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

15.24: Keeping it Fresh, with Jim Butcher

Your Hosts: Brandon, Howard, and Dan, with special guest Jim Butcher

Jim Butcher joined us at NASFIC for a discussion about how we can keep long-running serials engaging after numerous books.

Credits: this episode was recorded before a live audience by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Something we didn’t know was intelligent has been intelligent all along.

Thing of the week: The Aeronaut’s Windlass, by Jim Butcher.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: How do you keep a series fresh? Do you reinvent the story? Try to write a story that is just a little bit more than you think you can do. Force yourself to stretch. Do you focus on specific things to improve in each book, or do you tackle different styles of stories? Some of it is different styles, but the basic skeleton of each story is the same. How do you write ongoing stories about a changing character, without losing what people love about them? Start with what is going to change in this book, and work backwards from that. Craft is fundamental. How do you use different genres to keep your career fresh? Different genres offer different opportunities. It’s fun to try different characters, different arrangements, different stories. 

[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 24.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Keeping It Fresh, with Jim Butcher.

[Howard] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Brandon] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Jim Butcher.

[Yay! Applause]

[Jim] Hello.

[Brandon] Jim Butcher, many many time best-selling author of many many awesome books. We are super happy to have you on the podcast, Jim.

[Jim] Thank you very much.

[Howard] We’re recording here live at NASFIC Spikecon in Layton, Utah.

[Brandon] Yeah.

[Howard] So that was the audience noise that you heard. Thank you, live audience.


[Brandon] All right. So, keeping it fresh.

[Dan] I love that this sounds like an after school special from the 80s about rapping. [wrapping?]

[Brandon] Yep.


[Brandon] Yep. Well, it would probably be an after school special about something important that would have rapping in it incidentally.

[Dan] Yeah.

[Brandon] Done by people who look like us.


[Brandon] Jim, we decided to talk about this because you have one of the longest-running series in science fiction and fantasy going right now. Some of the latest books and last books in the series are some of the best. So I consider you an expert at keeping a series fresh. It’s something that’s very kind of near to my heart because I am writing book 4 of a very big series right now.

[Jim] Of course.

[Brandon] That’s kind of in my head. So I guess my first question to you is how do you keep the Dresden Files so fresh? How do you keep reinventing the story?

[Jim] To me, I don’t think I’m reinventing… It doesn’t seem to me that I’m reinventing anything. When I do a Dresden Files story… I kind of had the general shape of the whole thing in mind when I got started. So, I mean, I got to plan it all out. So I would know, well, okay, this is this. This is what’s going to happen in this part of the story. This is going to be the book about necromancers. This is going to be the one about… This is going to be the personal one where he gets an apprentice, and stuff like that. So, I mean, I had the plan going from the get go. So, in a lot of ways, it doesn’t seem like it’s particularly fresh to me. I think the real thing that keeps the books being interesting and involving and longer and longer is that I keep trying to write the story that I’m not sure I’m skilled enough to write. When I plan the story, any time when I sit down and I get set to, where I’m here’s how I’m going to do the dramatic action, here’s how I’m going to do the personal tensions, and stuff like that, I always try and plan the story just a little bit more than I think I can readily do. So that when I’m going forward, I’m never sure I’m going to be able to get the story done the way I wanted to do. As a result, I think that makes you keep growing as a writer.

[Brandon] Forcing yourself to stretch.

[Jim] Sure. Sure. You keep trying to reach a little bit further than you’ve done before. As long as you can do that, you can keep improving. I think that’s kind of the meta-strategy that sort of has the side effect of making the series more fresh and interesting as you go along.

[Howard] It’s the self-contained version of the yes I can principle.

[You suffer like that, yeah]

[Howard] Mr. Taylor, can you draw an entire Munchkin deck in a month? Yes I can!

[Jim] Right, right.

[Howard] I’m going to have to figure out how to do that. I stretched from it, and I’m super glad I took on the project. But the correct answer was I don’t think so, but I want to.


[Jim] Right. Yeah. Something like that.

[Brandon] Do you ever take a book… I ask this, because it’s something that I do… And say, “You know, in this specific book, I’m going to work on this one thing. This is something that I don’t know, that I want to learn to do better.” Like, I’m going to work on my humor in this book. Or I’m going to work on my interpersonal relationships or things. Do you take it that specifically, or is it more just here’s a style of story I’ve never done before?

[Jim] A lot of it is here’s a style of story that I’ve never done before, because I’ll change it around. But, on the other hand, the Dresden Files, I mean, the basic skeleton of every story is the same. Somebody’s up to something, Harry Dresden starts poking around in it, and then things go crazy. I mean, that’s how you write it. But as far as the… As far as focusing specifically on areas of my writing, not so much. I mean, I just sort of figure that as long as I’m trying to cover the entire range of human experience, or at least as much of it as I can within the books that have purple haired fairies and stuff like that. That as long as I’m trying to include all that experience, it’s going to force me to grow in other ways and in ways I wasn’t expecting. So I’ll be writing along, and occasionally I write a scene and I’m like, “Man, the humor was really good in that scene. What did I do?” I’ll have to stop and go back and think about this as I was producing it, how did I get that result. Other times, I’ll just write a long, going, “Wow, I did not expect this to be this soul crushingly intense emotional scene.” But it worked out there. Then I have to stop and figure out, “Well, why did it work out there?” Occasionally, I can’t explain it. I do a lot of writing by instinct. Once I get going and I’m actually doing it, I’ll trust my instincts pretty firmly. If they start taking me in a direction, it’s like, “Yeah, I’ll go that way. Let’s see what happens.” I mean, the worst thing that can happen is that you write something that wasn’t quite right, and you delete it, and you do it again.

