Westercon

The first weekend of July marked what was a wonderful, career-building experience as a writer: Westercon.  As you can probably tell from the last three letters of its name, Westercon is a convention, specifically for writers and artists of sci-fi and fantasy.  Because of the endlessly strange stigma attached to the word “horror” in the publishing world, my writing falls under the sci-fi/fantasy umbrella, so it was only natural that when I caught wind of this convention I bought a membership.  I had been eager to go to my first writing convention for some time.

I showed up at the convention sign-in booth early on Thursday July 3rd and chatted with another writer in line who writes under the name Thomas Fawkes (he told me about some of his fantasy projects and it sounds really cool, you should check him out).  Being of similar interest and experience, we decided to become con buddies for the day.  Adorned with our name badges we set forth.

The first Westercon event we attended was the release party of Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology.  As I’ve mentioned before I am an avid listener of the Writing Excuses podcast.  It honestly as been a bigger help to my writing than the sum of instruction I received relative to my creative writing degree.  I’ve said this before, but it warrants repeating: if you are an aspiring writer of genre fiction that is serious about your craft, then you need to listen to the podcast.  It has improved my approach to writing.  Anyway, Shadows Beneath

The Writing Excuses Team

The Writing Excuses Team

is an anthology with a story from each of the podcast’s main contributors: Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Tayler.  Varying from most anthologies, this book has their stories up front and the deconstruction of the writing process of the stories (early drafts, notes, line edits, brainstorming, outlining, et cetera) in the back.  So this book serves as almost a textbook of the writing process– or just a good collection of short stories by great writers.  At the release party the Writing Excuses team all spoke briefly, then copies of the book were sold (of course I purchased one), food was eaten, signatures signed.  As I’ve posted before, I had met Brandon Sanderson previously at a signing, but I got him to sign my copy of The Way of Kings and chatted with him about Shardblades at the party.  I had brief interactions with Howard and Mary (primarily because I am not so familiar with their work) and then moved on to Dan Wells, who is one of m

Yes, Dan Wells is wearing a wizard's hat and cloak

Yes, Dan Wells is wearing a wizard’s hat and cloak

y personal heroes.  After all, the man has fulfilled what I want to accomplish– to make a living as a horror writer while being active LDS, religiously.  We chatted several times throughout the con (as shall be chronicled throughout this post), but the first interaction was quite funny as, after I told him a little about myself, he joked about being one of a tiny handful of Mormons who write horror.

After the party there was a two-hour recording session of Writing Excuses, which was great to be there for.  There was a Q&A episode, which I asked a question at (about creating frightening, unique creatures), which I will hold as bragging material with my writer friends when that podcast airs.

Most of the rest of day one was spent perusing booths at FantasyCon across the street (my Westercon badge got me

The FantasyCon dragon

The FantasyCon dragon

in for free), though I did jump back over for what ended up being one of the most productive things I did at the convention.  It was a class put on by Mary Robinette Kowal, Sandra Tayler, and the chairman of Westercon.  It was Schmoozing

101, intended to give some tips as to how to most productively interact with pros at conventions.  In a post soon to come I’ll give you a transcription and summary of this from my notes– it was very valuable.

I ended my first night for a guest of honor panel for Dan Wells in which he talked about his upcoming second John Cleaver trilogy (I love the first books– delightful supernatural horror), read from a book about cloning that he’s currently negotiating with Tor (I’m excited for it), and answered some audience questions.  The Q&A was very helpful to me because somebody asked where Dan goes to for his research on mental illness (something that has played a significant role in his books) and he recommended the self-help section books on mental illness intended for the loved ones of those afflicted.  I have been doing research on mental illness for Dark Art (the protagonist has severe PTSD) and until that suggestion, I had been wading through medical jargon and military transcripts.  Gathering the books he recommended has vastly improved my research.  Beside that, the best moment of that panel was when Dan, while discussing music he listens to in order to get him in the writing mode, mentioned She Wants Revenge and asked if anybody had any idea who he was talking about.  I alone raised my hand, to which he joked, “Of course, only the only other horror writer in the room knows that band.”

