I went to C2E2 last weekend and checked out a couple of the writing panels. One that caught my interest was The Art of Worldbuilding featuring Charlaine Harris (Sookie Stackhouse series) and Jacqueline Carey (Kushiel’s Legacy series), moderated by Chloe Neill (Chicagoland Vampires series.) I jotted down some notes for myself, but I thought I’d share them on here in case they’re of interest to anyone else.

Disclaimer: Everything below is paraphrased as best I could write/remember. I won’t be writing the notes in first person because I’m not comfortable representing my notes as quotes if they aren’t verbatim. If any of the authors or their representatives feel that I accidentally misrepresented any comments, please contact me & I’ll modify/remove as requested.

CN: Chloe Neill
CH: Charlaine Harris
JC: Jacqueline Carey

Q: How much research and planning do you do before you write?
CH: Doesn’t do a lot of advance planning. Sets the basic rules of the world, but lets most of it come in the writing process.
JC: Does a lot of research upfront, then finds out the rest while she’s writing. Loves writing historical fiction because she can pick what she likes from history & change what she doesn’t (as long as she avoids glaring anachronisms.)

Q: How do you keep track of everything in a large series?
CH: Has someone in charge of continuity for her books.
JC: Keeps track of it all in her head.

Q: How do you balance magic in your world?
CH: The magic system must have checks and balances so it’s not too powerful. For example, in her world the vampires are day sleepers.
JC: Started with the idea of why magic exists in the first place. For her Agent of Hel series she went off a variation of the Hermetic Principle: If it is so below (in hell), then it is above (on earth).

Q: What resources do you use?
CN: Uses encyclopedias of vampires/werewolves/witches that show all appearances in pop culture (I believe these are the encyclopedias by Rosemary Ellen Guiley)
JC: The Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology

Q: How do you use language in your works?
CH: Tried to give each vampire his own verbal ticks based on their origin.
JC: Began writing in clean, crisp, short prose. Finally accepted that it was okay to allow flowery prose. Her characters have different voices depending on their background.

Q: What is your daily schedule like?
JC: Usually writes 4 hours per day, and edits as she goes. She starts by editing the previous day’s work. Writes in Word, but does her research longhand.
CH: Finds that the business aspect can overwhelm the creative. On a good day, she revises the previous day’s work & writes 1800-2400 words.
CN: There’s no right or wrong way to write. Find what works for you that you can do every day to keep writing.

Q (from the audience): How do you keep your characters from being perfect & turning into Mary Sues?
CH: Perfect characters are boring.
JC: If they’re perfect, there’s no room for growth.

Miscellaneous notes (I either can’t remember the question, or I only wrote down one person’s response)
CH: It’s a different process writing/worldbuilding for a novel vs. a graphic novel. In a graphic novel, you can’t write what the artist can’t draw.
CH: Her biggest surprises in writing came in the bad things she could do to her characters.
JC: Does a lot of plot outlining. Because of the scale of her books, she has to keep her characters on a short leash.
JC: When naming characters, she would go back & look at the history of names & use the older versions of modern names.
CN: The advantage of using a major city is there’s a lot of well known places to draw from, but she also makes up enough that she can layer her own places in. People WILL let you know if you got something wrong.
JC: Picks what to write by creative Darwinism. Let the ideas fight it out in your head until there’s one you can’t resist.
CH: When you get writer’s block, go & write something else.
JC: Give yourself permission to make mistakes.
JC: Focus on the details that jump out the most to you. You don’t have to describe everything, just grab the few things that define it the most.
CH: Characters must be anchored by the concerns of everyday life.
JC: She wrote the first Kushiel’s Legacy book in a way that worked as a stand alone. She only wrote the sequel after her agent told her she should.

I went down to the Atlanta Film Festival today for the “Screenwriting for a Living” discussion as part of the Coffeehouse Conversations series. The guests were Robert Orr (Underworld: Rise of the Lycans), Tom Luse, and Ray McKinnon (Oscar winning VSU alum who came to speak at the school a few years ago.) It was fun and really informative. Here are some of the notes I took:

Writing Process

  • Read screenplays of movies you’ve never seen, and then watch the movie to see how it plays out. If you read the script for a movie you’ve seen, you’ll only be seeing it played out in your head as you saw it on screen.
  • The best education is experience. You can only learn to be a writer from writing; you can only learn to direct from directing. Education doesn’t translate into jobs. If you’re going to film school, do it for technical knowledge (editing, cinematography, etc.) or go to USC for the connections.
  • 120 pages used to be industry standard for a spec. Now, they’re looking for 100 pages, and maybe even 90. Attention spans aren’t what they used to be.
  • You need far less dialogue than you think.
  • Cut all small talk and entrances. You don’t need them. Get in late, get out early.
  • Sometimes you write a cool action sequence. Sometimes you just write “They fight.”
  • Loglines are essential. You will not be read without an interesting logline that clearly states the concept.
  • After you write a draft, let it sit. Not just for a few days; go work on something else. When you come back to it, try to be not just objective, but Machiavellian with it. See what you can cut and make more concise. That scene you used to be in love with may actually suck and not need to be in there at all.
  • When you get writer’s block, write. Even if it’s junk, write.
  • Paraphrasing David Mamet: When you’re not feeling a scene and don’t feel motivation to write, work on structure. When you feel the creative juices flowing, get as much of it down on paper as you possibly can, and to hell with structure.
  • Write out whatever cool ideas you have in the descriptions of the action. It may not make the cut (never write camera angles), but it may make it read better. Just don’t go crazy with it.
  • Don’t avoid writing something because you don’t think it’s sellable. It may not be. But if it’s well written, it may open up a door to script doctoring something.
  • When you’re rewriting someone else’s script that’s already in development, it’s less about a creative “I’ve got a cool idea” and more about logistics (this scene has to be shot on this day, with these people, with what is already available.)
  • Your first script will be bad & probably won’t be salvageable. Don’t let that discourage you. Keep at it. Persistence is the key. The coverage of Robert Orr’s first screenplay said “Never accept anything by this writer ever again.” If you don’t keep writing, you’ll never get better.

The Business Side

  • Most studios now are looking for a package (a spec script that comes attached with an actor or director.)
  • The spec market is doing better than it was. It’s still not as strong as it was in the early 90’s, but it’s good. Recently, the movie Abduction was sold for $2 million with Taylor Lautner attached to star.
  • There are only about 50 really bankable actors in Hollywood. If you can get one of them interested & attached to your script, you have a much better chance of selling it.
  • Read “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script” by Josh Olson (A History of Violence). Very good article for beginning screenwriters.
  • A screenwriting competition won’t get your script produced, but it could potentially give you some name recognition.
  • Don’t pay people to give you coverage on your script & assume that any producer will read their coverage; they won’t. Maybe do it for the feedback, but don’t expect that it will get you an in anywhere.
  • Producers are looking for things that are currently selling. You may have written a great period horror film, but period horror films aren’t selling.
  • The young male demographic has been written off by a lot of producers as being too distracted by video games & porn. There is much more focus on the young female demographic now.
  • If you want to write an adaptation, you have to be able to pitch exactly how you play to do it, right down to which pages in the book translate to which pages in the script.
  • It is easier to sell a script that can be made for less money.
  • Producing your own work can help you get noticed. Film is a visual medium, so showing someone a five minute clip (not trailer) from something you’ve done is a great calling card.
  • When producing & asking for money, have a legit budget, even if it costs thousands to have it professionally done. Know exactly how much money you need & why you need it.
  • Don’t go to LA until you have at least 3 good scripts written, and several more in your head. They will always ask “What else are you working on?”