Know Your Limit

I knew before I got to Readercon that I was going to attend “Writing Within Constraints” with Scott Edelman, Elaine Isaak, Michael Aondo-verr Kombol, David Malki !, John Langan, and Madeleine Robins. 

I was anxious to go since Malki ! was moderating the panel.  He’s one of the editors of the Machine of Death anthology, which had a very narrow theme.  Having submitted a few stories to other, similarly tightly-themed anthologies, I wanted to see if the panel could provide any insights as to how I’d succeeded and failed.

A few ways I’d never looked at this issue before the panel…

  • The many ways we writers sometimes impose constraints on ourselves.  Sometimes, by avoiding the subconscious places we just won’t go.
  • Sometimes, repulsion to an idea can be a constraint.  Edelman gave an example off the top of his head based on his years working in comics in the ’70s: Metamorpho vs. Daredevil
  • Another thought from Edelman: Instead of writing “in the tradition of Frank Herbert,” try writing “in the tradition of you.”
  • It’s best to keep in mind that writing for an editor is not the same as writing for the reader.
  • I need to stop taking cool-sounding panel notes unless I can remember the f’ing context.

Speaking of panel notes…

Like last time, I make no guarantees that these will make sense.   I make no guarantees against my faulty memory, sketchy hearing, or any kind of telepathic or machine-based manipulation of/interference with my senses.  Anything I might’ve gotten wrong is purely unintentional.

“Writing Within Constraints”
Edelman, Isaak, J. Langan, Kombol, Malki !, Robins

DM!: wondermark, machine of death
SE: 80 shorts, editor
EI: 3 novels (BroadUniverse)
MK: nigeria; “I can tell you a lot about constraints when it comes to writing.”
JL: horror stories; finds constraints productive
MR: Daredevil tie-in;


JL: constraints of working w/in genre
* prose equivalent of poetic form
* can lead to insights you might not get otherwise
* conventions/traditions/etc. — can be interesting way to take creativity further
* stagnation, death, blah blah blah
* rather than running away, run TOWARD, and exploit it
* DM!–tension w/writers who want certain things?
** JL you’ll always be dealing w/reader expectations. goal: Intensely familiar and intensely new at the same time!

SE: even constraints have constraints
* wordcount
* comics (worked at Marvel in 70s)–writers //looked// for constraints and cracks where something can be snuck in
* anthos
* shared world

EI: writing in the chinks
* start w/timeline
* MR: Regency romances, happy endings–timelines and working in those constraints kept her interested.

DM! re: writers IMPOSING a constraint
* DM’s comics work: doesn’t have to start w/blank page unless he wants to; doesn’t have to write unless he wants to.
* MR: certain constraints more conducive
* DM: fan fiction–ppl who want to start w/something that’s given(?)
* MR: writers want to be “Man From UNCLE”
* JL: writing as imitation in the beginning; way to internalize conventions of narrative
* SE: repulsion could also be a constraint (wow, that sucks); “metamorpho meets daredevil”
* MK: constraints we’re not even aware of
** laid down in our subconscious
** places we don’t want to go

DM: writing for a themed anthology e.g. MoD (plot constraint)
* 75% of them go the same 3 ways–result of “narrative being ingrained” in a certain sense?
* challenge for writers to be come aware of that and *distinguish* themselves.
* SE: each antho has its own constraints
* EI: re: van helsing antho and bookstore and animal antho–some writers took ALL of elements in same story (10-20)

SE: e.g. Ray Bradbury who just made up titles and wrote story around them. (i.e. self-imposed constraints)

DM: advice for writers subbing to anthos, being creative & interesting as possible w/in constraints
* JL: read widely, know traditions of field in which you’re working. what are the trends? cook’s challenge: take simple ingredietns and use them well. [zombie penises]
* DM: Strange Horizon’s cliched plot list
** JL: list of challenges, to him
* MR: “anti-constraint” — completely reinventing the wheel
* EI: think of five ideas–the further you go, the more likely you’ll avoid the trends
* SE: “You WILL think of these stories.”


Tropes in the field = dealing w/classics — you’ll be judged accordingly(?)
* JL: (new takes) doesn’t matter if you’re a lousy writer

Very tight constraints and stories fit that thing. Plot, characters, etc. = they fail.
* DM: need a STORY to hang thematic element onto
* SE: “in the tradition of frank herbert” vs. “in the tradition of YOU”
* JL: “horror writer John Langan vs. John Langan, the horror writer”

Writing in other cultures you don’t belong to
* MR: hard to not get wrong and be cause of this year’s Race!Fail
* MK: difficult–so easy to see where ppl go wrong

Subverting tropes of genre, culture, etc. Is *audience* a constraint
* DM: expect audience has expectations–story he liked that another editor knew was cribbed some somewhere else.
* JL: SF becoming so self-aware, that there was no entry point for young readers = “flip side of things.”
* EI: TWO audiences: the editor and the readers. NOT the same thing. “conflicting loyalties”
* MR: “…also writing for the damn salesforce.” Problem w/crossed-genre writing: “what do you put on the spine of the book?”