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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode Three: Q&A, Also Stump Howard, At CONduit

Writing Excuses Season Three Episode Three: Q&A, Also Stump Howard, At CONduit

From http://www.writingexcuses.com/2009/06/21/writing-excuses-season-3-episode-3-stumping-howard-at-conduit/

Key points: Laughter, consistency, and admiration make different beliefs easier to swallow. Eyebrows help aliens emote like people. Similarities can help us identify with aliens so that the differences can hit us in the face. Scenes that are hard to write may be the best scenes you ever write. Write your novel, submit it, and repeat -- 3 or 4 novels later, take another look at that oldie and see if you can't fix it up. To write about megalomania, read about it! Make sure the Evil Overlord's plans are believable and smart.

...
[Eric] And I'm Eric.
[Brandon] Our good friend, Eric James Stone, is guest starring on this episode as we try our hardest to stump Howard. Q. & A. Let's hit it. Who has a question for us? Come on up.

[Audience] How do you deal with issues when you have a character that you want to be sympathetic but they believe things that you seriously disagree with?
[Brandon] Howard?
[Howard] I start by killing them. Then I bring them back from the dead and mold them in my own image. No. I get e-mail from fans fairly regularly to say -- about the same strip -- I get two e-mail messages. One who says, "Wow, I really love your treatment of religion. You're very sympathetic to religion. I like that you give religion a fair shake." And then I get e-mail from somebody else who says, "Boy, I'm so happy that you are not using science as a whipping boy. You are really showing science to be better than religion." I realized that apparently I'm being pretty evenhanded. I'll let this character have their beliefs. I'll research their beliefs. I'll write about them as if I believe them. Then I move on to another character.
[Dan] My main character in my series is a sociopath who obsesses over serial killers and thinks he's turning into one. That's not really me. I hope everyone understands that. I was able to make him sympathetic even though he is very creepy and very scary by making him funny. That was the very simple trick. People can identify with someone they laugh with.
[Brandon] I think also if you make someone consistent. Readers want to believe that this character is real. If they stick to their guns and they make good arguments that you disagree with, I think that will automatically build sympathy for them. So I would suggest don't make them a strawman. Meaning don't make them make weak arguments. Make him a strong character who believes what they believe and sticks to their guns. I think the readers will respect that, just like if you... think of people that you maybe respect that you disagree with. How do they act? How do they treat their views and try to do that?
[Eric] I think you give them some characteristics that people admire. You make them honorable. Or you make some very competent at what they do. Something that readers can identify with and say, "Okay, this is a good person even if they have some ideas I don't believe or agree with."

[Brandon] Next question? Come on up. Jog, jog, jog, jog, jog. All right!
[Audience] Writing aliens, whether they be a fantasy creature, a walking pile of poo, or whatever -- how do you make them convincingly alien in regards to personality and behavior as opposed to biology?
[Brandon] Howard?
[Howard] Honestly, I don't make my aliens convincingly alien. I make my aliens convincingly people by giving them eyebrows. Because I'm drawing a comic strip and I have to be able to do stuff with the eyebrows in order to get them to emote. That's why the Uniocs -- who have these great big globular one eye -- that's why they have two eyebrows, is so that they can emote.
[Brandon] The eyebrows hang way above the head.
[Howard] I know. They hover. I'm disqualified.
[Brandon] Eric?
[Eric] One of the most difficult things to do in writing science fiction is to write from an alien point of view. For that very reason. We don't relate very well to people or things that don't think like we do. The stranger they are, the harder it is to pull off the idea that this is a thinking being yet with thinking so extraordinarily different from ours. I think what you have to do is essentially try to put yourself in the mindset of the creature and figure out its logic which may be very different from our logic. What its priorities are and how it gets to its priorities?
[Dan] I'm right in the middle of the book Saturn's Children by Charles Stross which is about robots who live far enough in the future that humans have completely died off. So their society and the way they look at it is so different from ours... none of these people have ever even seen a human even though that's who they were constructed to obey. Very small details make them seem very alien. Little things like the way they view size and the way they view temperature. But at the same time, the reason that they are interesting is because they still have very human-like traits, they are still people.
[Brandon] This is an excellent question. I say that because it's something that science fiction writers have been arguing over for about 100 years. Because it's a really fine balance. Science fiction in particular -- fantasy to a lesser extent honestly -- science fiction tries for realism in its aliens. There is an entire movement for this. As Eric said, the more realistic you get, the less identifiable. There are authors out there doing a brilliant job of this. I really like it when Vernor Vinge does it. He manages to do it well. I would say how does he manage to make aliens that feel so strange yet work so well? in one hand, he's building on the common attributes. He's saying what is universal between all sentient beings? What are these creatures... how are they going to be similar? And using those similarities to highlight the differences. So that when you run into one of those differences, you run smack into it face first. It's like The Left Hand of Darkness if you've read that. When some of the differences come in, you run into them face first because the book spends a lot of time building ground between the common beliefs between the humans and the aliens, and then... bam! No. There is something completely different. Using those two things to highlight one another would be what I would suggest. Excellent question. You stumped Howard so you get a point. We'll go here and then here. Come on up. Kevin.

