I’m lucky to live a couple of hours’ drive from Tucson, home of the country’s second largest book festival. This year was the 10th annual event, which comes around on the second weekend in March while the University of Arizona students are away on spring break. Over a hundred thousand people show up to honor authors as rock stars – literally this year, when the Rock Bottom Remainders (Amy Tan, Dave Barry, R.L. Stine, and Scott Turow, among others) performed on Saturday night.
The festival takes over the U of A campus, with hundreds of tents on the grass, and a wonderful Science City at one end. (Check out this video to get a flavor of it.) For me, though, the juicy part is the array of panels and speakers in the classrooms. I try to get to as many writing craft sessions as I can.
- Write what you want to read but can’t find. (Fonda Lee, author of Jade City)
- “Hard fantasy” in which magic follows rigid rules is just science under a different name. (Ken Liu, author of The Grace of Kings and translator of The Three Body Problem)
- Every book is different. It’s like raising children: you only learn how to write that book. What keeps you going is knowing you did it before. (K Arsenault Rivera, author of The Tiger’s Daughter)
- I’m a collector of life stories (Katayoun Medhat, author of The Quality of Mercy)
- I channeled the simmering rage from my own life into my 20-year-old female character, so she’s closer to me than any of my other characters. (Riley Sager, 40-year-old male author of Final Girls)
- People who make notes of their ideas as they come up have ideas they can work with when they’re ready to work. (Windy Harris, author of Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays)
- Reading can be a way of avoiding writing, escaping the difficulty of finding and listening to your own voice. (Ron Hogan, founder of Beatrice.com)
- We become authors by authorizing ourselves. (Stuart Horowitz, founder of Book Architecture)
World Building from Ken Liu
The hands-down best session I attended this year was Ken Liu’s presentation, in which he shared ten tips for compelling world building. Whether you write fantasy, science fiction, or historical novels, you need to construct a sense of place so the reader feels immersed in your story. Ken’s own website describes the talk, and incidentally serves as a great example of an effective author website.
Some favorite pieces of wisdom:
- Read outside your comfort zone and pay attention to movies, tv, video games, and even cosplay and larping (it means live-action role playing – who knew?), and learn how others evoke a sense of place.
- If you only read secondary sources, like a science journalist’s summary of a research paper or a historian’s account of events, you’re getting someone else’s narrative. Go to primary sources, and go in person to see physical artifacts. Tour a battleship, look at original art.
- Use “incluing” – Jo Walton’s term – instead of explaining everything. Readers can figure out more than you might think, and figuring things out makes reading more fun.
- Study nonfiction to see how to make infodumps compelling to read.
- Make your prose more dense. Each sentence can do more than one thing – show character, advance the plot, describe the world.
- Think through all the implications of your ideas. If your world has flying cars, it’s not going to be just like our world but with flying cars added.
- Give your world a history and different cultures, with all the complexity and inconsistency that comes from the way things evolve. Who knew that samurai culture in Japan came after gunpowder and firearms were available? Technology doesn’t determine everything, and stories told in other cultures are very different from the ones you grew up reading.
- Technology is invented by tinkerers trying to solve a problem. It doesn’t come from higher level scientific principles in an orderly manner. Read The Nature of Technology by W. Brian Arthur to understand how technology creates our world. And technology isn’t just mechanical things – bureaucracy, organizations, and laws are also technologies.
- The one thing you care about, that excites you, will lead you to the rest of your world. It isn’t photorealism, but impressionist painting. What you’re doing is world conjuring in collaboration with the reader.
- Think through your own assumptions. Someone asked whether you have to include realistic elements like violence in your imaginary world, and Ken Liu pointed out that the question implies assumptions about what reality is like.
Idea to novel
Linnea Hartsuyker, author of The Half-Drowned King, led a workshop on turning your idea into a novel. She gave us lots of opportunities to practice developing our what-ifs, and shared a bit of her own wisdom along the way, like:
- Plot doesn’t just happen to your characters, but because of them.
- Different characters relate to the theme in different ways. If the theme of The Hunger Games is “how does a person navigate a world in which cruelty is necessary for survival,” the answers are different for Katniss, Haymitch, and President Snow.
- Visualize the end. The end is where the reader sees that you’ve made your argument and something’s been settled, and it will help you along the way as you’re writing if you feel you’re writing towards something.
- If you get stuck, think about the chapter questions to get back on track:
- Central conflict
- Plot purpose, character purpose, and theme purpose
- Start on an unsteady equilibrium (the cliche is “start as late as you can get away with”).
- Her own process is iterative. She writes the important events, a high level summary, and a few chapter questions, then writes as fast as she can till she hits a wall, then goes back and does more outlining and thinks about the three questions: what the character wants, what they need to do (what’s their primary malfunction), and what’s standing in their way.
Finding and pitching an agent
In an information-packed session, two agents (Claire Gerus and Katharine Sands) and a developmental editor (Ron Hogan) shared their sometimes-contradictory wisdom on getting an agent. Sands followed up with a whirlwind solo presentation on perfecting your pitch. In addition to common sense advice like “don’t be bridezilla, even though you’ve been dreaming of this since you were seven,” a few highlights were:
- You’re looking for someone who believes in your work.
- Seduce agents by showing them something that makes them want to see more, and that you can deliver.
- Do your research, i.e. in Publishers Marketplace, look carefully at the contract, and talk to their other authors.
- You have to kiss a lot of frogs. Don’t limit yourself too much. Bigger agencies hire new people all the time, so even if they don’t specialize in your genre, their new agent might love your work.
- Publishers are looking to minimize financial risk; agents are looking out for your interests. In self-publishing you keep all your rights but you’re probably not putting the best version of your book out there.
- Have a social media presence. Publishers want to know if you already have a following. Develop a relationship with your readers online. Don’t post too much in your blog – your contract will stipulate how much of your book has to be original.
- Rehearse your pitch. Think of it like gossip, when you tell your best friend about the crazy thing that happened today: you’re animated, with drama, charm, and humor. Practice till you always have it ready to go.
- Your pitch needs place, person, and pivot so the agent knows who the character is and what they’re dealing with. It doesn’t need backstory, theme, or how the story ends. You’re not telling the whole story, just enough to spark interest.
Tucson is for foodies
I stayed with my friend Kat, who lives walking distance from the university, and we had lunch on Saturday at the wonderful B Line on 4th Avenue. If you’re familiar with Tucson, you already know 4th Avenue is the hub of all kinds of independent shops and restaurants. I’m a vegetarian so I never get a chance to order tortilla soup, which is usually made with beef stock. The B Line had a delicious version that’s all vegetarian, and can even be made vegan if you ask them to. Yum!
If you don’t want to leave the festival, you don’t have to. You can get anything from tamales to gelato in the food tent area.
This was my fourth time at the Tucson book festival, and I’m grateful to young adult author Tom Leveen for mentioning it in a class. I’m slowly getting the hang of it – the festival is FREE and with so many book loving attendees, it can be a challenge to get into some of the sessions. If you have any tips on successfully navigating a big book festival, or if you went to this one and care to share some of the insights you gained, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!