Writing Excuses Episode 22: Doing The Unpopular

As a writer it’s sometimes difficult to decide between doing things the readers want, and things that are right for the story. But as Dan says, writers can get away with doing things to readers that readers would never do to themselves.

Beware! This podcast contains spoilers for The Lord of the Rings, Return of the Jedi, and Serenity (the statute of limitations should have passed on all of these) as well as for the current week of Schlock Mercenary.

This Week’s Episode is brought to you by one of our favorite causes, “Buy Dan Bacon.” Mmmm, bacon.


35 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episode 22: Doing The Unpopular”

  1. Sorry for the late update! This one has been in the queue for a couple of days now awaiting only some flavor text, but I didn’t have web access until really late Sunday night.

    Now you have the ‘cast, and I have a solid six hours of sleep. Thank you for your patience!

  2. Nien Nunb. And I didn’t have to look it up–how’s that for Star Wars geekiness?

  3. man, here i sit wondering whether there’s something wrong with me ’cause Jar Jar Binks was one of mi favorito characters. of course, i was nine when i first saw the movie so i guess that excuses me. i think Jar Jar was more for the kids than the adults anyway.

  4. That was another bad decision for Star Wars–half the names. Waaaaay too many u’s and oo’s floating around.

    Anyway, I do have a question related to this week’s ‘cast. I have two writer’s groups; one is online, and one is face-to-face. We’re all amateurs who have been working on one or two projects on the side for several years, so the two groups should be even in that regard. I’ve gotten some drastically different responses between the two groups, however. My face-to-face group absolutely loves my main character and the way she’s presented, but my online group is largely indifferent, bordering on dislike. I intend to play around with the first several chapters to see if I can find a mode that satisfies everybody, but it may require me to make some serious changes to my MC’s personality, which in turn seriously alters the ‘curiously inevitable’ness of the last plot twist. I definitely see their point. My face-to-face group knows me and trusts me to put in a plot twist before it’s too late–my online group (and editors) don’t know me, and have no reason to trust that it will all work out in the end. Plus, 2/3 of my face-to-face group belongs to a…very specific sub-set of the population, which is statistically unlikely to include most of my online group.

    So my question is this: how do I decide if this is a case of ‘the unpopular move’ vs. ‘know your ideal reader’?

  5. I say that if it’s an interest of trust regarding your two groups of readers then you shouldn’t change your MC just because one group is showing dislike. If they’re truly apathetic about her, maybe that’s a different story. She may not have enough conflict or interest in and of herself. If she’s not compelling and they feel nothing about her and consequently put the book down, then maybe something needs to be changed. But if they take a personal dislike and are gripped enough to keep reading then whether or not they trust you to put in a plot twist is irrelevant as they’ll keep reading anyway.

    Bottom line? Keep them reading, rather. (<–Many different ways to do this). You’re never going to satisfy everybody. Wanting to change the MC’s personality to fit your audience seems like either you do not know her well enough to say what makes her interesting or what makes her tick, or you have problems elsewhere in the plot and what happens to her.

    The other thing is that this distrustful group of yours may not be able to see past the installments you give them. I’ve found many writing groups (particularly ones made of strangers) need to suspend their distrust from installment to installment just like the rest of us are asked to suspend our disbelief in full-length books. That might be the issue, as well.

    I’m not a pro, but that’s my two cents. Hope it helps.

  6. *cue music*

    All we wanna do is eat your brains, we’re not unreasonable – I mean no one’s gonna eat your eyes…

    …Oh wait. That’s not allowed, is it?

    (Additional geek points to anyone who caught that reference. Though Dan’s still got more of them than I do. Incidentally, Dan, I’m extraordinarily curious about these weird books of yours that you keep alluding to.)

    Once again, I think you guys’ve pretty much summed it up: go with your gut, and execution is everything. I’m of the opinion that you can do almost anything if it’s done well and makes sense, and that usually – usually – your instincts are good. If you write what interests you, generally speaking there will be other people who are interested in it as well.

    There’s a definite skill to knowing when your instincts are off-the-wall; when you’re doing something “unpopular” that isn’t going to work, or doing something easy when you should really be doing something unpopular. A critique group can help with that, but mostly it’s a question of being able to look at your work objectively and as Dan said, that’s cold hard practice. Reading other stuff is good too (not only is it good to know what sells, but it’s good to know what works).

