-- How do you do bad things to your hero character without feeling bad about it?
I do feel their pain.
-- How far into writing a novel should you begin letting others read it for feedback?
When you are finished with the story. Beware of story hijacking.
-- Do the bad things you do to your characters always have to suit the story?
They need to be motivated and properly set up.
-- How do you design frightening monsters?
Take away the eyebrows. Let them do mundane, real things. Keep them in the shadows.
-- How far into the outlining process do you actually start writing?
When I am excited and want to start writing. When I have a good sense of where the story is going, where it needs to end, and more or less how it needs to get there. When it's done.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses season five episode 11, micro-casting number two.
[Howard] 15 minutes long, three minutes at a time, because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not smart enough to do that math.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Howard] I'm smart enough to do that math. That's five.
[Brandon] All right.
[Howard] By three. Brandon, go.
[Brandon] All right. First question comes from Shivem on Facebook. He asks, "How do you do bad things to your hero character without feeling bad about it?"
[Howard] [whistles] I actually don't.
[Brandon] You don't feel bad about it or you don't do bad things to your heroes?
[Howard] I do bad things to my heroes and I feel their pain. It's an emotional roller coaster for me. And I feel like if it's not, I've done something wrong.
[Brandon] OK. So what you're saying is the "I don't" means "I don't care if I do this because I think it's good to feel bad about what I'm doing to my characters?"
[Howard] Right. I think it's good to feel bad about the bad things I'm doing to good people... in my books.
[Dan] My books depend upon me feeling bad, because I need the reader to feel bad about the things I'm doing to my character. That's the point.
[Howard] I think that if you're not feeling bad about having done it...
[Dan] It's not bad enough?
[Howard] Or you're not doing it right. Or you're not a good person.
[Dan] Or... what's 3x5 again?
[Brandon] I will throw in here... I guess I'm a bad person or what... I don't feel bad. Now the reason for that being is I am an outliner which is very different from you guys. I know from page one, word one, usually, that in book 3 these characters are going to die in this specific way. I have years to get ready for it. By the time I'm writing it, it's actually cathartic. It's like...
[Howard] You're emotionally detached.
[Brandon] Or I'm finally getting this down on the page, we can finally read the end of the story.
[Dan] You heartless, cruel man. I do a horrible thing to a very wonderful person in the third book of my series, and I feel bad about it every time I read it. I just went through and did proofs on the galleys a couple weeks ago... I felt horrible.
[Howard] So between Brandon and Dan, which of you is actually the sociopath?
[Brandon] Moving on. From Gary on Facebook. "How far into writing a novel should you begin letting others read it for feedback? Is it a page number or once you get concerned?"
[Brandon] Next question... No. For new writers, I generally suggest, my rule of thumb, give it to them when you are finished with the story. Now that's not always feasible. There's a couple of reasons why it might not be feasible. You might be wanting feedback because you're having trouble finishing the story. Or you might be wanting to use your writing group to give you motivation to keep going.
[Howard] You might suffer from the same disease that us web cartoonists suffer from, which is I desperately need validation from other human beings in order to continue living and so I created a web comic.
[Dan] Well, when Brandon and I started our writing group like 11 years ago, I would basically write week-by-week. I would write a chapter and submit it to our writing group as soon as I was done with it. That is what kept me going, was the deadline of I have to have something finished so I can get it to my writing group. That's not ideal, but it kept me writing.
[Brandon] No. It works for a lot of people. It really does. It is a way to motivate yourself. Now the reason I give this warning is because story hijacking happens much more frequently if you are still brainstorming your story.
[Brandon] And still not sure where you are going to go. The writing group full of creative people can then turn your story into something completely different.
[Dan] That writing group with Brandon and I... my brother joined, and we destroyed his novel. Because he was trying to write something, he wasn't entirely certain what he wanted it to be. We thought we knew what it should be, and we absolutely destroyed it.
[Brandon] Yeah. We were not very good writing group workshoppers at that point. We hadn't learned some of these lessons. But also he...
[Dan] He took our comments to heart much too strongly, and the next week, he would come in having written a new chapter based not on where his story wanted to be, but based on our comments.
[Howard] So let me ask this question. Is Robison Wells a better novelist for having had that experience?
[Brandon] Of course.
[Howard] And are you better critiquers for having screwed him over so badly?
[Dan] I hope so.
[Brandon] Honestly, I think we all could have learned that lesson, if someone just would have told us ahead of time.
