This past weekend, I went with a group of friends to RavenCon. This is a science fiction and fantasy convention with a literary focus, and at least two of the friends who came with me also write fiction (including fantasy). I'd been to the con twice before, and it was great. This year was also a good time, though the panels were perhaps down a little in terms of literature. (The con was ambitious this year in other ways, such as the masquerade.) My three con-going occurrences of most note writing-wise are as follows.
1. I got a fun writing idea. This happens to me all the time at conventions and conferences. Maybe it's just being saturated in a writerly environment, making me think of things in terms of how I could write them; oh, wait, no, I do that constantly. Maybe it's hearing other people toss ideas around. Who knows. Anyway, the very first panel I attended upon my arrival Friday evening was called "Writing the Perfect Blurb." (I could tell from the description, and it was confirmed in the panel, that the name should have been something like "Writing the Perfect Cover Letter.") The panelists were several authors and an editor of a sci-fi/fantasy magazine. At one point, an author panelist was trying to point out good versus bad ways to approach an editor.
"So, let's say you want Ed" - the editor panelist's name was indeed Ed - "to read your story on . . . oh . . . cross-dressing dragons."
"Ha," I thought. "How would you have cross-dressing dragons? I don't see -"
"DING," said my brain. I took notes. Now, I have actually written this story (more on that after we leave RavenCon).
2. I learned things about podcasting. This could be important because of my hope to podcast Dragons Over London this summer. A number of RavenCon's guests had podcasts, and there were several panels on the subject. I went to one on podcasting for promotion. One panelist was an author who had podcasted a book, and there were three other people who just had podcasts (though they sounded interesting; two were comedy, and one was about technology and the future). Anyway, they talked mostly about their content (largely interviews), and I took notes, but then asked the author some questions afterward. She recommended that I go to the hour-long workshop on podcasting later; I said I could make it to the first half, probably, but the second half coincided with a panel on literary worldbuilding. She was nice, and said that if I came she'd try to tailor it to me.
I did go to the workshop. The author, who was the moderator, asked a question or two that were helpful to me, but the workshop was largely on technical stuff. This could have been fascinating to me, I think, if put in a way that was not utterly terrifying. The panelists had brought something like twelve microphones between them, massive amounts of wire, microphone stands, interfaces, laptops, cases, headphones, and more. The table looked like someone's attempt to hotwire an alien radio station. Also, most of the other people at the panel seemed to already know a lot about podcasting. As best I could tell, they were there in order to say things like,
"Oh, the Luna. That's a nice one. I got one of those on eBay for sixty bucks. I got really lucky."
It didn't help that I had to leave halfway through. However, when I reached the worldbuilding panel and told Becky briefly about what had happened, she assured me that podcasting is not scary and alien, but doable.
3. I almost learned things about worldbuilding. I say "almost" because, while the panelists gave lots of good, true, important advice, I'd heard practically all of it before. I've been to panels on worldbuilding - in fact, I'm pretty sure I went to one at RavenCon last year. Anyway, a few basic points for those who wonder what kind of things the panel covered:
- be internally consistent.
- think through all the implications of anything you change. (This ties into the previous Do.) If your magic system allows people to easily speak with the dead, realize that you will have trouble writing a murder mystery.
- make the rules clear quickly, at least to the extent to which your point of view character would know them. If your POV character is a psychic but can only read the minds of redheaded men, make this clear in some way, or people will wonder why the character isn't reading the mind of that woman who holds the vital information. Likewise, if your character can read minds and you don't let readers know, they'll feel baffled and left behind when he starts peeking into someone's thoughts. Possibly the worst is to have a POV character who clearly has some powers (i.e. we know she's a mage), but does not explain how powerful they are or what they do. You could probably get away with one or the other, as long as you give an idea of both (i.e. she controls fire, but is only a novice and much less skilled than older and more practiced mages).
- assume all of your people are nice, nonagressive, and upstanding (unless there's a reason they would be). If your world has people who use magic and people who don't, and mages don't rule the world, there had better be a reason why not.
