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

12.50: Form and Function

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Mary Anne, and Wesley

How does the shape of your physical medium change the art you’re making? What are the tools that affect our storytelling, and what are those effects?

Credits: This episode was recorded in Chicago by Andrew Twiss, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Play “exquisite corpse.”
1) Write the first line of a story.
2) Hand it to someone else. Have them illustrate that line.
3) They hand their illustration (but not your first line) to a third person, who writes a line describing what’s happening in their picture.
4) Their line goes to another person who illustrates it…

Thing of the week: Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Different media may change how you tell a story. For example, keyboards, typewriters, longhand, and quill pen, all impose their own rhythms and pauses while writing. What happens when you write flash fiction on your business cards? Slam poetry, with strong audience participation, reinforces repetition, rhythm, and other tools in a way that writing on a page does not. Audiobooks versus the text! Although WhisperSync imposes limits for those books. Graphic novels and audiobooks. Converting short stories into TV episodes, how do you dramatize the internal struggles? Often movies and stories are different, due to adaptation. Hypertext may be a way to experiment with taking the linearity out of the narrative experience.

Special bonus! Why do you love telling stories? It allows me to tilt the world on its side and see what’s underneath, and the act of communicating that understanding makes me a better person. It allows me to be somebody I know I can’t be in real life. I can be the hero, I can become a better person. Stories let me explore taboos, let me process things and say things that I can’t any other way. Stories are the closest I can get to magic in real life. I can imagine something, and engage in telepathy with my readers!

[Mary] Season 12, Episode 50.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Form and Function.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Mary Anne] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Wesley] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Mary Anne] I’m Mary Anne.
[Wesley] And I’m Wesley.
[Brandon] We’re going to talk about the weirdest topic I came up with for this year. It is about how the shape of your physical medium, or the method you’re telling your story, changes the story itself.
[Mary] I am super excited about this topic, because I feel like this is a really good way to shake up your writing when you’re stuck on something. So I collect typewriters. Then, I also occasionally break them out and write on them. Usually I am a compu… I write on the computer. Sometimes I’m traveling and I have to switch to longhand. The thing that I have realized is that all of these have very different rhythms, and they change the way I write. There was a period during one of the Glamorous Histories books where I thought let me try writing with an actual quill pen. What I realized was that I could get about four lines of text before I needed to dip, which meant that I was getting much more complex sentences, because as I was dipping the pen, I was thinking about what was happening next.
[Mary] So I was doing my composition much more in my head. Whereas when I’m typing, I type close enough to the speed at which I’m thinking that most of my composition happens as it’s hitting the page. There’s very little space in between. With a typewriter, every time I get to the end of a line, that enter thing… Hitting the enter… Not the enter. The carriage return. That’s a moment when I have to pause. It’s built in mechanically. It was changing the…
[Mary] It was changing the way my prose came out. There’s also a built-in pause when I get to the bottom of the page. Because I have to pull the paper out, I have to feed in a new sheet. So this is a really powerful tool when you are trying to capture something. One of the other experiments that I did was writing a story called In the Forest of Memory, which was specifically for audiobook. I was having trouble getting the voice, because I wanted it to sound like a natural, spoken text. It’s the first time that I’ve fired up text to… Or speech to text. So I actually narrated the first part of the book… The first like bit of it, to get the right feel, so I could capture all of the pauses, the random things… The incomplete sentences that you say when you speak.
[Brandon] That is so cool. Go ahead.
[Wesley] One of the things I kind of figured out by myself when I write longhand is… When I type things out, I can test them out and realize that I can delete it pretty easily. So in many ways, I don’t think about what I write as thoroughly as when I write things out. Because when I write things out, I have to erase it if it doesn’t work out. So I spend a lot more time dwelling on each word when everything… When I do something longhand. I think, in a way, it’s a great exercise to get off the keyboard for a while and write a scene out and compare it to how you do it when you do it on a computer.

