To recap: On Saturday, I went to a four hour writing workshop in Tucson, with John Vornholt and Timothy Zahn. On a practical level, it was more a panel discussion than a workshop; a librarian who is also a professional fantasy illustrator (Liz Danforth, if anyone happens to know her work) acted as moderator and directed the discussion, and there were two Q&A sessions. It was great fun. Beneath the cut is my summary, based on memory and notes. It's a little piecemeal, but I tried to make it as organized as possible. Hope you like it. :)
Regarding comic books
Both Vornholt and Zahn have written for comic books, and they both said they'd like to write more in that format. Vornholt pointed out that the comic market has very definite ebbs and flows, so they really don't know when they'll be offered jobs like that, but they both enjoyed the work. They both said that in comics, the artist is really the star of the show, and the author is more in the background - granted, the artist's work followed the author's in that the author was directing the action, but more people paid attention to the art.
Zahn said one of the big differences between comics and novels or short stories was that when you were contracted to do a 30,000 word short story or an 80,000 word novel, your editors and publishers were unlikely to care if you felt the story needed an extra 5,000 or 10,000 words. With comics, however, you had to come in at exactly the length specified. If the comic was going to be 32 pages, then you wrote 32 pages of material, no more, no less.
Vornholt added the tidbit that if you ever wondered why characters bothered to toss insults at each other during a fight, it was because the authors were directed to include words in most panels, even the action sequences. This is because comic books are so short that the publishers don't want the readers skimming through one in five minutes, and words slow the eye more than pictures.
Regarding the technical aspects of writing
Both Zahn and Vornholt said that people ask them all the time where they get their ideas, but that really, getting ideas is the easy part. It's the execution that's hard. (Zahn said he had outlines for probably forty novels on his computer at the moment. :O ) Zahn starts with a plot. Characters, he said, are mostly cardboard cutouts for him at the beginning, and they develop based on how the plot needs them to be, or what the plot needs them to accomplish. He said that lots of writers say how a character sometimes gets away from them and dictates how the story develops, but that his characters must be better behaved, because doesn't happen to him much. He said sometimes he catches characters doing that for a page or two, but he nearly always goes back to where the character started going off on a tangent and rewrites it to stay true to the plot he'd already determined. Vornholt says he has less well behaved characters, because his get away from him all the time.
With pacing, Zahn said it was important to have a natural ebb and flow; if you tried to keep a high level of tension or excitment going for long, the reader would get tired and probably stop reading, but if you went a long time with little happening, they'd probably get bored and do the same thing.
Another thing they mentioned briefly was fantasy vs. sci-fi, though neither author nor the moderator really treated it as a rivalry, just mentioning the differences between them. Zahn felt that sometimes fantasy writing that dealt with magic had a tendency to slip into the Superman syndrome, where characters were so powerful that there were few challenges for them; he mentioned that a lot of SW writers have done that with the Jedi, elevating their powers so far beyond what we saw in the movies that he considers it boring, because who could ever really challenge or defeat such characters?
He said that the best magic systems in fantasy worked much the way the mystery and sci-fi genres do in having a set of consistent rules that is known to the reader. He mentioned using Orson Scott Card's 101 Ideas in an Hour system (which I gathered was basically asking a group of people how they would handle a certain plot aspect and collecting the answers) and once asking a group of first graders what a drawback to using magic might be. One kid, he said, piped up with, "What if every time you used magic, a dog appeared and tried to bite you?" Zahn says once you start applying that particular idea to a society, how would it affect magic users? They'd all have to be up on five-foot pillars when they cast a spell or something, so that the dog wouldn't be able to reach them. I believe Vornholt chimed in with, "Or what if in your society, using magic took a certain span of time away from your life? A small spell might take away ten minutes, but a large one might take a year. How would people choose to use their magic then?"
They segued into how sci-fi uses the same concept. Both authors said that in the early days of sci-fi, there were occasional plot devices were the characters might be in a real bind, plotwise, then a character might take a screwdriver and miraculously "fix" the technology they'd been using so that it could now accomplish something impossible and save them all. Nowadays you wouldn't try something like that because the readers would be quick to recognize it as a cheat. Like the hypothetical magic systems they'd been discussing, whatever technologies or cultures you were using in sci-fi needed to have a consistent set of rules of engagement, and the characters had to genuinely surmount whatever difficulties that might create, not use a deus ex machina to escape.
What that line of discussion boiled down to in the end for both authors was that power always has a downside. It might be subtle, it might not be a downside you'd think of right away, but it's always there. I think it was Zahn who said, "Look at people like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Why do you think they're always doing stupid things? You watch the news and you wonder, 'What were they thinking?' The answer is, they weren't - and the downside to all their wealth and fame is that no one dares tell them no because of it. So when they don't think, they don't have anyone to say, 'Wait, that's stupid. You can't do that', and they wind up making fools of themselves. Likewise, in fiction, whatever power a character has must have a downside somewhere, or he becomes a boring Superman type of character who can handle anything and get out of any difficulty, and he won't interest readers for long."
