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Writing Excuses Season Four Episode Three: How to Manage Your Influences

Writing Excuses Season Four Episode Three: How to Manage Your Influences


Key points: we are surrounded by influences, media, people, etc. Being aware of them and conscious of what you select is important. Be conscious of your decisions, what you are doing in your fiction, and why you are doing it. "Create the art you want to create, and then make it good enough that other people like it." There are lots of great things to do, but they don't all belong in your story. Be selective. Readers may know that there is a problem, but it's your job as the author to figure out which knob to turn to fix it, or even if it needs fixing. Consider advice very carefully.

[Brandon] Managing your influences. This is another wacky Brandon podcast, where I come up with a topic and... This is just something I've noticed about myself as a writer, that it's sometimes been a challenge to me to not be overly influenced either by people around me, by media I experience, by books I read, all of these sorts of things. I think it's a problem larger than me, because I've had numerous friends and aspiring writers I've talked to come to me and say, "Wow. I just watched this movie and now I want to write a book just like that." That is actually both good and bad at the same time.
[Howard] Or the converse is true. I just watched this movie, and now I want to make sure that nothing like that ever enters into my work so that nobody says I'm being derivative.
[Brandon] One of the common questions I get -- it's not necessarily at all the most common, but surprisingly often people ask me how do you avoid being influenced by whatever you're reading? How do you avoid sounding like that? Which is actually a very good question, because I have an approach to doing this on purpose. I think we talked about this in one podcast. With me imitating Robert Jordan, well, not imitating... but wanting to be influenced by Robert Jordan in working on The Wheel of Time. We're going to do the opposite now. We're going to talk about avoiding that. Step... part number one. Let's talk about the media first, then we'll talk about people second. Because avoiding people influencing your work is important too. How do you guys avoid being influenced by the media? Do you?
[Dan] Part of it is what Howard talked about, where you want to specifically excise any allusions that people can draw. I just wrote a schizophrenia book. I wrote it knowing that there was a vast genre of schizophrenia fiction... maybe not a vast genre, but there's well-known things like A Beautiful Mind. People kind of know how the schizophrenia arc is going to go. I specifically tried to break out of that in some ways and make mine different.

[Brandon] Let me remind... let me phrase this again. It is good sometimes to be influenced by great works and great media. We did talk about that in a podcast. This is the opposite podcast. A lot of times you don't want to be. We're going to approach how to not do it when you don't want to. I'm not saying that it's always bad, but there are times you don't want to. For instance, for me, when I'm reading a Terry Pratchett book, it would be very bad for Terry Pratchett's voice and style to start showing up in my epic fantasies. Why? Well, Terry Pratchett is a genius, he writes great books, but they are so different in tone. One of the reasons that I read them when I'm writing is because they are so different in tone that I have less of an urge... less of an unconscious urge to put that in my book. But at the same time, it would be terrible if I ended up writing a Terry Pratchett-esque chapter in the middle of a Mistborn novel. So how do we avoid this?
[Howard] I avoid it by... I don't have cable television.
[Dan] Avoiding media altogether?
[Howard] I don't watch any TV.
[Brandon] You watch a lot of movies.
[Howard] I do watch a lot of movies. But I'm not inundating myself with outside influence. It's funny that you mentioned Terry Pratchett. Lots of well-meaning fans compare my stuff to Terry Pratchett's stuff. What they're actually comparing is the fact that I adopt a voice that is very similar to Terry Pratchett's voice any time I'm writing footnotes. They start to sound a lot like Terry Pratchett's footnotes. That is inescapable, and I just have to put up with it. I will always be the cartoonist who wrote Terry Pratchett-style footnotes and not Howard Tayler when you're looking at the footnotes.
[Brandon] Sometimes you just have to be OK with it. Once in a while you just do. This might be a hard podcast to talk about because of that very reason. For instance, when I was writing the Mistborn novels, I knew that there was no escaping the fact that I was writing in a specific type of genre. I couldn't really write either in the heist genre or the overthrow-the-evil-empire genre without stepping into some of those shoes. As much as I try to be original in my fiction, you can't be original all the time with everything because there is just too much that's come before you. You can't avoid it all the time. But I do think... Dan, you go ahead.

