By Writing Excuses | May 1, 2011 - 6:00 pm - Posted in Demonstration, Theory and Technique

Okay, let’s have some fun. Not that we weren’t having fun for the previous 150+ episodes, mind you. But this is extra-fun.

Brandon, Dan, and Howard take the urban fantasy writing prompt about big-box stores and decide to brainstorm a story out of it. When we begin this ‘cast all we have is the prompt.

Then we brainstorm, plowing through setting, character, conflict, and story.

By the end of the ‘cast we’re ready to make a pitch to an editor and sell the book.

Okay, maybe not. But the book is totally ready for us to sit down and write. Or, better yet, for YOU to sit down and write.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Kitty and the Midnight Hour, by Carrie Vaughn, narrated by Marguerite Gavin

Writing Prompt: Take what we’ve done in this ‘cast and try to come up with a plot and an ending. Alternatively, take the list of competition films from the most recent Sundance Film Festival and pick six that are somehow part of a Fey plot.

This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by Audible.
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By Writing Excuses | April 10, 2011 - 3:27 pm - Posted in Uncategorized

We begin our discussion of Urban Fantasy with a discussion of definitions, which quickly devolves into an argument over what we are actually supposed to be talking about. Moving right along, we explore what sorts of things we find in an Urban Fantasy, and what sorts of rules these stories usually abide by.

Dan tells us how he set about writing the John Cleaver books, which certainly qualify as Urban Fantasy, Howard tackles the burning question of where one might start in the project of building a mythos, and Brandon explains
his own Urban Fantasy projects, including one failure from which we can all learn an important lesson.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Dresden Files Book One: Storm Front, by Jim Butcher, narrated by James Marsters.

Writing Prompt: . Give us an Urban Fantasy in which the point of origin for your crossover is big box store retail spaces which somehow breach the boundary between our world and the magical one.

This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by Audible.
Visit for a free trial membership*.
*Note: From the Audible website, here are the terms of the free membership. Read the fine print, please!

Audible® Free Trial Details
Get your first 14 days of the AudibleListener® Gold membership plan free, which includes one audiobook credit. After your 14 day trial, your membership will renew each month for just $14.95 per month so you can continue to receive one audiobook credit per month plus members-only discounts on all audio purchases. A very small number of titles are more than one credit. Cancel your membership before your free trial period is up and you will not be charged. Thereafter, cancel anytime, effective the next billing cycle. Any unused audiobook credits will be lost at cancellation.

By 'nother Mike | November 11, 2015 - 7:01 pm - Posted in

Writing Excuses 10.45: Q&A at the GenCon Writing Symposium with Kameron Hurley, James L. Sutter, and Michael Underwood


Q&A Summary:
Q: Can you give a tip or tips on how to incorporate successfully characters or societies that are from less represented sexualities or genders or races in science fiction and fantasy when you’re not from that group?
A: Look at history! I.e., research. Also, readers. Check out the alien next door. Does your world have the same prejudices? Listen.
Q: If you were an aspiring author trying to break-in right now, knowing what you know about the industry, what would you do/how would you do it?
A: Pay attention to the business, and work harder. Learn to break revision into tasks. Do everything you can to get paid for writing. It’s harder than you think, and it’s cooler, too. Don’t depend on external validation. Keep writing.
Q: A) How do you avoid “Would you like to read my manuscript?” B) How do you critique that bad manuscript?
A: Say no. If you have to comment, try to understand where they are, and what can help them fix something and keep writing. Be honest.
Q: How much do you telegraph the plot twist before it happens?
A: Give the readers clues, but try to let them figure it out just before you reveal it.
Q: How can I, a non-writer, be the best support for a writer?
A: Be willing to read it. Give them a reader’s responses. Just point to the problems, and let them fix it. Be willing to talk about plot problems and ideas. Ask why and help them get it on the page.
Q: How do you decide on the titles of your stories? Do you know the title at the beginning of your writing process, or does it come to you at some point later?
A: I let the editor or writing group do it. Strategic — what genre, what else does Amazon already have, how can we code the key points? Sometimes it’s the grain of sand that everything else accretes around. Unique, cool, but expresses what the story is.
Q: How do you know when you need to revise a second or third time or when you need to rewrite completely?
A: Trust your gut. Don’t be lazy. Some writers plan on rewriting everything. Each draft is a rehearsal, and the latest draft is a performance, of the story. If you don’t know how to fix it yet, be patient. Do the best you can do, but get it out there.

[With apologies to James and Michael for possibly confusing their parts below. I had trouble deciding who was talking several times, and hope I got it mostly right.]

[Mary] Season 10, Episode 45.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses. Q&A at GenCon 2015.
[Kameron] 15 minutes long.
[James] Cause you’re in a hurry.
[Michael] And we’re not that smart.
[Michael] Right on, guys. That’s fantastic.
[Howard] Dan? Are you here?
[Dan] No.
[Howard] Sweet. We are here at GenCon 2015. Our fair studio audience… Go ahead and make some noise for us.
[Whoo! Applause.]
[Howard] Has demanded the opportunity to ask questions of some of the guests here at the symposium. I’m here with regular host, Dan Wells, and Kameron Hurley, Mike Underwood, and James Sutter. James, you’ve been on the podcast before, and so have you, Mike. So, Kam, why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourself to us?
[Kameron] My name’s Kameron Hurley, and I am the author of the Gods War trilogy as well as the Mirror Empire. The sequel to Mirror Empire is out October 6th and that’s going to be Empire Ascendant. I am also probably best known for writing an essay called We Have Always Fought. It helped garner a couple of Hugo awards last year. I also write columns for Locus magazine.
[Howard] Sweet. Mike?
[Michael] I’m Michael Underwood. I’m an author. I write geeky urban fantasy and interdimensional genre hopping science fiction. My day job is North American sales and marketing manager for Angry Robot Books, which is actually supercool, it’s just really long.
[Howard] James?
[James] I’m James L. Sutter. I’m the executive editor for Piazo Publishing and a cocreator of the Pathfinder role-playing game. I’ve written a bunch of novels… Err, several novels, comics, and short stories. The novels are Death’s Heretic and The Redemption Engine.
[Howard] Fantastic. Let’s have our first question.

[Question] Hi. My question is, can you give a tip or tips on how to incorporate successfully characters or societies that are from less represented sexualities or genders or races in science fiction and fantasy when you’re not from that group?
[Howard] Oh, dear heavens. Writing the other in one…
[Kameron] It’s Saturday at the end.
[Dan] Wow.
[Kameron] Kameron, take it away.
[Dan] That is a long panel. That’s not just a panel’s worth of questions, that is a convention’s worth of questions.
[Unsure] A study!
[Howard] That’s a Mary Robinette Kowal Writing the Other retreat worth of questions.
[Dan] Yes, but I that we can come up with something good?
[Kameron] Yeah. My background is in historical studies, and I tell people all the time anything that you could possibly think that you could make up in the fantasy realm has probably been seen and done before in the past. I tend to tell people to actually look at real history, at real stories, as opposed to kind of the media dump that you get on TV. It tends to be a very generic, generalized, really washed out plain of craziness. So do a lot of research. Challenge yourself. Understand when you’re being lazy. Look for some other resources besides kind of the stuff that’s being pushed at you.
[Dan] Absolutely. Research is great. Also, I’ve learned… My new series that starts next year is about a main character who is Mexican. I lived in Mexico for two years. But still wanted to take the extra step of running it past many, many readers from Mexico and Mexican heritage to make sure that I hadn’t done anything idiotic.
[Howard] I used this example on a panel earlier here at the symposium. Look for the alien next door. Look for the person in your life whose motivations are very, very different from yours and which you don’t understand. Here at GenCon, the example that I used was you’ve got all these people who are standing in line to get that latest thing that’s awesome. You may not identify with that at all. How do you get inside that person’s head and understand that motivation? Because that’s really, really alien to you.
[James] It’s interesting. We’ve tried very hard with Pathfinder to make a world that is very inclusive. Sometimes, people will say, “Well, why is it… Is it unrealistic that everyone’s so accepting?” What I ask is, “So imagine that you live next door to somebody who’s married to someone of a different ethnicity or of the same gender or whatever. Now imagine that your neighbor on the other side is married to a snake person or a sentient ooze or an intelligent magical color. Do you think anybody actually cares at that point, or even notices, differences in skin color or whatever?” Take a look at what prejudices would even make sense in your world, and you may find that a lot of our own world’s prejudices don’t even fit in your world. They aren’t logical.
[Michael] The best thing… One of the things I’ve done is to very specifically seek out voices from the marginalized groups that I’m hoping to represent without totally screwing up and to listen specifically for things that they get grumpy about. I use those and I lean against them. Then, if I think I can do it right, and then I use beta readers, I let the characters either repeat or contextualize those frustrations themselves, so that I can indicate that I’m aware of some of these things. It builds in a little bit of self-awareness. Then beyond that, it’s looking at the different aspects of difference, and then complementing them with similarities, so that I’m not exoticizing the character in any way.
[Question] Thank you.

[Question] Hi. If you were an aspiring author trying to break-in right now, knowing what you know about the industry, what would you do/how would you do it?
[Howard] Quit.
[Howard] No. Every [garbled]
[Kameron] We’re all nodding, yeah.
[Howard] I say that because my path was so weird and so lucky and I recognize that. I don’t know how I could repeat that if I was starting again. It frightens me a little bit. I think it’s okay to be frightened about that.
[Kameron] I came up through this the hard way, and it’s still very difficult, even where I’m at. I started submitting stories when I was 15 years old, and I’m 35 right now. I went to Clarion when I was 20. If you had told me when I was 20 that I wouldn’t have my first book published until I was 30, I would be like, “[Sob… Sniffle, sniffle].” But it’s like… That was the path. Sometimes you… I think we get jealous of some people and we’re like, “How is it that they got a book deal?” Sometimes it’s just luck. Sometimes it’s just they were at a different part in their… A different stage in their writing than you are. Some of us have to work harder. I talked to an author named Myke Cole about this all the time. Some of us have to work for 20 years, or to do draft after draft after draft, and we work harder than some other people. You just have to realize that that’s kind of the path and that’s where you need to go. As far as like… If I went back in time, I would really wish, I think, that I had paid more attention to the business. I know I pay much more attention to that now, and I’m certainly having a better career for it.
[Michael] One of the things that it took me a long time to learn was that my brain works best when I divide editing into… Or revision, into a series of various tasks. I edit the biggest problems first, and then the next biggest, and the next biggest. For years, I tried to revise everything all at once, and it was abysmal and I hated it all.
[James] I would say just do everything you can to get paid for writing. Really put yourself out there. Anything you like doing… If you want to write novels, write novels. But if you like journalism, if you like games, if you like any of those things. All of those are different avenues to being a professional author, and you might hit more in one quicker than you do in the others. Any sort of professional writing make you better, will give you more insight into the business at some level. That can be a nice way to get some momentum, even while… Even if it does take you a decade to sell that novel.
[Dan] The first two responses to the question were I did this the hard way. That’s because there is no easy way. The two things that I always remember about this job that I would tell younger me are a) this is so much harder than you think it’s going to be and b) do it anyway, because it’s so much cooler once you actually do it. So much better than you ever dreamed.
[Howard] The motivational piece that I need… I mean, I lead with quit because I’m looking for a punchline. The motivational piece that I need is rejection is not negative validation. You should not be requiring external validation to continue working on your craft. For heaven’s sake, keep writing. Because those things that you are tempted to see as negative validation are going to happen throughout your professional career. You cannot make them go away. If you’re the sort of person who can’t write while that’s happening, you’re going to have real problems. So learn how to keep writing first.
[James] As an illustration, the story I have that was the most rejected is also now the one that has been most reprinted. So just because you get a rejection, doesn’t mean that the story’s dead.
[Kameron] Yeah. Rejection’s not failure, it’s just another part of the process.
[Dan] Awesome. Let’s bring on another question.

[Question] Two part question. One… Well, part A. How do you best handle slithering out of making a commitment when somebody says, “Oh, I’m a writer too. Would you like to read my manuscript?” B, assuming you fail at part A, what is the most tactful way that you can convey, “I’m sorry, but your writing mechanics are so painfully awful that I started gnawing at my own liver on page 4 and I did not make it past that?”
[Howard] Okay. I think that your delivery of the second part of the question is probably a great example of how not to do it.
[Howard] I get asked a lot. Will you review a manuscript for me? I’ve gotten good at saying no. I’m sorry, I don’t have time to read the things that I want to read, and you want to add to the pile? I’m so sorry, but I just can’t. When I do read something, and it’s not good… This is tricky. I try and gauge where that person is in their writing career, and I try and give them the advice that they need to fix a problem and to keep writing. I don’t want to tell them, “Wow, this is so eye-bleedingly bad. I haven’t seen a manuscript this bad since my five-year-old tried to tell me a story about Legos.”
[Howard] I try and find a good thing. I try and find a correction I can make, and I want to be encouraging, because ultimately, even though I said quit earlier, I want people to keep writing.
[Dan] Do we have any more brilliant [garbled]
[Howard] Did I answer the whole question?
[James] Exactly what you said, pretty much. Just try and be honest inasmuch as giving them some honest feedback, if you have time. Give them some honest feedback that can help them. But it’s not your responsibility to teach them everything they need to know. And, frankly, they gotta learn also that if they’re going to ask people, they’re going to get the feedback that is honest. That’s going to be real painful for a lot of people, but…
[Kameron] It’s such a challenge, because many people really want validation from you. They’re not really looking for a critique, they want to be validated as writers. You know, the real wake-up call for a lot of folks is that you’re not going to get validation from publishing. If you are waiting for external validation for what you are doing, you’re never going to be at that point. So for me, to be dead honest, I’m just too busy. As Howard said, I can’t keep up with my own writing and manuscripts that I need to read. Let alone, I get asked to do blurbs for stuff that’s coming out from publishers and from friends. So I just kind of go, “Hey, I’m too busy.” If someone sends me email, it’s just not something that I can respond to because for whatever reason. I’m just like… I generally just don’t say anything. I put it in another… In my system, just another folder, and we just don’t address it. As a writer, your time is incredibly precious. I mean, you should be very careful about how you’re spending those resources. So it really depends on where I’m at. But usually, if it’s like, “Um, I don’t know that we need to go there,” I’ll just… I just let it go. Let it go, let it go…

[Howard] If I can tap you again real quick, I think that you’ve got our book of the week.
[Kameron] I do. My… The first book in my fantasy series, The Mirror Empire, is about parallel universes colliding into an epic battle. One world will survive, one world will perish. Which will it be? The sentient plants, blood mages, satellite magic. Available from
[Howard] Okay. Go out to, and you can start a free trial membership, and pick this up for free.
[Dan] Awesome.

[Howard] Next question?
[Dan] We’ve got four more. We’re going to answer them very quickly.
[Howard] Well, no, it occurs to me that we could run a little long and turn this into sort of like a special wonderful awesome episode.
[Dan] A special?
[Howard] Because these people have been so patient.
[Dan] Oooh.
[Howard] So, we’ll try and get as many questions as we can.
[Dan] You guys hear that? Howard likes you.
[Howard] There’s still a little bit of the pill left.

[Question] How much do you telegraph the plot twist before it happens?
[Dan] Okay. So I always… Honestly, this goes right back to the first episode we did on plot twists with Mike Stackpole. I’ve remembered this metaphor ever since he told it to us. Which is, you are playing name that tune with your readers. You want them to win, but you don’t want them to win until a couple of sentences before you reveal it anyway. So how soon do you telegraph it? You gotta give them clues, but you don’t want them to actually guess it until right before, because then they feel really, really smart.
[Michael] I try to seed it in, but my optimal response is, “Oh, no. Oh, no, not that. But it had to be that.”
[James] Everything you guys said was right on the money.
[Howard] Okay, let’s take another question.