[Brandon] To flip this around to the actual kind of form of something printed, one of my favorite instances of form and function interacting is Eric James Stone, a friend of the podcast, puts flash fiction on the back of his business cards. He has to have a piece short enough that he can get it on the back of a business card. He makes multiple of these. They’re delightful stories, but they’re also meant to introduce him as a writer. So the form of this is a business card, this is who I am, here’s a sample becomes the medium that he uses the story for. It’s so cool, and it changes how he writes those stories.
[Mary Anne] I think a couple of different things come up. One is, there was a point where I was doing slam poetry in San Francisco. Going from writing regular poetry to writing slam poetry is very different, because in a slam, it’s a competition. The audience is grading you. They will boo you if they don’t like it, right in the middle of it. They will clap… If you win the competition, you get a pot of cash on the spot which is the sort of cover charge that everyone paid to get… Come in. So you’re being ranked as you go through. So you get to know, once you start doing this, like there are certain things that play well, there are certain things that don’t. People actually get pretty sophisticated about it. So like easy yanking on the emotions kinds of stuff doesn’t tend to play well, because people… They’re a little bored with that. You’ve got to push a little harder, and you do end up really using kind of the old-fashioned poetic tools of repetition and rhythm and… Like it matters, in a way that maybe you can get away from it on the page.
[Mary] My nephew was a very good slam poet. I asked him for some poetry for something else that I was working on. He’s like, “I’m actually not a very good written poet. Because some of the stuff that I do…” That he does as a slam poet requires that spoken repetition. So… Like in the previous episode where we were talking about the a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. On the page, that can be… It can be dull. But when it spoken… It’s a Rose is a… ROSE is a rose is a RoSe is a… Rose. You can have all of these different inflections. That is definitely a place where the spoken affects things. That delivery… The form of the delivery medium affects things.

[Mary Anne] That makes me wonder, when you’re doing audiobooks, how much do you feel like you need to stay very faithful to the text? Are you ever tempted to morph it because it would be more effective differently if spoken… When spoken?
[Mary] Ah…
[Mary] Yeah. That has happened. The… I’m not allowed to change any of the words…
[Mary Anne] Even for your books? No?
[Mary] My books, we… Actually, when we record my books, we record them at a point in the process where I can go back and change the written text. But they still have to match.
[Mary Anne] They have to match.
[Brandon] Readers get really…
[Mary] Actually, it’s specifically… These days, it’s specifically because of Amazon WhisperSync.
[Brandon] Oh. That would make perfect sense.
[Mary] You can only have 10% errors, but…
[Brandon] You know, there are…
[Mary Anne] I can’t…
[Brandon] Audiobooks that are abridged in that way. They don’t get rid of scenes, they just change them to make them more dramatic for audio.
[Mary Anne] Well, I have to say, like, I would want to do two different versions and just tell the readers here’s…
[Brandon] We do. I have two different versions of most of my books. One is a straight up audio read, and one of them is performed by a full cast.
[Mary] When you do that, you do wind up changing things. Like, I actually went the opposite direction with that Forest of Memories thing that I mentioned. It… Because it was designed to be spoken and the premise of it was that it was not a recording, but that you were listening to someone who was telling the story and that it was a one-off. You were the only person they were going to tell this story to. That was a plot point, in fact. Then I sold it to and it was going to be a written story. The style of prose didn’t make sense, the premise… The plot point didn’t make sense. So I went back and rewrote it as if it had been written on a manual typewriter. Doing that meant that I also went in and inserted typos and inserted places where she had crossed out and then rewritten. I got a lot of people actually emailing me initially saying, “Hey…”
[Mary Anne] Why is this book full of typos?
[Mary] “Why is this book full of typos?” I’m like, “It says right at the beginning.”
[Brandon] That is so supercool.
[Wesley] So how do you… So when you read the audiobook for that, how do you actually…
[Mary Anne] Handle the typos?
[Wesley] Handle the typos?
[Mary] Well, I don’t. Because they are two different things. I have had to handle… This is actually… This happens a lot when I’m having to narrate audiobooks, and they contain things that are… There was a novel that I had to record and the… Tears in the Rain. It’s by… oh, I can’t remember the author’s name. But the… One of the narrative conceits is that there are a series of encyclopedia entries that have been edited. In the text, you see the strikethrough. In audio, it’s like, “How do you do that? How do you…”
[Mary Anne] Some things you can’t, really. Right?
[Mary] Well, so those… What I wound up doing was that I would read the text, and then I would hit one of the deleted sections, the sections that were crossed out, and I would say, “Deleted text.”
[Mary Anne] But there’s… I’m thinking…
[Mary] And then read it and say, “End deletion.” But yes [inaudible]
[Mary Anne] I have… Like, I have a poem which is in two columns that are meant to be read sort of simultaneously. But it’s not really simultaneous, but there’s no way to do it in audio.
[Mary] There’s absolutely no way. Well…
[Mary Anne] Le Guin has an essay… Which I love this essay of hers, where she goes back and looks at the pronouns. She had written an essay kind of defending her use of he and him for a gender-neutral race, right? The Gethenians. Then, years later, she decided she was wrong about that. The way she handled it is she reissued the essay in two columns, with the second column her kind of arguing with her earlier self…
[Mary Anne] Pointing out this is where I went wrong here, this is why I think I made a mistake. It was just…
[Mary] That’s beautiful.
[Mary Anne] It was so helpful as a writer and a reader to kind of see… To be able to trace her mental process.

