Key points: Learn to recognize and use the structural elements of your genre. It's not all smoking jackets and collie dogs. It's a lot of first pages. Always remember that you have not yet written your best work -- the best is yet to come. There is no golden key, magic bullet, secret knowledge. It takes 10 years to become an overnight success.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses Episode 24... Dan coughed.
[Brandon] Go ahead.
[Howard] 15 minutes long because you've got a frog in your throat, Dan.
[Dan] And I'm a little hoarse.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Brandon] And we have superstar Tracy Hickman with us again.
[Tracy] It's true, I am superstar Tracy Hickman.
[Brandon] Who's way too intelligent to be on this podcast. We're gonna run episode 24 as Brandon asks random questions of Tracy Hickman, and the rest of us chime in with various illustrious thoughts. Does that sound good to you guys?
[Tracy] Do my thoughts have to be illustrious as well?
[Brandon] Your's will be illustrious [garbled]
[Howard] I've still got the monkey noises sign.
[Tracy] Okay, good.
[Brandon] Question number one. People are always curious about this. What are your writing habits? What do you do each day when you get up, do you write in a certain place, all of those sorts of things.
[Tracy] My writing habits are pretty much that... when I'm on book, meaning when I am in the middle of actually writing a book, it's a chapter a day. If that's four glorious hours of words streaming from my fingers into 15 pages of manuscript, then so be it. More often it represents as many as 12 hours of staring at the screen and bleeding from my forehead. But whatever it is, it's a chapter a day. That's just the way that I work.
[Brandon] Do you listen to music?
[Tracy] I do. As a matter of fact, I usually create a soundtrack on a playlist in iTunes. Specifically, different playlists in fact for different things that are going on. I have a battle playlist, I have a romance playlist.
[Brandon] I actually do the same thing. It works really well.
[Tracy] Especially since it's familiar music. It just loops in the background and I hear the same thing over and over again. It just kind of fades away into the back of my consciousness and buries the rest of the world much to my wife's consternation. We have... my wife and I have actually had entire conversations in which I have never participated. She will come into the office, and she will ask me questions, I will give her answers and I have no idea that I have ever even spoken to her.
[Brandon] Okay. That sounds familiar. I've done [garble] Once you're writing, the world could... nuclear bomb falls on Salt Lake, you're like, eh.
[Tracy] I'll just put it in.
[Brandon] That's good material. Have I asked you guys this before, do you listen to music?
[Dan] I use Pandora.
[Brandon] Pandora. Yeah, we had a topic... we did that.
[Tracy] The other thing to... it's not just a question of what music I listen to, it's a question of what I read because anything that I am reading while I'm writing is going to color the work. When I was writing The Immortals, I was reading The Stand because I specifically wanted The Immortals to have a tincture of Stephen King. That actually was very helpful to me. I have to be careful what I read while I'm writing because it will color what I write.
[Brandon] You do a lot of role-playing modules still, and game design? Don't you?
[Tracy] People think so, yes.
[Brandon] How do you separate the game design writing and working on these things from your fiction?
[Tracy] All of those are different genres in terms of writing. It's like the difference between film and stage and novels. All of them are unique and have their own qualities in terms of structure and in terms of requirements for communication. Film is all external. You have to do everything visually and it all has to be external. Very rarely do you hear someone's thoughts and if you do, that's a cliche. If it's on stage, it's all about talking, it's all about dialogue. If you're in a novel, it's all internal. You always see the perspective from a character inside the book so it's all internal dialogue and internal thoughts. Role-playing games are all about settings and story structure but you have to leave the stage open for the people who are playing the game. So writing for role-playing games is an entirely different set of structural elements.
[Howard] Tracy? Question -- when you are on book, do you allow yourself to work on stuff that is off book?
[Tracy] Sometimes, yeah, I do. Just because it's nice to have a break from what we're doing. And I'm just creating all the time, I just can't stop.
[Howard] Are you whining about how hard your day job is? I think I've found somebody who understands my pain.
[Tracy] It's true. Everybody thinks for those of us who write that it's an easy thing and it's not, it's a job, it's work. It's wonderful -- I tell you right now, it's really wonderful when you get to the end of the book and you've got those 750-800 manuscript brick of pages and you've written The End and it's such a glorious moment to know that you've achieved this incredible piece of work that's one unified whole, structural, solid, fabulous characters, delivers a tremendous message. And then the next morning, it's page one, and you know that there's gonna have to be 800 more of these, and it's like looking at the mountain from the bottom. And that's hard, getting into a new book is hard. It is hard work, it is work every day. And it's hard keeping up with structure, making sure everything is solid. It's not all smoking jackets and collie dogs, it's...