    I don’t know if there’s such thing as an ideal reader, though maybe I’m unusual in that I don’t really write with a particular audience in mind. I think it’s still mostly a question of pleasing as many people as possible while remaining true to the story and the characters (in your case, if you don’t want to change the MC too much, there might be other things you can change to do that). I think it’s helpful to have at least a vague idea of what your target audience is, but I’d be kind of afraid to get into a mindset where I was writing for a really specific group of people. That, of course, is just me. ;)

  7. Well… as an amateur, it seems like a demographic disparity. I personally wouldn’t be able to relate to say, a teenage girl, not remembering many of those experiences, and so not really liking that character. However, I would be able to at least understand a woman in her 20’s to 30’s, (My wife being my model).

    I think Brandon, Howard, and Dan make a great point in that we all want to be able to relate to a/the character. We care a lot more about what happens to them. If we don’t like or feel for them one way or another, “as a character”- we don’t much care what happens with them.

    I think what it boils down to: who is your target audience? Granted, I haven’t read your story but I hope my opinion can help.

  8. As a long-time fan of Howard’s work, I’d like to point out a bit of irony in this episode. Y’all are talking about doing unpopular things, and here I am unable to listen to a good half of it because Howard’s about to go spoiler-mode. XD

  9. Ok, I have looked to buy Dan’s books, but the links provided just take me to books on how to cook bacon, the movie Canadian bacon, and the always scary Kevin Bacon. Which makes me sad because I really want to support you guys as much as I can. I love Brandon’s Books and have all that have been published, I have been addicted to Schlock, But have not been able to find any of Dans work, HELP!!!

  10. Thanks for this episode!

    While I write literary fiction (as opposed to sci-fi, of which I am a big, geeky fan), I did something similar to Whedon’s *SPOILER* (Curse you, Whedon, for your cruel genius!).

    In my story, the beloved cat of my protagonist dies unexpectedly, even as the character is already spiraling toward a deadly alcoholic relapse. I bawled my eyes out when I wrote the scene, and my first readers have had similar reactions. And yet it sets the tone, letting the reader know that anything is possible and no one is safe.

    (editor’s note: even though we spoil this in the cast, I’ve changed it here in case someone skips the cast and reads the comments)

  11. Chris:
    Dan’s work is not yet published, to the great lamentations of many. At present, my first book is scheduled to be released in April 2010. By an odd quirk, the UK version will be out a full year earlier than that, so if you’re across teh pond you can buy it in 2009. Until then, I’m afraid, you get nothing from Dan but links to Kevin Bacon.

  12. I went through last week and updated the entire list, with fancy new stuff (including bacon breath mints) and a functional shipping address. It should all work.

  13. Very nice podcast, although when you started talking about killing off beloved characters, I am surprised nobody mentioned George R. R. Martin.

  14. Martin WAS mentioned, wasn’t he? I’m pretty sure he was…

    Another guy who’s really good at being nasty to his characters is Joe Abercrombie. I’ve read the first two, and while I haven’t gotten my hot little hands on a copy of the third in his trilogy, apparently it’s quite mean. Even meaner than the first two, which is … impressive.

    Another thing about Abercrombie is that while he’s quite good at being a jerk to his characters, his body count isn’t quite so high as Martin’s (or even all that close, really). Which is nice in a way. I’m as much a fan of Martin as the next person, but it’s a tad frustrating to read books in which SO MANY of the characters that we grow to love and/or hate end up croaking.

  15. I managed to “la la la la” my way through the Serenity spoiler. I’ll have to watch that this month.

    I’ve been wracking my brain for examples of things I hate that an author does and they shouldn’t have. Usually it’s a short-cut to get out of a mess they created for themselves, and it breaks the believability. On the other hand, in the first novel by one of my favorite authors, she managed to land all of her main POV characters in the hospital while action happened elsewhere. I can imagine she had an “oh crud” moment, but fought her way through in a believable way rather than contorting the story. From that reading however, I learned not to do that!

  16. Oh, and this podcast was enlightening in another way. I’ve never actually clicked the link, so I’ve been wondering for ages who Dan Bacon was and what he had to do with Dan Wells.

  17. Alright Dan, so I bought you some bacon.

    Now three things about that. 1. You are lacking the bacon adhesive bandaids from your bacon list. I tried to buy them for you, but I apparently can’t buy you things that you aren’t on your wish list. This is probably wise on some level, but you should seriously check out the bandaids. 2. I want a horror podcast! :) 3. Why do you want 2 of everything?

