Time management: what are you willing to give up? Set a goal and times. What is important to you?
Process to get published: Write. Submit. Research. Network.
Team dynamics: position the heads in different locations. Make characters distinctive: visual cues, dialogue cues, unique motivations, roles, jobs.
Super characters: what's important to them? What problems can't be solved by superpowers?
Transition from fan to original fiction: create your own problems and personalities for characters. Build on what you already know.
Reader interaction: it's all about community.
Large cast: kill some.
Stumbling blocks to creativity: poor physical condition. Lack of reading.
[Brandon] Here we go. This is Writing Excuses Season Four, Episode 34, Q&A at Dragons and Fairy Tales.
[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
Howard] I'm Howard.
[Brandon] And this is our last podcast of the season. Which we decided arbitrarily...
[Howard] Tune in next week for the first podcast of next season.
[Brandon] We're going to do Q&A, so we have some wonderful people who are going to ask questions at us, and hopefully we can answer them. So, first question?
[Question] How do you gentlemen... when you were early writers, how do you manage your time with trying to do school and writing and all that kind of stuff?
[Brandon] Oh. Fantastic question. I'm going to give it to Dan first.
[Dan] All right. My answer is called insomnia. People who sleep at night, I don't know how you people get anything done. I basically wrote six novels between the hours of 10 PM and 2 AM over the course of several years. Because that was the only time I had. But since I never sleep anyway, it worked out really well for me.
[Howard] You kids and your TV and your video games and your other sorts of activities, I...
[Dan] Yes. Howard started writing before there were pastimes.
[Howard] I actually just gave up a lot of that. I was putting in a 60 hour workweek at Novell, and another 20 or 30 hours working on the comic. And there is no time for television.
[Brandon] I've found for a lot of writers what they suggest is you really need to actually make a goal and you need to set time aside and say, "This is the writing time." You'd be surprised at what you can do even with doing that twice a week. If you can give yourself three hours twice a week, you'll have a novel in a year. If you're... depending on the length of the novel. So if you can do something like that, or if you can just give yourself four hours on a Saturday. Every Saturday, four hours. You just have to make that the time. You maybe go somewhere, go to the library, get away. That you are actually going to do your writing space. That's the best advice I can give. I actually probably shouldn't give advice on this, because I did this while I was... I was working a graveyard shift at a hotel. I just wrote at work. I was single. A lot of that time, I was out of school. It was just pretty easy to manage.
[Dan] I did a blog post on this a few weeks ago, and I am totally fine with recycling my blog posts here.
[Brandon] Writing Excuses -- all new content all the time.
[Dan] Haha! I know none of you read my blog anyway. Even though, as we learned last time, it will save the world one day. When you don't have time for something, that is not an issue of scheduling, it is an issue of values. It is because you have chosen that you value something else more. Oftentimes, that is a legitimate choice. Work and school and having enough food to eat is probably more important than writing. But things you can give up, like TV and video games and whatever else you do with your time... if you value writing more, you have to give some of those things up.
[Brandon] All right. Question number two.
[Jordo] Wait, wait, wait.
[Brandon] Oh. Producer Jordo has declared... OK?
[Question] OK. What is... I guess you could say, what is the process that you should go through trying to get published for the first time?
[Brandon] OK. Basics of process you should go through to get published the first time. We get this question a lot, but it's a good one to keep repeating answers to because new writers need to hear it. Dan, do you want to handle this one?
[Dan] OK. Step one. Write. All the time. Write a book. Write many books. Just keep writing. Always, always be writing. Step two. Always be submitting. As soon as you finish a book, find an editor you think would be good for it, an agent you think would be good for it, and send it off. Then start writing something new.
[Howard] Don't treat rejections as non-validation.
[Brandon] Now, that's just the beginning, though. Research. Research the publishers, research the editors who work at those publishers, see if you can find their blogs if you have them to get a feel for their personalities. Know the business. You wouldn't go become a doctor without actually knowing the different medical practices that were happening, the different hospitals that were producing them, the doctors who were doing these new processes and discovering them and the sorts of things. Likewise in publishing. People tend to just wander into publishing, not paying attention to what publishers publish what, what editors work for those publishing houses, what specific names of specific agents work for specific agencies. They just kind of wander in and assume just sending those... Yeah. Do that. Then the last step would be network. Try and go to some of the conventions and conferences where you can meet some of these people and talk to them in person. That's the short version.
