Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.13: Elemental Idea Q&A

Shannon Hale joined us at LTUE 2016 to field questions about the Idea elemental genre. Here are the questions:

  • How do you keep an elemental idea story from feeling like you’re just waiting for the idea to “unlock.”
  • How do you tie your character motivations to the idea?
  • How do you know when you’ve satisfactorily explored the idea?
  • Are there elemental idea stories that you just need to give up on?
  • Is there such a thing as “idea clutter?”

Credits: This episode was recorded live by Daniel Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson. 

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Homework: Pick your favorite idea from the brainstorming exercise, and then work your way forward, plotting out the consequences, and work your way backward, plotting the reasons.

Thing of the week: The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale, narrated by Cynthia Bishop.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

 Q&A Summary:
Q: How do you keep obstacles in an idea story from feeling just like a boring lock that’s waiting for the idea to unlock?
A: Good ideas for books are magnet ideas, that attract more and more ideas.
Q: I have a great idea for a story, but I’m not sure how to tie my character motivation to it. Any advice on how to connect characters to a great idea?
A: Start with the geewhiz idea. Figure out where it takes place. Then look at the character and question all the MICE possibilities. Brainstorm them all. What about the environment could cuase problems? What do they wonder about the idea? What challenges their self-image about the idea? What could go wrong? Finally, consider what motivates the character, and what’s at stake, what will they lose if they fail?
Q: You’ve got an idea, but you’re struggling to really flesh it out and dig deeply into it. My biggest fear is that I will do this idea, but I won’t extrapolate far enough, and the reader will just feel that it’s full of untapped potential. What advice do you have for a writer?
A: If the story is good and engaging, untapped potential is a feature! That’s for the next book. But in short stories, readers expect you to leave things out, while in novels, they may assume you hadn’t thought about it and missed it. If it fascinates you, let it grow and see where it goes. Brainstorm, especially why and what is the effect. Is it a dragon with a magic sword or a monkey with a propeller hat? Sometimes you have to keep reading, keep writing, and keep living until you can write what you want to write. Trust yourself.
Q: Is it possible to make every idea story viable, or are there just some that you have to give up on?
A: Sometimes an idea is problematic and damaging. But some people never give up on one, because if they give up on one, they will give up on them all. Sometimes you’re not ready to make an idea work. If it doesn’t seem viable, maybe the story is flawed. Go back to the beginning and think about it again.
Q: How do you avoid using too many ideas at once? Is there such a thing as idea clutter in an idea story?
A: Not too many ideas. You can have the wrong ideas. Beware the gorilla in the phone booth, a throwaway line that is cooler than what the character is focused on. Watch for too many ideas for the length of the story you are telling. Don’t hold back on your cool ideas, you will not run out of them.

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 13.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on Idea Stories, with Shannon Hale.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we have long time friend Shannon Hale. Award-winning, best-selling author.
[Shannon] Hello. I’m so happy to be here.
[Brandon] Thank you so much for coming, Shannon. We’re going to throw some questions at you, okay?
[Shannon] Awesome.

[Brandon] So the first one is from Steve. He asks, “How do you keep obstacles in an idea story from feeling just like a boring lock that’s waiting for the idea to unlock?”
[Shannon] I think of ideas, the good ideas that turn into books, as magnet ideas. Because really, you get ideas for stories all day long any day. But certain ideas keep attracting other ones and other ones. Any book is not just one idea. It’s thousands of ideas. So it feels live to me, then I keep thinking about it, I keep adding ideas to it, and then I know it’s going to flow.
[Brandon] Excellent. I think she covered it. Anyone else want to weigh in? That was good.
[Howard] Next question.