[Brandon] Right. Right. I’m going to cut it here for the book of the week, and steer us toward a different topic, because the book of the week, hopefully…
[Brandon] Is Oathbringer, the third book of the Stormlight Archive. Now this is many months before. So we’re going to hope that nothing has gone wrong with Tor getting this book out and nothing has gone wrong with me getting the revisions done in time.
[Mary] By many months, he means we’re recording this episode a full year ahead of time.
[Brandon] Yes. We are recording this one a full year ahead of time. Which means…
[Mary Anne] We have faith.
[Brandon] I… Yes. Let’s…
[Wesley] We’re all waiting for it.
[Brandon] Let’s just hope that last month in November, you received Oathbringer. I wanted to promo it this month because the Stormlight Archive books are the ones that I use form the most interestingly for me, I believe. I include about 30 illustrations in each book, and they’re all ephemera from in-world. So you’re getting not just maps, but you’re getting rubbings taken from…
[Mary Anne] I love that.
[Brandon] From a wall statue. You’re getting a person’s sketchbook. You’re getting all sorts of… A turtle shell in one of them that they took a rubbing of so that you could see it, and things like this. So all this ephemera. So hopefully you guys will be reading Stormlight Archive. But it’s part of what made me think a lot about form.
[Mary Anne] I have a question. Are they integrated into the text, or are they illustrations?
[Brandon] They’re illustrations that are mentioned in the text.
[Mary Anne] Okay, so they’re…
[Brandon] Every one of the… The cover art is not. But everything between the covers, so to speak, is an in-world artifact that has been added. In the Cosmere, the shared universe of my books, we have this sort of affectation that a certain person is collecting all sorts of artifacts from the different planets and is writing essays about the magic, which are stuck in the back of every book. So, yeah.
[Wesley] So, let me ask you something. At what point do you plan out these illustrations? During your writing?
[Brandon] About half-and-half. Half I say, “Ooo, we need an illustration of this here. Note, Isaac, my art director, let’s get an illustration for this.” Half the time, he’s like, “Hey, we need some more illustrations. What do you think?” We brainstorm and see which things in the text would use… That we could include as ephemera.
[Mary Anne] So I think… I want to just tease out the distinction here, because I think even though you have many different types of items that are being mentioned, they actually are still functioning as illustrations. If you took them all out, the story would not be changed?
[Brandon] Right. But here’s how it changed the story, as I made a character in-world who was an illustrator specifically to have an excuse to put these in.
[Brandon] So it… Knowing that I was going to be including illustrations makes me change the character.
[Mary Anne] That’s interesting.
[Brandon] And makes me make this character do sketches of certain things that then we can later include. So while you could pull the sketches out, the effect of there being a sketch in this book has changed the book. Because I’m having a character then who’s doing all this sort of stuff.
[Mary Anne] Which is cool. It’s different from something like… I want to say Curious Incident of the Dog [garbled and then the time…]
[Brandon] Yes, it’s different from things like this where we have… Like that where you transition into illustration.

