DFW Con 2016

Last year’s DFWcon was kiiiiinda lame, and I don’t mind saying so. It was so lame they didn’t even have the usual comment forms – they knew. This isn’t to say they didn’t try – they had (mostly) great agents, Kevin J Anderson, and that chick who wrote the Sookie Stackhouse books (neither of which were my bag, but they were fun to listen to). I’d even go as far to say that they did the best with what they had.

But I still don’t feel like it was up to par with the conference I expected and was familiar with.

This should be the biggest selling point of DFWcon though : due to it being pretty great in years past, none of the badness of 2015 stopped me from buying a ticket to the 2016 con, and boy was I glad I did, because times have changed. Not to drop an ominous line and leave you hangin’, but I’ll get back to that statement in a bit.

This year they grabbed the Fort Worth convention center, which was a HUGE step up in venue from last year. The food was waaaaaay better, the classes were better, the speakers were better, the agents were an entirely new and different crop, and all in all it seemed a lot more befitting of the big con I’m used to going to.

But the crowning achievement came in the form of a special session I had to sign-up for in advance. It was called “So Close, but So Far,” and the idea was that a panel of industry veterans (basically agents, writers, keynote speakers, etc) would listen to talk about your submission and rejection experiences thus far. It was free to con attendees, but it was geared towards people who were querying and getting rejection letters, NOT newbies. This has been and always will be a thing – people show up in upper-level classes asking “HOW I WRITE BOOK?” While that’s a totally valid question, it’s not appropriate for the context.

Anyhow, I got up, gave my spiel, talked about my query letter and the form rejections I’ve been getting, and got two great revelations out of this :

  1. my query letter is a hot mess. I don’t mean the fun kind of hot mess either, I mean the “magma melting your arm” kind of hot mess.
  2. despite what we’ve been told and read, if the query sucks, agents tend to NOT read the sample pages.

Obviously the second one was the real eye-opener. I get it, and an agent explained it to me – writing a good (or maybe “not terrible) query letter is proof that an author can distill their ideas in a catchy and succinct way. This is an important skill to have when talking about one’s story to agents, editors, fans, etc. I get it, I really do.

I just don’t agree with it. Query letters are sort of a different skill set from writing a novel, meaning someone could write an incredible novel, but without that query letter to market it, nobody will ever see it. Self-publishing has changed that somewhat, but not much, and not enough.

Rant aside, the revelation was supremely good info to have, but even it wasn’t as awesome as what happened next. I was leaving and had made it about halfway to the door when  someone in the audience stopped me and said, “Hey, your story sound really cool, I can’t wait to read it.”

And that’s when an agent came running up to me, card in hand, to request the full manuscript.

I’ll put it another way : the agent chased me down, not the other way around. Let that sink in.

Times have changed, and this is a sign of that, because usually it was it me, the writer, chasing an agent (literally and figuratively), hoping to be heard above the noise. Having the tables turned on me was not only a pleasant surprise, it was a huge morale boost and a sign that if I can get past the query letter and get people to pay attention to the story, I’ve got a solid chance.

Now, granted I knew going into this class that there would be agents present, and part of my intent was to use it as an icebreaker so that later I could approach said agents and pitch to them, but I never dreamed they’d come running after me like this.

Anyhow, it doesn’t end there. My story had apparently made the rounds with other agents, and when I tried to pitch to one of them, they said, “Oh YOU’RE that guy! Send me the whole thing!”

Times have changed.

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Artifacts of an older era

A while back I made a post about going to China & Taiwan, and a little of the history of the two countries. I might’ve been able to skip that post and just jump to this one, but that one provides the context of where I’m going now : artifacts of that history.

China has a very rich history going back thousands of years, through the dynastic period into the ancient period (before there were dynasties), but where are all those temples and statues and artifacts?

Well, mostly destroyed.

Or in Taiwan.

Back in the 60’s, China went through a cultural revolution, during which they destroyed a lot of things representing the previous eras. This kind of behavior is a pretty common and healthy behavior with fledgling regimes –  getting rid of the old to make way for the new, not only physically, but more importantly mentally. Mind you, I’m not exonerating this behavior, only saying that it’s common and healthy for new regimes. Temples, books, various works of art, even cemeteries – nothing was safe. While the destruction was widespread, it was far from complete, because when you have thousands of years of history, it takes a while to get rid of it all.

