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

15.29: Barbie Pre-Writing, with Janci Patterson and Megan Walker

Your Hosts: Brandon, Dan, and Howard, with special guests Janci Patterson and Megan Walker

Janci Patterson and Megan Walker joined us to talk about their pre-writing process, which involves role-playing in a room full of dioramas with Barbie dolls.

As pre-writing processes go, this one was completely new to us, and we very quickly decided that we love it.

Credits: this episode was recorded live at NASFIC by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Role-play, with toys, a scene from something you’ve written.

Thing of the week: The Extra, by Janci Patterson, and Megan Walker.
Godfire, by Cara Witter.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Barbie Pre-Writing? Start with a rough outline, pick dolls for the characters, and role-play the story, beginning to end with dolls. Role-play, then take notes, then write. This really helps with characters, it gets you immersed in their heads. You’ll get new scenes, characters will reveal things, and it’s more natural and suits our characters. The dolls, or miniatures, act as a focal point for the characters. As for collaboration, we come up with ideas together, we text a lot, we use a notes file in OneNote, and we build a rough outline. Then we game it out, both the plotted scenes, and others that appear organically. Then we take notes, and decide what we really need to include, and who’s going to write what. One big advantage to collaborative writing and role-play gaming is the synergy, the way it sparks the imagination. 

[Transcriptionist Note: I have probably confused Janci and Megan at some points. My apologies for any mistakes.]

[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 29.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Barbie Pre-Writing, with Janci Patterson and Megan Walker.

[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 two special guest stars, Janci Patterson and Megan Walker.

[Megan] Hi.

[Janci] I am so excited we got to make Brandon say Barbie Pre-Writing.

[Megan] Yeah. This was a big moment in our lives.

[Brandon] Janci is a long-time friend of the podcast, and a long-time friend and colleague of ours. We are glad to have you back, and Megan, your first time.

[Megan] Yes, I am.

[Brandon] I want to start off by saying, “What the heck?”


[Brandon] Dan told me the title of this, and said, “We’re just going to call it this.” What?

[Janci] So, we, for pre-writing… We are co-writers. We write romance and epic fantasy together. With our epic fantasy, we have a third co-writer, our friend Warren. Before we write the book, but after we have a rough idea of what the books are going to be about and who the characters are, we have entire rooms full of Barbie dioramas and we pick out dolls for the characters and then we role-play through the entire story, beginning to end, with the dolls. Sometimes, if it doesn’t go the way we want, we do it again.

[Megan] And it’s super fun.


[Brandon] Do you film this?


[Janci] We don’t want to watch or listen to ourselves. No.

[Brandon] Do you take notes? How do you…

[Janci] Afterwards, usually. Not after each individual scene, because we are so into the story, we just kind of keep going, keep going. But usually it… Like, either later that night, or like days later, we’ll take notes of the main things we remember from the scene, how the flow of it went. That also keeps us from writing down each and every little individual thing that we said, because not all of that’s going to be good in a book. You know…

[Megan] It’s all improv, right.

[Janci] Sometimes a scene will go five hours, because we love it. That’s going to be 10 pages in the book. So we don’t need everything that we said. So, mostly, between the two of us, what we can remember…

[Megan] What we remember as being exceptionally good from that scene.

[Howard] I am remembering being a big brother, and what a horrible person I was, and how fortunate we all are that none of this was happening where I was nearby, because…


[Howard] Oh, my goodness.

[Brandon] I have so many questions. This is really cool.

[Janci] Awesome. That’s what we’re here for.

[Dan] This is super cool.

[Brandon] This is the best. So, what do you find this does for you? Like, what do you get? What is the… How is it different to pre-write this way?

[Janci] The thing that we get most is the characters. Because we… Essentially, we’re sitting there, and… People who don’t role-play, what it is is we sit there and one of us is one of the characters and one of us is the other. Megan takes all of the girls, I take all the guys, we write a lot of romance, so usually it’s… Most of what we’re doing. We sit there, and we set up the scenes, and then I will talk as if I am my character and she will talk as if she’s her character, and we go and we just have a conversation. It gets you so deeply immersed in the character’s head, because for a while, you are that person. We find all sorts of reactions that we wouldn’t have necessarily thought of, like, intellectually, that are just a basic gut instinct.

[Megan] Yeah, like, leads to new scenes that, like, we’ll do a scene, and then will realize, like, it went totally different than we anticipated it going, and, oh, no, now my character, she needs to go talk to her mom about this, where… Or she needs to go do this, and that wasn’t something we anticipated. But when you’re so firmly in the character’s head, you know what they’re wanting to do.