[Question] So I’m not an aspiring writer, but my roommate is. So how do I be the best kind of guy to bounce ideas off, test reader, that I can be with… Even though I’m not a writer, but I’m very interested and I’m very accessible?
[Howard] For those of you not benefiting from the video feed, the person asking the question is made of gold, platinum, and diamonds and awesome.
[Howard] And we automatically love him, because… Thank you so much. Because people who are willing to read your crap before it’s good are a huge resource.
[Michael] I actually would say that the fact that you’re not… You say you’re not a writer yourself is a huge boon as well. Because then you can just give them the response of a reader. You can say, “I found myself getting bored in chapter 5. For some reason, I didn’t really like the hero in here because of how he made me feel here.” You aren’t trying to… Often writers will try and tell people, “Oh, what you really need to do is X, Y, Z.” But as a beta reader, that’s not really your job because it’s their book. They should solve the problem. You can just point out the problem. So that’s the most helpful thing.
[Kameron] Yeah. My husband’s a tabletop gamer and so he does a lot of GM work which is actually perfect, because we talk out plot problems quite a lot. I’ll say, “I put this character in this cell, and there’s no way to get out. There’s this filter that will like totally sear her flesh if she tries to go through it.” He’s like, “Okay?” We start working through problems of all right, well, what’s in the cell with her? Who’s outside? Does she have any compatriots on the outside? So we work through those plot problems together. Sometimes it’s just being interested and engaged in the story, and willing to be kind of the person to bounce those ideas off of. Because a lot of times what happens is, when you’re listening to someone and you can tell they’re kind of tuning out. Instead of it being like a racquetball thing, where it’s like I bounce, and you bounce, and that’s the ultimate, that’s what you’re looking for.
[Michael] One of the best questions you can ask, I think, for a friend or somebody who’s working on something is, “I’m sorry. I don’t know, why is that? Why is this thing here? Why do these people do this? Why did this thing happen?” So that you can poke at a writer’s causality. Because sometimes, we have a strong sense of something, but it’s not on the page.
[Dan] I use my family for this all the time. That’s become our new thing at dinner. We’ll be sitting around and my daughter will go, “Are you going to make us solve your plot problem again?”
[Howard] Are you going to eat your vegetables?
[Dan] I’m like, “Yes. I am. Okay? This guy’s on the top of a skyscraper. They need to kidnap him on the bottom floor. How do I get him down without using the elevator, really, really fast?” My kids are all like, “Okay?” Then they dig into it and go for it. Often that’s all it takes. Like Kameron was saying. Just someone who’s willing to brainstorm cool ideas. So, I hope that helps. Awesome. Let’s get another question.

[Question] How do you decide on the titles of your stories? Do you know the title at the beginning of your writing process, or does it come to you at some point later?
[Dan] Okay. I’m going to tell you a story. I wrote the first three John Cleaver books. Then figured I was done. Then, like three or four years later, I got an idea for a new one. So I emailed my German editor. I was living in Germany at the time. I emailed him and I said, “Hey, would you be interested in another John Cleaver book?” His response was to email me the cover he’d already mocked up for it.
[Dan] Complete with a title.
[Dan] I said, “I haven’t even started it yet. How do you know what the title is?” He said, “I’m just going to change your’s anyway.”
[Dan] Which is a long way of telling you that I don’t really do my own titles. Because I’m really bad at it. So I always rely on my editors or my writing group to title them for me.
[Kameron] I had a really interesting experience, because when my first three books came out, I was like, “Oh, I’m going to call them God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture.” Well, what does that say to people? People think they’re religious fiction. They’re about this badass bounty hunter on this secondary world, and there’s a big hole war and it’s crazy. So people didn’t know what they were. They didn’t know what they were getting. What I do now is my agent and I sit down once I have finished whatever stupid comp title I put in there. We go, “Okay. What’s the genre we’re writing in? What titles again, don’t pop in Amazon, because we want to have something unique?” So we sit down and we go through just a bunch of different titles and stuff together. Sometimes my editor and I’ll go through that with me. But with Mirror Empire, that was a very strategic title. It was like, “Okay, it’s about mirroring universes colliding.” Cool. But we want something that codes epic fantasy. The empire thing codes the epic fantasy. Then in… I have a book coming out that is a space opera, and it’s called The Stars Are Legion. Hah. It says stars, it means science fiction. Are Legion, it’s about space opera. Hah-ha. So I have a very strategic way of going about looking at titles now.
[Michael] A lot of my titles are the first or one of the first things I know about the project. So, Geekomancy. It’s about geek magic. Everything accretes from there. Genrenauts is the same thing. A space opera I’m working on. For a long time, it was The Space Opera I’m Going to Write.
[Michael] Then it was Hooked on a Space Opera. Because it was influenced by Guardians of the Galaxy. I just circled around and around and around. I did what Kameron did. I tried to figure out, I need a title that codes space opera in a particular way. I went through 10 or so really, really terrible ones, until I got to something that was evocative and thankfully alliterative. Annihilation Aria.
[James] I love really elaborate, intricate, creative titles, like James Tiptree style titles that I just love, and I’m terrible at them. I want everything to sound like a heavy metal epic, and it never does. Both of my novels ended up with the working title being the title, but… So that’s what I do. But, what I say to all the authors that I work with is, I make them give me a huge list. Just a shock and blast. Like, give me the title you want, and then give me 10 variations on it, and give me every keyword that you think might fit. We’re just going to jumble these around until we find something that I like, you like, and the publisher likes. It’s never the first one. I mean, never. So it’s exactly what you’re talking about. You need something that’s unique, sounds cool, but expresses what the story is.
[Howard] Right on. Let’s take another question.

[Question] How do you know when you need to revise a second or third time or when you need to rewrite completely?
[Oh, man]
[Get It]
[James] Outside of the editor telling you you need to?
[Howard] Well, the time when my editor at Privateer Press told me essentially, “Yeah, the format you’ve been writing to isn’t actually the format we’re going to use. So you probably want to restructure this.” “Oh, yeah. I probably do.” That was time-consuming.
[Dan] This is an important one, though. As we say often on this show, revision is one of, if not the most important, parts of having a good book. So before the point… Before they get to the point, because most of our listeners don’t have an editor to tell them this, how do you know?
[Michael] I’ve got an idea. I think that… While editors and beta readers and all those people can tell you a lot about what you should revise, I think the number one thing is you have to learn to trust your gut. Also, to listen to it and not let yourself get lazy. Because we all have places in the manuscript where you kind of feel like you know that part may be really doesn’t quite feel right, or you kind of think it’s wrong but you’re so tempted to just like slip it by and see if anybody calls you on it. Like, “Oh, the beta readers didn’t say anything, so it must be okay.” The answer is, no, you need to… If it doesn’t feel right to you, you know something is wrong, it’s way better to go back and mess with it now until you’re happy with it, rather than put it out there. Because even if it does get out there, in five years, you’ll still know that there is a problem in that book. So you just… You can’t be lazy. You have to be honest with yourself.
[Kameron] For me, I have a writing process where I simply understand that my first draft is like literal word vomit. Like, “Uuh.” It’s just… I spew out 5,000 words, 10,000 words sometimes in a day. I generally write like one day a week, so… But it’s getting something on the page. I am a reviser. My first drafts are horrible. My agent… I just recently got a new agent, a year and a half ago, almost 2 years ago. She’s like… She wanted to see my first drafts. I was like, “No. You’re going to think I’m a horrible writer and you have made a terrible decision.” But she wanted to see them, so that we could work out things in the early process. But… So I understand that anything that I write is going to be rewritten. There are very few times where I will write something all the way through and go, “Yeah. I nailed that. Right on.” A lot of the time, I’m figuring out the plot, I’m figuring out the characters, and I understand that, because by the time I get to the end, everything’s changed about what I think about them, so I have to go back and again lace those things into the manuscript. For me, that’s just kind of… I guess there’s a gut check certainly, but you need to reach that level of your craft where you actually can trust your gut. That involves lots of reading, lots of studying, lots of active practice as far as understanding the… How plot works and the structure of stories. So…
[Michael] The thing… One of the things that really made revision come alive for me and be much less stressful was thinking about every draft as a performance of the story, and that I could treat drafts one through however many as rehearsal. I could go back and say, “I can tell that better.” Or “Look, I can fix the broken part of the song.” It was freeing to be able to step back from it, regard it as an incarnation of the thing, and do not think that it was 100% part and parcel with the whole thing that exists in my brain and can be better.
[Howard] It’s important to recognize that when you are revising, you are leveraging a skill set in order to fix problems that exist in your manuscript. You may not have developed the skill set to fix that problem yet. It is entirely possible for a new writer to arrive at revision 3 without the ability to execute on revision 3. I don’t know how you identify that. I don’t know how you find out for yourself that you don’t have that skill set. But I suspect that for newer writers, you write it, you revise it once per whatever needs to be done, and then if it’s not working, it might be time to write something else to refine the skill set. Because you can… Once you’ve developed good revision skills, the stuff that sitting in the trunk is a gold mine that you can go back to and one revision pass, and it’s awesome.
[Michael] But… Sorry. But if you’ve done the best you can do… Like, sure, there’s probably a revision step four, five, or six that in 20 years you’ll know how to do, but if you’ve done the best you can do right now, send it out there. Let it get rejected, because maybe it won’t. We’re all getting better all the time. So don’t let yourself be stymied by what you don’t know yet.
[Kameron] Yeah, to add kind of onto that one, I look back at my first novel that went out the door, and the narrative structure is just a hot mess. It is a mess. I recognize that, but I did the absolute best that I could. So I did the absolute best that I could, to my ability, at that time, and then it was time to go. It had to ship. At a certain point, some things have to ship, and you have to put it out there. Again, as Howard said, sometimes the best thing to do, don’t be afraid to wait a few weeks, a month or two, on a manuscript. But at a certain point, if you’re… It’s great to finish stuff and then send it out.
[Dan] Awesome. So this… These have all been wonderful answers and great questions. Thank you all for being on the show.

[Dan] We have a writing prompt coming at us from James Sutter.
[James] Yeah. In honor of the recent Pluto missions, I’m going to say take a piece of real world astronomical phenomena, something like a tidally heated planet or a tidally locked planet and make it part of the setting of a story.
[Dan] Very cool. All right. So, this has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.

Comments Off on 10.45
By 'nother Mike | February 23, 2015 - 11:52 pm - Posted in

Writing Excuses 10.8: Q&A on Character


Questions and Answers:
Q: How do you have a character grow in power or expertise without making the villain ridiculous trying to compete with them?
A: Reverse engineer it. Start the character at a lower level, and let them grow.
Q: How do you give a flawed character a growth arc without fundamentally changing what made them likable in the first place?
A: Beware of making a character unlikable to start. Also watch for giving the character multiple flaws. Let the character retain some of their flaw, just get better at managing it. Use different growth.
Q: When you have a first-person POV character, how do you convey the character arcs and emotional complexity of supporting characters since you can’t see their thoughts and they have lives offscreen?
A: You live a first-person life, and yet you know your friends have emotional complexity and arcs. You are aware of other’s lives — convey that! Show your character’s reaction to them. Make sure everything is not about the main character. Let your main character learn something they never knew about the side characters.
Q: How do you create an interesting and engaging story with a main character who is not the protagonist?
A: Main character, protagonist, action character, hero — think of different roles. Think about Watson. Beware of making the character just an observer. Make sure they have agency and motivation.
Q: How can a novice or beginning writer tell when a plot is driving his character instead of the other way around, and how can you prevent this?
A: Best way to spot this is readers. Keep in mind what the character wants.
Q: How do you write a character with offensive views or attributes without offending or alienating your audience? Basically, how do you divide a character’s views from your author views?
A: Have other characters point it out. Have the character catch themselves. Let other character model other behavior, and responses. Expose inconsistencies by having two or more groups argue about it. Show repercussions to the reader, even if the characters don’t notice.
Q: How do you write believable characters that have, for example, a different religion or age or gender than you?
A: Forums! See what people really say. Make their arguments, not strawman ones. Get alpha readers from that group. Research and checking with people.
Q: What are some tips and tricks for writing a sympathetic antagonist?
A: A puppy. Rational argument for their beliefs, and make sure they want something plausible.

[Mary] Season 10, Episode Eight.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on Character.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And I can’t wait to find out what questions they have for us.

[Brandon] Once again, we are at the Writing Excuses retreat.
[Brandon] Now we are letting wonderful folks model for you how to ask questions of us, just like last month we had them do. Next month, we will be going to you, our listeners, to give us questions about story structure. So be thinking of them already. You can post them on our forum. You can send them to us via the email, and we will put out a call for them.
[Mary] Or you can wait until we have actually posted the things, so if you want to ask something specific about one of those, then you can.
[Brandon] Yes. The next time we record, we will be recording and asking for questions right then after the other two episodes have gone live. So, right now, we want to have these wonderful folks ask us questions about character.

[Mary] Nicholas.
[Nicholas] How do you have a power… A character grow in power or expertise without making the villain ridiculous trying to compete with them?
[Mary] Well, sometimes you have to reverse engineer this. Which means that you have to start your character at a slightly lower level than you had planned, so that they have someplace to go.
[Brandon] Yeah. That’s the main thing I would say is often when the story’s being told, the villain has arrived at their moment of power, and the protagonist has to rise up to compete with them. This doesn’t just happen in fantasy books, though. You can look at the Rocky films in this sort of way. Several of them are about “I am out of shape and I have to beat this guy.” We now must spend a movie getting me in shape to beat this guy.
[Howard] So what you’re saying is montage.
[Brandon] Montage. Yes. I suppose you could just say the Wheel of Time was then a 14 book montage?
[Howard] Oh, man.

[Mary] Okay. Stacy?
[Howard] What’s the music it’s set to? Stacy.
[Stacy] How do you give a flawed character a growth arc without fundamentally changing what made them likable in the first place?
[Dan] That’s cool.
[Brandon] That’s an excellent question. I think there are two parts to this question, actually, that I’m going to drill down into. One is the how… The kind of reverse of this. A lot of new writers want to start a character with an arc, so they make them thoroughly unlikable at the beginning to have them grow into likability. So how do you tell a story like that? The second is also this idea, if they’re going to grow out of their quirks or whatever, the tragic flaw, the thing that is stopping them, and may have made them interesting at the beginning, how do you maintain interest in this character?
[Mary] I say, one of the things that I see people doing is that when they want to have tragically flawed characters that they will give them multiple flaws which makes them annoying. It also makes it hard to change them, because then you are trying to change them along multiple axes. So I think that if you pick one tragic character flaw to work on… The other thing is that the process of growing out of a character flaw. No one ever grows all the way out of their character flaw. They just become better at managing it.
[Brandon] That’s a very good point. I think again of those three sliding scales that I talked about, since these are character things. The character of House, which was a very popular television show character for many years. This is a great example of a competent character who’s not very likable. Right? You can’t have him grow out of his curmudgeonliness because part of the fun of that show is the tension between competence and unlikability. So if you give this character an arc where they suddenly are getting over all of this, then you’re not going to enjoy them anymore. My Fair Lady is basically the same thing. Very competent, very unlikable. This character does have an arc, however.
[Dan] Those are both examples of a character who has an arc and is growing, but is not overcoming that particular flaw. John Cleaver is the same way. He has a flaw, but he’s growing in other areas.
[Mary] The other thing about these characters is that they have someone who is fond of them. Someone who loves them because of their flaw, and that helps us, the reader, understand that that is possible.
[Howard] At risk of foreshadowing the story structure stuff, if your character… Well, look at House. House cannot overcome his curmudgeonliness because ongoing television series. But Eliza Doolittle can overcome some of her unlikableness.
[Mary] That’s funny because I was thinking…
[Brandon] I was thinking of the professor.
[Howard] Either of them. Their character arcs can run a full course, and we can reach the end of the story, and stop.

[Mary] Right. Neil.
[Neil] When you have a first-person POV character, how do you convey the character arcs and emotional complexity of supporting characters since you can’t see their thoughts and they have lives offscreen?
[Mary] It’s… I mean…
[Dan] It’s hard.
[Mary] It’s hard, but you know your friends, and you know they’re the ones that have character flaws, and you know the ones that you have to filter. You are living your life as a first-person character. So when you’re writing a first-person character, they are interacting and judging their friends in the same ways. So one of the ways you can show this arc and show the growth is showing your character’s reaction to them. So like, I can examine Howard’s dislike of mint in his chocolate, a serious character flaw, because he expresses it to me verbally, he refuses to eat it, and if he at some point is convinced that that is wrong and eats a piece of chocolate with mint in it and declares it yummy, I would recognize that and respond to it.
[Howard] You could also see me… She could observe me sneaking up behind her during her mirror scene.
[Howard] Maybe not.
[Brandon] The thing we said last week about making sure that everything is not about the main character is an excellent way to approach this. You get this problem… This is the whole problem with the Bechdel test. The Bechdel test is the idea that… This woman came up with a test she gives to movies. Were there two women in the movie? Number one, and did they ever have a conversation together? If they did, was it not about a man? The idea being that a lot of people… Males, particularly, are making films where there are lots of guy characters, but there’s only one woman. And if there is another woman, then they’re talking about the guy characters, which again, is everything’s focused on the protagonist. That makes these people not seem to have lives at all. In your first-person narrative, everything about your life is in your head about you, but you see so much going on externally that is not. That gives you an awareness of other people. You need to convey that.
[Howard] There is a… That I just thought up now. There is a version of the Bechdel test you could perform in a first-person manuscript. Does your first-person character ever observe side characters talking about something other than…
[Brandon] The main character.
[Howard] The first-person narrator.
[Brandon] Is that Bechdel as I’m saying…
[Howard] Bechdel is the way I’ve heard it said.
[Mary] B.e.c.h.d.e.l.
[Dan] Having your main character learn something they never knew about the side characters is kind of an easy way to peek behind that curtain and realize that there’s something back there, that they have their own life.