Day two began with more Dan Wells as I attended his release party for Next of Kin, his new John Cleaver novella.  It was cool to hang out, get a copy, get it signed, and eat pizza Dan bought for the event.  Then, another round of Writing Excuses recordings, during which I met my writing compadre (we critique each others’ stuff), J.A. Trevor, in person.  After that we hung out for a while in the dealer’s room where I bought a Cthulhu fish for my car (because what horror writer doesn’t want a dark Lovecraftian deity on their car?).  Later that day I attended a horror panel.  My attendance to that probably made Mr. Wells believe that I was stalking him.  Promise, his events just had the most appeal to me as a writer.  Really hope I didn’t seem creepy.

Me with Dan.  Be jealous.

Me with Dan. Be jealous.

Finally, day three of the con.  Bright and early, I headed in to a workshop that I had paid and submitted for in advance that was done by Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury, who moderates Orson Scott Card’s writer’s workshop on his site Hatrack River, and LDS writer Dave Butler.  They read “Charlestonian Monsters” and gave me some terrific feedback.  Their reaction was very positive to the quality of writing, which brought me great pride, and the majority of their concerns were around making the piece more cohesive in terms of theme and tone.

After that I went to FantasyCon, where I went to one episode worth of another Writing Excuses recording session.  I ducked out early for a panel with Simon Pegg, which was hilarious and awesome.

After that, I attended my final Westercon panel– one on worldbuilding that was led by Brandon Sanderson.  Considering how intricate and wonderful the worlds of his creation are, the fact that it was awesome really goes without saying.  During and after that panel I chatted with another aspiring writer, Aaron Hoskins, who I met during Dan’s guest of honor panel.  We became friends and it was cool to see how our exchange was mutually beneficial– I had more writing experience to share while he has attended more cons that I have.

So, in summary, Westercon was a blast.  I learned a lot, interacted with professionals and had a ton of fun.  So, writers, get out to a writing con!  It was worth far more than its cost.

Why I’m Thankful for Brandon Sanderson +Steelheart

A few years ago I first caught wind of the writing of Brandon Sanderson.  It was in one of Gabe’s posts on Penny Arcade, briefly praising a fantasy novel he’d recently read called Mistborn: The Final Empire.  The title of the book, as well as Gabe’s words, piqued my interest.  I made a mental note, which I quickly Brandon_Sanderson_signfiled away in the back of my mind because I was obsessively reading through the complete library of Stephen King (a task that I’m still working on, now with the end in sight).  I also had then-recently fallen mostly out of love with the fantasy genre because of a number of mediocre books that I had read over the year previous– the exceptions to my genre abandonment being King’s The Dark Tower series and Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time.  So, when I later heard that Sanderson had been selected to finish The Wheel of Time after Mr. Jordan’s unfortunate passing, I felt hope that the series might be given the conclusion it deserved.  A quick glance at Sanderson’s Wikipedia page stated that he was selected for the Herculean task after Robert Jordan’s wife had read Mistborn and had, like Gabe, been impressed.  I moved the novel up a few notches on my to-read list.

It was not long after this that I went on my LDS mission, so all of my fiction reading was halted for a couple of years.  When I got home, Sanderson was about to release his second of the three Wheel of Time books he is responsible for, so I quickly set myself to acquiring and reading the continuing adventures of the Dragon Reborn and his companions.  I was, of course, overjoyed at how 9781429997171seamlessly Sanderson picked up the series.  His style for the books was very similar to Jordan’s, and the story picked up with almost the same momentum it had left off.  I felt like Sanderson knew the extensive collection of characters almost as personally as their creator had.

So, there’s my first reason to be thankful for Brandon Sanderson: he finished The Wheel of Time, and did a dang good job doing so.  I was distraught the day that I learned that Robert Jordan had died– I needed to know how the story concluded.  Now, some people may think that selfish of me, thinking only of how much of a cliffhanger I’d been left on, but I think that’s one of the greatest honors that I could pay him.  I was upset because I just had to know how the wonderful story I had been reading for around 10,000 pages ended.  I loved the world he created, and I wanted his legacy– one of the greatest of all fantasy series– to be complete.  Brandon Sanderson honored Jordan’s legacy, praise the light.