[Janci] It also gives us a lot of moments where it’s like, “They just destroyed our entire plot, what are we going to do now?”

[Megan] That happens a lot.

[Janci] One of the things we hear a lot about our books is that we’re so brave, that we let our characters just talk out things that would have been, in a normal romance novel, the whole conflict, and it’s over in a couple of scenes. Then we have a different conflict. It’s not because we’re so brave, it’s because our characters talked about…

[Megan] Our characters talked about, “What are we going to do now?”

[Janci] No, I want to tell him this thing that’s supposed to be a secret.

[Howard] That’s kind of what people are like when they’re allowed to talk.

[Janci] Right. Right. Exactly. We find that’s kind of what happens naturally, and yet, every time, we tend to have the tendency of plotting these things out, thinking that the characters will be able to hold this information back.

[Megan] Then they destroy our book.

[Janci] They destroy our book, almost every time.

[Megan] But we come up with a better one, because it’s more natural and more like thorough…

[Janci] And suits our characters and…

[Howard] Okay. So I have to ask, could you do this without the dioramas? Could you do this without the dolls? Could you do this without either? I’m not asking because I think those are unnecessary. I want to know what those bring because that expands my business expense budget…


[Howard] For Star Wars toys…

[Janci] Oh, yeah.

[Howard] By like a billion dollars.

[Janci] The dioramas and such add a lot to the budget. Yeah.

[Dan] One of the big things they bring is… I follow Janci on Facebook, because we’ve been friends forever. I love all the pictures. She’s like, “We’re plotting a new book. Here’s some dude with a haircut and like…”


[Dan] It’s awesome.


[Janci] So, I’ve found that at least… I mean, the dioramas I feel like are the less necessary part of it. I mean, it’s awesome to have it, and it adds a lot to a scene. But for me, I feel like… I personally have always felt like I needed the dolls to have almost this like focal point so it’s slightly removed from me. I think it’s potentially a self-consciousness thing, or potentially… I’m not sure exactly, but for some reason having the dolls… I use to actually do this with my friend Warren, the one who’s working epic fantasy with us. We used to do this, when we were like teenagers, we would use miniatures from like D&D, that kind of thing. We didn’t know how to play D&D, we didn’t know anyone who play D&D, but we got the little miniatures and we essentially just played Barbies and created stories with them. But I’ve always just use something as like a focal point for this is my character.

[Brandon] This is so cool. It really is.

[Janci] It is so cool.

[Brandon] Let me ask you this. When you sit down to write, do you each write your… The character you are playing? Or do you not?

[Janci] Not necessarily.

[Megan] Not necessarily.

[Janci] We tend to divide it that way just because it’s fun for us to write our own characters. But if it comes down to it and there’s… We need to get the book done and there’s stuff, one of us isn’t going to be able to get to it, then we write each other’s characters. That’s no big deal.

[Megan] Yeah, we’re able to do that.

[Brandon] Oh, okay.

[Megan] Because we also, one advantage too, you get to know the other person’s characters as well…

[Janci] So well.

[Megan] When we talk about it so much in the scenes and everything.

[Janci] After the scenes, we’ll sit down and be like, “This is what was going on in my character’s head that they didn’t say.” So we both know all of the motivations that are happening, even if they didn’t actually make it into the scene.

[Brandon] I’ve heard a lot of writers say that it’s really handy to speak out loud your dialogue, or even get a table read, right, of a given scene, where everyone, you get several friends, you each take a character, you read them through. This goes even further than that.

[Janci] It does.

[Brandon] I can only imagine. I wish Mary Robinette were here, because…

[Janci] Oh, yeah.

[Brandon] Being a puppeteer, she would just love this idea, I’m sure.

[Howard] I actually have two questions. One of them is related to I wish Mary Robinette were here. That’s that when you are holding the dolls and having them talk, are you moving the arms and posing them and…

[Janci] So, we mostly set them in the dioramas and let them be still. Then, if one of them is going to move, like, since we do a lot of romance, if one of them puts the arm around the other, we’ll either say he does this, or we’ll move the dolls and have them do that. But we don’t, like, move them and articulate them.

[Brandon] Okay.

[Megan] Usually they just set there. Yeah.

