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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When good advice is actually bad advice

I know my last post was about putting paint on something old to call it something new, and I have a post or two more on that subject, but as NaNoWriMo ended recently, I’ve seen a few things that bothered me, so I’m gonna take a minute to talk about that.

One NaNoWriMo-er posted that she’d gotten a couple of one and two star reviews and was demoralized because she’d put so much into the book. She came looking for advice and here’s the general breakdown of what she got :

1) don’t worry, keep writing / not everything is for everyone / even the “classics” had their detractors / don’t give up / write another book / etc. The VAST majority of responses were some permutation of this. Almost all of them, in fact.

2) look at the criticism and use it. A handful of people said something to this effect.

3) how much did you edit it / how many beta readers did it go through / do you have any kind of peer review process? About 3-4 people asked these questions.

4) what’s the name of the book, I’ll go give you a positive review. Only 1-2 of these, though they’re the most disturbing because nobody seemed to know the name of the book, much less have read it.

Clearly, the lion’s share of replies were people projecting their own situations onto hers. On top of that, a mentality of “bad reviewers are just plain WRONG, listen to the good reviews” seemed to prevail. There was also a trend towards “don’t read the reviews at all.”

My favorite reply called out the majority, likening their advice to saying, “Just abandon this kid and go have another,” without any of us having read the work. One of the many reasons that was my favorite was because their point was unassailable, and nobody even bothered to address it. They just continued telling her to abandon that kid, even though NONE of them had so much as seen it.

By far the most disturbing responses were of the “what’s the name, I’ll go review it,” type. This type of behavior effectively reduces the whole game to one of networking instead of talent. If something’s bad, it should be reviewed as such honestly, BUT this is perhaps an entirely different discussion.

And here’s where I have my beef with the whole situation : telling someone to “keep writing, don’t give up” is actually GREAT advice, but it’s not enough on its own. Because the idea that “if you write a lot you’ll eventually become good” doesn’t always work, because what if you’re just doing things wrong? And if you’re working in a vacuum and not listening to anyone telling you you’re doing it wrong, you’re likely to just keep on doing things wrong. If you only listen to the positive reinforcement (which in the responses above I’ve shown people were eager to give without having read the work), you’re gonna think you’re doing it right.

Among the pleas for peer review was my own voice – because if you’re fumbling around in the dark (as many of us are) and you ignore the advice of those around you, you’re more likely to remain lost. Maybe those around you don’t know the RIGHT way, but it’s more than likely they can find things you did the WRONG way, or could improve upon.

Sure, maaaaaybe the author was a genius and their first draft was flawless and didn’t need that peer review. We’d all like to believe that about ourselves, but how often does that seriously happen, and if an artist supposedly pours their heart & soul into a work, shouldn’t they care about it enough to put it up for critique before uploading it as a finished product? Sure, it’s up to the artist to decide what criticism to absorb and what to trash, but not listening at all is tossing out 100% of the potentially helpful comments. Sure, Amazon reviews can offer good critique, but finished-product reviews are not critique – by putting something out there for sale, you’re effectively putting the “this is a finished work” seal of approval on it. Your name is attached to that finished product, so when people are reviewing it, they’re reviewing YOU. Making people pay to beta read your novel is not only dishonest, but also makes it less likely they’ll check out your future projects.

I’ve said it so many times in my blog. Critique. Peer review. Don’t work in a vacuum. Family members and pets aren’t beta readers. Every artist needs critics, and they need them long before they press the “upload” button.

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The same old thing with new paint (part 1)

People are always lamenting how “Hollywood is just re-making old stuff over and over,” which is true to some extent. I think it was 2012 where a friend told me every single movie released that year except for 2 were re-boots or re-hashes of something earlier. Indeed, there are theories that there are only 3-4 basic plots in existence, and all stories are some variation of those plots with different details.