[Kevin] You have a story. The story has a scene that is absolutely essential to the story. You as an author find it so distasteful to write that you come up against it and can't get through writing it. How do you deal with that?
[Brandon] Oh, wow. Howard?
[Howard] I actually just had that happen. I wanted to tell a story... I wanted to move the story forward by having Sergeant Schlock -- the big pile of poo -- foil an abduction by virtue of the fact that he can smell whether or not two people are related to each other. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, "This is horrible. Why do I not want to write this?" I dug down and realized I don't want to write it because it is false. It plays on a false fear. Which is the fear that we are going to have our children abducted from us in public places. It is much more likely that we are going to drown in a pickle bucket then be abducted in a public place. I looked at that and realized, "Oh, I'm afraid of writing this. I find it distasteful, because the scene itself is broken in the way I've conceptualized it." I reinvented the scene -- and I'm not going to tell you how I reinvented it -- but I reinvented it so that it worked. Then I was able to write it with no trouble because I was no longer lying.
[Dan] I had a scene in my first book which was very difficult to write. My sociopathic serial killer protagonist at one point pulls a knife on his mom. That was very hard to write. I was messed up for a few days before and after. The way I was able to get through it was just always keeping in the back of my mind why he was doing it, why it was important for the story, and trying to portray it as... this sounds weird, but as sensitively as I could. That's something that was very important to him. It was not very important to me. It's not something I hope I would ever do.
[Brandon] I've found that scenes like this tend to go one of two ways. Either they are one of the most powerful scenes in the book because the author has to struggle so much to write them. I would say in Serial Killer that's one of the most powerful scenes in the entire book. Or they fall completely on their face. I've written some like this that were really hard. I tried to write them. The reason that they were really hard, I realized after the fact, is that I'm just not equipped to write this scene. In that case I cut the scene and do it a different way. I've had someone listening outside as an argument happened and put it inside someone else's head reacting to it or I've used a different character viewpoint to be experiencing the scene or I've changed whose head I was in for that particular scene, these sorts of things. I juggle it up. I always try and write it first the way I think it should be written in case it's the Dan experience, which is it's just a hard, powerful emotional scene to write. When you get done, those are the scenes that are going to shine in your book, if it works.
[Eric] I ran into this at a writing workshop. I wrote a story for the workshop, and essentially I punted on the scene. The main character is supposed to end up torturing someone. I just kind of skipped over that bit. The people running the workshop called me on it. They said, "Hey, you skipped over the really important scene there." Because I didn't want to write it. I'm at the point where I'm trying to figure out how I go about writing it. So I'm listening to these guys.
[Brandon] Half the time, when it's one of these scenes for me... actually most of the time. The reason it's hard to write for me comes into one of my own personal psychoses as a writer. It's because it's a scene I've seen done too many times in books. I have this itch to not do what's been done. It kind of drives me in my fiction. It's one of the things I've had to learn is it's sometimes okay to do those scene, Brandon. It's sometimes okay, if that's the appropriate scene, even though it's the scene everyone expects. Sometimes you want to do the scene everyone expects. A lot of times you don't want to, but sometimes you do want to. So either I change it dramatically so I'm excited about writing it, or I just say, "Brandon, this scene needs to be here. It's the right scene. Write it even though you're going..." I guess I'm worried that people are like, "Oh, I've seen this before in this book and this book. Brandon was just copying." It's just insecurity.
[Howard] With regard to Eric's torture scene, there's a scene...
[Brandon] Who doesn't want to have an Eric torture scene?
[Howard] There's a scene in The Lord of the Rings which is emotionally very powerful, in the second film... I think it's the second film, Two Towers? Maybe that's not the one. It's the scene where the Steward of Minas Tirith is eating while... it's the third film... While he's eating... He's sent soldiers out, and those soldiers are getting absolutely slaughtered. The playing of the... the film play on the battlefield is PG, PG-13. You're seeing guys fall down and arrows flying. Watching -- is it Denethor? eat -- watching him eat, you realize, "Oh, my gosh, these guys are being vivisected by orcs." The grapes and stuff drool down his chin. Using metaphor to depict the violence made it far, far more powerful that it could have been in an R-rated movie. Perhaps the solution for you is to cut from the torture room to the kitchen. Maybe not? But there might be a metaphor there you can play with. My work here is done.
[Brandon] Your wife just walked in, and that's the part of the podcast she got to hear, was you telling Eric to go to the kitchen for torture. Come on up.

