Like many events this year, San Diego Comic Con shifted to a virtual format for 2020. SDCC surprised folks by eliminating badges, day-long lines, and hotel lotteries as part of their virtual platform and made all panels completely free on YouTube. So, like many, the WP staff was able to enjoy this year’s panels from the comfort of our individual homes. Here’s some highlights staff members got from various industry & writing focused panels (with photos from some of our previous years attending in person).
GeekED: Restoried: Re-imagining Creative Privilege
Panelists Pip Brignall, Sarah Ellis, Juliette Levy, Linda Sellheim and Tess Tanenbaum, and moderator Asha Eaton discussed disparities within the narrative landscape, and how those with privilege can help elevate those voices that have been pushed aside for far too long. From She-Ra to Shakespeare, the panelists covered a wide range of topics that they’re seeing change in.
We’ve entered a pivotal moment of history that has been decades in the making. Though many institutions are making a more conscious push toward prioritizing diversity in the creative sphere, the stories from those labeled as “other” have become more important than ever to dismantle the idea of a universal narrative. As Tess pointed out: “Universality assumes there is a norm… Stories about “others” have the same universality that any story has, but they have additional value because they allow us to inhabit additional perspectives that are erased in our assumptions of what is considered normal.”
For emerging writers in this digital age, the panelists discussed the idea of mixing media and ideas. “That’s the interesting thing for me, how you converge those traditional frameworks and emergent frameworks and kind of create a blended opportunity,” Sarah said. “I think we’ve got a long way to go, but I see it happening. I just want to make sure the pathways are genuinely open in the sense of the making of the work.” With open pathways and less barriers to new writers, we could help create new, immersive content for everyone in every medium, from theater to VR experiences.
So, what can we do to reimagine the existing narrative landscape in order to elevate unheard voices? The panelists agreed that it’s time to be humble and listen, and to use our traditional platforms to shift how we make and view content to make room for marginalized writers and creators. “If you have been historically silenced, it’s not enough to get out of the way and let them speak/ We have to actively lift up the voices that haven’t been heard,” Tess said. Though we’re moving along on the right track, it’s up to us as a community to lift up our members and create a place where everyone’s story can be heard.
From Idea to Hired
In this panel, moderator Nathan Bransford facilitates a discussion with several agents, managers, and editors about the industry and what it takes to sell your work. Panelists include Quressa Robinson, Holly Root, DongWon Song, and Lars Theriot.
The panelists describe what exactly a literary agent does, dispelling the myth that agents are solely focused on obtaining new talent and publishing an author’s breakout book. In reality, a lot of their time is spent building the careers of authors that are already on their rosters. Agents, along with managers, also work with clients in getting their work ready to submit to publishers, and creating a compelling pitch that will open doors for that author. When asked about what they look for in reviewing new potential projects, the panelists had a lot to say. Robinson looks for “deep, passionate love” in writing. She also has to see the author’s vision, and the direction they want to take that project in. She will consider whether she has specific publishers in mind who might be interested in that project. Root agrees, saying that she’s read books that she’s loved but ultimately turned them down because she didn’t think the author’s vision was viable in the marketplace. One rule of thumb everyone agrees on is that the work has to resonate strongly with the reader. Like Root says: “If it’s a maybe, then it’s a no.” Theriot adds that he too knows a project is a “yes,” if his response to the material is visceral. They claim that this feeling is really what takes priority in the decision-making process, while marketability will often come second. The panelists concede that they will also evaluate potential clients not just by how good their project is, but by how talented they are holistically, and if they seem like they will have a substantial career down the line. Song says, “I sign people not projects.”
Theriot gives a rundown about selling work on the Hollywood side of things. He says that sometimes a very unique script will “go viral” and get passed between executives and studio heads, and even though that particular script never got sold, the writer got work because of it. Therefore, it can be worth pitching a script even if it might not seem very commercially “sell-able” on the surface.
How to get around pitch-anxiety? Theriot recommends for his clients to take an acting class: “If you’re uncomfortable standing up and talking in front of people, you’ll be uncomfortable pitching your movie to a Hollywood studio head.” He states that it’s an important skill to know because as a writer, pitching will be an integral aspect of your career. Song agrees, saying that pitching is a learnable skill. He advises those who are uncomfortable with it to try practicing by pitching books and movies to friends and family to learn what is persuasive and what isn’t. A general pitching don’t: don’t be disparaging to other books or authors. It’s best to highlight certain qualities in your own work without diminishing the work of others. The panelists also all agree that the good old-fashioned unsolicited query letter is still the number one way that agencies obtain new clients, so don’t be afraid to submit them!