[Brandon] All right. Next question, both Christie and Chris… No relation… Have a question along the lines of “I have a great idea for a story, but I’m not sure how to tie my character motivation to it. Any advice on how to connect characters to a great idea?”
[Mary] I do. Hurrah! So what I do is, I look at… So you’ve heard me talk about the MICE quotient a lot. But basically, what I do is I look at my kind of a geewhiz idea, the thing that I’m excited about. I figure out where it takes place. Then I look at my character and I decide… I go down the MICE quotient thing. I’m like, “Okay, what is it about the environment that they need to get out of? What makes them feel trapped? What is going wrong with the environment? Anything?” I just brainstorm these. Then I ask, “What questions do they have? What are they wondering about the place that they are and around the idea?” Then I ask, “What is challenging their self-definition in relationship to the geewhiz idea and the environment and just the character themselves?” Then I ask, “What has gone terribly, terribly wrong?”
[Mary] Basically, what is the idea… How is the idea directly impacting the character? That allows me to kind of cracking apart what some of their motivations might be. I also then figure out what they have at stake. That allows me to figure out why it is that they need to try and succeed. When I say what they have at stake, what they will lose if they fail at overcoming things.
[Shannon] If you start with an idea, the main character should be whoever has the most to gain and the most to lose.

[Brandon] The next question, three people asked a kind of similar question, one of them being Sadie. They say, “You’ve got an idea, but you’re struggling to really flesh it out and dig deeply into it.” Another of them says, “My biggest fear is that I will do this idea, but I won’t extrapolate far enough, and the reader will just feel that it’s full of untapped potential.” What advice do you have for a writer?
[Dan] I think that if the story you’re telling is good and engaging, untapped potential is a feature, not a bug. That’s one of the hallmarks of something like Star Wars or Star Trek, is that they suggest an entire galaxy full of stories and you’re only seeing one of them. As long as that story is good, then they’ll be excited to read your next book.
[Mary] I think that that’s a yes and a no. It depends on the kind of untapped potential.
[Dan] True.
[Mary] One of the big differences between a short story and a novel is that in a short story, the readers are used to you having to leave things out. So when you do, they assume that you left it out on purpose. In a novel, when you leave things out, they frequently assume that it is because you haven’t thought about it. So, for instance, in Shades of Milk and Honey, I actually thought about how glamour was going to be used in warfare, but because I don’t actually show it, people assume that I have not thought about how glamour would be used in warfare and feel like that is an untapped potential.
[Dan] I think I sent you an email like that, exactly, when you sent it to me. Sorry.
[Mary] No, no, it’s fine. It’s fine.
[Howard] As we’ve talked about the element of idea, the subgenre of idea, one of the adjectives that we use is fascinating. If a thing is fascinating to you, let it continue to fascinate you. Focus on it, think about it, let it consume you, because sometimes what we do is, “Oh, I’ve got a great idea, and it’s going to let me give a dragon a magic sword.” Well, that’s awesome, but continue to be fascinated with that idea, because you might end up with a monkey that gets a propeller hat.
[Brandon] That’s a great idea.
[Mary] So, two specific techniques, or one specific technique to make sure that you’re really mining the idea when you’re… Especially when you’re an early career writer and these are new muscles. Brainstorm, with a piece of paper. Just jot down thing after thing. But specifically… Related to the idea. But specifically what I want you to be looking at is, why is it like this? And what effect does it have? Then build from that. So a dragon gets a sword. Why does a dragon get a sword? Because a witch gave it to him. Because a fairy gave it to him. Because he killed a knight and kept it. Okay. So he killed a knight and kept it. What’s the effect of that? He has a sword. The townspeople are going to come after him. The monkey is not happy, because the monkey was the knight’s friend. I don’t know.
[Shannon] And didn’t have a propeller hat.
[Mary] And didn’t have a propeller hat.
[Howard] The monkey can now fly.
[Brandon] Have you ever read the picture book The End?
[Mary] No.
[Brandon] It’s really fun because it starts with the end. Then it says the handsome prince and the clever princess got married. Or the handsome knight and the clever princess got married because… Then you go back a page and it shows that step that led them there.
[Mary] Oh, that’s great.
[Brandon] Then it says because… It’s a children’s book where the fun of it is the kid saying, “We’re reading this book backwards!”
[Mary] That’s great.
[Brandon] It’s a really cool way of looking at story structure because it leads all the way back to the princess going shopping for lemons and involves a dragon and it involves all sorts of adventures, and the knight’s beard getting started on fire and her saving his life and all of this stuff.
[Mary] Does it count as a spoiler if you’ve revealed the beginning of a story?
[Brandon] Yeah. It’s a really clever fun little book.
[Shannon] I would add… What I’m hearing a lot in these questions is how I felt in my teens and early 20s, which is my desire to write in my ideas are bigger than my current ability. Sometimes the answer is just keep reading, keep writing, and keep living, until you develop your brain to be able to write what it is that you’re wanting to write.
[Mary] Can I throw one other thing?
[Brandon] Go for it.
[Mary] One other thing is when you’re looking at ideas and you’re trying to decide which one to use… Particularly like if you do that brainstorming thing. One thing that I think is really, really important is that you trust yourself. With an idea story, in particular, we’re talking about a sense of fascination. Don’t pick the idea that you think is the best or that you think is going to be the most marketable. Pick the one that you are most fascinated with. Trust yourself. Because you’re the first and most important reader of this story.