On top of this, monks, priests, and basically any version of clergy in the country were either killed, sent to prison, or fled. Religion was seen as “superstition,” and one of the pillars of the old world which had to be purged. This is obviously an extreme version of religious persecution, and as a side note, I’d like to point out that doomsayers in our own country claiming that the government is trying to destroy Christianity or infringe on their religious rights, etc. have FAR more in the way of religious rights than they think. /soapbox

Why did all this happen? Well it likely had a lot to do with my previous post – the last few centuries were full of war and occupation and conquest by foreign powers and they didn’t ever want that kind of thing to happen again. They blamed the old ways, and by association, religion and all that history they’d come out of. Before anyone goes condemning them for all this, consider that we would likely do the same if it happened to us.

There’s actually a vigorous academic discussion about this whole phenomenon that continues to this day. Like China itself, it’s large and complex and can’t really be summed-up in a single blog post (lol).

Taiwan is / was a different matter. There were indigenous people living there, and when the Ming (often seen as the last dynasty of “Han” Chinese) retreated there, they forged a lot of alliances with those people. When Chiang Kai-Shek fled the mainland, lots of his folks looted artifacts and brought them to Taiwan, and when they heard about what was going on in the mainland, they enacted policies to preserve whatever heritage they had brought with them and what already remained on the island. Sure, the Qing eventually destroyed the last vestiges of the Ming, but the point is there was already an alliance with and tolerance of native cultures in place.

Fast forward to now. The Chinese realize the error of the regime at the time and have begun movements to rebuild and preserve what they have left. Still, people idolize Mao Zedong despite his hand in the cultural revolution – there was a lot of Mao memorabilia, from hats to shirts to miniature statues, etc. This is all to illustrate it’s STILL a complex thing. China has a LOT fewer temples and historic sites than it used to, and a lot of them have been turned into tourist traps. For example, we saw a 1,000 year-old banyan tree at a park. We had to pay to get in, which is totally fair, but there were all manner of boat rides, pony rides, and other touristy things happening in the same park, mere yards away from said banyan.

While in Guangzhou, we visited three temples, all of which were mostly empty of people, though not in disrepair. Except for the sounds of the city, I thought it was rather appropriate and peaceful, and found it easy to “step back in time” and see how it might’ve been 500 years ago. Two of the three charged an entrance fee. There were cameras all over and there was a large banner praising the country, not the Buddha. What got me though, wasn’t that sign – it was the one explaining how to burn incense offerings without burning down the temple. 

Because that means it’s a thing, or was at one point. They’d lost so much of that tradition that a sign was needed to explain it again.

Meanwhile, it was a vastly different story in Taiwan. Longshan temple was literally packed with people, some singing, some praying or making offerings, etc. The incense burners spewed smoke and sometimes gouts of flame because they were loaded with so many sticks of incense. It was very much a “living” temple. Guandu temple was a lot less populated, but we went in the middle of the day when it was raining AND under renovation, so there’s that. However, what got me was the sheer number of temples and more than that, tiny shrines everywhere. People would carve out whole rooms from their living or working areas or even just a few feet of space to put in a shrine, and many were open to the public – none of these charged entrance fees.

Likewise, the National Palace Museum in Taiwan housed a lot of “stolen” artifacts. It was packed with people and too large for us to hit the whole place in a single visit. Chinese tourists were hurried by the greatest masterpieces so the next group could see them. We sort of had to see them from afar. This isn’t to say China had no museums, or that they sucked, just that many of the great treasures were in Taiwan.

In recent years, there’s been a lot of interest in restoring and preserving historical and religious sites in China. We visited a few places that had benefited from this, and I think they did a pretty good job with most of them. Others, like the giant Guanyin statue just outside Sanya, are new constructions and are little more than expensive tourist traps.

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“China is here, Mr. Burton”

Yeah it’s been a while. Yeah I’m a terrible blogger. Where have I been? Well for one, China.

Stinky and I got visas and took a big long 3 week trip, hitting Taiwan, Guangzhou, Guilin, Yangshuo, and Sanya. Lots to learn and see. And eat. And eat. And eeeeeat.

Before I go any further, lemme drop some history, because you’d be surprised at how many folks don’t know this bit, and it’s really important.

So the Qing Dynasty took over in 1644-ish. The Qing weren’t “ethnic Han,” (which is a sort of complex term I won’t go into) – they were Manchus from the north. For roughly 300 years, people had a lot of remorse for their non-Chinese rulers.

