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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 15: Q&A at WorldCon

Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 15: Q&A at WorldCon


Key points: What technology? Use technology you're comfortable with. How do you get original ideas? "Who is this going to hurt" can help you pick interesting ideas. Incubate and combine ideas. How do you outline? Outlines are a way of thinking through what will happen -- how do you get from plot point to plot point. Focus on the lamp posts, the big changes in characters. Or pick an image or climax, and lay the groundwork to get there. Outlines can change, too.

[Brandon] We once again have Mary Robinette Kowal with us answering questions. I got it right that time, didn't I?
[Mary] Uh-huh.
[Brandon] Yeah. All right. We have questions from the audience. We're going to have the audience, and actually ask these into the mic. Excuse us if it bumps and thumps and things like that because Jordo forgot our fourth mic. Did I mention that already? Let's do the first question. It was right here. Come on up. You are the first contestant on Howard making fun of you. I mean...
[Howard] Wait a mo... I do not do that.
[Dan] Please speak into the book.

[audience] My question is what kind of media do you guys use when you're writing? Do you write on pen and paper before-hand, do you go straight to a computer, or do you use some other archaic mode?
[Dan] Everything I write, I do primarily in Linotype machine. Which is kind of like Dr. Seuss and Rube Goldberg creating the weirdest typewriter ever. It works really well, it takes a long time though.
[Brandon] All right. Answer the question. Let's just have everybody say quickly what they use. I type in Microsoft Word, boringly. But because of something Howard said earlier in the podcast a year ago or more... he suggested wikidpad, which is a personal wiki software. [ ] I started using that and I love it. I've been using it very extensively for working on Way of Kings, doing the world book for it and things like that. I use that. I've occasionally written by hand and it's too darn slow. It's usually better for me when I do because I don't self-edit as much and then I can do a nice draft when I type it into the computer. It turns out really nice. It's beautiful and wonderful and angels sing but it's slow and I hate it.
[Dan] I'm still Microsoft Word. Pretty much that's all I use. Several files open at a time so that I can write different things in different places.
[Howard] And a crash kills it all.
[Dan] Yes. And then it all dies. That did happen to me once. I save much more frequently now.
[Brandon] Autosave turned on like every 30 seconds. Anyway. Mary?
[Mary] I use OpenOffice. And have recently been turned on to Dropbox which is an off-line... or an off-site... so it's saving all of my files online in its own... automatically. Don't even have to do anything. Love that.
[Brandon] Wow.
[Mary] Then it automatically syncs it between my computers.
[Brandon] Oh. Wow. I may have to look into that. Howard, what do you do?
[Howard] My process is far more interesting than any of yours because I have to write and then I have to pencil and then I have to ink and then I have to color and I use different media for all of those. But I actually do my scripting in the same tool that Brandon and Dan use. I use Microsoft Word. I lay things out in text boxes in Microsoft Word so I'm actually building the panels of the comic in Word. Which the cartoonists in the audience are saying, "You idiot. Why would you do that? That's the hard way." It's what works. Then I print those pages out, in 8.5 x 14 paper. Then I draw right on my scripts... ink right on the scripts. Then I take a finished comic... that has been penciled and inked. It's just all black-and-white. Scan that into the computer and color it in Photoshop. Which is a crazy, crazy process, but it's fast. It's allowed me to go from script to finished product really fast. I think the reason I've stuck with it is because lettering in Illustrator or in Photoshop is easier than hand lettering but it is not the same as writing in Microsoft Word. It's just a nightmare.
[Brandon] Something I've noticed about writers is they tend to stick with whatever they started doing things with. It's very hard to get us to switch to anything. This is why Ray Bradbury still types on a manual typewriter. Because despite the fact that we like science fiction, we are scared of technology, it seems. We get used to something...
[Mary] Well, actually, I have different... I started writing longhand and then like you moved to the computer because it's just plain faster. But I also... for a long time... about half of my novel was written in Graffiti on my Palm Pilot.
[Brandon] Oh, really?
[Mary] Yeah.
[Brandon] Oh, that's cool.
[Mary] I just recently upgraded to a G1. I miss the PalmPilot. I miss the Graffiti.
[Brandon] You got a G1. [Garbled]
[Howard] I took a lot of... I wrote a lot of journal entries in Graffiti on my old first generation Palm.
[Brandon] I had a first-generation Palm, too. That was a nice machine.
[Howard] Palm II wasn't first-generation.
[Brandon] Okay, I had a Palm... never mind. We're going to move on before I strangle Howard.

