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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode Two: Keeping It Real

Writing Excuses Season Three Episode Two: Keeping It Real


Key points: Make your characters feel real by studying real people. Research (Google maps, pictures, etc.) can help with setting. Also, distill the essence for imaginary settings -- how do places like that work? Ground your fantasy in science for plausibility. Give your readers convincing gnats, then don't try to explain the black boxes. Real characters who react in believable ways help make even ludicrous plots believable. Research can suggest plot hooks and twists that make the plot more real. Baby steps -- start small, then work up to big stuff -- can help writers to create and maintain the illusion of reality.

[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Aprilynne] And I'm Aprilynne.

[Brandon] We are recording live at the CONduit SF convention with our lovely guest star Aprilynne Pike. Aprilynne, tell us a little bit about yourself.
[Aprilynne] I am an author. I live in Spanish Forks in a very empty house at the moment because my family moved down to Phoenix this morning. In a little while, I'll live in Phoenix, but...
[Brandon] You stayed just for us, right?
[Aprilynne] I did. I stayed just for you. And maybe New York and San Francisco and Portland and Seattle. But you guys mostly. My husband just graduated from law school. Which is really nice because we go to parties and we say, "Hi, we're the Pikes. I'm an author, and he's a lawyer, which means that one of us makes up fantastic tales for a living and the other one writes books." I have three kids...
[Howard] That's good.

[Brandon] Tell us about your book.
[Aprilynne] A little bit about my book. My book is about Laurel who is a 15-year-old girl who discovers she's a fairy and it's nothing like the storybooks say.
[Brandon] It hit number one on the New York Times list this week.
[Aprilynne] It did. I may have screamed a little. Or a lot.
[Brandon] You may be our first number one New York Times bestseller on the podcast.
[Aprilynne] Yes! I'm famous.

[Brandon] Let's talk about keeping it real. Meaning how do you ground your story in reality, how do you blend the familiar and strange elements? Let's start with characters. We'll start with you, Aprilynne. How do you make your characters feel real?
[Aprilynne] You hang out with teenagers. I have teen characters. I'm not a teenager anymore, but I was, and it wasn't that long ago. I like to hang out with my brother's friends, I steal them. And I try to hang out with teenagers...
[Brandon] Are you really telling the people who listen to go hang out with juveniles...
[Aprilynne] Go hang out with juveniles.
[Brandon] And offer them candy?
[Aprilynne] Yes. Offer them candy.
[Howard] I remember John Scalzi is saying that there might have been legal action involved if he tried that.
[Aprilynne] The safe way to do it is that my husband and I do teach the teenagers in Sunday school.

[Brandon] What about setting? How do you keep it real with your setting?
[Aprilynne] With Google maps. I like Google maps. I have never been to the little city that my book is set in, but I have seen it on Google maps so many times, I have done so much research into the city, it has some really cool landmarks, and I have seen a lot of photos.
[Dan] Let me offer a different take on that. My series is set in a very small town that does not exist. But it feels very real because I have lived in a lot of very small towns and been to a lot of very small towns and kind of distilled their essence. This is what tends to happen in small American towns -- there's usually one major industry that most people work for, there's usually nothing really fun to do if you're in high school -- all these different things that you take and then people can recognize that and go, "Oh, that feels like I know what that is. I recognize that." Even though it's a completely imaginary place.

[Brandon] Dan, you're writing a lot of teens, too. How are you making your teens sound real?
[Dan] I don't know if I am making them sound real because... here's... I get to brag. For the US version of my book, we got a really great cover quote from F. Paul Wilson. So yeah for that. But in the process of giving us that quote, he said, "I think maybe you ought to mention at some point that your main character is like a super genius because he totally does not talk like a teenager." I said, "Well, thank you very much, Paul." Wonderful. I think research for me. That's pretty much what Aprilynne said, is hang out with teenagers, but research in other ways...
[Brandon] This is getting really creepy.
[Dan] Yes. I wanted to write really convincing stalking scenes...
[Aprilynne] Dan hangs out with teenage serial killers...
[Howard] Luxury! Where am I going to go to hang out with a 500 kilo pile of poo?
[Aprilynne] You are at CONduit.
[Howard] And don't answer that.

