Author: Casey

My interests include mythology, languages, medieval history, and how they interact with contemporary culture. I grew up watching Star Trek, Star Wars, James Bond, and Dragon Ball Z, and this explains more about me than you might think. I dance, teach, travel, read, and write. Above all, I love stories.

Panels for 4th Street Fantasy 2018!

I had the opportunity to assist Scott Lynch in putting together this year’s programming for 4th Street Fantasy, and I can’t wait to see these panels in action. The full list, for the curious, is here.

I’ll also be on two panels this year! They’re “Rebuilding Mystery: Rejecting Rules for Magic” and “Talking Across Ten Thousand Years.” (Click the panel descriptions to embiggen.)

Rebuilding the Mystery: Rejecting Rules for Magic

 

Talking Across Ten Thousand Years

 

And on top of that, I’ll be hosting a root beer tasting party with the inimitable Paul Weimer Friday night—we’ll tweet more details on that at the con with the hashtag #4thStreetFantasy.

Looking forward to seeing folks at the con!

 

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Measuring Writing Progress: Beyond NaNo

National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo, and its offshoots are wonderful. Many novelists have gotten their starts with NaNo or have made use of it to great effect later in their development, and it’s that second part I want to talk a little more about.

NaNo is designed to target one particular writing problem that afflicts a huge percentage of people, particularly beginning writers, and it targets it very effectively: that challenge is actually writing.

NaNo is built with tools to give you access to a community of fellow writers to help you through or keep you on track. It gives pep talks to keep you going. It gives you a deadline that isn’t fungible. What it’s especially known for is keeping track of your word count, how many words you’ve written that day, how many you have left, and how many you need to write each day on average to hit that mark.

In essence, it provides a support system to teach people how to write novels in the sense of literally sitting down and producing words.

Here’s an incomplete list of what NaNo doesn’t teach:

  • Writing craft.
  • Finishing.
  • Editing.
  • Pacing (yourself, as a writer).
  • Adaptability.

This is not a flaw with NaNo–it’s not trying to teach these things, and targeting a particular and wide audience is smart! But it’s worth noting that the tools it teaches for writers who need help just finally getting the story in their heads out are not always still useful to that same writer as they evolve.

Which is to say, if you’re serious about writing, NaNo’s tools probably will not continue working for you forever, at least not without some changes. This is good–it means you’re growing. So if you’re not meeting a NaNo goal, or if you’re struggling to meet it, don’t beat yourself up about it. The set of tools it’s teaching may not be what you need to learn, and you’re the only one who can judge that.

Let me give some specifics, because one of the things NaNo has been great at is undercutting all the excuses people make for all the reasons they can’t write a novel. (In particular, being busy. Everyone is busy. But I digress.)

Traditional NaNo sets the goal of writing 50,000 words in a month. Plenty of people can figure out how to manage this for one month by putting a lot of other life to the side. Learning how to prioritize writing is useful, but if the things you’re putting aside are your share of chores, doctor’s appointments, or things you do for fun and your emotional well-being? They can’t be put off indefinitely. Ultimately that hurts the writing by hurting the writer. So people who want to make writing a consistent part of their lives often benefit by not setting a goal this high–not because it’s unattainable, but because it’s unsustainable.

Camp NaNo is an iteration of traditional NaNoWriMo in spring and summer that has more flexibility. You can set whatever word count goal you like, or you can set a goal in terms of hours worked on the project, the latter of which is very useful if you’re primarily editing.

(Because editing typically does not produce consistent increases in word count, it can be harder to measure and track productivity. This isn’t how I personally measure editing progress, but it’s a great adaptation for NaNo.)

Unfortunately, you can’t select both hours and words, so this doesn’t work well if you’re writing one project and editing another. This April I’d set a writing goal, but even knowing I’d been editing for a week, looking at the flat section of the bar graph made me feel like I hadn’t been working.