[Howard] You probably could have the lesson more...
[Brandon] What we are telling you right now, which is... don't let people hijack your story. Don't take too many comments to strongly. I mean, ideally, you want to get to the point where you are self-motivated, you are writing your stories and finishing them completely on your own without needing the writing group, and then you are using the writing group to give you feedback on the medium level issues. Not the large-scale issues, but the medium level issues of this chapter has this problem, I'm going to look at fixing it. So, if you are having trouble writing, yes, using a writing group as a crutch at the beginning can be very helpful. I really want to see you get beyond that.
[Dan] This also really depends on who you're giving it to. If you're giving it to someone and all they are handing back is a proofread, that isn't going to change the direction of your story.
[Brandon] Right. Or if they are saying, "Good job, keep going."
[Dan] If you give it to someone and they say, "This character is horrible, and your world building is stupid, and I think your story should be about a horse instead." That's the wrong person to give it to.
[Howard] Yeah. Don't hand your space opera to your 19th century lit professor.
[Dan] Or just to anyone who is going to tell you big, sweeping changes because they think you they know your story better than you do.
[Brandon] Right. Well, and that's a good thing to point out. The person didn't ask about writing groups. They just asked for feedback. Getting used to getting feedback, though, is a very useful thing for you. So, hiding in your closet and not showing your work to people can be good, but eventually you're going to have to get that thick skin. So...
[Brandon] Anyway, let's go on to the next one. This one plays off of what was before, but I'm going to go ahead and say it anyway, because it's from Sean Speckland. Who's actually a pretty fine writer on his own. He runs the Stein page, he does booksignings, anyway, nice guy. "Do the bad things you do to your characters always have to suit the story?"
[Howard] I'm going to hem and haw over the definition of suit the story.
[Brandon] Suit the story? This is kind of an interesting question because it depends on what type of story you're telling... some stories... I mean, in George R.R. Martin, the bad things he does are the story. The story in some ways is this is a terrible, brutal world, so the bad things are the tone of the story. And yet, sometimes when you're writing a book... I mean... I think what he might be asking is if you have a pretty lighthearted book all along, is it OK to still kill people at the end?
[Dan] Totally. I think so.
[Brandon] How do you do that without breaking a promise to the reader? I mean, Howard. You do a comic that is funny. It is legitimately funny, you are lighthearted, and then people die. People that you like. How do you... I mean, I assume people get angry at you for this?
[Howard] They've only gotten angry at me when the death has felt cheap or unmotivated or not appropriately set up. I mean, when I killed Tagon, I got nothing but fan mail about that for weeks. There were people who complained when I brought him back, but I didn't worry about that because I always knew I was going to do that. I wanted to tell a time travel story. I think that the definition of suit the story... if the bad thing that happens is so abrupt and so jarring and so different from everything else that went into the story that it feels like it doesn't fit, then you probably did something wrong. But then there is... what was the movie? Million Dollar baby. Spoiler, spoiler, spoiler. Something horrible happens in the last act of that movie that you think is just a movie about a woman becoming a good boxer. You realize that the bad thing suited the story by virtue of changing the whole story out from under you.
[Brandon] Let's go ahead and do our book of the week. Dan has our book of the week this week as well.
[Dan] Yes. We are going to talk about Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. Most of you I assume or hope, have seen the movie. It's a fantastic movie. The book is just as good, and in some ways better and in some ways worse. But highly recommendable. If you've never read a Chuck Palahniuk, he is incredibly poetic with his language. Which is an odd thing to say about a story about crazy, psychopathic people that beat each other up for fun. But it is. It's very well written. The language is gorgeous to read. The story is very clever. It's just an all-around fantastic book.
[Brandon] Now do we have to give a content warning on this one?
[Dan] Yes. We have to give a very strong content warning on this one. Strong language, some sex... but I don't think it's ever graphic. It's just mentioned.
[Howard] And punching.
[Dan] And there is punching as well. There is also...
[Howard] Kicking? Biting?
[Dan] Some other kinds of gruesome violence in it. It's a pretty gory book, with a lot of bad words in it.
[Dan] It's also great, and I recommend it.
[Brandon] So go to audiblepodcast.com/excuse to start your 15 day free trial, and download a free audio book to read
[Brandon] All right. Let's keep going. A.D. Roberts asks, "How do you design frightening monsters?"
[Howard] I take away the eyebrows.