[Mary] Actually, that… As a really good example of that, Cherie Priest has a novel, I am Princess X. Big chunks of that novel are told in graphic novel form.
[Brandon] You’re seeing a lot of things like this these days. They’re really cool.
[Mary] I had to do the audiobook for that.
[Brandon] Oh, yeah.
[Mary] Those… Most of the graphic novel things are done without… There’s no language in them. It’s just pictures. So what Cherie had to do was actually go back and write a radio play for each of those sections for the audiobook.
[Brandon] Wow.
[Mary] Because it was… There was nothing I could… Like there was… It was the thing that kept the sense of it the most as we transitioned.
[Wesley] So when it comes to like converting the written form to like the comic book then… I mean, how does that… Have you ever had to do graphic novels that way?
[Mary] I haven’t done a graphic novel yet. It’s on my list.
[Wesley] Do they have audiobook graphic novels?
[Brandon] We’ve done one. Ours did not get a graphic… Or an audiobook.

[Mary Anne] I mean, I’ve tried… There was, at one point, a company that was interested in turning some of my stories into TV episodes. So I tried shifting them… I tried rewriting them as episodes. I mean, I think one of the things I realized is that some translations are almost impossible. It turned out that the stories were very internal, and there was very little that could be dramatized. So I was like, “Well, if I wanted to do this, I’d have to add a voiceover track to get all the thoughts that were going on in this person’s head.” It would have just been terrible.
[Mary] Since we are recording this in December of 2016, I just saw Arrival. Which is based on Ted Chang’s…
[Mary Anne] I was so amazed.
[Brandon] No spoilers. No spoilers. No spoilers.
[Mary Anne] They did a great job.
[Mary] They did a fantastic job. But the… It’s very true to the story, and yet there are things that are in the film that aren’t in the story and things that are in the story that didn’t make it into the film, because they had to translate medium.
[Brandon] The best adaptations to fill are like that.
[Mary] I think that because it is such a good adaptation that it’s… If you have not seen the film and you haven’t read the short story, it is worth doing both. I don’t think it matters which one you… Like, if you read…
[Brandon] I had that experience with The Prestige.
[Mary] Oh, yeahyeahyeah.
[Brandon] Which did the same sort of thing. We are out of time.

[Mary Anne] Oh! I was going to talk about hypertext.
[Brandon] Go ahead. Talk about your hypertext.
[Mary Anne] I will just… I will only briefly say that I’ve been on the net since the beginning. My blog was the third oldest on the Internet. So I remember the time when we all got super excited about hypertext. This is like the dawn of webpages. I tried to write a hypertext story. It’s six scenes. You can come into the story… I wanted to try to write it so that you could come in on any page and choose which of the other pages you went to and have it still make sense. So I was really experimenting with linearity in a way that was not as possible before. It’s very related to the Dadaists did when they would like write poems and they would throw the pieces up in the air and they’d come down again. They’d say, “There’s the poem.” Whatever order it came down in. I just think it’s really interesting to experiment with that, and to think like what happens when you take the linear out of the narrative experience.
[Brandon] Yeah. That is…
[Mary] Exactly.
[Brandon] I’m glad we made time for that.
[Mary] Me, too.