[Audience] This is mainly for Eric. As a two time Writers of the Future published -- I've got a finalist story that's waiting right now to find out...
[Eric] Congratulations.
[Audience] Thank you. Fingers crossed. But how much of an impact did that have on your aspirations, your ambitions to get not just one, but two?
[Eric] Writers of the Future, even just one, is sufficient to really boost your career. I noticed almost immediately a difference. As I was submitting stories, I started getting personal rejections from the editors rather than form rejections.
[Audience] laughter
[Howard and Dan duet] No, no, that is a big step up, folks.
[Eric] I still do get form rejections sometimes.
[Howard] His girlfriend is really pretty.
[Eric] I'm sure that we can trace back the causal chain back to my having won Writers of the Future.
[Brandon] Writers of the Future will get you [garbled]
[Howard] [garbled]
[Dan] [garbled] form rejection joke now.
[Brandon] This is supposed to be stump Howard. Howard, how do you think Eric's career has been progressing? I'm just joking. Other questions? There and then there.

[Audience] How do you cram your 300,000 word epic fantasy into a 100,000 word author debut novel?
[Brandon] I've never had to do that. Howard?
[Howard] No, no, no. This is easy. I've got this one. Even though I've never had to do it. Write your 300,000 word epic fantasy and go ahead and send it out. Collect the form rejections that you are going to get because everybody gets them. While that's happening, write something else. Then submit that. While that's happening, write something else. After you've got three or four novels under your belt, you'll realize that I could have pruned that book here and here and here and made it a lot stronger. You can go back and revisit some of the things that are in your trunk and resubmit them two, three, four years later as much, much stronger pieces. Your original vision will be a lot stronger for having written a lot of stuff since then.
[Eric] I was going to say, in your manuscript, just go to the hundred thousand word mark and put "to be continued."
[Brandon] I guess I can speak on this. I had the same question bounce around in my head quite a bit when I was trying to get published. The answer I came to for me, which is not going to be the same for everyone, but the answer I came to for me is I do not write hundred thousand word epics, I write 250-300,000 word epics. That's just what I'm going to do, and it's going to be a strike against me whenever an editor picks up that book. They're going to be more likely to want to reject it because it's so long. So my first chapter has to be that much better. I just belligerently did that. That's how I've gotten through life. Every time I took a class where a teacher said, "You don't write fantasy in this class," I said, "Well, you'll have to fail me then because that's what I'm giving you." Every time an editor said these books are too long, I said I'll just write better books that are that long until you can't help but publish it anyway. That may not be good advice for you. A lot of people told me practice writing shorter novels, find break points, split them in pieces. Things like this. There's all sorts of advice. I tried writing shorter books and they sucked. I said I'm not doing this anymore. I'm going to write the books that I feel I need to write and I think that's the most important. I decided I would rather be writing those books and never getting published then writing the books that would maybe have a better chance of being published but I didn't like writing. But, that said, learning to edit is a really important thing. After I got that 250,000 word book turned in -- Elantris -- my editor showed me how to cut it by 50,000 words. 50,000 words off is a pretty decent edit. If you can learn to take a 300,000 word story and edit it down to a 200,000 word story so that that 200,000 word story reads like 100,000 word story, maybe that's what you want to do.
[Dan] It's important to point out that Brandon's first five 300,000 word novels did not sell. I sold my sixth, he sold his sixth. What Howard said about writing that, getting it out of the way, and moving on is arguably the best advice you can get as a starting author.
[Howard] It's how both of them did it.
[Brandon] Last question. Come on up.

