17.52: The WXR 2022 Q&A
Your Hosts: Brandon, Dan, Mary Robinette, and Howard
This Q&A session was recorded before a live audience aboard ship at WXR 2022,
Here are some paraphrasings of the questions our attendees asked:
- How do you make your world feel big without infodumping?
- How do you balance a sense of progress with an unreliable narrator?
- How can I make two magic systems work in the same setting when one is underpowered, and the protagonist uses the weaker one?
- Have you ever based characters on yourself, or on people you know?
- What does the process of book adaptation look like
- Do you have any good convention recommendations?
- What are some methods for determining how much scientific detail you go into?
- How do you interact with an audience in order to grow it?
Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.
Homework: Write out a few questions. What are the things you need the most help on?
Thing of the week: Bastille vs. the Evil Librarians, by Brandon Sanderson and Janci Patterson.
Powered by RedCircle
Q: What strategies can you use to make the reader aware of the complexities of your world without infodumping?
A: Drop bits of reference into the dialogue without details. Pick themes that your characters are passionate about. Add stuff that is not vital to the plot. Let the character interact with them.
Q: How do you balance a sense of progress with an unreliable narrator?
A: With a goal that they are aiming for. Why are you using an unreliable narrator? Knowing that, and being deliberate about it, allows you to mix it with progress. Progress is asking questions and answering them, which is not necessarily connected to whatever the narrator may be lying about.
Q: How can I make two magic systems work in the same setting when one is very underpowered compared to the other, and the protagonist uses the weaker magic?
A: That’s the best way to do it! Because it has conflict. Show that they are the underdog, but they use their skills better. This builds sympathy and rooting interest.
Q: Have you ever based a character on yourself or someone that you know? If so, did you find that more or less difficult to write?
A: Yes, every character is a reflection of me, in some way. No, not actively base on myself, that I consider to be me. Basing a character on someone you know? Strip out the details, keep the patterns of mannerisms. Base on a struggle or a conflict. Tuckerizations!
Q: So, on book adaptations, Dan, as someone who has had a book adapted, can you talk a little bit about what the process looks like and things to keep in mind when working on adaptations?
A: New and innovative is better than faithful. Script form, on screen, is not the same as novel form.
Q: Do you have any recommendations for conventions or other writing events an aspiring author should attend for networking purposes?
A: Surrey International Writers Conference. Nebula conference. Check your local conventions.
World Fantasy. World Con. Story Makers and Pikes Peak.
Q: Do you use any particular methods to calibrate how detailed your scientific or technical terms are for each series or audience or genre?
A: Consider a cheese sandwich. If all it does is feed the character, you don’t say much about it. If the character is a chef, you may say more. Technical jargon is the same. Think about the structural purpose they serve in your story.
Q: How do you cultivate an audience, specifically how do you interact with fans responsibly, especially starting out when they may number less than 10 and are essentially your peers?
A: Try to add value to every group, every conversation you have. Marketing is a minus value, so add value to the group before you try to market to them. Make a contribution, be interesting, make sure people enjoy spending time with you first. Consider a street team!
[Season 17, Episode 52]
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on the Writing Excuses Cruise 2022.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Mary Robinette] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Howard] And you guys are going to ask us questions, despite our not-smartness.
[Brandon] Go ahead. First question.
[Julie] Hey, can you hear me?
[Julie] I’m Julie. What strategies can you use to make the reader aware of the complexities of your world without infodumping?
[Howard] What strategy… I love this question, and James Sutter gave us a great answer to that a couple seasons ago. Just by dropping little lines of dialogue, “the screaming hills” or “The monks of whatever” as little bits of reference without any additional details. These are just things that exist, that the characters know about, and that gets sprinkled into the dialogue, and then off they go with the plot.
[Brandon] I would pick a few themes for your book. In specific, things that you are going to… That your characters are passionate about. Right? Everybody… Kind of because Tolkien did Tolkien’s thing wants to pick the ones that Tolkien did, which is not a bad idea. But your character might be a calligrapher, and they might be interested in the history of fonts on your world. They can talk about the history of fonts, and drop those hints in, not at length, not infodumps, but mentions here and there. Which will give the same sense of depth in history to your world, and be relevant to your character and their passions, rather than that same character talking about the history of that fort over there, which might be something that Tolkien would have done. Pick the ones that your characters are passionate about.