[Mary] So, since we’ve been playing with Mary Anne and Wesley, and it’s the end of the year and things are sometimes kind of busy, we thought that this homework we would give you is a little bit of play. We’re going to ask you to just play Exquisite Corpse. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, write the first line of a story. Hand that first line to someone, ask them to illustrate it. Then, they will fold the… Your first line back, and hand just the illustration to someone else, who will then describe what is happening. Then that illustration gets folded back, and the new first line goes to someone else in your circle of friends or family. Let that create this strange, strange interactive storytelling that is completely nonlinear.
[Mary Anne] Writers think this is a really fun party game. Actually, it’s great to do with kids.
[Wesley] Or drunk.

[Brandon] Anyway. We are running out of time. But there’s a couple of things I want to do before we go. The first is to give a special thank you to Mary Anne and Wesley.
[Mary Anne] Awww.
[Wesley] Yay.
[Mary Anne] Yay.
[Brandon] You guys have been great this year. We have loved having you. We want to thank our listeners, specifically those who supported us on Patreon. Because we were able to afford doing this. We’re actually paying our cohosts now.
[Brandon] We are able to pay for flights and things like this.
[Mary] And our engineer.
[Brandon] And our engineer. Specifically because you guys directly support us. And we are beholden to no advertisers, specifically because you guys support us. So check out the Patreon. We do give some cool little bonuses on the Patreon. But mostly, the bonus comes in the form of being able to do things like this.

[Brandon] I thought we might close out this year with the Chicago team by returning to the beginning, as is a great storytelling archetype. We began with first person narratives, so I’ve asked each of them to think about a little first-person narrative… Doesn’t have to be long… Of why they love telling stories, spoken in the first person. Mary, will you take first stab at this?
[Mary] Absolutely. So, I love telling stories, specifically science fiction and fantasy, because it allows me to take the world that I live in and tilted to its side in a way that makes it easier for me to see the kind of interconnected tissue. It helps me understand the world more, but it also… The act of attempting to communicate my understanding to other people, I think makes me, as a writer… Not just as a writer, but as a person, a richer and more aware person. I love that connection between story and new person.
[Brandon] Awesome. Wesley?
[Wesley] Well, I love telling stories because it allows me to be somebody that I know I can’t in real life. So, not only am I smart and witty and a kung fu master and a secret agent, I…
[Mary] That’s in real life?
[Mary Anne] Hmmm…
[Wesley] I’m actually not, in real life. But, not only can I do these things, I’m allowed to really explore myself, and see who I can be, how I can be not only more… Oh, man. Not only can I be more… I guess…
[Brandon] Articulate?
[Wesley] Articulate. I’m sorry.
[Wesley] [garbled] I can be the hero I want to be. I can be the self improvement that I want to be. Really, it… What I do in my stories affects how I am in real life. So really, for example, my debut novel, Lives of Tao, is really how I look at self improvement. Because of my stories, I became a better person in real life.
[Mary Anne] I love telling stories because they let me explore things that are taboo to say and to talk about in nonfiction or over the dinner table. So when I first started writing, I was writing about sex. Sex was a huge area of conflict in my life. My parents had had arranged marriage, they expected the same for me. They certainly did not want me to date. I was dating. We were fighting about it. All of that emotion and frustration went into my fiction. It let me process things and say things that I couldn’t find a way to say otherwise. That sort of evolved into writing about race and ethnicity, and war and parenting. So anytime I am feeling very stuck, I tend to turn to fiction to figure out what it is I really want to say.
[Brandon] I love telling stories because it’s the closest I can get to magic in real life. I can imagine something, and then put it on paper. Someone else, who doesn’t speak my language, across the world, can read this and imagine the same thing. I have just engaged in telepathy. Right? We are reading each other’s minds in this kind of weird way, that if you think about it is just kind of bizarre and cool and magical, to use the phrase. So, that’s part of why I love stories. I also love stories because they let me hang out with people like you guys.
[Awww, Wow! Chuckle]
[Brandon] Writing Excuses will be back for a couple more episodes this season before we introduce our next season. But this is our last time with Wesley and Mary Anne, so, thank you guys again.
[Mary] Thank you. [Inaudible]
[Mary Anne] Thanks for having us.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.