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

12.53: Writing Excuses True Confessions

It’s the end of 2017, so let’s talk about the things that we’ve tried to make work, and failed at. Not things that we tried before arriving at career-level measures of success—things that we’ve folded, spindled, and/or mutilated since then.

There were a lot of them! This episode runs close to thirty minutes long…

Homework: Try something you’re sure you’ll fail at… or maybe take the week off.

Thing of the week:Ladycastleby Delilah Dawson, Illustrated by Ashley A. Woods and Rebecca Farrow.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: True Confessions! Projects that didn’t work, or what do we learn when we fail. Trying to tell the origin story of a side character that everyone loves. Killing a novel because it would hurt the community you were writing about. Just because you’ve spent a lot of time making a mistake doesn’t mean you need to keep making that mistake (aka the sunk-cost fallacy). Sometimes, you have to start over and make something new and better. Sometimes a Western needs a kickstart. And tropes and cliches! Being your own manager can be hard! How do you create things in the right order, when you don’t know the order you need to do it in? Don’t forget, you are not your customer — they may want something different from what you think. Success is a diploma, but failure is the teacher. Give yourself permission to fail, indeed, aim to do something so hard that you will fail, and then look at the failure to learn what to do better next time.

[Mary] Season 12, Episode 53.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses…
[Mary] True Confessions!
[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] It’s the end of the year…
[Woo hoo!]
[Brandon] New Year’s Eve.
[Howard] We have made so many mistakes…
[Howard] Oh, my goodness.
[Brandon] I think titling this episode is the thing we spent the most time, trying…
[Brandon] To come up with…
[Dan] Titling and…
[Howard] No, we spent a lot of time on the pre-roll gag.
[Dan] This is the one we are glad we don’t have an audience for.
[Mary] Except you, dear listeners.

[Brandon] True confessions. What do we mean by true confessions? Dan?
[Dan] This is actually an idea we came up with on the cruise last year, was to do an episode about all the things that we have tried to make work and couldn’t. The novels that we abandon halfway through, or the short stories that just never came together. We thought it would be a really fun way to end this year in kind of a backhanded inspirational way…
[Dan] To say, “Look, we’re all successful at this, and we still screw up all the time.”
[Brandon] Yeah. It’s not… Excuse me. It’s not just what we do when we were trying to break in, not those old trunk novels. It still happens.
[Mary] Oh, yeah.
[Brandon] Every year. Let’s take each our biggest one, like the thing we got the most involved in, or the one that was most tragic to us that we couldn’t make work and talk about it. I’ll just go ahead and start.
[Dan] Okay.
[Brandon] I… Right before I got the call for the Wheel of Time. Which changed my life dramatically. I had finished the Mistborn series, I had finished Warbreaker and Elantris, and next I thought I’m going to jump back in the shared universe of my Cosmere and write the prequel series that started it all. Where everything came from. This is the back story of the character known as Hoid, who is a fan favorite. I’m like, “I’m going to do this trilogy or more books. It’s going to be super awesome. It’s going to just be the greatest thing ever.” I actually finished the whole book and it was a disaster.
[Brandon] It was a train wreck of a book. The character, for the first time… It’s this whole problem you have when you have a really engaging side character that you try to make a main character. Didn’t work at all as a main character, at least as the personality I had for them way back when. The plot was boring.
[Brandon] The setting just was even more boring, which is saying a lot for me.
[Brandon] I tried to pull and incorporate some different elements from books that I had tried before, and none of them meshed. So it felt like… It felt like five books with a bad character and no plot. It was a huge just terrible thing.
[Howard] Did it have a good magic system?
[Brandon] The magic system… Was weak.
[Brandon] It had… Here’s the thing.
[Howard] Oh, wow.
[Brandon] It had a really good magic system from another world that I ported into this world, that didn’t jive. The one that was from this world never meshed well with that. So the magic system was really weak in that it was doing cool things, but in complete contrast to the tone of the novel. Dan may have read some of it. Liar Part Nil?
[Dan] No.
[Brandon] Okay. It… The writing group was just kind of baffled by this.
[Brandon] I actually tried, speaking of what we did last week, I actually started with the clichéd scene of someone being hung, and then flashing back to show how they got there. Like…
[Brandon] It had so many problems with it.
[Dan] 72 hours earlier.
[Brandon] Yes. It was one of those things. Exactly one of those things. I’m like, “Oh, I’m going to try this tool. Oh, this tool is not a tool…” Right? Like, some tools you try and you’re like, “Oh, that’s a cool tool that doesn’t deserve its reputation.” Some of them you try and you’re like, “This is so…”
[Dan] There’s a reason everyone makes fun of this one.

