Writing Excuses 8.50: Q&A with Mercedes Lackey

Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes the stars align and serendipity is made manifest. And sometimes Mercedes Lackey happens to be hanging around at the same convention you’re recording podcasts at, and sits herself down to answer questions with you. Or rather with us.

Here are the questions. You’ll need to listen to the podcast for the answers:

  • (For Mercedes) How do you stay relevant through the numerous changes in the industry?
  • How do you go about creating a title for a project?
  • Is blending 1st-person and 3rd-person viewpoints cheating?
  • (For Howard) Should marketing research be done before launching an online story?
  • When, where, and how do you end chapters?
  • How can you tell if you’re overusing narrative language?
  • How should a young writer balance their writing time against other activities?
  • What are the parts of being an author that you hate (specifically the non-writing parts)?
  • (For Mercedes) What advice do you have for finding alpha & beta readers?
  • Is it distracting to write out a character’s accent?



Eavesdrop on a conversation at the coffee shop, then go home and write the end of that conversation.

Bastion: Collegium Chronicles Book 5, by Mercedes Lackey, narrated by Nick Podehl.

18 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.50: Q&A with Mercedes Lackey”

  1. For distracting accents, it depends on if it’s a light or a heavy accent. Are we talking someone from Oxford in the US (using a few odd terms, like “lorry”, saying things a little differently), or are we talking the Somerset dialect (or what the moles use in Redwall)? (“Okee, Hyurr are ‘ee roolz. You’m must commeent aneethin’, as long as eet eez ritten een molyspeak. You’m can roite puggles an’ rizzles, randoom seetences, ur aneethin’ you’m loike, as loong as eet ain’t rood ur meen.” — extracted verbatim from a blog competition thing by a Redwall fan challenging people to write comments in “molespeak.”) There is a big difference.

    I have never spent 5 minutes puzzling the word lorry or apples (stairs – rhymes with apples and pears), while I have spent 5 minutes trying to get the vaguest sense of the meaning a Redwall mole character is trying to get across (and from there, another 5-10 minutes actually figuring out the words.)

    I’m pretty sure I’ve heard elsewhere that a good rule of thumb is whether or not it breaks the flow of speech. Researching the terminology and idioms that would be used in the target area, then using them appropriately would be good. Taking an accent that is largely unintelligible outside of its region of origin (Deep South, Boston, Scottish, Somerset, etc) and deliberately misspelling every single word to reflect how its being pronounced…would be bad.

    If they use “ain’t” instead of the proper set of conjugations of “to be”, use it. If they pronounce “here” “hyurr”, don’t use it…unless that’s the only defining feature, like an acquaintance of mine with a largely undetectable Quebecois accent aside from saying “respounce” instead of “response.”

  2. Lackey said you should write 4 pages a day… but ‘page’ is so ill defined. 4 pages in the setup I have is around 3,000 words, which would take me some time more than an hour to write. What to you think a good word-count is that equates to Lackey’s “4 pages a day… or one hour” advice?

  3. Of course my problem is I write NumeroHex, which there is not a whole lot of readers for at the moment. (Though plenty of those who watch that type of anime, it’s just not called such.)

    So write your book first, then market later. Got it.:D

  4. Re: 4 pages — I grabbed 4 pages of a recent piece in manuscript format, and it was around 1200 words. Also, manuscript format! 12-point font, double-spaced.

  5. This one merits another listen. Mary, one of my favorite pieces of advice yet was what you told the audience about the true purpose of high school – training people to meet deadlines and do what they don’t like to do. Thank you for that.

  6. Today’s writing prompt is one I actually used for a published story. I overheard a couple of people talking in a coffeeshop about some political protest one of them had been to (I think it was one of the WTO protests back in the 1990s). The person expressed some doubts about whether the cause he was supporting was really justified, but his companion said “It doesn’t matter if you’re right. You got your message out — that’s the important thing.”

    That led to my story “The Alien Abduction” which I sold to F&SF.

  7. Re: Manuscript Format, it’s also often recommended to use a monospace font like, Courier. Ideally, manuscript format will give you 250 words a page, on average. Dave Wolverton had a Daily Kick in the Pants about this: http://www.davidfarland.net/writing_tips/?a=230

    All that said, I generally find that translating pages to words works better with older writers more than with newer ones. I once saw a new (but published) writer recommend a chapter length of 40 pages (for YA!). To put that in perspective, Mistborn 1 appears average about 20 manuscript pages a chapter (~5k words). I assume the individual either mistyped or used a very strange format (or wrote really really long YA books).

    Re: Everything Else – As someone who has a difficult time with titles, the discussion on that was absolutely wonderful. I particularly liked the suggestion about quote databases: I know that as a reader, seeing a title that reminds me of a line of poetry or a famous saying sparks my interest, at least to the point of picking the book up. Can’t ask for much better.

    And for balancing writing for a young person: it appears that many authors who make it sort of got there by not having balance. Brandon wrote at work, Dan didn’t sleep, Stephen King puts in his hours even on Christmas day, etc. Or is it just irresponsible to encourage such behavior in a high schooler?