[Brandon] So, you've got a lot of... you're writing supernatural... what genre do you put this in? This is urban fantasy, supernatural romance?
[Aprilynne] Urban fantasy. It's kind of a small town so I feel weird saying urban fantasy. I keep telling people young adult fantasy.
[Brandon] How are you introducing the supernatural element and keeping people grounded? How are you making the supernatural parts feel real rather than just out of nowhere? Either one of you?
[Aprilynne] I use a lot of science in my book. The thing with my fairies is that they are plants. They are basically the equivalent of humans evolution-wise in the plant kingdom, as humans are in the animal kingdom. So I had to do so much research...
[Howard] So they are vegetable fairies?
[Aprilynne] Yes, they are.
[Howard] Really! So wait a second...
[Aprilynne] They are sentient plants.
[Howard] Can I eat them? Because I'll eat those vegetables. That's awesome.
[Aprilynne] If you can catch them. They are fast. But because of that, I had to look at this girl and how she would survive in an animal society, being a plant. What she could eat? What kind of clothes she would wear in order to still be able to photosynthesize through her skin, etc. I have introduced a lot of science in my book. I have gotten a lot of comments that that has really made it seem real, like it really could happen, because it's grounded in science as well as the touch of magic.
[Howard] So what you're shooting for there is plausibility?
[Aprilynne] Exactly.

[Brandon] Howard, you're doing a lot of this, too?
[Howard] Oh, yeah. There's all kinds of handwavium disguised as actual science. I am very careful... for instance, the power plants that drive Schlock Mercenary warships. I call them annie plants, which is short for annihilation not for antimatter. I do not talk about what goes on inside them, because I don't know how it works. I don't know how it works. I know a little about the economies of scale and what sort of equipment we see these things in and I know a little bit about what they output, but I do not talk about what happens inside that black box. That's because if I go into detail about things like stellar evolution or planetary ecology -- sciences that are readily available -- then when I gesture broadly and say, "and the annie plants provide unifield shield generation, blah, blah, blah..." people will swallow the big lie because I've given them lots of little tiny facts that...
[Brandon] That's like what Dan often says to do. You make the small details really important and really concrete, then you can get away with some of the larger scale vagueties.
[Howard] Because people will strain at gnats and swallow at camels. Give them very, very convincing gnats.
[Dan] Do you swallow at camels or do you swallow camels just straight?
[Howard] When I see a camel, I swallow. They're frightening animals.
[Brandon] Oh, you don't swallow the camel. Just the vegetables.
[Dan] Good for you.

[Brandon] Dan, what are you doing?
[Dan] Again, a nice grounding in reality is a great place to start. The supernatural monsters in my books, I wanted them to feel very real, so first of all, we started off with serial killer behaviors. I knew that's how they were eventually going to be tracked and found by the protagonist, so let's start there. They act like serial killers, even though there's a supernatural reason why. Then I took the bad guy and I said, "Well, he's an evil monster that steals body parts and stuff. I'm going to give him a house and a family and a job and make him deal with that." There's reasons behind everything and you can look past the weird... the handwavium and you can say, "Well, I'm more interested in how this monster is trying to live in society then why he has to steal legs in order to do it."

[Brandon] Let's go ahead and break for a commercial.
[Stacy] This week's Writing Excuses is brought to you by Stacy Whitman, a professional editor. She'll be teaching a seminar on World Building in Middle Grade and Young Adult Fantasy and Science Fiction at the Provo Library in Provo, Utah. For more information, go to her website at There's a link to my site on the left-hand sidebar of Writing Excuses.

[Brandon] And we're back. We've covered character and setting, let's talk plot. How do you make it feel real? This is a difficult thing with plot, because we're writing essentially... all of us are writing thrillers in a way, we're writing adventure stories. Things get pretty ridiculous in adventure stories. You have fairies that are plants, you have...
[Howard] Piles of poo that fly around on plasma rockets.
[Brandon] Piles of poo, people that jump because of shooting off of magical coins and stuff like this and the plot just kind of scales. By the end, if you were to read just the last chapter of a story like this, it would seem ludicrous. So how are you making the plot feel real and keeping your readers going along with all of these increasingly strange and ridiculous events?
[Aprilynne] I think the key to making a plot real is having your characters be real. It's the one that leads to the other. Because, like you said, in fantasy the plot is going to be overblown and huge and absolutely unbelievable. But if you have these characters who react in believable human ways, then it becomes a ground. It's like when you have a tent and you stake it down, you have your tent of fantasy staked down by your real characters.
[Brandon] How do you do that? Specifically, other than hanging out with teenagers in vans outside behind the school?
[Howard] The first one's free, kid.