[Dan] Yeah. Really good books get rejected all the time because they've been submitted to the wrong person. So, that's why you need to do your research and find the right person. And you just need to keep submitting over and over and over and over again.
[Howard] Really good doctors don't go into practice because they're still using leeches.
[Dan] I know. Oh, I love those guys.
[Brandon] All right. Third question.
[Question] When you have a team in your story, what kinds of things can you do to show like different dynamics within the team and cohesiveness and problems that they may have?
[Howard] [chuckles] Sorry. Positioning the heads in different locations on the panels is... I've been drawing it all week, I've been doing a team scene where there's... different people are doing different things, and I need to show those roles. And positioning the heads in different places in the panels, and shifting that is far more important than anybody else thinks... This is Drawing Excuses. I'm...
[Brandon] First step, I would say, is make sure you keep all the members of the team distinctive. All right? To do this, I would try to give them as many of each of these as you can. A distinctive visual cue, so when you describe them, this character always... you know, this is something distinctive about them to tag. A distinctive dialect cue... dialogue cue. The way they... the things they talk about, the way they talk, is distinctive to them. Give them distinctive motivations. Everyone on the team wants the same general goal, but then each of them should want a few different things that the others don't want. Or maybe opposed to what the other ones want. And each of them has a distinctive role and job. They've got to be... someone... the main purpose here is to keep them distinct in the reader's mind. From there, you can have wonderful, complex dynamics. But if people are forgetting which one is which, and that's a lot more bigger of a problem... a lot more bigger?
[Dan] A lot more bigger?
[Brandon] A lot more bigger... that's a much larger problem than new writers seem to expect, because you know them all intrinsically because you've been working with these characters for years and years, or months, and you have them all diagrammed in your head. But you haven't conveyed that yet to the reader, so they're not going to remember. Orson Scott Card says give them all a very different name, also, to keep them distinctive.
[Dan] I will second all of that. I think it's great. This is something that new writers are often reticent to do because it feels like you're stereotyping them. Because you're making one of them the old guy, and one of them the woman, and one of them the black guy, and you don't want them to be pigeonholed like that. You don't, but you still need those cues so that the reader can very, very quickly tell who they are, and then get into the depths.
[Howard] The other thing to keep in mind is that any time you're writing a scene with all of these people in it, the scene needs to be like any other scene in that it has to fulfill several functions at once. One of those functions is defining these characters, another function is moving the plot forward, another function is defining some of these subplots. If you put defining the team members as one of the goals, and then you have been helping drive forward the conflict, the action, whatever, that probably helps you keep them in line.
[Brandon] OK. We're going to pause for an advertisement right now.
[Howard] This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by a world of broken rock in which a man stands on a shattered plain wearing powered plate armor and an awesome sword. That's right, The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, which is not half so corny as I made it sound. I totally loved this book and you will too. It's available in stores tomorrow, August 31, so go buy it.
[Brandon] And back we come. Question number four.
[Question] If you have characters who after they die, they respawn a few minutes later, how do you keep readers from getting dull to just these characters respawning?
[Brandon] OK. I'm going to expand that question to how, when you have characters that death is not a problem for them, which you may have if you have characters who are ghosts, which I have read books about, or if you're having a character such as someone like Superman, that it's like this character is not going to die, how do you make tension? How do you make the scene work? Howard?
[Howard] I remember a scene in... was it the Sixth Day where these guys can be cloned over and over and over again. The guy has just been grievously injured, and he looks down... he knows he can be cloned, they're going to fix it. He looks down and he's incredibly frustrated that one of his boots is now gone. These characters may have other things that are important to them. Maybe when they respawn, they've lost some memories. Maybe when they respawn, it costs something.
[Brandon] OK. There's a... that's a good answer, is think about your magic system and maybe add a cost on top of it. But a larger answer to the question is what do you do with characters that are that powerful? That's something that writers struggle with because if you take away some of these things then that they struggle with, you're going to have to come a with problems for these characters that do not rely upon them surviving. For instance, you could have the end of... they're going to be destitute. Becoming destitute could be a terrible thing. It doesn't matter how many times you respawn. Or somebody's going to lose their class in society. Or the wrong political party is going to come in charge and dominate everyone and enslave everybody. Being immortal and a slave stinks. Being a slave stinks anyway. But... these sorts of things... you're going to have problems and things that can go wrong that do not relate to that. Us dying is one of our major concerns. You'll have to find a different concern for people.
