The Japan Writers’ Conference 2019

“It was a miracle that the 2019 Japan Writers Conference took place at all.”

This was the general verdict of everyone who attended. Originally scheduled to take place on the 12th and 13th October 2019 at Meiji Gakuin University campus, the Saturday event was cancelled, and the presenters who had not cancelled because of overwhelming travel problems were shifted to empty rooms and schedule gaps on Sunday.

And so the organizers, presenters, and attendees, along with millions of others around the world, watched and waited with baited breath as the largest typhoon for decades approached the Japanese mainland.

The courage of all those in the path of the storm has been well documented in the international news, and we shall not dwell on that here, but continue with the conference.

Sunday morning saw some train services and highways reopening early in the morning, but others stayed closed until lunchtime. Attendees who tried to buy breakfast on the way to Meiji Gakuin had a nasty surprise; panic buying had cleaned the shelves of many station kiosks and convenience stores, and delivery trucks had not been able to get through yet. Nevertheless, after the starting time had been pushed back from 9:00 to 10:00 to give most people a chance to arrive, the Conference was ready to go.

11:00: Using  Comic Books to Write Better Prose – Sara K Ellis

This presentation from Sara K Ellis was a fascinating look at how graphic storytelling or sequential art (namely, comic books) can contemplate novels and short stories. Building on the theories of Scott McCloud, Raymond Queneau, and Matt Madden, Sara’s presentation and workshop drew from Gotham Central, Love and Rockets, and Here (Richard McGuire) to demonstrate what the visual medium is capable of. Pacing, scene transitions and the ability to use words sparingly are all things that we can learn comic books – a medium which is now reaching its true status as a complement to mainstream literature .

12:00 What’s in a Name? – Charles Kowalski

“Nomen Omen” is a Latin phrase meaning “The name is a prophecy”. Charles Kowalski went on to prove the wisdom of this by revealing the origins of such iconic names as Darth Vader, Jack Reacher and the Land of Oz.

When creating fictional characters, names are not a thing to be chosen at random. They should contain reason, rhythm, and if possible, symbolism. Charles revealed the ‘traps’ that authors (even best-selling ones) fell into, resulting in irritated and confused readers. He also revealed the tricks that could create memorable characters; tricks of sound, meaning and association.

Those who attended felt confident enough to, in Charles’ closing words, “make a name for themselves”!

4:00. “The Science of Storytelling”  –  Elizabeth Tasker and Amanda Alvarez

Perhaps a better title for Amanda’s part of this double header would be “The Storytelling in Science”.

Research over the last few decades has consistently shown that narrative is hardwired into the human brain; we need to tell stories to ourselves to make sense of the world around us.

Furthermore, although provability has been the foundation of modern science ever since the age of Newton, the 20th century has shown us that flights of fantasy are encouraged within the scientific community, and imagination can lead to discoveries that change society.

Elizabeth’s share of the presentation looked at works of mainstream fiction with exploration of the existing laws of science as their central theme. These included the “Mr. Tomkins” series by George Gamow, the “Uncle Albert” series by Russell Stannard, and “George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt” by Stephen and Lucy Hawking. The final example , “The Center of the Universe” by Ria Voros, even has Elizabeth has a character – playing herself! The author was inspired by Elizabeth’s talks, and sought her express permission to put her in the novel. (How cool is that?)

Special note: Elizabeth is the author of “Planet Factory”, an examination of habitable and non-habitable planets outside the solar system. She also has an actual DIY planet simulator on the website World building is a crucial element in both Fantasy and Science Fiction – both this book and the website are invaluable sources of reference for speculative writers!

5:00. “The Past is a Foreign Country” – Peter Jonathan Mallet.

Whereas writers of fantasy and SF often build new worlds from scratch, writers of historical fiction have an equally weighty task – to recreate a previous historical period and make it believable. Many values integral to a specific period would be unacceptable today, so the writer has to tread a narrow path between authenticity and values dissonance.

Looking at the works of Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Hilary Mantel, Sarah Waters, J G Ballard, and Richard Flanagan, Mallet showed the elements that work to create a believable past within the reader’s mind. The effect, as Mantel once said, could be called “the Shock of the Old”.

If you’d like to know any more about these presentations, their presenters of the Japan Writers Conference in general – then leave a comment here or check out the JWC website!


About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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