NaNo also doesn’t teach writers how to manage multiple deadlines. If you have more than one ongoing project, and one becomes a rush job, everything else in your schedule has to shift to accommodate. I had to change my word count goal in April for a similar reason, and it was hard not to feel like that wasn’t a kind of failure. Not because NaNo’s word count tracking system didn’t allow me to change my ultimate goal, but because it couldn’t account for the context involved.

The same is true if you’re collaborating, or an editor’s schedule changes, or you have publicity commitments. It’s not just life that affects your writing schedule: it’s other realities of writing.

And, like with editing, often writers aren’t trying to get just any words on the page. They’re trying to get the right ones. NaNo teaches people to produce, and that is very useful, but only to a point. People who are serious about writing will at some point need to move beyond this one way of measuring progress, because it’s designed to measure a particular kind of progress. I already know I can produce lots of words quickly, so a system designed to encourage that locks me into a pattern that makes me feel like I’m making progress rather than helping me grow in different ways.

Exactly when you need to learn other tools to keep yourself on track, and what tools those should be, varies for every individual person and sometimes for different projects. I still use elements of NaNo word count tracking in my own projects, because it’s a great jumping-off point–deadline motivation works particularly well for me. But it’s elements, adapted to my needs. NaNo is a great template for a starter system; it’s not the be all and end all.

If you’ve found NaNo restrictive or unhelpful–or even easy–consider what you’re trying to use it for, and consider if it’s serving your interests. It’s great for specific uses–namely, again, actually writing–but context matters. If you already know how to reliably get words written, NaNo metrics alone probably aren’t what you need. Don’t set yourself up to fail by forcing yourself to use a system designed to solve problems that aren’t your primary concern.

It’s not failure if you can’t reach a system’s goals when the system isn’t designed to work for you. As with any writing advice: take what helps you and discard the rest. And know that as you evolve as a writer, your process will too.

The greatest challenge to my writing process is these two cats being unreasonably adorable in my office.

Dealing with Setbacks

Here’s a thing writers don’t like talking publicly about—for good reason, because it’s not the sort of thing you want publicity to focus on—but I’m going to do it anyway, because it’s important.

I experienced a writing career setback a couple months back. I’m not going into details here; they’re not relevant to this post. The point is it was a lot of investment in work that didn’t pan out when I had reason to hope it would.

This is the reality of publishing, and it’s also life. Sometimes you do your very best, you pour your heart and time into your work, and it just. doesn’t. matter.

At times like these, social media is sort of the worst. Social media is a highlight reel, and you know that, but that doesn’t change the fact that as a pro in this industry, when you experience a setback, half a dozen of your colleagues, many of them friends, are filling your feed with their successes. It doesn’t mean you’re not happy for them, and it doesn’t mean they didn’t experience setbacks, too, but it can still feel like a kick in the teeth.

It’s hard not to feel like a failure when you have failed, especially when everyone you see appears to be succeeding.

Pros often recommend keeping your “eyes on your own paper.” This is… good advice, but hard to practice when also trying to keep up with your industry. You either withdraw from social media, or you have to be able to deal with knowing your own career has had setbacks that aren’t your fault—and often aren’t anyone else’s either—while others thrived.

Or you stop. But despite my feelings about this setback, one thing I know is I’m not going to stop.

The setbacks certainly won’t. There’s not a writer in the world who doesn’t experience them, no matter how successful they appear.

So the question then becomes: how do you keep moving?

At Viable Paradise, we talked about our goals for ourselves as writers. Steve Gould broke them all down and explained the danger of tying personal and professional satisfaction to goals outside your control, because that is a surefire way to set yourself up for disappointment and worse.

A lot of traditional publishing is not within your control. It just isn’t. If you have an agent, editor, publisher, publicist, or mentor, it’s often not in their control, either. You can do a lot to maximize your chances—of getting specific career opportunities, of getting the word out about your book—but there’s still a lot of chance involved in publishing.