[Dan] I think so much of what provides depth to a story is stuff that is not vital to the plot. If we… If the only information we ever get is the information we require in order to understand the current story taking place, then the world is only as big as the current story taking place. Whereas, if we have other things, other history, other cultural details that have nothing to do with the current story, then that makes the world very large.
[Mary Robinette] I pick them based on whether or not my character is interacting with them. So if the character is interacting with the food, then I can describe that food. If they aren’t interacting with the food, then I do not describe the national dish of whatever fiction fantasy world I have.
[Brandon] All right. Question number two, by the person in the excellent T-shirt. One of mine.
[Todd] Ah, yes. I’m Todd, and I’m currently wearing the same shirt as Brandon, but… For my question, I’m wondering how do you balance a sense of progress with an unreliable narrator?
[Mary Robinette] Ah…
[Brandon] How do you balance… Oh, that’s… I don’t have to repeat them because…
[Mary Robinette] Um… So, your character can still have a goal that they’re aiming for. Frequently, that unreliability is about some aspect of self. So, you don’t… You can still be honest to the reader by having the character react in ways that are consistent with whatever that secret is. Which allows you to make that forward progress and then kind of drop clues before you do the big reveal about what the unreliability is.
[Brandon] Yup. I would agree. Unreliable narrators should always be a feature, not a bug. Right? Like, if you’re using it, you should be using it for a reason. What is your goal in using the unreliable narrator? What are you achieving? Well, that will then tell you how you can intermix that with progress. Because you can cheat and really fun ways with an unreliable narrator. There can be several… I mean, a character that I wrote who lost several years of time in their memory, or parts of the time in their memory, becomes unreliable not because of them hiding from the reader, but they legit don’t know. This then becomes a cool reveal. So highlighting those things… The thing that I would say you most want the reader to pick up on is that you as an author are doing this on purpose. The character is unreliable on purpose, not on accident. They will give you all kinds of accommodation if they know it’s on purpose. As soon as they suspect it’s on accident, you start to lose them.
[Howard] I think that the sense of progress and the narrator might be a false concomitance here, that those are not necessarily related. For me, the sense of progress comes from a question being asked and then later being answered. Every time I get an answer to a question I had, to a question posed by the story, I feel like we’ve made progress. That, for me, is completely disconnected from who the narrator may or may not be lying about.
[Mary Robinette] I just realized part of why I think they may have asked this question. That if you’re writing something like a heist where…
[Mary Robinette] The narrator has a secret goal.
[Brandon] Right, right. In a lot of heists, they do. That’s a very good point to bring out. A lot of times, your character will have a secret goal. Again, I still think it comes back to make sure the reader knows that it was done on purpose. So they can start to suspect and put things together. I always feel like if you’re heisting the reader, the clues should have been there all along. Now, there are really brilliant ones were you’re not supposed to notice anything is wrong until the last minute before it happens. But in that case, you need to have created a narrative that has payoffs all along, otherwise it’s suspicious.
[Unknown] How can I make two magic systems work in the same setting when one is very underpowered compared to the other, and the protagonist uses the weaker magic?
[Brandon] Ooo. That’s the better way to do it, usually.
[Brandon] Because conflict. Stories are about conflict and what you can and can’t do. I’m glad you’re asking this question, but the answer is actually pretty simple in that you don’t have to really worry about power level in books, particularly if your character is the weaker party. The answer is how do you do this is you make it very clear that they’re the weaker party, they’re the underdog, and you show them using their skills better than those who are overpowered. Right? The whole idea of I am not as strong, so therefore I must be very tactical in how I apply the strength I do have, builds enormous amounts of sympathy and rooting interest for a character. If you have a character that’s superstrong, it’s actually much harder because building that rooting interest when they are from a position of power means that the conflict has to be approached differently. So I would say present these kind of magic systems in an interesting way that reinforces what you’re doing. Right? If the powerful magic system is in the control of the elite, and the week magic system… I mean, this is the most obvious one, but it’s a good example… Is in the hands of the underdogs, both socially and narratively, then you will… It’ll be… It’ll flow from there.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. The plucky hero is a common trope, but one of the things that you often see in superhero movies is that the super villain is ridiculously overpowered compared to the superhero. Those are essentially two different magic systems.