[Dan] In our writing group, there is a great author named Eric James Stone. We've been going through a book of his. We ran into a great situation with this. In one of his books, he had this guy who was visited by this ghost. This kid had this ghost show up in his room at night. The very first thing he did was Stranger, Danger and he screamed for his dad and he ran. Incredibly plausible reaction. I've never seen a kid like that react that believably. That's how I think a real smart kid would react if a ghost showed up in his room and he didn't know immediately that it was a ghost. He'd say, "Why is there this weird LARPer guy in my room at the foot of my bed?" He would scream that it was a sexual pervert and try to get his dad. Things like that. Try to get those reactions as real as you can.
[Brandon] Howard is laughing. Why are you laughing at us, Howard?
[Howard] Because of the juxtaposition of sexual pervert and LARP. I'm sorry, it just... I went there. Dan went there first. Realism in plot, as Aprilynne said, it all comes down to character reactions, characters having believable motivations. Your characters have to be driving your plot. You can't say I want to have a galactic mega epic in which the good guys triumph over the bad guys and so on and so forth and have that feel real if the characters are not motivated to do that for you. The characters have to be doing that. The characters have to be deciding I'm being oppressed and I don't want to pay Lord Vader's taxes anymore and I'm angry that he blew up my planet. Their reactions have to be real. That will drive the plot. If the characters aren't driving the plot, you as the writer are driving the plot, and that's boring. I've got bad news, that's dull.
[Aprilynne] I had an instructor in college who said, "Don't mistake the plot for stuff happens." You can have all sorts of stuff happen, but if you don't care about the character and you don't know any of the history and everyone is acting like a moron, you don't care. You can have 12 things blowing up and still be yawning.
[Dan] That's how Quantum of Solace was for me.
[Howard] That's how Terminator Salvation is, apparently.

[Dan] I want to talk about research again because research can be very useful for plot in addition to character and setting. As you research, as you try to learn about these things, they will suggest plot hooks that feel very real that you hadn't seen coming. If you decide that you want to have plant-based fairies, and you start to research what the ramifications of that would be, that will suggest ideas to you. In the book I'm writing right now, I knew I wanted to have a schizophrenic character so I was studying a lot of schizophrenia. I studied the treatment, I studied the medication. The medication and the side effects thereof suggested a lot of ways that I could tweak the outline I had to fit much more into this real world application of the medication. That in itself made the plot, which is very crazy and weird, a lot more real, because of the research I did.
[Howard] Now I know why Dan was going through my bathroom cupboard.

[Brandon] I'll add something else of my own on this. I would say baby steps are important. It comes back to the author is illusionist, again, which is one of my favorite metaphors.
[Howard] Smoke and mirrors.
[Brandon] You'll notice that a lot of times the illusionist will step up, step by step, small tricks to larger tricks. Same thing with hypnotists, getting people to do small things and stepping up to the larger, more grand scale sorts of things. When we are building a plot, it's nice when things start rolling. You want to have an exciting hook, you want to have an exciting opening. But you want the believability to be stretched a little bit more and a little bit more and a little bit more, rather than trying to get them to swallow the whole thing at once. This is particularly true, I would say, for the urban genre -- or I guess the rural genre. If you're taking this world and stepping it into the next world, little baby steps. Piling them on top of each other and making sure that your foundation of characters is strong.

[Brandon] We've only got a couple of minutes left. Any other tricks? Any other tools? Let's say, Aprilynne, I come to you as an aspiring writer and say I want my stories to feel real. Can you give me any other advice? Any other little tips you've got for us?
[Aprilynne] Specifically for dialogue, which is something that I'm good at -- pacing, not so much. I read my books out loud to myself. If you read them out loud and the dialogue sounds a little off, it probably is. But if you can just read along and your tongue doesn't trip over anything and it sounds like you're having a conversation, it probably is working.
[Brandon] You know what I've found? If I give it to someone else to read and I listen to them reading it...
[Aprilynne] Oh, listen to them read it out loud?
[Brandon] Listen to them read it out loud.
[Aprilynne] Oh, excellent.
[Brandon] Because sometimes I'll fill it in as it should be, but if they're reading it and they stumble over it and can't make it, then I say, "Oh, wow. Wait a minute, that's not really very good, Brandon."

[Brandon] Anything else? Everyone go buy Wings. It's got vegetable fairies in it. What did Stephanie Myers say about it?
[Aprilynne] She said it's a remarkable debut.
[Brandon] Thank you very much, Aprilynne, and thank you, CONduit audience. This has been Writing Excuses, you have no more excuses, now go write.
[Dan] Writing...
Tags: aprilynne pike, fantasy, reality, wings, writing excuses
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