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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 17: More Q&A at WorldCon

Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 17: More Q&A at WorldCon


Key points: What do you do when characters revolt? Check -- is this the right character? Are you bored with the story? Are you forcing yourself to follow an outline, and you are a discovery writer? Or go ahead and write it out, then decide whether or not it is better. What's surprisingly hard about writing? Starting something new, doing revisions, doing all the parts -- beginnings, middles, ends. How do you build a world and history for your story? Study history. Reuse fiddly bits. Plan and take advantage of serendipitous happenstance. For new magic or technology, consider -- how does it affect the poorest class, the richest class, and how can it be abused?

[Brandon] And once again Mary Robinette Kowal joins us. Hugo nominee... we'll be calling for you in two days... oh, and you, too, Howard.
[Howard] Thanks. And I'm Howard.
[Brandon] You're up against Joss Whedon. I just don't know... can someone beat Joss Whedon in a fair... I don't think it's...
[Howard] If anybody can, Phil Folio can.
[Dan] Joss Whedon turns up dead.

[Brandon] We have three more questions from our audience that we are going to keep answering here. Who was the next one? It was...
[Dan] [inaudible]
[Mary] That was me.
[Brandon] No, no, your's is the next one. Come on up. I think...
[Dan] Get up here and speak at the book.
[Brandon] Here is the book. The sacred book.

[Audience] What is your standard plan of response if the characters revolt and start taking over the story?
[Brandon] This is something that writers often ask about... aspiring writers... you hear talked about... what to do when you're writing along and your characters... people will describe to me, "Oh, my characters decided that they wanted to go this direction instead of this direction" or "my characters decided that they wanted to do this." How do you respond to that? Mary, what do you do?
[Mary] My feeling is that if the character is doing something that's not good for the story, then I've cast the wrong character. Therefore I need to go back and reconsider it. I don't think that I'm only going to ever come up with only one brilliant character, so I can just save them for another story that's appropriate.
[Brandon] I've noticed... and I've asked this of professional writers a lot. A lot of them... the pros don't ask this question as often. They actually back up a few steps and say, "Okay, why is this character trying to deviate?" That means there's a problem. Either the wrong character is cast, which you've mentioned, or you've gotten bored with the story. You haven't built a story that's exciting enough, so you're trying to throw spice into it. You want to say...
[Mary] I just had this happen. I was using historical characters, which I will never do again. I was like I've got the wrong historical characters on stage. I need to go research and find a different one. I came back after doing the research and sat down and looked at it and said, "Nope, this scene is just dull."
[Brandon] It's a deeper problem a lot of times. Another problem could be that you're not an outline writer and you're trying to force yourself to outline write. Some authors don't use outlines and they don't work for them. Stephen King, as we've mentioned before, never outlines. If you are trying to force yourself to use one, then maybe you shouldn't. You should try it different ways, maybe you should free write. For me, my characters don't do this. Either I've come up with something really interesting that I want to fit into the story and I say, "Oh, this would be better" and so I just move from my outline. But I'm always in control, personally. Dan?
[Dan] When this happens to me, it is usually a dialogue problem. I like to write dialogue very organically and make it flow. When it starts flowing the wrong direction, I can immediately tell. I think, this scene is not going to end the way I wanted it to because now the characters are talking about something else. However, it is still interesting. The thing I do is just ride it out. I will write that scene I now see where the characters want to go, if they eventually get back on topic, if where they are going is more interesting. By the end, I can tell, "Okay, I need to kill this, I need to go back and I need to tweak the beginning so that this conversation will go in the right direction" or sometimes I'll think this turned out better than I expected because it went in a different way. Sometimes you just keep going and keep going and the problem might fix itself or suggest its own resolution.
[Mary] You just said something that made me think that one of the things that I often find is that when I'm having a problem, it's not with the section that I'm in, it's with the section two or three back or way back. That it's some earlier groundwork that I've done.
[Brandon] This also might go back to the concept of killing your darlings sometimes. We did a whole podcast on that, you can listen to it. I've been in writing groups with Dan for a long time. Sometimes Dan has sections that are pure genius that don't belong in the book.
[Dan] He's always very quick to point those out to me, too.
[Brandon] They'll be brilliant and he'll be writing along and it's going completely the wrong direction. That's what happened. Dan is very good with dialogue, very good with language, he gets on a roll and the scene turns out brilliant. But you can have a brilliant scene that's wrong for the book. Sometimes you have to write those out and just cut them. Use them later.
[Dan] Sometimes you have to wait for the writing group to tell you to cut it out.
[Howard] That sure would be nice. Once I've started penciling and inking the page, I'm not going to throw it away. Good night. That's work that I'm not going to do twice. I'll rewrite something if it doesn't have art associated with it, but once I've started arting...
[Brandon] So what do you do? You just follow the characters if they go off somewhere?
[Howard] If the characters start going somewhere, I can usually tell while I'm scripting that, "Oh, that's going to change the story, now isn't it?" I'll evaluate. Is it changing the story because this is what the characters would really do? Is it changing the story because the story is boring and I want to do something else? Or is it changing the story because the story that I had outlined is not nearly so interesting is this horrible, horrible thing that's going to happen if the characters decide to actually do this? Obviously, I usually lean towards making things worse.
[Brandon] We've talked about before... you have sometimes a different motivation... you want to be funny every day. That trumps everything else.
[Howard] That is a trap that I cannot prevent myself from putting my foot in. Sometimes, in order to make a joke, a character who is on the screen has to reveal something about himself or herself that is going to change the story. I will look at that joke long and hard. If the joke is funny enough, that's it. We have a new piece of information that just changed the whole shooting match.