[Howard] The second question com… Not completely unrelated. When you are writing, do you ever find yourself needing to go get the doll or look at the diorama as a mnemonic? Is there stuff that you don’t remember until you went back and looked at…

[Dan] The visual aids.

[Janci] Not for me, usually. No, I think that… I think acting out the scenes actually, like, sticks them in my head better anyway, just as a visual thing, personally.

[Megan] When we say we take notes, sometimes it takes us an hour to take notes on a scene, because we’re sitting there going, “Oh, and remember they said this. Oh, before that, she said that.” Because it’s so stuck in our heads.

[Janci] One thing that the dolls are really good for, though, is clothes. I’m personally terrible at describing clothes and books. But now I just describe what they were wearing.


[Megan] You have all the outfits.

[Janci] It’s amazing.

[Megan] So we have a vast wardrobe for them.

[Janci] Both in epic fantasy and contemporary. So…

[Brandon] Well, let’s stop and talk about some of these books themselves for the books of the week. Tell us about some of the books you’ve done this with.

[Janci] Well, the first… I guess the one that… Contemporary romance series. The first one of that is called The Extra. This one is basically a girl, named Gabby, who lives in LA and her roommate is an actress on a soap opera set, and she ends up becoming, Gabby ends up becoming an extra on that soap opera set. Then, basically, the book is just… It’s a fun rom com, basically. All the hijinks that take… That happened behind the scenes are just as crazy as the stuff that’s on the soap opera itself. So that’s a lot of fun. And a lot of fun to game out.

[Megan] You can get the first book for free on e-book retailers and the second book for free by joining our reader’s list. So.

[Brandon] My wife has been consuming these voraciously.


[Brandon] So she loves them.

[Oh, that makes me happy.]

[Howard] And those are by Janci Patterson, Megan Walker, and…

[Brandon] [garbled]

[No, just the two of us. Yeah.]

[Janci] So, the other series will be coming out next summer, so by the time this airs, they’ll be coming out. They are under the pseudonym Cara Witter, since there’s three of us. We’re not putting three names on the book. But the first book is called Godfire. It’s in epic fantasy about a girl whose father is a dictator, and she doesn’t realize that he has used dark blood magic to make her. So she’s not actually a person, she is his weapon. Those will also be available, the first book for free and then the second one for free with our reader’s list everywhere.

[Brandon] Awesome. For those of our listeners who are interested in this, the business side of it, these two are very shrewd in the way they’ve been approaching this with, you hear, they are doing what, one book a month?

[Janci] In the first year.

[Brandon] For an entire year. You get the first one for free and the second one for the mailing list. It’s just a really shrewd way to do the marketing, so… If you ever want to talk about marketing your books…


[Brandon] We don’t have time on this podcast, but grab one of these two and chat with them.

[Brandon] I want to ask you right now about collaboration. Like, Janci, you used to write all your books by yourself. Then, I remember when you came to me and said, “I’ve discovered collaboration and I will never go back.”


[Brandon] What… Tell me about your process, both of you, and why you like it so much?

[Megan] Oh, boy. Keep the faith.

[Janci] We start with the Barbies, so our process… I collaborate actually with several different people. All of those collaborations are awesome. The great thing about collaborations is you don’t have to do all the sucky parts yourself. There’s somebody else to bounce things off of and somebody else who’s just as invested as you are, which is awesome. Our partnership, we pretty much all have our hands… Both have our hands in everything. We come up with the ideas together, we text… Our text chain is a million miles long, and we text like 100 times a day back and forth. I had an idea about this. I had an idea about that. Oh, that works with this. When we’re smart, we move it into our notes file on OneNote that we can both see. When we’re not, a year later we’re like, “We had ideas.” They’re buried in our text chain. Then we get together and we talk through it, a rough outline.

[Megan] Then, usually after that point, we end up with… Once we have sort of the rough outline, again. Knowing that most likely our game is going to destroy it, and we’re going to have to reconfigure things. We do end up like gaming out the scenes we have plotted, and then whatever scenes kind of come from, organically from, that. Then we take the notes and basically… Usually we go through the notes and kind of decide, like… We kind of turn off our gameplaying brains and turn on our writers brains and be like, “Okay, what aspects of this don’t need to be in the book.” Like, what…

[Janci] There are always great things that our gaming brain thought needed to be in the book, and sometimes we even put in a note, “This needs to go in the book.” Then our outlining brains are like, “That needs to go in the book?”

[Megan] That was not good.

