Key Points: Every group has its own writing culture, traditions, things that they focus on. Beware catering to local peeves. Watch for experts who aren't. Try to understand the cultural expectations for the fiction, and for the interactions of writers and readers in your area. People at cons are there to talk about writing, so it's okay to start these discussions, to participate. Do approach other authors as a professional. Look for commonalities. Use small talk to open. Don't bring your manuscript. Don't dismiss people. Do walk up and say, "Hi! I'm a writer. What do you do?"
[Mary] Season Eight, Episode 19.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. Writing culture.
[Howard] Oh. 15 minutes long because... I'd like to start again.
[Dan] Because Howard is not that smart.
[Mary] Because we've been doing this for three days.
[Dan] You'd think we'd be better at it, not worse. But there you go.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I think I'm Dan.
[Brandon] I think we... Okay.
[Howard] So, writing culture?
[Brandon] We're going to stop phoning this one in, right now.
[Dan] Okay. Con culture and writing cultures.
[Brandon] Writing culture. This is actually an important topic to talk about, because every individual area you'll be in will have several different writing cultures. It'll have its like own meta-sort of writing thing going on where certain traditions will be part of writing, certain ways of writing well. Like, if there is a dominant writing club or writing group at your college, they will all kind of focus on the same sort of things. If you enter a writing group... Someone coming to our writing group, we have all these sort of insider sort of things we do, customs and what not, and those can be helpful. They can be very harmful. At the very least, you should understand them. Particularly if you're the type that a lot of our listeners are, who have said I want to start going to cons, I want to start being part of writing groups or writing clubs, and start getting involved in the culture. We probably should mention some of these things to you so that you can be prepared for them.
[Mary] One of the things... I'll start with writing groups. One of the dangers with writing groups is that you can start writing your stories to cater to the group's individual pet peeves.
[Brandon] Yes. Exactly. And any greater writing group or club I've been part of, actually these sort of things seep into them. In college, I went to the writing club a few times... I've gone more as a speaker after-the-fact, but hearing them talk, they all have their insider jargon that is a part of what is going on with them. In fact, Writing Excuses has created its own writing culture. When you go to the forums there and talk and things, there are certain things that people are talking about that they take to be expected that are things we harp on on the podcast. Which may or may not actually be as important as they are to us. We just make them sound that way because we talk about them every week.
[Howard] So here's a nod at the fact that the four of us have a set of cultural blinders that we're aware exist, but we probably couldn't enumerate all of them.
[Mary] We do flag this every episode, we're not that smart.
[Brandon] Here's a perfect example of this. Coming into a writing group with me, we talk about magic systems a lot. We just do. We like magic systems, I like magic systems, I'm kind of the magic system guy. So when you're part of it, we will nitpick your magic system. Some books... And we'll even say this in the writing group and then go on and nitpick. Some books do not need a magic system like the type that I design or that we kind of talk about in the writing group.
[Dan] Like, I really honestly worry... Like, if Nora K Jemisn had been in our writing group and gave us 100,000 Kingdoms, we probably would have tried to push her towards a magic system, which that book does not have or need.
[Brandon] Exactly. That's the sort of thing we're talking about here, is understanding even when authorities can be wrong. Part of this... One thing I want to warn you about is you will go into writing groups and there will be people who have learned the lesson of acting it... How did we say it? Fake it until you make it. That sort of role, that will sound very much like experts. You will sound like, "Man, I've got to listen to this person. I sound like an idiot compared to them." But they are simply enforcing upon you all of their biases.
[Dan] Yeah. What you need to remember, especially moving from one writing culture to another, is (A) they're not automatically right because they sound smart and (B) they're not automatically wrong just because they're different. They might be wrong, but it's for some other reason.
[Howard] I am reminded of a tweet that I got where somebody said, "So I just listened to this episode..." It was a Writing Excuses listener. "Just listened to this episode. How am I supposed to proceed, because I disagree with you guys?" I remember thinking, "This can't possibly be the first time that someone who gives advice has given you advice with which you disagreed." Proceed in the knowledge that for some reason these established professionals, self-proclaimed experts who nod at being not that smart and yet keep putting out podcasts, for some reason, we believe this. All you need to do is say, "Hey, you know what, for some reason, they believe that. Seems to be working for them. I disagree. I'm going to try and do something different."
[Mary] Or, and this has worked for me, sometimes I will go ahead and try the thing that I disagree with to see why.
[Howard] That way lies madness and humility.
[Mary] Well, sometimes I try it and I'm like, "Oh. Hey. That works really well." Sometimes I try it and like, "Nope. I was right. I was right about disagreeing with that." But now I understand exactly why I disagree with it and there are still pieces of it I can use.
[Dan] Which doesn't automatically mean that the person who told you is wrong. It's just that it's advice that doesn't work for you.
