Writing Excuses 14.38: Volunteer Opportunities for Writers with Jared Quan

From https://writingexcuses.com/2019/09/22/14-38-volunteer-opportunities-for-writers-with-jared-quan/

Key points: What do writers volunteer to do? All kinds of things! Leaders, treasurers, secretaries, teachers. Conventions, writing groups, organizations, fanzines, everybody needs volunteers, and you may be just the right person. To help getting resources and putting skills to use. Institutional memory, historians! Reading slush. Be a zero first — come in, help maintain the status quo and understand it, then help make positive changes. Most writers don’t need a volunteer intern. What do you get out of volunteering? First, be excited enough about it that you are willing to volunteer. Second, don’t go in looking for exposure or a chance to meet your heroes. Do go in to learn about other people’s problems, and ways to help solve them. Interns want to advance their career, volunteers want to change the world. Volunteering in science fiction/fantasy fandom — if Isaac Asimov can help staple fanzines, you can too.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 38.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Volunteer Opportunities for Writers with Jared Quan.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And I want to volunteer.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m kidding.
[Brandon] That’s your best one in a while, Howard. Nice job. We’re live at LTUE science fiction convention.
[Whoo! Applause]
[Brandon] We have special guest star Jared Quan. Jared, tell us a little bit about yourself.
[Jared] For sure. So, I’m currently a volunteer on five nonprofit boards. I work four jobs. I have five children, one of which has been in a heart transplant for about a year now.

[Brandon] You offered this opportunity to us to talk about volunteering, which is not something we’ve ever even approached on the podcast. So, I’m really excited for this. So I just want to say, like, “Writers volunteering? You have writers volunteering for you? What do they do?”
[Jared] They do just about everything. Thankfully. Actually, every convention, every writing group, every small or large writing group needs volunteers in order to succeed. So, writers we have fulfilling roles from leadership capacities to treasurer to teaching classes. Depending on what’s needed at the time.
[Brandon] Awesome. How do writers find these opportunities? How do you find these writers?
[Jared] Well, writers often times hide themselves away in small basements…
[Jared] So we go through the streets, beating wild gongs, and have them come out of their free will. Oh, we post opportunities. We put them online. We have them come out to our groups. We let them know what opportunities are available. Writers, often times, very curious about things, will occasionally volunteer themselves out. Very hesitantly…
[Mary Robinette] I’m just going to_what he’s saying, that everybody… Every organization needs volunteers. Like, I am… I do a lot of volunteer stuff effectively with Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. So, at the time of this recording, I am currently running unopposed for the president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Which means, by the time you’re listening to this, I will likely have been a year into volunteering for this organization. Aside from two employees, everything that SFWA does is volunteer run.
[Dan] A lot of people ask, because Utah has so many writers, so many best-selling writers, such a massive and successful writing community. My answer is always that it is people like Jared. It is the people who are organizing all of these fellowships and writing conventions, and all of the support groups. It’s the volunteers who are forming that very supportive community that helps create all of these writers and give them the tools that they need to succeed.

[Mary Robinette] Wait a minute. You said five boards?
[Jared] Yes.
[Jared] Yes. Five boards. All with the blessing of my wife, thankfully. So I’m on the Cultural Arts Society of West Jordan, which is the West Jordan Arts Council. I serve with the South Jordan Arts Council, the Eagle Mountain Arts Alliance, the League of Utah Writers, and Big World Network. So I’m very diversified on my opportunities. Now, I used to volunteer on other boards, like the Association of IT Professionals, as well as some other city boards. But five tended to be my limit.
[Jared] It might be a little different for everybody else. I don’t recommend that everybody rush out and try to get on to five boards. Try one out first. See how that goes. Then see if you can expand from there.

[Brandon] So, on average, like, I don’t know if there is an average, but like what is some examples of some of the things you do on some of these boards? Talk a little bit about the challenges that these boards have.
[Jared] For sure. When it came to the League of Utah Writers, I was a two-time president. In its 83 year history, the constitution would allow for a president to serve one term, be a president-elect president, and then they move to past president. I was very fortunate, the board had voted to amend the constitution to allow me to be the president for a second year in a row in its 83 year history. So, I was very honored to have that. But then it was because I was leading over the group of volunteers, and trying to figure out the best way to utilize their resources and help them both find the resources they were looking for and put their best skills to use. There’s other instances, where, with the Eagle Mountain Arts Alliance, where I’m on their grants and fundraising board, where I have to go out there and try and help get the funding for the arts to be successful, which can be very difficult. Getting authors, we often refer that to like herding a bunch of chickens. That same thing is exactly true when it comes to getting them to volunteer for things. We have many very dedicated, hard-working volunteers, and many that want to be dedicated, hard-working volunteers, but most of the time, they try hard. We really appreciate them, regardless.

[Brandon] Mary Robinette, you have served for SFWA before. You were the treasurer, I think?
[Mary Robinette] No, god, no.
[Brandon] You were something else.
[Mary Robinette] Secretary.
[Brandon] Secretary. That’s what it was.
[Mary Robinette] And vice president.
[Brandon] What did you do? Like, what were some examples of things that you participated in?
[Mary Robinette] So, I was the secretary, and then the vice president. My role, as the secretary, was to make sure that communications went out to the members in a timely fashion, and then to take minutes. We have since usually, I believe that the current board actually has someone else to take minutes. So they don’t rely on a secretary who can type fast. Which, weirdly, for a group of writers, is actually difficult to find sometimes. Then, as the vice president, I supported the presidential… The president’s initiatives. So that’s involving helping set policy. Then, I also did volunteer coordination. Which, at the time, with SFWA, was paired with the vice president. But the reason that it was paired with the vice president was that originally the vice president was someone who enjoyed doing volunteer coordination. So then that got linked. I also enjoyed doing volunteer coordination. But subsequent vice presidents have not, so there is a separate volunteer coordinator. I think that’s one thing that you should know when you go to volunteer for someone, is that you should know what it is that you enjoy doing. The other thing that I say is also to look at things that you want to improve on, because this gives you a great opportunity to practice things and do some good.

[Howard] One of the things that I’ve noticed with a lot of volunteer organizations with which I’ve interacted mostly from the outside is the absence of a strong institutional memory. That, from year-to-year, things will change. Something got done really well one year, and then it’s like they forgot how to do it all together. The thought that I had, and I’m running this past you, I’m vetting this idea with you, writers who want to volunteer might consider volunteering as historians. Creating institutional memory, perhaps, by documenting things that are working and things that are not.
[Brandon] Mary?
[Mary Robinette] I have so much to say about this. So, the thing is that most of the time actually people are documenting these things. That’s what the minutes are. The problem is training incoming board members to actually read those minutes and to look at the institutional history. So, a lot of boards solve this problem by having an executive director who does not turnover. That is a paid position. SFWA has an executive director, who’s Kate Baker. Then, the associate Executive Director, Terra LeMay. They are the only two employees. But they exist predominantly to provide institutional memory. We also have an operations policy and procedure manual for exactly that thing that you’re talking about. But you do have to train incoming board members to read those.
[Jared] Exactly. That’s part of the problem. I mean, people really want to jump in there and volunteer. Sometimes you train them really well, but they’re just not very good natural leaders. Sometimes they’re just tremendous leaders. But when it comes to volunteering, I think the most interesting question for people is typically like, “Why would I volunteer? Why would I give up gobs of my writing time to go out and volunteer?” It’s not a completely unrewarding piece when it comes to volunteering. As it turns out, it’s very rewarding. Often times, it gives you access to tons of resources and opportunities that you would never have had the opportunity for hedge you not volunteered.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week, which is Changing Wax.
[Jared] Yes. Changing Wax, it’s my favorite book. It’s a… Kind of like an homage to Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. It’s a world ruled by dark and light, dictated by a book of magic. The book’s become so powerful, it lets the leaders of those two factions know exactly who’s going to kill them, who’s going to end their reign. So it’s a story about how sometimes you meet your destiny on the road to escape it, as well as a story of unlikely heroes pursuing it.

[Brandon] Awesome. So, I think we would be remiss if we didn’t mention while we’re at a science fiction convention that one of the great ways for writers and fans to volunteer is to get involved in your local science fiction convention. Most conventions, like LTUE, are fan run, fan created. They need tons of volunteers. These conventions provide avenues for aspiring writers to meet other writers, to listen to panels, and things like this. I mean, it’s not the only thing that cons do, they do a ton of things. But, me personally, my entire career was helped greatly by the people who were willing to volunteer and run conventions. Something I have a lot of experience with was also volunteering on a science fiction fanzine. The local fanzine at my university… Although we wouldn’t call it a fanzine, we called it semi-pro-zine, because we did pay a few cents…
[Brandon] But, really, it was the same sort of thing, where it was, “Let’s gather as a community. Let’s try and help other writers by giving them feedback. Let’s create something. Let’s see what it’s like to publish.” I tell you, if you’re an aspiring writer, going for a little while and sitting and reading slush and learning how a zine works. Even a semi-pro or very small magazine. It will help you understand the business and the industry so much. It’s one of the most foundational things in me becoming a professional writer, was me seeing what other aspiring writers were writing.

[Mary Robinette] So, I want to talk to people who are thinking… Listening to this going, “Oh, I think I may want to start volunteering for something. That’s a great idea.” I’m going to talk about something that Chris Hadfield says in his book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. He talked about becoming an astronaut, and that his goal, the thing he wanted, was to be exceptional. That, if you’re an astronaut, that’s kind of one of the drives. But that what he actually learned was that he needed, when he came into a new situation, to aim to be a zero. That sounds offputting at first. But what he meant was that you come in, the situation is stable. You can either be a positive force or a negative force, or you can be neutral and you can help maintain status quo. When you first come into a new situation, you don’t actually know exactly what the status quo is. So you can try to make changes that are actually making things worse. Or you can just try to help maintain the status quo until you understand it, and then you can aim to be a force for positive change. So, one of the things that I recommend when people come in… Usually people come in and they’re like, “I want to change everything. I want to shake up the system.” It’s like, “Come in. Just work with the system for a little bit.” Figure out why things are that way before you start diving in and trying to change things. Just aim to be a zero for a little bit.
[Jared] Absolutely. I think that’s one of the best things you can do, is get into the… To see… Because sometimes from the outside you have an assumption of why they don’t have a resource or why they’re not doing something so well. But when you get in there and volunteer, you can kind of get to see it firsthand and go, “Oh, I get it. The reason they don’t have that is because it costs $10,000 and nobody has that right now.” It’s being able to see those things and then apply the right type of advice or work towards something so that you can help them accomplish it.

[Brandon] So, kind of along these lines, this is an odd one to say. I get a lot of people asking me if I need a volunteer intern.
[Brandon] I don’t know if that’s happened to you guys on the panel, but I get this a lot. I understand this instinct. You’re an aspiring professional writer. Often times, in many fields, they’ll say, “Well, go intern,” or things like this and whatnot. The problem is I don’t need interns. I’m sitting by myself, writing my books. The things I could use you for as slave labor will not be helpful for you in your publishing. In fact, it would be irresponsible of me to take you on as an intern and have you do that because, as an intern, I should be teaching you. In fact, many cities and states have laws on what you can have an intern do and how much time they should be spent in learning. I hire people to do those things for me, rather than just using the free intern labor. So I feel really bad. People often ask if they can do this. I do know that a lot of publishers take interns. So you could try that. But generally, asking writers if you can intern for them is not going to be very fruitful.