[Brandon] All right. Gamma, let’s do your question.
[Gamma] How do you create an interesting and engaging story with a main character who is not the protagonist?
[Mary] So this is basically the Great Gatsby.
[Brandon] Yeah. How do you… They are your protagonist, but they are not the main…
[Mary] They are not the action character.
[Brandon] Action character in the story.
[Mary] I mean, Watson…
[Dan] You know, though, really…
[Mary] [inaudible]
[Dan] It’s more accurate to call him Great Gatsby’s monster.
[Dan] No one ever reads the book.
[Brandon] So how do you do this? This is a very good question, because very rarely do you want to do this, but you certainly can, and some great stories have come out of this experience. The big danger is making this character too observational.
[Mary] Right. You still have to give them some agency so that there is some action that they can take. You also need to give them something, some desire that they want. Even if they are the support staff. Like…
[Howard] Several seasons ago, we talked about the concept that you can have a story in which the main character and protagonist and hero are three different roles carried by three different people. It’s a structure that’s very different from what a lot of people use, but there are some good examples of it in film and books. I like recognizing that those are three different roles.
[Brandon] For all its flaws, that BBC show about the Abbey… What’s it, the Downton Abbey? I watched a few episodes of that with my wife. It was pretty easy to identify who quote unquote the main character was. There isn’t one for that show, but who is the action character for that? You’ve got the struggle between like the dad and his daughter. That’s kind of what… Everyone’s fate depends on this. Very little time is actually spent on that, but it will have ramifications for the entire cast. Their passions, their stories, who they’re in love with, who they’re… Who they’re having conflict with on the staff is all their stories, but they are not the action characters.

[Brandon] Gamma, I want to actually ask you, while you’re at the microphone, will you please do our book of the week for us?
[Gamma] Okay. Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher, narrated by Kate Reading. It’s a fantasy based on Roman culture instead of the traditional medieval Europe. The main character is the only guy in the world without magic. He has to go about solving these huge problems when everyone including himself sees him as basically the least capable person in the entire world.
[Mary] Wow.
[Howard] Cool. Yeah. The Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher, narrated by Kate Reading., start a free trial membership…
[Mary] I’m just going to…
[Howard] Kate Reading’s amazing.
[Mary] I just wanted to say, she’s a fantastic narrator.
[Howard] Oh, absolutely.
[Brandon] I’ve read this book. It is an excellent fantasy book. Jim Butcher is better known for his urban fantasies with the Dresden files, but his epic fantasy, I think, is some of the best out there. Kate Reading read the Wheel of Time books and is one of my favorite readers of all time. She also reads a little series called the Stormlight Archives. So I’m quite fond of that.
[Mary] She’s kind of good. I interrupted you as you were telling them… The…
[Howard] Oh. I was just going to tell them that this thing that we’ve been touting they can get free.

[Brandon] All right. Next question.
[Mary] Nathan.
[Nathan] How can a novice or beginning writer tell when a plot is driving his character instead of the other way around, and how can you prevent this?
[Mary] Well, when your character has no life outside of the plot, and when all of the decisions that they’re making aren’t grounded…
[Brandon] There’s a bigger test that I’ve been able to find for new characters. It’s when they force the characters to do things that are not foreshadowed or in their personality because the plot demands it. The best way to spot this is with external readers. Because particularly as a new writer, when you’re in there, you’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, this is part of their personality.” Because in the back of your head, you’ve known for chapters they need to do this certain thing in the plot. When you hand that to readers, they’re like, “Wait a minute.” This is one of the easiest things for non-writer readers to pick out. A lot of times they won’t be able to pick out what’s wrong with a story. But when a character acts out of character the picture you’ve painted for them, huge red flags and they… You will have them screaming and yelling at you is my experience.
[Dan] What I try to do with mine is always keep in mind, “What does the character want?” Other than to… Other than the book. If you can’t answer that question first of all, then your character might not be well-developed enough. If you get to a point where what your character wants is completely forgotten because they’re just pursuing your plot, then that’s a good sign.

[Brandon] All right.
[Mary] Alan?
[Alan] How do you write a character with offensive views or attributes without offending or alienating your audience? Basically, how do you divide a character’s views from your author views? [Inaudible]
[Brandon] Mary, have you not just written an entire book dealing with this concept?
[Mary] Dealing with that. I’ve got two books dealing with that concept. Yeah. This is really actually kind of hard. It falls into the category of we could do a whole podcast on that.
[Howard] Yeah, I kind of want to can-of-worms it, but… Short answer?
[Mary] Short answer is there’s a couple of tools you can use. One is that you can have other characters call them on it. That helps people know that there are alternate ways of thinking about things, and that you, the author, are aware of and do not approve. You can also have the character say the thing and check themselves. Again, this helps. The other thing is that even if the other characters don’t actively call them on it, you can have someone else model different behavior and you can have characters respond to them. Even if it’s just an eye roll at something that is offensive without actually coming out and saying it. The last piece is that whatever it is that they say, you can have a character model exactly the opposite behavior. A really good example of this, Howard Andrew Jones has a series that I’ve talked about before which is kind of Arabian Nights meets Sherlock Holmes. The Watson character is… It’s 14th century Persia, and he is a man of his times. He just wants to… He wants to be kind… He’s a chauvinist. He just wants to be kind to the little ladies. They get annoyed with him. He’s like, “These women are so… So…”
[Brandon] Emotional.
[Mary] Emotional. But their behavior is such that it is absolutely clear why they are annoyed with him, and it’s because of his behavior.
[Brandon] Yeah. The Wheel of Time covered this in several places in beautiful ways I liked. The women would complain about the men gossiping, while they’re gossiping.
[Brandon] The men would complain about the women gossiping, while they’re gossiping about the women. Which was a great way, when you show both sides of this. This is just a little bit of sexism on both parts, but it kind of shows both groups are being pretty sexist at this point.
[Dan] That’s a good way to do it, when it’s not just one character, but an entire culture that espouses some kind of awful thing, whether it’s racism or whatever. Showing… You can find ways to expose their own inconsistencies with two different groups that argue about each other. You can show the repercussions of a behavior or attitude that they all accept, and yet it’s plain to the reader, through dramatic irony, that there’s something deeply flawed about it.
[Mary] One of the tricks that I use in one of the books was that I had people saying horrible racist things in front of a character who is unable to respond to them and show the character… Kept using the narration to refer to the character who… Refer to the maid who was standing there and I didn’t let any of the main characters, any of the characters who were participating… They were all ignoring her, but I kept using the narration to refer back to her. These are people who are saying things about this person.
[Brandon] I’ve seen that work very well on film, where people are being racist and a servant comes in. You could just see from her posture how she’s responding to this.

[Brandon] Let’s do the next question. Alex?
[Alex] How do you write believable characters that have, for example, a different religion or age or gender than you?
[Brandon] I’ve done a lot of this recently. My big tip is… Forums.
[Brandon] There are forums for everything out there, and if you go find one that… Don’t find the detractors’ forum. If you want to go write about Scientologists, don’t go to the anti-Scientologists forum. Granted, going there to get perspective, it’s going to be helpful to you. But you want to… Your job as a writer, I think, is to… Anytime you’re putting someone into your story who has a belief different from your own, your job is to research that belief and to make the arguments as well as they would want it to be made if they were writing that story. Other characters can make completely different arguments, and probably should. Even the narrative itself can undermine that story. Let’s say you’re doing somebody who believes in white power. But you want that voice to be the argument they would make, not the strawman that other people assume they make. Those are very different things. You get those by going to the forums and looking for the threads where they’re complaining about what people say about them.
[Howard] The other thing to bear in mind is that if the story is not necessarily about their religion or race or creed or gender that’s different from yours, if it is about something completely different, look for the ways in which these people are like you.
[Mary] There is very specifically a Tumblr, I think it’s called Diversity Check. I will make sure and give the correct URL to put in the liner notes. It is a Tumblr full of people who are… Who say, this is who I am and this is my background and I am happy to answer questions for you, writer. So that when you are representing my… Me in your book, that you are…
[Howard] Oh, that’s cool.
[Brandon] That’s a great resource.
[Dan] That’s really cool.
[Mary] It’s a fantastic resource.
[Dan] One of the big benefits of that kind of a resource or a forum over a book… I mean, if you want to do research in a book, hooray for you. But what you’re going to get from Internet communication is the actual voice of the person. Not somebody talking about their culture.
[Howard] Also, you’ll become a better person.
[Brandon] Alpha readers…
[Dan] But actually their voice itself.
[Brandon] Alpha readers from whichever culture or religion you’re using is very important. Even if it’s something as simple as gun nuts. Gun nuts are like a religion, I’ve found. In writing a character in the Steelheart series, he was a gun nut. In that, there are various sects within gun nuts who disagree on the proper terminology and things to do. Which is awesome. So getting different people with different perspectives. I do want to mention something I said earlier. I said your story can be designed in such a way that the story itself kind of undermines their position. Be very careful about that. It feels to me that that’s an easy way to… The example I have is…
[Dan] Turn your book into a soap opera.
[Brandon] Yes. Exactly. Jasnah, a character in the Stormlight Archives, is an atheist. If I put her into a book and then show lots of gods doing things that she refuses to believe in, to say those are gods, that’s going to really undermine her viewpoint. Instead, I have to have her say… It has to be a rational argument on her part that says, “That’s not God. That’s something else.” You’ve got to work to make sure that your story isn’t undermining who your characters are. Except in special occasions.
[Mary] I’m just going to flag that everything we just talked about is for current cultures, and that when you are dealing with historical cultures or…
[Dan] I can’t go find a message board of historical characters talking to each other?
[Mary] Strangely, no. Although…
[Mangled — Dan could, Howard except…]
[Mary] Actually… You actually can, and they’re called letters.
[Dan] Oh!
[Mary] So looking for letters, travelogues, diaries, fiction written by pe… By the culture that you are looking at. These are all things that will help you understand. But what we’re really saying is that you have to do a lot of research and checking with people and you can’t rely completely and totally on the research.
[Brandon] Excellent. We’re going a little long this week because we have only one more question left and I want to let him get to it.
[Howard] Also because these have been amazing questions.
[Brandon] They have been.
[Howard] Next time we have these people ask questions, what we should let them do is give us episode topics.

[Mary] Marty.
[Marty] What are some tips and tricks for writing a sympathetic antagonist?
[Mary] Give him a puppy.
[Dan] Give them a… Like Brandon was just saying, give them a rational argument for their own belief system. Make sure that they want something plausible, and that they wanted in a plausible way.
[Brandon] [garbled — I would say number one?]
[Howard] Find the commonalities between them and the things that we identify as good. Maybe the thing that makes them the antagonist is just one piece. The puppy. The fact that they don’t like mint in their chocolate.
[Brandon] It’s actually… Characterizing the antagonist is going to be easier than you think it is, meaning making the reader dislike them is going to be easier than you think it is, because if they’re at cross purposes with people that you already like, they’re immediately going to dislike them. So working a little bit extra hard on making that sympathy side is, I think, where you want to put your effort. Thank you guys very much. This has been a fantastic session of questions, Writing Excuses Retreat. Let’s hear from you guys again.

[Brandon] You are awesome. Dan has our writing exercise.
[Dan] Okay. So this writing exercise, as always, if you haven’t been following along and you’re coming in new, you can just do this, kind of tweak it to your own purposes. But if you have been following along all month, we’ve been doing writing exercises about a scene with a dead drop in a marketplace. What your goal is now, getting ready for structure next month, is you’re going to look at that scene and then sketch out… You don’t have to write them, just sketch out what’s going to happen in the scene immediately before and immediately after that dead drop in the marketplace.
[Brandon] Yeah. Everybody’s been somewhere and is going someplace. Knowing that is the first step to creating a good structure. This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.

Comments Off on 10.8
By 'nother Mike | February 11, 2015 - 7:09 pm - Posted in

Writing Excuses 10.6: The Worldbuilding Revolves Around Me (“The Magical 1%”)


Key points: Be aware that sometimes worldbuilding sets a small group at the center. Look at the dramatic possibilities and conflicts for characters outside that group! Pay attention to the magical 1% and the un-magical 99% in your world. Look at what happens in the interstices of the great events. This is fertile ground for humor, for laughing at tropes. At the point when a secondary character meets the Jedi Knight, there are two paths — maybe I am not really the hero of my own story, OR No, I AM the hero of my own story. When a world is built around the magical 1%, looking at all the other people gives you a richer world, and more potential for conflicts. You need the everyman for us to relate to. Fairytale structure does this, often, with the everyman stumbling into magical worlds. Consider Samwise Gamgee, Hansel and Gretel, and John McClane… and put your everyman character barefoot stumbling through the woods!

[Mary] Season 10, Episode Six.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, The Worldbuilding Revolves around Me.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Max Gladstone.
[Max] Hi. Nice to be here.
[Brandon] Thank you for coming. Max, introduce yourself to our listeners and tell us a little bit about your books.
[Max] Hi, I’m Max. I guess Brandon just mentioned that.
[Max] I write books, the Craft Sequence’s novels, Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, and Full Fathom Five so far that are set in a kind of post-industrial fantasyland where you have gods with shareholders’ committees and wizards with pinstripe suits and corporate magic being played out on an intercontinental scale.

[Brandon] Awesome. Now, you pitched this topic to us, the worldbuilding revolves around me. Explain to us what you mean by this.
[Max] So, I find it really interesting in fantasy and science fiction universes, where you can tell that the worldbuilding is set up to place a certain small set of characters at the core, at the axis. Star Wars is a great example of this. The Jedi are sort of the center of everything, especially in the original trilogy. If you’re not a Jedi, you’re kind of on the periphery. It’s all about Luke and the Emperor and Darth Vader. Now, it can get very scary to be living in a world where you are not the hero, where you’re not the person… One of the seven people in the universe who has a destiny. At the same time, there are all sorts of interesting dramatic possibilities that come from focusing on characters who aren’t really at the center of the universe. That’s one of the things that I think Han Solo brings to the first series of Star Wars movies. He’s a person who’s outside the epic destiny. He’s free to be a little bit more interesting.
[Brandon] Right. Now would you say that this is a foible that people should watch out for or more just something to be aware of when you’re doing or what?
[Max] I’d say it’s a feature of the landscape, especially the epic fantasy landscape. People are working in a sort of Campbellian monomyth space, right, where you have the person who leaves town and goes and meets the dweller on the threshold and goes into the underworld and finds the Golden Fleece/Grail/magic amulet thing and then comes back out and finds… If you’re on that wheel, then you are engaged… You can be unintentionally building a world that is privileging some people because they have magic powers, because they have the destiny, because they are the one who set out to find the magic.
[Mary] This is like the magical 1%.
[Max] Right. Exactly.
[Brandon] Yeah, the magical 1%. That’s a great title for this.
[Max] [garbled and inaudible — I’m going to use that?]
[Howard] Start again.
[Max] We are the un-magical 99%.

[Mary] But what you’re talking about, where it’s sometimes more interesting to step outside of those people… When we were talking about this earlier, it reminded me of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Which is basically the tale of Hamlet told from these two bit players, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who come on, take a message, and go away. Later you hear that they’re dead. The play shows us everything that happens in the interstices between what’s going on with Hamlet. I do think sometimes when you can show how people are shaped and affected by these big events that aren’t part of their story, but they still get trampled by…
[Max] Absolutely. I’m reading right now, The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. It’s a wonderful and weird book. I’m not quite done with it yet, but the conceit of it is you have this very straightforward urban fantasy plot that’s happening almost entirely in the background of this book about people growing up and falling in love and falling out of love and being horrible human beings. You’ll go through an entire story about this young student at Cambridge who is an utter sociopath who is doing a very talented Mr. Ripley sort of play on all of his wealthy, aristocratic peers, and then only at the very end, is recruited into this mysterious secret society of evil people.
[Max] But that’s it. That’s the end of the story. So you’re kind of getting these skipping stone views into this world in which you have some people who are special folks, but everybody else ends up being much more interesting than the people with the magic powers.