[Dan] Hey, that's the same thing I do.
[Brandon] Your's... they're detachable. Then you can take them off of other people, and put them on you, and it makes you feel better?
[Dan] Yeah. Uh-huh.
[Brandon] No. Dan, how do you design frightening... how do you make your creatures frightening? You have books with creatures that are frightening...
[Dan] Yes I do. They are frightening. I make them frightening, ironically, by having them do fairly mundane things, honestly. Because they are things that people can relate to. A monster that can attack you out of nowhere and turn into mist or whatever... yes, that's scary. But your next-door neighbor who has a row of heads on his shelf... that's very frightening. It has a sense of this could actually happen to us and I love that.
[Brandon] The reality... making it real makes it more frightening. Then there is the old standby... when you show the monster, it becomes infinitely less frightening.
[Howard] The monster that you are imagining is far, far more frightening than anything I can draw, or anything I can describe in words. So the more of it you can keep in the shadows... as a rule of thumb, that's one way to accomplish it. Dan, I don't know how much of your monsters you're necessarily keeping in the shadows...
[Brandon] No, he's using the mundane. I mean, the mundane is terrifying.
[Dan] Well, and that's the thing. In both of my books, I reveal... both the ones that are out so far... I reveal who the monster is and what they do halfway through. That shocked a lot of people when the first one came out. They knew who the killer was halfway through. From that point on, the scares no longer came from I don't know what's going on, but I do know what's going on, and it could happen at any time.
[Brandon] Right. Well, it turns mystery into suspense, like we talked about. [Cough] Excuse me. The book of the week we promoed a couple of weeks back, Hyperion, does a wonderful job of this. Because there is a monster... the creature that they're going to...
[Howard] The Shrike.
[Brandon] It is legitimately frightening in places, because of it not actually being shown or understood.
[Howard] Except on the cover.
[Brandon] Yeah. Except poorly on the cover. But... anyway.
[Brandon] All right. Let's go on to the next one. "How far into the outlining process," this is from Casey "do you actually start writing?" Just a quick one.
[Dan] The point at which I feel like I am excited and want to start writing.
[Howard] The point at which I'm in a dead panic about not being far enough ahead on the comic. Well, I'd better just throw a strip out there. Hope this fits the story. I've done that... I've started some fun stories that way.
[Dan] My process in outlining is that I will outline... I will try to do a chapter-by-chapter outline, and once I have a good sense of where the story is going, where it needs to end, and more or less how it needs to get there... I will just start writing it. Because I know I'm going to come up with more cool ideas, and if I over-outline it, then I feel like that's too restrictive. I need to keep my outline loose.
[Howard] Yeah. I know that if... I don't want to say the exact same thing you just said. I know that if I've outlined it far enough that I can kind of see the shape of what might happen in act three, then whatever sorts of problems, roadblocks, obstacles I run up against painting myself into a corner in the first two acts, ah, I'll be able to figure it out. Let's go.
[Brandon] My answer to this is when it's done. That's a bad answer, because it doesn't give you very much detail. But it varies very much based on the books. Some of them I feel my outline is done after I've done one page of outlining. In some, I don't feel my outline is done until I've done 20,000 words. It really depends on the project. I generally outline a lot more than what you guys are saying that you do.
[Howard] Yeah. My friend, Daniel Willis, I think usually outlines 10,000 words of outline.
[Dan] Well, as you outline, especially the more you write, you will get a sense of "I can tell from this outline that I have enough to start" or "I can tell based on this outline that I still am not certain and that when I get to chapter 3, I won't be ready for it. I need to outline more."
[Howard] Sandra was commenting on the outline for the last action bits in the current Schlock story. She said, "Oh, that's interesting. You've got three days here where the scripted action is mayhem, mayhem, and mayhem. Do you know what's going to happen here?" And I said, "Uh, yes... mayhem!"
[Howard] I can pull something out of that just fine.
[Dan] There's going to be 20 elephants punching each other.
[Howard] There's going to be at least one elephant punching.
[Brandon] All right. Well. Let's go ahead and go with our writing prompt. I'm going to say Howard, give it to us.
[Howard] You, in an extremely, extremely spur-of-the-moment sort of living-in-the-moment thing have decided that instead of fight club, it's zoo club. And you have just punched an elephant. Hard. What happens next?
[Dan] You get arrested.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses, you're out of excuses...
[Howard] Now go to jail.