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

12.34: Fulfilling the Reader’s Fantasy, with Brian McClellan

Your Hosts: Brandon, Piper, Dan, and Howard

Brian McClellan joins us for a discussion on fulfilling the promises we make to our readers—specifically the genre-specific promises made by the simple fact of where the book is shelved.

Credits: this episode was recorded in Cosmere House Studios by Dan Dan the Audioman Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Write your next story in a time period that you haven’t written before. Make up the facts if you want to.

Thing of the week: Operation Endgame, Book 6 of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurences, by Tee Morris and Pip Ballantine.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Romance and flintlock fantasy — what do they have in common? Fulfilling fantasies. Setting up the promises? The romance genre promises a Happily Ever After! Or at least a happily for now. To set that up, start with a sizzle of attraction, a possibility of a relationship, as early as possible. Then explore the journey that brings them together. Epic fantasy, also, implicitly promises magic and big things happening. At the first possible point, introduce magic in the world. Then drop in big things going on. To make it feel epic, more than one country, large plot lines, bigger stakes. Let the reader figure out that the character worrying about his family being touched by violence means bigger things are going on. Romance, fantasy — escapism? Wish fulfillment? But… escapism isn’t a bad word! In romance, you get to explore possibilities. Try some Tex-Mex, instead of your own cooking. Experimenting. Take over a country, sling fireballs, without real danger. Escape for an hour or two. Hope! Fantasy lets us go somewhere new, explore out there, and also think about what it means to make a choice between magic or family. Without putting 14-year-old boys to sleep.

[Mary] Season 12, Episode 34.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Fulfilling the Reader’s Fantasies.
[Piper] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Piper] I’m Piper.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Brian McClellan. Hi.
[Brian] Hi.
[Piper] Hello.
[Brandon] Brian McClellan, my former student, is on the podcast because he complained incessantly to Wesley Chu…
[Brandon] That we had never had him on the podcast before.
[Brian] And Wes is a giant loudmouth, by the way.
[Piper] I have not yet met Wes in person. Is this good or bad?
[Brian] Wes is delightful. He’s one of my favorite people in the genre.
[Brandon] Just don’t complain about not being on the podcast.
[Brian] Apparently, anything you say to Wes will totally be repeated to the people it shouldn’t be repeated to.
[Piper] Well, you know how it is…
[Brandon] I’ve only known you for 10 years, and you only live down the street from me, and yet, I’ve never had you on my podcast.
[Dan] In my defense, I suggested bringing you on before Brandon mentioned that Wes had been whining on your behalf.
[Brandon] Yeah, that’s the really sad thing is Wes whined, and I’m like, “Oh yeah, maybe Brian…” But then I forgot.
[Brandon] Until Dan said, “Hey, Brian McClellan.”
[Howard] I think that’s our pull quote, “Oh, yeah, maybe Brian… But then I forgot.”
[Brandon] Oh, Brian’s books are excellent.

[Howard] Fulfilling reader’s fantasies. Brian and Piper pitched this to us.
[Brandon] Well, they pitched… Each pitched a different episode, and I combined them into one. Piper has written a lot of romance, and Brian has written a lot of flintlock fantasy. So the question becomes, what do these two share? What do they have in common? Well, fulfilling fantasies. So let’s talk about this. I want to kind of first dig into a Writing Excuses common topic. We want to hear from you guys. We’ve talked about it a lot. How do you guys set up promises in a story? And how do you then fulfill them?
[Piper] Well, I kind of have an easy out in the fact that romance is a promise, by the definition of the genre. If you go to, the definition of a romance is that it will have a happily ever after. So I am promising my readers that they will at least have a happily ever after, or possibly a happily for now. But that’s more contemporary, and there’s some hard-core romance readers who really don’t feel that that’s a romance. It has to be a happily ever after. That doesn’t mean it ends in marriage. But it does mean that it ends in a committed I love you.
[Brandon] So how though do you make sure you fulfill on that? Basically, you can just have the ending of the story be, “Oh, and then they get together.” I mean, you can just wave your hand and make that happen, and it won’t be fulfilling if you haven’t set things up along the way. So merely being part of the definition isn’t enough. How do you make it work?
[Piper] So what I do to make it work is… I personally write male-female romance. Which means I have a hero and I have a heroine. I’ve never done the male-male-female or male-female-male or female-female yet. However, what I try to do is I set up complementary yet contrasting personalities, and I immediately, in the first chapter, give the possibility in that sizzle of attraction. So you know there is the possibility of a relationship. The point now is to go through the entire story and find out the shenanigans and the pitfalls and challenges and those moments that make you absolutely sure that they belong together. Find out what the journey is going to be for them to come together. But that first start has to be a sizzling connection somehow. Maybe not instant love, because… Sometimes we joke around in the romance world, that’s insta-love, where you just immediately see each other and that’s it, you have to have each other. But you could have hate that’s going to turn into love. But whatever it is, there’s a sizzling attraction that makes them like van der Waals forces, they constantly come closer together, and then drive themselves… Each other apart, and then come back together again. You want the start of that chemistry.
[Brandon] That’s awesome. This is a perspective we haven’t ever gotten on the podcast. It is super helpful to me for viewing this genre. Really, I’m going to turn to Brian now…
[Dan] So, Brian, live up to that.
[Brian] Right, right.
[Piper] Oh, come on [garbled] Brian.