[Dan] Wow. So I kind of want to ask questions about…
[Brandon] Yeah. You can ask questions.
[Dan] How bad it was. Like, specifically, with Hoid, because that’s what fascinates me about this. He was… He is a fan favorite, and he’s always the side character. He’s the one who’s… Sits off and makes goofy comments. Maybe appears once and then leaves. What did you do when you attempted to make him a main character? Like, what was your process there?
[Brandon] So, I knew the biggest chance for failure on this was taking him… Having him be too wacky through the course. Right? It’s the minion movie thing. Which worked for my kids, but for a lot of people are like the side characters that add flavor to a larger story, when you make the whole story about them, are super annoying. I’m like, “I can’t have him be super annoying.” Well, that’s okay. It’s when he was young. When you’re seeing him in the books, he’s hundreds and hundreds of years old. He was young, so I will take that part out. But I did this weird dual identity thing with him. Where he was like pretending to be someone else for a big chunk of the book, because it had a really cool twist when I did the whole reveal. But then that meant I had to characterize him as somebody you grew too emotionally invested in, somebody too… At the end, you’re like… Surprise! In the next book, you’ll get to know who he really is. Which was part of it. And the person I was having him be was bland…
[Brandon] On purpose. Because it was like trying to hide and pretend in… Oh, man. There were so many problems with this character. Like it was trying to be too clever. Leaving out the cleverness that had made him a fan favorite on purpose, right? So it was a different kind of cleverness, and it just did not work.
[Dan] Wow.
[Brandon] Didn’t work at all.
[Howard] I get into the most trouble when I try to be clever.

[Dan] Do you think that if you were to write that book today, you could make it work?
[Brandon] I have completely scrapped that, and what actually changed my opinion on how to do this was Name of the Wind. I’m like, “It needs to be him in the future, flashing back and talking about himself,” because people will have already bonded to who he is in the future. It needs to be a memoir. It needs to be… Assassin’s Apprentice is a better example of what this needs to be. Because Robin Hobb does such a great job of showing you that contrast between what someone is now and what they’ve become. So I need to do something like this. This is now my feel on it. If I then can set it in his own voice, I can have these… This first person where really, really fun in Hoid’s voice [inaudible] and then he fades into the story… When he’s telling a story, he’s not nearly as… He doesn’t try to zing you every minute, he tries to tell the story well. That’s who he is. So he will tell the story well. Then we can pop out occasionally and get… It’s like Bilbo, from the Hobbit [garbled].
[Howard] That technique is my bread-and-butter. When I need to build a setting. I just… I have to build it, I have to say things to the audience, and it’s very scientific… I’ve gotta find an interesting voice. That’s why my narrator gets to be snarky and gets to tell jokes. That’s why there are footnotes. Because the voice can save really, really stale material by finding non sequiturs, finding whatever… Drawing weird parallels.
[Brandon] So we’ll see if I can write it. But that’s my plan right now.
[TEE hee hee]
[Brandon] There is my true confession of failure. There have been other ones since, but that’s the one that hurt… That hit me the most. Actually, the Rithmatist… As I was supposed to go into the sequel to this and start outlining, it… I’m just like, “I can’t. This book is so bad.” I wrote the Rithmatist without telling anyone…
[Brandon] In my editors. I sent that in instead of Liar Part Nil.
[Dan] That’s so cool.
[Howard] No, this is totally the thing that I was going to s…
[Brandon] Yeah.
[Howard] I mean, yeah, it looks a little different, but these things always change when I start writing them.
[Brandon] It’s no longer epic fantasy, it’s instead a gear punk YA, but…
[Mary] You know, they’re very similar. Very similar.
[Dan] It’s a very thin line.