[Dan] I was going to... I think what we're talking about, without actually saying it out loud, is that there's a difference... what we're trying to do is not to avoid influence, but to avoid accidental influence. We all have influences. All three of us very specifically look for certain influences that we know are going to help us.
[Howard] I don't even know that it's avoiding accidental. It's avoiding the accidental unconscionable influence. Where somebody would look at it and say, "Oh, you totally ripped that off."
[Brandon] Or "Oh, that doesn't belong in this piece." For a short period of time, you changed tone drastically because you happened to watch a film that you enjoy a lot. I think what Dan is bringing up here is something we've talked about on the podcast before, which is being... learning to be conscious about yourself as a writer. Now this doesn't necessarily mean you have to sit down and say, "This is going to be my style and I'm going to develop it." Because style is such an organic thing. But being conscious about your decisions, being conscious about what you are doing in your fiction and why you are doing it. In other words being a professional. Knowing what you are doing rather than just letting it happen. This is not to say you shouldn't sometimes discovery write your stories, but... being conscious of that. Maybe you need to be aware of these things in revision a little bit. Maybe for you as a writer, the best tool to use is to just write your story. It doesn't matter what your influences are. You look back and find your... the best sections and say, "OK, this has to be the tone for the entire piece. Now I rewrite to keep that tone."
[Dan] Something that comes up a lot in the various writing groups that I've been in, is we'll read along and a new character will show up. Then in the writing group, someone will say, "Oh, is that based on this guy?" If... even if you didn't do it on purpose... someone once asked if I had based the character on someone from Veronica Mars. Which I have never even watched. So, no, I didn't. But if everyone in the writing group thought that, then that's something I need to keep an eye on.

[Brandon] This is why... we... there's an old adage in writing, which I think needs to be expanded. I don't think it's a hard, fast rule. But it's the concept of write what you know. My thought on that has always been, well, write what you know? I write in completely made up fabricated worlds with completely fabricated laws of physics. Write what I know? What do you mean? That does actually apply to fantasy. The reason I get a kind of a burr under my saddle whenever... can people still use that phrase, by the way?
[Dan] Yeah, you still hear it.
[Howard] If you don't change horses midstream, you can also have a burr under your saddle.
[Brandon] This is why it annoys me when people who don't write a genre say I'm going to write that stuff. They don't read a genre. I'm going to write that stuff because it's selling. That's the reason that bugs me so much is because I feel that you need to be aware of what's gone on in the genre, what are the cliches of the genre, so you don't unconsciously just be influenced by one book that you've read. You see a lot of bad fantasy come from people who have only read Tolkien and now decided to write fantasy. They've read one thing or they've seen The Lord of the Rings movies or they...uh... there's just... I don't want to name names, but there was a spectacular failure around the year 2000, 1999, where someone who'd read only one author said I can write a fantasy novel because... and then wrote just like that author. It was a specular failure. Know the body of work, know what people have done, know what the breadth of the genre is, and then step into the genre and have something to say. OK, diatribe over, let's go ahead and...
[Dan] Before we leave that topic. That made me think, the story I just told about the Veronica Mars allusion... what that really means is that I was being influenced by the same thing that the writers of Veronica Mars were being influenced by. Which arguably means that I was just writing a cliche. It's that broad. Something like that is a very subtle level of being influenced by just media and story telling.
[Brandon] If I find out...
[Howard] It may also mean that you're tapping into a fundamental archetype.
[Dan] Also true.
[Brandon] But you want to be aware of that.
[Dan] Doesn't mean it's bad.
[Brandon] When enough people say something like that, I go find out what it is they're talking about. Even if I've never experienced this genre. Say, OK, what are they tapping into, what am I tapping into, how can I make sure that it's interesting? Howard, you've got our book of the week...

