Middle Grade Lunch Break

Middle Grade Writers Read Middle Grade Books

conference, fantasy

Conference Takeaways – BayCon 2018

by Jen Jobart

BayCon is an annual California Bay Area fantasy conference for writers, artists, and fans.  I attended the conference as a writer of middle grade fantasy. I had a lot of fun and had many opportunities to talk about and learn new things in the company of other creative people.  BayCon was my first fantasy con, but I’ll definitely be participating in more of them in the future.

BayCon vs. Children’s Writing Conferences

I’ve participated in many writing conferences, including multiple SCBWI events, the Big Sur Writing Workshop, and Better Books Marin.  If I had to generalize a comparison, I’d say that the children’s writing conferences I’ve attended have been focused on craft, meaning how to write.  In contrast, my experience of this year’s BayCon was that it focused on what to write.

I say “my experience” because there are many possible experiences.  My $60 entrance fee gave me access to well over 200 events and panels over the four-day Memorial Day weekend. (It pays to register early; prices go up as the event approaches, but it’s still a deal.)  I could have chosen to take Master Classes to learn about writing, or listened in on panels of people from many different walks of life discussing diversity, or attended as a fan and connected with people who had like-minded passions, or done crafts from crochet to blanket fort coloring, or played board games all weekend, or dressed up in a costume of my choice and interacted with others as an alter ego. In fact, there are too many possibilities for participation to list them all.  BayCon had something for everyone.

My personal goal in attending was to work on writing, and in particular, on worldbuilding.  I needed to figure out what to do with the comments in my manuscript that said things like “Fix this fight scene” and “They really should be traveling on horses here, not walking – what would that look like?”  BayCon was the right place for me.

Writing fight scenes

The furthest session out of my comfort zone, and thus possibly the most useful one of the entire weekend, was a workshop on unarmed stage combat.

I am the world’s biggest wus.  When someone throws a ball at me, I don’t catch it; I duck and pray it won’t hit me in the face.  I don’t know my left from my right and tend to trip over my own feet. I have never been in an actual fistfight and hope that remains true forever.  That said, the book I’m writing is about a brave girl and her dragons, and it needs some good fight scenes. That is how I found myself standing in front of Megan Messinger, coauthor of Tortall: A Spy’s Guide, and choreographer of theater fights in NYC and the Bay Area.

I felt slightly more comfortable when I found out that we were not actually going to hit each other.  Instead, Megan taught us how to fake slaps, punches, and shoves, with well-timed claps for sound effects.  

I would be lying if I said I didn’t have fun.  There were some brow-knitting moments while I figured out which hand was supposed to be where, but by the end of the class I was hauling off fake punches in a very real feeling stage fight.

Now that I’ve acted out a fight scene with my own body, I think it will be much easier to write those scenes in my book. Megan generously stayed after the class to talk to me and gave me some additional good advice:

  • Read some good fight scenes and study how the author writes them.  (Basically, she was reiterating the mission statement of this blog.) Don’t copy other people’s writing, of course, but use it as a guide for what kinds of things to include and how much detail to give where. Tamora Pierce writes great fight scenes. Check out her books.
  • You don’t have to write a play-by-play of every blow.  You just need to give enough highlights to get the idea and emotions across.

Worldbuilding

Worldbuilding has been one of the most difficult things for me to figure out as a writer. I had the story of the book I’m writing in my head pretty clearly, but I tend to have limited patience for “details,” and for a long time, I punted on questions like “What does the landscape look like?” and “What capabilities did the dragons have?” But the time came when these “details” started to interfere with the story logic and I had no choice but to address them.

BayCon came to the rescue by offering multiple sessions related to worldbuilding.  I came away with a lot of ideas and information that I’ll be able to put to use immediately.

My biggest takeaway was about a starting point for imagining worlds.  At some point in writing my current book, I realized that all of the settings in the book reflect places I’ve visited in real life.  Once I made this connection, (literally) a world of possibilities opened up. I could use Google Maps to map out actual distances and terrain.  I could research flora and fauna of a particular place to make sure I got the details right. I could even look at the socio-economic history of the area to get ideas; after all, the terrain and natural resources of a place play a big part in its history.  

I’ve been thinking this was cheating. But to my surprise, many of the authors on various panels at BayCon talked about using real-life locations as inspiration for their settings. It seems to be a fairly common way to “invent” worlds.  A few of them did extend cautions about doing this, which I’m glad they pointed out.

  • When making any commentary about people, keep in mind that if a reader recognizes her own people in the cast of characters, and she feels you’ve misrepresented her culture, she’ll be understandably upset.  So all of the advice about writing diverse books applies here. Don’t stereotype, even with imaginary people. And in terms of the geography, don’t copy an actual place exactly. At the very least, change the names, but go even further by inserting an ocean here, other towns there.  Put two distant countries side by side and see how that changes the region’s politics and history and religion. Use an actual place as inspiration, but then make it your own.
  • When you do make a place your own, be careful to make it realistic.  Don’t put a polar bear in the steamy hot jungle. Don’t have a fishing community in a desert. Use search engines liberally to validate your choices.  Better to catch a mistake yourself than to have a reader point it out after the book is already printed!

Women and Fantasy

Confession: Although I write fantasy, I’ve never been much into reading classic fantasy. This is because, as a pacifist woman, I’ve found relatively few fantasy books whose stories resonate for me.

So many traditional fantasy novels have roughly this plot: A burly man leaves women and children behind to go out on a quest where he fights with dragons and other burly men, killing a lot of them, and then comes back home a hero or maybe dies.  That’s nice and all, but why? Why are so many stories like this one? Why were the women who went with the burly men conveniently left out of the stories? Why aren’t more people writing about the brave ones who stayed behind to defend their own homes and children against other marauders and picked up the pieces after the war was over?  Who made the rule that the only valid way to be a hero is killing and conquering? Why aren’t there more stories about the people who did the harder work of understanding one another and helping one another, especially in this day and age where we need those stories the most?

The publishing industry is leading the world in its quest for diversity, and this dynamic is starting to change.  Tamora Pierce, prolific YA author of the Song of the Lioness Quartet  and the Protector of the Small series, and this year’s BayCon Writer Guest of Honor, has long been ahead of the curve with her many books featuring brave heroines. She sat on multiple panels at BayCon, and I confess that I followed her from room to room, so I had ample opportunities to learn from her.

When Pierce was 12, she wrote to the FBI to ask what was involved in signing up for agent training.  They wrote back and said that women couldn’t be agents, but if she studied hard, she could apply to be a secretary.  She was then told she couldn’t be a policeman, or president.

So instead, she wrote about female warriors.  That’s what she wanted to see as a girl reader, so that’s what she wrote.  Thus, Alanna and the Song of the Lioness series was born. At the conference, Pierce said, “And I’m still [writing] because there are more kinds of female hero now.  I need to put different female heroes out there.”

When asked what defines a hero, Pierce answered, “The hero is the person who sees something and stands up.  Sometimes the hero is the person who faces the thing that terrifies them the most and goes ahead and does it anyway.”  

I asked Pierce how we keep kids interested in stories that aren’t all battles and gore, but have messages we need to think about.  She replied, “Draw readers in with action and humor. And don’t preach.” Good advice to focus on!


Jen Jobart writes middle grade fiction and is always sending characters she loves on dangerous adventures. She is an active member of the SCBWI and has studied writing for children through Stanford’s Continuing Studies program. When Jen’s not writing, she’s outside gardening and raising chickens at her home in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her at www.jenjobart.com.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this write-up Jen! I didn’t know about this conference and would love to attend next year given your thoughts here. Appreciated!

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