[Dan] There is some of that though.
[Howard] I do get a collie dog eventually, don't I?
[Dan] I'm actually right at that point right now. I have finished my trilogy, it is done, I have revised it, it is ready to go to the editor and I'm starting something new and it freaks me out. It is so hard.
[Tracy] Yeah, you look at that first page, that first blank page and you think, "Man, there are a lot of pages before I get to the end of this," and of course with the knowledge that once you get there, it is another first page.
[Brandon] Well, and there's always the... I've done this other thing before, I'm starting something new. Am I just gonna completely flub it? I knew that I got the other one right by the end. Do you have that?
[Tracy] Everybody does. Every writer has this. Every writer is either one either they feel like they've only got one book in them or they feel like they've already written the best thing and that nothing could ever be as gloriously great as that Winnie the Pooh adventure...
[Dan] That was pretty awesome.
[Tracy] That was.
[Brandon] That Winnie the Pooh fanfic was just awesome. [audience owww] When Lord Soth showed up, that was just the end of things. That light saber duel between Winnie and...
[Tracy] That whole death scene with Pooh really brought the house down.
[Dan] I think we have our Writing Prompt [garbled]
[Tracy] Winnie the Pooh's death scene. I think that could be a really good one. But it's true though, that writers basically believe they are never going to be or they are already has-beens. And the thing we try to convince writers of all time, I tell writers all the time and I must remind myself is that we have not yet written our best work. That the best is yet to come. And then it could be that next book. It could be two books away. But it's in our future because every time we write, we improve our craft. Every time we put word to page, we improve our craft. And the fact of the matter is that the first books that you write are not going to be good. They just aren't. Sorry. They just aren't. The first book I wrote was in fourth grade. I'm going to tell everybody about this tomorrow, but the first book I wrote was in fourth grade. I decided that the way you wrote a book is that you just kept writing a little bit more every day and when you had enough pages, you had a book. So I wrote this book about a destroyer that went to the South Pacific, was attacked by 50 planes, and sank -- on page 2. I had writer's block in fourth grade. I didn't know what to do with this. The boat sank. The boat was the main character, man. I tried to fix it. We're talking writing on that big chunky paper with the big thick lines and the dotted line in the middle so that you didn't go too far with the little letters. I couldn't do it. I've still got this story, by the way. The point is that your first stuff is not ever going to be as good as the second thing you do, and the second is not going to be as good as the third thing you do. You just have to accept the idea that you're going to make rag shoes to begin with and then the next thing is going to be better. You just have to keep going.
[Blatant advertisement break]
[Howard] This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by I Am Not a Serial Killer...
[Howard] No, it's true. It's true that's who this book to you is brought by... now I'm starting to sound like a serial killer. This book was written by our good friend, fellow podcaster, Dan Wells.
[Dan] I can't believe you really said that.
[Howard] He's a pretty good writer.
[Brandon] I looked for Howard Is Not a Serial Killer and I couldn't find it on the website.
[Howard] I Am Not a Serial Killer is currently only available in the UK but you can get it from bookdepository.co.uk who ships worldwide...
[Dan] for free
[Howard] For free. So you can just buy it.
[Dan] It's at 6.29 pounds right now.
[Howard] How much does it cost to send a 6 pound package across the Atlantic?
[Brandon] I paid 5 pounds to get mine.
[Howard] Oh, wait, that's their money.
[Dan] It's a very heavy book. It's actually printed on human skin.
[Howard] Can we re-record this ad?
[End of blatant advertisement break]
[Brandon] What's your publication story? You've got a little bit of a different one than a lot of people, but... Aspiring writers always want to know how'd you break in.
[Tracy] Of course they do. Aspiring writers want you to provide them the silver bullet, that golden key, that one piece of knowledge that they harbor inside themselves. That all successful knowledge... we have club -- successful knowledge club -- successful writers club, and we all harbor this secret that we don't tell anybody.
[Dan] We don't want you guys to know, because then [garble]
[Tracy] Because then it's out there and everyone is going to be a successful writer. There is no key. There is no secret. There is no magic bullet. Everybody has to pay their dues. It takes 10 years to become an overnight success. That's 10 years of rejection letters, that's 10 years of writing articles maybe, that's 10 years of writing for somebody else, that's 10 years of writing for yourself or... it's always different. The path to becoming a writer is always different. In my case, I was in Logan Utah. I was out of work. In the late 70s, early 80s. I was on church welfare. I applied for a bus driving job at the university up there and came in second out of 500 applicants. Hah. They don't give you anything for second by the way. Could not get work. My wife and I had self-published a couple of Dungeons & Dragons adventures, which as it turns out may have been questionable in terms of their legality. Nevertheless, we had heard that they would pay $500 for one of these adventures if they liked it. This particular winter, I couldn't take my children to church because I couldn't afford shoes for them. And so in an effort to buy shoes for the kids, I sent the adventures to TSR hoping that they would buy them. They offered me a job. And so I valiantly became the first member in my family in many generations to cross the plains the wrong way. Went back east to Wisconsin, took up this job, sat down, and my... bless his heart, Al Hammock, our editor at the time, sat me down and said, "You have great adventures and you have wonderful typing skills, but you can't write." And he taught me how to write, and paid me while...