[Brandon] Next question was actually Mary's. Do you want me to remind you what it is?
[Mary] It was...
[Howard] Let Mary...
[Brandon] What things surprised you... difficulty [partially inaudible]
[Mary] You just asked it.
[Brandon] When you became a writer... first started writing, what things surprised you in their difficulty? I'm curious about this too. We're going to make Dan answer first. Ha ha.
[Dan] This is too easy for me. Nothing has been difficult.
[Howard] Finding food in Ben's fridge?
[Dan] Yeah. The guy whose house I use as an office never stocks his food with fridge... food with fridge? The most difficult part for me is speaking clearly. The most difficult part for me of writing has been moving on. I know this is not a question that our aspiring writers are going... not necessarily going to speak to them. I sold a book that turned into a trilogy and everyone wanted it. I wrote books 2 and three knowing that they had already been sold and that those characters and the world had already been accepted. Moving onto a new project terrified me. It was the hardest thing I think I've ever done since I started writing. Because I was writing something new that I didn't know if they were going to like me anymore.
[Brandon] That is surprisingly hard. I'll say that that surprised me. Even though it didn't... it wasn't as hard for me, because I like moving on to new projects. Every time I release a book, it surprises me how anxious I get about, "Oh, now they're going to hate this one." I guess that's the artist's temperament. I would say though that the thing that surprised me most was revision. I was not anticipating revision being the hardest part of writing a book. It's easier for me to plan a book and write a book than it is for me to revise a book. I would much rather write a completely new one than revise the one I'm working on. Particularly once the 17th draft rattles around. We did, on the Wheel of Time books, 17 drafts. Normally I do eight or nine. Even by...
[Howard] That's only twice as much.
[Brandon] Only twice as many. I hate it. I hate revising. Hate, hate, hate. But it makes the books much better.
[Mary] Wow. Yes. Eight or 17? Nah. Mine was... the thing that was hard for me was I could write good beginnings and I could write good endings. The middles? It was like I would write a good beginning and I would have a really great ending... from two different stories that just happened to be in the same Word document.
[Howard] There's this skinny bridge between the two of them with angry wizard standing there saying you shall not pass?
[Mary] Yes. And asking me about sparrows.
[Brandon] I would agree. Middles are the hardest part. That didn't surprise me so much as the other things. But they are really tough.
[Dan] For me, I actually think it's been reversed. I've never been super good at endings, beginnings are difficult, but the middle? I can write the middle of the book forever.
[Howard] I know.
[Brandon] All right, Howard. What surprised you?
[Howard] Coming up with the punch line every day. I actually thought it would be harder than it was. Sometimes I look back and I wonder how am I doing it? Because the moment I start thinking about it, I'm like the bumblebee who is studying aerodynamics and can't fly anymore. Because it just stops working. It's one of those things where I have to remind myself when I start writing, "Oh, yeah, there's something I got to do at the end of this strip, but that's not what I'm thinking about right now. What I'm thinking about right now is just moving the story forward, writing some dialogue, and panel four... oh my gosh, there's a punchline. Whoohoo, it happened."
[Brandon] I wrote... I actually posted this on my twitter just a while ago... I tweeted it, I guess. I was trying to write... there is a character who's very witty in the book I'm working on right now. I realized writing the witty parts took twice as long. It took twice as much effort per word as writing the dramatic parts. I don't know if that means I'm naturally more dramatic or if it just... I don't know, but it was really rough.
[Howard] It takes practice. What I've found is that when I come up with the punchline or when I come up with the joke that I want to tell, I will then look back over the strip and say, "Okay, now let's deliver this properly." And I will rewrite the dialogue so that the phrasing of the words... comedy is like poetry, in that the words have shape, the sentences have shape. There are things that you can do to make... for instance, the word monkey is a funny word. You can make the word monkey funnier by setting up with other words. Setting up with the word predestined is not as funny as setting up with the word poo or banana.
[Dan] The Predestined Monkey is a great band, by the way.
[Brandon] actually, that's going to be our writing prompt.
[Howard] I am so sorry.
[Brandon] We'll do that at the end, though.
[Mary] I'm a big fan of monkeys, you know.
[Brandon] Predestined monkeys?
[Mary] Evil robotic monkeys...