[Howard] One of the things that you said earlier, Jared, the… You asked the question, “What am I going to get out of this?” My response, when we’re talking about volunteering, is that the first answer needs to be I need to not feel like I’m getting anything out of it. I need to be excited enough to do this that I’m willing to volunteer. The second piece, and I feel like this is pretty critical. If there’s an opportunity for exposure, or an opportunity to meet my heroes who are doing whatever, I need to never let that be the driving force. Because it’s probably going to incorrectly shape the way I behave. So what is it that I’m really getting out of it? The answer that I would give is I am going to learn the shape of other people’s problems, and then find ways to solve them.
[Jared] Absolutely. That’s the best answer you can give. There’s… As a conference organizer, having worked with volunteers across different organizations, nothing drives you more nuts than somebody who comes in just wanting to talk about themselves, wanting to brag about themselves, wanting to like insert themselves next to like their hero. I get it. I mean, I have heroes that I’ve… Could have had the opportunity, had I manipulated a situation, to be next to. But it’s a byproduct. A reward is just a byproduct. It’s not just filling your… You will be rewarded, but it’s not going out there just because you’re going to be rewarded. That’s just something that naturally comes, eventually.
[Mary Robinette] Just to draw a line under that. I think one of the big differences between an intern… With puppetry, we do intern all the time. Because there’s a direct exchange there. But the big difference between an intern and a volunteer, or even between an effective volunteer and an ineffective volunteer, is that volunteers do come in because they want to change the world. Even if it’s just a small microcosm. An intern is trying to advance their career. Someone who’s coming into a volunteer position to try to advance themselves is coming into it for the wrong reason. It’s not that you can’t also have that as a byproduct. But it can’t be the driving force, because your priorities at that point become the wrong priorities.

[Brandon] I think I’ll just close this out with one of my favorite stories I’ve ever heard about volunteering in sci-fi fantasy fandom. It was when Dan and I were at one of our very first conventions we were going to as aspiring writers. One of the World Fantasy conventions. I can’t remember which one it was at, but we were sitting in the audience listening. They were talking, the topic became volunteering at conventions and volunteering on fanzines. One of the authors there shared a story, where when they were a bit younger, they somewhat chagrinedly said, “You know, I got my very first professional sale. I sold to one of the magazines. I suddenly thought I’ve made it. I am now a pro. I have crossed the lane, so to speak. Their friends at the con are like, ‘Hey, do you want to come help us put the fanzine together?'” They said, “Well, you know, I’m a pro now. So I don’t think I need to be involved in this anymore.” At that moment, Isaac Asimov’s head poked out of one of the rooms and said, “Hey, we’re out of page 17. Can you send some more down?” This author felt like an utter fool. Our entire community is advanced by people volunteering and pitching in and together making science fiction fantasy fandom happened. So I want to say thank you to everyone who’s here at the convention, and particularly those who have volunteered. Give yourselves a round of applause.
[Whoo! Applause]
[Brandon] In some ways, you’re volunteering here by being our studio audience for us on our podcast.

[Brandon] Jared, I want to say thank you very much for coming on. Do you have a writing prompt for us?
[Jared] Yes. Absolutely. The writing prompt, my wife Lisa would be remiss if I didn’t kind of give this as a prompt, is to actually go out and do a little bit of research on the writing organizations or groups that are in your area, and what activities or events they have to see where there might be a volunteer opportunity.
[Brandon] That is the perfect writing prompt to have at the end of this podcast. So, thank you very much. You’re out of excuses, now go write.
[Mary Robinette] Or volunteer.
[Brandon] Or volunteer.


Writing Excuses 14.37: Outlandish Impossibilities

From https://writingexcuses.com/2019/09/15/14-37-outlandish-impossibilities/

Key points: Outlandish premises, impossibilities. Extrapolate beyond the reasonable to make us laugh and make us think. To explore an issue, to have a conversation. Outlandish impossibilities may be the fastest way to set up the discussion we want to have. How do you clue the audience in? Telegraph it up front. You get one buy in. Hit them early with the premise they need to accept. Treat it as a budget for buy ins. What is the story purpose? To enable other things, spends budget. Build reality and credibility, build the budget. How much can the reader absorb? Prioritize, paint the big picture first, then add smaller details. Hang a lantern on strangeness, let the character ask a question (and promise an answer!). Or put a lampshade on it, treat it as part of the furniture, let the characters take it in stride as normal, while making other things important. Play it straight or play it silly? Scene-sequel and emotional beats. What kind of emotional response do you want the reader to have. Use the character’s reactions, the prose leading up to it, linebreaks, and pacing to signpost this.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 37.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Outlandish Impossibilities.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] Some fantasy and science fiction books have very outlandish premises. I’m not just talking about magic, right. That you have to accept magic. Dan and I were talking about these before the podcast. He started groaning immediately when I brought up some dystopian stories, for instance, ask you to swallow a really, really hard-to-swallow premise.
[Dan] So, like, Divergent, as much as I enjoy it as a book, the premise is a future that there’s no conceivable way human civilization will ever arrive there. It is an absolute impossibility. But the story it tells is cool and worth telling. So…
[Brandon] I remember when my wife was reading the book Unwind. She came in and I said, “Well, what’s the premise?” She’s like, “Oh. Um. People argue over abortion so much that they decide that abortions are illegal, but when a kid turns 16, you can turn them in to the state to have them harvested for organs to give to other people. As a compromise…
[Brandon] On the abortion debate.
[Brandon] I said, “What?”
[Dan] Okay…
[Dan] As the father of two teenagers, I’m okay with this plan.
[Brandon] My reaction, afterwards, like, I bet every teenager thinks that their parents would do that. It’s obviously just…
[Dan] Mine will now.
[Brandon] Ridiculous, right. But some of the best stories come from a place of a ridiculous premise. This is what science fiction and fantasy is about, right?
[Howard] It’s not just science fiction and fantasy. This is where I live. I am writing social satire…
[Mary Robinette] You are writing science fiction.
[Howard] Yeah. Well, no, but I’m writing humor. I’m writing social satire. It is my job to extrapolate something beyond the point which is reasonable in order to make us laugh and make us think. That is, in many of these cases, especially the YA dystopias that we talk about, in many of these cases, what we’re trying to do is explore an issue that is not even tangential to the worldbuilding. The worldbuilding is just there so that we can have a conversation about what do you do if you are friends with a group of people and only one of them is going to live and you want to be that one. What is… Well, okay, we have to set this up in some way, and we don’t care how, because the story is about this situation. So, for story purposes, outlandish impossibilities are there not because, at least to me, not because they are the story, but because I want to have a discussion about a thing, and that’s the fastest way I get to have that discussion.
[Brandon] Absolutely. A lot of the original Star Trek episodes were like that. Where they’re like, what happens to a culture where they’re stranded on a planet for so long that the story of Chicago mobsters becomes their Bible? How does that change their society? That’s ridiculous, but it’s interesting to talk about. That’s the fastest way to have that conversation.
[Howard] Though the Star Trek episode, the Next Generation episode where all of their conversations are memes. Which we now look at and recognize as oh, that is actually a portion of where our language is drifting. We recognize that we can’t drift completely there, because…
[Mary Robinette] I mean, we had already drifted there. Like, that’s why Shakespeare is written in nothing but clichés.
[Dan] He really should have been [inaudible] better than that.
[Mary Robinette] I know.

[Brandon] So, let’s say you want to write a story like this. Is there any special setup that you would use to clue the audience in, to make them swallow this really, really difficult to swallow pill?
[Mary Robinette] So, there’s a thing, I think Margaret was the one who talked about it, about the buy in, that you get one buy in. For me, what I try to do is telegraph that kind of upfront. It’s like, this is the world that were going to be inhabiting. A really simple thing is Little Mermaid under the Sea. The buy-in is there are mermaids. There are mermaids. That’s the… It’s like, after that, you roll forward from there. But, you demonstrate to it. The other thing that’s happening in Little Mermaid though is this is a musical at a time when people had stopped doing musicals. So that entire opening number is getting people used to the idea of mermaids and undersea culture and musical with only very, very tiny plot progression. Like, there’s really very… Not much is going on there besides this is the culture. This is the buy-in we’re asking you to do.
[Brandon] This is a really excellent example, because, as I was thinking about this topic, there are some times where for learning curve purposes, you play a little coy with some of your worldbuilding elements. In some of my books, I wait to introduce the magic till later in the story because I know people are picking up a fantasy book, and I’m going to step them through characters and things first. But in a lot of other stories, you need to hit people right up front. Little Mermaid’s a good example. Harry Potter. Often times, the prologue is there to say I am hitting you up front the premise you need to go… You’re going to need to accept. There are wizards in this world, and there’s a dark wizard who almost took over the fantasy world. Buy into that, and then we’ll talk about the character.
[Dan] I see this a lot with the chapter critiques that I do, where they are trying to slow roll the revelation of their world and some of those worldbuilding elements. You can do that with some things, but there are some things you have to get out right upfront because otherwise we’re going to be constantly redefining your story every couple of pages and going, “Oh, oh, wait, they’re actually riding on mammoths instead of horses. Oh, oh, wait, they also have holograms.” Like, some of that stuff you need to…
[Mary Robinette] That sounds like a very specific…
[Howard] Holographic mammoth mounts?
[Brandon] No, Dan’s absolutely right. I get this with my students a lot. They don’t know which things to get you to buy into first. A lot of this is we need to know a tech level for a fantasy book very quickly. We need to know kind of your big premise of the world very quickly. If it has got this really big premise.

[Howard] Our episode with Margaret, How Weird Is Too Weird. It was back in February. One of the… That’s when Margaret said, you get one buy [or tennis bye?]. The concept that I use is you’ve got a budget for buy ins. What is your budget? With your new students, just the concept of you have a budget… They may still overspend. But you can point at it and say, “The problem here is not that you have too many ideas. It’s that you exceeded your budget.” How do we… Can I quantify budget on a spreadsheet? In a sense, I can. Because when I am outlining things in the spreadsheet, I have a column that says, “What’s the story purpose for this?” If the story purpose for anything is make the other things possible, then that is a budget negative. That is something that is… That is a spend that I need in order to make the rest of the story work. So I have to look at the other cells and I have to… Those things have to… They have to be really important to the story. They have to be putting money in the bank. They have to be building credibility. Hunger Games works because the interactions between the kids feel real. If the interactions between the kids felt fake, then we don’t have anything that we’re going to read.
[Mary Robinette] One of the things that someone told me early on… I can’t remember who this was… Was that you can drop a worldbuilding detail about every once a page. What they meant was not you get one worldbuilding detail per page, it was that you get one thing that matters per page, roughly. That that’s about how much the reader can absorb before they drop something else and forget. So you have to give them time to absorb something before you give them the new thing. Which is what can often lead to that slow roll. That you will have… Like, well, I’m going to give you these worldbuilding details, but you don’t prioritize the ones that you need to do. So it’s like you hit them with kind of a worldbuilding detail that paints sort of a big picture thing, and then you can start feeding them the smaller details after that. Does that make sense?
[Brandon] Yeah, that really does.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and pause here, though. You’re going to tell us about our book of the week, which is You Owe Me a Murder?
[Mary Robinette] Yes. You Owe Me a Murder, which is not by Dan Wells. It is by Eileen Cook.
[Dan] I don’t owe anybody, I always pay up.
[Mary Robinette] That’s true.
[Mary Robinette] You are not a serial killer, either.
[Mary Robinette] So, You Owe Me a Murder by Eileen Cook. It is a young adult novel. It is basically Strangers on a Plane. So if you’ve seen the Hitchcock film Strangers On a Train, it is that premise, but it’s teenagers on a field trip, like, study abroad thing to London. That scenario happens on the airplane. It’s an outlandish premise, that someone would sit down next to… A teenager would sit on a plane next to someone else and say, “Why don’t you kill my person? I’ll kill yours.” Yet, that is exactly what the book is. I tell you, this book is one of those things where I’m reading it and pretty much every page, I’m like, “Oh, no no no no no no no. No no no no noooo.” It is such good characterization, because when she has made that single outlandish premise, every character interaction after that is completely plausible, follows this logical causal chain. It’s so tightly crafted. It’s such a good book.
[Brandon] So that is You Owe Me a Murder…
[Mary Robinette] You Owe Me a Murder by Eileen Cook.