[Brandon] You know, we’re talking about this… All the examples I’m thinking of are humor. Not that it’s the only way to do it, but it seems like this is fertile ground for making fun of tropes. Because one of my favorite versions of this is actually by one of Howard’s web comic friends. The guy who draws Sheldon. In it, he has an entire sequence about the Klingon hairdresser. [I think he means this about the Klingon fashion designer]
[Brandon] Because he’s like, “Klingons got to have all these people. You never meet them. Who is the Klingon hairdresser and who is that like?” Then he spun it into the Vulcan party planner.
[Brandon] And things like this. Like the people who would… Because the world is built to focus on these few individuals who are the warrior society and things like this, they… Going and taking a few steps further and saying, “Wait a minute. What do they do about the normal things in society?” Immediately becomes humorous to us.
[Mary] That’s a…
[Max] Oh, I’m sorry. Ahead.
[Mary] I was going to say Redshirts by John Scalzi.
[Max] In another way, Mike Ford’s The… Oh, gosh, I’m spacing on the name of his Klingon novella, but this is John M Ford who wrote a couple of Star Trek novels and the World Fantasy Award-winning novel The Dragon Waiting. But he wrote a book that was sort of defying the way that people looked at the Klingon culture, because when he came to it, Klingon was like the warrior race that was doing creepy stuff out over there. So he built a world of Klingon chess players and politicians and prize cooks that became amazing… Final Reflection. Thank you very much.
[Brandon] Yeah. The whole Jim Hines and Goblin Quest basically doing the same thing.

[Howard] One of the things we tell ourselves all the time is that when we’re creating a world, when we’re creating characters, everybody is the hero of their own story. This idea that you are the hero of your own story up and tell the point that you run into a Jedi Knight and then you realize, “Oh. Maybe I’m really not.” Or, up until the point that you realize, you run into a Jedi Knight and, “Yeah, you’re pretty awesome, but I’m still the hero of my own story.” There’s two paths.
[Max] There’s a wonderful potential for frisson there and for character development. Like the Gotham Central comic series which is focusing on the detectives in the Gotham city police force. They run into Batman occasionally, but most of it is like beat copping and detectiving in this world that Batman just occasionally is swooping by over in the night.
[Dan] And everyone’s terrified of him. There’s another great example from the comics… I can’t remember what the original series was called, but it started out as humor, which Brandon mentioned is such fertile ground for this. They were the construction crew whose job was to live in Manhattan and rebuild all the buildings that the superheroes broke when they fought each other.
[Mary] Oh, that’s gorgeous.
[Max] Cool.
[Dan] It was really funny, and then it eventually became… They were the villains behind the massive year-long Civil War storyline. In which… We’ve been watching superheroes fight each other over civil rights for a year. Capt. America and Iron Man at each other’s throats. That was all orchestrated by these guys because they wanted more business, so they tricked them into destroying everything.
[Dan] It became a very dramatic thing that grew out of this funny joke.
[Mary] There’s another example of doing this dramatically, which is Patrick Rothfuss has a novella The Slow Regard of Silent Things in which a secondary character of his is the only character in this novella. It’s showing what her day-to-day life is like. It’s incredibly compelling and there’s a great deal of pathos in it, but it has absolutely no bearing on the main plot of the novel. It’s just very much about her internal life.

[Brandon] We’re going to do our book of the week. Max is actually going to tell us about one of his books.
[Max] So the book is Three Parts Dead. It’s the first book in the Craft Sequence. It’s about a junior associate in an international necromancy firm who’s been hired to resurrect a dead god.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Max] So, pretty straightforward.
[Brandon] Yeah, yeah, yeah. As happens.
[Dan] That old trope again.
[Max] Exactly. Pulling out the old standards, the chestnuts always [slam?]
[Howard] Way to go back to the well.
[Max] Exactly. I was really impressed back in 2008 when the United States economy exploded spontaneously at how you could have a traumatic experience for an entire country and really an entire world that didn’t result in any smoking craters in the near term. It wasn’t like I could go to Wall Street and see the burned-out wreckage of J.P. Morgan. Something weird had happened on a nonphysical plane affecting ostensibly people that were ostensibly immortal sort of that had suddenly resulted in trillions of dollars just disappearing or going up in smoke. The reaction that a lot of financial journalists seem to be having at the time was this sort of religious terror. Their world system was collapsing or crumbling or cracks had appeared in the walls. I thought, “Wow. So if we just refigure this, or we have organizational entities as basically gods in the old school D&D sense, where you have belief and prayer and sacrifice, and then you get benefit back from that…” Well, gods die sometimes, just like organizations die. What happens when the organization dies? You bring in the bankruptcy people to carve it open on the slab, pull out the stuff that isn’t working, tie it all back together, wire it up and hook it up to the lightning generator and get them to go.
[Mary] One thing that Max has not mentioned is that his writing recently earned him a Campbell nomination. He was one of the finalists this year in London.
[Max] That was really great.
[Brandon] So did you get to join the ranks of Campbell losers like myself?
[Max] I did! Yes.
[Brandon] Awesome. [Garbled]
[Brandon] Sitting next to Mary, though, because she won it.
[Mary] La!
[Brandon] Yeah, we’re not allowed…
[Max] I’m going to do the we’re not worthy thing over here.
[Howard] All right. Well, you can go get, fair listener, along with me, I now want this. You’ve sold me on it, Max.
[Max] Awesome.
[Howard] Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone. It’s read by Claudia Alick., you can start a trial membership and have this one read to you for free. It sounds like great fun.

[Howard] I think it’s interesting… Mary, earlier you said in talking about world building, where the world building is centered around the one tiny group, you said the magical 1%. Here, now, we are talking about, in Three Parts Dead, the magical 1%.
[Mary] The magical…
[Max] Exactly. Well, this is something that I’m working on as I’m building out the series. The first book is focusing on a sort of a trainee necromancer in this way. The second book is focusing on somebody who doesn’t have access to those sorts of magical powers. So the setting, which I had conceived as this wonderfully fun romp, turns into this horror setting, because you have these people running around who can warp space and time and bring zombies back from the dead and holy crap
[Howard] The Occupy Sith Temple equivalent.

[Mary] There’s a history buzz phrase, called history from beneath, which is the idea of reporting history from the people who are marginalized. Like the dairy maids, the slaves, the weavers… The milliners. The milliner assassins. I think that one of the things that we’re talking about here is that this is also an opportunity, that when you have a world that is built around this 1%, that looking at all of the people who are around it can give you not only a fuller, richer world, but also more potential for conflict. Also, looking at your fiction and realizing that if you do not have those people, they don’t necessarily have to be a main character, but if you don’t have them, this may represent a weakness in your world building.

[Brandon] Right. This is the topic I was going to bring up next, which is the idea that in most cases, we want to treat the world building like a character. Meaning we want to show different facets of the society and world in order to stay away from melodrama. Where melodrama, defined by me, is where each character expresses only one emotion. Or where your world expresses only one tone. Now that actually can work in some books. Some stories are about one tone, let’s laugh at it, here you go. But even in a book like that… Pratchett’s work is often like this, when you get the stark differences, that’s where you get the poignancy of a Pratchett work which is one tone, one tone, by the way look at this for a minute, be horrified at what you’ve been laughing at, okay, now we’ll go back and we can laugh some more. When you’re building a great big epic fantasy story or epic science fiction story, it becomes more and more important to see through the eyes of some of these people in order to keep you from parodying yourself.

[Dan] Let’s go back and look at the very first example of Star Wars. Han Solo was the everyman character in the original series. He was the one that people latched onto, that they felt connected to. One of the biggest problems of the prequels is that there was no Han Solo in them. There was no everyman. There was nobody from outside of the system that we could relate to. Most… Who is your favorite character in Lord of the Rings?
[Brandon] Right, it’s Sam.
[Dan] For most people, it’s Sam. Because he’s that everyman. He’s just a gardener, he’s just like us.

[Howard] You know, you’ve raised a couple of examples where the everyman character is running along with the quest, and is part of the heroic action. If you look at the… Some of the large… The epic thriller Tom Clancy novels, you will often drop into… They’re usually written omniscient, but you will drop into the point of view of somebody who really has no bearing on the main action, just so we can see what happens when the shrapnel is flying and get a sense of how incredibly destructive this invasion was or this attack was or whatever. I just… I bring it up, because that’s a completely different way to handle it. Every time Clancy got to those points, the touchstones of those characters were very interesting. Oh, this is a neat character. Oh, look at the thing that they’re getting to watch. Oh, I hope they don’t die. I, all of a sudden, like this person, really engaged with them, because they’re more like me.

[Max] Fairytale structure does this a lot too, actually. You have the experience of this person who’s not privileged by the plot, who’s stumbling into crazy magical stuff, whether it’s Hansel and Gretel or… Honestly, I think Die Hard has…
[Mary] Jack tales.
[Max] The same structure. Yeah, Jack tales, exactly. In Die Hard, you have John McClane just sort of stumbling into this enormous scheme-y terrorist stealing robbing plot, and he’s just a guy who’s trying to figure his way out through the woods.
[Brandon] Right. I’ve never heard John McClane and Samwise Gamgee compared so brilliantly.
[Brandon] But they really do fulfill the same role in the plot.
[Howard] They both spend time barefoot.
[Max] That’s true. And their character arc is both centered around dealing with a girl they have a crush on.
[Mary] And there’s a tower!
[Max] There’s a tower.
[Howard] And a Yippee ki-yay.
[Max] Yippee ki-yay!

[Brandon] Okay. We’re…
[Brandon] We’re degenerating quickly, but I’m going to say this was an awesome topic. I want to thank Max for coming on and actually we had two writing prompts. I want to hear Max’s before we started. Let’s go ahead with yours.
[Max] Oh, great. Sure. Well, thank you first very much for having me on. Honor to be here. So this is… Howard was telling me this is more of a story seed than a writing prompt.
[Brandon] That is just fine.
[Max] So, think about the last time you lost at a game. Videogame, boardgame, poker, whatever. What was the sort of process of thought and emotion that led up to that loss? Did you overplay your hand, did you outsmart yourself, did you just couldn’t keep track of everything in your head at once? Then try to replicate that moment in the dramatic structure of a story. But, you can’t put any games in the story. It has to be a story about making the same kind of mistakes, making the same kind of edge plays, failing or succeeding in some ways and failing in others.
[Brandon] Excellent. That sounds wonderful. All right. This has been one of our wildcard episodes. Next week we will be back to discussing structure. So, you’ve been given homework. Just a reminder. Coming up next week, we will be talking about this again. For now, you are out of excuses, now go write.

Comments Off on 10.6
By 'nother Mike | January 5, 2015 - 11:53 pm - Posted in

Writing Excuses 10.1: Seriously, Where Do You Get Your Ideas?


Key points: Writing Excuses, Season 10, will be structured as a master class. That means homework! How do you generate ideas? Geewhiz and then struggle to a story? Do something like… Tone, theme, idea? Wow, I want to blow that up? I wonder what that would be like if… See the related podcasts on being influenced. Some ideas bring their own outline or structure with them. How do you find the gems? It has attractive depth, suggesting ramifications and ideas. Does the idea excite you? Does it suggest conflict and a story? Sometimes you need to reward yourself for generating an idea, but you can’t work on it now — so write it down! But how do you get ideas? Go two deep! Push past the first idea to a deeper idea. Read and follow new and old technologies. Ask “What could go wrong?” Don’t grab the first thing in the garden of low-hanging fruit, look for fruit that’s higher in the tree, that’s different. Synthesize!

[Mary] Season 10, Episode One.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season 10! No, seriously, where do you get your ideas?
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.

[Brandon] We are starting our 10th season of Writing Excuses. We wanted to do something different for this season we’ve been thinking about for a long time. We also identified a problem we have, which is that our students often wish and express a desire to be taking writing courses but can’t, either reach them or can’t afford them and things like that. So we thought we would approach that.
[Mary] So what we’re doing is we have structured the entire season as a master class. You will be doing theory and exercises and of course our usual banter and the occasional…
[Howard] And one thing… Well, one thing to keep in mind here is that Brandon just called you all students, instead of listeners. It’s on. And that means… Homework!
[Brandon] Yes. So some of the changes we’re going to be making are writing prompts are going to be transforming into writing exercises. Now we will still occasionally be doing a writing prompt. Most of the time, we’ll be doing these with wildcards. What the formula is going to be is we’re going to do each month a topic. We have posted these on our website. In conjunction with that topic, we will do two theory episodes where we talk and approach that. We will also do a Q&A episode with listeners about that topic. We will also have one wildcard episode, usually the second one of the month, which is going to be nothing… No relation whatsoever.
[Dan] It’ll be our usual unfocused chaos that you’re used to from the previous nine seasons.
[Brandon] The goal of that is we know that some of you listen very intermittently, you just grab episodes that are interesting to you. We don’t want to break what’s working, so you should still be able to listen to all of this independently and not change your listening habits. However, if you listen straight through and do the assignments as assigned, the goal is to help walk you through this year through a story that you’re working on.
[Mary] But we don’t want you to think we’re taking you back to 101 levels.
[Brandon] Yes.
[Mary] We believe that you’ve been listening for several seasons and that you are here because you are committed and want to improve your craft, not because you are just starting.
[Dan] If you’re a brand-new listener, this is still a great place to start. We’ll be giving you the basics that you need. We’ll help you through it. And welcome to the podcast.
[Brandon] Thanks for listening.

[Brandon] So, let’s launch into it. No, seriously, where do you get your ideas? We… As writers, one of the most common questions we are asking… Asked is where do we get our ideas. It’s become something of a cliché among writers that that’s what fans ask.
[Mary] But even when I’m doing an intensive workshop, we often see people who struggle with getting from the geewhiz, cool idea, to an actual story. So…
[Brandon] So, month one is going to focus on ideas. We’ll be doing two podcasts, the first will be about generating ideas and the second one will be about taking an idea and developing it. In this podcast, we’re going to talk about idea generation, and we’re each going to talk about where we get our ideas and how we choose which ideas are actually good ones.
[Mary] One of the things you will find is that everybody starts in different places. I tend to have what I call the geewhiz idea, which is… Sometimes it can be something that I have seen in a bit of research, like honey ants are these ants that drink a lot of nectar and they get really big and they become a food source for their colony. What would happen if there was a sentient species that did that? What would that civilization look like? So that’s an interesting geewhiz idea, but then I had to struggle to get it to a story.
[Brandon] One thing I’ve noticed about myself is that I very often have tone ideas. Meaning I’ll be working on a piece and I’ll consume some piece of media. I’ll read a book or I’ll see a movie or I’ll just be thinking about some of my favorites and I’ll say, “Wow. I really wish I could do something like that.” Recently I’ve been doing Mistborn books with a Western meets Sherlock Holmes feel. Both of which are because I was experiencing that media and saying, “I wish I could do something like that… Wait, I’m a writer. I can totally do something like that!”
[Brandon] Mistborn came in the first place because I said I want to do a fantasy heist novel. I love heist stories. Can I do this in a fantasy setting? That’s all tone. I’m looking to match a tone and that’s… I’ve never realized before how frequently I do that.
[Dan] I do something very similar, but not so much trying to match the tone as just the theme or the idea that somebody else has done. I’ll watch a movie, I’ll read a book and think, “That’s so cool.” In a similar experience, I want to play with that idea. I can. I’m an author. But my version of their story would be so different. I like what theme they were exploring, but I want to say different things about it.
[Brandon] Dan… Oh, go ahead. Sorry.
[Howard] I just look at Wow, that’s a cool thing. I want to blow it up.
[Howard] I wanna… But then… I mean, the first idea is I wanna blow it up. My second thought is “But what if I just set fire to it instead?” No, no, no, no, wait. Thermite? Oh, wait, hang on. It’s actually made out of aluminum. I very quickly run down this destructive chain.
[Howard] And will often end up at biological warfare instead of explosions.
[Brandon] Now, Howard, I know you also have science fiction ideas, where you’re like, “Wow, if I have this thing spinning at this rate and this weird orbit…” Sort of technical makes-my-brain-hurt sort of stuff, and then out of that comes some story with stuff blowing up.
[Howard] Yes. That… Well…
[Mary] There is a running theme.
[Brandon] Yeah.
[Howard] The James Bond movie Casino Royale which began with the parkour chase…
[Brandon] I think that’s the second one.
[Dan] No, that’s Casino Royale.
[Brandon] Is it Casino? Okay.
[Howard] That’s Casino Royale with the urban running. I remember looking at that and thinking, “Wow, that’s really neat. I wonder what that would be like in a rotating reference frame where gravity is a little lower?” From there, I ended up creating parkata urbatsu, which is the martial art of urban movement in the Schlockiverse. It is a long path from watching a James Bond movie to creating your own futuristic martial art, but I can look at every chain in that path and see how I moved from an idea that was pretty cool and belongs to somebody else…
[Howard] To an idea that is pretty much all new.

[Brandon] We can reference with this, podcasts we’ve done in the past about when you can be influenced and how to steal without actually stealing. How to be influenced. We’ll link those in the liner notes. I think those will be helpful podcasts to relate to this one.
[Howard] Oh, great. Now you’ve made homework for me.