When asked about how the events unfolding in 2020 have affected the industry, the general consensus was that, despite that lack of physical book sales, projects are still selling, the industry is still running, at least for the time being. In response to cultural shifts, projects based around people of color, women, and nonbinary people are being pushed toward.
Ending the panel on a positive note, when asked what she tells her clients about the future given the current circumstances, Root said: “Go big, get weird, and write for yourself. Light it on fire because it’s 2020 and who knows what’s going to happen. Do what makes you happy.”
The Most Dangerous Women at Comic-Con: Building a Better Heroine
Moderator Katrina Hill and panelists Hanh Nguyen, Charlie Jane Anders, Diya Mishra, Dani Fernandez and Tamara Brooks talked about their favorite fictional women and nonbinary characters, disappointing tropes that are still all-too prevalent, and why representation is important for all audiences.
Within the last ten years, there have been obvious leaps and bounds in terms of female and nonbinary character representation on the screen. With characters like Okoye from Black Panther and the Disney princess Moana, audiences are finally able to see not only more powerful female leads, but women of color that don’t fall into bad tropes and stereotypes. When bringing up the movie Girl’s Trip, Dani brought up the importance of seeing female joy in on-screen representation. While stories of hurt and trauma are important to tell, so are stories of joy, messiness and silliness, as it is a very important and underrepresented aspect of women’s lives. As Dani said, writers should “let women play” just as male characters do.
The panelists also talked about the significance of representation behind the scenes. “We’re seeing more inclusion in writers’ rooms and in directors’ chairs,” said Tamara. “You’re seeing all of that in the well-roundedness in the characters. I think the biggest leap is that people are writing female and nonbinary characters as people.” Women and nonbinary characters do not exist to just be the nagging mom or a sexual object, and with more inclusion in the creative process, audiences are able to see beautiful and accurate portrayals of the lives of women and nonbinary people. “We’re just asking for good writing. All characters should come from a place of authenticity,” said Diya. And on men writing female characters, Charlie said “When men see women writing women, it makes men better at writing women.”
The panelists got to what they believe is the real importance of on-screen representation. Hanh brought up the importance of not otherizing marginalized identities. “Representation isn’t just to see myself on the screen. It’s for everyone else to see me in different context, as a regular everyday person,” she said. Seeing women of color and nonbinary people isn’t just about feeling validated, but for everyone else to see these identities as real people with complex emotions and inner lives that don’t just revolve around their marginalization. Dani pointed out that, without enough representation on-screen, characters tend to be flat. “You can’t take risks with them,” she said, as their flaws can’t represent the entire community. Ultimately, the panelists agreed that seeing marginalized identities in movies and television should become the norm. Everyone deserves to see strong, passionate, and funny female and nonbinary characters represented in media because, when done right, it leaves a lasting impression on the audience that won’t soon be forgotten.
The Writer’s Journey: Developing a Producer’s Mentality
This panel has been on offer for several years and has evolved with its audience. Moderator Brandon Easton hosts Geoffrey Thorne, Brandon Thomas, Ramón Govea, and Shannon Eric Denton in a frank discussion about changing a writer’s approach to the entertainment industry. Though writers at any level will gain valuable knowledge, this particular panel is geared toward mid-career folks going through a “cold patch.” It is set up to address some needed emotional and psychological changes to get you through the rough patches with practical advice.
All of the panelists have had projects stall in development or get shelved, which is a very frustrating experience, and ultimately drove them to desire to create content they had control over. However, they all still have exceptions they will make for certain work-for-hire content if they love the property.
Geoff notes that even as you start working more for yourself – creating content on your own terms – there are still people in your path who can and will say no, especially (and typically) the people with the money to help you. Also, be sure when you’re creating things independently that although you’re working with a team, you have to ensure you hold the rights to the IP (intellectual property) so that if it gets caught in development or finance issues, you are the one with the power to pull the plug and/or go find another investor yet still hang onto your creative rights as the IP holder.
When it comes to funding these independent projects, outside of self-finance, how does the group view crowdfunding and other methods?
Crowdfunding has changed the landscape in allowing things that would be too niche for a big company to finance still get created, and make enough of a profit for the creators to find it successful. It has its pitfalls, most often an unclear concept or the timing being off, but is a legitimate business model for content creation. It is heavily based in marketing, and there will always be people you have to pay upfront, even before crowdfunding.
Additionally, Brandon E. points out that if you are new to the industry and/or have not made a name for yourself doing work-for-hire on major properties, you need around 50% of the funds necessary for your crowdfunding campaign upfront to help gain traction. People are more likely to donate to something that looks like it will happen so you may need to put money into your own campaign (not as yourself) to encourage others to donate. You’ve taken the appearance of risk out of the minds of potential donors.
