Writing Excuses 8.22: Pre-writing with E.J. Patten

E.J. “Eric” Patten joins us for a discussion of pre-writing. His first book, Return to Exile, came out in 2011, and The Legend Thief released in March of 2013.

What is pre-writing? Eric walks us through his process for developing a story, beginning with the high-concept world-building inspired by the phrase “Cthulhu for kids.” He talks about the importance of getting the characters right, and how this process precedes plot development. Each of us handles this a little differently, and we talk about how that goes.


Kids get magical powers from their Halloween costumes…

E.J. Patten’s books aren’t available on Audible, but if you’re looking for Cthulhu that isn’t for kids, H.P. Lovecraft’s classics “Call of Cthulhu” and “Reanimator” can be found in H.P. Lovecraft, Volume 2, narrated by Garrick Hogan.

25 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.22: Pre-writing with E.J. Patten”

  1. I love the concept behind the writing prompt, though in the spirit of researching what’s already out there, I feel I ought to point out that it’s pretty much the central conceit behind the game Costume Quest out of Double Fine Productions. They use it in kind of a fantasy RPG way in place of character classes, so you have things like a robot or French Fries or the Statue of Liberty instead of the classic warrior/rogue/mage.

  2. My brother was a year older so I always got his cast off Halloween costumes. I always knew what I was going to be for the next Halloween a year in advance, no biggie, but it would have been nice to pick my own once in awhile.

    Last year my brother was a ghost, so this year guess what? I’m a ghost. Just a sheet with eye holes really, but I had a sweet pumpkin shaped candy bucket. My brother was wolfman, he had a mask and these gnarly gloves. I was pretty pumped about next Halloween when it was my turn to be a werewolf.

    We had gone from house to house in the neighborhood and were doing pretty well with the candy, my pumpkin was almost full. It was getting dark though, the street lights were starting to come on. That meant it was time to go home.

    “Dude, time to go home.” It was my brother’s job to get us home on time, or else.

    Out of the backyard of the house on the corner, about 3 houses down from our own house, a bunch of junior high kids came running out onto the sidewalk. They all had candy bags but no costumes. Older kids are weird, trick or treating with no costumes? Lame.

    “Give us your candy or catch a beat down.” They weren’t trick or treaters at all, they were trick or snatchers. The lowest of the low.

    There were five of them, all big boys. Way older than us. I thought about yelling for my mom, but she wouldn’t hear. I turned to run but there was another big one behind me, grabbing me. That’s when my pumpkin started talking. Seriously. It just started talking.

    “Unhand my friends ruffian.” I had no idea what a ‘ruffian’ was, and was too shocked to care. No one moved.

    “I said HANDS OFF!” The pumpkin bucket’s mouth was moving, its eyes were glowing yellow and green. I was totally freaked, I tried to drop the bucket but it was ripped out of my hands by some big kid and then thrown into the next yard. My candy flew and spilled all over. My entire night’s candy take, lost.

    “What the hell was that?” My brother asked me.
    “I dunno, it’s a magic bucket I guess.” I thought they’d laugh at me but everyone just sort of nodded.

    “Screw this, just grab the other candy bag and let’s get out of here.” Said the tricker snatcher ring leader. The boys closed in on my brother.

    You have to know my brother to understand what happened next. He has a temper. The worst temper ever. You never know what will set him off. You can splash him in the face with dishwater and he’ll just laugh, might not even splash you back. Then 10 minutes later you eat the last bowl of cheerios and beats you over the head with the empty box. You just never knew what you were going to get with him.

    As the kids were pulling at his candy sack, just an orange shopping bag, my brother just flipped. He started struggling and kicking. He kicked one kid in the nuts and another in the shins. He was totally pissed off. One of the big kids pushed him hard to the ground, knocking the wind out of him. He was slow to get up, but when he did the kid he kicked in the nuts pushed him back to the ground and kicked him.

    I ran over to grab my pumpkin, hoping to salvage at least some candy. When I picked it up it spoke again, I wasn’t scared this time.

    “Hold me up over your head, I have a gift better than candy.” So I did, and freakin’ green yellow beams shot out of his eyes and hit my brother and then me. I don’t think the bigger kids noticed, they were too busy kicking my brother on the ground. I was starting to cry a little bit.

    One of the big kids turned around, looked straight at me and said, “Hey, where’d the other kid go? Holy shit that pumpkin is floating. Look at that shit guys!”

    They all turned around and sort of gasped. Totally freaked. I didn’t know why until I looked down and couldn’t really see myself. I was invisible. My pumpkin bucket was still in my hands, but since I couldn’t see my hands it just sorta floated around.

