18.04: An Interview With Dan Wells
Your Hosts: Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler
In this episode Erin Roberts very enthusiastically launches our interview with “OG” Dan Wells with a delightfully difficult question, paraphrased thusly: “is there advice you gave back in the early days that you still stand by today?”
There are lots of other questions, including one about bacon!
Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.
Homework: Take a scene from a piece you’re working on and strip out all narration and description. Then adjust the dialogue so that the scene still makes sense.
Thing of the week: Moonbreaker, a game from Unknown Worlds, with audio scripts by Dan Wells.
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Key points: A key to worldbuilding is overexplaining something unimportant, and underexplaining something that is very important. Let the reader know there are details in the margins. Buy Dan bacon tchotchkes. We are all still learning. Forget the dumb stuff. Writing audio can ruin you. Interacting with coworkers can be hard. Balancing careers and family is tricky.
[Season 18, Episode 4]
[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.
[DongWon] An Interview With Dan Wells.
[Erin] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[DongWon] I’m DongWon.
[Erin] I’m Erin.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Erin] I am excited to be leading off questions for one of our Writing Excuses OGs, Dan Wells. I think this is such an amazing time to be chatting with you because you talked a little bit in our very first opener of this year about how you’re going through some changes and new things are happening in your career. But, before I talk about that, I’m kind of curious to take a look back. You’ve been on the show for years, and you’ve given so much advice. I’m curious if there’s anything that you carry with you, that OG Dan Wells has said that you would absolutely agree with 100% now, even though life is different.
[Dan] Something that I said in the early days of the show?
[Garbled… Boy, I… Oh…]
[DongWon] Defend yourself, Dan Wells.
[Mary Robinette] You know, Dan, when you thought that the show was so diverse because you had a science fiction writer, a horror writer, and a cartoon… A fantasy writer, a cartoonist and a… Yeah, that.
[Dan] Back when we had three different genres represented and thought that counted as this amazingly diverse group of three Mormon white guys?
[Dan] What do I [garbled] think held up?
[Dan] Oh, boy. A lot of… It’s a good question, because when we pitch the show to people now, I tell them… I usually tell them start in season 10. Don’t listen to the early stuff, because it’s not great. That’s mostly the audio. We did say some intelligent things on occasion in those early seasons. We’re just much better produced now than we used to be. But I… One bit of advice that I still go back to, and I said this on a very early episode. It’s been referenced a few times, and I still believe it’s true, is that kind of for me, one of the keys of worldbuilding is to over explain something that isn’t important, and then to under explain something that is very important. The combination of those two things helps a world… A fantasy world or a science fiction environment feel a lot more real and lived in, because you know that there are details in the margins. Rather than just the two things that you need in order to understand the story.
[Erin] That’s awesome. Well, now, of course, I have to ask the other question, which is what piece of advice would you go fight OG Dan Wells over these days?
[DongWon] Tell him he’s wrong and a fool?
[Howard] I’ve got the easy answer here. I remember during our first season when I had books in print and Brandon had books in print and you didn’t, when we were plugging things, you just told people to buy you bacon.
[Howard] I haven’t heard you say that in at least a decade.
[Dan] I’m sorry. You’re going to have to say that again. My Internet glitched and you froze and I didn’t hear what the actual piece of advice was.
[Howard] Okay. Sorry. The actual piece of advice was Dan doesn’t have anything in print, so just go buy him some bacon.
[Dan] Yes. For years, in fact I think still today, on our website that is woefully out of date, it has links to everybody’s web store, and for me it just has links to an Amazon wish list full of bacon related tchotchkes.
[Howard] I am quite sure we’ve changed that, but now I need to go look.
[Dan] So when we started the show, we had… Brandon was the one who put it all together. He was the one who organized things and who kind of managed the episodes. They brought in Howard to be the famous one, because at the time, he was far more well read than any of the rest of us. They brought in me to be the funny one. Today, Brandon’s the famous one, and Howard’s the funny one, and I don’t know what my job is. But you notice, no one’s job was to be the smart one. Which is why we brought Mary Robinette onto the show a couple seasons later. So… Yeah.
[Mary Robinette] Then I’m like, “Puppets!”
[All right. I know…]
[Howard] I feel like I undercut the question. OG Dan, did he give any bad advice that you want to step in and correct?
[Dan] [garbled I thought I] dodged that question by making jokes about other unrelated things.
[DongWon] I’m seeing a lot of tap dancing.
[Dan] Oh, boy.
[Howard] Into the fire, Mr. Wells.
[Dan] What I’m going to say, and this is an honest answer as well as a cheat, is that anything incredibly wrong I may have said those early episodes, I don’t remember because I have moved past it as an artist. So… I don’t listen to those old episodes anymore. I hope none of you do either, I’m sure that I’ve said many wrong things. I continue to say many wrong things. Because we are always still learning. So… I just forget about the dumb stuff I did and put my behind in the past.
