Hey everyone! Welcome back to this week’s Being a Better Writer post, which as you may have noticed, is a little late.
Yeah, I know. I blame LTUE. Somehow, no matter how much I try, I always end up getting a little less sleep during a con, and LTUE is no exception. And in that same context … it’s still totally worth it. It’s fun, it’s educational, and it’s a good way to get the mind working on all sorts of little details and things about writing.
Which brings me to today’s topic. Rather than do one of my usual write-ups, today I’m going to summarize a few things from LTUE that were writing peeves brought up by other authors and publishers, warnings they gave out on what writers should do … and what writers shouldn’t. Helpful, sometimes basic stuff, but the kind of stuff that’s basic enough it often gets overlooked or ignored and kills things for the reader.
Now, this is unfortunately not a complete list. There’s just no way for me to be in multiple panels at once. What’s collected here is just some of what I was able to pick up from the panels I attended and the conversations I had. It’s helpful, but it’s only what I managed to make it to.
Now, without further ado, let’s see what other authors, editors, and publishers are finding themselves discussing.
Of all the topics out there, logistics was easily the one that came up most as an area where writers were both making mistakes and were not giving it enough thought. Not only did multiple panels that I attended mention it, but several friends I attended the con with who went to other panels mentioned that it had come up there as well. The topic of logistics, it would appear, was on a lot of panelist’s minds.
And with good reason. As one panelist pointed out, one work that he’d read had left him perplexed when the author, probably attempting to go for some sort of epic final battle, had declared that one side had shown up with 10,000 Knights.
The problem? Knights are an incredible resource drain. Each knight requires not just a large force of manpower in the field of battle, but as a home resource, as they are trained from a young age and still require all those additional people behind them even when you’re not at war. And apparently, for the fantasy nation in particular, this was just a little too much: a force of 10,000 knights was far past what anything in the book supported.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, at its core it’s pretty simple. Logistics is the art of supply. How your capital city gets its food. How your army gets its bullets. How your adventurers don’t starve while traveling from point A to point B. How a grocery store is able to have a head of lettuce, fresh, for you, from a state 1000 kilometers or more away, that’s barely a day old.
It’s supply chain management. The flow of goods such as food, water, ammunition, or fuel. Really, anything that your army, town, city, province, or adventurers might need to survive and how it gets to them. And this came up a lot at LTUE because quite a few writers are ignoring this crucial step of worldbuilding.
Now, they reiterated, and so will I, that you don’t need to go into absolute detail. The reader likely does no need to hear how a man in Dulnoth tended to his crop for months, cut it down, and then shipped it via canals to the capital, where your adventuring party bought it along with all their gear. But they should know that there is some sort of reasonable system in place.
Take farmland, for example. How many fantasy novels (or war novels, for that matter) have you read where the book describes the beautiful countryside surrounding each grand city … but never mentions all the farmland that it would take to supply such a place? Realistically, many cities in the ancient world and the modern one are surrounded by a whole mess of farmland. Why? Well, because people need to eat, and shipping food is expensive (there’s logistics to consider there, too).
Now, as pointed out above, the solution isn’t to go into grand acknowledgement of such things, but to acknowledge them at all, which is something a lot of young writers aren’t doing. When you sit down to do your world building, needs such as food, water, and the likeshould be part of your process. Ask yourself the basic questions like “Where does this city get water? What does its sewer look like? Where’s the food coming from?” You may never directly face the reader and put a voice to those answers, but at the same time youwill likely reference them in passing, and it’s when those references don’t exist that readers get pulled out of the work slightly.
There was another factor of logistics that was brought up in several panels that needs to be mentioned here, and this was in regards to warfare.
Look, it’s no surprise that we as readers (or even consumers) love to see big, grand battles where armies grind against one another. Where hundreds of tanks slam into one another with titanic force, or thousands of axe-wielding soldiers thunder down a plain (not in the same battle, mind, or I’m betting on the tanks).
The problem, as was brought up by several panelists, was that more often than not wars revolve around logistics. In fact, one panel on warfare pointed out that the more modern war has become, the more true this is. It’s not about slamming your army into the opponent’s with reckless abandon, it’s about information. About knowing when and where to strike to put your opponent out of the war, be that by striking at supply lines or taking out a popular leader.
This detail of war needs to be considered; not just in supplying, feeding, and fueling such a force, but in what they do and how they act. Several panelists pointed out that warfare is becoming a battle of information logistics: The art of knowing things about your opponent and then striking at the perfect moment. Making full use of drones and weapons that span the globe. Bringing those elements together in a plan for victory.
In summary? Don’t forget logistics. Too many authors are neglecting this. Does it mean you won’t be published? Well, no, there are plenty of authors who are writing stories where they ignore logistics and are still getting contracts. But at the same time, it could be the difference between three stars and four.
Learn logistics. Put it in your worldbuilding.