[Brandon] So, kind of along that topic, how do we write characters who take something very strange is normal, and how do you not alienate the reader from that character, but instead, pull them into that character’s way of thinking? I’m thinking of a lot of these fantasy and science fiction books where you… Dystopian, but also just epic fantasy, where people just take it for granted that X, Y, or Z. In the Wheel of Time, we take it for granted that there are dark friends who live among us who, it could be any of our friends, who might just murder us in the middle of the night. They just accept that. That’s part of their world.
[Dan] That one’s easy, because it’s true.
[Brandon] How do you write characters that take something really outlandish, that’s part of their life, and integrate into them and not make them alien?
[Howard] If I have… As a reader, if I have a question, if I think something’s outlandish, and a character beats me to the punch by asking the question, and shrugging and moving on because there’s no way for them to find an answer, I will shrug and move on. Especially if that character is already sympathetic. Because the author has acknowledged that, “Hey, some of this…” Maybe it’s a question that I’m given the answer to later. That is… They’ve bought another 20 pages from me, because they promised me I’m going to get an answer. They can break that promise and give me something that I like more. They just have to have that character in that moment ask the question that I’m going to ask.
[Brandon] So, this is one classic method, which is hang a lantern on it. When the character asks the question, it allows us to say, “Oh, the author’s thinking about this. I’ll get an answer eventually.” But what about these worlds like, say, the Golden Compass, where everyone’s soul manifests, or a chunk of it, as an animal that skitters around the world and interacts with them? No one questions it because the whole world has it. How do you make that work?
[Dan] Well, one of the ways to do that is, first of all, to just let the characters take that completely seriously and take it in stride, the way that that world is, by giving them something bigger to worry about. When someone from our world reads the Golden Compass, that’s the first thing that stands out. It’s like, “Wait, what’s a demon? Why is there this cat following her around?” Like, we have these questions. She doesn’t, because she’s very concerned about whatever other thing it was, and… it’s been years. She’s traveling around inside a university or something. She has her own wants, she has her own desires, she has her own goals. That is what is important to her. So we get caught up in that story, is she going to be able to find her friend, is she going to be able to get that thing she wants, then, a chapter later, we realize that we’ve just kind of taken the rest of it in stride, the way the characters have.
[Brandon] So, this is kind of the opposite to hanging a lantern on it…
[Dan] Exactly.
[Brandon] Is to downplay it so much, and make other things important, that we start accepting it.
[Howard] It’s lantern versus…
[Mary Robinette] Well, I don’t…
[Howard] Sorry. Lantern versus lampshade, for me. Lantern is when you’re calling attention to it by asking a question. Lampshade is when you’re turning it into furniture.

[Mary Robinette] So, I feel like it’s less about downplaying it and more about assigning it a place on an emotional scale. That, for me, is that if you have a thing that is outlandish, it occupies an emotional reality for the character. Carol Burnett talked about this when she was doing comedy, specifically, she was talking about the… For those of you who do not know Carol Burnett…
[Dan] You’re wrong and terrible people.
[Mary Robinette] It’s okay, I just turned 50. That’s why I watched her as a… When I was a small child. But just do yourself a favor and pull up YouTube… We’ll put this actually in the liner notes. The Carol Burnett scene where it’s a Gone with the Wind takeoff, and she… There’s this wonderful scene in Gone with the Wind, where in the original, where Scarlett doesn’t have anything to wear, and so she takes down the curtain and makes a gown out of that. They do that same scene, and she makes a gown out of it, but she does not remove the curtain rod.
[Dan] And is knocking things over…
[Mary Robinette] Comes down and just… Someone asked her how she played something like that. She’s like, “My character believes that she has made the right choice.” My character… She occupies the emotional truth of her character. I think that when we’re dealing with an outlandish thing, it occupies a place on an emotional scale for our character. If we assign it there and give them appropriate responses, that then also tells the reader how to react to it. So if they are reacting to it as if this is completely normal, then our reader knows, “Oh. Okay.” If they are reacting to it as if it’s outlandish, then that tells our reader a different thing.
[Dan] To go back to what I was saying before, that scene’s a great example, because that scene is not about there’s a curtain rod in my dress. No, that scene is about I have to impress the suitor. So she has a goal. She has a thing. We have hung, to abuse the metaphor, we have hung a much bigger lantern on something else. So that’s where all our focus is pointed.

[Brandon] This segues us really well into my kind of last topic for this podcast, which is, when do you play it straight and when do you be silly? Howard has made an entire career of this dichotomy.
[Dan] Dancing across that line.
[Howard] You’re not wrong.
[Brandon] So, how do you do it?
[Brandon] How do you decide when…
[Howard] Fundamentally, it’s about scene-sequel and emotional beats. The punchline… If you read Schlock Mercenary strips back-to-back, all in one sitting, it does not read very much like a book. Because the beats are just weird. If I were to tell the whole Schlock Mercenary story as prose, there would be fewer punchlines and they would be spaced differently. So, the comic strip itself is a bad example in some ways. And yet, there are emotional beats in a story which need to be played seriously. Which need to… I want the reader to cry. I want them to be unhappy. If there is going to be a joke, in Schlock Mercenary, I will usually try and pull the joke afterwards, not to undercut the emotional response, but to give us an escape valve for the emotional response. The math, the timing of these things, is a lot different when I’m working with prose. But looking at scene-sequel format, looking at your beat chart for your story, will tell you where you’re going to be silly, where you gotta play it straight, and…
[Mary Robinette] I think the thing that you said that I just want to draw a line under is thinking about the emotional impact on the reader. When you’re trying to make that decision, that is ultimately the decision you’re making, is what effect do you want this to have on my reader? I’m going to play it silly if I want my reader to have a laugh here. If I want them even that as a cathartic thing in a much more serious piece. So what I will do then is that I will attempt to sign post it, again, by the character’s reaction, but also by the prose that I’m using to lead up to that. Where I put my linebreaks in order to get those beats that Howard is talking about in a prose format. If I want to hit something as a punchline, then I’m going to put it in a different place in the paragraph then I would necessarily if I wanted it to just blend into the world.
[Brandon] Right. I think also some of the things we were talking about earlier will affect this. For instance, we talked about a lot of these dystopian books, what they do is this really outlandish premise, but then the characters’ emotional responses are played straight and their interactions are played straight. So even if there are laughs, the story is serious, and you have to accept this premise. A lot of the comedic ways of doing it escalate, right? The premise is weird, and then the next thing that happens spins off of that is even weirder. That’s a very Terry Pratchett way of doing things.
[Howard] There’s a simple tool for prose writers. It’s the line feed. If you have something that you want to stick, that’s where the line feed goes. If you have a punchline, and you want people to take time to process the punchline, that should have been the last thing in the paragraph. If it’s in the middle of the paragraph, then the rest of the paragraph may be working against the joke. Now, it’s entirely possible that that’s the effect you wanted to have. That you wanted them to giggle, and then suddenly realize in horror that that wasn’t where this was going at all. But I use white space a lot. Because for writing humor, the wall of text doesn’t tell people… It doesn’t sign post it. It doesn’t tell you where you’re supposed to laugh. Where you’re supposed to… What’s setting up the joke versus where the joke is.
[Mary Robinette] Technically, that’s because those linebreaks create a… Represent where we pause naturally in speech. The same way the end of a sentence does. But with the sign posting, it’s not just those linebreaks, it’s also, as I said, the prose that we use leading up to it if… Douglas Adams, the opening line of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is a great example of this kind of sign posting, because the style of prose that he’s using gives you permission to laugh. That is… That’s the thing that you need to convey to the reader if you want them to know that it silly, you have to give them permission to laugh. Otherwise, they’ll go into it and you haven’t given them permission, they will not take it seriously in ways that are damaging to the story.
[Dan] I think it is important to point out, whether you’re going for serious story or comedic story, that a lot of what makes these outlandish premises and outlandish ideas work is the emotional resonance that the reader has with them. Divergent, like I said, is not a world that could exist, but Veronica Roth wrote that when she was a college freshman. When she was in a period of her life where she did feel like I am being locked into one path, and the society is trying to choose who I am going to be for the rest of my life. People in high school and early college feel like that. That’s a very familiar emotion. So for the audience she was writing for, it wasn’t a real-life detail, but it felt very familiar, and we have that resonance with it.

[Brandon] We’re out of time. But, Dan, you actually have my favorite homework that we’ve come up with this year.
[Brandon] Give us this homework.
[Dan] Okay. We want you to write an outlandish impossibility. The best way that I know of to do that is find a three-year-old. Ask them to tell you a story. Then take that story seriously. Write it out as if it were a real thing. Whatever bizarre relationships or things or monsters or whatever that that person, that three-year-old, tells you, that’s your reality. Write that story and make it work.
[Brandon] If you want an example of this, go read the webcomic Axe Cop.
[Dan] Yes.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.


Writing Excuses 14.36: Languages and Naming

From https://writingexcuses.com/2019/09/08/14-36-languages-and-naming/

Key points: How do you name things? How do you come up with names? Baby name websites! Sanskrit or foreign languages. Read the credits on movies. Internally consistent, and different. Borrow names from other countries. How do you approach constructed languages, dialect, or jargon in stories? A few words go a long way. Read it out loud. Make sure readers can tell your names apart! Consider using the language as a source of conflicts, either because people don’t speak the same language, or because of the way their language makes them see the world. Misunderstandings and cultural expectations can lead to conflicts. What does this do in your story? What’s the role it plays in the plot? Can you use dialect or wording to help with setting?

[Transcriber’s note: Apologies to the Ursumari, Hindi, and Korean for any mistakes in the transcription of names and words in those languages.]

[Mary Robinette] Season 13, Episode 36.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Languages and Naming.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Mahtab] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] [pause] I’m… Okay, I’ll tell you my name. I’m Howard.
[Mahtab] I’m Mahtab.
[Dan] She won’t make you work for it. Like Howard does.

[Brandon] Languages and naming. So. I would say the number one question I get, usually from younger writers who come through my line is, “How do you name things?” So, I’m going to actually point this at you first, Mahtab, because I think they’ve probably heard us answer this question. How do you come up with names for your stories?
[Mahtab] Well, I consult a lot of websites. Especially, I start with baby names. But Sanskrit is also a really good source, because… Really, I mean, writing for a North American audience… And since most of my books are published in English, even if I threw in a few Hindi words, it would seem, like, exotic. But, for example, in The Third Eye, I used the word Zarku, which is… It means, in Sanskrit, it means evil. Which is… So I would do Google translate and take keywords off… Which personify the character that I’m naming and try and find the right word. Play around with it. Just, as I said, Google some interesting names and see… And and say it out loud to see what sounds good.
[Howard] Reading… For starters, you should all be staying through the end of the credits of all of the movies you see. But reading the names on the credits is a great way to read a bunch of names that you’re probably unfamiliar with. It’s also a great way to realize that wow, portions of this film were produced or managed in, I think that’s Southeast Asia, or I see a lot of Indian names. I like that. I like seeing that in the films, but seeing that variety opens me up to naming things, because… I mean, just the way we name other human people is hugely diverse.
[Brandon] Now, you were talking about one of the naming conventions you came up with for one of the races in Schlock Mercenary.
[Howard] Yeah, I… The role-playing book, the Planet Mercenary role-playing book, one of the things that we realized is that if people are going to role-play, they’re going to want to be able to name their characters. What are the naming conventions for these different species of alien? The first thing that I did was panic, because, how am I going to come up with seven different naming conventions? The second thing I did was, well, I’m going to start subtractively. So I looked at my own language and said, all right, they will never have some of these sounds in their names. I used a different set of subtractions for each of them. One of the groups, one of the races, all names are 10 syllables long. They are all 10 syllables long, and this is how the construction works, and this is where the accenting works, and this is where the pieces of the names come from. It was still familial, which is something we’re all familiar with, but it created these names that just looked incredibly alien. But after I knew how to build them, I could suddenly rattle off 10 syllable names very quickly. It made them start to seem real. I think that’s, for me, the most important aspect of naming and language stuff in worldbuilding, is that once you have some of the words that your aliens are your monsters or your whatevers use, they become different than you, and they begin to develop their own voice.
[Dan] I think a key part of that, that a lot of as you said especially young writers are overwhelmed by, is making a lot of those decisions. They can be meaningless or random at the point where you’re establishing those rules, as long as you come up with something that is con… Internally consistent and that is different, it’s going to feel cool. The readers don’t necessarily need to know, oh, he just pulled those letters out of the alphabet at random and disallowed them, or however it is that you’re building these. You don’t need to overthink that initial process. There doesn’t need to be some kind of divine foundation for where these names come from, as long as you come up with consistent rules that sound cool and unique.
[Howard] The uplifted polar bears in Planet Mercenary. What I said was the first two generations of uplifted polar bears, it was very common to give them Inuit names, Siberian names, those were very common. Then the polar bears realized you’re just naming us after the humans who live near us. That’s awful. So for two generations, all of their names are a little more blended. The whole reason for that was so that I could tell the joke of oh, some common Ursumari names are Jones, [Ketchikan, Ggrrnnkk!]
[Howard] But as I was writing it, I realized that’s probably exactly how the bears would do it.