[Erin] Good advice for us all.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I do have to say that I mostly remember actually, from my early days in it, that you were the smart one. That Brandon would come up with these giant, giant theories that was like really, really interesting. Then you would be like, “But here’s how we can use it.” I’d be like, “Oh. Oh. We could use that theory.”
[Dan] Oh. There’s a practical side to this art, huh?
[Erin] Well, I’m wondering… Oh, no, go ahead, Mary Robinette.
[Mary Robinette] No. What I… But kind of jumping off of that, like one of the things, since you do… You said that you were always growing as an artist. Like, is there something recent that was a discovery that you’re excited about?
[Dan] That I am excited about? I think I’ve… Have I told you the story about how writing audio ruined me? I think I’ve told you this. Let me tell a very brief version of it. I doing a lot of Brandon Sanderson collaborations right now. I turned in the first draft of a book called Dark One early in the year. He read it and he sent back notes. The first thing he said was, “This is awesome. Can I hire you as a vice president in my company?” So clearly he liked it. But then all of his actual criticisms were you’re not describing what people look like. You’re not describing what locations look like. Nobody does anything while they talk, they just stand there and talk to each other. I thought to myself, “That’s terrible. I used to be really good at those things. What happened?” Then I realized, “Oh. The only things I’ve published for the last three solid years have been audio scripts.” In which there is no narrator, you don’t describe what things look like, and people just stand and talk to each other.
[Dan] So it has been an interesting process for me, after three or four years of writing nothing but audio scripts, to be coming back into traditional prose and novels, and kind of real learning from the ground up how narration works, how description works. It’s been fun to see those kind of with fresh eyes and think to myself, “Okay, I can remember how I used to do them. But now I think I’ve learned some new things about how to do them.” Being able to introduce characters, for example. I would like to believe that I am better at doing that through voice than I used to be. Which is an interesting thing to say, because voice is the entire strength of the John Cleaver series. But my… I have learned that there are tricks of dialogue that can say a lot of things that I used to rely on narration to say. So, being able to meld the two different styles, audio and prose, back into a cohesive whole is really changing the way that I approached everything that I do.
[DongWon] That is so cool, and it’s such a lesson to, I think, so many writers of every now and then, you gotta break it down to fundamentals. Right? You got a look at the first skills you learned and refocus on them and reintegrate them into the new things that you’ve learned. So, I kind of love hearing about where you are in your process of having learned all these new skills and now taking that and recontextualizing it back into your original process. Yeah. That’s [garbled a credit]
[Erin] Yeah. I think that now is a perfect time to pause for our thing of the week. When we come back, we’ll find out how Dan will conquer the world in the future.
[Dan] All right. So, our thing of the week is a Dan Wells audio script I writing for a videogame called Moon Breaker. This is produced by a company called Unknown Worlds. It’s a miniatures wargame, tabletop style, but done entirely on your computer. The game is great. I have a lot of fun playing through the beta. Now it’s in early access, so you can get on Steam and try it out as well. But they made the interesting decision to reveal their story through audio dramas that are connected to but separate from the game. You don’t play through the story like a traditional role-playing game. You just listen to the story in these kind of radio drama style things. So I’ve been writing those. I just turned in episode five. I believe the first three episodes are available. They’re available on Spotify and Apple podcast. Whatever podcast system you listen to probably has these. You don’t even need to buy the game to listen to them. They’re half-hour episodes of space opera. They have been a lot of fun to write. They’ve done such a great job in their end of creating characters, and then just kind of gave me an absolutely unbelievable amount of freedom to basically be the showrunner of my own TV show that you listen to instead of watch. So, Moon Breaker. Everyone go listen to it. It’s awesome.
[Erin] To touchback now on something that DongWon said before we went to the break about process, I’m curious. Mary Robinette asked about new discoveries. Are there any new challenges, other than being ruined by audio, that you’re sort of finding as you move into the new things that you’re doing?
