A question-and-answer session at Mountain con with Eric James Stone
Key points: advice for balancing work, writing, and other necessities of life? Set aside some time to write each day, treat it as a job, and find a balance that keeps you sane. It's gonna be hard. Deadlines are necessary. Set them, and reward yourself. Plot twists need foreshadowing and smoke and mirrors. Avoid self-description by staring in a mirror, but do sneak in what you can.
[Dan] many of us are working full-time in other jobs while trying to break out as a writer. What advice do you have for balancing work, writing, and the other necessities of life?
[Eric] set aside some time to write each day and try to do that... spending some time each day to write was how I got a lot done.
[Dan] I'm actually first of all very excited to announce that I have officially quit my full-time job...
[Howard] by the time this podcast airs, Dan will no longer be qualified to answer this question.
[Dan] first of all, you cannot do anything professional in your spare time. If you want to do this for real, don't wait for spare time. You have to set aside real time and treat it like a job. Beyond that... you really just have to commit yourself to it.
[Howard] I have to tell you that the four years that I spent at Novell while doing Schlock Mercenary seven days a week... the way I described it in one lecture that I gave was that those are four years with my family that I'm never getting back. Those were very very expensive for me. At the end of that four years, I had to quit the day job. Not because the cartooning was making any money -- at that point, it had only made negative $600 for the year and that was September. But I had to quit the day job because I was gonna die. It was awful. I was working 100 hours a week pretty much every week between Novell and the cartooning. And so strike a balance -- find a balance that keeps you sane and allows you to spend time with people you love. As much as I like being a professional cartoonist, what it has taught me is that the time I spend with my family is far more valuable than the time I spend cartooning. The only reason I get to be a cartoonist is that it helps me be with my family. If it didn't, I wouldn't.
[Eric] one more thing, you're probably gonna have to give something up. When I decided I wanted to write seriously, I had to give up playing EverQuest.
[Dan] the big secret here is that there really isn't a secret. There's not a magical trick we can tell you other than it's gonna be hard but you have to do it anyway. You've gotta put in the time... sorry to depress you.
[Discussion of which question to read... it's related too, so read that one]
[Howard] when you are writing without professional involvement or supervision, do you set yourself deadlines?
Yes. Yes. Absolutely.
[Dan] do we want to expand on this or just say it?
[Brandon] I can sound off on this one because I've been doing this full-time for quite a while. In fact my day job was working a graveyard shift at a hotel
[Dan] your night job?
[Brandon] my night job, which is also just me having free time and writing. And so ever since the beginning I've kind of been writing full time. There was a TV there at the hotel desk that I could've watched. I had my computer that had video games on it and things like that. You have to learn -- you can go and do whatever you want, but you won't get your writing done. I could go play Halo all day if I wanted to.
[Howard] I had someone cancel on me today. I was going to go do an interview in Salt Lake City on my way up here. So I found myself with three or four free hours. I looked at that free time and I thought ... I set myself a deadline for myself this week that I didn't meet. I was going to get a week of comics inked above my usual week of comics. So I told myself I have four hours starting right now. Okay. Go. I went, hit the deadline, and then came to Mountain con.
[Dan] the way that I always used to set deadlines for myself -- back before I had editors breathing down my neck -- was writing groups. That was the primary function of writing group for me. Yes, I learned a lot from the interaction, but mostly it was, if I showed up at writing group and I hadn't submitted anything that week, I would get laughed at. Brandon is very good at making you feel horrible when you don't submit to writing group.
[Howard] so one way to reword the question is in the absence of external impetus providing deadlines, do you find a way to provide yourself with external impetus?
[Dan] that's a nerdy way to look at it.
[Brandon] what I do is I say to myself I have to write 10 pages. I can do whatever I want when I get those 10 pages written. Now what I'll probably want to do because I'll have gotten into it enough is want to keep going if I have more time because getting started is the hard part. But I'll give myself that motivation and I'll say I've got to do 10 pages today and once I do 10 pages I can go play Halo or things like this. That works very well for me. Dangling the carrot has always worked very well for me. If I get this done by this time, then I can go watch this television show that I want to. I've been doing that for years. I actually... I turn in books ahead of deadlines, usually by about a year. I've been a year ahead on everything up until the Wheel of Time thing when they dumped it in my lap and said okay you've got a few months how fast can you get it to us? But I can only do that because on all of my other contracts I was a year or two ahead. I write every day, that's what I do. I'm a writer.
[Howard] we heard you're ahead of deadline all the time, we would like to take you down a peg.
[Eric] when I first started writing seriously again, I specifically signed up for a community college writing class to give myself deadlines, then I started attending writing groups, giving myself deadlines as well. Contests -- writing for contest deadlines and the like -- writers of the future contests for instance. Finding external deadlines helped me to start writing regularly so that then I could start setting my own deadlines sometimes.
[Howard] most writers have full-time employment and other commitments. In a finite amount of available time, what proportion of reading to writing do you recommend?
[Brandon] this is actually a great question because it is very hard to find reading time. It's been surprising to me how hard it is to find time to read. Partially because writing gives me the same feel that reading used to, but it's kind of like a little bit of a higher buzz for me. It's working the same muscles, yet if I never read, I don't know what's going on in the field, and I'm not generating ideas as well. I generate a lot of ideas from reading. Reading nonfiction or reading other fantasy books and seeing what they did and saying wow I wish they would have done this and saying well I can. So how do you balance that is a great question. I read most of the time when I can't be writing -- if I'm on a plane, I take a book.
[Howard] that's my best reading time is on planes, and now that I'm doing convention sabbatical for 18 months, I haven't read anything.
