Writing Excuses 8.19: Writing and Convention Culture

There are numerous local cultures surrounding writers, writing groups, and the conventions that writers attend. These cultural peculiarities influence the writing that emerges from those areas.

As writers, it’s important to be aware that this is happening. As a podcast crew, we’re aware that it’s happening around us, and in many cases because of us. We talk about some of the cultures we’ve been embedded in, how they’ve influenced us, and how we have, in some cases reacted against those cultures.

We also talk about how we can conduct ourselves when participating at conventions, again, with care taken to assess the nature of the cultures in which we’re stepping into.


Neil Gaiman is the Mentor character in your Hero’s Journey.

White Sands, Red Menace, by Ellen Klages, narrated by Julie Dretzin

24 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.19: Writing and Convention Culture”

  1. I wish I could have caught you at Quail Ridge books this Friday, Mary!

    There are some great writing groups in the Durham-Raleigh-Chapel Hill area, and though I’ve only begun to explore the writing culture in the last year, I’m thinking much more seriously about networking and conventions, so this was a timely episode for me.

  2. I’m a medieval historian by training, and have an ongoing fascination with professionalization (the process by which something like medicine goes from being full of “healers” who’re more likely to poison you than cure you, to a field where you can randomly look a doctor up in the phonebook and be assured of a basic level of competency). Talk about the professionalization of the writing field is like bacon flavored crack.

    A lot of conflicts within writing culture (such as the genre v literary fiction divide, or writing group hobby horses) are part of this process. They’re great, because they mean that the field isn’t ossified (which is good for standardization but bad for flexibility or creativity), but also that the field isn’t completely disconnected, either. It’s that community that will help the writing profession establish firm footing with traditional publishers as they continue to reorganize their business model.

  3. Jo: Master Gaiman I want to start writing but don’t know where to start.
    Master Neil Gaiman: Just start, that’s what you do.

    J: But I work so hard, so long, I don’t have time.
    MNG: Make time.

    J: Well I did make this outline…
    MNG: That’s not writing. Go write.

    J: Oh I will, I just have to finish naming my characters.
    MNG: You are done with that, now write.

    J: Okay, it’s only 3 weeks or so until June. I’m resolved to start in earnest then.
    MNG: Start writing right now.

    J: But how. I’m not nearly ready.
    MNG: Yes you are.

    J: You know…you really aren’t that helpful.
    MNG: Yes. Yes I am.

  4. @JD – Fellow historian here. I too very much enjoy that topic, but came at it from Foucault’s sort of knowledge/power paradigm. My big questions were about why we give doctors and other experts such deference. The power of deference is so huge, so huge that I tend to recoil against those who say that violence is the ultimate power. The ultimate authority. The ability to be perceived as ‘smarter than’ is also very powerful.

    I’m thinking it has something to do with the parent/child paradigm. You obey because your parents can beat your ass (violence) but also because you perceive them as more knowledgeable (deference).

    I wish Foucault were still alive. I think he was a bit of a yutz, but his take on how the internet has leveled the access to knowledge would be fascinating.

    As for traditional publishers, they will all fail. Every one of them. Unless they change to the point where they can no longer be called ‘traditional.’ Despite my authoritative tone I do not expect to be deferred to. :-)

  5. Are cons for writers just an American thing? I’m not aware of any in the UK. Please enlighten me, if you know of some.

    We have literary festivals, like Hay-on-Wye Fest, but they never ever have genre writers, not even the big names.

    Are cons just about writing or are they like sci-fi and comics conventions with signings and memorabilia etc? I’m not really sure what they are.

    Interesting podcast. I will share it with my writing group. And love the Neil Gaiman story.

  6. You touched on it in the podcast, but maybe you would expand upon the idea of not writing based on how others feel your story should go. I’m in a writing group and there are a few writers — who outsell me, so it must be working for them — who constantly revise based on reader feedback. One of them even changed an ending because she was getting 4 star reviews instead of 5. For some reason, this bothers me. I write the story I see and to paraphrase Neil Gaiman, I’m not someone’s bitch. It’s my story. You don’t like it, go write your own and make it the way _you_ want it.

    But doesn’t feedback weigh in there somewhere? If I were to bring my current WIP to you and you gave me feedback on what’s not working, what pacing could be improved, or what could be embellished — isn’t that the same thing? And if I follow your advice, wouldn’t that be writing to please someone else?