[Dan] Well, the new thing that I’m doing, for anyone who didn’t listen to our first episode of the year, is that I am vice president of Brandon’s company. I’m the vice president of narrative. Which essentially means that I am the other author voice in his large company that at this point has several dozen employees and does all kinds of things. So my job is to write all the books he doesn’t have time to write, which is crazy when you realize that he wrote four books accidentally a couple years ago. This year, in 23, those are all going to be coming out. He has six books releasing this year. One of which, called Dark One Forgotten, is an audio series that I collaborated on. The others are all him. So, moving into that, I haven’t had a full-time job working for somebody else in 15 years. I’ve been just on my own, doing my own stuff. So as ridiculous as this sounds, it has been a very hard transition for me to have coworkers again. The normal kind of aspects of working a real job, like deadlines and so on, I deal with those anyway. But the fact that I now am kind of beholden to another group of people, and that I interact with them in the course of my job, is very unfamiliar to me. I used to do it. This is such a dumb thing to complain about, because that’s how everyone with a real job works all the time. But for me, I’ve conditioned myself so completely to this kind of solitary author life where I sit in my home office and I do my own thing and I set my own schedule. Now I have to interact with other people. Which is not exclusively bad. There’s a lot of wonderful upsides to it. I love having a team of excited professionals, and I can take them an idea and say, “Hey, let’s do this cool story idea. What have you got?” Then I get thrown art resources and production resources and all of these other things. It’s really exciting to have all of these other people to play with. But it has been a big transition, to not subconsciously avoid everyone I interact with, because that’s what the self-employed author introvert wants to do.
[Howard] I think it’s important to note here when Erin sent us off on our thing of the week break, she said we would talk about how you’re going to take over the world. It’s worth pointing out in this moment that you can’t take over the world without learning to work with other people.
[Dan] Yeah. I mean, I suppose we could point to a couple of examples of people who have taken over the world alone, but… No. Most people have an organization and… Yeah. Working with people is great. A lot of what I’m working on right now, I’m not at liberty to discuss. There are secret things going on back screen of Dragon Steel that you will find out soon. There’s a very cool story project that I’m working on for the Dragon Steel convention that happens at the end of this year in November. You won’t know what those are until you show up at the con. Or, one day later, when someone who showed up at the con puts it on Reddit. But it’s really fun to… I mean, basically, I’ve been given the keys to an incredibly large and exciting entertainment company. Brandon’s primary instruction to me has been, “Here’s all these tools. Here’s all these characters. Here’s all these worlds. Do something awesome with them that people will enjoy.” I love that.
[DongWon] Is this shaping how you think about your interactions with publishers, with audio publishers, with film and TV companies? You’ve had a lot of interactions with different types of publishers in entertainment businesses from the creator end. Now you find yourself embedded within one, although in a specific context. Is that shaping sort of how you think about those experiences, or how you want to conduct those experiences in the future for yourself?
[Dan] To some extent, yes. We are still in the early transition. Right? I have only been working with Brandon for about a mon… Two months at this point. I guess this will air in… By the time this airs, it will be three or so. So I’m still trying to get my feet under me in terms of scheduling. By which I mean, everything I’m working on right now is a Dragon Steel or Cosmere project. I have not yet had time to get back to my own stuff. I have two books that I’m in the process of working on, one that I’m writing, one that I’m revising, that are pure Dan Wells. Once I figure out my schedule and my calendar and I know how to fit my own projects in on top of all the Dragon Steel projects, then, yes, absolutely. I have a completely different concept in my head of how to pitch those to the world, of what to try to do with them, of how to try to do it. Being able to kind of see this massive entertainment company from the inside has given me… I mean, not necessarily context, but just best practices that I had never considered before. Ways of approaching entertainment, ways of thinking about how to sell stories to the world that are… Yeah, are absolutely changing the way that I approach my own work.
[DongWon] That’s really cool.
[Mary Robinette] I am very excited to hear the things that you can share with us about what you learn over this process. Especially, I realized as you were talking, that so many of the questions we get from listeners are things about the work/life balance, and that you now have a very different work/life balance than you did. Because you’re balancing two different creative careers.
[Dan] Yeah. For the… All of 2020 through 20… Most of 2022, so about three years, most of my career was not just in audio script, but also in streaming. I had a Twitch show. At one point, two different Twitch shows that I did. I was a professional game master. Basically, cut all of that out in order to make time for Dragon Steel. So now I’m in the position of trying to figure out, like I said, where to fit in my own stuff, but also how to make sure that I’m still a dad. How do I make sure that I’m still a husband, give time to my family? In some ways, that’s easier now, because I don’t spend every single evening of the week playing D&D with people online. So I get to do less of that and more family. But now the Dan’s own projects are falling behind. I need to figure out where to fit them in again. Yeah. So, there’s going to be a lot of discovery over the course of this year as a figure out what I’m doing and how to do it well.
[Erin] I can’t wait to hear more about it, but in the meantime, I think it’s time for our homework. Dan, you’ve got it?
[Dan] I do have it. So I want to go back to that kind of ruined by audio concept that I had earlier, and make you think about that. Take something that you’re working on, or, even if you don’t have a work in progress right now, take a scene that you love from a book that you love. Rip one of the scenes out of it. Then rip out all of the narration. No narration whatsoever. So it is pure dialogue. Then take a look at that and figure out what you have to do, what kind of changes you have to make to the dialogue in order to communicate as much of that narration as possible without just infodumping everything and having characters describe themselves in the mirror and so on and so on. So it is a tricky thing to do. But I believe in you.
[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.