Zahn also mentioned that the setting needed to challenge characters - something I'd known once upon a time but mostly forgotten, and felt was a very valuable reminder.
Vornholt discussed using slang in books and recommended using it sparingly, just enough to set the tone or character properly, because if you used too much you ran the risk of that slang being out of date before the book hit shelves. Zahn said that he preferred to not use slang at all or to make up original slang for a particular story just for that reason; it was too easy for writing to sound very dated when including slang. Vornholt agreed that it was a definite risk, and recommended against including topical material for the same reason; he said that while it might sound amusing to include references to Paris Hilton right now, in five years we wouldn't be hearing about her any longer (Zahn: "We hope"), and your work would be irrevocably dated.
Regarding research, both authors said that professionals like college professors could be a great asset to an author. Zahn said that many professors were pleased to be asked and pleased to help, and that years ago before such a question would result in a visit from the FBI, he would often call or write a chemistry professor and ask things like, "If I need an such-and-such a reaction involving a powder and a liquid, what would I use?" He said don't be afraid to ask others who knew more about a subject, because they'd often be happy to help, and would offer invaluable knowledge.
Someone asked when you knew you were done editing a book, to which Zahn said, "When I'm sick of it." He went on to add that you could always go back to a story and find something you wanted to tweak, but basically when you felt that it was as good as it could be at that time, you were probably okay.
Regarding the nuts and bolts of publishing
Because I have no ambitions to be professionally published myself, this was probably the area where I paid the least attention. Still, here's what I scribbled down in my notes:
Writers Market Yearly and the International Literary Marketplace were listed as useful publications to look at for potential buyers for your material; the ILMP apparently also lists agents. Belonging to the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) was also mentioned as a good way to gain contacts.
The right of first refusal is a standard contract clause; it basically says that they have the right to look first at any later material you might come up with and choose whether to bid or pass on it.
Publishers cover their butts in many ways. Vornholt said that when he was writing Star Trek, one of the clauses in his contract said that they publishers owned "any ideas or characters that he thought about putting in the book but didn't". From the way Zahn was nodding at that one, I'm guessing it's not an unusual clause. Another contract clause both authors mentioned running into was that the publisher might say they had all rights to distribution of the material via movie, dvd, etc. - "and all formats not yet invented". The lawyers who wrote those contracts deserve a raise.
Both authors strongly recommend looking for royalties that are a percentage of the cover price, not the sales price, and that an author should hold out for foreign rights in original work whenever possible.
When working with a media conglomerate like Star Trek or Star Wars, as all we fans have long since figured out, an author's characters and plots belong to the media parent to do with as they please regardless of whether the author likes it or not.
There's a phenomenon called sharecropping that I'd never heard of, where apparently authors other than the original are allowed to work within the first author's universe by invitation.
Zahn prefers writing standalone books so as to avoid becoming stale or going over the same material repeatedly, but serials sell better in the current market.
Most things are handled by publishing giants; the only remaining small publishing companies that either author could come up with right off the top of their heads were Baen and Daw.
Someone asked how much input an author had on cover images; Zahn held up a hand with the forefinger and thumb maybe a millimeter apart and said, "Do you see how much space is between these fingers? We don't get that much say." Art directors handle cover images because they supposedly know what will catch a reader's eye better than the author or artist - an example given were Zahn's Cobra books wherein a Cobra was shown holding a rifle; Zahn originally protested that because the Cobras use weapons implanted in their bodies, but the art director said, "Yeah, but if the reader sees a character holding a weapon, they'll know it's military sci-fi." The librarian who moderated the discussion is also a professional fantasy illustrator, and says that when illustrations don't match the descriptions of characters, it's often because the illustrator is never shown the manuscript or given any particular direction on an illustration. The authors said that authors were rarely if ever consulted about cover images because authors were never really happy with illustrations, and the art directors and editors didn't want to deal with them.
This was really the area that I paid the most attention to, because I've already read many books about writing and can look up the nuts and bolts of publishing should I need them. I thought it was most interesting to hear personal experiences and thoughts from the authors, and neither disappointed. Actually, I thought that Vornholt and Zahn had extremely complementary personalities to be on such a panel together. Vornholt tended to get carried away and gesture-y and such, while Zahn was more matter of fact, very professional, and given to one-liners, but it worked very well to have the two of them playing off each other. Here are some of the fun things they said:
In addition to writing, Vornholt also acts and does standup comedy. Zahn used to play piano and cello, but doesn't any more.