    Thanks in advance for the answers — from everyone who responds.

  7. Jesse, you have to evaluate feedback. I’m sure the writers who outsell you (they outsell me, too, bear in mind) don’t incorporate every single suggestion that a reader makes, if only because readers like and dislike different things. How you evaluate feedback is a tough question, but a couple of approaches come to mind, some from the podcast and some not. Mary’s suggestion of “try it and see” is pretty solid if you have time, although realistically you’ll probably have to triage. Elsewhere I think the WE crew have suggested that impressions are usually useful (“This works,” “Why would she do that?”) but fixes are usually not (“They should fall in love,” “Consider ninjas”). You can also use the Method of Inter-Rater Agreement — ignore anything suggested by less than two people. Probably, though, these explicit methods are all just exercises in, and inferior to, developing a feel for it.

    And by “it,” I mean how to incorporate other people’s impressions to make *you* like your story better. I think “I write the story I see” is a little facile — you do your best, obviously, but why should it be impossible for someone else to spot a deficiency that you didn’t notice? Surely you’ve done a revision where you had an idea to improve the story that never occurred to you in the first draft, or the previous revision, or the previous six revisions. So you know you can fail to have the right idea immediately. Why shouldn’t someone else be able to have it first?

  8. Thanks for the podcast. One of the things you touched on that I feel is important is understanding that different does not mean wrong.

    I’ve seen people in many different career fields unknowingly close off opportunities because they equated different with wrong. I think I’ve learned that when at a convention, do not deride the works of other authors, editors, etc… Word gets around and an editor or publisher may choose not to work with an author if the aspiring author has said negative comments about a book or author they happen to like.

    The same can be said about online culture. I know that potential employers will check a person’s facebook or twitter account before deciding to hire someone. I’ve done the same before hiring someone. I could be wrong, but I can imagine a publisher checking a prospective author’s facebook or goodreads account before acquiring a manuscript.

    Basically, good manners always matter no matter what culture you are interacting with.

  9. Jesse,

    I feel that it’s a balance act. As the author, you have the right to accept or refuse advise. You are writing to please someone and you get to decide who that it.

    I feel that acknowledging who is not part of your audience as well as who is part of your audience can be helpful. When I read a book review or book advertisement that says the book is sure to please everyone, I kind of roll my eyes. Often that means the book is bland.

    I don’t mind that the books I read, and really enjoy, don’t appeal to other groups of people. And I don’t get offended when a book isn’t written for me. Now I know people who do get offended when they read a book that didn’t have them as the target audience. I feel that authors shouldn’t worry about those people or their advice.

    So in general, the more that person represents your target audience, the more you should weigh their advice. If you’re lucky, you get to be your own ideal target audience and get the ultimate say. I say “if you’re lucky” because sometimes you have to weigh writing what you want with getting paid.

  10. Jo, one of the interesting things about the medieval period is that often the power structures were far less dichotomic than modern ones. For example, Rosenwein illuminated the relationship between religious and secular authorities: the relationship between the two was routinely reinforced by the giving back and forth of the same parcels of land. It wasn’t the parent/child paradigm. Likewise in the gift-economies of the pre-Christian Germanics: a ruler controlled others by giving them gifts, which obligated them to return gifts to the ruler, which obligated the rulers to give gifts back yet again, and so on. There’s not much of that sort of power structure left anymore.

    Anywho, I’d argue that the reason we give doctors such authority is because of the high level of deference needs for them to do their work properly. I mean really, if someone came up to you with a knife and said that they were going to cut your stomach open and rip out an organ, you’d probably freak. But if a doctor tells you that you need an appendectomy, that’s a different matter. If we’re going to entrust out lives to someone, we want to be assured that our lives are in good hands. As non-doctors, even when we’re equipped with the interwebs, we’re not well suited for judging the quality of a medical practitioner. So, we look to the profession to give its stamp of approval to individual practitioners.

    The alternative is to not trust individual doctors sight-unseen, and by extension not trust the profession that tries to tell us that they are competent. That was the model of medicine basically up until the Middle Ages. It’s not a coincidence that up until the Middle Ages, charlatans and hucksters were quite common in the field as well. It’s impressive and disturbing how much time old medical handbooks spent on instructing “real” doctors how to ferret out patient lies, and how to in turn trick patients (just into trusting the doctor: learned medical practitioners have always known that their career lives and dies by their reputation, which in turn lives and dies on if their patient lives or dies). Pre-professionalization, learned doctors had the ability to heal, but not the public trust needed to heal. Trust is big. It’s not perfect, but it is rather large.