[Brandon] Sorry, Howard. I wanted to ask you, Dan, have you ever watched something…
You said you get your ideas from I-want-to-do-that. Have you ever had the they-ruined-that,-I-want-to-do-it-right?
[Dan] Yes. The famous one that I talk about a lot is Battle Star Galactica, which I adored the re-imagined series and the way they were playing with the concept of what is a human, what does it mean to be human. The opening credits of every episode talked about the Cylons and ended with, “And they have a plan.” But they totally didn’t have a plan.
[Dan] You get to the end of that series, you get just to the end of the first season, and realize they’re making this up as they go! They don’t have a plan. So I wanted to do both of those. I wanted to play with my own version of the Cylons, which is what the Partials are, but I also wanted to figure out their plan in advance, so that you could get to the end and go, “Oh, my goodness, this all actually does make sense.”

[Howard] Wait. So when… An idea can actually be like an outline?
[Dan] Oh, don’t get ahead of our first…
[Brandon] Yeah, outlining’s not for a long time.
[Howard] I know it’s not. But the idea that…
[Dan] Yeah. In this case, the idea… One idea was for the cool artificial people, and the other idea was for an outline. I want to construct this very mysterious outline. I want to be able to have multiple people who seem to be working together but are not, and have it all actually make sense when you see the gears moving behind it.
[Mary] A lot of times when you’re looking at a tone thing, also, there’s an outline comes inherent with it. Like fantasy heist novel, there’s an inherent structure there. So sometimes you do have that as part of your idea. But the challenge then is what you fill it with.
[Dan] Sometimes, the outline… Or the idea that appears to you out of nowhere does not suggest anything. The cloning novel that I talk about all the time which I have now finally sold. I got that from watching The Sixth Day, the Arnold Schwarzenegger cloning movie, and thinking, “Okay, I want to do cloning, but I want to do it my own way.” I came up with my own cloning technology, and then thought, “Well, now what?” Which I guess we’ll talk about next week.
[Brandon] Right. We’ll talk about that next week.
[Dan] Where do we go with this idea that does not, by itself, suggest its own story.

[Brandon] I want to ask one more question of you guys. How do you know which ideas are good and which ones aren’t? Because as writers, often times we have more ideas than we can write. Once in a while, you run into somebody who doesn’t have enough ideas. We’ll talk about that next. But first, how do you separate the gems from the rocks?
[Dan] Well, going back to the cloning story that I was just talking about, I knew that one was great when I started telling people about it and instantly everyone I told said, “Oh, what about this?” They would all come up with their own ramifications of that technology and start spinning off new ideas of their own. I knew I had found a gem.
[Brandon] Wow. So if you can come up with a pitch about it, you can get across easily to people?
[Mary] Well, I think it’s not actually just the pitch. It’s that when people start doing that, that demonstrates that there is a lot of room in that idea for a story. There’s potential.
[Dan] That there is attractive depth.
[Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] Right. Okay. So, attractive depth. I like that a lot. For me, it’s a mix of how excited I am and about whether the idea actually suggests a conflict and a story. When I think about it, does it inspire me to begin spinning off directions or is it a geewhiz but that’s not a story. Which of these is it? I end up taking the ones that suggest more, that suggest a problem. Those are the ones that I spend more time mulling over. It’s really the ideas that really start attracting other ideas that are important. We’ll talk about that next week as well.

[Howard] If the idea is just so compelling that I want to start working on it instead of working on the stuff that is currently paying the bills, that’s usually a really good sign that I have a problem.
[Brandon] We all know you have a problem, Howard.
[Howard] But… Well, I make a point. The part of my brain that generates ideas needs to be rewarded for generating the idea. I accomplish that by writing the idea down. If I got something that is consuming my thoughts and distracting me from the ideas I’m currently executing on, I’m pretty sure that’s a good idea and so I will write down all… A whole bunch of notes about it and I know it’s good. Then I can let it go and get on with getting work done.

[Brandon] Awesome. Let’s stop for our book of the week. Mary?
[Mary] The book of the week that I’d like to recommend to you this week is Lock In by John Scalzi. Now one of the cool things for me about Lock In is that John started with this idea for this game, and you’ll hear him talking about this in some of his interviews. There’s this really cool idea for a game for people who are locked in to their bodies and using mechanical apparatus or threeps, short for 3POs to move around. He had this fantastic idea that needed all this world building. That idea is not in the novel anywhere.
[Mary] It’s not even referred to in a side note or in a news broadcast. It is not referenced anywhere in the novel. But all the world building and other ideas he had that came with it are in the novel. So all of the idea generation… Basically he started with an idea and then went two steps down to a new one. That’s the novel that he wrote. It is brilliantly narrated in two different editions, one is by Wil Wheaton and the other is by Amber Benson. The reason it’s in two different editions is because, and a lot of people will read the text version and not realize this, the main character is not given a gender. Because the main character became locked in at the age of two and has always lived in an android body. So is not gender identifiable.
[Brandon] That’s awesome. That is so cool.
[Mary] So… It’s such a cool idea.
[Howard] Very, very fascinating. If you go to, you can start a trial membership with Audible and you’ve got two choices for this book. You can get it narrated by Amber Benson. You can get it narrated by Wil Wheaton.
[Mary] It’s awesome either way.
[Howard] Yeah. It’s awesome. It’s awesome either way.

[Brandon] Excellent. So, ideas. Let’s say we have listeners who are struggling either identifying the good ideas or even generating them in the first place. How can we help our students, what can they do to have better ideas and come up with more of them?
[Mary] One of the things that I like to talk about is going two or three ideas deep. Which is, you have your first idea… That idea is probably related to something that was floating around. So you are probably not the only person who’s having that idea. So you go one idea deeper than that. So, let’s say that my idea is what about… This is going to be a terrible idea. What about a team that plays basketball with oranges?
[Brandon] Ooo.
[Dan] You’ve read my next book already?
[Mary] See. It’s like, “Oh, Dan’s working on that.” Well, the part that I’m most excited about that is the oranges. So what if it’s not a team? What if it’s an individual… An assassin who kills people with oranges?
[Mary] An assassin is way cooler. I’m more excited about the assassin than I am about the oranges.
[Brandon] An assassin who uses random implements as their hallmark, that they kill with something that you’re carrying on you?
[Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] Something like that? So he has killed with oranges before, or she has, because they found somebody with an orange, but whatever the person happens to carry with them, they will use to kill.
[Mary] Like now they’re killing with the Hugo award.
[Brandon] That’s an awesome idea.
[Dan] It ends up, by pure chance, being an orange every time.
[Dan] And he’s getting pigeonholed by the media. He’s like, “I’m not the orange killer, guys. That’s pure coincidence!”
[Mary] They’re discounting the other murders.
[Dan] They don’t give him credit.
[Howard] No, no, that wasn’t him. This killer used a banana.
[Brandon] Okay. It’s okay. [Garbled… Sketch]
[Mary] That’s what I mean when I’m talking about an idea that’s two deep.
[Brandon] Yes. Yes.

[Dan] So if you are having trouble leaving getting to this point…
[Mary] [inaudible]
[Dan] To… So many of us have talked about how we get ideas from other sources. Make sure you are consuming media. Make sure you’re reading books. Make sure you are reading science articles. Get on Twitter and follow Wired Magazine, the Science Channel, all of these places that are just overflowing with amazing new technologies in neuroscience, in robotics, in…
[Mary] Old technologies.
[Dan] Space travel.
[Mary] Surgeon’s apprentice… Chirurgeons, however you say it.
[Dan] Chirurgeon.
[Mary] Apprentice just did this whole thing about a rotating… A wind up rotary saw for surgery from the…
[Howard] Oh, gosh, I saw that.
[Mary] I was just like, “I want to tell stories with that terrible, terrible instrument of destruction.”

[Brandon] Yeah. Asking yourself, “What could go wrong?” is a great place to start. Look at one of these pieces… Read history and say, “What could have gone wrong that didn’t?” And let’s make it go wrong.
[Dan] A few years ago when I was first really trying to teach myself how to write short fiction, I spent a week at Mary’s house in Portland. I had listened to some radio show on the drive there about memory and about how a scientist in New York had just developed a drug that can wipe memory. Just based on that, I wrote four or five different short stories, all on this one concept of erasing memory chemically.
[Brandon] That is pretty cool.

[Howard] It’s funny. You mentioned Twitter. From a humor standpoint, I refer to Twitter, and I’m coming back to the orange… I refer to Twitter as the garden of low hanging fruit.
Because you will see something happens and on Twitter, 10,000 people will all tell the same joke. Because it is fascinating to watch, and as a humorist, I watch it and I ask myself, “What’s the fruit that’s higher up in the tree? What is it that I can reach for that’s different?” It’s this same principle. We’re looking for not the easy idea, not the idea that immediately leaps to mind, what’s the idea that’s past it, where you have to push a couple of other ideas out of the way or synthesize a couple of things and find something that hasn’t already been hashtagged a million times.
[Brandon] Wow. That’s a really great metaphor.

[Dan] What you just said about synthesizing. That is a great source of ideas. If you have a couple of things or maybe you just have one thing that might be cool but you don’t know what to do, mash it together with something else. Take random stuff and just combine them in new ways that no one’s thought of before.
[Mary] Jane Austen with magic.
[Dan] No one would ever do that.
[Dan] Trying to be serious here.
[Mary] Wild West fantasy heist.

[Brandon] We said at the beginning that what we want to do is start giving you writing exercises rather than just prompts. This won’t be every time, but we will be doing it consistently. For a given month, we would probably build on the exercises we have given you. We’ll wipe it clean for the next month with the next topic, but if you do these, you can then use them the next week with the writing exercise we give you. If you skip a week and don’t do it, we will make it so that each exercise can be done cold as well. But we’re going to give you this writing exercise today.
[Mary] I want you to write down five different story ideas in 150 words or less. Think of them as little notecards. I want one story idea to come from interviewing or talking to someone. One to come from research. So reading some… Reading a magazine or a book. One from observation. Take a walk. If you see someone walking down the street, think why are they going that direction and see what story comes from that. A piece of media. Something that you’ve watched. Take an idea and shift it slightly. Or music. See if you can be inspired by music, either the lyrics or the tune. The tone.
[Brandon] Excellent. Well, this has been Writing Excuses, Season 10. Hopefully, you will enjoy this master class as we go through it this year. You are totally out of excuses, so now go write.

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By 'nother Mike | December 23, 2014 - 6:06 am - Posted in

Writing Excuses 9.53: Writing for Fun


Key Points: We get into writing because it’s fun, because we love it. If you think “I’m just a hobbyist” or “I’m not a real writer,” you are wrong. If you want to write, you are are real writer. Have fun. Experiment. Try something new. Outline a really cool, exciting idea. Write fan fiction! Don’t get trapped into thinking that everything you write has to be important or publishable. Have fun, get excited, and write.

[Mary] Season nine. Episode 53.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Writing for Fun.
[Howard] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Brandon] We’re going to talk about writing in a fun way. Now, on the podcast, we often talk about the professional side of writing. Writing as a pro does get kind of stressful at times. The thing is, we all got into this because it was fun, because we loved it. Nobody becomes a writer because… Well, I’m sure there are some people…
[Brandon] But most people, and I hope you listeners, don’t become… Didn’t become writers because you wanted to make millions of dollars, you became a writer because you just legitimately enjoyed doing this. So during this podcast, we want to talk both about writing perhaps as a hobbyist and not stressing about the fun… Or not stressing about the professional side. We also want to talk about if you are writing very consistently, how you can make sure that your recapturing the fun and having fun every day as you’re working on your writing.
[Howard] If you’ve been strong-armed into writing…
[Brandon] Yes. [Chuckle]
[Howard] I’m so sorry. We love this. I don’t know what’s wrong with you.
[Brandon] Well, no. We’re coming off of Nanowrimo where I think a lot of people have… Last month, they knuckled down, they wrote their 3000 words a day or whatever, and they might be thinking, “Wow. Writing isn’t fun anymore.” On the other hand, I meet a lot of people will come to me and say, “I’m just a hobbyist,” or “I’m not a real writer.” I want those people to know, “Yes, you are.”
[Dan] You totally are. When Brandon was pitching this idea to us, to do this as a podcast episode, he used the comparison of people who play basketball. I know I’ve got… I don’t do any game that requires legs, but I’ve got neighbors that play sports all the time. They’ll go every Thursday night and play basketball together. At no point does anybody ever say, “Well, that’s too bad that you never made it to the NBA.”
[Brandon] Yeah.
[Howard] Or… Or…
[Dan] You’re a failed basketball player. No, you’re not, you’re doing this for fun and you love it.
[Howard] If you don’t work on your free throws, you’re never going to be able to go pro.
[Dan] Yet with writing, we have this sense that if you’re not getting paid for it, if you’re not going pro, that you’re wasting your time. That’s not true.

[Brandon] No, it’s not. I remember… Dan can back me up on this. We were writers together in our early days so I can remember the moment when I realized I just really love this. I love writing these books. It was so much fun to back then, run to Kinko’s and print off a copy and get it bound so that I could go the next day to my friends and say, “Here’s the new book.” My readership was five people. But they would get that book, they would read it, they would love it.
[Howard] Your Kinko’s bill! Oh, my God.
[Brandon] My Kinko’s bill… It was like 60 bucks to print off any of these books. But everyone… It was so much fun. I had such a thrill of finishing that book that I realized I’m going to keep doing this. It doesn’t matter if I never sell a book. It doesn’t matter… If I’m 70 and I’ve been doing this my whole life, I’m not going to be a failure because I’ve loved every minute of it. If what I’m doing is I’m taking Thursday nights and I’m writing my books or… Thursdays, Saturdays, Fridays, Mondays, what…
[Brandon] I do this pretty compulsively, but the money is not a measure of how much I enjoy or how much you enjoy doing this job.

[Howard] I… The thing to consider here is that if you are writing as a hobbyist, if you are just writing because you want to enjoy it, you don’t need to worry… You shouldn’t worry about external validation. You’re writing this for you. You’re writing this because you want to write, you want to put the words on the page. I want to free you up to do that. You don’t need external validation. I’m externally validating you right now.
[Dan] Merry Christmas.
[Howard] You want to write… Yeah, Merry Christmas. You want to write. Congratulations. You are a writer.
[Brandon] Yeah. I really think that there are people who are listening right now who need to hear this. I remember… Dan, you were talking… Telling a story about getting discouraged because all your friends were selling a ton of books.

[Dan] Yeah! I made this stupid mistake a couple of years ago of going out to dinner with you, and with Brandon Mull and with James Dashner. If you ever want to feel poorly about yourself and your artistic success, that’s a great opportunity to do it. I came home that night just feeling like, “What am I doing? I’m not selling a fraction of what these guys are. Am I wasting my time? What is the problem here?” And realized in that moment that that’s not why I do this. I don’t write because I want money. I don’t write because I want to get on the New York Times list. I write because I love it. In that moment, when I considered quitting, I thought, “Well, what am I going to do? Well, I’d probably just end up writing anyway because that’s my job. That’s been my hobby my whole life. It’s what I love to do.” That’s why we do this.
[Howard] We’ve talked in the past about wanting to write versus wanting to have written. For me, recently, I’ve been way behind on getting the comic out. Okay, so way behind for me means I’m only 10 days ahead. But I would look at the artwork that needed to be done and it felt like a chore, because at the end of it, I wanted to have drawn the comic. I have switched recently to using brush pens instead of technical pens. What I found is that that switch up meant that when I was sitting down at the table and not thinking about being done, just thinking about putting the line on the page, there was something about the tactile experience, about the visual experience of… One minute there’s no black there, and now there is, and it’s kind of magical. That is fun! And I enjoy that. With that being there, I can sit at the table for hours and just draw. And then the work gets done.

[Brandon] I think that that’s really important to say. We want to talk more about that. I think there are people out there who need to hear right now that it’s… Just go and write and love it, and don’t stress about becoming published. There are other people who are working so hard on this that they need reasons… Or not reasons, but they need ways so they can make sure they’re capturing the fun, and not turning this just into a chore. Discovering new brushes and new technique is one way to do that. With actual… With writing, I think that you can do this by experimenting.
[Dan] Absolutely. I talk about this a lot. Do… If you feel like you’re losing fun, try something new. Whether that is today I’m going to write a genre I’ve never written before, or I’ve always done third person so now I’m going to do first, or I’m going to write about a character, a side character in this story just for the heck of it. Or one thing all three of us have done, I know, is just outline something. Don’t even have to finish it and write it. Just outline a really cool idea that gets you excited.

