopia, romance, authentication. Most are written in first person, present tense.

EKJ: Second person is rare, but it can be mind-blowing when done well. Fan fiction is a great way to learn the conventions and break them at the same time.

LB: Understand the conversation you’re entering.

JAM: What’s the difference between YA and adult fiction?

EKJ: Flexibility is the key. The main differences are the age of the protagonist and the age of the reader.

CC: The YA journey is outward. The adult journey is inward.

LB: It’s the reading culture. Adult SF is the classic authors like Asimov and Heinlein. It’s not accessible to new readers.

LAM: There is accessible adult SF. The Time Traveller’s Wife is an example, but is it really SF? Young adult is distinguished, in my opinion, by the intensity of emotion and its sense of optimism.

And our time was up.


I’m going to have to defer my next chapter post until tomorrow. I’ve had a couple of evenings out, I have full-tum syndrome (sleepy) and it’s late.

Until tomorrow, be well.

Ad Astra 2015 day 1: Deconstructing tropes

First, a 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.

We good?

Alrightie, then!

Panelists: Gail Z. Martin, Leah Bobet, Charlotte Ashley, K.W. Ramsey

KWR: What if you love genre, but hate tropes?

LB: Tropes are clichés. They’re mass produced. They’re widgets. Genre is more than just the tropes that are common to it. Genre is an assumed set of knowledge. This can include tropes, but it’s more enjoyable for most readers if the writer alludes to tropes rather than spelling them out in the same ways as other writers before them.

GZM: We have archetypes, the Hero’s Journey. That’s structure. To use a construction metaphor, not every house will be built the same way, even if the builders start out with exactly the same materials.

KWR: You have to understand the tropes to use them properly. When you understand what an FTL [faster than light] drive is, and the scientific problems attendant upon creating one, then you can use it well.

GZM: Butcher does that with Harry Dresden. He’s a wizard, and powerful, but he lives without any of the benefits you would think go with that power.

CA: Dresden is basically an import into urban fantasy of the hardboiled detective trope.

KWR: And there are writers who do this well. Firefly mixed science fiction and the tropes of the western. Defiance tried to do something similar, but they didn’t understand the tropes they were trying to use in enough depth to use them well. The writers behind Firefly were conscious of what they were doing and wrote around their tropes intentionally.

GZM: After the Civil War, people went west, not seeking adventure, but because they’d been on the losing side.

KWR: Defiance trots out their tropes too obviously: here’s the stagecoach episode, etc.

LB: A photocopy of a photocopy eventually fades to nothing. If we see the same tropes used similarly in story after story, they lose meaning.

GZM: If the writer wants to be successful, she has to bring something new to inform the trope and give it fresh life.

LB: We all read books for different reasons. Some readers want comfort and familiarity. For these readers, tropes are fine. Some readers want their minds blown.

CA: In that sense, Firefly does not subvert its tropes.

GZM: It’s not just the tropes, though. Characters can bring something fresh as well. Tropes alone will only get you so far.

CA: Comfort reading is like decor. Mind-blowing reading is deeper.

LB: The stories that meant something to us as children need to be reinvented for a modern audience.

GZM: Myth is bigger than the telling.

CA: Look at Diana Wynn Jones’s retelling of Tam Lin.

LB: The books that point out that “this is messed up” further the conversation. We need these conversations.

KWR: Literature is cyclical. It responds to what has gone before but also invites the next voice to the conversation. The pendulum is always swinging.

GZM: In the 50’s and the 60’s, the cold war was a huge trope in science fiction. Recent authors have brought that tropes forward successfully.

LB: There’s a genre fallacy that there should only be one conversation going on, though. For example, post-colonialism is not part of the SF conversation.

CA: A Stranger in the Laundry speaks to that.

[There was a short side-track into the Hugo’s controversy that I chose not to record.]

CA: Is Star Wars not a post-colonial narrative?

KWR: The Jedis are basically samurai. It all goes back to the Tokugawa gun law.

GZM: What about Carpe Demon? The protagonist is an everyday person. She has to get the kids to school, work, manage her household, and still fight demons.

LB: That’s just good writing. Rounded characters are the result of good writing. Kate Elliott is an underrated writer. Karen Addison’s The Goblin King is fabulous also.

And we were out of time.

Next week: You get a double shot. Science Fiction in YA from Ad Astra 2015 and my next chapter April update.