Reinventing the Adventure
Track(s): The Craft and Business of Writing
Description: The adventure story archetype lies at the heart of both science fiction and fantasy, and is the oldest and arguably most profound literary form in human history. How come contemporary society has ghettoized this art form? Even in science fiction, many authors have shied away from adventure in their desire to be taken seriously. How can we reverse this trend? What does it take to write fiction that's fast, fun, shamelessly adventurous, and at least as challenging as what passes these days for mainstream lit?
Panelists: 4 Carol F. Emshwiller, 1 John Helfers, 3 P. C. Hodgell, 2 Monica Valentinelli
I arrived at this panel late.
I'm ruthlessly leaving out anything that I found uninteresting or that I can't reconstruct accurately from my notes.
I'm paraphrasing from my notes; any words I incorrectly put into anyone's mouth are my fault.
Question: Define mainstream literary fiction
PC: I don't read modern literary fiction, but I do read older literary fiction.
John: External conflict drives adventure fiction, internal conflict drives mainstream.
Monica: Conflict must make sense for the story. I like it when adventure fiction has both external and internal conflict. Example: Joss Whedon, Angel - guilty vampire
PC: I like when there is a mixture of external and internal, and both at full blast.
Question: What is your least favorite adventure story and how would you improve it?
John: Won't mention names because I'm an editor. Example: Female author writing about women characters. They get into a battle. She skips writing about the battle.
Carol: McCort did the same thing in "The Most Dangerous Game."
John: In that case it works because there was already a challenge. You knew who won because he's the protagonist.
Carol: The story assumes the reader is smart.
PC: Example: Historical fantasy featuring Shakespeare - but we never see the plays, how they would be different in this fantasy world.
Monica: If you write historical fiction, your reader may know more about the historical period you're writing about than you do. Example: Author writes about Italy, gets language fundamentally wrong. Don't like it when the author cheats the reader, example: main character turns out to be the bad guy but there were no clues about that earlier in the book.
John: Protagonist beats werewolf in unbelievable manner. Important to balance adventure with everything else; adventure is only one part of story.
PC: It's not easy to get everything right. It's tempting for a writer to slide on the things they aren't good at, if they are good at other things.
Monica: "Mary Sue" character, too powerful for the story
John: Many books would be better if they were a lot shorter. Editors shouldn't be afraid of editing popular authors. Authors get too close to their work and need editing.
Audience question: What about plot resolution?
John: Some authors resolve characters and plots, some don't, but at least one plot should resolve.
PC: Have been working on same series for 30 years, I try to resolve some points in each novel.
Monica: If plot has been resolved, don't try to go on in the same story. Example: Babylon 5 had a four year arc and then it came back for a fifth season which was lousy. [Stef's note: This wasn't exactly how it happened; it was supposed to have a five year arc, but they had to artificially wrap it up in four years. However, Monica's point stands that the fifth season isn't well connected to the other four.]
Audience question: Is it possible to have an adventure story without physical violence?
John: Example: Alan Dean Foster survival tale.
[Stef thinks: City of Ember by Jeanne Duprau]
Carol: I try. I don't believe in villains.
Audience question: What about allowing the subconscious some play in writing?
Monica: There are two kinds of writers, architects and gardeners. Publishers prefer architects.
John: For adventure you need to know how the adventure impacts the plot, but otherwise the outline is not carved in stone.
Carol: I don't outline. When the story comes to a fork in the road, I go down the path that is mean to my character. But sometimes characters say something that changes everything about the story.
Audience question: Are there resources available to help with plotting?
John: Lawrence Block, Spider, Spin Me a Web and Telling Lies for Fun and Profit; Bruce Holland Rogers, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer; something by Algis Budrys
PC: Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel (PC's agent, book has exercises); Janet Burroway (a book about dialogue, she has written several writing instruction books)
Carol: Bernays & Painter, What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers
Audience question: How to work with an editor/pre-reader?
Monica: Ask editor "What is broken?" Writing doesn't have to be perfect. Try to entertain reader.
John: Editor should help author tell their best story.
PC: My first two books had a good editor, then I went to a small press who didn't edit me, which was a problem. I had pre-readers. On my first book, someone told me to write a different novel. So your editor/reader has to match your style.