Ultimately, the only part of the process you control is your work.

Hitting the NYT Best Sellers list? Not in your control. Getting a movie deal, earning out your advance? Also not.

Writing a story you care about? Putting in the time? Doing good work? Those are yours.

I learned a lot from all my work, even if that particular project never goes where I hope. I’m a better writer for it, and that is mine.

I’ve stepped back a little to reassess my goals and my praxis, making sure how I’m spending my resources (time, energy, money) reflects what matters to me, the kind of writer—and person—I want to be and the kind of work I want to do.

And I am doing that work. Because the thing about setbacks is they’re not permanent unless you let them be. But I’m not going anywhere.

Except forward.

That means I’m taking more care to tend to myself, and what I need as a human being. That should be feeding my writing, not being replaced by it. My writing in some sense reflects and distills who I am, but there is more to me than writing, too.

And at the same time, it also means I’m starting a new project (not the serial) that I’m incredibly excited about and that is going to be more challenging than anything I’ve written before—and, I hope, a great deal of fun.

I’m looking forward to the next adventure. But I’m going to work on savoring the one I’m experiencing now, too.

The cats are relaxing hard.

Website Update

Hi friends,

I’ve been updating the website this morning, mainly because the theme was looking outdated. Most of the changes are cosmetic, but there are a few structural ones. If you notice that I’ve broken something, please let me know!

Best,

Casey

Sirens and Voice

The other night Sirens Conference co-founder Amy Tenbrink called me out on Twitter (my weakness is dance music playlists, the trashier the better, now you all know), and obviously I picked up that gauntlet because of course I did.

For every $50 donated to the Sirens scholarship fund that night, I gave one suggestion for a panel not solely consisting of writers as the panelists (aka interdisciplinary panels), because this is important to me.

One of my favorite parts about Sirens is that any attendee can propose programming, and they have no better shot at getting in than anyone else. The vetting board is independent of the conference staff, and all they care about is your proposal.

(Really. I promise. I did my first programming back in 2011 without a credential to my name, and the first time I wanted to do a panel the programming staff helped me figure it out. If you want to participate in Sirens programming but need some backup, EMAIL THEM.)

And that matters. It matters that there is no box anyone has to check to be allowed a platform to speak and share their thoughts.

Because one of my other favorite parts of Sirens is that it’s not a writers conference.

Once more, because it’s super important: SIRENS IS NOT A WRITERS CONFERENCE.

Yes, there are writers there, and that’s great. But what’s also great is that there are readers, academics, publicists, librarians, editors, booksellers, and, oh, did I mention readers? Because the one thing we ALL have in common is that we read fantasy, and we’re passionate about the remarkable work of women in the genre.

One of the ways Sirens demonstrates its commitment to lifting up everyone’s voices, to making sure Sirens is a place where anyone can participate in practice and not just in theory, is by offering several scholarships. Right now, they’re down to the wire to finish meeting this year’s goal.

I think somehow people have gotten the sense that only writers can be on panels, and nothing could be further from the truth. But to have non-writers on panels, attendees need to submit proposals for those panels–and they need to be able to attend.

If you can donate to the scholarship fund, I hope you’ll consider it.

And if you’re going to Sirens this year, I hope you’ll consider submitting programming, which opens soon. To help get you going, here are my panel suggestions from the other night, and all of them are free for the taking.

(Sorry friends I am The Worst at snappy titles.)

 

  1. The Role of Reviews

What are reviews for? What are readers looking for in a review–help choosing a book, or critique to consider it more thoughtfully? How can reviews help or hurt marginalized communities? How does the publishing side use reviews? Are there right/wrong approaches?

I think the Sirens community could have a field day unpacking the challenges/opportunities of reviews. A panel like this could easily include readers, reviewers, librarians/booksellers, publicists, editors, writers, etc.