[Howard] Next question?
[Brandon] Next question, come on up.
[audience] I think if you want to write something, the first step is to come up with original ideas to use. How do you guys come up with yours?
[Brandon] Okay. The age-old question that some authors hate and some authors love and some authors make fun of. Where do you get your ideas?
[Dan] And how do you make them original, I think is part of the question.
[Brandon] That's a good point. Mary?
[Mary] I actually have more ideas than I have time to write. So for me, what I try to work on is not so much the idea but what idea is going to make a good story. First it's coming up with the geewhiz factor. Then after that it's who is this going to hurt? Seriously. Is there pain someplace involved in this? And I mean emotional distress, not physical. Once I figure out who it's going to hurt, then I can start writing... then I can come up with a story. But you can write a story about... you can make an interesting story about almost anything if you've got an emotional through line.
[Brandon] Dan? Ideas?
[Dan] I have said this before on the podcasts. A lot of my ideas I tend to incubate for at least a year. Rattling around. There's five or six right now that... I can tell when they're kind of getting done and when I just need to poke them with a fork and turn them over. Eventually what sparks it is that idea in my head colliding with all the others and colliding with whatever else, media that I'm looking at in the news, whatever... it will eventually generate a hook that jumps out and grabs me and says, "Oh, that really cool political noble house lion in winter story you've been working on? Combine that with teen wolf and you've got something." And I think, okay, that does work. That's when all the ideas start to come. And I think, okay, there's two completely disparate ideas that could combine a very interesting way that I've never seen before.
[Brandon] I would say that that's one of the big factors for me, too, is the combination of two ideas. People have written a lot about creativity... I've talked about it on the podcast before... the concept that... human beings... the way we are creative is in recombination, generally. We take two disparate things and we put them together and make something new. We don't imagine a color that has never existed before. We imagine putting a horn on a horse's head and making something that is part horse and part goat or something like this. That is imagination for us, that is creativity a lot of time for us. For me, that's where my books,, my stories come from. It's this idea plus this idea. It's not... that's also where you can make them original, is where you combine them and when together... instead of two cliched ideas, you've got one new idea. I see this a lot in my writing, I see this in other people's writing. Elantris, my first book, was essentially me wanting to write a story about zombies. And I'm like, well, too many people have done zombies. So I'm going to do a prison for zombies. People catch this disease, they toss them in, they live there. Those were two ideas. Prison story -- done before. Zombie story -- done before. Prison for zombies -- not done before. Of course, I never once mention in the book that they're zombies, because it became something completely different. It became the magical disease. But essentially, they're zombies in prison. We did a whole podcast... I'm not sure if we've aired it yet, because we aired them out of order... but about genre bending... or about doing genres and hiding genres inside of other genres...
[Howard] We've done that one. We've aired that one.
[Brandon] We did some of them out of order to get the con ones earlier. But that's the same idea, taking two ideas and combining them.
[Howard] I get my ideas the same way Dan Brown, JK Rowling, Stephanie Meyer get their ideas. I go through slush piles and little known works of fiction by authors nobody has heard of and I steal their stuff.
[Howard] Okay. Everybody's laughing. I just want to say how patently absurd that idea is. Because like Mary pointed out first, we are full of ideas. Rowling and Brown and Meyer had their own original ideas, that other people may have independently arrived at, but they're not stealing from anybody ever. I'm comforted in this because every time I tell a joke, I worry that somebody else has told that same joke. When I stuck CostClub into my comic and then realized that Bill Amend had also taken Sam's Club and Costco and blended them and turned them into CostClub... I wasn't stealing from him and he wasn't stealing from me, we just independently arrived at something that our readers would recognize as a funny spoof on warehouse stores.