[Brandon] What did he have to tell you? What were the things that you had to learn?
[Tracy] He pointed out... what he did is, he handed me back my project and he had me diagram. Yes. Every sentence. What I soon discovered from this horrible exercise was that every sentence that I started with, started with a preposition, and that every sentence was written in passive voice. Sominex did not do as good a job on people as my text. You could read my text and be asleep within three or four sentences. He taught me active voice. He taught me variance in structure. He taught me structure within the body of paragraphs, he taught me structure within the body of chapters.
[Howard] And you were getting paid for this?
[Tracy] And I was getting paid for this.
[Howard] Oh, man.
[Tracy] And I learned the craft of writing and structure there as I was putting my adventures together. The first adventures I did there.
[Dan] Howard, this is where you're supposed to say, "Luxury!"
[Tracy] What a wonderful thing!
[Brandon] Howard's a web cartoonist. I don't know if you're familiar with Howard. He posts everything... it up every day. And we get to revise and he doesn't. So he always...
[Howard, tauntingly] I don't have to revise...
[Tracy] But anyway, that's pretty much how I got started. I learned the craft of writing at TSR doing adventure modules there. Met Margaret Weis there. We go by Weis and Hickman because she was the one who is going to be the writer. And I was going to be a game designer for the rest of my life and retire on the TSR pension fund. Not only is there no pension fund, there is no TSR. That's how I became a writer. But that was the way in. Everybody has a different way in.
[Brandon] If someone right now were wanting to do game design and write modules and these sort of things, do you have any advice you could give them? If they want to write for role-playing games, what do they do?
[Tracy] Uh, don't. It's interesting, I have a whole amount... I can give entire seminars on the process and structure of game design, particularly in adventure game design. It's actually a lost art. People today do not understand all of the lessons that we learned back in the 80s about adventure game design, particularly about putting story in game design. Because the nameplates have changed so often over the Dungeons & Dragons name, everything that we learned in terms of the craft has been lost. And those of us who learned it, now we're old people and doing different things. There are fabulous lessons that have kind of been lost in the interim in terms of game design. Now I'm enough, I'm writing a book right now -- I don't know where I'm ever going to get this published -- but it's called XDM, Extreme Dungeon Mastering. And it's great.
[Howard] Are you going to advertise Vault?
[Tracy] We actually include a role-playing game in it. There's basic and advanced. We call it XD20. XD20 system -- the basic system, has one statistic. You just get one stat. Advanced gets three stats because it's advanced. There are no skills, there's no complexity whatsoever. There is a leveling system but only because everybody whines when there isn't one. And so we have this leveling system in our game that you can have level and you'll get levels but they have absolutely no effect on the gameplay whatsoever. They don't modify your rolls, they don't do anything to your statistics.
[Brandon] You can say, oh, you gained a level.
[Tracy] Yeah, so you gained a level. That was good. Wow. And sometimes you can say to the referee of the game, you can say, "I am a 130th level plumber." And they'll say, "Okay." Yeah. But actually...
[Howard] Roll to see if your pants stay up.
[Tracy] Stay up. And the thing is... the reason I mention this is because in this book, I'm going to put everything that I have learned about adventure game design because it doesn't exist anywhere else. It just is not there.
[Brandon] I want a copy of that.
[Tracy] It's a really cool book. It has a section at the beginning, are you worthy to be an XDM?
[Howard] Who's printing this?
[Tracy] Nobody. I am, in my basement, I guess, currently. We've run seminars on it, actually, at the last couple of GenCons and the last GenCon I went to and ran this seminar, there was a group in the back who said, "You promised us the book this year. Where is it?" And I had to buy them off with T-shirts -- it was pretty scary.
[Brandon] Well, we're out of time. Thank you so much, Tracy, for coming and letting us make questions... ask questions. Howard is searching for something. Okay.
[Brandon] Dan, you've got a Writing Prompt? What have you got?
[Dan] The Writing Prompt is Winnie the Pooh is on a destroyer that gets shot down and dies.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. Thanks for listening.