[Dan] I don't know. I read in huge spurts off and on. I will go for several months without reading and then I will feel guilty and I'll force myself to read several books. I'm in the middle of one of those right now where I'm reading just as much as I can possibly read. And how do I balance that time? I have no idea.
[Brandon] I'll admit this on the podcast. I dangle a carrot for myself. I'll say you've got to read this book, it's really influential, it's very important, it looks like a great book, if you finish it, you can have a pack of Magic cards. I'll honestly do that.
[Eric] like Dan I read in spurts... well read fiction in spurts. Nonfiction I read quite a bit of either online or I have stacks of new scientist magazine in my bathroom for when I have reading opportunities there.
[Brandon] watch your Internet time wasting. For our generation this is far more dangerous than TV or anything. And the [garbled] thing is if you spend all of your time on the Internet, you'll be reading so it activates all those same senses and then when you get done you won't want to pick up a book because you'll feel like you've just been reading for three hours but all you've gotten are stupid news stories from [fark?] about people whose cats got stuck in the blender...
[Howard] the difference between reading on the Internet and reading a work of fiction is the difference between walking back and forth between the office cafeteria and your desk and going to the gym.
[Brandon] that's a great metaphor. You're a writer or something, aren't you?
[Howard] I'm a one trick pony and that was the trick.
[Dan] I'm going to phrase this is a question. How do you develop plot twists and what makes them effective?
[Brandon] we kind of covered this before
[discussion of dejavu]
[Dan] every time we open this to the audience... every time we ask the audience for questions, plot twists inevitably come up. Obviously we need to talk more about this.
[Brandon] so what can we add new? How do you make plot twists effective? Did I mention the rule of three -- foreshadow three times?
[Howard] we talked about Chekhov's Law
[Eric] basically most of the time I have to think about how it's going to end before I can write the story, but when I'm writing the story, I often come up with a plot twist because I'm seeing aspects of the story that I haven't seen before. So I don't necessarily have the plot twist in mind as I begin writing the story, but the twist is something that comes in the writing.
[Brandon] one thing you really want to ask on a plot twist is why are you including a plot twist? It's gonna sound strange coming from me because I like really cool plot twists in my books, but a plot twist should never be there -- in my opinion -- just to twist the plot.
[Howard] unless you're writing a murder mystery?
[Brandon] well, yeah, maybe in murder mysteries.
[Howard] there are genres where the plot twist -- the artful delivery of the plot twist is critical to the genre.
[Brandon] but there's something different there. What I'm talking about... I've seen movies and TV shows before where I think they're writing along and they say you know this isn't interesting enough, let's plot twist. And then they'll have one of the characters turn out to be evil. And I hate it. Because it doesn't feel like it's right for the story -- they're twisting for the twist, not for the sense of...
[...] 24... those were not foreshadowed.
[Brandon] that's the problem. Smacking them upside the head and then having them say I didn't expect that, but it was so awesome... that's a good enough reason to have a plot twist. A good enough reason to keep the reader interested. But just to say Boom we're twisting right now -- it doesn't work and I hate it.
[Howard] but if you're going to write... so if you're a discovery writer and you're writing and you say ah I need a plot twist Boom -- when you go back and do the rewrite, you look at the plot twist and say, well, okay, that's kind of obvious that I just stuck that in there -- now I'm gonna go back and I'm going to foreshadow this. This character who turned out to be evil, I'm going to point out in act one that he has a monobrow ... or an eye patch. I don't know how you foreshadow these things. I draw them with a monobrow or an eye patch.
[Brandon] I did it. I had a character twist recently in one of the books I wrote. The way I did it was through humor. This person made lots of really violent jokes -- said lots of violent things and then would make them into jokes, would laugh about it. When you go back and look at him you're like wow, this guy is a psychopath. But the viewpoint character was seeing it and I was painting it as he's just a funny guy. So when it twists, the reader will say, oh wow, he was serious the whole time, that's creepy. So I think it's smoke and mirrors. The way you make plot twists work is smoke and mirrors, it's not the twist itself, it's what you put before it that makes it work.
[Dan] yes. With plot twists, you have to make sure they are serving both purposes at once. They have to be surprising, but they have to fit what you've done. It has to work two ways.
[Brandon] one last question, we can't get to all of them here. How do you self describe a character within their viewpoint? This is a great question. They actually put here "if she's not vain and staring in the mirror." That's the cliche. It's good to ask that because the cliche you probably want to avoid ever including is the looking in the mirror because it's been done so many times. There are a lot of editors that if in the first chapter the character describes himself by looking at a mirror they get mad at you. That's not to say you can't do it, but it's part of the cliche of the genre. So how do you do it without doing it that way?
[Eric] I'd like to know.
[Howard] I draw pictures of the viewpoint character -- I'm out of this.
[Brandon] it is rough. For instance often times I will have... you have a character brush their hair. Well you can describe how annoyed they are with how many snarls there are in their hair because it is so long. Or how good this person is at having their braids done and how they wish their braids looked like that. What you're wanting to do... if you can make it about character at the same time as you're describing them, then it's a sneaky trick to get it in. It's the same way you do all these things, you do sneaky tricks. So if you want to describe that someone is kind of heavy, then you make them puffing as they go up a few stairs, and say, "you know, I really need to lose a few pounds." That works. We sneak these things in this way. You have them take a drink, and the suds gets in their mustache and their beard. So they have got a mustache or beard. Some of these things, if you're really sneaky, you can work them in and it works really well.
[Dan] yes. I don't describe my characters very well.
[Brandon] you've got first-person, so you can do it. In first-person, you can say, "I look like this."
[Dan] but I don't. That's my problem.
[Eric] I rarely describe my characters at all.
[Brandon] I do in first-person. In third person, I try to get away with sneaky tricks.