[Howard] I do. Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book, the Black Swan. I read this about... I want to say six months ago, eight months ago. Talking about influences, this book influenced me pretty distinctly because one of the things that he talks about in this book -- it's nonfiction -- one of the things he talks about in this book is the principle that we look at uncommon occurrences, we look at the great disasters or wars or political upheavals or whatever... we look at these things and then tell ourselves stories about how they happened. We look at cause-and-effect... or we want to see cause-and-effect. He describes the reasons why that's kind of all in our head, and the stories we tell ourselves are just that, are stories. For a writer, I think that this book is extremely valuable because it will help you identify that process. It will help you look at current events and let them influence you in the right way as you derive your own stories from wherever events you are seeing.
[Brandon] Thanks.

[Brandon] The second half of this podcast is about not letting people take over your stories. It will... people will try to do it a lot. We mentioned this in the podcast we did on writing groups long ago. It's time to hit the topic again and dig a little bit further into it. How do you guys avoid letting your fans or just your friends or people take over your stories?
[Howard] I gave Sandra moderation rights in the Night Star forum and blogunder schlock and a couple of other places so that I don't have to go in there and see what people are saying about what I just wrote.
[Brandon] Howard, both times I've said how do you not be influenced, you say I just don't do that.
[Howard] I avoid it.
[Dan] I avoid it altogether.
[Brandon] I avoid it entirely. Well, great.
[Dan] Hope that helps you guys. Thanks for listening.
[Brandon] Don't ever show your books to anybody, and maybe deafen yourself so if they try to say something about them by... OK. Dan, how do you avoid letting people take over your books?

[Dan] Part of it is what we talked about before, about just being very aware of what you're trying to do and standing strong against that. One of the rules we gave it our writing group thing is don't try to defend your work in a writing group. I feel that when you start to do that, when you start to defend your work, you get into a defensive mindset, you start to think I need to appease this person. I need to give them what they want. Not necessarily. What you need to do is create the art you want to create, then make it good enough that other people like it. That doesn't mean giving them exactly what they want.
[Brandon] Wow. That was brilliant. Say that... can you say that again? Do you even know what you...
[Dan] What did I just say? Create the art you want to create and then make it good enough that other people like it. That doesn't necessarily mean you're giving them what they want.
[Brandon] Wow. That's awesome.
[Howard] That's good.
[Dan] OK. I'm done.
[Howard] You're out of excuses, now go write. We're three minutes short. No, Brandon's going to keep talking.
[Dan] you guys can carry the rest of this.

[Brandon] That was great. What I thought of when you were saying that is to say there are a lot of great things you can do. Keep that in mind. There are always tons of great things you can do. That doesn't necessarily mean they all belong in your story. The problem we're talking about here is, when you give someone a piece to read and they read it or even when you see a film that you enjoy. It gets back to that other concept, and you say, "Wow, I want to do something like that." I have just seen X. I just saw Avatar. I just saw The Dark Knight. I just saw a movie that I really loved. I want to go do that now. Without realizing yourself... OK, maybe there are things that I can learn from this story. Things that I can apply to my fiction in general. But every story can't do everything. Since there are lots of different ways to approach telling a story, you don't need to cram every one of them into your book. You have to realize sometimes there are good things that don't belong in your book.
[Howard] With regard to responding to writing groups. In my case, the story isn't finished and people are already reading the chapter I finished a month ago.
[Brandon] See, you can't avoid me because we go to the gym and I'm reading your stuff and I say, "Gee, Howard, I'm hoping this will happen..."
[Howard] When you make comments like that, I take them a lot more seriously than when random Night Star viewer does.
[Dan] Take that, random Night Star viewer.
[Howard] Exactly. That's because you've got... you're two things. One, you're a friend whose tastes I'm more familiar with. I know you a little bit better as an audience. Two, you're educated and you are an educator in this field. So you are going to articulate yourself differently. If there's a problem with the story, you're going to know what it is and why it is, rather than just saying nebulously, "Yeah, I don't like this. Something's wrong."
[Brandon] Thank you.

