04 April 2010 ~ 5 Comments

MiniCon Report (and my first editor pitch)

I’ve been meaning to make it to a science fiction convention for quite a while now. Even before I started writing they sounded like fun, lots of people with similar tastes all getting together and hanging out, swapping book recommendations, arguing about which authors write better books and why, and so on. But now that I’m writing, I figured I should check out the con scene from the fan side before people start knowing who I am.

For some reason all the cons in the Twin Cities seem to occur over holiday weekends, so for the last few years I’ve been out of town visiting family and unable to attend. But this year, I learned early that Brandon Sanderson was the writer guest of honor. So I registered early and decided that this time I would go.

I asked a few people if they’d want to go with me, but no one took me up on it, so I ended up going solo. Which was probably for the best, because if I’d been there with someone I probably would’ve just used them as an excuse to not meet anyone. So to avoid just sitting by myself the whole time I struck up conversations with a few strangers, met a few writers I’ll try swapping story critiques with, and just got a chance to talk to people about all kinds of things.

I missed the opening ceremonies, including the keynote speech by Brandon Sanderson because we’d bought hockey tickets for that night long before I registered for MiniCon. So I didn’t get to MiniCon until Saturday, with the meetup of the local speculative fiction writers group Minnspec. That was nice to meet a few of the members. I’ve been meaning to get involved with them for quite a while but I’ve just never gotten around to it. I mostly stuck to the panels during the day, not the bars after or the musical guests or anything like that. I’ve been so busy with schoolwork lately that I haven’t been able to spend as much time with Heather as I’d like, and since I was lucky enough to get a homework free weekend in the middle of the semester I wanted to make sure I didn’t neglect her the whole weekend.

For those of you who are used to the big mega-size cons, this is many orders of magnitude different, which is both good and bad. Bad because, of course, there are less guests, less people. But good because it’s so much more personal. At the big cons, if there’s a big guest, you could be one of thousands of people waiting around for a chance to get a glimpse, let alone any actual personal contact. But here, there just a few guests, and about four parallel programming tracks in four rooms. Even the guests of honor are extremely accessible. Most of the panels had a few dozen attendants, and a handful would hang around to talk to the folks presenting.

After the MinnSpec panel was an Editors’ panel with Moshe Feder (Brandon’s editor), Ben Bova (who should need no introduction), Eric Heidemen (editor of Tales of the Unanticipated), and Michael Merriam (slush reader for Fantasy Magazine). That was really cool, especially seeing Ben Bova was particularly cool. All four of them had a good sense of humor and had a lot of good interplay.

That afternoon I stopped at a Dan Dos Santos art exhibition. He showed a sped up video of him painting the cover art for Warbreaker, 70 hours compressed to 10 minutes or so. That was really cool to see it start at the vaguest shapes and down to finer and finer details, with layers of colors that look strange at first but blend into the vivid colors and textures of the final image. After that, he did a quick portrait of Brandon while everybody watched and while the fans could watch both of them. That took about a half hour and was really neat to watch.

Most of the rest of the programming I went to was Brandon Sanderson programming. He gave some interesting advice, told some funny stories, and was just generally good to listen to, including one panel dedicated just to telling the story of how he got the Wheel of Time gig.

But the highlight of the con, for me, was The Pitch. Anyone could volunteer to throw a three-minute novel pitch, for a novel that’s complete or incomplete, and give it front of Moshe Feder and Brandon Sanderson. I only heard about it a few hours ahead of time, but I decided that the opportunity was too good to pass out. So between the panels I wrote out a quick outline to help me when I was on the spot.

We volunteers raised our hands and Brandon picked one of us at random to go first. That random person happened to be me, so I got to go up and throw out my pitch before seeing what anyone else’s pitch sounded like or seeing how kind or cruel Moshe or Brandon were. So I gave my three minute pitch, terrifying, a bit awkward, but I made it through the whole thing with only a few ums and ahs. I didn’t have time to get out the whole plot, but I got about halfway through to a good stopping point. My characters, uh, need a little work, so I concentrated mostly on the plot.

Both Moshe and Brandon were simultaneously nice and honest. Both for my pitch and everyone else’s they gave constructive criticism and you got a pretty good idea of their level of interest in the story. Both of them had their points about my story, and they were mostly on target. I didn’t describe my characters much, which is an area that I’d had trouble with in the manuscript itself as well (it’s been quite a while since I worked on it, it could use some polish in that area). Brandon thought one part of the plot was too much of an idiot plot–that one I didn’t agree with, but I can see how he would’ve thought that from the short pitch. They also pointed something out which I hadn’t thought of at all–my beginning is very much a thriller beginning, an ordinary guy with his life thrown into sudden and immediate danger, and putting him on the run. But, despite the things they pointed out as needing improvement, Moshe said he’d be interested in seeing the manuscript. I’ve been concentrating on short stories for quite a while but it seems this would be a good time to reawaken the novel writer in me.

And after the feedback, Moshe gave me a Jelly Rat (like a Swedish Fish, but with a wormtail), which was a nice touch.

Some of the pitches were smoother than others, but Moshe and Brandon found something to compliment and something suggest an improvement for each one. I’ll list some of the more prevailing threads here, for anyone who might learn from it:

1. Don’t be too vague. Editors don’t care about spoilers when they’re hearing a pitch. One of the writers was afraid of giving away details that would be stolen, but it left the pitch so vague that it meant nothing. Sentences like “and they did something” means that you should probably either leave that out entirely or flesh it out to something more specific.

2. Tell something about the characters. Most everyone can come up with an SF idea, and there’s no doubt that SF ideas are important, but there need to be characters that have the problems, that drive the story, and it’s the interactions between the characters and the idea that make the story really unique.

3. Try to include as many of the relevant details as possible. Granted this is really difficult when you have such a limited time limit, especially when it was an impromptu pitch in the first place. For instance, if you explain the climax of the story, and it depends on some major plot point that happens earlier, you’ll want to make sure you mentioned that plot point.

So that was my first editor pitch. I thought it went well, and I’m looking forward to sending something to Moshe a manuscript as soon as I can.

Anyway, back to the con. Then, Sunday was mostly centered around doing the autograph fanboy thing. I bought a copy of Warbreaker, and got it autographed by Brandon(who wrote it), Dan (who did the fantastic cover art), and Moshe (who edited it). On top of that, I bought a print of a really great piece of art by Dan, a portrait of Moiraine Damodred (from the Wheel of Time series). I didn’t intend to buy any art, but it was just so beautiful I couldn’t possibly turn it down. I need to get a really nice frame for it and hang it in my office over my desk.

I’ll definitely be going again next year.

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