  8. Love the show! Long time listener. Thought you should know, though, that you’re no longer in the US iTunes store :( it’s made it really difficult to catch the episodes.

    Anyway, keep it up! Thanks for all the stellar advice ^.^

  9. Terry Pratchett and his chapterless books – you’re right that he first put chapters in his YA books, but he’s put chapters in some of his main sequence Discworld books, also – Going Postal and Making Money for certain.

  10. I don’t agree that a lazy writer changes between 1st person and third person. Maybe it is cheating but why not if it serves the story? What do you gain by keeping it all in one style? What do you lose? I would have thought lazy writing is the real problem e.g. plot holes and making someone carry the idiot ball.
    I’m currently doing the 2 styles in one story at the moment. Maybe I’ll change my mind when I get to the end but for now it seems to be working.

  11. @Matt? It’s another speed bump for your readers, really. For example, switching POV characters with different scenes is fairly common, and as long as the reader can fairly easily figure out whose head we are in now, it doesn’t hurt. But switching first to third or vice versa makes that transition harder or bigger. Why throw roadblocks in the way of the reader? Is first person really better for your story, because you want to dig into the character’s thinking? Then stick with it! Which means rewriting all those third person pieces for the first person POV. Or if third person works best, why not redo those first person segments in third? Even in third, take a look at how much head hopping you do, and reduce it to what is really needed.

    But I think you’re right. Finish writing your story first. Then look it over, and figure out what works best for it. Look for those one-paragraph head hops and straighten those out. Take a long, hard look at the transitions between characters and first person/third person from the readers point of view. Do you have good ways for the reader to figure out who they are every time the POV changes? Does that first person/third post switch really add enough to the story to make up for the reader having to switch, or is it a darling? You know what we do to darlings, right?

  12. One issue with the head hopping, Mike, is that some stories work really well for first person most of the time, but need opportunities to peek in on the other characters. And it’s way easier to hop heads gracefully in third person than first. “Bob walked into the bar” as a start of a new section is indicative that it’s Bob’s POV. (If it’s the bartender’s, then the bartender would hear the door while tending the bar, look up, and see B0b). Saying “I walked into the bar” is much more vague, unless you’re doing what most first person does and sticking with the same I throughout.

    I’ve seen a couple of works that head-hopped in first, and they’re usually pretty tricky to figure out. It takes a fair number of cues to cotton on to the character without a mirror scene or relying on gender descriptors (a guy without a shirt on would consider himself bare-chested, while a girl would consider herself topless…there are more ambiguous terms, and even those can get a bit ambiguous, especially when you factor in the fact that gender is much less binary than we tend to assume)

    One could use George R. R. Martin’s style of chapter breaks for a multiple first person story – each chapter states unequivocally that it’s from _this_ character’s perspective, so it’s not much of a stretch to have the characters essentially thinking of themselves in first person instead of third. Bram Stoker (or at least, Dracula) used a similar method of using journal entries, but that interferes a bit (spoilers, but the book’s a century old) – Johnathan Harker’s escape from Dracula’s castle, and his subsequent nervous breakdown that delays his return to England, for instance, is mentioned second hand in other characters’ journals and written more as the touchy feely “this is how I feel about what John did” rather than the potentially exciting, gripping scene of Harker fleeing the castle. Also, the fact that these are all journal entries and letters and such written after the event effectively eliminates the concern of that character’s death. (The version of Dracula I read was particularly annoying for that, since it revealed in the Table of Contents that while Harker disappears for quite some time, he does actually appear again and thus does not die. Was particularly annoying when I discovered that his last journal entry in the first segment ends basically with the lines “I’m about to try to escape; I’m probably going to die, but I’m screwed anyway. Here goes nothing…” (In 1890s vernacular, of course.)

  13. I appreciate your point of view ‘nother Mike. I think we’re on the same page about what works and what doesn’t but how my POV’s shift may not be as dramatic as you might think or at least used as an example. Bare bone description is 2 main characters with 1st person for one and 3rd person for the other. Each head hop is a chapter. It could be that it is a darling – time and the axe will tell. What happens when someone other than a really, really, lazy writer uses this convention? Anybody know any examples?

    No matter what style a story is written in there is always a mental gear shift between chapters. What makes the difference is the ability of the writer to reconnect you with who, what, when and where in the story you’re picking up from. Like Rashkavar says a simple title chapter with a character’s name can go a long way to smoothing that transition.

    Side note: as long as Mr Martin finishes Arya’s story I’ll be happy. I honestly think he could cut her story out, package it up and sell it as YA and we would be looking at the next publishing and inevitable movie blockbuster.

    But back to POV’s:
    You have read Halting State by Charles Stross and you even made it to the end despite never having encountered 2nd person outside of game books. You can’t even begin to articulate how confusing it was when the author swapped characters. You now believe that reading any other style is easy even swapping between 1st and 3rd. You’re not sure but you think it has scarred you for life.

  14. For book titles I also use reverse look up. I put in the themes and concepts in one line and it usually spits out a list of words and phrases… Makes for some good titles if you play around with them.

Comments are closed.