[Audience] I have a very specific psychoses that I have a lot of trouble writing.
[Howard] This has been Writing Excuses. Goodnight, kids! No, no, go on.
[Audience] It's megalomania. It's very important for your epic bad guys to have a really epic plans. But when you write them, they come off as a guy in a golden cape with antlers on his head. He's just an absurd character, he's not scary. Megalomania. How do you get a guy who wants to own the world -- how do you make him believable?
[Dan] First... oh, we should start with Howard.
[Brandon] Excellent question. Howard?
[Howard] Study the biographies of Napoleon and Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot and Idi Amin and any of these people who have had really grand plans and done really, really horrible things and try and get inside their heads a little bit. I think that'll make it... what you're really talking about is taking megalomania and the concept of the evil overlord -- welcome to CONduit 29, Evil Overlords of CONduit. 29 or 19? Which? 19?
[Dan] It's in Roman numerals.
[Howard] Anyway, here we are at Evil Overlords of CONduit, talking about evil overlords again. You're trying to write a believable, realistic Evil Overlord by making megalomania real. It is real. There's guys out there who have got it. Read about them.
[Dan] The trick I would say is make sure that their plans are believable. Although a lot of the historical megalomaniacs have not had believable plans. It is much easier to believe the guy who wants to own the world than the guy who wants to destroy the world outright because that's not really a motivation most of us can identify with. Because then what do you do after that?
[Brandon] This sort of thing ruins a lot of stories for me. Exactly what Dan is pointing out. I really liked... one of the few who was enjoying Superman Returns. A lot of people didn't like that movie. I was enjoying it, I was getting into it, and then Lex Luthor's plan came along. I'm going to grow a new continent and flood all the other ones so everyone dies and I've got the only real estate. It was stupid, and he's supposed to be a genius. He was played by Kevin Spacey who is a genius of an actor. I like, "Wow, I love this character, I love this... WHAT?" I think it's built into the genre that, "Oh, we can get away with this." We can make a... we're going to have a machine that puts gas into the air that drives everyone crazy by vaporizing the water in the pipes. It won't vaporize the people. We can't just put the poison in the water supply and have them drink it, we've got to vaporize it. These overblown things. I think it's a big weakness of a lot of these big action movies. It's a good question. Give them real motivation. Make them smart. Make them really smart. Make them actually smart. Not just sound smart, not just fake smart, make them really smart and have a really good plan. That means you have to be really smart, so it's tough. But it's worth the trouble.
[Howard] No, but you can do it.
[Brandon] You can do it.
[Eric] One of the great things about having smart characters is the super genius character has to be able to think of things instantly. You don't have to be as smart as that. You just need to be able to think of what he can think of in as much time as it takes you.
[Brandon] We are out of time. Dan, did you have something you wanted to say? Do you have a writing prompt for us? Oh, wait, let's make Howard do it. Howard, give us a writing prompt.

[Howard] Writing prompt. We're going to go to the supervillain here. You've got a device that vaporizes water using microwaves a la Batman Begins. Now turn it into a believable superweapon that's not being used to destroy the world.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. Thank you for listening. You are out of excuses. Now go write.
Tags: aliens, conduit, megalomania, reader identification, writing excuses
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