Zahn said that he'd heard it said that there was really only one plot in the world: Boy meets girl. But he added that there were three basic treatments of that plot: The American novel, wherein boy meets girl and then loses girl; the French novel wherein boy meets girl, gets girl, and then boy and girl decide that they don't want each other after all; and the Russian novel wherein boy meets girl, never gets girl, and broods about it for 800 pages.
Vornholt said that when he was stuck on a plot, he remembered the words of another author (a hard-boiled detective writer, he said, whose name he'd forgotten): "Whenever I get stuck, two guys with guns burst through the door." Zahn tossed in a modifier that depending on which media parent you were writing for at the time, it would work equally well with two Klingons with disruptors bursting through the door. :p
Edit: Something I forgot until after this was posted, but which I thought was too good not to go back and add: Zahn said that writing for a media giant like ST or SW was like playing organized sports. There were specific rules you had to play by, and they were strictly enforced. Writing original fiction was like playing Calvinball. I love that comment.
Someone during the Q&A section wanted to point out how stupid he thought it was that the primitive Ewoks could take down the technological wonders of the Empire with sticks and stones. Zahn said he could have fixed that little plot hole with all of ten seconds of film time. While the Ewok traps we saw onscreen were far too complicated for the Ewoks to be setting up on the fly, all RotJ really needed was a scene the night before the attack where the chief Ewok was gesturing at a group of other Ewoks, obviously sending them off on missions and such. He said then the viewer would have assumed that okay, they were going to assemble all the other tribes and set elaborate traps, and they still had all night to accomplish it. Made sense to me.
Vornholt says that there is one race that appears in both ST and SW: the Breen. He said it originally was a tribute from ST to SW. I haven't checked that, myself. My first reaction when he said that was, "Yeah, the Klingons who morphed into Yuuzhan Vong." But I guess not. :p
Zahn said that someone once asked Theodore Sturgeon why he wrote sci-fi; 90% of it was crud. Sturgeon replied that 90% of everything is crud. The secret is to find or create the other 10%.
The librarian/moderator asked them both what they know now and wish they knew then. Zahn's first reply was, "That the girls I wanted to talk to were just as shy as I was."
Vornholt said that he was writing a ST book once and was shown the cover fairly early on; it had Picard on it in profile. Later, the final cover was Picard head-on. Vornholt asked why it had been changed, and it turned out that Patrick Stewart had a "cover art approval" clause in his contract, and Stewart thought he had a big nose and had vetoed profile pictures.
Zahn has never been in a writers' group; he's happy working on his own. Vornholt has been in many and is currently in two. One of them is a romance writers' group. (He's written a romance under the pseudonym of Caroline Goode.) He said that in that group, there were something like twenty-five women and he was the only guy. He also said that they often read scenes aloud, and that in most writers' groups, the scenes you read aloud were the ones that were giving you trouble, and that in romance writing, that's usually the sex scenes. He compared sex scenes to space battle scenes: you have all these tactical concerns, and what's actually believable, and you have to keep in mind who's doing what where . . . By this time the audience was howling, and Zahn shook his head and said, "We don't know him. He just wandered in."
Zahn said that sometimes editors really didn't like something you'd written, but they couldn't figure out why they didn't like it. Those, he said, are the times when you need to get clever. When writing Spectre of the Past, the scene where Mara rescued Luke from the Cavrilhu pirate base turned out to be like that. Here's this situation where Luke needs to cold-shirt it out of the pirate base, and he goes into a Jedi trance while he does, and winds up tumbling into Mara, and they have this nice little dialogue banter (you all know this scene. "You want to get off me, or were you just getting comfortable?"). Meanwhile, Artoo is flying the X-wing to rendezvous with the Starry Ice. Well, the editors didn't like that at all. "Artoo can't fly the X-wing," they said. But if he went back and rewrote it so that Luke was in the X-wing, he lost the whole Luke/Mara scene, with the dialogue and character development it indicated.
"So," Zahn said, with absolutely the driest expression and tone of voice you ever saw, "I pointed out that way back in Heir to the Empire, Artoo flew the X-wing to Coruscant on his own. 'But Artoo can't fly the X-wing.' Okay, in ESB, one of your own movies, Luke's X-wing was inside the Hoth base, but Luke meets it outside. 'But Artoo can't fly the X-wing.' Then later in the movie, Luke tells Artoo, "No thanks, I'll keep it on manual for a while." Manual indicates that there must be an automatic. 'But Artoo can't fly the X-wing.'"
"Finally," he said, "I figured out what it was that bothered them. It wasn't Artoo flying the X-wing; it was his docking the ship with the Starry Ice without the aid of tractors. He added exactly three words to the existing scene, with Faughn now telling Luke that the Starry Ice had a pair of half-ports "with tractor assists". The editors were happy, and all was well.