 

  1. Female Friendships in Fantasy

Let’s talk not just about our favorite female friendships, but what makes them work, and why women having non-toxic and complex relationships on the page, being excellent separate from men, is important.

Why does it matter to see female friendships in fantasy–for readers in today’s world, and in the context of the fantasy genre? What kinds of friendships do you want to see, and have there been shifts? What are common pitfalls? WHERE ARE THE GIRL GANGS. Come on, Sirens! =D

 

  1. Women’s Clothing in Fantasy

First off, there had BETTER be cosplayers on this panel, and also historians, AND I KNOW SIRENS HAS A PLETHORA OF BOTH AMONG ITS ATTENDEES I SEE YOU.

How is clothing in fantasy used to restrain or free female characters? Are dresses and corsets really swordplay prevention (SPOILERS THEY ARE NOT–so what else does fantasy commonly miss?). How does it reinforce values of femininity or its rejection (can we talk about transformation sequences?!)?

 

  1. Plot-bearing women over the age of 30 in fantasy novels: where are they?

And by that I mean, not just side characters, but women well into adulthood who actually shape the course of the story.

Where are the mothers? Where the successful career women? The badass old ladies who aren’t just generic stock crones (though I do love a cantankerous witch)? (None of these are mutually exclusive!) Why is it so important to have them on the page (and not just as villains!)?

And I’d LOVE to see some of our older readers at Sirens on this one. I want to hear their perspectives on these characters–what’s done well, what’s missing–as well as on how the fantasy genre has evolved on this point, if at all.

 

  1. Women’s Work in Fantasy

I want to see historians on this panel, but also knitters and bakers and seamstresses, programmers and chemists and engineers.

How does fantasy privilege traditionally masculine-coded disciplines (like physical combat) over feminine-coded ones (homemaking, textile work, gardening, etc.), and why does this matter? What stories are we missing? How can this work tie into magic, tech, economics, intrigue?

 

Let’s do this, Sirens. ❤

Preparing to Moderate Panels

Best moderation practices vary by the audience of the event, the panel topic, and the panelists themselves. There is no One True Way to moderate well, and I’m not a certified expert! That said, I think there are some broadly applicable preparatory principles for many moderating situations. I’ll explain my reasoning for each to help people judge in what ways they may apply to their particular moderation needs.

First, a note: it’s the job of a moderator to keep any one person—a panelist, an audience member, and their own self—from derailing or running away with the panel. If you agree to moderate, you need to be prepared to redirect, cut people off, or talk over them. You are responsible for the course of the panel, even if you find yourself with an obnoxious panelist or audience member. They happen. Expect the possibility. How moderators deal with those circumstances would be a topic all on its own, so all I’m going to say on this point here is to make sure you’re willing to deal with that possibility before you agree to moderate.

In this post, I’m focusing on the logistics of moderation prep, and my first few recommendations are straightforward:

  • Bring some form of time piece (even if there’s a room monitor to warn you when you’re almost out of time).
  • Bring some form of writing setup (like a notebook and pencil) with you to the panel.
  • Expect to listen more than you speak.

Here’s why.

Aside from helping guide the content of the panel conversation, moderators also guide the course of the conversation. A panel is not just a conversation among experts; it’s an improvised performance. To that end, there are several things moderators should be keeping track of.

  1. Time. The panel only has so much time. Moderators need to make sure it’s not eaten up by a derailing (or endless) point, be it from a panelist or an audience member. They need to have a sense of when it’s time to move on, when they need to start wrapping up to open to audience questions, that sort of thing. Some moderators have a good innate sense of this, but having actual numbers in front of you can help.
  2. Audience questions. Methods vary, but moderators need to track who to call on so people in the audience don’t have to hold their hands in the air forever. It can also be distracting for the panelists, and stressful for people who think others are being ignored. Jotting down a note about the general region the question came from and a notable but innocuous physical characteristic (like an article of clothing, so you can gesture in the direction and call out something like “the person in the pink shirt”—special thanks to Clarissa Ryan for pointing out that moderators should also make a point of avoiding gendered language) and nodding at the person in question so they know you’ve noted them is an easy way to manage this.
  3. Panelist engagement. You don’t want one panelist dominating the conversation. You want a balance to make sure everyone on the panel gets to contribute, and for this you need to actively pay attention to who is comfortable jumping in on their own, who runs away with questions and will need to be redirected, and who is more reticent and will need to be prodded with questions.