[Janci] No. So, yes. Then we do that. Then, we usually like split up the chapters that we’re going to write, again, usually, by the characters that we are, but not always, depending on what other things we’re working on.

[Brandon] So, the romances are mostly two viewpoint romances?

[Janci] Yeah. The first one isn’t. But the ones thereafter have been. Yeah.

[Megan] It’s not always split evenly, even in the book. So, sometimes one character has fewer chapters than the other.

[Brandon] Are these… I believe, where each book is a different character, set of characters, that are related tangentially to the first book?

[Janci] Right. We’re actually doing both. Kind of a sequel for romance. We have… The first book is one character, the second book is her roommate. Then the third book is the main character’s brother. But then we get to book 6… Somewhere around book 6, we go back to our main character. She has kind of a love story. She hasn’t broken up with her boyfriend, they’re together, but it’s kind of a story about their relationship.

[Megan] Like… Yeah, what they’re like now, a few years later, and what issues have come up in their relationship and stuff like that. So we go back and revisit some of the original characters and…

[Howard] But, by expanding the core POV cast, you’ve increased the range of business expense for Barbies.


[Janci] That’s always my goal. Get more Barbies.

[Howard] I’m sorry to keep coming back to that [garbled toys]

[Janci] Barbies, if you don’t know, aren’t cheap when they’re collector Barbies.

[Dan] Yeah. But on this note, it’s probably worth pointing out that there’s a lot of ways to do this…

[Oh, yeah]

[Dan] Without the visual aids, or with different visual aids. A lot of authors use role-playing campaigns or games. There’s actually a role-playing game called Microscope that is… It’s not narrative, it’s worldbuilding. You, as a role-playing group, come up with a world as part of playing the game. I talked to a handful of other authors that use that when they’re starting a new series, and that helps do their worldbuilding for them. So, this kind of collaborative gaming process of outlining is pretty common. There’s a lot of different flavors of it.

[Brandon] I actually know some people who are doing a triple-A videogame at one of the big studios that they have, part of their workday is a role-playing session in the world before they go to actually building it, because that’s really expensive in video games, getting all the architecture done. They’re role-playing it to find all of the problems with the worldbuilding…


[Brandon] That they think the players will eventually spot, and try to fix those before they sit down. They’re doing it through a role-playing session.

[Howard] Because it’s cheaper to play D&D than to work.

[Brandon] Yeah, it is.


[Megan] One thing that I feel like…

[Dan] Unless you’re the guy paying the checks.


[Megan] One thing that I feel like is a huge advantage to this, at least for me, because I’ve written books by myself before as well and had that experience, but there’s just this synergy of not only writing collaboratively, I feel, but also in the gaming itself, that it just sparks the imagination. There someone else who I kind of like play off of, and it just, for me, it really helps.

[Janci] Especially with the comedy.

[Megan] Oh, the comedy. Yeah.

[Janci] With our… Even in our epic fantasy that is darker, we have some comedic elements, and when we… We know when we really have something when we do a scene and we’re both in stitches and we can’t finish the scene because we’re laughing so hard, and then when we go to take the notes, we’re remembering and we’re laughing so hard…

[Megan] We start laughing.

[Janci] Again, and we stop taking the notes, and then when we outline it. We just find this so hilarious. Then we know that we’ve hit on something that’s going to be really good.


[Brandon] Well, you now own what is probably the most distinctive title of a Writing Excuses episode ever.


[Brandon] We are out of time. Do you guys have a writing prompt, maybe, you could give our audience?

[Janci] So, not that this counts as so much of a writing prompt, but this…

[Howard] Homework.

[Janci] Okay. It counts. But the suggestion is, if you’re a writer, take a scene from your book or a scene you’re wanting to write or something and get some toys and a friend and get like, Barbies or miniatures from a D&D or like your kid’s old action figures. Your old He-Man action figures…

[Dan] My kid’s? Can I just use my own?

[Janci] Whatever. You can use your own.

[Dan] Okay.

[Janci] Basically, find a friend who’s willing to do this with you, and act out the scene.

[Dan] That’s awesome.

[Brandon] That is great.

[Dan] This is a great time to point out that Brandon and I are working on our second collaboration. We need to borrow Janci’s Barbie collection at some point.

[Janci] You can come play in the Barbie room.

[Megan] Yeah, you’re invited.

[Brandon] Thank you, audience, at SpikeCon.


[Brandon] Thank you, Janci and Megan, for being on the podcast. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go play with your Barbies.