[Dan] Yeah. Well, also, when you start to think about what counts as a magic system in the kind of grand metaphor of just character power, look at something like the Star Wars series. The original trilogy has one Jedi, but that doesn’t make the other characters not interesting. Right? Han Solo’s magic system is that he can attack people from range and he can fly through space. He does that with other things. It’s not as powerful as being a Jedi, but it’s not on interesting and it still is vital to the story and to the society that they live in.
[Brandon] All right. Next question.
[Lisha] Hi. I’m Lisha Bickard. Have you ever based a character on yourself or someone that you know? If so, did you find that more or less difficult to write?
[Brandon] Okay. Let’s split that into two questions. First, have you based a character on yourself?
[Mary Robinette] Yes.
[Brandon] I would say every character I write as a piece of me. Some aspect of my personality comes out. It’s inevitable.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Howard] Yeah. That’s… Same here. I’ve given up on trying to say, “Oh, this character is nothing like me.” Because I am alive to write what they say, so, at some level, they’re at least a little bit like me.
[Dan] But I feel like that’s a very different question from have you actively based one on yourself versus do elements of yourself bleed through.
[Dan] I don’t think I’ve ever written a character who I consider to be me.
[Brandon] I would agree that I have not done that, either. There’s no… I mean, I don’t know if you’re talking about self inserts, but, like the Dirk Pitt books, Clive Cussler always shows up in them as a character. I’ve never done that.
[Mary Robinette] No, I haven’t done that either. But I have given my character… Like Ellena, I’ve talked very openly about in Calculating Stars, that while I don’t have an experience personally with anxiety, my experience with depression is her experience with anxiety. That I mapped that. Also, there’s several other things that I’m just like, and that’s… The other thing I talk about is her experience with Parker is based exactly on someone that I used to work with. So I have done that.
[Brandon] Let’s take the second half of this one. Basing a character on someone you know? Have you done this? Pitfalls? How did you approach it? These sorts of things.
[Mary Robinette] Again, so, Parker is based on somebody that I know. I strip out the identifying details, and what you’re left with is the patterns of mannerisms. In Glamorous Histories, I’ve often talked about the fact that Mr. Vincent is heavily based on my husband, who I frequently describe as the love child of Mr. Darcy and Eeyore. Mr. Vincent and Rob do not have the same back story in any way, shape, or form. But they have the same mannerisms. They have many of the same interests and attitudes.
[Brandon] It’s kind of uncanny.
[Mary Robinette] It really… Yeah.
[Howard] There was this one time where, as a favor to a friend, I wrote a character into a story, and then had him kill his own dang self. Really stupidly, and… That was a lot of fun both for me and for my friend.
[Brandon] I don’t generally base on… Well, I do and I don’t. I base on a conflict often. If I have a friend who has a struggle or a conflict, I will put that in. The only characters that are based on friends more overtly than that are Tuckerizations, where they get to say they make an appearance in the books.
[Dan] Yeah. I often auction off for service auctions and charities and things the ability to be brutally murdered in a Dan Wells book. That’s not so much copying the mannerisms as just, “Hey, look. You can show all your friends that…
[Mary Robinette] Your name.
[Dan] A monster killed you.”
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Your name is in this book. Frequently, with Tuckerizations, they are not anything like the person, they just have a name in common.
[Mary Robinette] One of the pitfalls is that if you have not cleared it with them ahead of time, that it can be… Like, my husband knows that I put his mannerisms into books. I have a friend who was a Tuckerization, and then I was like, “Oh, I’m very sorry, but your Tuckerization is actually going to be a villain in the next book. Is that okay?”