[Mahtab] It’s also a very good idea to borrow names from other countries. To point out an example, Avatar. It still sounds weird in my mouth, because it is basically avataar in Hindi, which is just a version of… Most gods and goddesses in the Indian… Hindu mythology have various forms are various versions which are avataars. So when I say avatar, it’s like, that is not the correct pronunciation.
[Mahtab] The other thing that I also remembered was tsehelyu [sa-hey-loo?] which is the bonding of the horse and the person. It’s… I thought it was spelled differently, but I looked it up, it spelled t-s-e-h-e-l-y-u. But it sounds so close to [sahelee?] which is friend in Hindi. It’s just a friend bonding. So you can use existing words. Change the spelling, change the pronunciation, and you have a totally different word.
[Brandon] [garbled] This is how language works. It really does. Like my son was assigned… They’re doing a Christmas thing at school, and they said all the kids are going to say Merry Christmas in different languages. He came to me and said, “I chose Korean. How do you say Merry Christmas in Korean?” I’m like, “Merry Christmas. That’s what they say.”
[Brandon] Now I… There is actually a way to say it in Korean, but I had to go look it up, because when Christmas time was around, everyone just said Merry Christmas because even though it’s not in Korean…
[Howard] It’s Western…
[Brandon] It’s a Western holiday. They just use the English words.
[Dan] We borrow stuff from each other all the time. I will say, following from what Mahtab said about kind of borrowing words and names from other cultures, use a really wide variety of them. I made a world map for a fantasy series that I wanted to put together. I realized, after I had kind of named 15 or so nations on this map, that most of them were kind of the obvious this is based on German or Welsh or maybe some Russian if I was feeling saucy. Why did I not have some more Southeast Asian? Some Chinese? A lot of these other completely different sounds that are not as European and not as obvious that we tend to skip over?
[Brandon] One of my favorite things… We’re on a side tangent here, but with making maps, is to think about who’s making the map. Because if you make the map, that country’s names for all the countries in the world, are going to be that country-ized, that country-ize. Like, we call Korea Korea, right? In Korea, it’s Hangug. It’s… The Koryo dynasty was years and years ago, but that’s the name that stuck for us. All countries do this, right? They don’t call us America, they call us migug. That’s just how… When whoever’s making the map is going to use their biases to create all of the names for all the countries. That is a lot of fun for me, for worldbuilding aspects.
[Dan] Because a lot of those names will come from the first person that they encountered from that region, or, like with Korea, whoever was in charge at the time we decided to codify the name.

[Howard] It is important to be careful with this. The apocryphal possibly story of a games workshop sending their materials to be translated in German, and the Germans coming back and saying, “Okay. We need to work on naming with you, because you’ve literally named the villain villain.
[Howard] You’ve named the hero hero. You’ve just…
[Dan] Yes.
[Howard] Taking these words from German and naming them as your characters in English, because you think it sounds exotic, is not going to work well because it spoils the surprise for everybody here…
[Howard] Who can read German.
[Dan] Yeah, which is why I liked, again, what Mahtab said about changing the spelling, changing the pronunciation. Use it as a base and then make it your own.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week.
[Mahtab] Yes. I would love to recommend Binti by Nnedi Okorofor. I hope I’m not butchering her name. But it’s a novella. An excellent mix of African culture and science fiction. It centers around Binti, who is from the Himsa [Himba?] tribe. She has been offered this place in this university. It’s called the Oomza University. Which is a place of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept this, she has to leave her people. So when she does, and against everyone’s wishes, against the family’s wishes, she decides to go. But the one thing that she takes with her as something to remind her of home is this earth, which the Himsa people tend to apply on their hair and their skin. It turns out that this is something that helps her when there is a war that the University is with, with the Meduse people which is an alien race. I’m not going to, again, give away the ending. It’s a short novella, but it’s beautifully written. It’s, as I said, a very good mix of an African culture, science-fiction, and a must read.
[Brandon] It won the Hugo and the Nebula. It’s free to read on Tor.com, I believe. Maybe it’s not free.
[Mahtab] I don’t think so.
[Brandon] Yeah, it’s actually one of the Tor.com novella programs. But it is a novella that you can get very cheaply online, and well worth a read.
[Mahtab] Excellent. Excellent book.

[Brandon] Let’s stray a little bit from naming towards language conventions. So let’s talk about conlangs, which is kind of the word for constructed languages that you use in your books, or your own kind of feel on how to use dialect or jargon in your stories to kind of enhance the authenticity or the worldbuilding of your story. So how do you approach coming up with languages and things like this?
[Dan] Let’s start by saying that we did an entire episode on conlangs with a linguistic professor last year. So, for a much more full discussion, look that up.
[Brandon] Excellent.
[Dan] But now I got nothing.
[Mahtab] I can start, because I was very taken up with Dothraki, which was invented by David J. Peterson. I was listening to a TED talk of his in terms of how he came up with it. So what he said is he used the text George R. R. Martin wrote and he used certain words. He kind of broke them apart. So words like cow and ruck and hudge, cuss, which is consonant vowel consonant. He kind of used that as a base and then he developed a language. Of course, there is a lot between using those words and what he came up with. But just writing for younger readers, I think one has to be very careful because large paragraphs or large texts in a very weird language could actually pull the reader out. Which is why I appreciated just a few words of parsel tongue in the Harry Potter movies, or just a couple of words here and there, because you do not want to trip up young readers. If you do come up with interesting words or made-up words, I would read it out loud. Just to see if you’re tripping up, which is what would happen with the… With your readers.
[Howard] Or if phonetically you’re saying something you don’t want to say.
[Mahtab] Yeah.

[Howard] One of the tricks that I look at is… Primarily for naming things, but if you’re making up a language, English readers… I don’t know if this is a problem in other languages, but I know it’s a problem in English. English readers will tend to conflate foreign looking words that all begin with the same letter for each other. You have three six letter names that all begin with F. They’re all going to be kind of read as the same person. So you may want to find a set of rules for your language that allows you to have different first letters. That’s a… It’s a silly sort of constraint, because you may have a language where all of the first letters are the same. Every word begins with F.
[Brandon] Orson Scott Card has a really great essay on his website about naming, where he talks about this sort of concept. Varying the length of the names, varying the… Some of them being… Sounding like a word, like calling someone Bean as opposed to calling someone Ender which will… Ways that different names stick in people’s heads. It is well worth reading.
[Howard] But with regard to language, specifically, if you are going to be dropping snippets of your alien foreign whatever made-up language in your book, having the words… Let us be able to tell the difference between the words. So that if one of those words shows up later, in a chapter heading, maybe we’ll recognize it as a word we’ve seen before. Maybe that’s a plot point. Maybe it’s a significant touchstone for us as readers. There needs to be a reason for you to have gone to all this trouble to construct your own language.
[Brandon] I, when I’m building books, I’ll use a couple of different styles. It’s going to depend, for me, on how much time I want to spend with the language being a source of conflicts. Last month we talked about this idea of cultural setting as conflict. In some of my books, the fact that people don’t speak the same language, or the ways that their linguistics work informs the way they see the world becomes a conflict in the story or at least a way that characters are not quite understanding each other or the cultural expectations are being expressed. In those worlds, I spend a lot more time on my worldbuilding and my language. I am not a linguist. Fortunately, my editorial director, Peter, is a linguist. I’ve taken enough classes that I can be dangerous in this field, so to speak. But you don’t need to be a linguist to be able to do this. I really do approach it results-oriented. Why am I doing this? Like Howard said, what is the function of this in my story? Why am I having this happen? In the Stormlight Archive, I have one character who uses a lot of words in a different language. It is to reinforce that his culture is really important to him, and the way that he sees the world involves giving people nicknames from his language. Which really changes the way that the reader and the other characters interact with this character, and has been wonderful for using those linguistics. But the actual linguistics don’t matter as much to me as what the role… The role they’re taking in the plot.
[Mahtab] Dialect or using certain words can also help you… Help give you a setting, a time. Like, for example, Feed by M. T. Anderson. They use words like unit, which is wow. Or “This is really meg.” Words like this. Which was… Although the book was written in 2002, it was an indication that this is a society in the future. I was just reading To Kill a Mockingbird. One of the lines that Miss Maudie says is, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy.” People don’t normally speak that way. So if you use a dialect, or if you use a certain way of putting words, and the order in which you put them could also help you describe whether it’s southern US that you’re talking about or even India. There are so many dialects. By using it, you can say so much more without saying it. Because that’s the way the people in that area talk.

[Brandon] Excellent. We are out of time on this episode. Howard, you have our homework.
[Howard] Yes. You are probably familiar, fair listener, with the way human beings name each other. We name each other after our progenitors. We have first names, we have last names. They all sort of run in families. Come up with a naming convention for aliens or fantasy races, whatever. Come up with a naming convention that has nothing to do with family and is completely, completely different.
[Brandon] Completely removed from the way that we do our naming.
[Howard] Completely removed from the way that we name each other.
[Brandon] Awesome. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.


Writing Excuses 14.35: What You Leave Out

From https://writingexcuses.com/2019/09/01/14-35-what-you-leave-out/

Key Points: Worldbuilding an iceberg? Just build the tip of the iceberg, and make readers think the rest of it is there, too. Build what’s needed for verisimilitude. Figure out where your scenes are set, then figure out what that looks like and how it works. What are you going to be using the most? What will my characters be directly interacting with? Give the reader information in ways that asks questions, instead of answers them. Use relationships to other events, rather than exact times. Leave it out, if it doesn’t help the story. Think about what the book is, then do the research. Do you need to show the event happening or can you just tell the reader that the event happened and had an outcome? Sometimes, you don’t want to go there. Postpone that decision until you need it! Be aware of the uncanny valley of worldbuilding — far off, skip the details, it’s okay, we got the broad strokes. Too close, too many details, and suddenly readers start asking questions. Don’t fall into that valley! Watch out for the super-detailed realistic piece that makes everything else look fake. Focus on what you actually need to keep the story from falling apart. Avoid worldbuilding details that would ruin the story.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 35.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, What You Leave Out.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] That probably wasn’t what I was supposed to leave out, but go ahead.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] We all just sat there, going, “What is he? Oh!”
[Mary Robinette] And you are?
[Dan] I’m Dan, I guess.
[Howard] And I’m Howard. And unapologetic.