[Brandon] Yeah. Speaking of which, I should talk about our book of the week, because there is a story… I habitually do this as a writer. I’ve found that the way to make sure that I’m always having fun is that I’m always free to jump and try something new. That I’m not locked into one world, one setting, or even one type of genre. One of the books that I did this with a few years back was called Legion. Well, the sequel Legion: Skin Deep which… These are very episodic, so you could start with this one. It’s about twice the length of the first one. It is free on audible right now. You can download it. It’s only free for three more days. Okay. So if you haven’t grabbed it, you need to grab it right now.
[Howard] It is… Christmas has already happened. I’m sorry you didn’t get your present.
[Brandon] But as a present, Legion: Skin Deep is 100% free in audiobook. It’s four hours long. You can just go sign up for an audible account. You don’t even have to pay them money or sign up for credits or anything. You can just download that book for free. Anyone who’s been listening to this podcast who has already signed up for audible to support us or to get books… Thank you very much. Here is your free present. Go download my new book for free. The story is about a guy who has a very weird psychological disorder in which he can become an expert in any topic very quickly but that information manifests itself as a hallucinatory person who appears to him and is his expert team. So in the first book he learns a new language and it manifests as a hallucination, a woman he can see who interprets that language for him. He has this whole… He has 40 something people who are each an expert in different fields. He solves problems by kind of wrangling all of his hallucinations together to point them in solving this difficult problem. He’s like an action hero, except he’s really a middle manager and all of his hallucinations are the real action stars.
[Brandon] Legion: Skin Deep. It is very fun. I would recommend it to you, but I’m a little biased, since I wrote it.

[Dan] Now, for a peek behind the scenes, I have to ask the self-serving question here. A lot of times when we do these really fun, I’m excited about this and I’m going to write it kind of projects, we’re inspired by another work. What inspired you to do Legion?
[Brandon] It was the John Cleaver books and your… You knew this, right? It was Dan’s weird take on psychological disorders, and… I think it was actually Hollow City. While you are doing Hollow City…
[Dan] It was Hollow City, which is my book about schizophrenia.
[Brandon] Yeah, your book about schizophrenia, because we were doing the workshop, the writing group on it. I remember exactly now. I’m like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if he were an action star?” You’re like, “What?” I’m like, “Yeah. These hallucinations, if they helped him out.” You’re like, “Yeah, whatever.” I’m like, “You should write this book.” So like a year afterward, I’m like, “Dan, you remember that cool book that we brainstormed that you should write?” And then finally, Dan said, “Brandon, write the book. I’m not going to write it, it’s your book.” So I sat down and the next month I wrote it. Had a blast, and it turned out really well.
[Howard] That was actually a great insight into properly managing critique during a writing group. Dan, write the book that you want to write. Let Brandon write that one that he’s telling you your book should be.
[Dan] It was really an awful writing group comment, of, “Hey, you should really make this into an action star.”
[Howard] Wow.
[Brandon] I did not say that about your book.
[Dan] No, you didn’t.
[Brandon] I said that there is another book out there that I think you could do some cool stuff with schizophrenia for. But it was the wrong way to make a comment.

[Howard] But talking about being inspired by something and talking about fun, I have been really enjoying Gearbox’s Borderlands 2, especially the downloadable content, Tiny Tina’s Dragon’s Keep. I think it is… Or Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon’s Keep… Some of the best videogame writing I’ve ever had the joy to play through. And it had… It inspired me to want to write stories in Gearbox’s universe. I’m never going to get paid to write stories in their universe.
[Howard] But I sat down and I outlined some fun stuff. It was fun to do. When I was done, I’d had fun and I’d gotten it out of my system and I didn’t make any money. But I had fun. That’s…
[Brandon] I do this all the time. Legion is an example of something that turned out very well that I released. I’ve… I have several of what we call trunk novels. These are books I’ve written and put aside because I wanted to explore a new genre. I think that a lot of newer writers have trouble writing things that they know aren’t going to be published. I was working on one of these books… I wrote a book called Death by Pizza. It is an urban fantasy.
[Howard] Oh, I remember that.
[Brandon] It’s not very good. As I was writing it, I knew it wasn’t very good. I have another one, it’s a screenplay that I wrote. Not very good. But I wrote it to learn things and to practice things. Then I put it aside and said, “I’m never going to publish this.” I do this all the time with my published novels. I will write the viewpoint of the character I’m not intending to put in the book. A behind-the-scenes for me to get to know that character better. And also kind of just to refresh myself. Sometimes I stick them in, sometimes I don’t.

[Dan] Yeah. You see this with so many other art forms where people will do a concept sketch or a style guide or something like that. You’ll see this for movies. We love looking at those. This is the design for the monster… All the designs for the Star Wars monsters that they didn’t end up using. Those are fun. You can do that as a writer, describing all these things or saying I’m just going to write this scene because it sounds exciting. You might never use that. You need, I think, to not enslave yourself to the idea that everything you write has to be important or publishable. Just write it because it’s fun, because it gets you excited and can help you write the real thing you’re working on.
[Howard] I got a couple of pages of campy film noir private investigator first-person stuff which I wrote just because I wanted to play with that POV. It is totally unusable.
[Howard] But everything I put on the page was me having fun, being over-the-top, clever but not clever. It’s a riot. No, you can’t have it.

[Brandon] So, those of you listening who were thinking the other way. You were not thinking like… You weren’t the one who was thinking, “Oh, I should be okay just doing this in hobby.” You’re like, “I wanna be hard-core.” I think what we need to give you as a present is it’s okay to break your deadlines now and then. Even as a professional writer, who has a decent reputation of keeping deadlines, once in a while I call my publishers and I say, “I need to write on something else.” Now, we’ve talked about on the podcast the importance of keeping deadlines, of meeting deadlines, of making deadlines for yourself, of setting goals. These are all very important. I don’t want to downplay the importance. As a pro or as a semi pro, it is important to keep your promises and things like this. But I’m giving you the permission right now, if you are worried about the fund leaving your writing, I’m giving you permission to break a deadline, to put a book aside, to go and write something just because it was fun. Because you need to remember how much you enjoy this, and what a blast it is to be a writer. If you ever lose that, it’s going to be very dangerous to the quality of your writing.
[Howard] Doomed! Doomed, I say… Oh, wait, we want them to be happy.
[Brandon] We want them to be happy.

[Dan] That could be a great writing prompt. Everyone listening to this, you’ve got that one thing that you really want to write that you haven’t let yourself write yet. Go write it right now.
[Brandon] I think that we can do that. We are out of time. So that’s your writing prompt. Write that thing. Write that thing, that idea you had that is just a goofy idea. Where you’re like, “Oh, I could never do that.” It’s time to write that thing. Make that your New Year’s promise to yourself that you’ll write that thing. Whatever it is. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.

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By 'nother Mike | November 19, 2014 - 6:55 pm - Posted in

Writing Excuses 9.47: Conversation with a Bookseller


Key points: Be aware of catalog and back cover copy. Get good cover art. Avoid the weird mashup descriptions for the cover copy (it might work for a pitch). Catalog and back cover copy need to say what the book is about, and give trigger warnings. Who can I hand this book to? Authors who come to stores should be ready to engage customers, but not push them. Booksellers and editors may not read the whole book, so make sure the beginning gives a clear idea of character and atmosphere (genre). Howard: make sure the first chapter tells the reader what they are being promised. Be aware that genre crossovers may only sell to the intersection, not the whole two bubbles. Sell the booksellers, and let them sell their customers.

[Mary] Season nine, episode 47.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, the bookseller perspective.
[Sara] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Sara] I’m Sara.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And Sara’s our special guest star. You heard her melodious voice earlier when she pitched a book to you on a previous cast and we enjoyed it so much we thought we really need to record a podcast with a bookseller talking about a bookseller’s perspective. So we’re going to be throwing a lot of questions at Sara. I hope you’re ready for this.
[Sara] I love questions.
[Dan] Sara? I was going to say, start by telling us about your bookstore.
[Sara] I work at the Little Professor in Homewood, Alabama. It’s a small independent bookstore. We are Birmingham’s oldest independent bookstore. We opened in 1973.
[Brandon] Excellent.
[Sara] I wasn’t there. I’m much younger than that.
[Brandon] I think only Howard was alive in 73.
[Howard] I was five. Thank you for that.
[Howard] I remember Birmingham well.

[Brandon] So. This is a podcast for writers. So what I want to ask is we’ve got our listeners here. They may be considering self-publishing or they might be going… We might have book packagers listening or editors. Can you tell them, from a bookseller’s perspective, what makes you pick up a book?
[Sara] Well, usually I’m reading catalog copy, so it’s your marketing department or your publicist. Whoever does the catalog back cover copy.
[Brandon] Okay. You know catalog copy is different from back cover copy. For those who are listening. If you aren’t aware. Catalog copy tends to be more spoileriffic in order to give the bookseller a better feel for what this book is going to be. Whereas the back cover copy’s job is to be… Not to be as spoilery, to be a… Get someone to read the book, whereas the bookseller’s is to get someone to sell the book.
[Howard] Yeah. The back cover copy versus the catalog copy I’ve seen… In many cases, the catalog copy is like back cover copy plus. So that the bookseller can see hey, this is what’s going to be on the back of the book that we want you to sell, and this is what’s going to be inside it to you know what people are picking up.

[Sara] Right. After that, it’s packaging. If you are self-publishing, get good cover art. That does make a difference.
[Brandon] Do you notice the difference between when you have good cover art and a well-designed cover concept or is it really just the art that pops out at you?
[Sara] It’s definitely both, but it seems like the art is more important. I will sit there and stare at a book for days on end, so design does matter to me. A customer is going to… When I’m trying to hand them something, is going to look at it and go, “That just looks icky.”

[Brandon] Right, right. So, catalog copy. Do you have any recommendations on writing catalog copy or back cover copy? What really works for you?
[Sara] Please don’t try to do the weird mashup. Because if you tell me it’s a Game of Thrones for middle grade readers…
[Brandon] Right, right.
[Sara] That doesn’t…
[Dan] That’s our writing prompt.
[Howard] The Red Kindergarten.
[Howard] Okay, we’re done. Okay, let me say this about back cover copy and about the mashup specifically. That works great in a Hollywood pitch session when you are talking to a producer level person who wants a quick picture of what they’re going to be spending money on. When you say, however, this is like Star Wars meets The Hunger Games, you’re making a promise to a reader that you are just not going to be able to fulfill.
[Sara] Yes. And… I mean I as a bookseller who have read a book may use that pitching it to a customer because I can then keep talking. But it’s usually just the most generic thing combined with whatever has sold the most. So everything is The Hunger Games plus something right now in YA. Even if they have nothing to do with each other.
[Brandon] As an aside, when I asked my agent to give me some advice on query letters for my students… I was going to go teach a class on it. The number one thing he said was don’t make it sound like a Hollywood pitch. That will turn… In his opinion, it turns him and editors off, because they want to know what the story actually is. They don’t want to be wowed and dazzled by fireworks.
[Sara] I think it can work with customers. I can make a Hollywood pitch and…
[Brandon] To them.
[Sara] Sell it to a customer. But editors, agents, booksellers… We see literally hundreds of these every day in our catalogs or in query letters and we’re tired of them.
[Brandon] Okay. So it’s…

[Howard] You know what the difference for me… I do a lot of selling at conventions. I will never tell anybody that Schlock Mercenary… It’s like Bloom County meets Babylon 5. I would never say that. Okay?
[Dan] I want to read that now.
[Howard] Because coming from me behind the counter, it sounds like I have a really, really inflated opinion of my literary important. But if, on the other side of the table, another fan is standing there while I say, “Epic space opera, four panels at a time,” and the other person says, “Oh, man, I love this. It’s like Bloom County meets Babylon 5,” that carries some authority. So you, as a bookseller, you can say things that the back cover copy, that the author can’t.

[Dan] Now, it seems, Sara, like what you’re saying is that the purpose of the catalog copy and the back cover copy is to tell you what you need to know in order to sell it to a customer.
[Sara] Exactly.
[Dan] So what kinds of things do you like to see on there?
[Sara] I need to know, well, honestly, what your book is about. To a certain extent, I need trigger warnings.
[Brandon] Okay. Yeah.
[Sara] That’s not…
[Howard] When you say about, that’s not this is a science fiction adventure. You need to say this is about… This is a coming-of-age story with triggers for violence and…
[Sara] Right. I need to be able to drill down to who are the people I can hand this to. Because if I hand a book with let’s say a child death in it to a customer who can’t cope with that, I have violated their trust. They will not want to come back to me for a book recommendation.
[Brandon] Interesting. I haven’t seen anything that extensive in catalog copy. It seems like it should be.
[Sara] There isn’t yet. There is a movement to request it.
[Brandon] Yeah. That’s a really good idea. That could be very useful.
[Sara] I do have people where I say, “You’ll love this book. Skip chapter 10.”

[Brandon] I’ve had books that I know about… I’m not going to mention them by name, but… Yeah, I know that completely. We’ll come back to that concept, but there’s another concept that I want to make sure that we hit with you, which is author interaction. Do you have authors come into your bookstore?
[Sara] We do. We’ve actually had Dan come to our bookstore.
[Dan] I was about to ask, who is your favorite one who’s come in?
[Sara] Oh, this is…
[Dan] As a leading question.
[Howard] And is the building still standing?
[Sara] I also have had Mary come to the bookstore.
[Dan] Give us your favorite who is here right now.
[Brandon] Give us your favorite male podcaster on Writing Excuses…
[Howard] Who is on the couch with you…
[Brandon] [inaudible… Who has come to the store]
[Sara] Oh, I will.
[Dan] Hey!
[Sara] Mary was my favorite author that I had… Threw a tea for.

[Brandon] So. Author interactions. Things you’ve noticed that authors do with booksellers that works or things that doesn’t work, that you’re like, “Oo, I really need to tell authors don’t do this anymore.”
[Dan] Either interactions with a bookseller or just with a customer.
[Brandon] Either one. Yeah.
[Sara] We… Because our store is small, we do have a lot of self published authors that come in. It’s a very different interaction. There’s not generally name recognition there. We’ve found that for self published authors, being willing to engage the customers… “Hi. Would you like to take a look at my book?” Or “How are you doing today?” Is great, but don’t… “Do you want to buy my book? It would be really great if you bought my… It’s a great, really great story.” That puts them off.
[Brandon] Too used-car salesmany? Is…
[Sara] Yes. When it comes to slightly more known authors, we really haven’t had very many bad experiences. We know you’re on book tour, we know you’re probably really tired. If there’s anything we can get for you to make your signing easier, let us know that. Let us know that as far in advance as possible. If it’s the moment you walk in the door and you really need a coffee, that’s fine. But don’t…
[Brandon] But do you really need only brown M&Ms? Then…
[Sara] We’re going to need some notice. We’ll take care of it, but we’re going to need some notice.
[Howard] It sounds like 20 minutes. But if I really need…
[Dan] Well, from my side… she had a carrot cake…
[Howard] 4 pounds of sashimi grade tuna…
[Dan] It was awesome.
[Sara] Yes, I did have a carrot cake for Dan’s signing.

[Brandon] All right. Let’s go ahead and do our book of the week. Since you are a bookseller and so good at this, we’re going to ask you to pitch a book for us.
[Sara] The book I would like to pitch is The Rook by Daniel O’Malley. It’s narrated by Susan Duerden. The easiest way to explain this book is to tell you how it starts. Myfanwy Thomas wakes up in a park surrounded by corpses. She has no memory. The only thing she knows is there is a note in her pocket that says, “Your name is Myfanwy Thomas. You’re in what used to be my body.”
[Oh! That’s awesome. Neat.]
[Brandon] That happens to me every day.
[Sara] She finds out that she works, or the body she is in the works for a comp… Or an organization called the Checquy which protects England from supernatural threats. She has two options. She can take box A, get a new identity and try to hide from them, or she can go to work Monday morning.
[Brandon] Excellent.
[Wow. What a great pitch!]
[Howard] Okay. I’m on board., start a 30-day free trial membership, pick up The Rook by Daniel O’Malley, narrated by Susan Duerden, and wake up in somebody else’s body.

[Brandon] Fantastic. All right. So let’s talk a little bit more, a bookseller’s perspective on page 1. What are you looking for on page 1? I assume, a lot of booksellers I’ve talked to and editors, they don’t have time to read the whole book.
[Sara] Yes.
[Brandon] They’ll read a couple of chapters to get a real feel for the book, and if they get excited about it, they can still sell it and know about it. They get really excited, they’ll probably finish it, but they may not have time. So what can an author do in those opening pages and opening chapters from your perspective?
[Sara] I would like a clear idea of the character.
[Brandon] All right.
[Sara] I need that person to stand out. I need this to be somebody I want to spend time with. I also want to know generally… It’s very similar to back cover copy or catalog copy, I want to know where we’re going. Are we on an adventure? Are we in a dark creepy psychological mystery that I don’t want to read before bed? I need atmosphere and I need character, generally. Those are the two most important things.
[Brandon] Okay. I talk about that a lot, so it looks like we’re on track.
[Laughter – inaudible]
[Howard] Well, I’m a big fan of your first chapter being something where the reader can identify the things that they are being promised. Whether or not you’re going to fulfill those promises in the way they expect is up to you as an author, but the reader develops expectations. My least favorite books are the ones where I read the first chapter and when I’m done, I really have no idea what might be coming.
[Dan] Well, we talk a lot on the podcast about how you need to be careful with a twist so big it changes the genre part way through, or subverts something everyone was looking forward to. This is one of the reasons that we haven’t really discussed. A bookseller going around pitching a science fiction to everybody and then doesn’t know that in chapter 10, it actually turns into an epic fantasy…
[Howard] Urban fantasy.