Before we all throw our hands in the air and give up on creating stories, consider the difference in voice. For easy examples, I’ll go to music. One of my favorite examples is “Proud Mary,” originally by Credence Clearwater Revival (aka CCR). Ike & Tina did their own version AND WON A GRAMMY for it. There are a lot of people who like Ike & Tina’s version more. CCR does a good job, but when I hear Tina sing it, I sort of feel like Fogerty wrote Tina’s song. The two versions have similar elements, but are vastly different because of the STYLE of the performers. Does it mean one is “better?” No, it means they’re different, and one version may be more attractive to people who enjoy that particular STYLE.

Consider Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage.” I love love love old Soundgarden, especially the Badmotorfinger album. “Rusty Cage” is the first song on the album and gets it going with a fast-paced, chaotic guitar riff. Johnny Cash re-did the song with his “constant slow-rollin’ freight train” sound and turned that fast, chaotic riff into a smooth, regular one, and then on top of that his STYLE of singing completely changed the song. I enjoy both equally, because they’re practically not even the same song.

Another of my favorite examples is the ultra-famous song “Respect.” Most people think Aretha Franklin wrote it, but it was Otis Redding’s song before it was hers. Again, I feel like Otis wrote the song for her without knowing it, and Aretha put a spin on it that rocketed the song and her into fame. If you listen to both versions, they’re quite different, probably a large part of that is due to Aretha’s talent to make it DIFFERENT while still keeping it GOOD.

To some extent, STYLE in music is what VOICE is to writers. Thus, if a writer is re-telling a story that’s been done over and over, it’s their duty to make it DIFFERENT enough to call it their own and keep it GOOD like the original. This is usually accomplished by applying one’s own VOICE. Sure, the “man vs. society” archetype has been done millions and millions of times, but it’s one’s own personal touch that makes the story relevant and good.

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He lives! (kind of) and some notes about MR

I’m not dead, I just haven’t gotten around to posting in a while. My endurance is better than my stamina, I promise.

That being said, I didn’t want to make a series of posts that said little more than “here’s a post,” or some permutation of “I bought pants!” so consider yourselves spared from a certain amount of unimportant minutia. Now for some semi-important non-minutia :

Everyone’s asking if we’ve heard back on the novel yet. The best answer I can give is that it’s not really good form to discuss details in public before anything’s been finalized. Being somewhat of a walking train wreck who randomly fucks things up, this is one thing I’d rather do right by not saying anything, and if that means shutting up (for once), that’s what I’m doing.

Also, the publishing business doesn’t move quickly (unless you’re into self-publishing, but that’s not the route we’ve chosen, and is a discussion for another time), so we don’t expect any real responses this year. That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m just gonna not post until then (yes it does, don’t lie). I’ve got a lot to talk about, just not a lot of gumption to share it with the general public, or the time. So to keep this from being a “filler” post, I’ll talk a bit about Magical Realism.

Indeed, it’s a blurry line between fantasy, folklore, and magical realism, and everyone seems to have their own opinions of where the line actually is. My friend and crit buddy Sam once described Magical Realism by saying it’s like fantasy without all the world-building and explained magic systems. In that regard it’s a lot like a folk story, where things happen and people just sort of accept that’s how it is in that reality. Annie the Badass said it’s a story where everything is normal except one thing that’s totally fantastic, and whether anyone bats an eye at that thing is irrelevant. I tend to ride more with Sam’s idea – that it’s more like a dream, where nothing’s really explained, it just happens.

If you’ve read some of my work, you know I have a sort of fascination with sleep and dreaming, which manifests in my world as my Magical Realism stories, and why they don’t always make a lot of rational sense. The Imagination Bomb is ultimately about a guy *becoming* another dimension. Good Guys Wear Black is about other types of time and a person turning into the thing they always were.

Before I get to rambly, I’ll cut to the point – most of what I write is magical realism because it A) leaves it to the reader to determine the details about the magic system and world B) when the emphasis isn’t on the nifty world or magic, the focus tends to become either the characters or the arc, and C) I get a lot of inspiration from my really really weird dreams.

So next time I’ll let you guys in on what I’m currently writing, and maybe some plans for the future.

Also, I bought pants.

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