Stackpole & Allston Tag-Team Workshops

Not knowing what to expect from the Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston hourly “Inner Circle” workshops, I chatted with fellow writer “Doc Kos,” the Heinlein Blood Drive volunteer.  As the double room filled with promising Dragon*Con future authors, Doc kindly offered me the opportunity to interview True Blood guests as they prepared to give blood.  “Shades of Van Helsing,” I cursed, realizing that my commitment to the 5-hour workshop schedule prevented me from meeting Kristin Bauer (“Pam”).  I emailed my faithful Canadian cohort and she jumped at the interview.  Grumbling under my breath, I took my seat and prepared to curmudgeon.  Nothing could be worth missing my favorite blond vampire.

Was I wrong!  Stackpole grabbed my attention with a promise that he could save me three to five years of rejection slips with his version of the “rules of writing.”  Since I already had about 140 pink slips papering my home office walls, I was hooked.  I waited patiently through “show, don’t tell,” and “write before rewriting,” tried, but true rules I had heard before.  I wondered if I could still catch up with Bauer over at the blood drive.  But then the best-selling author and writing coach announced his third rule:  “Never settle for the easy way out.”  Using an example from his own work, a rope bridge which became a super highway, foiling an escape, Stackpole urged us to approach writing problems as challenges.  Tackle cliché and character impasse, for example, he advised, not by reducing the elements in our stories, but by adding more.  “If it doesn’t work, you can fix it in the rewrite.”  Hooked, I wondered if the fast-talking guru could get me past my novel revision block?

Allston tagged Stackpole and the second seminar, “Tools of the Trade,” began.  Oh, no.  So not a techno-geek, I blanched at the prospect of a lecture on how to pick a laptop or a writing program.  I don’t even know how to install a program on my own machine.  I prepared for a nice, hour-long nap.

First tool, according to the author of nineteen novels, the tool of time.  OMG!  What aspiring author hasn’t tried to fit time for writing into other demands of family, work, Twitter, Facebook … but I digress.  Insisting that time for our loved ones placed first priority, Allston recommended tips to make editors notice a new writer, lauding persistence and hanging in for the long haul.
“Like chess,” he said, “it only takes a few minutes to learn the rules to manage time, but a lifetime to perfect.”

Aaron, “you had me at hello.”

After a quick lunch of yummy Hyatt fresh fruit and a bagel masquerading as a cinnamon roll, Stackpole took the arena for “Writing Careers in the Post-Paper Era.”  As the proud owner of a brand-new e-reader (already loaded with a sample of The Secret Atlas), by now I was ready to be amazed.  Remember, I’m a Luddite, but by 2:00 PM, the self-proclaimed commercial writer took me from the medium of cave-painting to managing my own digital empire.  Of course, any successful commercial enterprise induces pirating, but it did not need to happen to the “vertically integrated publisher.”  Piracy could be defeated, Stackpole said, by charging good value and making your new electronic readers your patron, invested in your success.

Was this a fairy tale? I asked, but answered for myself.  If I’ve got to clap for Tinkerbell to get started, she’s getting a standing ovation.  Nothing ventured . . ..

Allston returned with “Providing the Experience,” a spirited romp through point of view, emotion, and description.  Some of the concepts used were new despite my veteran workshop attendance, but ultimately convinced me that I could adjust the emotion in any fictional situation.  He merged the lessons learned with a filmmaker’s analog of scene construction.  Starting with the broad master shot, “two-shots” (of two characters), and close-ups, he demonstrated both how description could modify characterization and emotion in a scene through a progressively narrow angle of examination.  James Cameron, move over.

Stackpole returned to end the day on “Characterization.”  With a reminder that we read for characters, he said that “characters are our portals into stories.”  Referring to a book as a new [fill in the character] novel shows how important characterization is to a writer’s career.  “You must get it right,” he warned.  Noting a tremendous shift in SF and fantasy writing from pre-1983 (60,000- to 70,000-word book lengths by predominantly men) to post-1988 tomes of up to 120,000 words (many of them written by women), he proclaimed that those extra words represented characterization.  “We went from how we use science to solve problems to characterization,” he asserted.  One writer who did not survive the paradigm shift said, “I don’t understand what they want.  I dress my characters in black.”    (Guess he didn’t catch on to a trend that put romance on space ships and vampires on misty mountain mornings?)

Describing the pros and cons of specific methods of creating characters, Stackpole warned against basing a character too closely on the author.  “You are not your character,” he warned.  No indulging in “Mary Sue” stories, I pledged.  Just let me keep coming to the seminars!

The tag-team Hourly Writer’s Workshops will resume SAT 10AM with “21 Days to a Novel,” and on SUN 10AM, with “Plotting.”  Not already registered?  Individual workshop attendance is only $10, payable at the venue, Hanover A and B [H].

Author of the article

Amy L. Herring (Louise Herring-Jones) writes speculative fiction, with a preference for historical fantasy and alternate mystery. Her stories, appearing in fourteen anthologies, include “The Poulterer’s Tale” in God Bless Us, Every One—Christmas Carols beyond Dickens (Voodoo Rumors Media, 2019). Amy is a NaNoWriMo co-municipal liaison. She also coordinates the Huntsville (Alabama) Literary Association’s writers’ group. Visit her online at