[Brandon] So step me through the process behind making a bestseller at your store. Because I’ve talked to a lot of booksellers, and it’s very interesting to me that a store can sometimes sell 300 copies of the book that no one else in the country is selling that number of. What makes that happen? Can you break it down, an anatomy of it?
[Sara] Make us like your book. I mean, that’s what it comes down to.
[Brandon] But are there certain ones that you like and are easier to sell and that people come back and say I loved this book and tell their friends, and are there other books that sometimes you have trouble selling even though you love it?
[Sara] We… Yes. There is a book that I adore. But it’s a hard pitch because you have to be a particular type of fan to read it. It’s Low Town by Daniel Polansky. It’s a noir murder mystery in a secondary world fantasy.
[Brandon] Right. Right.
[Sara] I can’t sell it to all my mystery fans, I can’t sell it to all my fantasy fans.
[Howard] That’s kind of a high concept conceit.
[Sara] But when I hit, they love it.
[Brandon] John Hemry had trouble with this. He’s since republished as Jack Campbell his early books. I think we’ve talked about them before, were JAG which is like the military police…
[Howard] Judge Advocate General.
[Brandon] The military… Not police, but lawyers prosecuting milit… Prosecuting crimes in space. So they were space opera JAG. He said he thought, “This is going to be great. I’m going to grab all the people who love JAG and all the people who love science fiction.” It turns out the booksellers could only sell it to the people who liked attorney fiction and science fiction. It’s really weird.

[Dan] When you do those genre crossovers, which I have done some of, you have to remember how Venn diagrams work. You’re not getting two full bubbles worth of people, you’re getting this sliver where they intersect.
[Brandon] But see, once in a while you do. It’s still kind of hard for my brain to grasp. It might be when the genres aren’t so narrow. But this is part of the reason that YA explodes so large sometimes, is because you can grab the adults who will read kids’ books and the kids who read kids’ books.
[Dan] You look at the ones that have really succeeded… All of the Harry Potter plots were mystery plots, and yet it was never marketed as here’s a great mystery for kids.
[Brandon] Yeah. It might be a marketing problem, or it might be that the genres are just too narrow sometimes.
[Howard] Because Harry Potter has a marketing problem?
[Brandon] No, no, no.
[Howard] I know.
[Brandon] That’s why Harry Potter succeeded and JAG didn’t.
[Sara] Marketing makes a big difference. How much you trust your bookseller… I can get people to read books that they say, “I don’t know, but I loved the last five things you gave me.” So…
[Brandon] This is one of the reasons…
[Howard] So what I need to be able to do is find 1000 booksellers like you, who have trusted customers, and then write a book that all 1000 of you are just going to love?
[Sara] Yes. That is exactly what you need to do.
[Howard] What’s the formula for that?
[Dan] That’s what I did, and it works pretty well.

[Brandon] Sara, this has been awesome. Having you on the podcast. This is a really fresh perspective for us. In a lot of ways, I think it’s important for our listeners to remember, sometimes you are not selling your book to a customer, you are selling your book to a bookseller. That’s your job. Their job is then to sell it to the customers. That’s why we love having great booksellers, particularly independent bookstores. You find this happening more often at these bookstores than you do sometimes at some of the larger stores where the staff changeovers so frequently… Is frequent. So we love you coming on the podcast. We love you selling books.
[Sara] Thank you.
[Brandon] We really appreciate you.
[Howard] Final plug for your store?
[Sara] Little Professor in Homewood, Alabama.

[Brandon] And would you give us a writing prompt?
[Sara] I will. I actually got some homework from Mary in a writing retreat that we did. Get three of your friends to send you one photograph of a random object. Anything they want. You have to use all three objects in the first 13 lines of your story.
[Brandon] That is awesome. I guess we can thank Mary who is not here, she’s at a wedding. But we wanted to make sure that we got Sara on the podcast before the Writing Excuses retreat ended.
[Whoo! Cheers.]
[Brandon] We’re not sure when this one will air, but it is the last episode we’re doing at the retreat, so hopefully you all listening will be able to come to our next retreat, and you can be the applause in the background. A thank you again to Sara, and to you listeners… You are out of excuses, now go write.

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By 'nother Mike | October 21, 2014 - 8:41 pm - Posted in

Writing Excuses 9.43: Writing Mysteries


Key Points: What’s the difference between mystery and thriller? Tone. Thriller is a subgenre of mystery, like a cozy. Two labels, exciting or cerebral. Pacing and revelation of clues. Thriller, the audience is one step ahead of the hero, knowing something is about to go wrong, while mystery, the audience is one step behind, wondering what will happen hext. The thriller often involves jeopardy of the hero. Does a mystery have to have a dead body, murder, in the beginning? Not always, sometimes you start with a smaller mystery. Other subgenres within mystery? Closed room mysteries, fair play mystery ( Mystery always involves a puzzle, and the differences in subgenres often reflect how the puzzle is presented. Mystery often plays with structure. You can’t remove the impossible from a supernatural mystery. YA needs a strong character arc, but mystery often resets the main character in each book.

[Unfortunately, between the echoing and the similarity in voices, there is a good chance that I may have misidentified one or more segments of this transcript. My apologies to Mette Ivie Harrison, J. R. Johannson, and Mary Robinette Kowal if I have given your words to someone else.]

[Mary] Season nine, episode 43.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, writing mysteries with Mette Ivie Harrison and J. R. Johannson.
[Mary] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Brandon] And we have two guest stars this time. We have Mette Ivie Harrison, who’s been on the cast many times. Say hi.
[Mette] Hello!
[Brandon] And we have J. R. Johannson joining us for the first time.
[Jenn] Hi.
[Brandon] So tell us what you guys write to give us a big… A quick recap of what you’ve been doing.
[Mette] I write mostly young adult fantasy romance, but I have a new adult mystery coming out end of December called The Bishop’s Wife.
[Brandon] Okay. And J. R. Johannson… Can I just call you Jenn?
[Jenn] You can.
[Brandon] I’m going to call you Jenn.
[Dan] You can call me Jenn. I write young adult thrillers. I have… My debut came out last year. It’s called Insomnia. My sequel just came out in June. It’s called Paranoia. I have a standalone thriller with McMillan coming out in June called Cut Me… Or it’s like January, called Cut Me Free.

[Brandon] All right. I’m going to start with this question. What is the difference between a mystery and a thriller? Because thrillers usually have a strong mystery component, and I never heard the term thriller when I was growing up. But suddenly it was the thing. It feels like it came out of mysteries, maybe? I don’t know.
[Mary] The way I’ve heard it described… Do you want to go first?
[Dan] Okay. My answer’s going to be different than your’s, though. Which is that I don’t think there is a substantive difference between a mystery and a thriller. I think there might be a difference in tone. You’re certainly not going to call like a cozy cottage mystery a thriller. But they’re shelved in the same part of almost every bookstore I’ve ever been in. They tend to be grouped together in online places. They appeal to the same audiences. They go to the same conventions. It’s just two labels, one of which sounds exciting and one of which sound cerebral, but they’re the same genre to me.
[Brandon] So do you think what happened is that mystery became associated with the kind of cozy, which is the subset of mystery… They call them cozies because you what, curl up by the fire and you read this mystery about a detective who’s… Because it became associated with the Agatha Christie style of mystery, that everyone thought that was a mystery?
[Dan] Exactly. Mystery kind of became associated with the Masterpiece Theatre kind of… BBC, Hercule Poirot kind of stuff.
[Mary] What I was told was that it had a lot to do with pacing and revelation of clues. In a thriller, you build suspense by letting the audience be one step ahead, just a fraction of a moment ahead of your hero, so that they know something is about to go wrong, and that a mystery is based on wondering what is going to happen next. So your audience needs to be a fraction of a step behind your hero.
[Dan] Well, okay, if you’re going to give us a brilliant answer, fine.
[Brandon] Jenn. You write these. What do you… How do you define a thriller for yourself?
[Jenn] I think I would agree with Mary. I think it has more to do with pacing and the tension, where you reveal things to your audience. Exactly like that.

[Brandon] Okay. Now… Often for mysteries, from my external perspective… I’ve read a few of them. I haven’t ever written an actual mystery that would be shelved there. A murder at the beginning is often a classic mystery start. What percentage… Or is this something you need to do for the mystery genre? Does a cozy have to have a murder at the beginning? How does this work?
[Mette] I had a long conversation with my editor about this precisely because she says that too many authors feel obliged to basically have a dead body, if not on the first page, then at least in the first chapter. If you’re writing a certain kind of mystery, that works. But if you want to do a lot of world building, which is something that mystery has in common with fantasy and science fiction, that world building takes time and so sometimes it’s useful to have a smaller mystery that’s not the murder. Which also often happens in fantasy, that you have like a smaller problem that is solved and allows your hero to build character.
[Brandon] It’s Jabba the Hutt’s palace, right?
[Mette] Yes. So in fact, in my book The Bishop’s Wife, there’s a disappearance first and people suspect it’s going to turn into a murder, but there’s no dead body until about three quarters of the way through the novel.
[Brandon] Okay. But the dead body is pretty important to the genre, then?

[Mette] Yes. Definitely. I think… I was going to say I think one of the differences between mystery and thriller is that thriller often involves the jeopardy of the detective. That’s one of the differences between cozies… In particular, cozies, you have a character, like the Agatha Christie characters, who are nosing around and figuring things out but they’re not necessarily in jeopardy. Especially not through the whole book.
[Brandon] That’s a great definition.
[Mette] That’s the thing about pacing… That’s part of the pacing issue is that you have a character who is just looking around in normal… In the normal world, but isn’t necessarily a spy or somebody who is constantly in danger.
[Brandon] Right. So if we look at the archetype of… One of the biggest thrillers recently is The Da Vinci Code, right? Da Vinci Code starts with a dead body, an investigator is brought in, and within like the first few scenes of being there to investigate the murder, someone starts trying to kill him and he has to go on the run from murderers, where he finds out he’s wrapped up in this whole thing. That’s kind of the quintessential thriller archetype. Then the mystery, the cozy, is the there’s been a baffling mystery and Hercule Poirot is called in to figure it out because no one else is smart enough to figure out who caused this… Who killed this person. Are there other genres… Sub genres within the mystery genre?

[Mette] There’s one called, I think, a closed room mystery, which is the story where you can’t figure out how somebody got in the room to do the murder. There’s another one where… I’m trying to remember the specific term for it, but it’s a mystery in which all of the clues that you would need to solve the crime are revealed on the page, rather than… Sometimes you will have a mystery where the detectives are either holding back information or doesn’t in fact have the information until the climactic moment. That’s different than a mystery where the audience is invited to participate in trying to solve the crime. Then you have an obligation as a writer to make sure that you give all of the information to the reader even… You can try to make it tricky for them to figure out what matters and what doesn’t, but… It’s… I think it may be called fair play, where you have to make sure that the audience has the information.
[Brandon] Great. So, the puzzle aspect is a very big deal. The idea that this is… In a mystery book, you’re presenting a puzzle to the reader to one extent or another. The fun of reading the book is figuring out how the puzzle comes together. Perhaps, kind of the definition between the different sub genres of the mystery genre is how is that puzzle presented. Like, as we said, with the thriller, the puzzle is this mortal danger element is keeping us kind of focused on that, snap, snap, snap, snap. Where the cozy, it’s here’s this mystery. Can you figure it out? Our detective is smart enough to have figured it out on page 1 sometimes, in some of these. Can you figure it out?

[Dan] I think it’s interesting to look at stuff like the modern Sherlock Holmes. Both series, BBC and America’s, which have kind of taken this classic mystery character and put him into much more thriller-oriented stories. Sherlock Holmes as modernly portrayed even in the movies is in constant danger. And there’s all of these other things. So I wonder if that’s just a sign that tastes are different or that studios assume tastes are different. In books, mysteries are still going strong.
[Brandon] In the original Sherlock Holmes, I will say, he was in danger a surprising amount of the time for the era that he was written. It’s not always, but once in a while, he’ll say, “You’d better bring your trusty gun along, Watson, because this one’s…” So even then, there was tension at the end for Sherlock Holmes a lot of the time.
[Dan] That’s true.
[Brandon] But the difference, I think, in a thriller is the sort of page probably three, you’re going to have your protagonist in danger.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Our book of the week, Mette’s going to tell us about The Ghosts of Belfast.
[Mette] The Ghosts of Belfast is right in between thriller and mystery. It’s by Stuart Neville, who is an Irish author. It’s an interesting story. It’s told from one character’s point of view, and he’s not the detective. He’s really the villain of the story, and you find out gradually, it’s unfolded, what he intends to do. It begins with something like number 12, that’s the chapter heading. It goes down from there and you realize they’re counting down the number of people he intends to kill.
[Brandon] Oh, wow.
[Mette] So, you see it from his perspective, but it also is a fascinating story about Ireland and what the legacy is after we have peace. What do you do with people who were involved in the wars beforehand? This is somebody who is taking revenge for things that have happened 20 or 30 years ago. So you get to find out… Again, this is… lots of world building is going on in this mystery. That’s one of the things I find most interesting about mystery, is being set in a world that’s not mine.
[Brandon] Wonderful. Well, you can try The Ghosts of Belfast, download it for free on audible, try a 30-day free trial by going to

[Brandon] This is actually an excellent segue into my next question, because my experience with mysteries and I’m… I’ve very much enjoyed the various different ones I’ve read, seems like the structure of the book is fundamental in creating a mystery. Whereas sometimes like a fantasy, the structure doesn’t need to be… Need to be quite in the forefront, as it does here where you’re talking about this thing, where it’s like the countdown. Or the structure of, for instance, I was thinking of… There are some mysteries where on page 1, they reveal how the criminal did it, and the rest of the book is the detective and the criminal playing cat-and-mouse as the detective tries to figure out what you already know. That’s a fascinating structure for a story. It seems like the mysteries often play with structure. Have you noticed any of this? Have you tried this with your books?
[Mette] I love to play with structure. I think mystery, like any genre, has rules and the funnest writers are the ones who like to break the rules. Like, I have a bet with myself about how late I can like have the dead body show up in each of the books in my series.
[Brandon] That’s clever.
[Mette] Because I feel like readers expect a dead body, and I think it’s interesting… It’s an interesting challenge as a writer to get readers to keep turning pages, like in a book that supposedly a mystery, and still not have a dead body. I hope in their heads, they’re saying, “Wow, this is such an interesting mystery, but there’s still no dead body. When is the dead body going to come?” Eventually, I’m going to write one where the dead body’s on the last page.

[Mary] How do you handle it, Jenn?
[Jenn] I think, as with anything with writing, you have to know the rules and then break them. I think structure, as far as mystery, it is as important as any other genre. I think where the dead body is… Like with Insomnia, there is a dead body in the first chapter, but it’s in a dream, so it’s kind of a… It’s a memory, and he’s witnessing somebody else’s memory of killing someone. So we know someone killed someone, and there is really nothing he can do about it. It really doesn’t play into the plot a whole lot other than that. So it’s just kind of more revelatory of his situation than anything else. So there’s a lot of different ways that you can play with it. To use the dead body in different ways, to reveal different mysteries than what you might normally expect a dead body to reveal. That’s a different path than you might normally expect your main character to be on.

[Dan] Okay. So, Jenn. I’m really excited to have you on this podcast, because I have read your book and loved it. You, like me, write supernatural mysteries, which changes things. The classic Sherlock Holmes line, once you’ve removed the impossible, anything left, however improbable, must be the truth… You can’t remove the impossible.
[Dan] I mean, it’s supernatural mystery. So how did you go about dealing with that problem in your story?
[Jenn] It was a really interesting problem in my story, because in Insomnia, he sees the last… The dreams of the last person he made eye contact with before he goes to sleep. So he’s dying of sleep deprivation. There is a situation in which he’s losing time, and he’s not entirely sure if he is the person who is stalking this girl and he’s… It really comes to the point where he’s eliminated almost everyone else, and he pretty much has to decide that it must be him. That’s a kind of difficult conclusion for your main character…
[Brandon] Wow. That’s a fascinating way to do it. Really interesting.
[Jenn] It’s a hard thing for your main character to come to come and still make your audience like the character. Because they don’t want him to be the bad guy. But at the same time, like… Logically, it’s the only conclusion he can come to at that point, so…
[Mette] That’s really playing with the structure of mystery also, where you’re toying with here’s my detective, my hero character, and then also my hero character turns into the villain. I think that’s a really fun thing to play with.
[Jenn] It is. It is.