[Brandon] Yeah. The Tuckerizations I do of friends stay in the background almost exclusively. If it’s an unflattering Tuckerization of someone I know, I always change the name and the description, and it’s then just kind of the concept becomes on inspiration.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. This is what happens when you write something that you think is a standalone and they ask you for a sequel.
[Dan] And then they ask for more. I had a character, there was a teacher, a schoolteacher in the John Cleaver books, that was named after a friend of mine who is a schoolteacher. Before that went to print, I realized, oh, wait. In the next book I’m going to turn this guy into a pedophile. So I’m going to change that name really quick and make sure that that does not come back to bite him in any way.
[Brandon] So, let’s stop for our book of the week. Our book of the week is my book.
[Brandon] So, 15 years ago plus, I started writing a little series called Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians as a way to take a break between the Mistborn books. It’s as different from Mistborn as I could possibly get inside my brain. About kids who have weird magical talents that sound like drawbacks until they use them. Like being late for things or being bad at dancing or things like that. Now, long-awaited last book, last secret book of the series. I actually pitched this book to my editor. I said, “I want to do five books, and then end on a horrible, horrible cliffhanger. Because there kind of comedic, and that’s what the character’s been warning them. Then pretend there’s going to be no sixth book because the main character refuses to write the book. Then I want to have a sixth book which is finally coming out written by another character in the series to give the actual ending because the main character was a dweeb and would not write the ending of his series, where he actually kind of proves to be a little bit more heroic than he’s been telling people all along. So we have Bastille versus The Evil Librarians, written with my good friend Janci Patterson, who’s been on the podcast a number of times. Who helped me get the voice right, because I was struggling with it, which is part of what took so long. It is finally out and you can get it. The series is now finished.
[Mary Robinette] Yay!
[Brandon] All right. So, let’s go to the next question.
[Unknown] Awesome. So, on book adaptations, Dan, as someone who has had a book adapted, can you talk a little bit about what the process looks like and things to keep in mind when working on adaptations?
[Dan] Yeah. So, my general theory of adaptations is that I am far more interested in something that is new and innovative rather than endlessly faithful. That is an assertion that gets sorely tested when it is your own little baby…
[Dan] Being adapted. I did not have creative control over the Serial Killer movie, but I did get the chance to read all the drafts of the script and be involved with casting and things like that. The initial drafts of the script, and even the final shooting script, included some changes that I disagreed with pretty wildly. Fortunately, I had, over the process, become good friends with the director to the point that he was able to just say, “Hey, trust me. This is an art form that I am familiar with and you are not. Give me the benefit of the doubt here.” I did, and ultimately realized, oh, the changes he was making would not have worked in the book. They would not have been effective in novel form. But the changes I was suggesting he make to his script would not have worked in script form. They would not have worked on the screen. So I was right and he was right, and he was smart enough to know that that’s why I was arguing with him, is because it was simply an art form that I didn’t know as well. The final product, he made the right calls on those adaptive changes, and I made the right call in that I stopped making a stink about it.
[Brandon] All right. Next question.
[Unknown] Hi. Do you have any recommendations for conventions or other writing events an aspiring author should attend for networking purposes?
[Brandon] Oh. Specifically for networking purposes.
[Mary Robinette] There are two major ones that I would recommend. Surrey International Writers Conference in Surrey, B. C., Which is my favorite writers conference besides the… Including the ones that I run, actually. The one that were currently on, Writing Excuses, we constantly tell our students that the best thing they get out of this is the interactions, but you know that because you’re here. Then, the Nebula conference is designed specifically to be a thing for developing and professional authors.
[Brandon] I met my agent at the Nebula conference 20 years ago. And he’s still my agent.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So those are the big things for me. But I would also look at your local conventions. Because you don’t have to travel places. And also, you don’t have to go to conventions to network. You can network online. Also, you don’t have to network to be successful. There are plenty of authors who are successful who are complete recluses. There are a number of things that it helps with. But you can also have a career without doing that, if it is something that you’re not comfortable with.