[Brandon] Dan, you kind of had… Not kind of, you had to do this with the John Cleaver books, right?

[Dan] Yeah. Six books in that series.

[Brandon] How did you keep those fresh? The second third from the first third, or how were you looking at each book and trying to do something different?

[Dan] The big problem for me that I kept tackling with each new book and with each new trilogy was this is an ongoing story about a character changing. How can I show that he is different than he was, while still being recognizably the same person that everyone loves from… If you read the first book, you love the character for certain reasons. I need to advance him, but I can’t throw away all the things that people love about that. So, I kind of focused on character arcs. What is he going… How is he going to change in this one? What is going to be different at the end of this book than at the start? Then, kind of work backwards from there. I’m curious to know, I wanted to ask about Harry Dresden with the same thing. How do you… Because he does change, he does grow. But he is always intrinsically himself. Do you think about that consciously, or does that just come very natural to you?

[Jim] For the most part, it comes naturally. There’s some things where I’ll stop and look at and I’ll go, “Now wait a minute.” If I’ve just had Dresden take some given action and I’ll think, “Well, that’s not necessarily in character for him. So why is he doing something different?” A lot of times, I’ll be writing along and the beta readers… The way I operate is I’ll write a chapter and then the chapter goes off to my beta readers while I’m working on the next one. Then I start getting feedback from them, to hear about what they thought about the previous chapter. A lot of times, I’ll come across something, the beta readers will be like, “This is really out of character for that character.” They’ll list specific reasons why. I mean, I’ve got beta readers who’ll be like, “Well, in this book on this page in this paragraph…”


[Jim] Then I’ve gotta go, “Okay. They’re right. That is out of character for what I’ve established.” So why… Do I need to change it or do I need to explain why it’s different? Depending on how much room is left in the book… I love exploring why is it different. Have Dresden show up later and talk to that character and be like, “What’s up?” Try and find out what’s going on in their life and so on. Characters change as they go along. But at the same time, the core stuff… I don’t know, I think holding onto the core character is as much about craft as it is about psychology. By the time you’re… By the time you’ve gotten your language established of which language it’s used for which character, whether you’re talking about tags and traits, or just their personal dialogue. By the time you’ve done that, it establishes a very very firm picture in the reader’s mind if you keep it consistent. The longer you go, the more firm that picture is. So in that sense, the long series is really on my side. It’s much easier to manipulate you guys when you let me do it for a long time.


[Howard] I want to take a moment and call our listeners attention to a couple of things you just said. On the one hand, you said, “Oh, I do a lot of this by instinct.” Which feels very pantsy, very discovery writery. But what you just said about craft, when you talk about the craft of the dialogue, of a character’s language… We’ve done probably a dozen or more episodes where we’ve drilled down on that. How with one line of dialogue, the reader should be able to tell which character is speaking, without any other tags. How do you make that happen? What I want to illustrate here, just by calling this out, is that when you say instinct, I think part of what you mean is that you know that craft enough that you’ve stopped needing to think about it when you’re writing Dresden’s dialogue. It is just there.

[Jim] Yeah. Yeah. Obviously, yeah. That’s the whole point of craft. The whole point of craft is the wood worker at his bench who knows his tools so well he doesn’t need to think about using them, he doesn’t need to think about how they’re going to be employed or even where they are. He just reaches out and picks up his T-square and goes to work. That’s the foundation of what you’ve got to be if you want to be a professional writer. You’ve got to have your craft down well enough that your brain is free to do these other things. Like, to be able to suggest to you, hey, maybe this character needs to have this sort of revelatory scene right here, so that we know more about who they are. Then, when you go back later, once you’re going back and you’re brushing up the stuff after you’ve gotten it written, then you can go back later and go, “Well, you know what, I really need to establish this character a little bit better, more firmly, if he’s going to have that big a role late in the book. I need to have him hit harder early on.” Stuff like that. Which is why I’ve got to do that right now. I got Marcone doing big stuff at the end of this story, but his introduction is a little bit soft. Even though he’s got a much larger presence in the overall series, there’s going to be some people that pick up this book and it’ll be the first book they’ve read in the series. So that means, just from… Purely from the craft standpoint, I got to go back and make sure he’s got a good entrance that is going to be commensurate with his role in the story.

[Howard] He’s gotta be in the establishing shot…

[Jim] Yeah.

[Howard] And he’s gotta be front and center.