Between the time Mr. Sanderson released Towers of Midnight and A Memory of Light, my wife-to-be and I visited some extended family in Arizona.  My favorite uncle and I were chatting about books and our discussion turned to The Wheel of Time, and how happy Brandon Sanderson’s handling of it was making us.  My uncle mentioned that he had read a number of his other books, and that they were excellent.  He mentioned that one of Sanderson’s books, Warbreaker, is a free PDF on his website, so I quickly downloaded it (you can acquire it here).  I put it on my kindle.

A few months later, I got married.  While waiting in the airport to head off to our honeymoon, I dug my kindle out of one of my bags warbreakerand suggested to my new wife that give it a read.  She is also a big fan of The Wheel of Time, and had read a little of Sanderson’s other writing already, liking what she had thus far read, so she was excited to agree.  She had already indicated to me that his writing would be fun for us to pursue.  We silently read the prologue in the terminal, then the first chapter or two in the air, nodding to each other for page turns.  Soon, taking turns reading Warbreaker aloud to each other became a nightly ritual, with additional large chunks being knocked out whenever a lengthy car ride occurred.  We fell in love with the characters (Lightsong is my personal favorite) and with the vivid, fascinating world of the novel.  The magic system was especially spectacular– and refreshing– because of how unique yet logically sound it was.  With how impressive the system is, it was no big surprise to me that he has published laws for writing magic systems in fantasy.  The story is wonderful, with some very intricately set traps for the reader.  I recommend it to anybody who loves good fantasy lit– plus, it’s free if you don’t feel like making a trip to the bookstore.

After finishing Warbreaker, my wife and I decided that reading Brandon Sanderson’s writing at night was a ritual that should remain unbroken, so we quickly moved on to the first book in the Mistborn trilogy, The Final Empire.  This time we weren’t just drawn into the world he had created, but were yanked in.  The series (which we are reading the third book of currently– we’re taking our time to really savor its wonderfulness) is simply some of the best fantasy I’ve ever read.  The characters, especially Vin and Kelsier, are compelling, strong, complex.  Sanderson also boasts three mistborn(three!) magic systems in the series, all of which are based around metals.  Just explaining the main system, allomancy, has caused a number of friends to immediately purchase all three books in the main series (there is also a novel set hundreds of years after the trilogy that I look forward to reading).

So, the second reason I’m thankful for Brandon Sanderson is for his magic systems.  They both make for some refreshingly different fantasy reading and have helped me as a writer.  I’ve been working on a fantasy novel off and on for years.  Actually, for just about as long as I’ve been wanting to be a writer– since sixth grade (and I’m now a college graduate).  The ideas I have for the story are pretty decent, I think, but the story was always missing something that could make it have something that made it distinct from the numerous small group of good vs overwhelmingly powerful evil stories that tend to make up most of the fantasy genre.  By reading Sanderson’s books, I’ve come to realize that my magic system was a mess– an amalgam of pretty much all of the typical magics I’ve read over the years.  The only way I can save the story is to start yet another draft, this time with a solid system of magic drawn out.  Mr. Sanderson’s laws will really help me do so.

The third reason I’m grateful for Brandon Sanderson is that his writing is an example to me as a writer.  As I’ve noted before, I’m LDS.  I’ve been long trying to figure out what that means to my writing.  I want to write in a wide variety of genres, focusing on horror, and sometimes the material I want to write, that I have great ideas for, has resulted in extended periods of time staring at a blinking cursor, pondering what to do next.  I often find that my characters do not have the same moral perspectives that I do, or find themselves in extreme situations, which leaves me wondering where the line is.  How do I balance being true to the story and characters against my own views on profanity, violence, and evil?  I have no desire to go the direction of LDS literature (that is, lit specifically written for a Mormon audience), as I find most of it tacky at best.  I’m glad to have two popular literature writers who are LDS– Sanderson, and Orson Scott Card– whose work I both enjoy and can learn from.  I haven’t found the most absolute footing in this conundrum yet, but looking at Warbreaker and Mistborn have helped point me in the right direction.