[Mary] One other thing that occurs to me is that you’re also writing YA and not always, but frequently, mysteries don’t have a strong character arc. Often, in a long-running mystery series, the main character resets back to zero. But in YA, you always have a strong character arc. That’s frequently what is driving the book. So I’m wondering, how you were playing with blending those two things? Mette, I think you do that as well in yours. So I’d love to hear how you both play with that sort of…
[Mette] I think character arc is one of the… Not only the most crucial parts in a YA book, but it’s also one of the funnest for me personally to develop. For this character, he is such a… He’s an antihero in a lot of ways, and he has such a kind of downward spiral in a lot of ways in this book that it’s really important that we’re in his head. There is no other scenario in which this would work. He has a lot of the typical ways that you would make your character… Audience relate to your character. He has the best friend that the audience’s always love and that absolutely loves him, and sees the best in him. It’s really important with the character arc. It changes… It’s a series, so it changes… Every book, he has a different story and he evolves in a different way through his character. So he doesn’t reset to zero like you normally would in a mystery. Just kind of evolves in a different way through the series. So it does kind of change because it’s a YA, but I think that is a common thing with mysteries, that they kind of start over.

[Brandon] Now, we’re running out of time. I want to give you each a chance to pitch the book that you have. When it comes out, if it’s out, and that sort of thing. Will go ahead and start with you, Jenn. What should they buy, when should they buy it?
[Jenn] Okay. I’ll pitch the next book I have coming out. It’s called Cut Me Free and it comes out in January. January 27, 2015. It is my first contemporary urban thriller, set in Philadelphia. It’s about a girl who grows up in an abusive household and she escapes when her parents kill her little brother. She’s starting over in a new city with a new identity, and she starts receiving packages that have her old name on them and has to figure out who has followed her and who knows about her past.
[Brandon] Cool. Mette?
[Mette] Okay. The Bishop’s Wife is about a Mormon Bishop’s wife, sort of an ordinary woman. All of her children have grown up, and she has time on her hands. So when a young woman in her ward disappears under mysterious circumstances, sort of in the middle of the night in December, she ends up deciding that the husband, this young woman’s husband, has killed her. She’s determined to investigate. So she brings cinnamon rolls and brownies over to the husband’s house, offers to babysit his daughter, and then while he’s gone, she rummages through their entire house to find out clues about where this woman is. It’s loosely inspired by the Josh and Susan Powell story. If you’re in Utah and were around during that, this came out of some of the questions I asked in my head about ways in which our community helps conspire to protect people, and maybe should be exposing them more.

[Brandon] There we are. Well, I have our writing prompt. Our writing prompt is for you to solve a mystery. Where is Howard? Howard is not on this podcast. Why, where, what happened to Howard? Write that story. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.

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By 'nother Mike | October 7, 2014 - 8:20 pm - Posted in

Writing Excuses 9.41: Fan Writing, with Christopher J. Garcia


Key points: Fan writing is writing that you do because you love writing. Creators need to make their own decision as to where their writing falls. Fanzines came out of sports fandom, baseball, boxers, and wrestlers. What kind of writing? Sercon (serious-constructive), talking about fandom, talking about science fiction, fannish fanfiction about fandom, and fanfiction itself, of course. Also poetry! To do fan fiction? Start writing! Answer three questions: Do I have something to say? What do I want to say? How do I want to say it? “Fan writing is basically geeking on paper.”

[Mary] Season nine, episode 41.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, fan writing.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard. Oh, whoops.
[Dan] Wait, which is which, I can’t tell anymore.
[Mary] I’m so [dismayed?]
[Brandon] We have special guest scar… Star, Chris Garcia.
[Chris] Hi, everybody.
[Brandon] Chris is a Hugo award-winning…
[Chris] I will never get tired of hearing that.
[Brandon] And also Hugo nominated for his acceptance speech, which is one of the most meta-things in the history of the Hugos.

[Brandon] We’re going to talk about fan writing. What is fan writing? I think a lot of people get confused when they look at the Hugos and there’s a separate category for fan writer versus the fiction writing and things like this.
[Chris] Well, it’s interesting. Fan writing is… it’s most broad definition is very simple. It’s any writing that don’t pay your rent.
[Chris] I have not paid rent to prove that. It really comes down to this. Fan writing has… There are lots of very fine definitions people try to give it. Fan writing is writing about fandom. Writing about a particular type of thing, like people who write about Wheel of Time or this and that… That’s considered fan writing. But really, fan writing is just writing that you do because you love writing. Like all the writing everyone on this panel is going to do for the Drink Tank Issue 400 at the end of the year…
[Chris] Right there, I have an oral contract. Beautifully done, Chris.
[Howard] Isaac, stop the tape.
[Dan] Great, delete it.
[Chris] But, yeah, fan writing is really… It’s been… Fan writing is as old as writing. It’s arguable that fan writing was first and professional writing was second. I’ll stick to that, because it gives me a sense of purpose.
[Mary] So, does…
[Brandon] Well, I would assume that somebody wrote something long before somebody got paid for writing something. So, yes, that’s got to be the case.
[Howard] I wrote thing. You stop writing thing, go hunt.
[Howard] I’m pretty sure that was the publisher’s conversation with the author.
[Mary] So does fan writing…
[Dan] I’d love to see the royalty conversation.
[Mary] Get 15%
[Howard] What is hoof? Me want meat.
[Dan] Me want hoof and ankle.
[Mary] You said 15%. You didn’t say which.
[Dan] You eat antlers this winter.
[Mary] [inaudible]
[Mary] Sorry.

[Dan] Chris, would you like to say something?
[Howard] You’re absolutely right. I think fan writing came first. One of the places where I get confused is when somebody like John Scalzi or Jim Hines who… I mean, they both won best fan writer Hugo awards, but they are professional authors. Where is that line… How does that…
[Chris] Well, that’s actually an interesting question. As a guy who lost to both of those dudes, it was a vast injustice.
[Chris] But what it comes down to is that they both do a significant amount of writing that is not paid for, for their blogs. Occasionally they’ll send things out to other folks. I’ve had both Jim and John write for me, for example. That… And I’ve had many people on this panel. Mary, I remember, is one… One of the numbers. Will actually… That will actually qualify as fan writing. It does become sort of tricky when you look at the argument that if you’re… If Neil Gaiman writes for a fanzine, is he eligible to be a fan writer? The argument is, well, of course he is, but he probably shouldn’t be. It sort of comes down to the idea that the actual creator should judge where they’re best placed.
[Brandon] We run into this with our podcast, in a similar thing. Where does Writing Excuses, the podcast, belong, because there is a fancast category and we are not in it.
[Howard] Now that we have the anthology out, we should qualify for best novel.
[Howard] Because it’s all one big volume. I’m just screwing with it.
[Mary] But… But… I ran into that with Lady Astronaut of Mars last year, where it was… It was moved out of the category I thought it should be in. Because I thought it was a novelette, but they thought it was a dramatic presentation because it was an audio. But the point being, with the category that the person winds up in… For me, some of it is that the Hugos are by and for the fans. Professional writers, professional editors… There are other categories that we can win. The fan writer category, for me, is one that… There is… That’s for people who are not eligible in other categories. That’s part of it, for me, is that I feel like it… Even though I… I feel it would be inappropriate for me. Like I won’t enter a masquerade.
[Chris] Oh, really?
[Mary] No. Because there are other awards I can win. For a lot of the people who are going into a masquerade, that is the award they can win, and it feels inappropriate for me.
[Howard] Phil Foglio won Hugo awards two years running, I think, for best fan artist back in 78, 79 or 79 and 80. He got nominated a 3rd year, and at that point, he had started submitting covers for the Robert Asprin series. He told the committee, “No. I don’t want to be in this category anymore. I want to do this for a living.”
[Mary] Now, saying that I think it’s inappropriate… Inappropriate for me. This is again… The creators…
[Howard] I’m saying Phil felt the same way.
[Mary] Creators should make their own call on whether or not…
[Chris] Their own determination.
[Mary] Like I think that Jim absolutely feels… And was appropriately in the fan writer category. But I think it varies from person to person. Which is what makes it so sticky.

[Brandon] Let’s spend a little bit less time on categories. Let’s talk about actually doing the writing and making a fanzine and kind of the… Let’s talk about just putting together a fanzine. And the history of fanzines. This is really interesting to me. What is a fanzine, where did they come from, and how do you put one together?
[Chris] Well, it’s real easy. Fanzines came from… Actually, and this is sort of the weirdest thing, is that I’ve done a lot of research into… Fanzines came out of the sports fandom tradition.
[Chorus: Really?]
[Chris] There were fanzines in the late 1800s for the various booster groups doing like… The New York Giants, all those sort of baseball teams and, oddly enough, boxers and wrestlers. I got really lucky that I got to find a… There was a classic wrestler named William Muldoon who eventually became the head of the New York Athletic Commission. He had a huge fan club, several thousand people around the world. This was in the 1890s. So, there was a fanzine that was called Muldoon’s Strongmen. It had all of this wonderful stuff. It was incredible. Out of that came other fanzines in other areas. We started seeing the first sort of fanzines actually came out of Lovecraft fandom. They were doing fanzine-like things. Then the real sort of kickoff of science fiction fandom… zines was a thing called Comet from one of the major fan groups in the early 30s. From there, once you had cheap mimeograph and cheap reproducing… Bam! Thousands of fanzines around the world. At one point, there were 1800 different titles being published in the US alone.
[Brandon] So let’s distinguish…
[Howard] Historically, you’ve just told us that jocks built the thing nerds love.
[Chris] Yes. It is rather shocking. It is… This is the weird thing. I really want to write a book someday about the crossover between wrestling fandom and science fiction.
[Brandon] That would be beautiful.
[Chris] I had a wonderful panel once with me and Dick [Lepouve?] We were talking about 1980s wrassling. It was awesome. He never wrote that article for me.
[Brandon] So, let me distinguish here. From my understanding, these are including both nonfiction and fiction pieces.
[Chris] Usually, yeah. They tend towards nonfiction, particularly nowadays because there’s so many outlets for fiction. There was sort of a… There’s sort of a distinction between a thing called sercon, which is serious constructive, talking about fandom, talking about science fiction, and sort of they call it fannish, which is more things like fanfiction which was… Fiction about fandom, not fanfiction taking other characters. But that also sort of folded into each other. So nowadays, you sort of see a lot of blending of those two. There’s also a lot of… Something that gets really overlooked, there was a lot of poetry being published. Oddly enough, the dude whose name I will never remember for the life of me, but it’s a writer, actually published a lot of poetry in this fanzine called Granfalloon.

[Brandon] All right. We are actually going to stop for our book of the week. We’re going to let Mary tell us our book of the week.
[Mary] That’s right. The book of the week I’m going to recommend… I’ve talked about this series before. The latest is, and the final in the series, is Dreams of Gods and Monsters, by Laini Taylor. This is a wonderful series that is both urban fantasy and epic fantasy. It’s about a parallel world to Earth where there are angels and demons. It’s wonderful, it’s dealing with political issues, it’s dealing with prejudice and wars and gorgeously written. The narration by Khristine Hvam is so good. This book makes me weep. I normally take a break every two hours when I’m doing a long drive. I was driving and realized I’d been in the car for five hours and that I needed to get gas and couldn’t feel my legs.
[Mary] So it’s a really good book. I highly recommend it.
[Howard] Start a 30-day free trial membership.

[Brandon] All right, Chris. One of our listeners, let’s say, wants to start writing, doing fan writing. What do you suggest that they do?
[Chris] I suggest they write. This is literally… This seems to be the easiest thing in the world, is just to put words on paper, for me. It’s like something I do when I’m not even thinking. I occasionally wake up and will have a novel in my hand that I will have come up with through the night. I might not have used actual words, but it’s there. It’s… If you can just write. It doesn’t matter what… It doesn’t matter how you write, you’re the one who determines what gets out there. If you just put words to paper, and you decide to put them out there, you’ve got a fanzine.
[Dan] So beyond the writing itself, what are the kinds of questions that a wannabe fan writer should ask themselves? About what direction do I want to take this… I don’t know what those questions would be.
[Chris] The three questions I think… And I apply this to all sorts of things throughout my life… Is do you have something to say? What is it that you want to say? And how do you want to say it? If you are a fan writer who really wants to get their ideas about art out, do you want to do that through words or you want to do that through art? Do you want to… Are you someone who has a real love of graphic design? Do you want to have it be all written very standard, justified margins, do you want to have a very strange little cutouts? It’s find your vision. It really… It applies on all sorts of things. It’s figure out what you want to do, if you have something that is really meaningful to do it for… I mean, I, of course, skipped that step. I have never done anything meaningful in my life. But this one thing, I will do and do consciously. I will say, “You know why I want to do it? Because it’s fun.” I honestly… One thing I think a lot of folks miss is, this is fun. It’s something that I love to do. And I drag people in, like Vanessa, I’ll just drag in with me on these little projects. I hope that my infectious love of this thing will infect them, and Bradley Voytek will study it.
[Howard] My daughter and I… My daughter is an artist… Met Chris at Convolution last year. I remember being… I… Okay, so Dad really wants his daughter to have a great art career, and I was nervous about approaching Chris about maybe… Because I know her work is great, but maybe, would he consider… I talked to Chris about it, and he looked at her. It’s like, “Oh, I love having art. I love this. Send me all your stuff.” I bring this up because… Okay, maybe you disagree… But I bring this up because if you are a writer or you are an artist and you are looking for an outlet, other than your own blog, maybe email Chris?
[Chris] Yeah!
[Howard] Because he does this magazine and that’s an outlet where your fan writing, your fan art, can appear.
[Chris] Absolutely. It’s one thing… Having foolish friends is very useful. I luckily have a number of foolish friends who are willing to send me stuff. That art, by the way… That cover for handicapping the Hugos last year, spectacularly wonderful. One of my favorite covers I’ve ever got to run. I’d love to have a cover from Howard someday. But… Again, oral contract!

[Chris] That’s recycled. I mean, there’s all sorts of wonderful things that you get and you sort of build community. That’s what happens in all these things. How do blog communities happen? Well, people start commenting on your things, you start commenting on their’s, back and forth. People start writing for you, you start writing for other people. Bang. Something grows. I’ve… I have about seven different zines that I do. Each one of them comes with a different community. I have a steam punk zine that happens… I published a couple of steam punk things, people started to send me steam punk articles. I have a zine that is about fandom, that we do different themes, and it’s because me and my buddy, James, said, “You know, it would be great if we could actually have some themes.” These things just keep happening and happening and I keep getting dragged up in them.
[Brandon] This is the beautiful thing about science fiction and fantasy fandom. This is the core and the soul of it, that science fiction and fantasy came about really through the fandom roots. Most of the writers, particularly if you look back at the gold and silver ages of science fiction, these are people who were fans first. Everyone’s like, “We love this stuff. No one’s doing this stuff for us. Let’s do it ourselves.” That’s where a lot of the magazines, a lot of the writers came from. There’s this grand tradition of fandom creating its own community. Long before the Internet was around that made it all so easy. It’s why this community is so tightknit, and it helps people. I’m… I have a career today because I went to conventions. The people who organize conventions and were doing fan writing, a bunch of fans published my first fiction story. I was a teen and the people who ran the local fanzine also ran a contest at the convention. They picked mine as the winner. It was the first time, it was stapled together, and they handed it to me and said, “There you are. You’re in a magazine, and you are published.” This is where we come from. I think we owe a great deal in our community to the fan writers, the fan organizers, and the people who create fanzines.
[Mary] Absolutely.
[Howard] And the jocks.
[Laughter] [And the jocks!]
[Brandon] So, we are out of time. I’m sorry. I do have to call it here, and ask for… Okay. One thing. Go ahead.
[Mary] I just want to… Is it safe to say that fan writing is basically geeking on paper?
[Chris] It’s geeking on paper. That’s exactly what it is. Yeah. And we do it a lot.

[Brandon] Let’s do our writing prompt, Dan.
[Dan] Okay. Our writing prompt is, you are going to pick your favorite book or movie or play, whatever, and you’re going to write something about it, but… Here’s the rules. You’re not allowed to do a review, you’re not allowed to do a synopsis, and you’re not allowed to do fanfiction. It has to be something else.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.

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