During the Qing, stuff like the Opium Wars happened, where various Western powers came in and basically used military might to exploit the economy. The replies were things like the Boxer Rebellion, where people basically wanted to kick out the foreigners. They also had various rebellions, like the Taiping Rebellion, against the Qing rulers, but of course all this stuff failed and it remained status quo – China was still weak and carved-up by foreigners. This all goes on until The Xinhai Revolution in 1911.

Various uprisings end-up displacing the thousands of years old dynastic rule and replacing it with the Republic of China, led by the dude we know as Sun Yat-Sen (or Sun Zhongshan as he’s more commonly known as in China – he’s soooort of like our George Washington). Chiang Kai-Shek took over when Sun Yat-Sen died, and he duked it out with the growing communist party in the north.

That didn’t last too long because in 1937, the Japanese invaded. The nationalists and communists worked (mostly) together to fight the Japanese, and when WWII ended and the Japanese left China, the communists (led by Mao Zedong) and Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalists went back to fighting. The nationalists made some strategic blunders and eventually had to leave mainland China, taking up residence on the island of Taiwan.

The point of all this is 1 ) that Taiwan isn’t officially part of China. The Chinese government tends to SAY it is, but they’re smart about not treating it like that. People I talk to about this trip tend to think Taiwan is just another part of China, but it’s totally not. Case and point : we needed visas to get into China. To get into Taiwan, all we needed was a passport. Also 2 ) the Chinese have basically been everyone’s imperial exploitation bitch for a couple centuries now, and before (and during) that, they were directly controlled by what people saw as outsiders (the Qing were Manchus and later the Japanese occupation). Right now they have a lot of interest in never letting that happen again, and rightfully so (we’d do the same thing if it happened to us). Whether or not that justifies their current regime is irrelevant – they’ve got centuries of history to overcome.

So you’re probably thinking, “why the history lesson?” Well, because it colors our visit. I’ll go into detail in later posts, but this is the historical lens I went into this with.

What does all this have to do with writing? Well, as wuxia primarily takes place in China, and I wanted to see some of the places and architecture. I’ll get to that though!

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What I learned at the 2015 conference

Here’s what I learned at the 2015 DFW Writers Conference : I have a bad ass crit group.

For me, the Con began at 9 AM on Saturday, when I had my pitch. DFW is pretty unique in that part of the admissions fee includes one 10 minute pitch with an agent, so of course I used it. Over the years, my pitches have gone from terrible to ok to pretty excellent. This year I pretty much finished the pitch in about a minute, and the agent requested pages. What followed was about 9 minutes of random conversation involving other works, wuxia, the conference, the industry, etc. A lot of my honing the pitch was due to my interaction with my crit group, but it doesn’t end here.

Tex Thompson and Laura Maisano taught a great class on how to beef-up a manuscript while cutting word count – in essence making for “tighter” prose. This was proooobably the only class I really got anything out of.

Kevin J. Anderson was the first keynote, and that was right before lunch, so as of lunch, I had only attended one class. The unspoken undercurrent of all this is that I didn’t attend those other classes because I felt like either A) I’d already been to similar classes or B) I’d already learned those things from my crit group.

Later there was a world building class hosted by Mr. Anderson and no joke, it was mostly stuff I’d already experienced or run-into through my crit group. The same happened with the villains class after that. Granted, these were both mostly “101” classes, so they involved a pretty basic overview of said subjects.

The con ended with a narrative pull class which I think contained a bunch of things I’d already learned, but hadn’t articulated into actual bullet points. Through most of these classes I could think back to instances at our crit group meetings when such and such person would basically be talking about the same lesson, but in a more personalized way.

Is this me talking smack about DFW con? Nope. Those classes are good, I’ve just advanced past them, and I’ve done so mostly with the help of my crit group. Don’t get me wrong, I had a LOT of fun – made contacts, pitched the manuscript repeatedly, hung out with old friends, etc. But going to crit group every single week had invalidated the need for most of the classes. Does this mean I’m not going to the next con? Nope. Just signed up.

On the flip side of this, I talked to a member of our crit group who stopped showing up a while back. An agent told them they “just need a good crit group,” to which they responded “I have one.” Nope. If you don’t show up, you don’t actually have that crit group in your corner. Thus, the lessons here have been : 1) find a good crit group with as many high-quality members as possible, folks who aren’t afraid to tell you how it is, and 2) show up. Plow other things out of the way to show up.

I’ve gone over this a few times in other posts, but nothing hammered the point home more than sitting in those classes this past weekend : if you’re looking to close that gap between yourself and greatness, a good crit group will go a long way towards helping with that.