[Brandon] indeed, I’d say it’s the least important it’s ever been before breaking into the business. Not to say it can’t still be useful, but as in the publishing is happening… Happened, as publishing has started to spread out and move out of New York a little bit more, and things like that, the need to network has decreased a little.
[Dan] Let me ask a question. One con we always used to recommend as a really fantastic networking con was World Fantasy. It is my perception that that is no longer as helpful of a networking con as it used to be. Is that… Would you agree with that, or am I wrong?
[Mary Robinette] You are correct. Yeah, you’re correct. The… That was David Hartwell’s home convention. He always asked his fellow editors and his author stable to attend the convention. With his passing, while networking still happens, there is not quite the same presence…
[Mary Robinette] There since that. They also had some other issues that often happen when you move a convention from place to place. World Con is another one of those which depending on where World Con is… And this is also true with World Fantasy. Depending on which group of volunteers are running it, they can be more helpful than others. But you have to be pretty deep into the community already to know which one is going to be a good one. So when they’re close to you, absolutely go to them. But I wouldn’t always recommend making the trip for it.
[Brandon] If you are in the inner mountain West, the Story Makers Conference tends to be our best conference in the Salt Lake area.
[Mary Robinette] Oh, Pikes Peak in Colorado is very good as well.
[Howard] The one piece of counsel I’d offer when thinking about networking is that if you are slightly impatient, and what you are looking for is someone a few rungs up to help you really launch the career, that’s challenging, and that’s a hard relationship to build. If you’re willing to be patient, if you’re willing to network and make friends with people who are at your level in career launching or in book writing or whatever, and you begin to grow with those people, in many cases these are the relationships which five years or even 10 years down the road, these are the relationships that will redefine your career when somebody comes to you and says, “Oh, hey, by the way, I just got a show green lit, and I need a script doctor, and I know you can do it.” It’s… I love to see people just willing to make friends. Those friendships that you make are going to be more genuine and I think they’re going to be more helpful to you.
[Brandon] All right. Go ahead.
[Unknown] Do you use any particular methods to calibrate how detailed your scientific or technical terms are for each series or audience or genre?
[Mary Robinette] My cheese sandwich analogy. So, if you’ve got a cheese sandwich and it is in a scene where everyone knows what a cheese sandwich is in the cheese sandwich serves only the function of feeding the character, you don’t need to describe it deeply. If your character is a chef and they are doing something exquisite with the cheese sandwich, you need to describe it more deeply, because the character is going to have a different relationship with it. It’s the same with the technical jargon that you throw out. If you’ve got an alien that is… Has never experienced a cheese sandwich before, what often happens to a reader, to an early career writer, is that they want to say, “All right. So a cheese sandwich is made out of cheese and bread.” The alien is like, “But, okay, what is bread?” You’re like, “Bread comes from wheat, which is grown in…” Like, none of that is actually useful. What you want to say is a cheese sandwich is something that you hold in your hands and you eat it and it’s tasty. So when you’re thinking about the jargon, you’re thinking about the structural purpose… The mechanical research details… You’re thinking about the structural purpose that they serve in the story. I often just put in a bracket that says technical detail goes here. Or jargon goes here. Because frequently the only reason it’s there is to demonstrate competence porn.
[Brandon] All right. This is going to be our last question for this episode. So, hit us.
[Qwamai] Hello. My name is Qwamai Simmons. How do you cultivate an audience, specifically how do you interact with fans responsibly, especially starting out when they may number less than 10 and are essentially your peers?
[Brandon] Mmm. That’s an excellent question. So, interacting with an audience. There’s a couple tips that I would be… If they are your peers, in particular, but… You always want to be value adding to any group that you’re part of. Marketing generally value negatives, so keep in mind that it’s like your value to a group is going to earn you chances to occasionally network. The sorts of things that I don’t like seeing our social media feeds that are just… Network is the wrong term. That was from before.
[Brandon] Market. Are just marketing, are just big marketing. You’ll see this sometimes on Internet forums or things. People pop in and be like, “Hey, I just sold my first book. Here it is.” And it’s the first time you’ve even seen them. If you’re not value adding, don’t be doing that. Try to be adding something to every group you’re part of and every conversation you’re part of.
