Friday, September 1, 2017

Gen Con 2017: Writer's Life: Develop Your Writing Process

This is the second seminar I attended at Gen Con 50. The panelists were stellar and offered a lot of sound advice. Let's go!


The panelists were (from left to right) Mercedes Lackey, Larry Dixon, Matt Forbeck, Karen Bovenmyer, and John Helfers. Karen was the moderator, and did a superb job at organizing and introducing the topics.

Matt Forbeck mentioned that this is his 36th Gen Con; his first was Gen Con 15. He got started writing in the game industry, and is now a full-time freelancer. Matt is currently contracted for four D&D-branded choose-your-own-adventure style books. (This excited Larry Dixon greatly, as did most of the other work Matt mentioned he'd done, such as the Marvel Encyclopedia.)

Larry Dixon said that he used to do 28 conventions per year. He has been a falconer and a race car driver, in addition to working on 60+ RPGs. Larry also worked on the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. He said he loves teaching writers.

Mercedes Lackey: "I do this for a living--my mortgage is my muse." Also, "I don't have time to fart around."

Larry backed her up, saying that full-time writers have to work quickly and efficiently. He said his process is "laziness," because "I wanna go screw around. Fallout HAS to be played." (He mentioned that Mercedes--who he calls Misty--is currently playing Fallout: New Vegas.)

Matt said that he can't play or read anything anymore without having to "pull it apart" and analyze it critically.

Matt writes outlines for everything, writing 2-3 sentences per chapter. Matt takes 1-3 days to write an outline. He says he can write 5,000-8,000 words per day if he has a plan. However, he stresses the need to leave room for discovery, because that's the fun of writing. And says that if you write too much in your outline, it's hard to throw it away when you feel the need to change the plan. Matt likes to re-outline after a bit of writing, updating the outline with changes that have emerged.

Mercedes writes a skeleton outline:

  1. Premise
  2. Expand to a one-paragraph synopsis
  3. Expand to a five-page skinny outline
  4. Expand to a 40-page outline

Lately Mercedes just does the skinny outline. When she starts work for the day, she first revises yesterday, then writes new words. After she makes changes, she checks for continuity, from the start of the manuscript.

Mercedes added, "I always miss my deadline."

John Helfers writes in 1-hour bursts, achieving about 1,500 words. When John starts the writing day, he spends about 15 minutes for revision, and then 60 minutes of ONLY writing new material.

Mercedes's maximum word count for a day was 25,000 words in one 20-hour day. She also works on three different books at a time, each in a different point of the process, such as one she's outlining, another she's writing, and another in galleys. One benefit of this is when she's getting tired of one she can switch to another.

Matt talked about having to juggle projects. He said you don't know when one you've been hoping to work on will suddenly become available. Another struggle for meeting deadlines: "Life happens."

Larry stressed that you have a system in place for communicating with everyone you're working with. He said that "editors are there to help," so writers should use them to do so rather than avoid contact with them when things are running behind. Editors want a good result too, he said. If you're an inexperienced writer, they'll already know that, so don't think you have to hide it. Indeed, Larry said that editors talk to each other, and what's most important to them isn't who's new but who's an asshole!

Karen Bovenmyer quoted Neil Gaiman's saying that you can make it in writing by having two of the following three:
* Great writing
* Meeting deadlines
* Being easy to work with
Matt says that only #2 and #3 are in your control.

Tricks the panelists use to get the job done:

  • Coffee (Matt)
  • Remember that what you do affects other people's salary. People depend on you. (Larry)
  • Listen to soundtracks. (Karen)
  • ...without lyrics. "I can't fucking write to Hamilton." (Matt)
  • Use a zero-gravity chair (Mercedes)
  • No windows (Mercedes)
  • Comfy chair (Larry)

Matt says that when writing becomes a job, you should take care to find a new hobby, something else that you do for fun.

Karen talked of the value of "thresholding." She has specified a room where she does her writing, music that she uses for writing, and a time for writing. She also meditates for a set period before she writes.

A panelist (I forget which) mentioned that days off in nature can help recharge your writing batteries.

Larry says to trust your intuition. Matt also mentioned intuition, saying that you'll learn to trust it more and more, and that following your intuition will help with your speed.

Larry advises considering, "How do I make this awesome?"

Karen reminds us that "Fear is the mind-killer."

The panelists concur that over time, efficiency improves.

Larry and Mercedes like to outline on road trips.

Larry pointed out that readers don't care about the writer's problems. All they see is the finished work.

On Editing Your Work:

  • Matt revises as he writes. He says to not be afraid to lean on the editor for some grammar and content issues. It's what they're there for! Don't turn in a sloppy manuscript, of course, but you don't have to make it perfect.
  • A panelist mentioned that writer David Brin will write a novel, lock it away, and then write it again. None of the panelists are willing to use this method.
  • Matt: "Until you show it to someone, it can suck." He encourages us to play around with it.
  • Karen: "Do as well as you can, then send it out."
  • Larry: If you like what you're writing, others will too.

On Story Ideas, and Saving Abandoned Work

  • Mercedes doesn't write down ideas. "If it's a good idea, it'll come back to me."
  • Larry does, and says that some old notes are a good way to rediscover ideas that he wasn't ready to execute at the time.
  • Karen: "I've sold short stories based on novels I wrote." And, "I've sold homework!"
  • Larry advises that when you abandon something you're writing, don't throw it away. It just wasn't ready. Karen says to keep sending it out.
  • Larry suggests you make notes, maps, and sketches of your projects, and save them. This can help when you write the sequel!
Recommended Resources:

  • Larry recommends Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need by Blake Snyder.
  • Karen recommends a YouTube series of videos by Dan Wells called "7 Point Story Structure." (Sadly, it's unavailable right now.)
  • Larry: Studying comedy teaches structure, and economy of words.

I'll end this summary with my favorite line from Larry:

"Sometimes you have to take a jump. Life is an adventure. Don't be a spectator."