Many people are looking for shortcuts and fast tracks because we hear stories of those who raise money independently with no experience, but the truth is those stories are noteworthy because they are unusual. Those people are the lottery winners. The only real way of ensuring the success is to make it happen for yourself – and that often means saving up funds before starting projects for yourself.
What do you wish someone had told you about before starting to produce content for yourself?
Shannon: Being very honest with your collaborators, especially as it relates to “what happens if this is a hit?” What does your partnership look like if something becomes a hit? What are your expectations of what the project is worth?
Geoff: Be careful of who you trust – make sure people have earned it before you give it. Also, take your work as seriously as you want others to take it. Know what your plans are for the project and be willing to walk away if executives/financiers want to turn it into something else. You have to be able to walk away and hold the conviction of your “no.”
Brandon: You have to assume multiple roles when you’re creating your own content. Even with collaborators, you will still be wearing a lot of hats. You have to be willing to do whatever needs doing to ensure a project reaches completion.
Geoff: You also have to know the difference between collaboration and hiring someone. Your partner/collaborator in any project is the co-creator and whatever IP agreement you have with them is static. People you hire for other parts of the production must have contractual clauses making it clear that they do not have control over the IP.
Ramon: Don’t get too caught up in work for hire jobs, even when the work is dream goals. You always have to have your sights on the next thing.
Brandon E: You have to be flexible. You have to be willing to learn and take on different tasks, far outside of “just being a writer,” and put aside other work to get your projects completed and out there.
Authors on the Best Advice I Ever Got
Panelists: Kevin Hearne, Alexis Henderson, Micaiah Johnson, Sarah Kuhn, and Josh Malerman
A common thread between all the pieces of advice was to be rebellious: Kuhn describes how a breakthrough realization for her was that there was no single “right” path to take in order to achieve success. Especially when you’re a writer of marginalized identity, not all advice will apply to you, so it’s important to find what works for you. Similarly, Johnson describes how the first piece of advice she ever received about her writing was “the way you take criticism will dictate how far you go.” She realized that this meant not only being open to implementing advice, but also “jealously guarding the things you don’t want outside voices to correct.” Essentially, being mindful about what advice gets internalized.
The panelists agree that it’s important to write what you’re passionate about, what you enjoy writing. Hearne explains how the most effective piece of advice he’d ever gotten was: “Try not to write the parts you’d want to skip.” When reading, there are parts that bore you. Try to understand why, and if possible, become aware of them when you’re writing. He claims that this simple method has vastly benefitted the pacing in his writing because he tries to include only the most engaging moments.
Malerman describes the most valuable realization he’s had about writing as well, which is, when it comes to the rough draft, “forget good and bad.” It’s okay to write a bad rough draft because “300 pages to fix is much better than having no pages at all.” Debut author Henderson describes how creating a physical space in her life for writing, which in her case entailed painting a desk that would become her official writing desk, opened up more time and opportunities in her life to write.
The panelists also agree that celebrating little victories along the way is an essential part of a writer’s career. Kuhn says, about completing your first novel, “allow yourself to appreciate the fact that you did this thing you didn’t even know you could do.” She describes a writer friend who popped a champagne bottle every time a milestone occurred in her writing journey, and kept the corks of each: when she got her first agent, sent her first round of submissions, signed her first book deal, until she had a bag full of corks commemorating each of those special moments.
Some writing rules the panelists love to break:
– Starting the story off with a bang is not always necessary. Sometimes a quiet beat or moment is all the escalation in tension you need. It’s not always a linear ramp-up.
– Henderson says: “I like a slow beginning. Sometimes I just want to be eased into a story.”
– Johnson loves to break the “never start a sentence with a conjunction” rule. She says “I’ve never met a sentence I didn’t want to start with ‘and.’”
– Kuhn loves using adverbs, a good prologue, and she likes to subvert the age-old saying “show don’t tell.” “Sometimes you should tell, because some things need to be explained,” she says, “but ‘tell’ in a creative way.” She finds that it can be helpful to allow exposition to be fun.
The panelists also discussed some of the authors they’ve learned the most from. N.K. Jemisin, Toni Morrison, Victoria Dahl, and Virginia Woolfe are mentioned for their unique writing abilities, their bravery in rule breaking, their experimentation in genre and traditional conventions, and their empathetic characters.
Many of Comic-Con’s panels will be available on their YouTube channel for at least the next week, some indefinitely. We recommend checking out the above and other panels for some great insights into many facets of writing and crafting a career as a creative.