 

With that said, these are some guidelines for preparing to moderate a panel. Again, there’s a huge spectrum in useful methods, but these are some principles I’ve had good experience with and would like to pass them on in case they help others. As with all advice, if they don’t work for you, don’t adopt them! Now, without further ado:

  1. EMAIL YOUR PANELISTS.

First, make sure to email them either individually or use BCC (do not give out other people’s contact information without permission), and email them from a professional email account (if you don’t have an email account with the event’s organization, YourName@gmail is fine; dragonsRtehbEST23@yahoo does not fill me with confidence about your professionalism, even if I agree with the sentiment).

Introduce yourself and invite them to contact you with any questions about the panel. They may have some important ones you wouldn’t have thought of, and the panel will have been improved because they knew their input was welcome.

You may also want to email them all again shortly before the event (if it’s a panel at a con, email them a few days before the start of the con, because they won’t have time for careful emails once they’re in transit or there) for any final questions they’ve forgotten to ask previously. Most panelists won’t have any, but it’s good to remind them about the panel and give them a last chance to ask in case.

 

  1. KNOW WHO YOUR PANELISTS ARE AND WHY THEY’RE ON THE PANEL.

This will not always be as obvious as you’d prefer! You don’t necessarily need to have read entire books by them—though this does help—but you need to be familiar enough with their work and/or background to direct questions appropriately during the panel.

 

  1. INTRODUCING THE PANEL AND PANELISTS.

Set the tone for what kind of panel this is going to be right from the get-go, because setting expectations clearly at the outset will save you trouble down the moderating road. If you’re not sure how well you can do this on the fly, write out a couple sentences of introduction in advance and bring them with you.

You also want to plan out how you’re going to introduce the panelists. Many moderators let panelists introduce themselves, which can work fine! But I actually recommend preparing a short (~two sentences) blurb about each. This has several advantages:

  • You can make sure the audience has necessary context to understand where panelists’ opinions are coming from or whom they might want to ask questions of.
  • You can make sure no panelist launches into an exhaustive spiel about their books.
  • You can make sure those prone to massive understatement are given their due.
  • You can set an equal playing field for the panelists by making sure no introduction is substantially longer or shorter than any other. (If someone has written everything under the sun over a twenty year career, summarize; if they have fewer credentials, talk about the merit of their work in more depth.)

If you plan to introduce the panelists yourself, make sure you include the most recent publication audience members can buy from them if such a thing exists. Panelists are generally there for career reasons, so if you’re not going to give them the chance to make the pitch themselves (and in most cases they are delighted for someone else to make the pitch on their behalf!), don’t negate the opportunity to promote their work.

 

  1. PLAN SAMPLE QUESTIONS.

This is arguably the most important point. This makes sure you, as the moderator, are actually prepared for the panel by making you think about the topic, the course you envision for the panel, and what kind of experience you want to help the audience get out of it before it’s upon you. It’ll help you figure out what, if any, questions you need to raise with the panelists or event organizers in advance.

I aim to have ten* solid questions—if I can’t come up with that many, I don’t have the right perspective to moderate. Don’t expect to ask all of them (and definitely don’t interrupt the course of the panel to make sure you can!), because a good panel will diverge organically as the conversation evolves. But you want to have questions ready in case the conversation loses steam or you need to steer the conversation away from fraught waters.