[Brandon] All right. Let’s go. Mary?
[Mary] So, since we aren’t talking about trunk novels, and we’re talking about epic failures… I killed a novel last year. That was really tough. Part of the reason… I hesitate sometimes about talking about it, because it was not an easy choice to make. But one of the things someone said, and I wish I could remember who it was, was that just because you’ve spent a lot of time making a mistake doesn’t mean that you should double down and continue making that mistake.
[Brandon] This was a complete novel?
[Mary] This was a complete novel that was sold and it was in editorial. Basically, what happened was that I was trying to write a story that I shouldn’t have been trying to write. I had done… It had two different main characters, one of which was a young man from… This is set in 1907… One was a young man from Appalachia. That southern voice, I had that nailed. Even though I’m not a guy. The other was a young black woman. She was using magic to pass as white. The book was not about passing. It was about this giant government conspiracy. But I was just never really able to get the voice. There were some other things. There were other problems with it. Spent… Someone had flagged the voice problems. We pushed off the publication date by a year. I spent a year working on it. Past it back to the same person, and she then started flagging other problems with it. Had some other people that probably had issues with it, that hadn’t said anything because it’s difficult to tell someone no. So… It was really hard to make the decision to pull the book. But having done that, I’m like, “I’m very glad that I wrote the book.” I still… It’s funny, because it’s this book that I killed that I still actually love. Because I can’t see the flaws. Of course. But I’m really glad that I wrote it, because it forced me to do a lot of research and a lot of evaluating of my own internal biases and things. So it was a great learning process, it was just very difficult to make the decision to pull the plug on it. But, having done that, then I went to my publisher and they’re incredibly supportive. Now I’m writing my first science fiction novels. Which, by the time you guys hear this, will have been finished and should be coming out next year. They’re coming out in 2018.
[Dan] Awesome. Now, one of the things that I loved about this story… You did a blog post when you killed the book. You said… And I don’t remember the exact words, but you said, “What’s the point of having a sensitivity reader, if you’re not going to listen to what they say?” That really changed the way that I look at my beta readers and my sensitivity reads and things like that. So…
[Mary] Yeah. It’s… Like you have to be… You have to go into it being willing to kill it. Or to save it. You don’t care about the people that you are writing about. It was… Like one of the things… It’s difficult. But one of the things that I realized was that… What I was going to be doing with the book was putting people in a position where the community that I was writing about was going to be… That the fallback for that was going to be hitting them more than it was going to be hitting me. Yeah, there would be people who would be angry at me, but that’s not going to be… There was going to be a lot of collateral damage. Unintentional damage. That was ultimately why I was pulling the book. Not because one person said… It was because I had hired her to do a job. The job was to tell me no. That was not easy. I tell you, it is not easy to hear someone tell you no, and it’s not easy for the person to tell you no. But yeah, that was my failure. I’m still reeling.
[Brandon] For months, you couldn’t talk about it. We couldn’t even mention it. We knew not to bring it up. Your friends… Our job was to focus you on the new project you were working on to keep your mind off of the one that had not worked.
[Mary] Because, as a writer, you think, “Well, of course I can fix this. Of course I can sit down and work on this. I can just edit this. I can just keep editing this until it works.” Sometimes you can’t. It was really… I am built of narrative, and it was really hard for me to let the narrative go. Not just the narrative of the book, but the narrative surrounding the book as well. You guys were great at redirecting me during that. Because it was really hard.