[Brandon] All right. What you leave out.
[Mary Robinette] [garbled not amused]
[Brandon] So when I teach my students about this topic, one of the things I mention is when I was a newer writer, one of the things I got told frequently is that you want to, in worldbuilding, worldbuild a ton. But not put all of it in. Put enough of it in that the reader… You’re indicating to the reader that it’s like an iceberg, right? You can see the tip and you can see that there is so much more beneath. The more I became a published writer, the more I worked in it, the more I realized that that was… not a fantasy, but perhaps people in the business making it sound a little more grandiose than it is. Because most people I know do not worldbuild the entire iceberg and then show you the tip. What they do is they worldbuild the tip, and then they find a way to worldbuild a hollow iceberg that makes you think that there is the rest…
[Brandon] Underneath there. The goal in worldbuilding is not to do everything, just to do as little as you can and still look like you’ve done everything.
[Howard] Two nights ago, I was watching the special features for the movie Deepwater Horizon, for that film. They built an 85% scale oil rig over a little 3 foot deep pond. The reason they did it was so that when the actors were outside up high, shooting scenes, the actors are reacting as if they are outside and up high. They could have done the whole thing green screen, but they didn’t. They needed that level of verisimilitude. Then there was this point where the VFX guy said, “So, we didn’t actually build the whole oil rig. We only built the front.” You see this scene where the helicopter is coming in and the camera has panned around the oil rig and it is just… Like 25%, 20% of the oil rig. Then the VFX says, “This is what we had to build,” and throws all the other stuff in. After hearing how much time they spent building 20% of the oil rig for verisimilitude, the peace that they needed, this iceberg thing totally makes sense. Build the piece that’s required for verisimilitude. Drill all the way down on that. Then fix the rest in post.

[Brandon] So, how do we apply this to our worldbuilding? What do you guys do when you are worldbuilding? How do you give this indication that there’s more underneath there? How do you decide what to leave out of your story? How do you decide what not to worldbuild?
[Dan] So, following along with this set building metaphor here, I remember reading an early interview with Gene Roddenberry when they were doing the original Star Trek series. He said that he wanted to have an engine room, and they weren’t going to build him one, until he put that scene into the pilot episode. He’s like, “Look, well, we have to have a scene here. I’m sorry, there’s no way around it.” So they gave him an engineering. What I do when I’m building my worlds and planning my books is I figure out, “Well, where are my scenes set? Where do I want those scenes to be set?” Am I going to be talking enough about main engineering, for example, that I need to figure out what it looks like and where it is and how it works, or is my story going to focus on some other thing? So they didn’t build the entire, or even 20%, of the Starship Enterprise. They built a bridge and an engineering room and a transporter room, and that’s kind of it. Maybe some hallways. Because that’s where they knew their story was going to take place. So I try to figure out what am I focusing on, what am I going to be using the most, and that’s what I focus on.
[Mary Robinette] I’m very much the same way. I really only worry about the things that my characters are going to be directly interacting with. I want to make sure that I understand enough of how they interact, of how it works, so that the interaction makes sense. But, like, when we move through our daily life, we interact with a lot of stuff that… There’s a number of houses that you passed on the street and you have no idea what’s in those houses. But they’re still houses. You go to Disneyland. You don’t actually know what it takes to make Disneyland work. It’s just the front facing stuff. So one of the things that I do is that I think about the pieces that my character is going to have that direct interaction with, like you were talking about. One of the ones that I find works really well our past events. Referring to things… Usually these are things that I have no idea of what they actually are. But instead of saying, “Well, this happened in 1457.” Like, I don’t actually want to figure out how long ago a thing happened. I don’t know. So I’ll say, “Well, it happened during the… Right after the battle of the seven red armies.” Everyone’s like, “Oh, well, the battle of the seven red armies.”
[Mary Robinette] Clearly, she spent all of this time thinking about that. What that’s done is it saved me from actually working out a timeline. Because I’ve… Now I can place the battle of the seven red armies anywhere I need to be.
[Dan] One of the things that that suggests to me is that you have given them the information in a way that asks more questions rather than answers them. That gives a gre… I mean, we know when it took place, but we know it based on a relation to an event rather than an exact number of years. In the audience’s mind, it’s not answering the question so much as it’s saying, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this. Also, here’s something else to worry about.”

[Brandon] Have you ever spent a lot of time in your worldbuilding before writing or during writing a story and then decided to leave that out of the story?
[Mary Robinette] Absolutely.
[Brandon] When, why, and what made you make that decision?
[Mary Robinette] In the Glamorous Histories, for Without a Summer, I spent a great deal of time figuring out how Parliament worked in relationship to glamour, and what laws were being passed and not passed, and got into the novel and realized that that entire plot structure was completely irrelevant. I like knew… I had spent all of this research on this one particular historical figure who never appears in the novel now. It was basically, it just didn’t help the book. Chucked it. It was one of the things that made me realize that I really need to think about what the book is and then do the research. I will say that I approach my research now the same way that I… I mean, I approach my worldbuilding the same way that I approach my research, which is that all do like these broad strokes, but I only really drill down on the stuff that I actually need to.
[Brandon] I spent a lot of time in the Stormlight Archive before I was writing it, working on the writing systems. The glyphs that they were going to draw and things like this. I left that all out because once I actually wrote the book and I looked back at the stuff I’d done, I realized I’m not an artist.
[Brandon] Beyond that, I’m not an expert in languages and… I just hired that out. So I took all the stuff I did… I didn’t even give it to them. Because I’m like, “You know what, I’m going to use the text that I’ve written in the book.” I’m going to give this to the artist and I’m going to say, “What would you imagine this to be?” Isaac came up with stuff that was waaay better than any of the stuff that I had come up with. It kind of taught me, also, that maybe I should spend my effort where I know I’m going to be using it in the story, and then I can, after the fact, I can hire some of these things out.
[Dan] Brandon, you and I just did this yesterday, actually, on the project we’re collaborating on. The Apocalypse Guard. We’ve been wrestling with this book for months now, and yesterday made the decision that kind of the main thing we need to do to fix it is to axe one of the magic systems.
[Brandon] Yeah.
[Dan] It was something very cool that we considered foundational to the story, but now that we’re looking at the book in its current form, it’s kind of beside the point.
[Brandon] It’s also the thing that is causing the biggest problem with the story, because where the story is spiraling out of control are all these scenes where I spent lengthy amounts of time talking about the worldbuilding and the history. Scenes that Dan cut out a lot of when he did his revision.
[Brandon] But the effect of it’s still there. It’s leading to this big confusing ending where I have… Do what I do, tie all these worldbuilding elements together. But in ways that were cool for those worldbuilding elements and don’t really work for the story.
[Dan] Yeah.
[Brandon] It’s a point where we have to cut out… One of the things that is my signature is a magic system. Granted, we have multiples. So it’s still going to be cool. But it’s going to be a way better book if we just streamline.
[Howard] My approach here is often to ask where the line is between show versus tell. There are times in the story where it’s absolutely required for the reader, because it’s fun, because there’s emotional content, whatever, to show an event happening. Then there are times when all the reader needs is to know that the event happened and there was an outcome. So entire scenes will vanish from the writing, because what I needed to do, with the story needed, was for somebody to say, “Battle was fought. So-and-so won.” “Oh, really, that sounds terrible.” And off we go with the core story.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week.
[Mary Robinette] All right. So our book of the week is Stealing Worlds by Karl Schroeder. I got to read this, an arc of it. It is fantastic. This is near future. It’s an Internet of Things. A young woman discovers that her father has been murdered. She thinks. Everyone else thinks that it was a… Just an accident. Then people start coming after her. How do you disappear when everything is connected? So it’s really, really cool. It feels like he has thought of everything. But the stuff that we’re actually seeing is just the stuff that she interacts with directly. It’s great worldbuilding, great characterization. I mean, it’s a really good book. It also happens to illustrate some of these points.
[Brandon] Excellent. That was Stealing Worlds by Karl Schroeder.

[Brandon] So, we’ve talked about worldbuilding elements that we cut out. Are there ever things that you have decided even before you launch into the book, you’re like, “I’m just not going to touch that. I’m not going to go that direction with the worldbuilding.” Things that you just… Why have you done this?
[Mary Robinette] Oh, like in the Lady Astronaut books, I very carefully do not talk about what the rocket engine is that is driving this ship to Mars. I like really carefully do not talk about that. Because of the amount of research that I was going to have to do. But also, my character is not a rocket engineer. Right? She pilots things. She needs to know how to pilot things, and she does math. So, she needs to do those things. But I did not need to know how the rocket engine worked. And as soon as I worked on figuring that out, that was going to lock me into certain decisions. Like, if I decide that it is atomic oxygen, that locks me into one line of technology. If I decide that it is nuclear, that locks me into another line of technology. Because I don’t know what subsequent books are going to need, I decided to not make that decision and to leave room for it to be any of those things, and just… I establish some trust with the reader early on, so that I can just… Like, just get in there and…
[Brandon] You know…
[Mary Robinette] It’s like, they’re going to Mars. Obviously, they’ve solved how they get there.
[Brandon] I had a conversation with this… About this same topic with a writer that I know… That we were kind of brainstorming on some worldbuilding and things. The way I presented it as there’s like an uncanny valley of worldbuilding where at a certain point, it’s far off, and you’re leaving out the right details from what we’re doing so that nobody starts to question really how it works. Like, if you don’t do enough, people are confused and you start to lose them. You do the right amount, and people are willing to take your word on it. They suspend their disbelief, they accept the worldbuilding, it feels really logical to them, you’ve got the couple of corner cases that they would assume. Then there’s a stage where you start explaining it so much that the rational part of their brain kicks in and says, “Well, wait a minute. This and this and this and this,” and you start to hit this sort of uncanny valley where suddenly you lose them. They aren’t willing to suspend their disbelief anymore. That can be a really fine balance to walk.
[Mary Robinette] We have this problem in theater, with… All the time. Where you’ve got a set, and if you go very minimalist with it, you’re asking the audience to be engaged. You go too minimalist with some shows, and everything falls apart. But if you’ve got like a set where everything looks really nice, and then there’s this one piece that is hyper realistic, everything else in the story feels just awful. Beauty and the Beast, the animation… When they had… That was the first stuff of the computer animation…
[Dan] They introduced CG in the ballroom scene.
[Mary Robinette] The ballroom scene looks… It looks wrong, because it is more rendered than everything else. Then everything else starts to look false.
[Dan] I did a black box production of Assassins in college. It was all just super minimal sets, but we had a super realistic like rolltop desk, and it just… It looked terrible. Because it made the rest of the show looked terrible.

[Mary Robinette] One of my favorite pieces of set design that I ever did… This is a side tangent, but a good example. A friend of mine called me on a… On Monday and said, “We had a reading this weekend and are set designer did not show up with the set. I have just found out that she has skipped town with all of the money which she has spent on drugs. We open on Friday. Help me. I have $75.”
[Mary Robinette] So I’m like, “Okay.” We sat down and we talked about what are the things that have to be on stage or the show will fall apart. It was a tree, the moon, and a wall. That was basically it. So I bought some foamcore, and I got some paint, and I did this dry brush minimalist New Yorker style thing of a tree, a moon, and the wall. I think I gave him a chair, too. As a bonus.
[Dan] ‘Cause you’re a benevolent god.
[Howard] You had eight dollars left.
[Mary Robinette] I still had eight dollars. I had to get paid out of that $75, you know. So I… But we stripped it down to what you actually need or the show will fall apart. When the review came out, it raved about the minimalist design and delicate ethereal touches of the set. Meanwhile, in the program, I am listed as scene proctologist, because I pulled that set out of my ass.
[Mary Robinette] So, point being, just look at the worldbuilding details that you need to keep the show from falling apart.
[Dan] Well, it can also be helpful to look at the worldbuilding details that would ruin things. When I did my cyberpunk series, I specifically avoided artificial intelligence. There’s algorithms, there’s swarm intelligence, but there is no self-aware thing because that is a singularity that I was not prepared to deal with. So, that’s not in the story, it’s not a possible technology in that world.