[Brandon] All right. Let’s go to our book of the week. Which is The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale.
[Shannon] The good one.
[Brandon] Ah. Shannon, will you give us like a thirty-second pitch on The Goose Girl?
[Shannon] It was my first book. It’s always interesting to read debut books. What fascinated me so much that I gave up everything to write this book. But it’s based on a fairytale, the story of a princess who has an arranged marriage with the prince in another kingdom. On the way there, her lady-in-waiting betrays her. The guard betrays her. There’s a massacre in the forest. She escapes. She is too far away to go home. She has to hide out, or if they find her, they’ll kill her. It’s that story.
[Brandon] Now, I remember one time, and I could be remembering falsely, that you originally wrote this and submitted it as an epic fantasy?
[Shannon] Yes.
[Brandon] To all the adult publishers. Finally, you submitted it to someone and said maybe this would work better as a teen book.
[Shannon] Yes. It was actually I found an agent who told me it was a teen book. When I was growing up, there were no teen books.
[Brandon] Right. For me, the same.
[Shannon] So I was reading Locus Magazine, and I was studying that back to front to look for agents and editors that could publish this as an adult fantasy. So I didn’t know there was even that option. Then, once I realized that and started reading all the YA fantasy in the library, I realized, “Oh, this is a great home for me.”
[Brandon] I’ve read The Goose Girl and many of Shannon’s books. I love it. It’s delightful.
[Shannon] Brandon!
[Mary] And I have listened to it in audio. I also actually reviewed it way back in the day when I was doing audio reviews, and love it. It’s recorded by Full Cast Audio, and you can go and pick it up at [] as part of a 30-day trial membership, and you can pick this up as your first book. I have to say this is one of the best audiobooks I have ever heard.
[Shannon] Oh, thank you. Now, we didn’t hear from Dan and Howard about what they thought about it?
[Laughter] I just want to make sure we’ve got time, for a full review.
[Dan] Well, it’s going to be so hard to condense it down.
[Shannon] Right. That’s fair. We could talk later.
[Howard] This book is one of the books that gives me the greatest amount of regret for not having read it yet.
[Shannon] Can I get that blurb on my cover?
[Howard] Yes. Yes. I will blurb that.
[I want that blurb, too.]
[Shannon] Because regret is the emotion I’m most seeking in my audience.

[Brandon] All right. Let’s go on to some other questions. This is kind of a more fun one, that I think it would be cool to answer. Tiffany asks, “Is it possible to make every idea story viable, or are there just some that you have to give up on?” Have you guys ever given up on one? Also, do you think that every idea could be made a story?
[Mary] I have given up on one because I realized that it was deeply problematic and damaging.
[Shannon] Oh, good.
[Mary] There was no way to write it without that being the case.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Shannon] I think that’s the best reason to give up. If it’s going to be damaging. I’ve never given up on one, because as soon as I give myself permission, I will give up on all of them. Because there’s always points… Many points in writing a book where I feel like it’s a lost cause, and I have to push through it. But I don’t think that’s right for everybody. I have a friend, Mette Ivie Harrison who writes like 30 first drafts a year. Some of them she says just do not work. I write one first draft a year. So we have a different process.
[Howard] I put a lot of things in a trunk where I realize I’m not the writer I need to be, I’m not especially the illustrator I need to be, in order to make this work yet. Maybe someday I will be. Maybe this is actually somebody else’s story to tell, which I think comes back around to what Mary said. So yeah, a lot of ideas, I’m not the right guy for. That does not mean that it’s not a viable idea. That just means that I’m going to work on something else now.
[Dan] I would suggest that for most story ideas that you get, if you get to the point where you think this idea is not viable, really what’s going on is that the story you’re trying to tell about that idea is flawed in some way. If you take it back to the beginning and start to think about it from a new direction, you might find a way to make it work.