I also make sure I bring a paper copy of my questions with me to the panel and mark off ones we’ve addressed or jot down notes as we go, so I make sure I don’t repeat on accident. Having written notes in front of you can also give you jumping-off points to reframe questions that come up in the course of the panel, and they help keep you from having to scramble in front of an audience.

 

  1. EMAIL A REPRESENTATIVE SELECTION OF SAMPLE QUESTIONS TO THE PANELISTS IF YOU CAN.

Sometimes you can’t, which isn’t the end of the world. But if you can, it helps give panelists an idea of what they’re getting into—and assurance that their moderator knows what they’re doing—and also a chance to reflect on the direction you plan on taking the panel. It helps people who prefer more processing time to be more comfortable actively participating on the panel, and it also allows them the opportunity to raise concerns if needed.

As a note, in my experience, more often than not panelists don’t respond to the list of questions. This generally means everything is fine and you don’t need to worry about it.

 

  1. START WITH AN INTRODUCTORY QUESTION.

When I moderate, I like to go beyond 101 level discussions. Not all panels are like this! But even for panels aiming for a deeper consideration of a topic, I like to start with an introductory question. This should be something that sets up questions to follow but isn’t so complicated off the bat that panelists and audience members alike are thrown for a loop. Ease everyone into the topic and level of discourse.

 

  1. DON’T OPEN TO AUDIENCE QUESTIONS TOO SOON.

Of course you don’t want to leave no time for audience questions either, but this is a more common failing I’ve witnessed in panels. A panel is not the same as a Q&A session, and if the audience has been promised a panel, that is what they should receive. The chosen panelists need to have time to actually dive into the topic they’re ostensibly there to discuss. Give them time to answer questions from the moderator and talk about them amongst themselves before taking audience questions. The exact timing will vary with the panel, but I never open for questions before the midway point and leave no fewer than ten minutes at the end for audience questions.

 

  1. FINAL THOUGHTS.

When it nears time for the panel to conclude, I like to invite closing thoughts from the panelists—this helps the panel feel like it’s come to a conclusion, rather than that you just abruptly cut things off (which in general you have, because ideally there are lots of questions coming from the audience, but you don’t want them to feel cut off). In particular, I often ask for any thoughts on the panel topic the panelists don’t think the panel has covered. It works as a good wrap-up without just restating everything that’s gone before and gives the audience food for thought on other directions the panel conversation could have gone.

 

That’s what I can think of for now! But perhaps this goes some way toward clarifying why I always say that effective panel moderation takes both skill and work. If you have questions about any of my points, please feel free to ask in the comments!

 

*Special thanks to the panel submission process at Sirens, because many of these practices are drawn from inferences made from their guidelines.

orange cat tucked in shoebox on couch

black cat sitting in shoebox on the ground in a sunbeam

The Most Popular Shoebox

SFF Authors in Action!

As some of you know, I’m now working at a local independent bookstore. Which is exciting on its own, but the more recent excitement is that I’m going to be moderating a panel at Brick & Mortar Books one week from today!

The topic is writing action in science fiction and fantasy, and the panelists will be Fonda Lee, Chuck Wendig, and Alex Marshall, all of whom write amazing, action-packed SFF. I am super excited about the panel and plan to pick their brains on how magic affects writing action, the strengths of action scenes with the written word as opposed to movies, how to use POV and pacing, and what they wish people understood and what they’d like to see*.

This will be happening Thursday, 3/1, which is the first night of Emerald City Comic Con. So if you don’t have con plans that night yet, come hang out with us! And if you’re not going to make it to the con, here’s your chance to see some great authors from out of town. =D

It’s been great to have so much freedom to organize this event on my own so soon after joining the bookstore, and I can’t wait to see how this goes. I hope to see some of you there! (And if you are going to be able to make it, you can RSVP on Facebook!)

 

*I do not promise to ask all of these questions, because panels develop organically. But they are on my list of potential questions, and I’m sure we’ll have time for at least a couple before I let the audience have a crack at a few of their own.