[Brandon] [garbled] to you on this, and it’s complimentary, because that promise you make with Promise of the Blood, no pun intended, the cover is fantastic. The air, just the sense of epic feel that the cover gives of that first book is striking and stunning. You are offering something new in fantasy. Flintlock fantasy has been around, I mean, Blue Sword is flintlock fantasy, so it’s been around, but as a subgenre coming into its own, this has been a recent occurrence. You’ve kind of been fighting against tradition in the genre. How are you doing this? How do you make this work? How do you give people what they want from fantasy, while giving them something different?
[Brian] My… Like romance, epic fantasy has kind of this implicit promise in it. It’s going to be epic, and it’s going to be fantasy. So, magic and big things happening. I try to set that stage in a way that you would in any epic fantasy right at the beginning. You introduce, hopefully, I try to do it on the first page, but the first chapter definitely, introduce the fact that there is magic in the world. That doesn’t have to be overt. It can be simply dropping in a character’s inner monologue something about sorcerers or magic or something like that. You can do a setup like that super easily. There, you’ve set up this promise. You’ve said, “Okay. We’ve got the magic.” Then, political machinations, all that stuff are things that you build up to, but they’re pretty easy to drop in as well. Just the small bits of planning, and this is what’s going on in the country right now that worries me as a citizen, all that can be in your character’s inner monologue. Really easy stuff. I think… What I try to do with flintlock fantasy is to treat it exactly like I would epic fantasy. Normal, medieval epic fantasy, and just not acknowledge that it’s different. It’s actually worked really well…
[Brian] Just to… It’s got all of the same stuff, it’s got epic charges, it’s got magical rules.
[Brandon] Okay. Let me ask right there. I’ve pushed her to talk about specifics. How do you make it feel epic?
[Brian] With epic, I… Epic, to me, always implied more than one country, larger plot lines, bigger stakes. Not necessarily world-ending stakes, but bigger stakes. Things that are going to affect an entire nation or several nations. Setting that up is just… It’s just a matter of having characters be worried about things, often times. Because if somebody is worried… I had a character in my first book, in the very prologue, or in the first chapter, he’s a family man, and he’s worried about his family being involved in any possible violence that happens in the city. That sets up the fact that, oh, if there is violence in the city, there’s probably going to be something bigger happening that’s causing that violence. It’s a chain reaction often times in the reader’s head, I think, where they make quick leaps of logic that you don’t necessarily put in there overtly, but that are implicit in what’s happening.
[Brandon] That’s a really good answer, too. Well done. I thought I was pitching a really difficult one to you…
[Brandon] Because defining a genre is always so difficult.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week, which Piper’s going to tell us about. The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences.
[Piper] Yes. The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences is a six book series by T. Morris and Pip Valentine. It’s actually really, really great steampunk adventure, so if you’re kind of the person who likes the X-Files and Warehouse 13, set in a Victorian steampunky setting, then this is definitely a great series for you. Operation Endgame wraps up the series for Book and Braun, our favorite characters. I think it comes out in a June-ish time period this year. So it should be… The full series should be out there and available to you in your favorite audio, print, or digital.
[Howard] That’s Operation Endgame, which is book 6…
[Piper] Operation Endgame.
[Howard] Of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences by T. Morris and Pip Valentine.
[Piper] Yes.