    It was awesome.

    I started making ghost noises, “Whhhooooooo….ahhhhhhh….uuhhhuhhhhuhhhh,” and sort of floating my bucket around in a circle. The big kids were backing away, each trying to be braver than the other.

    From behind them, where my brother was on the ground, came one of the fiercest howls ever. Way better than any dog or even a lion at the zoo. Way louder and way scarier.

    My brother leapt from the ground on to the back of the biggest kid in the pack, knocking him down. He then leapt at another kid, and another. He was screaming and howling and scratching. He looked just like a real wolfman with fangs and real gnarly hands. I got into the fray and bashed one kid in the head with my pumpkin. I wasn’t sure, but I think my pumpkin bucket was laughing hysterically. Or it could have been me.

    After an extended thrashing the boys all ran off into the darkness. They left all their candy sacks behind. I felt bad about keeping pilfered candy, but I could hardly leave it there.

    I collected all the best candy, you know, like baby Snickers and Butterfingers and stuff, and left it in my pumpkin. He deserved it after bailing us out against the junior high kids. My brother loved being all wolfy, he gulped down at least half his candy while we walked home. I kept stopping in front of him so he would bump into me and trip. Invisibility is the best.

    We got home and it was dark in the house, so we just went to our room, mom was asleep on the couch watching Desperate House Wives of the Jersey Shore or something. We stayed up late playing ghost and werewolf, chatting with my pumpkin about what it’s like to be a bucket and what not. By midnight we sort of went back to normal, no more invisibility, no more fangs and claws.

    “Goodbye kids, see you next year.” Said the pumpkin.
    “Okay, see you Mr. Pumpkin Head.”

    My brother says that next year he’s going to go as Aquaman, so he can swim with dolphins or something super lame. He said I could have his wolfman costume if I want, but I already have my eye on a pair of Incredible Hulk boxing gloves.

  3. They did it again :(

    I love the series, don’t get me wrong, but as someone who uses excel to outline-slash-timeline, I’d love to hear how other people use the tool. Ages ago there was an [outlining](??) ‘cast and Dan said “[I use excel]” (quoted/paraphrased from memory) and jokes were made and it ended there. In today’s ‘cast, Eric brings it up, laughs are had, and the subject dies again with only the application name mentioned.

  4. Funnily enough, this week’s writing prompt was also the essential premise of my first produced screenplay, HALLOW’S END. Though my script was less a case of “kids get the powers of their Halloween costumes” than “college kids get cursed to become the monsters they’re dressed as.” And as many, many, many, many, MANY people on the Internet later informed me, that was also more or less the premise of a particular “Buffy” episode.

  5. @Kevin: Sorry about that! You’re right — this would make for a GREAT “crunchy” episode. We’ll make a note of that, and see if it’s something that can be taken care of during the next recording session.

  6. I hope no one minds that I use the comments to do the writing prompt.

    There is method to my madness. Doing it here helps in the following ways:
    1. It’s public, so it helps me get over my fear of people reading my stuff.
    2. It’s just a ‘comment’ so I have the freedom to write badly which is…
    3. Essential for good practice.
    4. Also, since it’s just a comment and public it teaches me that your words are not sacred, not perfect, not very special. I think that’s an important lesson to reinforce because without that attitude you find yourself grinding the same passage over and over, turning your fun creative projects into uninteresting hard work.
    5. Also, writers write. You need to write when you can, at any time. No muse, no waiting, NOW.
    6. Writing for public consumption is different, maybe, than writing for yourself. I would like to publish one day. So this is good practice in writing for a broad audience. Not just for myself or my friends.

    So that’s why I do it here. It’s not just an impulse, there was thought behind it.

  7. I hope you guys know how much I love you all right now… I have actually been PRAYING for you to have a podcast with E.J. Patten. He is my new favorite YA author. That book was sheer, unadulterated genius, and now I am content. :)

    Anyway, I agree with Kevin- I would like to hear more about Excel as an outlining tool. I use it as a way to estimate my word count, but I know there must be more ways to do it, and it seems like a waste to not capitalize on it.

    Thanks again for a wonderful podcast!

  8. HP Lovecraft kids story? Um but why? I can understand Oliver though. But Call Of Cthulhu?

    This is one the reasons why I hesitated writing for years, cause eventually somebody would try to write a MG version of it.

  9. Really interesting show. Always good to hear about process. I like the four questions. I try to use them, but find them so difficult to answer. I have to write myself into characters and then by the end, hopefully they have goals etc. Then I go back, cut half my words and start again, hopefully with the story frame.

    I’ve just cut 50% of my draft 1. Now I’m stitching what remains to the story outline and filling in the gaps. Arduous, but it’s working so far.