    And yeah, despite my authoritative tone, I’m not an authority. I’m not even specialized in the history of medicine or the history of professionalization!

    As for the future of publishing, I’d say that largely depends on how strongly or weakly professionalized authors are during the same period. Consider SFWA: at present it has no mechanism for accepting independent authors into the fold. As traditional publishers decline, so will the number of traditionally published authors, and so their membership pool. With a smaller member base, they’ll be able to offer fewer services to its members, giving them less of a reason to band together.

    But if SFWA can create a criterion for accepting independently published authors, that will boost their numbers, thus improving their ability to serve those members, and giving those members more of a reason to band together.

    SFWA’s not really into union-esq activities, to my knowledge, but imagine if a large organization of authors, comprised of both traditionally and non-traditionally published ones, approached a major traditional publisher and demanded that they revise their standard contracts so that, say, instead of the current 25%/75% author/publisher revenue split for ebooks, it returned to 50%/50% (or even 75%/25%). Get enough authors together who are willing to boycott a publisher if they don’t play fair, and the publishers will be forced to return to a more equitable business model.

    And if, once publishers are forced into the modern world, imagine if authors and publishers petitioned the government on issues that affect both of us. Say, on Apple and Amazon’s patent on used ebooks. You can be sure that Apple and Amazon will take a cut of those transactions: it’s up to authors and publishers to fight to keep their used ebook rights from being taken without compensation. And if Apple or Amazon don’t deliver on implementing the patent, it’s up to the profession to fight to prevent their used ebook rights from being code-blocked.

    Oh the places we could go, with a strongly professionalized field!

  11. @Jesse, I’d say that there are two things at work in your question. The first is why we write. If an author writes to make a living, then it makes sense to write stories that will sell. Changing the story fits their goal. In contrast, if an author is writing to please themself, then it makes sense to write only the story that they like: not changing the story to fit the expectations of others actually fits their goal. Of course, most of us are writing for multiple reasons: when weighing the advice of others, you have to decide how important it is to meet your goal of satisfying others v your goal of satisfying yourself.

    Also, good feedback shouldn’t just be what someone else thought. Good feedback is the sort that illuminates a problem in your work and, once illuminated, you recognize and accept that it is a problem that needs to be addressed. When responding to feedback, ideally you’ll be making changes because the responder convinced you that the story needs it. You aren’t making the changes because the responder suggested it, but because you now see that the story needs it. Feedback is a way of getting perspective: its the perspective, not the feedback, that’s the key. At least for me.

  12. @Chella — WorldCon, one of the biggest SF/F cons, is in London in 2014. Here’s the website: http://www.loncon3.org/

    World Fantasy for 2013, another huge con, is being held in Brighton (but looks like they’re full): http://www.wfc2013.org/

    Two others I’ve heard of:

    Writing the Future (ARC): http://arcfinity.tumblr.com/post/48683082082/well-be-writing-the-future-on-may-1-at-the-royal

    Bristol Con: http://www.bristolcon.org/

    I’m in the US, so I’m afraid that’s all I can find quickly, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more.

  13. About Doctors:

    According to a documentary I watched the shift from “quack” to specialist came in the Edwardian and Victorian periods, mostly started with pharmacies. That’s when there were boards, testing, testing for knowledge of herbs, organizations set up, etc.

    Granted, that was England, but I would largely guess such things do tend to coincide with that industrial push.

    In another words the deference was set up during the industrialization–but one should expect that if you have anything about subsistence strategies–bureaus and systematization largely come with industrialization and agriculture. (more the former than latter.)

    I have noticed people who think anyone can do, say graphic art without learning anything and think it takes less expertise. But I think good art looks effortless and for that reason, many people in art/creative professions are often sold short. (as a contrast to doctor) But good art looks like a perfect 10 in ice skating. Bad art looks like a wipe out… the thing is that people disagree what a wipe out looks like in art because of its subjective nature. However, a dead patient is a dead patient, you can say “I’m not dead yet” all you want, but if he’s dead, he’s dead and going on that cart.

    Anyway, other tips they didn’t mention:
    – Don’t stalk people. No means no.
    – A sudden hug from a stranger is weird. If you don’t know how to interact with people, seriously, read up on it. (How to win friends and influence people by Dale Carnegie, for example).