[Brandon] All right. So, coming back to this. I’ve got a slightly different take on this to pitch at you. In some literary circles, the word escapism is like a pariah. You mentioned that, and it is the ultimate putdown. I have always disagreed with this. I think there is value in what we call escapism. In being able to leave your world behind and go somewhere else and experience the lives of other people. I think it has inherent value. Romance is often accused of being the ultimate escapism genre, with fantasy like one step behind in that. I would ask you, number one, any responses to this accusation, oo, escapism? Then, taking that a little further, I would see that in book… All of ours, there’s some wish fulfillment. You want to provide a story where the reader can see themselves in the protagonists and be able to live these lives and be part of this. How do you make that escapism more powerful for the reader?
[Piper] I think escapism has been turned into a bad word, but isn’t. It isn’t a bad word. It’s fantastic to be able to escape at the appropriate time or when you want to, and escape into a world or a lifetime that you would like. When it comes to romance, I think also what you find is the possibilities that are available to you. Any romance line that you like, all of those subgenres, whether it’s contemporary romance, romantic suspense, historical romance, fantasy romance, sci-fi romance, all of the romances that are out there. Yes, it has some strong tropes to it as well, but what you know is that you can go into the story you can reassure yourself that yes, there are possibilities out there. That things could happen. You may think that it’s fairly… These stories are fairly unrealistic. But these romances do happen, and you actually get a feeling of positivity when you finish reading that story, or when you finish having escaped into that book. It actually allows you to face the world in a more positive way.
[Brandon] I agree 100%. When I have… Every signing I do, I have a reader or two come up to me and say, “I was having just a most horrible time, to the point that I didn’t know if I could continue, and your books are what got me through it.” Right? That happens to all of us. You just sit back and say, “Wow.” That is the power of what we can do. It shouldn’t be a bad word.

[Howard] I think the problem with the word escapism is that it does not imply a destination. It’s not that I want to get away from this world. It’s that I want to go to a specific one that I happen to like. When I go out to eat, it’s not because I want to abandon my kitchen, it’s because there’s this Tex-Mex place that I’m really hankering for right now. The word escapism… That’s what most people who are participating in escapism are looking for. But the word doesn’t say that. The word suggests, “Oh, you’re just abandoning this life to go lose yourself in a book.” Well, but you picked the book. I mean, Brian and Piper, you guys give us destinations and it’s not that, oh, we just want to leave the house and get out of the kitchen, it’s that we want to go eat with Piper, we want to go eat with Brian.
[Piper] It allows you to experiment. It really does. It allows you to say, “Hey, I want to try experiencing this thing.” Romance, in particular, I’ve often jokingly said to my audiences when I’m on panel that you can… If you have a friend or a significant other who reads romance and in paperback, you can open the page to their favorite scene just by dropping the book. It’ll open to their favorite scene. I will guarantee you that if it’s a romance novel, that is a step-by-step instruction manual to the hanky-panky they’ve always dreamed of having…
[Piper] Right? So it allows them to explore a possibility. Like I would really love to try this. Or I would really love to go on a… I don’t know, go meet cowboys and go horseback riding and get that fresh air and the scenery and see the potential of romance there. Or I would like to try a cruise someday.