- make your entire world - or even its countries - a monoculture. Even people who speak the same language often have different cultures. Within any group of reasonable size (a country, a town, possibly even a large family) will be conflict: any time when people have different priorities, they will have conflict. With different philosophies, alliances, politics, etc., potential for such conflict increases.
- make your aliens like humans without a reason. If they evolved on a planet just like Earth, maybe.
- make things too regular. This is rather like the monoculture issue; if your vision for Country A is that it is extremely capitalist, that doesn't mean that every single person there favors the capitalist system. Not to say that you need to have a token communist or anything, but don't make your characters carbon copies. This goes for natural things as well. You have to be careful not to throw people off, but most rules do have exceptions.
As someone who writes a lot of fantasy (and has put loads of work into worldbuilding), my favorite advice ever on writing magic came from a book called The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy. (I highly recommend this book and its follow-up, The Fantasy Writer's Companion. Funnily enough, I got both at RavenCon.) It has a lot of great advice, but I found the part on magic systems particularly helpful, as magic is a huge part of any world which uses it. Not only does it set parameters for the possible, it can change the tone of the world. The Complete Guide suggests considering three things when designing your magic system and analyzing how it will affect the rest of your world: power, price, and availability to the general population. The book talks about these factors in terms of ratings from 1 to 10. It's actually pretty easy to translate a system into numbers. For example, magic in the Harry Potter universe is probably an 8 or 9 in power (can do almost anything possible within the world), a 2 or 3 in price (many spells cost nothing in materials and virtually no time or effort; most spell components of even difficult spells seem to be easily obtained within the world), and a 1 or 2 in availability (most people cannot use magic, at least not under ordinary circumstances, and cannot be taught).
Interestingly, you can design a world for any combination of ratings; it's just going to be a world more or less shaped by its magic. For example, if someone told me to design a world where magic had a 1 in power, a 1 in price, and a 10 in availability, I might set up a system wherein all the people can, by snapping their fingers, change the colors of their eyes. Common, easy, and fairly useless magic. If you were to, say, change the price to 10, you would have a world where no one was likely to use magic at all (say, it takes a lifetime of study and the replacement of your hand with a fist-sized diamond to change the color of your eyes). On the other hand, you could have a world with a 10 in power, a 10 in availability, and a 1 in price. Now everyone has magic that can do anything. Your world might be chaotic, but could certainly be written. A 5 in each might represent a world in which all women (or the firstborn of every family, or all people of a fairly common race) can use magic, which is powerful enough to do most things modern technology can, but for which the more powerful effects require years of training and hours of set-up time. If you want a fun worldbuilding prompt, take a ten-sided die (or random number generator set from 1 to 10), roll three times, and set up magic systems to go with the numbers you get.
My major fantasy world uses a magic system which is probably a 9 power, 4 or 5 price, 3 or 4 availability. If you write fantasy and care to comment on a magic system you've developed, feel free!
This brings me, sort of, to the story I wrote on cross-dressing dragons. I enjoyed it very much. I find that, no matter how I work at the short stories I write for class, most of my favorite short stories are ones for which the idea just came to me. This is the first such that I turned in for Advanced Fiction. (Most ideas I get are for longer pieces.) I edited it and turned it in as the final story for my Advanced Fiction class.
I feel it worth noting that my Advanced Fiction class had a barbecue at the end of the semester, during which two of my classmates made and played a drinking game based on English-major terms. They called it "Allegory." Since we mostly knew each other in the context of writing, such terms kept coming up. Someone would use words like "narrative flow" or "point-of-view violation." "Allegory!" they would shout, and take a drink of beer. Becky and I, who don't really drink, were highly amused. Eventually, both players ended up in the host's neighbors' wading pool. (I think the neighbors were lending it to our host, as it was in his house's yard, but he said it belonged to them.)
Just thought I'd mention it as this blaze of nerdy, writerly glory seemed an appropriate end for an excellent creative writing class. As a hopeful creative writing professor-to-be, I'd love to teach classes as well as Professor Robbins did us.