    Yeah, ’cause it’s come up the last two years… I rather it not repeat for con season this year. =P

    I also think it’s worth it to sometimes think you want to change the climate of a culture within it and to work with the culture to achieve those types of change. Don’t give up, even if it looks like it’s stacked against you. Someone out there might think the same as you, and two is better than one, then more people may come to agree.

    For example, the 2009 debacle over representation of minority power groups in spec fiction (somewhat extended to publishing). Don’t you think that was worth having discussions over and to see how the culture could change to be more inclusive.

    I still have a request for how to create a good soft magic system. Ones without hard lined rules. What make a soft magic system work well? How can one tie it into tone and theme so that people aren’t asking about what the rules are? ‘Cause aren’t your basic fairytale using a soft magic system? Hard magic systems, anyway, filled with rules are more of a product of industrialization and the tie-in to science having rules then the separation between religion, science and magic… but for some older systems of RW magic, there aren’t hardlined rules like that. It just failed because it failed. You didn’t do the ritual right, the alignment wasn’t in your favor, there was a stronger sorceror. Still think that’s neat to think on.

  14. @J D
    I cringe at the world “professionalization” because to me it means “barrier to entry”. For doctors, mechanics, and plumbers, having a good barrier to entry for necessary basic skills makes sense. That’s because there are only a few ways to properly hook up a valve – be it in the heart, the engine, or the plumbing – and doing it wrong can be lead to deadly, costly, or at least smelly results.

    Describing a scene can be done in a million ways and none of them are wrong, just more or less effective for a given reader. Perhaps I’m thinking of a different meaning for “professionalization” than you are, but I see the power ratio between publishers and authors changing because of decentralization of power from traditional publishers and not greater centralization in “labor unions” or professional organizations.

  15. @ Rachel, alas, that documentary is slightly misleading. There have been several significant changes in medicine, but the first was the shift from the empiricist to the theorist. That was essentially a shift from muddling your way into a “medical” career, to receiving a university education (an education fueled by the influx of high quality texts from Arab territories, violently). Anywho, I fear I’m letting my personal interest steer the conversation away from writing, so I’ll just add that if anyone would like to read more about the early period of professionalization in medicine, I would strongly recommend “Medicine Before the Plague” by Michael R. McVaugh. In fact, researching the history of medicine is fascinating, and I think can add a lot to any setting, even modern ones.

    @Terry, yeah, having a “barrier to entry” is a hallmark of professionalized fields. However, professionalization is on a continuum: medicine is a wonderful example because it’s so extreme, but that means that it has a very high barrier to entry. Teaching, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as professionalized, and thus has far lower barriers to entry (2 years prep compared to 7). Writing is less professionalized still, but that doesn’t mean it is free from professionalization entirely. We have our barriers: if you want to be a writer, you have to write, if you want to be a genre writer, you have to write genre fiction, and so on. Those are barriers, despite the fact that the community might argue over how strict those barriers should be.

    Community. That is another hallmark of a professionalized field. Administrative assistants aren’t in a professionalized field because an assistant in California has no community connection to an assistant in New York. Writers are professionalized because there is a sense of a writerly community. There are convention where we all get together to talk about the craft, there are awards given to authors by other authors, we often praise each other’s success, and lament the hard times as a community.

    It’s that community aspect that excites me the most. Saying that a field is professionalized is really just a description. I want to see the writing community prosper, and so that does mean that I want to see the field be more professionalized (because the two are essentially the same thing). You are right: the current shift in power isn’t from increased centralization of power in unions or professional organizations, but from publishers losing their power. However, it’s important to note that this is a negative exchange: publishers are losing power, authors aren’t gaining any. We’re still peasants, just peasants without the local lord who took 75% of our crops. I see the writerly community as a way of preventing other lords from moving in and taking 75% of our crops. And maybe as a way of figuring out that new fangled crop rotation a-doings, or building some irrigation works, or draining those swamps.