[Brian] Well, I was about to say the same type of thing for epic fantasy. Because you’re looking at it from… the average person goes to work or school or whatever and comes home and that’s what they do every day. So you get to go and experience taking over a country and slinging fireballs at people without any actual danger. The same thing happens when you go and watch TV. When you watch House of Cards or when you watch the billions of police procedurals. It’s all about going and doing something that’s totally out of your personal world experience without actually having to do it. You can escape to it. For an hour or two. That’s great.
[Dan] That’s something that we talk about a lot in horror, is… Horror as escapism doesn’t make a lot of sense to a lot of people. But it’s this idea of being able to experience something and overcome it within… Without keeping your hands outside of the roller coaster car. You’re not in any actual danger. We have such a mundane existence for the most part. We go to work, then we come home, and we make dinner, and then we go to bed. But we need to be ready to experience some of these emotions, because we inevitably will. Because life is not as mundane as we think it is. This… Books give us that ability.
[Piper] Books give us hope. I mean, I had a reader who contacted me last year, towards the end of my True Heroes series, when Absolute Trust was about to come out. She told me… Sent a picture with it. But told me my books had helped her get through some really heavy duty hard adult bullying she was going through in her dog training school. As a result of that, she came through her dog training school with her dog partner very, very well. And got a second German Shepherd dog and named her Piper. So there’s a dog named after me…
[Piper] And it’s awesome.
[Howard] The presentation of the promise, the point at which in your story you let people know what the destination is that they’re escaping to… One of my favorite examples of this comes from the quest completion text for your first gun in Borderlands 2. The text is, “You just moved 5 feet and opened a locker. Later, when you’re killing skyscraper-sized monsters with a gun that shoots lightning, you’ll look back on this moment and be like heh.”
[Howard] When I read that, I got chills because I was like, “Oh. I have this little tiny clinky gun. You’ve just told me that this world has skyscraper-size monsters and guns that shoot lightning, and I am somehow going to get to that point.”

[Brandon] So, this has been a really great discussion. I kind of want to cap it off sharing a story from my life, and I know I’ve shared parts of this on the podcast before, so I apologize if you’ve heard it. But I think there is an intrinsic value to making people enjoy something, while they also discover something interesting or useful. I often share the story of my wife making smoothies with spinach in them. Because my children love the color green, and so as far as they’re concerned, we’re putting spinach in just to make the smoothies green, which they think is awesome. But then, they get the spinach. As a kid, many people tried to get me into reading. They gave me book after book after book. They were dull. They were boring. It was like Brian said, I lived a life every day, and I actually liked my life. I didn’t… I wasn’t one of the teenagers having a really rough time. But I wanted to go someplace new. I wanted to explore. It wasn’t until a teacher gave me Dragon’s Bane, fantasy book, for the first time and I read it that I experienced this. I discovered this is what I’ve been missing. I didn’t want books that just sat and preached to me. I wanted to go someplace. But at the same time, if you haven’t read Dragon’s Bane, it’s about a woman, a middle-aged woman, which is… You shouldn’t, you know, according to the rules, give this to a 14-year-old boy. But they did. This was about a woman who’s trying to choose between her magic and her family. She… If she would explore with the magic more, she could become this great wizard, but she also has a family and is balancing her time with them. I was reading this book, and just loving this book about going and slaying a dragon. I’m like, “Oh, you really should study your magic more. This is really cool.” At the same time, my mother graduated first in her class in accounting in a year when she was the only woman in most of her accounting classes. She had gotten offered a prestigious scholarship and turned it down to have me. As a teenage boy, I’d always heard the story about well, of course she did. Right? I am awesome.
[Brandon] That is what people do. That’s what parents do. I’m reading this story. I get done with the story about going and slaying a dragon and magic and wonder. And I understand my mother more. That… Like, if it hadn’t been enjoyable, I would never have gotten that. You give me a story about an accountant trying to choose between family and accounting? As a 14-year-old boy, I would have been asleep on the floor, using the book as a pillow. But you give me a fantasy adventure story that I love, you put some of these themes in, and you change me into a reader, and make a writer out of me with one book. That is the power of what we do. So don’t ever let anyone tell you “just escapism” when they point at a book.

[Brandon] You were going to give us a writing prompt, Brian?
[Brian] Okay. My writing prompt. Oh, right. So, write your next story in a time period… Doesn’t matter what genre, you can change it up if you want… In a time period that you haven’t written before. You can make up the facts if you want. I know Mary would probably murder me if she was here.
[Brian] But just do something different, in a different time period.
[Brandon] That is a very good prompt. We want to say thank you for coming. You guys should really all go read Promise of Blood. It is a fantastic book. Brian gets better with every book, which makes us angry, because he is getting so good at this writing thing. You’re going to love…
[Howard] We should have killed him before it was too late?
[Brandon] Yeah. His new book, Sins of Empire, we promo’ed earlier in the year. But it is a new starting point. And you can go pick that one up. Thank you very much, Brian, for being on the podcast.
[Brian] Thank you very much.
[Brandon] Thank you, listeners, for listening. But you are now out of excuses. So, go write.