[Brandon] One last question and then we'll wrap up.
[Audience] My question is, one of the most important things in each book is the world it's set in and the history that keeps popping up throughout the book. You learn bits and pieces. How do you build that world and the history?
[Brandon] How do you build the history for your books or your stories? This applies even when you're writing non-science fiction and fantasy, when you're writing mainstream, the characters are going to have history. The setting is going to have history. How do you devise that? How do you make it real? Mary? Why don't you go ahead?
[Mary] Boy, that's a... the thing that I do is I cheat and I look at existing structures. I look... if I'm trying to create a truly unique and original world, one of the things that I've done is that I did a survey of different cultures across the world to see what common things exist because that gives me a basic building block. It's like I can believably interpret that someone is going to have developed glass because it arose in several different cultures. Then I start looking at how things connect together. If I have got glass, then I also have to have quarries, and if I have quarries, then stone building is also going to be important. I try to build out from that, and look for... look at the lenses that people will view the world through. If a baker walks into a room... into a kitchen, the first thing they're going to notice is if the counters are clean. If an artist walks into the same kitchen, they are going to notice the color the walls are and if the paintings are crooked. It's the same thing in the world. If I've got a Temple that's got a goddess of swords, those people are going to view things through the metaphors of swords and blades and things like that. I could have actually made this much easier. When I teach puppetry and we're doing adaptation the thing I talk about is if you change one thing, it changes everything. Everything is connected.
[Brandon] Howard, let's let you answer next, because you're always last. I don't want you to feel last. You're more like next to last in my book.
[Howard] Penultimate. The technologies and the histories and stuff that I build in the Schlock Mercenary universe grow out of silly commentary I want to make in footnotes. Then I look back at the jokes I've made and say, "Hum. How could that have happened to the French?" Then I write horrible things happening to the French. I'm sorry, I had a medical experience in Nice that was not very niece. But a lot of what I do is just taking elements that I know have worked and reusing them. Someone came up to me last night during the party and said, "What are those little antenna that stick off of everything? What piece of technology is that?" He was talking about the little... I call them obligatory fiddly bits... little stick with a yellow ball on the end. I attach them to everything. He said, "What do they do?" I don't know, but it identifies things as Schlock Mercenary technology and my readers get that. I don't need to know what they do, I just know that it makes them high tech. That sort of principle is probably all the way through my sloppily written histories.
[Brandon] I use the grand old writerly tradition of stealing like a thief, particularly from history. History books work wonders for coming up and developing your histories. I use them extensively -- honestly, that's the best thing I do. But it's also goal driven for me. I will decide okay, what's important to this story? In some stories, the religion is going to be very important, so I'll world build and build the history of the religion a lot. But the language is going to be less important, so I won't develop how the languages happen. I talk about this a lot in the podcasts, but I decide what are my goals and how can I flesh out those goals and make the history like another character.
[Dan] My use of history in my books, because I write in the modern world, tends to focus on character history. That's a combination of preplanning and serendipitous happenstance. A great sample is in Serial Killer. I was developing his relationship -- the main character -- that meant he needed a mother and I wanted him to have an absent father. That told me a lot about the mother. I also wanted that mother to have a twin sister. The first time the twin sister walks on-screen in the first chapter, I wanted to compare her. I wanted to describe her. I thought, well, I'll compare her to the mother. She's always seemed... she was indistinguishable from the mother, except she seemed happier. I wrote the line, that's probably because she'd never been married. I wrote that because it was snarky, but then I thought maybe she hasn't been married. Then that started telling me all kinds of other things about those characters and what their relationship was. I built that into the story and it ended up working really well. So combination of planning and grabbing those nice hooks when they show their face.
[Howard] Serendipitous snark.
[Brandon] And working backwards.
[Mary] I remembered three things, and I can't remember who mentions them, but three things that have been really fabulous tools for me when dealing with new magic or new technology in a world. That I should look at how that magic or technology affects the poorest class, how it affects the richest class, and how it can be abused?

[Brandon] That's very good advice. All right. We'll go ahead and end with the writing prompt which is you're going to write about a band called the Predestined Monkeys...
[Howard] I thought you'd just make them write about a predestined monkey...
[Dan and Brandon] [garbled]
[Howard] It can be a band of predestined monkeys.
[Brandon] Something like that is your writing prompt. This has been Writing Excuses. Special thanks to Mary for sitting in on three of these. Thank you all, audience, for giving us questions. Keep on listening.
[Dan] You have no more excuses, now go write.
Tags: character revolt, hard parts, q&a, worldbuilding, worldcon, writing excuses
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