[Howard] In… I mean, the problem that you’re describing… I mean, I’m going to reduce it to a portfolio problem that my friend Jim Zub has described. Where he’ll take student portfolios and he will find pictures that have been drawn, re… Nice pictures that have been drawn on notebook paper. He’ll tell those students, “Look. Your whole canvas is wrong. You can’t use notebook paper. If you’re not willing to throw this away and start again on a new sheet of paper, this is not the business you need to be in. You need to be in a business where you are willing to scrap it all and start again from scratch.” It applies to writers, it applies to artists. When he described that, I remember thinking, “Oh, my gosh. How many times have I taken a piece that I didn’t love because there was a mistake I made early on, but I’m in a hurry and it’s just a comic strip? You know what, it is what it is, and I’m just going to…” Sometimes, I get to say it is what it is and sometimes I just have to knuckle down and say, “You know what, I’m in this business because I know how to start over and make it new and make something better.”
[Mary] Yeah. There are times when the aphorism perfect is the enemy of done is appropriate…
[Mary] And there are times when you have to go… I think it’s ultimately like what damage is this going to cause? When you’re writing… Doing something on the wrong canvas, the damage is that no one’s going to look past that canvas. It’s going to damage your portfolio. Sometimes it’s like, “Oh, I can totally see the eyebrow is a millimeter too high.” It’s like, “No one else sees that except you.”
[Brandon] Yeah. Like learning when to just let go and release it or when to let go and let it go is like one of those tough things that gives you battle wounds and scars, and all of us have them. You’re going to have them as a writer, at the end of your writing career.
[Mary] Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. It’s… It is important… I know that… You! You listening to me right now. Yeah, you’re the one. The one who’s been working on the same novel for 10 years, and you keep thinking you can fix it? You probably can. But you can’t right now. Put it aside and write something else. If you can only write one novel, you’re not going to have a career. You’re not going to learn how to fix this one until you go and write something else, so… You! The one who’s been working on your novel for 10 years? Revising and revising and revising and revising. Write a different book.
[Brandon] You hear that, Jill?
[Brandon] Somewhere…
[Mary] Somewhere there’s a Jill…
[Dan] Someone’s just freaked out…
[Dan] And somewhere a guy named Frank is, “Oh. Shuuu. I could have sworn that was me.”
[Howard] Frank, we see you.
[Mary] Yeah, we see you. John.

[Brandon] All right. Howard, could you pitch to us Ladycastle?
[Howard] Oh, absolutely. Our friend… I think everybody here knows… Everybody in the cast knows Delilah Dawson?
[Mary] Yes. She is great.
[Howard] She’s wonderful. She’s written in the Star Wars universe. She’s writing a comic with BOOM! Studios. At the time of this recording, I’ve only been able to read the first issue. The comic is called Ladycastle. It’s all about a castle full of knights and adventurers who are all of the women who were pushed aside… The castle used to be called Mancastle, and then all of the men got killed and wiped out. Now, it is Ladycastle. They are so awesome. They are so awesome. It does things… It’s not women doing men things. It is the women in this castle taking problems that we see all the time in fantasy and solving them in ways that the tropes suggest we would not. Love it. Lots of fun.
[Brandon] It’s not a failed project.
[Howard] No, no. No, that’s in a…
[Brandon] We are breaking from the failed projects.
[Mary] Yes.
[Howard] The failure here is that I am pitching something to you that I’ve only read the first issue of, and by the time this airs, it might be available in graphic novel format, and you can read much more than I’ve gotten to so far.

[Brandon] We did discuss giving people… Having people read one of my trunk novels. I wrote that down here. But the problem with that is it’s not a failed novel.
[Mary] I have a trunk novel that I’m posting on my Patreon.
[Brandon] Oh, yeah. Okay.
[Mary] That… I’m serializing it. It’s a novel that we couldn’t sell, because people… It’s urban fantasy, and I kept getting the it’s too slow, which… I was telling Dan. It opens with breaking and entering, escalates to a kidnapping, and ends with an epic battle in Faerie. So I think what they were actually responding to is that my heroine is 40 years old and does not wear leather pants.
[Brandon] Well. Where would they get that?
[Mary] Oh. Patreon/maryrobinette []
[Brandon] My trunk novel, if you want it… We have hopefully by now set it up that if you sign up for my mailing list, we send you White Sand, the trunk novel.
[Mary] Nice.
[Brandon] So you can read some of those failed projects from us.