[Dan] Yeah. Think of your community of readers as a group of friends that you interact with. Not necessarily close friends that you invite to your house all the time, but people that you want to hang out with and that you want to pay attention to you. If you and your friend group, all you ever say is, “Hey, I have a lot of shirts for sale on my website,” you won’t get invited to parties anymore. Whereas, if you are contributing things, if you are interesting, if people enjoy spending time with you, then, suddenly, you are a valuable friend that people love to hang out with.
[Howard] This comes back to what I said earlier about patience. We’re all inherently impatient to some degree, we want to launch ourselves from zero readers to 20,000 readers. I don’t have a magic bullet for that. I don’t have a magic trick for that. The thing that I have found is that it is… Doing marketing where I am asking the marketing under something, that’s exhausting. I just allow myself to be myself with my audience and be silly. Then, every so often, I let them know that I’m doing a thing. Is that effective? I don’t know if it’s effective, I don’t know if I’m actually good at this. But I know that I’m way more comfortable with that than I am with the other approaches.
[Mary Robinette] The last thing that I would say about this is that it’s very easy to sound very calculating when you’re thinking about this. I’ve heard people talk about it as a social bank. You have to put things into the social bank in order to have a withdrawal later. That is true. Also, being a good person, which is what we’re talking about, being a value add, is not transactional. It’s like when you are a good, contributing member of the community, you’re not doing it because, well, then they’re going to be nice to me.
[Mary Robinette] That is the wrong way to approach it. The way you approach it is by being genuinely interested in other people. Finding the community that you want to be part of. That’s the piece that you’re doing. The people that you want to be part of, that you’re genuinely interested in, they don’t owe you friendship in return. Right? They don’t owe you anything. You’re doing that because it is something that you find satisfying. You kind of have to approach it that way. Otherwise, you are going to be angry and bitter, because you’ve entered a transactional relationship that no one else agreed to.
[Dan] Yeah. I do want to point out that there’s kind of a community building thing that I have seen a lot of authors use. This has become pretty common over the last two or three years, at least in some of the circles that I move in, called the street team. I’m sure that there are other authors that have different names for it. This is something that is kind of overtly transactional in a way that avoids the problems Mary Robinette is talking about. Saying… Assembling a group of people and saying, “Hey, I will give you an advance manuscript or I will give you these other things because you’re a super fan and I would love to have you help me spread the word about my books.” That’s something that I see… Maybe it’s mostly in YA. I don’t know if this is something the rest of you have run across. But it is a system that if you handle it correctly works well to build a community that way. Like, you’re part of my club now. Here’s all the benefits of the club. Then, also, you’re going to help.
[Howard] I was standing at my booth at World Con and a super fan had bought a book from me and someone else came up to the booth and was kind of like, “What’s this?” Super fan launched into a fantastic pitch for my stuff. I very calculatedly, very carefully, did zero things to stop them.
[Howard] Are you overselling me? I don’t care. You dearly love this, and you love this in a way that I would love for other people to love this. So go. Run. Do the thing.
[Mary Robinette] I’m going to put in a quick plug for my Lady Astronaut club. Which is, basically, I have built a community. You can send away a self-addressed stamped envelope, you can be a member of my Patreon, someone can vouch for you in the community. We call it the kindest corner of the Internet. It is a place where I get to interact, but also, it is, at times, a street team. Like, if I come in and say, “Hello, I really need help with X.” But I never approach it with the expectation that they will do these things for me.
[Brandon] All right. We are out of time. Thank you all for the excellent questions here at the Writing Excuses Cruise.
[Brandon] Your homework is to write out a few questions. To think about it, think about what are the things you need help most on in your writing career right now. Now, we are unavailable to answer your questions because we are off somewhere else. But I find that formulating these things, sitting and thinking what do I need, really helps you kind of put a point on what you need to do, where you need to learn, where you need to grow. That’s going to help you get those answers. So, ask yourself the question, what is holding me back the most in my writing career, and what question would I have for the team if I were able to ask it. Maybe you will eventually be able to do so. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.