[Brandon] This story of Mary Robinette’s actually leads us really well into our homework. Which Howard is going to give us.
[Howard] Yup. I want you to take your worldbuilding slider and I want you to pull it all the way to zero for one of your chapters. Take a chapter that’s got some worldbuilding exposition in it, that’s got some cues about what’s going on in your world that are deepening things, and pull all those out. Leave yourself with zero worldbuilding. Have a look at that chapter and see which elements of the story fail and which elements of the story still work. This is not so that you can tell yourself that you don’t need to worldbuild. This is so you can tell yourself… What the…
[Dan] I need a tree and a moon and a wall…
[Howard] I need a tree and a moon and a wall, and I will give myself a chair.
[Mary Robinette] As a bonus, in the liner notes, I’m going to give you a copy of the first scene of Shades of Milk and Honey in which I have done this exercise. So I have stripped out everything that I identified as exposition. I have to say, that scene is a mess.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.


Writing Excuses 14.34: Author Branding

From https://writingexcuses.com/2019/08/25/wx-14-34-author-branding/

Key Points: Branding, or making you and your product identifiable. How do you define your brand, how do you control it? Think about Hamburger Helper! What are the expectations, what kind of relationship do you have? What is the public persona you want to have? Separate your private person from your public persona. It’s a version of you, but selected. Think about what happens if you become famous. Be careful to build a brand that is big enough for the range that you want to work on. Think about a career brand, with series and book brands.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 34.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Author Branding.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dongwon] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.

[Howard] We are talking about branding.
[Mary Robinette] Not Brandon.
[Howard] Not Brandon.
[Dan] Not Brandon.
[Howard] He’s not even in the room, because that would make it too hard to keep the words straight, because I always swallow the ing.
[Howard] Branding. I came from a marketing background. When we talked about branding, it was always huge, and we always tried to break it down into pieces that were easy to assimilate. I can’t imagine it being any different in the publishing world.
[Dongwon] One of the reasons I wanted to talk about it is when I talk to writers, they treat branding as this taboo word. Right? If you say branding, then suddenly you’ve violated some sacred trust.
[Mary Robinette] It’s supposed to be about the art!
[Dongwon] The Muses have now abandoned you and you’ll never write again.
[Mary Robinette] The Muses are fictional.
[Dongwon] They have excellent branding. The reason I want to talk about it is because it’s unavoidable. If you are publishing books, if you are asking people to go to the bookstore or go to the Internet and pay money for your words, you are already a brand. There’s no way to escape it. Whether you find that to be a dark apocalypse or a blissful mercantile utopia is irrelevant, because you have to live in it. So the more you can understand how branding works and what your role is in defining your brand and controlling your brand, the more you’re going to be able to build a brand that you’re happy with, you’re comfortable with, and that is sustainable for you over the course of your career.

[Howard] A good way to examine this for those who just don’t like the idea of a brand is to consider the grocery store. There are many people who have a favorite box dinner, like Hamburger Helper or Zatarain’s or something. And there are folks who say, “Oh, that’s terrible for you. You shouldn’t buy those branded goods. You should go get fresh fruits and vegetables.” Okay. When I walk into the grocery store, and I look at the fresh fruits and vegetables, that is the brand that I am looking for. It doesn’t come in a box. It was fresh. Doesn’t have to have a sticker on it that says what the brand is. But there is a judgment that I have premade for this thing that I am looking for. As an author, yeah, you can tell yourself you don’t want to be a box dinner, you want to be more like a fresh fruit and vegetable. That’s still a brand.
[Dongwon] To put it in publishing terms, you’ll often have people who will say, “Oh, I don’t want to be a brand, I want to be like this authentic author.” The David Foster Wallace’s of the world. Right? Somebody who’s a curmudgeon, somebody who doesn’t participate in the system. I hate to break it to you, but that is their brand. It’s extraordinarily well defined and extraordinarily effective. You will find someone who… You won’t find a writer who is better branded than David Foster Wallace was.

[Mary Robinette] One of the things that you guys are kind of hitting on that I just want to break out a little bit is that what we’re talking about here is expectations and relationship. These are the two things that you are manipulating when you’re manipulating a brand. So when we talk about going to your favorite coffee shop, you don’t go there because they have the best coffee in the city. Like, the one you go to over and over again. Every now and then, depending on who you are… And those of you who I know are serious coffee drinkers, I apologize. But…
[Mary Robinette] The point being that frequently the reason you go to this coffee shop is because of a barista. Or because of the staff, and they recognize you, and that it feels like there’s a relationship. This is one of the things that encourages brand loyalty, why you keep going back. Why, often, you will go to someplace where it’s not the best coffee in the city. That it’s because of that relationship. So, as an author brand, a lot of what you’re doing is building the relationship with your reader. Then, the other aspect of it is their expectations. Giving them a sense of what that relationship is going to be like, what sort of experience they’re going to have. So, like the fresh fruit experience is very different from the boxed dinner experience. Both of which are valid, and both of which have audiences that appeal to them. But you want to know which one… Where you’re landing. So, like, I have the puppeteer brand. That tells people a little bit about the kind of expect… You can reliably expect that at least once an episode, I am going to talk about puppetry at some point. But the other thing that I have is that I’m open about aspects of my personality. Like, I’m open about the fact that I have depression. These are… This is part of the relationship. But I’m also… There are things about my life that I don’t talk about. So you can have an authentic open honest relationship with your… As part of your brand, and not have to word vomit your entire emotional experience.
[Dongwon] One important thing to think about, and this is one of the differences between having a personal brand versus a corporation having a brand. Right? Those do operate slightly differently. Is, as a person, really what you’re branding is having a good set of boundaries. What you’re going to start doing is drawing lines around certain things that you’re comfortable talking about in public with your fans and certain things that are only for you and your close personal friends. Once you are a published author, you are no longer just a person. You are now a person and a public persona at the same time. Knowing when you’re talking to a person, if they have expectations of the public persona version of you or the actual you is really important. When I see this relationship go awry, when I see fans get their feelings hurt, or when I see other writers interacting in a way that ends up causing drama, it is often around this disconnect. So having a crystal clear idea of what is you, what do you keep for yourself versus what do you put out into the world is going to help you manage that and make being a public persona much more sustainable for you, and much less taxing when you’re at a con or online or whatever it is.

[Dan] On that note, it’s important, I think, especially for an author, when it’s just one person instead of a corporation, you’re not so much defining a brand-new identity for yourself as you are defining a version of the self that already exists. I… My brand is basically me, but slightly flavored for the Internet or whatever. It’s not an entirely different person that I have to think of and then maintain constantly. That’s more work than you need to put into this.
[Dongwon] You just find the murderer within and put it on stage.
[Dan] Exactly.
[Howard] Part of what you’re describing here is a compartmentalization. In 2004… 2003, I think, I was still working at Novell, and I was briefing a bunch of salespeople. I was the hard-hitting, knows all the facts, project manager. I was managing an audience full of people who were really kind of hostile, because the salespeople don’t always want to sell what it is that you’ve made. You need to convince them to do that. At the end of the presentation, one of the guys came up to me and said, “So. My son read stuff on the Internet.” I said, “Oh. Okay. Yeah. I’m the same guy.” “No. Hear me out. He reads this comic strip and he says it’s by a guy who works at Novell.” “Yeah, I’m the same guy.” “No, hear me out. It’s this guy, he’s named Howard.” I’m like, “Dude. It’s me.” He stopped for a moment and stared at me, like, it can’t be you. That was where I realized that my brand as a cartoonist was incredibly different from my brand as a guy who is talking to the salespeople. To the point that this person couldn’t even imagine that I was the same person. Do I feel two-faced for that? Not really. Because I had two different jobs. I’m the same guy doing both of them. That was one of the first points where I realized that I never wanted the brand of me as a project manager to be the person that people see as the cartoonist. Because the project manager was the designated jerk.
[Howard] That’s not the guy I want to be.
[Dongwon] But one thing I want to point out there is that both were authentically you. Right?
[Howard] Yes.
[Dongwon] Therefore, both are sustainable almost indefinitely, right? You may not want to sustain the angry project manager guy because that sounds exhausting after a certain point in time, but it’s really important that you aren’t constructing a totally artificial brand. If your brand is the exact opposite of your personality, you might be able to sustain that for a few years, but at some point, it’s going to start breaking down, and just the mental effort it’s going to take to keep that up online every day or in newsletters or personal appearances, it’s going to be very draining. It’s very important to try and make sure that when you’re choosing your brand and you’re developing it, you’re making choices that are really organic to you.

[Howard] I’ve got the book of the week. I got to read… About a year ago, I got to read Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone. I’ve been waiting for this thing to hit the streets ever since then, because I was so excited by it. It is like post-singularity space opera launched by a near future sci-fi thriller. That twist where we make the shift from the near future thriller to the post-singularity was beautiful. I mean, it wasn’t seamless because I’m like, “Well, that was abrupt.” But it is beautiful. I loved loved loved loved loved this book. It is… I don’t need to say anything about it other than that. Max Gladstone and Empress of Forever. When I was tweeting with some of my author friends about it, I’m like, “Oh, I just got to read this thing by Max.” The response was, “Uh. Oh, that thing with the Empress? Oh, that thing! Oh, that thing.” Nothing but enthusiasm. My friends, you need to get this book. Empress of Forever, Max Gladstone.

[Mary Robinette] So, one of the things that I’m just going to say as a counter to creating a brand is that it is actually possible to create a brand that is artificial. The person I’m thinking of is Gail Carriger, who’s open about the fact that she has created a persona as her author persona. There are absolutely personality traits that are completely in line with the real person. But the physical nature of the brand, the choice in clothing, the set dressing, the costuming of the brand is different than the real person. That was a conscious choice, because she wanted to be able to go to conventions and go incognito. So while it would be lovely if this was a concern that all of us had that what happens if I become famous… It is actually a thing to think about. Like, what happens if you become famous? Because George R. R. Martin can no longer move through space without anyone saying, “[gasp] You’re George R. R. Martin!”
[Howard] He must traverse now with a bodyguard of sorts. A handler.
[Dan] That can be something as complicated as what Gail does, and you’re absolutely right. I should have thought about her earlier. Or it can be something as simple as I wear my hat. In Latin America, which is the only market in which I get recognized on the street, I can take that hat off and turn invisible and nobody knows who I am. Then put it back on and be recognized. I did want to talk about a problem that you can have with branding. I’ll use myself as an example. But first, I’m going to use… I’m going to go back to Hamburger Helper, which is where Howard started us off. So let’s imagine the beginning of Hamburger Helper. I don’t know what the first flavor they had was, but I’m going to pretend like it’s stroganoff.
[Howard] I think it was helper flavor.
[Dan] Let’s say that some guy invented this cool stroganoff thing, and he’s like, “Oh, I can sell this. People can make it in their homes for dinner, and it’ll be great.” He could have decided that he was just going to be the best stroganoff for dinner guy in the world. But what he… He took the time to look at it and say, “Actually, no. What I want to be is the person who helps you make your own dinner, regardless of the flavor.” So he focused his brand in that direction instead, and Hamburger Helper now represents much more than that initial stroganoff idea.
[Howard] In terms of brand, it’s not just that. It’s that when you are buying hamburger, which is a thing that you might be buying anyway, and which comes in all kinds of grades, and maybe you’re making burgers and maybe you’re making tacos, and I don’t know what you’re making with it, you go out to buy hamburger. Hamburger Helper is a thing that you know will go with this thing you just bought, because it’s right there in the name. They put that in the brand. It’s are there ways for you as an author to create a brand that is similarly associative?
[Dan] When I started, I branded myself wholly around my first published novel. My first Twitter handle was John Cleaver who was the character in the book. I was that guy. I was the John Cleaver horror guy. And very quickly realized no. I want my career to be so much more than this one character and this one series, and had to rebuild my brand, let’s say three years into my career, so that I could encompass the much wider range of stuff I wanted to work on.
[Howard] Can I… Oh, go ahead, Dongwon.