Plus, he just brings me lots of joy. I really want to go to one of his workshops. And just be as awesome as a writer as he is.

Since it doesn’t 13452375quite fit in with the “thankful” motif (I can’t think of any solid ways to tie it in to that seasonal idea) I’m just going to break to talk about some of Brandon Sanderson’s other writing that I’ve acquainted myself with.  The first discussion will be brief– his novella, Legion— while the second will be a bit more extensive– Sanderson’s newest novel, Steelheart.

I became acquainted with Legion as the result of some ad I came across for Audible.  For most of my life I’ve tended to pay audio books no mind, but the ad caught my interest as it featured the name of Sanderson– next to the word “free.”

Free will almost always catch my attention, and will manage to hold it if I can quickly determine that free is actually free.  So, I clicked on the link, saw that Audible would actually allow me to download Legion, in its entirety without taking my credit card information, if I set up an account with them.  A few hours later, in a car ride of moderate length, I was listening to it.  I was pleased, I’d like to note, that the reader for the novella was very good.  He has a voice that kept my interest and I liked that he gave each character their own unique feel.

The basic premise of the novella is that a protagonist is able to see and interact with a titular legion of vivid, unique people, most of whom are brilliant experts on different subjects– but all of whom are actually just in his head.  Working with them, he’s able to solve the most baffling of mysteries– if any catch his interest.  I must say, I really enjoyed the idea, and felt like it was well-executed.  I would really love to see more with the character (or should I say characters?) in the future.

Now, on to Steelheart17182126The idea of this book is also very fun– when I read a little promotional card for the book in my local bookstore a few months before it came out, I was immediately enthralled.  Basically, the book is about a world where people begin to get super powers– but, every person who gets these powers is evil.  One of these Epics– as these superhumans are called– named Steelheart has declared himself the emperor of Newcago.  Steelheart is virtually invincible, having defeated any challengers to his power.  The story follows a young man, David, who has sworn revenge on the dictator of his city for killing his father years before.

I really like this idea, though I do have one concern with it.  Essentially, the idea of a believed-invincible emperor being challenged by a small, specialized group who theoretically has no chance of standing against him does feel a lot like the basic story of Mistborn: The Final Empire, and was a little difficult to shake in my listening to it (I listened to the audio book at work– it was also very well done, and it is my understanding that it’s been nominated for Audible audio book of the year).  But this feeling of similarity is really my only criticism of the story.  It does a lot to stand on its own, and I especially loved how the powers of the Epics worked.  Instead of all following a set system, each had its own rules with strengths and weaknesses, giving the story a feel quite different from Sanderson’s fantasy novels.  Instead, the world felt an homage to the universes of comic books, though in many ways having a wide variety of powers and abilities in a way that worked much more seamlessly than the worlds of Marvel or DC, which seem to be inconsistent in how balanced their universes are when attempting to blend the stories and abilities of their heroes and villains.  For example, in the DC universe, I always feel like writers really struggle in bringing the tone of Batman and his associated allies and villains into the universe as a whole, especially when he has no superhuman powers himself, and many of his foes tend to be a little more plausible than that of Wonder Woman or John Constantine.  There are plenty of good stories that manage to blend Batman in, but with a story like Steelheart Sanderson has already set himself up for success in that the world is set up with many heroes already in mind, rather than trying to mediate between very different backstories and general atmosphere.  The origin for all of these Epics is the same– the arrival of the star Calamity.

Many of the Epics had powers that I thought were particularly excellent.  The idea of one of Steelheart’s generals, Nightwielder, was particularly compelling, with his incorporeal nature and his ability to bring darkness upon the city.  How he fights, flying and stabbing with tendrils of darkness, is, simply, very cool.  The technology present in the novel, such as gravitonics and the tensors, is also very cool and contributes to the world.  It’s great to see everything that Sanderson does with the sci-fi genre instead of fantasy.  It’s great to see one of my favorite writers change things up.

I look forward to seeing what happens in the future books of the Reckoners series.  I also look forward to reading the other novels that Sanderson has written.  I’ve been curious about Elantris, and I’m eager to see what The Stormlight Archive is going to hold.

P.S. – This post has a sequel!

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