Another SW anecdote everyone who's read Vision of the Future will recognize concerns Mara on the cover. She has the wrong lightsaber. Apparently Zahn saw that early enough to protest, but the protest did him no good - so he wrote in a bit of scene where Mara's wielding Luke's lightsaber instead of her own, to match the cover. Cookies to the first person to comment and point out which exact scene it was. ;)
And the most exciting bit of all: I got to talk to Zahn one-on-one. Seriously. :D There was a fifteen minute break in the middle of the seminar and Zahn briefly left the room; I watched, and once he came back and sat down again, I went up and introduced myself and said what a pleasure it was to meet him; I always enjoyed his writing, and as far as SW went, he was more responsible for me being an active fan than George Lucas himself was. He said thank you very much, that was very kind of me to say.
Then I went with my real opening: I said, "By the way, I had a chance to speak to Karen Traviss at C4." His expression changed - subtly, but you could definitely see it - and he said, "Mm-hmm." I continued, "A group of us were talking with her about Mara's death, and asked her if you had been told ahead of time. She said that she didn't think so, but that she would take you out for a drink to make up for it. I was just wondering, has she?"
He said quite firmly, "No, she has not. And no, they did not tell me. I found out three months before the book was to be published, and only because I asked an editor directly. And personally, I thought that was a disappointing way to treat both me and my character, and they know I feel that way. They could have told me earlier and at least given me a chance to speak on Mara's behalf. I think she was far too useful a character to kill off, and I disagree with killing off main characters anyway, especially in SW. I don't think that's what SW is all about. I still don't like Chewie's death."
I agreed with him completely, and said that of the fans I knew, opinion was split; half thought that if Del Rey were to approach him again he'd be so irritated -quite rightfully- that he'd refuse, and half thought that he'd see it as a chance to do damage control to some extent. He said, "Well, Del Rey knows how upset I am over this, and I haven't heard from them since then. It's entirely possible that they just don't want to deal with me."
I asked if he were asked, would he ever consider doing a book with Luke and Mara and Ben before Mara's death, so that someone could write the Skywalker family properly? Because I didn't feel that any of the other authors had gotten it right at all. He said, "I would love to. Like I said, they haven't asked me anything lately, but if I could, I would love to."
Squee! Hope! :D
I then told him that one of the things I loved best about his work was that he so often had strong female characters who were still believable women. I said that in hard sci-fi particularly, that could be a hard thing to find, but his female characters were never caricatures of women, or women in men's bodies, or pushovers; they were genuine women who thought and felt like women, but who could still match the boys at their own games. I said that Mara was something of a revelation for me with SW, because before her there was really only Leia. Leia's a strong women character too, but I'm not much like Leia myself, and didn't relate all that well to her. Then along came Mara, who was much more like me, and I suddenly felt like I had more of a share in SW, because here was a strong female character who I could relate to.
At which point he nodded, touched my hair lightly, and said, "And there's the hair."
It was a split personality sort of moment, because on the inside I was all, OMGOMGOMGOMG, Timothy Zahn just said my hair was like Mara's!, but all I said aloud was, "There's that." I was proud of myself. :p
At that point I had to cede my place because I could feel the eyes of other fans boring into my back, so I thanked him for his time and let the others talk to him for a while. :p
At the end of the seminar when people were in line to get autographs, Cathie from the Tucson Fan Force said I'd certainly brought a bunch (I had six), and I said that I'd really wanted to bring more, but there had to be a limit somewhere. Zahn looked up from signing another person's books and said, "No, there doesn't. We have a whole hour to sign. You can bring as many as you like." A little too late for me, but it was very nice of him to be so accomodating. I asked Cathie where her books were, and she said they were all in Arkansas - I guess she'd moved recently - and she didn't want to buy duplicates of all the books she already had. Zahn looked up again and said, "I have a solution for you. Let me just finish this." He finished signing the other guy's books, then fished in his briefcase and came up with blank bookplates, and offered to sign as many as she liked so that she could put them in her books when she got them. Wasn't that nice? :D
When I got to the front of the line, he not only signed my books but asked if I'd be at the dinner the Tucson Fan Force was having with him. I said I was sorry, I couldn't; I was from Phoenix - he interrupted to say that he was sure they'd let me come. I said I was sure they would too, but it was a long drive home and I didn't want to risk being too tired behind the wheel, and my sister had to get home as early as possible so she could watch the kids and her husband could get to bed because he had an opening shift at work the next day. I did hate to say no, but Zahn actually invited me to the dinner! Squee again! And he very kindly posed for a picture with me as well. He was so incredibly nice and approachable and encouraging, which was awesome. I had an absolutely fantastic time. It was way better than if he'd been at C4. :D