Research and Wikipedia
Here we have another one that was echoed by a number of panelists as a rising problem in up-and-coming writers: research.
They’re not doing enough of it.
Look, I’ve been over this one before. Research is important. If you want your world to hold the reader, you need to make sure that you don’t pull them out of it by getting a basic fact wrong.
But this LTUE there was a new wrinkle going in line with this one. It wasn’t just a problem that writers weren’t doing research, panelists pointed out, it was that they were seeing many take shortcuts to avoid it. What kind of shortcuts, you might ask?
How about copy-pasting wikipedia entries into their dialogue in order to sound like they’d done their research?
Yep. This is happening. In the age of the internet, where information is available in an instant, it was pointed out that a lot of would-be authors are using this fantastic tool to cut corners rather than to learn. They’re googling something and rather than studying it, are simply parroting or copy-pasting the first thing they find into their story. In some cases, literally.
I don’t think I should need to tell you why this is bad, but since there’s clear evidence that it’s happening, I should anyway. And in doing so, I throw my hat in the ring with the rest of the panelists at LTUE: it doesn’t work.
There are two reasons above all others that it doesn’t. The first is the lingo. As Larry Correia pointed out (albeit in a different manner), when you copy-paste something into dialogue rather than doing research, you get a tonal shift that completely wrecks suspension of disbelief. Because scholarly articles on a topic are different than ordinary speech, and what you do is create an instance where a character pinballs back and forth between the two, shattering the consistency of character.
The other reason it doesn’t work is because it’s like training a parrot to explain calculus. You might be able to get the bird to recite the fundamental theory, but using it is a different matter, and when these authors cut corners, they fall into the same trap. They recite a piece of knowledge in one paragraph, but a couple of paragraphs later, they show a complete lack of understanding of the topic and make an embarrassing mistake that someone with a basic understanding of the knowledge would not.
You want to write about a topic? Study that topic. Don’t just cut and paste the wikipedia entry or skim over it looking for a good quote.Read about it. Watch some youtube videos. Or, best yet …
Go Find Some Experience
I’m giving this one its own section since it does come up at a good chunk of the panels every year. Leave your desk and get some hands-on experience. Talk to people who are familiar with what you’re writing about. Look for personal accounts of what it’s like to run your own corner store, work at a bank, or be a soldier! Most people are wiling to talk about all sorts of things once you explain you’re an author. Call them up or track them down, be polite, and ask for a moment of their time.
And if it’s something you can do on your own, then by all means get some experience with it! Fire a gun! Drive a car! Go out on a boat! Yes, as authors we’re responsible for transporting our readers to fantastical places and adventures which can defy physics—but that makes it all the more vital that we make the moments that do subscribe to reality all the more believable.
I’ve written about this before, so I’ll leave it at that. But it comes up every year at LTUE. Go out and get some hands-on experience or guidance if you can. Your work will be the better for it.
Writing is Moving Forward
I don’t think anyone actually said those specific words (though like I said, I can’t be at every panel), but the truth of it was there. Writingis moving forward. The rise of the ebook has thrown a lot of things into flux. Readers are no longer accepting of the same handwaves they did fifty or even fifteen years ago. Technology has rewritten the way books, authors, publishers, and readers interact, and much of it is still up in the air.
The classic superhero secret-identity, for example, was the subject of an entire panel I attended, as it’s kind-of on its way out. With the advent of modern technology (like cell-phone cameras and facial recognition), the secret-identity is falling out of favor, and authors who use it will need to work extra hard to make them believable.
It’s not just that, though. The book industry is right in the middle of a lot of changes brought about by the digital age. Ebooks were a common topic, with several authors pointing out that there are very successful authors out there who have never had a physical copy of their books, and that for the future, physical books may not play the roll we think anymore (personally, I’m in the camp that believes the ebook will eventually replace the paperback). Ebooks are fluctuating like mad as everyone tries to find a sustainable balance of cost (as well as educate consumers who have no idea how the publishing industry works of what’s going on before things get too out of balance).
Writing is facing an upheaval, though I don’t think many say it with that specific term. It’s evolving. It always has, but the internet has lit a fire under it. A mutagenic fire that’s leading to all sorts of changes.
Where will it end up? Well, I, and many of the other LTUE authors, can only guess. Probably—and hopefully—somewhere good. But the industry is changing rapidly at the moment, and that’s a fact that can’t be denied.
LTUE 2016 was, as each LTUE before it, well worth attending. Over the years I’ve started to see it as the writing convention to attend, and I have no reservations in saying that if you want to attend a convention to help with your writing, this one should be it. Dozens of high-profile, A-list authors, all offering as much advice as they can while still having fun.
I’ve taken away (and shared a small bit) of what I remember from this year’s LTUE. Next year, if you can, don’t rely on my notes.
Attend yourself, and get some firsthand experience.
See you there.