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“Hallmarks” of wuxia

Last time I did a post detailing my own definitions of wuxia. I’d like to go a little more in-depth and talk about some things that many wuxia stories have in common, but don’t necessarily define the genre.

1) Cultural / social / political / etc. commentary – Yep. While they’re fun stories with high-flying martial arts, there’s a lot of hidden cultural / social / political commentary. One plot in “Demi-gods & Semi-devils” is driven by blatant racial issues – Qiao Feng is a pretty decent guy, but since he’s a Khitan (a northern people viewed as barbarians), everyone starts to hate him. On the other side of this, outsiders like the Manchus, Mongols, etc. are often portrayed as corrupt savages, even when they’re in power. Then again, people in positions of power are often vilified in wuxia, regardless of their racial affiliation. Morality, religion, social status, etc. there are a lot of statements about these, but most are in a cultural context that transcends a simple translation from Chinese.

2) Lots of characters – This sort of thing has gotten a lot of attention with western fantasies like Game of Thrones and the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Wuxia has a tendency towards having a huge cast too – “Water Margin” is about 108 heroic outlaws, and that’s just the good guys. “The Deer and the Cauldron” has at least that many, and some consider “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” a wuxia, which has almost a thousand characters. As a counterpoint, think back to the 2004 movie “Hero” with Jet Li – there were only 6 dramatic characters in the story.

3) The jianghu or “rivers and lakes” – The idea of the jianghu is that there’s a society of martial artists, sometimes official, sometimes very unofficial, but it’s a community where reputation means a lot. The one true constant is that the jianghu is supposed to be a chivalrous order – governments and laws are usually corrupt in wuxia stories, but the jianghu is a realm which operates outside those rules and adjudicates disagreements in its own ways. In some stories there are even “leaders” of the jianghu who are chosen through various means. It’s important to note that the jianghu isn’t always a huge deal in wuxia stories – it wasn’t mentioned but once or twice in the “Yi Zhi Mei” series, but in “Heaven-Reliant Sword & Dragon-slaying Saber” it was integral to the plot.

4) “WTF is a 3-act structure?” – The standard Western “go-to” for storytelling is the 3-act play, and while there are variations on its description and specifics, the general sense is “beginning, middle, end.” The “hero’s journey,” in which the hero encounters an “inciting incident” which begins their journey. Wuxia stories often evade this. I’ve said a few times that wuxia “begins sort of in the middle, moves to a middle, and ends in another middle.” The protagonists of “Heaven-Reliant Sword & Dragon-slaying Saber” and “Legend of the Condor Heroes” are’t even born at the start of those stories, and when I asked Stinky “where’s the ‘inciting incident’ in ‘Return of the Condor Heroes?'” neither of us could find one.

5) “…and then X shows up!” – One of my favorite scenes in “Return of the Condor Heroes” is when Yang Guo and the Golden Wheel Monk are fighting over an infant. It’s a stalemate because each can only use one arm while they’re holding the baby, but then Li Mo Chou shows up, and she pretty much hates everyone, so she fights them both and takes off with the kid. In “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Jen Yu is about to kill Shu Lien when Li Mu Bai arrives, chases Jen Yu into the bamboo forest, and when she’s about to drown, Jade Fox appears to save her. Some see this as a “deus ex machina,” which isn’t entirely inaccurate – the Chinese might say “it’s Heaven’s will that this happened.”

Whew! Reading this over, I realize that any one of these points could be expanded upon into their own post, and on top of that I’m not even done with all the “hallmarks.” In order to give myself a break and not club you over the head with a wall of text, I’ll stop here for now.

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Ok Ben, so what is “wuxia”?

Glad I asked. I’ve been sort of dodging this because I really dislike the idea of genre definitions – stories have to fall into some pigeon holes, right? I guess so we can wrap our brains around where they’ll be in the bookstore maybe? Or for folks who say “I only read X genre,” they know what not to read. I’ve heard it said many times (and I tend to mostly agree) that great fiction crosses or blurs lines. I could launch into a lengthy comparison of genres, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Wuxia is a lot of things. Here’s an attempt at a very broad check list :

1) Setting – historic China – wuxia is generally set in pre-revolution China, so the Qing Dynasty / around 1912 and earlier. The era and locations are sometimes almost completely unimportant, sometimes hyper-important. Stuff like “Lone Wolf and Cub,” while good, would not be wuxia (because it’s set in Japan). How important was the era and setting in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”? Not very (go watch it again – could you actually discern what dynasty it was? Was that important?), but it was still there.