[Brandon] Dan, what is your failed project?
[Mary] Can I… Sorry. I just wanted to say one thing. The… I’m going to ask you guys in the comments and when you see me, please do not try to convince me that I should have published the book anyway. It was a difficult decision. It was the right decision. I still have anxiety dreams about it, and that… I would like to ask you to not trigger those by trying to convince me that I made the wrong choice.
[Dan] Yes.
[Mary] All right. Now you can talk about your failed project.
[Dan] Now I can talk about all the times I’ve screwed up. Okay. So. Last year, I tried to write a western.
[Mary] Oh, yeah, I remember you were doing that.
[Dan] Yeah. I had about two months, 2 1/2 months maybe, that were basically a hole in the schedule. I knew that I could meet all of my deadlines and have this time. I thought, I’ve always wanted to write a western. I at one point as an exercise for myself fully outlined a western. So I said, “I’m just going to sit down and I’m going to write it. I’ve already got the outline. It’s ready to go.” I just could not make it work. Part of the problem is that it had just a stupidly slow burn. A lot of my books tend to be slow build anyway. This was way worse than that. It took forever. I think I was for chapters into it before there… The… Like the gunslinger actually showed up.
[Oh, ho, ho, ho…]
[Dan] There had not yet been an action scene or anything exciting…
[Ha ha ha]
[Dan] Of any kind. It was all travel and negotiating with salesmen and…
[Dan] It was so, so boring.
[Mary] Negotiating with salesmen? Yippee kai yay yay! I’ll buy that for a dollar.
[Dan] So it just… Someday…
[Mary] Were there at least horses?
[Dan] There were horses. There was a farm. Like…
[Mary] A prostitute with a heart of gold?
[Dan] No.
[Mary] Too bad.
[Dan] But there was a cattle baron, though. So I made some of the tropes, right?
[Mary] Okay. Was there a train?
[Dan] There… No, there was no train.
[Howard] Oh, my gosh.
[Brandon] Oh, Dan, what were you doing? Even I put a train in my western.
[Dan] Yeah, it was…
[Howard] The mild, mild West.
[Dan] See, the idea behind it was woman who was getting threatened by cattle baron hires a gunslinger to come and help defend the farm. He turns out to be a psychopathic serial killer who terrorizes the entire area. I still think that can work. But it can’t build as slow as I built it. Because there was like a whole… The whole first act was just, “Oh, man, life sucks in the West, and I’d better do something about this.” It was ill-conceived from the beginning. So…
[Brandon] That’s awesome.
[Howard] If you write that in the style of Night of Blacker Darkness…
[Dan] Where they’re constantly waiting… And here comes the train. No. There’s no train still?
[Dan] What?
[Brandon] Yeah, I want to see a whole new [garbled valor pitch?] where nothing happens, and you keep getting close to exciting things happening… But it’s actually not exciting.
[Dan] The delayed resolution…
[Mary] The novella form of Waiting for Godot.
[Dan] The coitus interruptus [inaudible]
[Brandon] Right, right, right. Or even, we’re going to step outside. They step outside. And they’re like, “You want to go to the tavern?” “Yeah, sure.”
[Howard] Oh, look, a tumbleweed.

[Brandon] Okay. Howard, you’re up.
[Howard] The big one for me is not the thing that you don’t get to read. It’s the thing that… By now, I certainly hope you do get to read. That’s Planet Mercenary. The problem… The failure here was a cascading series of failures in which Sandra and I and Alan and the editors that we… Nobody knew how to be my manager. Including me. We could not figure out how to structure the flow of things so that content was being created in the right order. The number of places where we went wrong… There’s one meeting that Sandra and I sat down and talked about things. I said, “I’ve been telling you that I need this.” She says, “Yes. And I’ve been giving you these.” I said, “But those aren’t what I’m asking for. I’m asking for this.” “Wait. You mean you want that?” “Isn’t that what I said?” “Not really.” “Well, why didn’t you say that before?” We lost four months over a discussion like that. I mean, the project at this point is 18 months behind schedule.
[Brandon] So, about 18 months ahead of schedule for most Kickstarters.
[Howard] Yeah.
[Dan] Oh, burn.
[Howard] I don’t like clearing that bar.
[Howard] But that particular… That particular fail, every time we look at it… I say we. I feel like I own most of the blame for that. Because I’m the problem employee. Sandra feels like she owns the blame for it because she knows I’m the problem employee.
[Howard] Certainly, she could have figured this out sooner.
[Mary] Well, she should just fire you.