[Brandon] I want to talk... Shift this more towards the cultural aspects, because these are things we've talked about a lot. There's another one I could highlight for this. I went to... Got an advanced degree, Master's degree in creative writing. The culture in my degree was very different than the science fiction culture I had been a part of. In the science fiction culture I'd been a part of, we talked about plotting and exciting stories and things like this. In my degree, a lot of the conversation was about experimenting. If you do an outline, then you're not letting yourself be free enough to experiment. There is this culture of if you... There is the... I want to say this nicely, but the culture of if you make money at it, then you are selling out. This is a cultural thing that is ingrained into some writing programs. In fact, many of them. Many of them it's not that same way. But...
[Howard] The music program that I was in was the same way. I studied composition, and expected to learn the principles of composition used by the composers of the past. No, no, no, no. That's the music history and the form and analysis class. Composition was all about "Hey, let's play with only using three notes." "Let's play with only using one note and rhythm." "Let's play with a completely atonal system." None of these interested me, at first. Elements of that grew into the music that I wrote, but obviously, not enough for any of you to have heard it, because I decided to be a cartoonist instead.
[Brandon] Well, the thing about the writing cultures is, there are some great things about them. To point at science fiction culture, a lot of times you go into a culture of ours and they will dismiss anything literary immediately.
[Mary] I was going to say that.
[Brandon] On the opposite side, these things both happen. It's just a matter of biases and understanding them. The only time I really felt it gets pernicious, and this never happened in my writing program, but other writers I've talked to and articles I've read, is when they say, "Well, we're all going to write some of that genre crap to make money to support our real writing." That can actually become a culture. I'm not trying to point fingers at anybody. I'm trying to highlight these are different types of culture, that if you go into these things, you will start to see them. They will creep into what you're doing, they will influence you to one extent or another. So be aware of them. Understand that writers... We create our cultures in very interesting ways.
[Mary] In fact, genre, in and of itself, is a culture.
[Brandon] It is.
[Mary] Whether you're in mystery or anything else. There is a conversation, a dialogue, that is happening between the readers and the writers. That can reinforce a lot of the cultural expectations for the fiction itself, and for how you behave when interacting with fans. There are things that people expect, that are very different romance versus science fiction.
[Brandon] All right. Let's go ahead and do our book of the week this week is going to be given to us by Mary.
[Mary] So it's White Sands, Red Menace by Ellen Klages. A while ago, I recommended The Green Glass Sea. These are both YA. They are more literary in feel than science fiction. The first one is leading up to the dropping of the bomb. This one is leading up to the moon landing. It's really... Ellen does a wonderful job with atmosphere and characterization and also making plots go where you don't expect them to go, usually through her use of language. I think she's a wonderful writer, and this book should be something that is thought-provoking.
[Howard] Head out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Start a 30 day free trial membership and download for your freebie White Sands, Red Sea... Did I get the title right?
[Mary] White Sands, Red Menace.
[Howard] White Sands, Red Menace. I'm so sorry. And any other title you pick up that month is 30% off.
[Brandon] Okay. So let's talk about some of these cultural things that we find particularly in science fiction and fantasy, because that is the focus of our podcast.
[Dan] Yeah. I... Here's a piece of con culture that I ran into a few months ago. I was at a convention with my friend Stacy Whitman who is a YA editor. I won't say which con it was. It wasn't one of the local Utah ones. She was on a panel about YA, specifically, let's recommend books that teens should be reading. But this convention was kind of one of the old school, Golden Age conventions where it was all about Asimov and Bradbury and these things. Every time she recommended something modern from this new wave of YA that's really big right now, they would shout her down and say, "No, no, no. We only want to talk about the old stuff." That's kind of emblematic of the entire convention, which was really sort of stuck in the past in terms of what it read and what it appreciated. That's something that you can actually see a lot.
[Brandon] That's true.
[Howard] That particular experience was... It was unpleasant for Stacy, and it was a real loss for the people who were there listening. There was the opportunity for information to be conveyed, and the members of the culture did not have the requisite humility to understand that there were some new ideas here that they needed to pay attention to. Another cultural element that we see is the military sci... There are two sides of the military sci-fi coin. There is a strong movement in science fiction towards military sci-fi in which the weapons and the combat and the ships are explored in Tom Clancyesqe sorts of detail. In military fiction sorts of detail. Then there are folks who look at this and say, "No, no, that's wrong. We shouldn't be glorifying that. War is horrible, military is bad." I'm over polarizing the two, but you can definitely see both points of view, and it makes some of the military sci-fi panels you see at conventions uncomfortable.
[Mary] Absolutely. Can I... I actually want to turn the direction...
[Mary] Of the conversation a little bit two things that I think might be useful to our listeners, who most of them are aspiring writers, and I think the focus of this question is "How do I behave at conventions?"
[Brandon] Right. There is that.
[Mary] That's an important question, like how to handle the author-editor relationship and how to handle the new author-pro relationship.