[Jim] Exactly. He’s gotta be there. So that’s one of the things I’m working on. That I’ve got all that to do before the manuscript goes off to the editor, but… But, yeah, the craft is indispensable. I can’t think of anything… I mean, when I first started learning about writing craft, I hated the whole idea. I hated the entire concept. My teachers told me so many things that I just didn’t like, and I sat there, all huffy about it. Because my teacher would say things like, “The business of writing is the business of manipulating people’s emotions.” It’s like, “That sounds awful.” But she’s right.


[Jim] When you’re a writer and you can write characters and you can make people laugh when you want them to laugh and you can make them cry when you want them to cry and support who you want them to support and hate who you want them to hate, that’s a good story. That’s the story everybody wants to read. Oh, I hate this guy. What’s he doing next?


[Jim] That’s… To do that, that’s the entire point of writing craft. That is why it exists, to help me manipulate your emotions.


[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop and do a promo, and talk about our book of the week, which is The Aeronaut’s Windlass.

[Jim] Okay.

[Brandon] Can you tell us a little bit about it?

[Jim] The Aeronaut’s Windlass is a steam punk series. I told my editor I wanted to make it a… I wanted the genre name on it to be steam opera. She’s like, “Well, you can’t make up your own genres.” I’m like, “Watch me!”


[Jim] But essentially, it’s a story that’s set in a world that’s very hostile to human life. So humanity exists inside these enormous towers called spires. The only way the spires are connected is by airships. So all trade, all military stuff, all travel, it all happens by airships because the surface is just… It’s a green hell, and you don’t want to go there, so we’ll be there next book.


[Jim] But… So, it’s a really… It’s a fun series, because you’ve got all these spires, so you’ve got all these human cultures that are evolving entirely separate from one another, so you can get in… You can get just all kinds of crazy nonsense, which is so much fun. I mean, it’s… In a way, I’m just riffing off the Odyssey here, going from island to island, adventure to adventure. But that’s what we’re doing in the Cinder Spires. So the characters are… There’s an air ship captain, there’s a privateer so we’ve got a pirate, and there’s an heir of one of the wealthier and more influential houses, so we’ve got a princess. There’s a girl who can talk to cats, so… That’s her big thing is she talks to cats. The cats are smart. The cats can… The cats understand, I mean, they understand humans, except when they don’t want to.


[Jim] I mean…

[Howard] So, cats.

[Jim] Cats, yeah. So then we’ve got a cat who’s a prince of his people and he’s just such a jerk and everybody loves him. I don’t get that. But [garbled]

[Howard] What’s the series? What’s the series name?

[Jim] The series is the Cinder Spires.

[Howard] The Cinder Spires.

[Jim] The spires are all made of these giant… This ancient black stone that is all but indestructible and nobody knows where it came from.

[Howard] And the genre is steam opera.

[Jim] Steam H-opera. Yeah.

[Brandon] I’ve read the first book and it was one of the most delightful reading experiences I’ve had in a while. They’re just… It’s a wonderful book. So you guys should all read it.

[Jim] Yes, you should. Everyone.

[Laughter, applause]

[Brandon] We went really long on the front of the podcast, so we are almost out of time. But I do want to touch on one other concept, which will tie into this idea of what we just talked about. You are mostly known for writing urban fantasy, even though I know that that’s not where you started in your pre-writing career, your prepublication career. You’ve since published your epic fantasy, and you’ve now got steam opera.

[Jim] Right.

[Brandon] Like, how do you approach different genres in keeping your own career fresh?

[Jim] Going to the different genres is a lot of fun, because, I mean, really, you get to play with different toys, and you get to arrange them very differently, and you get to tell slightly different stories based on which… What is strong in the various genres. I just took out… I’ve got like half of my first science fiction done, that’s been done. I did that like 10 years ago. I stopped writing that book with my poor science-fiction character… He had just ejected from his ship whose core was about to explode in a decaying orbit over the moon with a solar flare coming on. He’s been there for like 10 years.


[Jim] I’ll have to get back to that one someday. That was sort of Men in Black meets X-Men on the moon. So that was a lot of fun, too. But, yeah, when you get to go to the different genres and you get to make the different characters and you get to build the wild new stuff that you… It’s like, wow, I really wish I could do this in the Dresden Files, but really, laser beams are not really a thing there. Laser pistols are not really a thing there. Oooh, but in science fiction, I can totally do this. But the different genres, they just offer you different opportunities. I mean, at the end of the day, you’re still working with humans, and humans are always the same thing. I mean, it doesn’t matter at what point in history you go to, human nature remains the same. So… It’s just fun to take humans and plop them into weird situations and see how they react. That… just erase this part, okay. I’m starting to sound like a psychopath at this point.


[Brandon] I know, drop people in, poke them with a stick, see what happens.

[Jim] Sure, sure.

[Brandon] That’s storytelling, right there.

[Jim] Sticks. Yes.


[Brandon] We are out of time. I want to thank our audience, Spikecon.


[Brandon] I want to thank Jim for being on the podcast. Do you by chance have a writing prompt you can throw at our audience?

[Jim] A writing prompt?

[Brandon] Yes.

[Jim] Let me think here. [Pause] Yeah. Something we didn’t know was intelligent has been intelligent all along. Go.

[Brandon] Excellent.

[Dan] Nice.

[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.