[Howard] That had actually… That actually came up. What if we have somebody besides Howard do some of these jobs? No, that wasn’t working either. The other piece of this that I found fascinating is where I made a mistake that is really common among people who are in my line of work. The principle here is you are not your customer. I don’t want to build this because it’s not something I would want to buy. T-shirts are great example. I don’t want to make T-shirts. I don’t wear T-shirts. Who wears T… Lots of people wear T-shirts, Howard. If you don’t make T-shirts, you leave money on the table. When we did the 70 maxims books, I kept looking at the version that Sandra had been laying out, with all of the additional handwriting and all of those pieces. I looked at it, and it just kept being ugly, and it was not working for me. And not working and not working. I decided, you know what, we just need to publish it pristine like this, and PDF the one with the handwriting. We were wrong. We were absolutely wrong. What Sandra did is ran the math and said, “Eh. We’ve got enough money. We can just make both. If you really want the pristine book, you can do that. But what people asked for, Howard, is the thing that you hate. So, we just gotta make the thing that you hate. Shut up.”
[Howard] That’s not exactly how the conversation went…
[Tee hee hee]
[Howard] But it’s only about three sentences shorter. The…
[Mary] There was a lot more “But… But…” from you?
[Howard] There was.
[Howard] No, there really was. There really was. In part, it’s not “But… But… I hate it,” it’s “But… But… What if other people feel like I do? It’ll just break my heart if other people look at this and see what I see. If… The eyebrow is…”
[Brandon] Yeah.

[Howard] I’ve been telling myself for months now that success is… Success is not a teacher. Success is a diploma. Failure, repeated failure, is what we learn from. That’s the teacher. As we’ve had this podcast, everything… Every one of these mistakes that we’ve made, everything that you guys have talked about, as I’ve listened, I’ve thought, “Oh. Yeah. Wow. Glad I didn’t make that mistake. If I listen carefully, I won’t have to.”
[Mary] It would be nice. If only it worked that way.
[Brandon] But the point of this broadcast was to give you permission to fail. I tried very hard to get this through the heads of my students when I’m teaching my class, that you gotta give yourself permission to fail, even epically. Sometimes…
[Howard] Can I take a step past that? Can I take a step past that?
[Brandon] You sure can.
[Howard] I think the assignment is try something so hard that you’re sure you’ll fail at it.
[Mary, Dan] Yeah.
[Howard] If you succeed, hey! What you failed at was estimating the limits of your ability.
[Mary] Well, I think one of the things people don’t understand about failure is that it’s not actually just… It’s not just failing. It’s failing and not being afraid to look at the failure for what you could have done better. To not try to fix the thing you failed, but to promise yourself you’ll… It’s like, “Oh, okay. This is a… This is something I can take forward.” It’s like in science. What you’ve got in here is you’ve failed. That’s a data point. That’s not a failure, that’s just another answer.
[Dan] To bring this back to literature, there’s… My very favorite scene in Ender’s Game is where Bean stands up in the cafeteria and says, “Look. We all know how to win this game the way we’re playing it now. But until we give ourselves the freedom to fail, we’re never going to learn how to win it differently. That’s when they start coming up with weird strategies and goofy things that end up saving the human race later in the book.
[Howard] The 70th maxim in the maxims book is “Failure is not an option. It’s mandatory. The option is whether or not you let failure be the last thing you do.”

[Brandon] And, speaking of last things that we do… I feel like we’ve been saying goodbye for an entire month, because we’ve had our little different groups of Writing Excuses who have all kind of had their last episode. Then we realized, hey, there’s a fifth week in December. So we’ll do a last last episode. This is the last last episode of Season 12. We will be moving on next week to Season 13, where our plan is to talk about character all next year, and use a similar format to what we’ve done this year. To have a lot more variety in the podcasters, but the four of us still being around to be your cornerstone, your familiar. I am super excited for what’s coming. I am super happy we have a great season. So thank you guys all for listening. Have a great New Year’s Eve. We will see you next year for some characters. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.