2) Fantasy elements – sometimes this is ultra-high fantasy with aliens invading China (yes, it’s a thing) and sometimes it’s more moderate, but almost universally there are characters who tend to have “magic,” usually in the form of fantastical martial arts. Carving sentences into mountains with their swords, flying through the air, killing people with music, etc. Clearly there are fantasy elements here which remove it from the category of “historical fiction,” regardless of its historical accuracy.

3) Martial arts – wuxia universally involves martial arts in some way. This is often where the above fantasy element comes in. There are a few “detective-style” stories in wuxia where the protagonist is a Sherlock Holmes -type investigator who pieces clues together by studying battlefields. Even if the main character isn’t a fighter, martial arts are involved.

4) “Adventure” – a broad term, characters in wuxias leave their “comfort zone” in some way, most often physically / geographically. Protagonists have to chase their dreams and goals into danger, or be chased by something / someone into the outside world.

5) Romance – not having read ALL wuxia, I’m not entirely sure how “universal” this is, but from everything I have seen, it’s at least a subplot, if not the crux of the entire story. The romance in “Return of the Condor Heroes” is a centerpiece around which most of the other elements revolve, but there’s still a LOT of ass-kicking.

6) Chivalry – also not sure how “universal” this is, but the “jianghu” or martial arts world, is a chivalrous association. There are certainly villainous characters in the jianghu, but by and large it’s made up of Robin Hood-esque characters who generally don’t give a damn about their social / economic / legal status, they’re gonna fight for what’s right. “Water Margin” (aka “All Men are Brothers”) is a “classic” wuxia about 108 heroic outlaws who oppose the corrupt government and invaders.

So there ya go, super broad definitions. I will no doubt reference this in my future writings about wuxia.

Also, seriously don’t consider these the “last word” on what makes something wuxia. Remember that part in the opening where I said I dislike genre definitions?

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The same old thing with new paint (part 2)

So a couple months ago I made a post about re-hashing old stories. That one was about artists using their own voice to re-do something old. People complain about how all the old themes have been used up and are just being recycled now, but it’s not necessarily that simple. Part of it is taking those old stories and making them important again for the current generation.

Take Romeo and Juliet for example. How many times has that been re-hashed in various formats? The theme of “star-crossed lovers” is pretty universal – it’s not specific to Romeo and Juliet, we’ve seen it a billion times over. So why do we keep seeing Shakespeare’s version? Because it’s a good example of the theme, it’s well-written, and most importantly, so that the current generation establishes a connection to it. When a guy’s hopelessly in love, we sometimes refer to him as “Romeo” – it’s part of our common parlance. Without re-establishing that connection each generation, we lose some of the context.

Looney Tunes spawns a number of famous phrases, but Looney Tunes haven’t been a thing in ages. How often do you hear “What’s up, doc?” now? The same goes for “Wabbit season,” “It’s despicable,” “Spear & magic helmet,” etc. Mostly when they’re used now, it’s as an homage instead of vernacular. Counter this with my example of “Romeo,” which is not said as an homage, but vernacular.

The above are examples in art crossing over and infecting our speech and staying with us, but the most obvious example of re-use are the hero’s journey. Artists have been putting new faces and places on the hero’s journey for ages, and probably always will. It’s a theme / story which works, but why? Because it occupies some space in our brains, and we can identify with it on a personal level, maybe even on a day-to-day level.

Ok, that’s a pretty broad example, what about something more specific? It’s been said that James Cameron’s “Avatar” is mostly a re-hashing of “Dances with Wolves,” which is a re-hashing of “Pocahontas,” etc. It’s not a new story : white guy shows up in a native culture & does everything the natives do but better, falls in love, and eventually has to help fend-off the encroachment of his old world. While we could use these stories for a lengthy discussion about the after-effects of imperialism on the Western psyche, the point here is the renewal of the same theme for a new generation. While I for one could do without that story, it’s one that’s obviously popular enough to continue holding a position in our narrative.

To combine this with my previous post about voice / style, I’m hypothesizing that it comes down to this : the current generation always feels a need to take the older stories which shaped it and re-tell them in their own present-day voice. If I’m right, this means about 20-ish years from now we’ll see stuff like Harry Potter get its first re-boot, and Lord of the Rings its third (fourth?).

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