[Dan] I have another Brandon influence story here. The book we are currently doing in the writing group which is the schizophrenia book that I wrote. We hit a point two or three chapters ago where Brandon said, "This did not work for me. This is not the book I thought it was going to be. I thought that I got to solve the puzzle of what was real and what wasn't. I'm starting to realize that it's not working the way I wanted it to." I went home and I thought, "Man, that's terrible. What can I do about that?" My first knee-jerk reaction was, well, I have to change all this. I have to make it... I have to be able to put all these pieces into place. Then I stopped and I said, "No, I need to just go back and read it." I read through my notes and I read through the rest of the chapters. I thought, "This isn't what Brandon wanted it to be, but I think it's what I want it to be. I'm just going to let it go." I'm going to keep it in the writing group and I'm going to see if what I'm trying to do ends up working for him. I specifically had to back off of that influence and say OK, let's see if...
[Brandon] If what you're doing works. This is one of the reasons why we have suggested to listeners that they don't rewrite their books as they're being workshopped. It helps [cough] a lot if Howard doesn't cough while I'm trying to talk. [Cough]
[Jordo] He's trying to avoid your influence.
[Brandon] We're all trying to avoid Howard's cold influence right now. But... workshop it after the fact. Set the comments aside. Don't ever change anything immediately knee-jerk after someone says it. Read through the book again and read through the comments again. In a case like Dan's, it could simply be... and this is what I've thought on Dan's book is... it's not that he's doing the plot wrong, it's just that I've been given the wrong signals. See, this is what you get into is if he went and changed his entire book because of one comment someone said without realizing the basis for that comment is... digging deeper, understanding why they made the comment, not just wanting to appease them, not giving them... it's like when your kid wants candy and you want to give them vegetables. You understand why they want vegetables, you still got to give them vegetables and eventually that will work. Was that a good metaphor? I don't know. I've been with two-year-olds...
[Dan] No, I think that's a great vegetable.
[Howard] It's tired and we're late.

[Dan] Yes! I think that's a great point to end on. When you get comments, when you start receiving influences from readers and other people, don't just change what they tell you to change. Look at their issue. Try to figure out what's really going on. Find the real core of what their problem or their suggestion as. Then see if that is helpful.
[Howard] That's... when I was doing audio engineering, we talked about that. The customer always knows when there is a problem, the customer never knows what the exact fix is. They don't know which knob to turn. That's your job as the engineer or the author or the artist. That's one of the reasons that I respect Brandon's opinion so much is that he is a consumer of my art, but he is also somebody who is expert enough to sometimes know which knob needs to be adjusted. So Dan and I are of different opinions. Dan will ignore Brandon's advice, and I will sometimes take it.
[Brandon] No, no. It was right for Dan to ignore Brandon's advice. In fact, I think in that very time I said you should probably ignore this. Or at least someone in the writing group told you that.
[Dan] It's not ignore the advice. It's just consider the advice very carefully.

[Brandon] It's my turn to come up with a writing prompt. I'm going to suggest that you write a story in which you pretend a famous literary figure or historical figure is sitting over your shoulder giving you feedback on it, and you're writing according to what they are telling you to do. So come up with a plot, an outline, and then write your story, pretending that Abraham Lincoln walked in and is telling you feedback as you write. I don't know what that's going to do, but it should be interesting. This has been Writing Excuses that's gone way too long. You're out of excuses and so are we. Thanks for listening.
Tags: advice, discovery writing, influences, media, revision, selection, writing excuses
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