  18. 1. I don’t use bandaids on my owies–just real strips of bacon.
    2. Your wish is my command.
    3. Because I am greedy.

  19. I always try to remember that what the audience asks for is not necessarily what the audience wants. Laurel K. Hamilton’s readers said they wanted sex, she delivered, and some of her later books (The Anita Blake series) have become borderline soft core porn and lowered sales reflected this.

    I think I’ll call ‘can of worms’ on ‘What the Audience wants VS What the audience is asking for.’

    In my small writing experiences it becomes obvious about keeping the promise made at the beginning, also that the promise can be broken if the reason is well dressed. Which means the audience must be satisfied with the overall story. Look at Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back for examples. Luke is maimed, his girlfriend is out of reach (Always was, as we find out later) and Han is a coffee table. Not a victory by any standard in that one but it’s the favorite of many a fan.

    IMHO, all good stories require some good drama (Except comedies, where the first and darn near only rule is “Make the audience laugh”), and you don’t get that by handing happy endings out on a silver platter. The hero must work for them, work hard in fact and take losses. And sometimes the hero loses or has a Pyrric (sp?) victory at best. Without the possibility of losing all, winning is empty. And empty stories don’t sell.

  20. The more that I listen to this podcast, which is a lot, the more i find myself trying to picture what the scene looks like, as you are recording. The first thing I imagined, was the three of you sitting in a circle, on the floor around jordo, who was holding a fisher price microphone/cassette recorder. I think a few pictures of your recording lair during a podcast would be fun.

  21. Re: Dan’s ending prompt about the grunt in an undead army.. I think it would be great if he were “religious” and his re-re-re-animation kept getting in the way of that.

    Unfortunately, I don’t write short fiction (or horror or humor), so I’m going to just end it there.

  22. I thought about making mine religious as well, I ended up making each limp re-animate at a different time. So he keeps getting into trouble because half of his body dose not work.

  23. The answer to the common question “What’s selling now” is not simply “good writing.” I think what’s selling now in novels and short genre fiction is strong voice.

    I realized after listening to this that I’ve already written my undead soldier story… how sad is that?

  24. Let me attempt to get as many Star Wars g33k points as possible with limits (1) no looking stuff up in the movies, books, on wookieepedia, or anywhere else out of my head; and, (2) only dealing with the RotJ scene from the podcast.

    Millennium Falcon: Max Hyperdrive Speed=.5
    Model=Corellian YT-1300 (Heavily Modified of course)
    The forks are clamps for cargo and between them is a Concussion Missile (or Boomer) Launcher.
    Cockpit varies from YT-1300 to YT-1300 from right to centre to left.
    Han won ship from Lando in Sabaacc game on Bespin
    Nien Numb is a Sullustan employed by the SoroSuub Corp. and has an excellent sense of direction.
    X-Wing: Max Hyperdrive Speed=1; Max Accel=3700Gs
    Pilot of the Falcon’s wingman=Wedge Antilles
    X-Wings have 2 Proton Torpedo Launchers with capacities of 3 Bangers each.
    In Episode 4 the in cockpit camera shots show the S-Foils in the open position at all times, causing a completely meaningless continuity error.
    Death Star II: Diameter varies geratly by source, but generally 160 or 900 kilometers.
    The Superlaser is improved with 9 instead of the old 8 sub-lasers, far enhanced precision, and 1/500th the recharge time over the previous model.
    Luke’s escape shuttle was the Emperor’s personal Sienar Fleet Systems Lambda class shuttle.
    Oh, and the noise in space there was simulated by the ship according to a deleted scene for a more multisensory near-collision-and-control-feedback-system (like a video game controller’s rumble effect).

    and now it is 4 in the morning (search that on ted.com for a laugh) so I’m going to move on to the next podcast, read the new Schlock, and then read some George R. R. Martin while I simmer over character deaths and Tyrion tinkers with alchemy.

  25. Let me just point out that the Millennium Falcon story is a Star Wars urban myth. No such scene was ever shot.

    The relevance of pointing this out two years later is strikingly low, but there you are anyway. :p

  26. Related point, what if what thing that’s unpopular your doing is simply defying genre norms?

    One thing that’s extremely normal for me, is I might have a military/cyberpunk, or contemporary/fantasy, or contemporary/science fiction, or military/fantasy, or just whatever. I mostly just collect tropes and just see what works.

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