[Howard] Oh, sure, now I'm immortal, but I'm food.
[Dan] You can make your characters as powerful as you want... literally as powerful as you want, as long as the obstacles they have to deal with are not in their area of power.
[Brandon] All right. Question number...
[Howard] Nifty. Nice work.
[Brandon] Yeah. Why didn't we just put... you're going to answer...
[Howard] You go first this time.
[Dan] Because I am the smart. Wahaha. It's this voice. It makes me so much more intelligent.
[Question] Don't laugh, but how... do you have any advice for making the transition from fan fiction to original fiction?
[Dan] As someone who has never written fan fiction, I don't know how to answer that question for you.
[Brandon] No. In a previous podcast, Dan admitted that his first work was fan fiction.
[Dan] Long, long ages past.
[Howard] Rift fan fiction.
[Brandon] This is an excellent question. I will say to you that I've found numerous editors in New York that they grew up as part of the fan community. There is not the bias against fan fiction among them that some people think that there will be. I've heard several editors say, "Yeah, fan fiction is a great place to cut your teeth, to practice your writing." They have no problem with it. So, how do you make the transition? That's a tough question.
[Dan] The transition... I think the key you need to remember when moving into your own work is that you are working with your own characters. So the characters... you're accustomed in fan fiction to dealing with characters that already have problems and already have personalities. So the big jump, I think, is that now you have to create those, and you have to fill in all of those holes. But the good news is, if you've been writing fan fiction, you should be very good at dealing with those kinds of issues. You can draw on that experience and say, "Well, this character always had these kinds of problems and I dealt with them this way. That suggests then that I could create this all-new character and do it this way."
[Brandon] Then there is nothing wrong with taking an established character and using that as your template to start with, and then building your own character out of it.
[Howard] If you're worried that it's going to be too recognizable, just say, "Well, I'm going to take all of Worf's strengths and I'm going to take all of Deanna Troi's weaknesses, and build something completely new."
[Brandon] There's our writing prompt. No, wait, we've got that scheduled.
[Howard] They're going to give a better one.
[Brandon] An example of this that I really want to bring out is, I believe Joss Whedon when he was writing Firefly, he said, "I just wanted to write a story where Hans Solo was the hero." It was a story about him. He took Hans Solo and he built Mal out of him. You can do that as a writer. Writers do it all the time. Just make sure you're making them distinctive and changing things enough that they become your own. All right. Waiting...
[Question] Brandon, you're very responsive to readers' questions. Which leads me to this question. Is that really you responding? And, second, how important as authors is it to stay sort of involved with your readers and your fan base? Where is the line on that? Thanks.
[Brandon] OK. To answer the one directed directly at me, it is usually me. It is occasionally one of my people posting comments by me that I have written in other places to respond to the exact same question and transposing them over. It is always my writing, but it may not be me posting it, sometimes.
[Dan] You can tell he's successful when he refers to one of his people.
[Brandon] If it's on twitter or Facebook, 99% of the time it's me. Once in a while, when I'm not there watching, one of my people will post stock comments I've made before.
[Howard] Once in a while, when Dan has walked away from his iPad, somebody will post as him.
[Dan] That's true. People who love sheep always seem to do that.
[Brandon] How important... I'm going to give this one to Howard, because Howard survives based kind of on his interaction with readers.
[Howard] The... first of all, my wife answers a lot of my e-mail. When we first set that up, what she would do is forward everything to me, I would answer it, forward it back to her, and so she had what Brandon has just described, she would have a stock of answers that I had already written once so that she could pass them along. But more importantly, the webcomics genre is all about community. Managing an online community was a large part of my job for the first eight years that I was doing the comic. Less so now, but... I learned early on that it was very important to be nice. Very important to not say anything that was going to embarrass you later. I think those are rules that we can all adhere to in our online interactions.
[Brandon] I would say this is becoming more and more important, partially because writing... I've said it before, fiction is becoming a niche entertainment industry more and more as mass media... television and video games and movies are really our mass entertainment mediums and fewer and fewer people read. Now the population is increasing so actually the number of people reading goes up but the percentage goes down. But that means it's becoming a niche audience where we are supported directly by our readers. So I feel it's more and more important. The thing is that you don't need to do this. In fact, you'll talk to publishers and they will decide if they want to tour you and if that should be a part of your expenditure of time. There is an argument to be made... the amount of time I spend doing this is enough time that I could probably just take and have written another book. A short one, but a novel. So is this worth to me the amount of money that I would generate or more acclaim or whatever from having just another book to do? Some authors say no, and then don't do this and write the other book. I say I would rather have more attention brought on the books that I bring out as opposed to just writing another one. It's a balance.