[Brandon] I think I should mention something here, that if you're going to start going to the science fiction conventions. So we're talking about the World Con, the World Fantasies, things like this. One of the things to remember is these are considered participatory cons. You are not going as an observer, you're going as a participant. When an editor or an agent are there, they're going there to participate too. They're there in a professional capacity. When I go to a con like this, I'm there to talk about writing. So it's all right to approach people, and start these discussions. You're kind of expected to. You're expected to participate, you're expected to raise your hand. You're not there only to observe. So it's okay. But on the other side, there are some things that you may want to keep your eyes on.
[Mary] Right. For instance, when you go up as a new author and you meet the person whom you have hero worship as an author. I find that the best way to approach them is using the fake-it-till-you-make-it approach. Present yourself as another professional. There are, and this gets into the culture again, there are certain defenses that authors have to defend themselves from fans. These are not... This is one of those really awkward things to talk about, because of course, everybody likes their fans, but the ratio of fans to author and time is such that you need to kind of keep a slight distance. So, if you go up to a author that you admire, and present yourself first and foremost as a fan, they will respond to you in that manner. If you go up and engage with them as another author, even if it's as an author who has not yet published, they will engage with you in an entirely different level. That is the level that you want. You want to be a colleague. Because, eventually, of course you will publish.
[Brandon] Right. That's a very good piece of advice. Keep in mind... Oh, go ahead.
[Howard] One thing that I'd encourage you to strive for is look for the commonalities. Regardless of the culture, if you are at a convention that is about writing, science fiction convention, fantasy convention, whatever, it is because you love to write. Well I remember the first LDS Storymakers I attended. Okay, I'm Mormon, so I've got a cultural touchstone with all these people, but mostly I go to science fiction conventions. At LDS Storymakers with Dan here for the first time, I looked around at this room full of Mormon women and thought, "This is not my tribe. These are not my people." Then I got the opportunity to start talking to them about writing, and some of them recognized our voices from Writing Excuses. I realized, "Oh, wait a minute. You're not my tribe, but you listened to what we have to say." We began engaging. Because plot and character and outlining versus discovery, these are things that most writers have to do. As we found that common ground, I was suddenly very comfortable with a group of people that was very, very different from who I was used to talking to.
[Mary] This is one of the things, I know a lot of people are like, "Oh, I don't like small talk." Small talk is a very useful purpose. It exists for a reason. It is the conversation that you have while you are trying to calibrate your conversations to find the commonalities. It's the "Boy, the weather... The elevators in this hotel are so slow." Then you can have a conversation about that, which can then lead you to comparing other conversations. "Oh, we've both been to New Mexico?" It's a useful thing. Don't shy away from... Don't be afraid to open with, "How was your flight in?"
[Brandon] For that to work, you have to find another person who's actually been to New Mexico, which...
[Dan] And lived through it.
[Brandon] I'm going to a con there this fall. They're going to remind me I said this. All right. So. Let's go ahead...
[Howard] Another trick is when they step in the elevator, you really quick push all of the buttons...
[Brandon] There you go.
[Howard] So the conversation has to take a long time.
[Brandon] Oh, yeah, let's give a few warnings. Don't give your manuscript to anybody. You can bring it. If they ask for it, okay. But really...
[Dan] They won't. So don't give it to them.
[Brandon] They won't. So don't bring your manuscript. Don't dismiss people. Even... No matter how important or unimportant they are. If you're there to meet editors and agents, you can do with meeting a bunch of aspiring authors, because those people will be helpful to you. Nothing is more annoying to me than running into someone, they find out I wasn't an editor, back in the day, and poof! They were gone. I mean...
[Mary] Just as annoying, when they meet you and they're like, "Oh. Hello." Then they realize who you are and it's like, "Oh!"
[Brandon] Oh! Yes! I've had that a lot, too.
[Dan] That can sometimes be lots of fun.
[Mary] Yeah, well.
[Dan] Great experience to end with. One of my personal writing heroes, like most writers in this industry, is Neil Gaiman. I was at BEA last month and he was right there at the same Harper party. We have the same publicist. I kept trying to... I wanted to go up and introduce myself, and finally got up the courage and went over and talked to him. We chatted a little bit. I said, "I've been standing over there at the wall, trying to think of a good reason to come over and talk to you." He said, "Well, coming over to say hi is a pretty good reason." I thought, "You know what, that's like the best advice I can give on how to approach somebody. Just walk up and say hello and introduce yourself."
[Howard] My buddy Jim was at a party with Neil back in 2003, and was astounded at the fact that he accidentally got seated next to the Neil Gaiman. Neil turned to him and said, "Hi, I'm Neil. I write. What do you do?" Jim realized, "Oh, my goodness. That's how I should be introducing myself. Hi, I'm Jim. I write. I draw pictures. What do you do? What's your name? Tell me about yourself." It was very frank, very open, and very fun. You can learn a lot from Neil Gaiman.
[Brandon] All right. Writing prompt? Neil Gaiman teaches you something. What did you learn from him?
[Howard] Neil Gaiman as the mentor character...
[Brandon] That's right. In your hero's journey.
[Howard] In your hero's journey. Only please don't kill him off in order to take him out of the action, because we want him to write more books.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.