[Dongwon] Just to the point there. Branding is a very tricky thing. Because what you want to do is have your own career brand. Then, underneath that, you need to make a bunch of smaller brands for each book or each series that you’re doing. At this point, Mary’s maintaining four or five different brands, in addition to her career brands, which is actually two or three brands put together. Right? If you map it out that way, it can feel enormously complex. This is part of why I encourage make your brands as natural feeling as possible, because it’s easier to maintain a bunch of them at once, because they’re different parts of you and they’re different parts of your work. Then, you’ll have structured ways you can talk about each series, structured ways you can talk about each book. But when you’re thinking about your personal brand, your author brand, Dan’s absolutely right. If you tie it to one book or one series, then immediately when it comes to transition to the next thing, you’re going to find yourself in a lot of trouble and having to rebuild more than you would want to at that point in your career.
[Mary Robinette] Let me use Calculating Stars actually as a quick example of what you’re talking about with the managing of the brand. I am picking aspects of Calculating Stars to put forward that are the things I’m already interested in. So I have a character who’s a mathematician. She’s a woman in STEM and working in rocketry. Woman in STEM and rocketry, super excited about math… I really don’t care. I’m terr… It’s not… I think it’s a wonderful thing, but it’s not something that I have any personal enthusiasm or passion for. So when I am pushing my brand, my Calculating Stars brand, the stuff that I put out on social media, the stuff that I’m super interested in… Like, saying, “Look, I’m at NASA. I’m looking at rockets. Look at this really interesting woman in STEM.” You will… If you look at my Twitter stream, I don’t think I’ve ever tweeted anything about look at this cool math thing. Because I’m sure that they’re out there. But I don’t understand them. It’s… So it is, again, you can make something of a brand that is still an authentic representation of you, while being part of that sub brand.

[Howard] I’d like to try something that might not work. But I want to try it anyway. The four of us sitting here. Do you have a short description of one of our brands? I’ll go first. Mary Robinette. Didn’t see it coming, historically accurate, makes me cry.
[Mary Robinette] Huh. Nice. I’ll take that. Which is funny, because I would say happily married couple for myself is a core part of… Or happy relationship.
[Howard] This is me speaking as a consumer of your books. Not necessarily is someone who knows you personally. Because the brand is expanded for me.
[Mary Robinette] Nonono. But that… For my books, that is the thing. Happily married couple. That is the thing that… I feel like that is one of the things that you’re signing up for when you pick up one of my books is that there is a committed relationship someplace in there. Yeah, that’s an interesting exercise. Like…
[Howard] Anybody else want to try it? I had more time to think about it.
[Mary Robinette] I would have if you had warned me.
[Dan] Yeah, I don’t think I can do it off the top of my head.
[Mary Robinette] So, my brand for Howard. Jerkface McJerkface.
[Mary Robinette] Mic drop. Comic drop. Excuse me, comic drop. Cartoons.
[Howard] You know, you said you didn’t like math.
[Howard] But that… The math checks out.
[Dongwon] For Dan, I mostly have murder and hat.
[Mary Robinette] Not…
[Dongwon] It’s murder and hat. It’s not a murder hat. It’s not like the Dexter outfit.
[Dan] Yeah.
[Mary Robinette] Oh, that’s what you think.
[Dongwon] It’s very hard to get blood out of leather.
[Dan] It does underline something I’ve talked about before, which is the trouble that I sometimes have trying to sell science fiction. Because I went in so solidly on that horror brand when I started. Like I said, about three years in, I had to rebuild it. I am still in the process of rebuilding it.
[Mary Robinette] That was one of the things, having seen other people do that, with my first series, that was one of the reasons that I did a different elemental genre with each novel while I maintained the same set dressing. So that I could try to train people that look, I can write more than one thing.
[Dan] Well, Brandon’s not here. But I’m going to confuse Howard by talking about Brandon’s branding. We often, on the podcast, when we are behind the scenes planning out what guests we want to have, we’ll talk about getting someone who’s in YA. Mary Robinette and I will both say, “Oh, that’s great, because we need more YA.” Then Brandon will be like, “I’ve got three different best-selling YA series.” But nobody thinks of him like that. He’s the epic fantasy guy.
[Dongwon] Which is both the power and peril of a brand. A brand can be limiting in some ways. As Dan is pointing out with his work and with Brandon’s, sometimes it can be hard to break out of that if your brand is very strong. That said, you have the upside of you have a strong brand, which is in the category of good problems to have. Doesn’t make it not a problem, but it does mean that you have already taken up mind share among a group of readers, and that’s a great place to be.
[Howard] Can I do Dongwon?
[Dongwon] Do it. I’m dying.
[Howard] Okay. Knows everybody I know.
[Howard] Knows people I didn’t know were even people. Can sell any of them anything.
[Mary Robinette] You left out fabulous dresser.
[Dan] That’s true.
[Dongwon] I’ll take it.
[Howard] That is… I was just picking three.
[Mary Robinette] I know, but…
[Dan] He’s the only one of us… We wear these stupid headbands when we record. His actually matches his outfit. And it’s not even fair.
[Mary Robinette] What’s amazing…
[Dongwon] I would say Mary kindly gave me the one that matched my outfit. I could have ended up with that orange one.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Well. No, you couldn’t have, not while I was in the room.

[Howard] Okay. So you’ve just seen us struggle with this exercise. It is not easy. I believe Mary Robinette has some homework for us for you.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Time to do some soul-searching. You need to identify your brand. For this, what I want you to think about is the aspects, the core aspects, of your personality that you don’t mind highlighting for the public. The things that… It doesn’t have to be your entire personality. Like, focus on three things. If you look at my bio, I say puppeteer, author, and… Audiobook narrator. Like, what was my third thing?
[Mary Robinette] Those are three jobs. Right? But I could… You could also define my brand as historical fantasy, mentor, and theater person. You can pick three things and figure out what you want to do. But pick at least three. Pick, like, your three major things. Make sure that they’re things that you are… Topics that you’re passionate about, that you will probably be passionate about for your entire life. Make sure they’re not a transitory passion. Try to find something that is a passion that is not strictly tied to your books. You will notice that in the things that I listed, I did not list Regency although I love it. I did not list space, although I love it. I did not list World War I, although I love that too. It was a bad time, but still…
[Mary Robinette] The point being, pick things… Pick three core aspects of your personality that you want to highlight, three core things that you’re passionate about that you want to highlight that are not directly related to your work.
[Howard] Thank you very much. The bar has been set pretty high, and you watched us fail to clear it. This is Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.


Writing Excuses 14.33: Writing Imperfect Worlds

From https://writingexcuses.com/2019/08/18/14-33-writing-imperfect-worlds/

Key points: Writing a setting where underlying ideas aren’t what you believe? Imperfect, flawed worlds, with cultural ideas or norms that you don’t agree with? We write these to help understand the imperfections of our world and how to solve them. Popular genre, with a flawed, imperfect society that is clearly unfair as the big bad guy. Take an imperfection in our world and push it. If you are writing historicals, beware of telling the reader that “this is okay.” You might try to lampshade it, to have the protagonist stand against the prevailing attitudes. But they need to have spots where they are ignorant or unaware, which they confront. Fiction about imperfect worlds can give us a script, a lens, that we can use in the real world. When writing stories in a historical period or fantasy world, don’t just pretend that problems weren’t there, don’t rewrite history by ignoring the issues. Instead, be aware of the unjust imbalances, the ramifications, the external costs. To write a character who is a realistic product of a society with biases we would consider reprehensible, make sure to include someone who can call them on their bullshit. Give the reprehensible traits real consequences. Think through why they have these beliefs or opinions. Don’t give the protagonist a pass on their imperfect views just because they are the protagonist.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 33.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Writing Imperfect Worlds.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Margaret] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Margaret] I’m Margaret.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Brandon] I’m going to ask you, how do you write a setting in which the pervasive ideas, cultural ideas or cultural norms, are not ones that you think should be?
[Mary Robinette] That’s basically my entire existence with every piece of fiction I write because I am a woman in modern-day America.
[Howard] You said imperfect. Any piece of nonfiction is inherently going to be the writing of an imperfect world. I would say that the question you’re asking is more along the lines of writing deeply flawed worlds.
[Brandon] Yes.
[Howard] In order to help us… And I guess this isn’t part of your question, it’d be part of my answer… You write these in order to help us better understand the imperfections of our own world and how we might go about solving them.
[Margaret] Well, I think we’ve seen a lot of popularity of this genre in recent world… In recent years. I mean, what else is something like The Hunger Games? They’ve created this deeply flawed, imperfect society that is clearly unfair. It exists to give Katniss something that’s worth fighting against. It’s… There’s that… You’re setting up a big bad guy and there’s no bigger bad guy than society.
[Mary Robinette] Handmaid’s Tale is another good example. A lot of times what you’re looking at here is taking an imperfection in our world and pushing it, when you’re creating a science fictional society. I write a lot of historical stuff, which is going into areas where… Like the 1950s, Jim Crow is still very much a thing. The Glamorous Histories. Regency England, which we all love, is built on a base of slavery. So these are things that… One of the challenges is writing it in such a way that it doesn’t tell the reader this is okay and valorizes it.
[Brandon] Right.
[Margaret] I know one time when Madman was coming out, I think it was like season one or season two, and I watched a couple of episodes. I’m like, “Hey, mom, have you ever watched Madman?” Her response was, “No, thank you. I lived it.” I had… It’s not necessarily the imperfect world. Eh, it is not relevant. I need not cite this example.

[Brandon] Right. Okay. So, I would say the first thing that I have tried when I did this is kind of lampshade it. It can be difficult because I think your first instinct is to have your protagonist be the person who is not as sexist or racist or ist as the culture around them. Which, to be perfectly honest, I’m okay with picking up a story and then reading it and being like, “Oh.” Because there were people, even back in Regency times, who were like, “This is not okay.”
[Mary Robinette] The anti-… The whole abolitionist movement there.
[Brandon] That is certainly one approach to it, and I actually kind of appreciate, like, Mary, that you walk that line. I would say a lot of times your protagonists are several steps further along than the average person, but they are… They still have blind spots that they end up usually getting confronted by in the story. So it’s not this perfect character who has no problems, but at the same time, it makes me sympathetic towards the character because at least they have the blinders a little bit further open. It kind of makes me think, “You know, I probably still have my blinders on to an extent.”
[Mary Robinette] In fact, you’re doing that right now, with blinder and blind as a pejorative term.
[Brandon] Okay. Yeah. Exactly.
[Mary Robinette] Which is one of those things that I have worked very hard to train out of my own vocabulary, and talk about spots where I’m ignorant. Spots where I have lack of knowledge or lack of awareness. But it is… It’s very easy when you’re writing these to trip up on stuff that society has imprinted you with. So one of the fun things about doing this, one of the reasons to do that, is to interrogate these things and to look at them and sort of hold them up to the lens and use science fiction and fantasy to tip them to the side.
[Margaret] For me, where I hit the line is where I’m reading a book… Because sometimes it’s fun to read books that take place in worlds that are not like ours. That’s why we read fantasy and science fiction. Sometimes it’s even fun to read stories in a pseudo-medieval setting where gender equity is stepped back from where it is today, shall we say? For me, where I reach the line is where I start to feel as if I’ve started to read a Prussian porn. It’s like this was just written to talk about oh, how terrible it was to be X in X time, or in this scenario. I love Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion books. It’s like there is a lot of sexism and allusion to sexual violence in those. It’s not explicit, but there is this kind of threat of your main character being a woman, there’s stuff that she is worried about. For me, that doesn’t cross the line. Everyone places their lines in different places where there comfortable reading, but it’s not a story that’s about like, “Oh, no, I’m going out into the world. What’s going to happen to me now?”