[Brandon] Jeffrey asks, “How do you avoid using too many ideas at once? Is there such a thing as idea clutter in an idea story?”
[Mary] Well, Brandon.
[Brandon] I’m going to defend this one.
[Dan] Okay, I say no. I say if you do it right… One of my very favorite authors is Philip K. Dick. He has throw-away one line ideas that any other author would build an entire series around. Any given Philip K. Dick novel has more ideas in it than I can keep track of, having read it three times.
[Mary] I was joking when I said that to Brandon. I don’t think that you can have too many ideas. I think you can have the wrong ideas.
[Brandon] I can… There is a couple caveats again on this. Number one, no, I don’t think you can have too many. But you can do the whole gorilla in a phone booth thing, right. Which I talk about, which is where your character’s focused on one thing, and if you use a throwaway line that they really cool idea that is cooler than what the character’s focused on, you risk distracting the reader from what the character would want to be interested in. You can put too many ideas in a book that doesn’t have the length to handle them all. You can also put too many ideas for your current skill level to handle. When I originally tried to write The Way of Kings, there were so many ideas packed into that that it became a glorious disaster, a huge train wreck of a book. It was not a good book. That taught me a lot about how to use all those ideas better, and when I wrote the book again from scratch, I got them all right and even put in more ideas and it came together. So…
[Dan] But that second attempt was several years later.
[Brandon] It was.
[Dan] After you had learned the skills to handle it.
[Howard] Also, you’re not using all the ideas at once. You took like 1000 pages.
[Brandon] No, really what I did… You’re saying this… What I did is I said I’m going to shift some of these ideas, which is dangerous. I always say to writers, put as… Frontload your coolness. Don’t save your coolness for later on. But really, what that’s saying is, the more you write, the more you’ll know how to space out your coolness in the right way. The Mistborn series… I talked about this in a panel recently, I put three magic systems in, and I didn’t deal with the second one in the first book, or the third one in the first book. I said first book, this magic, second book we’ll start delving into this one, third book we’ll get into that one. I could have frontloaded all of them, and it would’ve been a worse book for it, even though I say, “Don’t hold off on your awesomeness.” So it’s really get used to and comfortable with using ideas.
[Shannon] But one thing I would add to that is sometimes with newer writers, I find the fear they’re not going to have enough ideas so they want to save some for later. They get a little precious with it, and then there’s just really not that much substance to their first book. So I would say, “Don’t save anything.” You can always rewrite, you can always figure out pacing if it feels right. Don’t save anything for later. Because the truth is, the more you live, the more you read, the more you write, the more ideas you have. You’re not going to run out of ideas.
[Mary] One thing that I want to add on this is that we’ve talked a couple of times about ideas that we were not yet ready to write, not yet having the skill set. It is okay to say, because I’ve done this too, to say, “All right, this is not having the effect that I want it to have. I’m going to wait for a little bit to use this particular thing.” But you don’t have to get rid of it.

[Brandon] I’m afraid that we are out of time. Unfortunately, I’m sorry that we didn’t get to all your questions. Mary has some homework for us.
[Mary] All right. So last week, Nancy gave us a homework assignment in which you were supposed to brainstorm about 20 different ideas. What I want you to do is I want you to pick your favorite of those ideas. Take that idea and then start thinking about consequences and reasons. I want you to basically look at it and go what-if and why. I want you to work in opposite directions. So I want you to go why as far back… I want you to go back 10 steps of why. And I want you to go forward 10 steps of what-if.
[Brandon] Maybe go back last year and listen to the podcast we did on brainstorming during Season 10’s Master Class. Thank you so much, Shannon, for joining us.
[Shannon] My pleasure.
[Brandon] Thank you to the audience here at Life, the Universe, and Everything.
[Whoo! Applause and whistles.]
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.