Now to my panels. I was on two, which isn't as many as I'd like--but they were good ones. The first was Evil in Fiction with a great line up of three good friends--James Dashner, Jennifer Nielsen, and Jeff Savage (J. Scott Savage)--and criminal psychologist Al Carlisle. Al was outstanding, and James, Jen, and Jeff contributed their typical greatness (and I mean that). I moderated and they all made it very easy. The panel was fun for us and, I believe, fun and helpful for the audience, which was most complimentary afterward. It just worked.
I like to end each session report with a little nugget on how to write the subject covered. So, evil in fiction: Evil isn't only useful in epic fantasy, where you can get away with evil personified in the form of orcs or malevolent gods, or horror of many types. Evil can be the jealousy your teen protagonist feels for a best friend, or the callous strategy employed by your Fortune 500 CEO regardless of the effect on his workers, or your heroine getting her perfect man to open up his heart and then stabbing him as hard as she can out of fear he will hurt her first. We tend to call evil that which is really just a familiar emotion or desire intensified beyond our ability to understand it. But get passed the particulars of the most evil actions, boil them down to simple basic emotions, and they will to some degree resonate with shadowy corners inside us. Jung said that we all have our shadow self. So to use evil in our stories all we have to do is put ourselves in a character's situation and find that dark, uncomfortable, negative emotion, be it hatred, or fear, or selfishness, and do what civilization tells us not to: make that feeling the priority. What would happen if that overrode our conscience? Our reason? What if that hierarchy wasn't simply real, what if it were right? And what if every action that stemmed from that motivation was then utterly logical, completely appropriate? The teen is right to be jealous because she recognizes good in her friend that others refuse to see in her; the CEO knows his company is the life of every employee, and so the concerns of any one or few employees is not worth considering; the heroine is certain to be hurt by her man, all men, and so her action is only protective. It's easy to write about evil that is alien, something outside and beyond our understanding. Often it is far more powerful to create evil that resonates with something inside us, that tempts us as it tempts our characters, and this type of evil can be used in any story.
So, onto my second panel: The Principals of Suspense with James Dashner (again), Jeff Savage (again), Berin Stephens, and Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury. I've been on panels previously with all these people, with the possible exception of Kathleen, who I've always respected a great deal. This panel went just as smoothly as the first and was somewhat easier for me, as Jeff handled the moderator duties. That meant all I had to do was talk, which I can do. We fielded more questions from the audience this go round, and I think people appreciated that. It felt to me like another successful panel, hopefully both helpful and fun. I know it was fun to be on it.
How to write suspense? Don't leave out too much! Everyone seems to get the fact that suspense hinges upon something unknown that gets the reader anticipating, either fearing something won't happen or that something will. That's true. But perhaps the most common weakness I see in the stories of aspiring writers, especially in their beginnings, is leaving out too much. When you omit too much of what is going on and why it doesn't generate interest and suspense; it creates confusion, antipathy, and resentment. You can't generate suspense by giving people nothing to care about. They have to understand enough of your story and about your characters to project possible answers to the one or two expertly withheld pieces. You want anticipation, not confusion. To anticipate, the reader has to have enough of the puzzle to make educated guesses about the whole image. Keep too many pieces off the table, no anticipation. So here's a good rule of thumb: generate suspense by having one or two SPECIFIC questions you want in your reader's mind at a time. If the reader is thinking about the questions you want when you want and not other things, you almost certainly have them feeling suspense. If they are wondering about things beyond those deliberate one or two questions, you've created confusion.
Great LTUE, as always. It was nice to see those of you I saw, and I hope to have more time to mingle at conferences in the future.