[Howard] Answering e-mail and interacting with people is very fulfilling. Sometimes when we write things, it's almost like we've throw them out into a vacuum and the response... there's no feedback loop on it. Whereas with e-mail, with fan interaction, reader interaction, there's a tight feedback loop, and that's nice.
[Dan] We're recording this live. There's like a whole ton of you here in this room. I can look out and recognize many of you from previous things. I know you've come to my signings or you've seen me speak at another conference. That makes this way more fun for me, frankly. That's part of why I do this.
[Brandon] I do want to do one more question, because there was someone I called up that we didn't get to. Wasn't there a third person? Yeah, right here. So, all right. Go ahead.
[Question] What do you do when you're going along in writing and suddenly your cast of characters is larger than you can handle?
[Dan] That's when the killer comes.
[Brandon] No. That's a really good answer.
[Howard] The killer may be your editor saying, "These darlings just need to die." They get hit by bale fire. They never existed. They are written out of the book.
[Brandon] You may have to do that. But try not to let it get to that situation. A fix that if it's too hard for you to deal with telling them, group them together. Have them start interacting as one of their story lines and pick a prime viewpoint for that storyline. Let the others be additions to that storyline. So they don't have to get killed or things, they're there and being mentioned, but you don't have to... or you could become George RR Martin and manage to juggle them all somehow. I don't know how he does it.
[Howard] Group them all together, put them all on the same shuttle, and then crash it.
[Dan] Honestly, though. Killing one or more of them off like actually in your book, is a great idea.
[Brandon] Howard did it.
[Dan] Because you obviously don't need that many characters, and it will help raise the tension for all the rest of them.
[Brandon] OK. Maybe I shouldn't say this, but I think... didn't you once come to me, Howard, and say, "Man, my cast is too big and a lot of them are too alien. It's hard to draw. Yes, it's time for some of them to retire."
[Howard] It's time for some of them to retire. That's exactly what they did. It became a plot point, I hung a lantern on it, and moved on, and it was fun.
[Brandon] All right. We're going to go ahead and let red shirt lady ask her question, and then we'll be done.
[Dan] Hi, red shirt lady.
[Howard] For those of you not benefiting from the video, she has a red shirt.
[Brandon] See, that's implied. That was a show instead of a tell.
[Howard] I know. That's why my joke was funny.
[Brandon] Wait, wait. That joke was funny?
[Dan] If you have to explain it, it's not funny. OK, quick, Donna, save us.
[Question] Thank you. I have a question about creativity. I know you're outlining, I've listened to the show and I've heard a lot of what you do. What was the biggest stumbling block for your creativity and how did you overcome that?
[Dan] Just being way too creative.
[Brandon] Biggest stumbling block to creativity...
[Howard] I find that when I'm not in good physical condition, I'm less creative. I am more creative when I've been going to the gym and when I have been eating right. When I haven't been going to the gym and have been living off of toast and chocolate milk, the brain just kind of shuts down.
[Brandon] I'm going to say something that's a little bit of a pet peeve of mine with a lot of authors I know. It seems like once people start writing a lot, they stop reading. You'll hear this from authors. Who do you read? Well, I don't really read fantasy or I don't really... I find that if I am not consistently reading what other excellent people are doing in my field... and reading widely, I suggest reading widely in nonfiction stuff. But if I'm not watching what the really good writers are doing in fantasy, my creativity I feel goes down. I see this in authors that I respect who go on for a long time and stop reading what anyone else is doing and just kind of become insulated and do their own thing. I think their creativity suffers for it.
[Dan] I agree.
[Brandon] All right. We have the A-Team, a trio of wonderful people that I've known for quite a long time, are going to give us our writing prompt. Go for it, Austin.
[Austin] OK. You walk out of a bookstore to a torrential rain and Howard attacks you with the power of thunder.
[Howard] And lightning?
[Brandon] Little did... we have to expand on that. Thunder is his pet cat.
[Howard] I get a kitty?
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses and we went way too long. You're out of excuses, go write. Thank you for another wonderful season.