  16. Hello Guys( and that is the gender less collective “guys” I mean…)

    I have an anecdote about being recognized and what not to do no matter the personal baggage you bring with you (and this is directed at aspiring writers and not Mary, Howard, Dan and Brandon) ; this ties into the way you present yourself at conventions when meeting other writers.
    I’m one of those fans that really loves readings and went to a lot of them at my local bookshop before moveing to somewhere a little more affordable so the writers in that area who read there a lot saw me kinda often. I visit the shop whenever I’m back in my home town (and yeah I’m not saying where and I will not mention who this event happened with because I’m still really embarassed about it) . So I’m there one time a while back and writer – comes up to me and in her normal perky manner says hi and starts up a conversation. Well I was one star struck and two tongue tied and really was no holding up my part of the conversation but I did manage to shoot down her assumption I was a fellow local author by saying something along the lines of I write but I’m not published and no one has ever read any of the junk I’d written.
    Now that is text book me if you’d ask my partner she’d tell you in no uncertain terms, totally me taking other people’s opinions of me away from them no matter what. Anyway, I feel totally a fool since she, the writer, may have just wanted to chat with a fellow genre writer and lover but I ruined a perfectly good opportunity to make a friend of another person into Scifi and fantasy and I really have so few to being with. I still visit the shop but I kinda dread running into her again since I made a balls of it so badly the last time and though I’m planning to start doing the pro convention thing soon I’m worried she’ ll recall it too.
    So there you go. Gotta stop carrying all that baggage just in case x or y writer you love happens to be in the area…

  17. @everyone (lol) – My issue with doctors has nothing to do with the verification process required to be licensed. It has to do with the problem of us deferring to their expertise on things they have no true expertise on, and they are happy NOT to tell us they don’t know.

    How to have good sex? NO EXPERTISE.

    How to raise a child? NADA.

    How to foster a healthy relationship? ZIPPO!

    How much sway insurance companies have on their ‘diagnosis’? Head in sand.

    How to get to the core cause of a chronic issue? Inept.

    How to eat healthy? ZILCH – if you don’t believe me on this one then ask your doctor how many classes they took on diet and nutrition in med school.

    Love me some doctors, truly, but you’ll get equal expertise about most of these things from your attorney, pastor, grandma or mechanic.

  18. Thanks, Matt, Jeff, and JD. Sorry I couldn’t get back here sooner to read your comments on the topic. You gave me a bit to think about but essentially, you validated what I’ve been thinking all along.

  19. China also developed medical boards as did Korea and Japan… I think China’s was earlier than Europe’s though. Since the subject is on culture(s) not one culture. And tolerance.

    @Jo from what I know they are required at least a basic health class which does cover nutrition. But this is also cultural.

    How to raise a child, however, is cultural. Good sex is also cultural. Healthy relationship–cultural. Chronic issue–depends on your chronic issue. (Some ethnomedicine is the only cure for some cultural illnesses… and I can go over some if you don’t believe they exist.)

    Despite what all those studies that are put out about these things they are often cultural and because of the change in medical practices for ethical guidelines concerning culture, specifics in these things are told not to be done.

    For example, (steering this back a little). In some H communities older children are expected to take care of younger children. It used to be because of intolerance, people assumed those mothers were being abusive and then reported them to social services. You can kinda see the issues with that. So that’s when doctors became a bit more hands off.

    Now, it is true scientific studies try to sometimes say one way is”better” ever since that monkey trial, but one culture’s better might be another culture’s worst.

    Which to tie this back to the original subject–just because you disagree, does not mean it’s invalid way of thinking about how the world works. (One of the core ethical principles of anthropology which is why the words “exotic” and “primitive” are discouraged in Anthro in today’s time. I 100% turn off stories that use this in conjuction with anthro, especially set in the future… since anthropology is probably the closest you’ll get to a profession that forces PC down your throat. Sociology being the other one….)

    Which summed up nicely is the disclaimer: Just because it works for me, doesn’t mean it’ll work for you. versus being egocentric and saying, “If you aren’t outlining your novels, you aren’t a ‘real’ writer.”

    Haha, I managed to bring it back. =P

    BTW, there are sociologists and anthropologists studying con culture… I bet there are. Just not as public as say, Bronisław Malinowski. It’s the kind of thing one would study say, under specialized rituals, where people are allowed certain behaivo[u]rs that are not normally allowed. Such as staying up late. Drinking hard, dressing up, etc.

  20. Are there specific types of conventions meant for specific sup-genres of fantasy and science fiction?

    I’m sort of the odd ball of the science fiction group, in that I don’t try to tell a different sci fi story, but rather seek telling the same one in a new way. And I tend to prefer cyberpunk and military more than space opera.

Comments are closed.