    BTW – Buffy the Vampire Slayer did the Halloween costumes idea – the episode where they all turn into whatever their costumes are e.g. ghost, soldier and 18th century damsel. So there are loads of kid-sized goblins rampaging about the place. It’s a cool ep.

  10. Hello, Not sure if this is the right place to request a podcast but I’ll request anyway and if I’m wrong maybe someone will kindly point me in the right direction.
    I’ve reached a point in my novel that I need the character I’m writing to die. Killing them isn’t the problem. It’s the fact that they’re the viewpoint character and I’m having trouble finding the right way to write a death from the perspective of the dying person. I’m writing in 3rd limited obviously.
    I’d love a bit of advise from you four pros.

  11. I think that writing prompt could be twisted into an Iron Man 3 parody… Hmm, I think I’ll get right on that….

  12. I also would love to hear an in depth discussion of the crunchy bits of prewriting. I know I have a problem with organizing my own prewritten information, and so it would be fascinating to see how others deal with the same. Excel seems like it would be great for syncing different plotlines (so you can always check to see what is happening off screen, as it were), but it’d be lovely to find out what else people use it for.

    Personally, I use google docs for most my writing needs (I love having access to my projects no matter what computer I’m on), and it imitates word and excel fairly well. I’ve tried using the table of contents features of both it and Word, and while that works wonderfully for prewriting, it doesn’t stand up as well when it comes time to reference it during the writing process. I’ve also tried prewriting character dossiers a few time, but the whole process quickly becomes as exciting as writing a phone book.

    Anywho, as for the writing prompt, there are so many fun ways to twist the “Halloween costume gives powers” idea. Instead of the obvious “costumes give the power of whatever they represent,” perhaps the costumes make people speak only in the language of the country the costume was made in, or they grant the powers of their primary fabric component (look, up in the sky, it’s nylon, it’s cotton… no, it’s polyester man!). Or they don’t grant any powers, just weaknesses. There’s a lot of fun in that idea.

  13. Great podcast.
    One of the rewriting things I like to do to develop characters is write a ‘history by self” meaning I sit down and say “Okay, if this character where to write their own history what would they say?”
    This is really helpful in finding out how this character would talk or write. What would they say? Who made them write their history, or did they choose to do it themselves? What will they concentrate on and what will they skim over?

    Maybe two tragic things happened in their life, but by writing from their viewpoint, as if they were telling others, I can say “Okay, well they’re basically over that event by the beginning of the story. They’ve recovered, but their still haunted by this one. Oh, this person was important in their life. Do they still care about this person?”
    It helps me make the character more realist, and it helps me discover possible plot and character arch options.

  14. I have done Excel outlining. I had some very large ideas I was working on timelines for. I wanted to try and keep the events straight, knowing who was doing what when and where.

    Characters ran from top to bottom in Column A, grouped by location or organization. Group 1 is the main characters, Group 2 is characters in location X, group 3 is characters who work for organization y. The years stretched across the columns. There would, of course, be a lot of empty areas but when I realize so and so have a past, that empty cell on both their respective rows is populated by the factoid.

  15. Just as another aside, I’d be curious to hear how people decide how big a story idea is. The Evil Robot Monkey story packs a lot of punch in under a thousand words. It’s also close enough to an idea I had that I decided to write it out. My story essentially works as an elaborate setup for a joke. My trouble is figuring out how much setup is required for best impact. A guy’s glasses breaking isn’t anything more than an accident. Breaking after the apocalypse seems unfortunate since he’s not getting anymore and he’ll be in danger. Finding out he always wanted time to read books and actually saw the apocalypse as a blessing and then the glasses are gone, now that’s all kinds of ironic and tragic. But it takes some setup to get all that across. Works in the length of a Twilight Zone episode. Stretch it out like an M. Night movie, there ain’t no twist good enough to make the two hour build-up worth it.

  16. Interesting question from Joel about having a POV character die. I’ll second it–I’m thinking of killing a main character in my next book and just started wondering how to do this if I give them a POV.

  17. I used to outline in excel, but now I use trello.com – it’s an online notecard system.

    I can have a column for characters, notes, and another just for the outline itself. I can move cards around really easily and see how that changes the pacing. I can delve into the cards to add tons of details, and each book gets its own board. I also like that I can archive cards (instead of hiding or deleting them) so I never have to lose an idea. It’s super handy.

  18. I would actually like to have my prologues POV die at the end of it as well. So, actually it would be doubly helpful to get a little info on it. This would be different because it’s a character that will be used specifically for the purpose of showing a scene and then dying so we can not see that scene again.

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