[Brandon] All right. Next question?
[audience] You've often said that you've done outlines before you start your book. How do you actually create the outline?
[Brandon] Let's take this to the wider group, because we've talked a lot about this. Mary, do you use an outline?
[Mary] I do.
[Brandon] And if you do, how do you... oh, you do. How do you create it?
[Mary] What I do is first I come up with the loose beginning, middle, end in paragraph form so I kind of know the basic structure. Then I write the outline as major plot points. Then I look at that and figure out how to get from major plot point 12 major plot point three. What steps do I need in between? It's not always two, sometimes it needs to be two, three, four and five. Then once I have that, I start writing. As I write... I don't keep the outline in a separate file. So each chapter gets its own... gets their little paragraph blurb.
[Brandon] You just expand the outline?
[Mary] I just expand the outline. Because when I finish a chapter, if I have to go over and grab the other file to see what the next chapter is, I'll do one of two things. One is I will deviate from the outline because I'll just keep writing. Or I'll go "Um. It's time for a snack."
[Brandon] Or let's see what's happening on the Internet. Nothing is happening there.
[Mary] Exactly. And then as I'm going... I was an art major in college and I had a teacher who talked about happy accidents. If I come up with something that was not in the outline, I stop and I step back and I look at it. I'm like, okay, I know what the story I want to tell is. This is going to significantly change the outline. Is it going to take me closer to the story that I want to tell? Do I find the story this is... if it's not, is it going to be a more interesting story? If both of those are no, it's not going to take me closer and no, that's not an interesting story, it's out. If it is more interesting, then I revise the outline.
[Brandon] Okay, cool. Dan? Outlines?
[Dan] I actually... as I was packing for WorldCon, I found this old notebook that I had taken a bunch of notes on for Serial Killer back years ago when I was first writing it. I hadn't realized I'd done this, but having developed the initial outline of here's the character I want and here's the general arc that I want and that's going to result in these themes, I found all these notes on how to do that... how to call these themes into conflict. If he's questioning humanity and what it means to be human, then let's make a big list of all the things that could potentially deal with that theme. Good versus Evil and all these other themes that show up in the book. Looking at this list, I can see that I took those and worked them straight into the outline. Someone finds out... John finds out that the bad guy does this and so that makes him think this. All of these points made it into my outline and that's how I created them. There's another page later on that says Triumphs. We need ways for John to show triumph and competence. Specifically thinking out what these events would be with that purpose in mind and then finding a place to stick them in the outline is what helps flesh that book out.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Howard] I do the same sort of thing. I think of it in terms of lamp-posts. You're walking down a very foggy, unlit street except there are lamp-posts here and there. Those lamp-posts are the points at which I know the character has to do something in particular. They have to have something happen to them or they have to happen to somebody else... they have to change in a certain way. The foggy parts are the prose and the pictures that lie between the lamps, but I know what happens at those lamp-posts. My notebooks... I don't write a full outline like Brandon does or like Mary does, but I will write down... these are the things that I want to have happen to the characters, these are the key characters for this story. When I'm done, I sit down and start scripting. Of course, I don't have the luxury of going back and rewriting things if I make mistakes, but I'll noodle around on themes or whatever looking for punchlines, as I'm making my way to the lamp posts. I wander a bit more than most people who outline do, but I definitely outline.
[Brandon] Okay. I work backward. I found that outlines build best for me if I start with the resolution of the conflict and then find out how I got there. But this is... I am very goal driven in my writing. A lot of my ideas come while I'm listening to dramatic music, while I'm working out in the gym trying to distract myself from how horrible it is. I hate working out. Thinking about... Oh, here's a great, powerful image, here's a great powerful climax to a story... I've got to get there and lay all the groundwork. So then I lay the groundwork. I do it with bullet points. An outline for me... I've said this before. It's not like you learn in school. Subheading B dot eye eye eye... no. An outline for me is here is this powerful important scene, how do I get there? Then I work backwards with a bunch of bullet points. Those bullet points, I usually have actually in an outline, I'll have like six or seven important things that need to happen. One's a character climax and then another character's climax and the plot conflict resolution and these sorts of things. These are all sitting there and I'll grab one bullet point from one and one bullet point from another and one bullet point from another and put them together and say, "Okay, I'm going to write a scene somehow that accomplishes these things." Or I'll decide, "Oh, one of those things needs to be split in two" and I'll write a scene that does one of those. So my scenes are built goal driven like that.
[Dan] I think it's important to point out that outlines don't have to be restrictive, they can be very flexible. I write outlines very detailed, chapter by chapter this is what's going to happen. Then I modify them constantly as I write. If I'm going along and I realize this scene is actually not as interesting as I thought it was going to be, it only takes a couple of pages, then that's going to change everything else. If I think oh this scene now that I get here, I realize this other thing has to happen first, I go back and I fix it. Or I can add more and I can change it. Writing an outline is not a way to fix your story so that it can never be changed. It's just a guideline. When you need to throw that guideline away, throw it away.
[Brandon] All right. We're going to break here, but we will be doing more Q&A at the next episode. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: ideas, outlines, q&a, wikidpad, worldcon, writing excuses
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