[Howard] In the… Around 2015, the Schlock Mercenary installments, our cast finds a giant, abandoned station if you will, world-sized, that makes them incredibly wealthy. In the 2018-2019 installments, the original inhabitants turn out to never have left and they want their stuff back. Yes, you can take a step back and look at this and say, “Oh, my gosh, this is exactly like what would happen if the indigenous peoples of the Americas or Australia or wherever rose up and demanded all of their land back. What would we do?” Well, it’s not exactly like that. But having the protagonist deal with it in a way that says, “You know what, they’re right. This isn’t my stuff. It’s their stuff. Not a whole lot I can do about that.” We now have an enormous debt, which is part of our plot problem. The story is not about returning things to indigenous peoples. The story is about we made an enormous budgeting mistake and now we have problems to solve. It’s fun to write and having a protagonist who recognizes, “Oh. Somebody lives here. Actually still does live here.” And immediately said, “Well, okay. That’s…”

[Mary Robinette] A lot of times what I think fiction is doing, and especially when we’re dealing with imperfect worlds, is it’s giving us a script that we can use and take into the real world. One of the things that I do that is actually the opposite of writing imperfect world is that I tend to write happily committed married couples. I do that because I so rarely see it in fiction. I see a lot of people who have taken their social cues from these narratives about men who are stalkers and men who are abusive. It’s like that’s not the relationship that you should be aiming for. So when you deal with an imperfect world and you have a character who is coming to grips with their own imperfections, it gives the reader a script and a lens with which to interrogate their own stuff. I know that I… That’s certainly one of the things, the side effects, that happens when I read. It is one of the things that I think fiction and science fiction and fantasy particularly do very well.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, which is actually Mary’s book.
[Mary Robinette] Right.
[Mary Robinette] I’ve been talking a lot, but I’ll talk some more. So, The Fated Sky is the second book in my Lady Astronaut series. The reason I suggested this book for the book of the week is because it is set in the 1950s. It is set in the heart of the civil rights era. It is dealing with a lot of the problems that are inherent in the world at that time. My main character, Elma, is not actually a completely reliable narrator. It’s first person narration. There’s another character who has been her antagonist for the entire book. As this book unfolds, we find that as she is interrogating her assumptions, that… And he is interrogating his, that there is… There’s actually more common ground than either of them thought. But the big thing for me with this is the idea of the narratives that we bring into relationships. That when we are describing our relationships to someone else, it’s like, “Oh. I hate him, he hates me.” That’s the narrative. That’s part of what happens with an imperfect world is that it’s built by people who come with their own narratives that they’re applying to just stuff that happens.
[Brandon] I haven’t read the second one yet, but I’ve read the first one. The first one deals with the same sort of thing, and I loved it.
[Mary Robinette] Thank you.
[Brandon] It is one of those… It was just really, really interesting and fun to read, and eye-opening at the same time.
[Mary Robinette] I suppose I should mention that this is a book about going to Mars in the 1950s when women are the computers because we don’t… Haven’t miniaturized computers yet.
[Margaret] But with punchcards.
[Mary Robinette] With punchcards.
[Brandon] It’s an alternate history.
[Mary Robinette] An alternate history. And imperfect… There is an entire chapter that is nothing but clean… Zero G toilet repair.
[Brandon] Awesome.
[Mary Robinette] Selling point.
[Howard] Do you use the word milk dud?
[Mary Robinette] No, but we do talk about satellites in orbit.
[Howard] Okay.
[Brandon] So. Veering back…
[Margaret] I’m just remembering all of the rocketry euphemisms in the first book. I’m like, what euphemism?

[Brandon] What do you guys… Do you have an opinion on stories that are set in a historical period or in a fantasy world that just tries to pretend the problem was never there? Meaning people who want to write a steampunk story and just say, “You know what, we’re going to write an alternate history version where this isn’t an issue.” Or people who write a fantasy novel, where they say, “You know what, in my world, racism just isn’t an issue. We’re not going to deal with it.”
[Mary Robinette] The thing is… There are parts of me that love these optimistic visions of the world. I think when you’re doing steampunk and doing that, you actually have to move it to a different world. You can’t just erase history. That is deeply problematic. It’s taking a lot of people’s pain and going, “Ah, I just don’t want to deal with your pain, so I’m not going to. I’m not going to acknowledge that you’ve been hurt. I’m just going to… Goggles, dresses, and overalls! Whee!”
[Brandon] Right. Can I… I don’t want to… But this is… This is something that is very natural to start doing, and is a place where you might end up having to confront some of your biases because natural human instinct is, “Oh, I’ll make it better. Isn’t it just better…”
[Margaret] If that never happened?
[Brandon] If that never happened?
[Mary Robinette] While, yes, that would be… It did happen. The other thing that I would say has just slipped out of my head, so, Margaret, you talk, since you had a thing you wanted to say.
[Margaret] I was saying that I don’t want to say that you can… It’s like, “Oh.” I think a trap that one can fall into in, say, steampunk or historical period, and you know that racism was a problem or sexism was a problem, but you don’t want to deal with that. The way to not deal with not dealing with that is to not have, say, any characters of color in your book, so that lets you ignore racism.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Margaret] That’s a bad way of dealing with that.
[Mary Robinette] Don’t do that.
[Margaret] I mean, clearly, if you’re doing steampunk, you’re creating an alternate history. There were not giant rail lines of flying zeppelins. I don’t even know why you’d have a rail line if you were flying, but…
[Mary Robinette] But still…
[Margaret] Whatever, it wasn’t there. But if that’s the only thing you’ve changed, and everybody is also still white and upper-class and… Who is shoveling coal and how are we thinking about this?
[Mary Robinette] That, for me, is the thing that… Unfortunately, as a species, we tend to just always other people. If we’re not going to do it along race lines or gender lines, we’re going to find something else. There is always, unfortunately, going to be oppression. I wish that that were not the case, but I find it difficult to believe that there wouldn’t be some form of oppression. So when you decide that it’s like, “You know what, I’m not going to have racism.” But there will still be some other… It’s like there’s something, unfortunately, is going to fill that gap. There’s going to be…
[Howard] There needs to be an unjust imbalance somewhere.
[Mary Robinette] There’s going to be ramifications of that choice.
[Margaret] It’s ignoring the fact that this lifestyle was made possible because of an oppressed underclass.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. Honestly, folks, and this is uncomfortable truth to hear, it’s still the case.
[Margaret] Yes.
[Mary Robinette] Like, the majority of the wealth in the world is in the United States, and even if you are poor, there are people in the world who are supporting your lifestyle who have it worse than you.
[Howard] There’s a concept that super useful for trying to understand the unjust imbalances. Marginalizations. That is the concept of an external cost. If you want to write a flawed society, think about what the external cost is. A good example of external cost is secondhand smoke. I want to smoke. Yes, it cost me something, and it also makes everyone around me uncomfortable, and it changes the smell of the room, and that one’s kind of obvious. What if the cigarette smoker couldn’t get cancer, and there is no primary cost for them? Suddenly, we have an unjust imbalance that’s really unjust. So look at external costs, and as you are creating your society, your secondary world fantasy, your far-flung future, ask yourself who benefits from the external cost and who is paying the external cost unjustly.

[Brandon] So, last question along this topic. You want to write a protagonist who is a product of their society, and therefore has certain biases that we would consider reprehensible. You don’t want to… Say you’re writing a historical novel. You want to be realistic, although sometimes realism is used as an excuse for things, as we’ve talked about before. But you want to… You want to be realistic. You don’t want this character to be villainous, but you also want them to be a product of their society. Any tips?
[Mary Robinette] One of the things that I do is to always have someone that can comment or call them on their bullshit.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary Robinette] Because that’s one of the ways that you can let the reader know that this character is reprehensible, but that you are not giving approval to that. Because there’s a difference between the character being reprehensible and the text saying that that reprehensible trait is a good and positive thing. So having someone who can call them on it, having there be consequences for the reprehensible traits, these are things that I think can help when you’re doing that. The other aspect of that is trying to understand why the character has those opinions. Sometimes it’s just the way they were raised and imprinted and they have no idea that those things are false or bad or problematic. Sometimes it’s… More frequently, when you’re dealing with forms of oppression, there is a sense of safety that has been challenged in some way, and that they think, by maintaining this particular status quo, that they will maintain their own security. Or that they will lose something if the status quo shifts. So if you think about the why’s of their choices and their opinions, that’s going to help you have a character that isn’t just “I have this terr… I’m evil.” Yeah, evilness is evil.
[Margaret] I’m thinking also if you have a protagonist who is a product of an imperfect society, and being a product, you want to be able to say, “Well, yes, they probably hold some of these imperfect views.” What I would be careful of is making sure, since I’ll probably have other characters of the society who probably have similar views who are villains, making sure I’m not giving my protagonist a pass on their imperfect views just because they happen to be the protagonist.
[Brandon] That’s a very good point. Yeah.
[Margaret] It’s like, “He’s a great guy, so it’s okay that…” That’s where I think it can get really sticky.

[Brandon] Yeah. I’m going to give us our homework today. Your homework’s actually to take a character who is either in some media form or someone you have written who is a wish fulfillment character. This is a character for whom things have gone really well. Things might be easy. They’re at the top of their power structure. Even though they might be facing very hard external problems in the form of slaying a dragon or rising to the head of their company or something like this, there are certainly obstacles to them, they are in a position where they’re able to command a lot of weight of authority and privilege. Take that character, and move them to the bottom of a different power structure or put them in a place where suddenly those things no longer exist for them. See where that story goes. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.


Writing Excuses 14.32: Worldbuilding Gender Roles

From https://writingexcuses.com/2019/08/11/worldbuilding-gender-roles/

Key points: How do you worldbuild different gender roles for science fiction and fantasy stories? Start by recognizing that most fiction has a clearly defined binary, male and female. But… Until you have words and categories, you may have trouble perceiving things. Blue, or nonbinary genders. Try reading some things written by different genders. Listen to conversations. Avoid simply reversing roles. Beware exoticizing, objectifying, or fetishizing the unfamiliar. First, do no harm. Don’t use changes in gender roles or identity as sprinkles on your sundae. Have you built a society, have you considered the effects, the ramifications? Remember story purpose, and ask yourself if removing this piece will break your purpose for writing the story. Sometimes background affects how we perceive foreground elements, too.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 32.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Gender Roles.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Margaret] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Margaret] I’m Margaret.
[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] We’re talking about how to worldbuild gender roles. How to approach this topic, which can be a little tricky. You can veer into some problematic areas in this direction. So we want to touch this very carefully, but very sincerely, and talk about how you might go about worldbuilding different gender roles for your science fiction and fantasy stories.
[Mary Robinette] So, one of the first things that I think we should acknowledge is that most of us have grown up reading fiction with a very clearly defined binary, male and female. There’s some fiction, like Sheri Tepper’s Gate to Women’s Country or The Left Hand of Darkness where there are things that are being played with. But as we become more aware in the 21st century, we realize that gender is a spectrum. I’m going to use an analogy here that is a visually-based analogy. So bear with me. There’s… I listen to Radio Lab and they had this episode on color.
[Margaret] I remember the show.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. This is amazing. The question was why doesn’t the word blue appear in Homer’s… In the Odyssey, or the Iliad? It’s the wine dark sea. The answer is because the word blue doesn’t exist yet. At all. There’s just no word for blue. It’s such a basic color that it’s difficult for us to imagine a world in which the word blue doesn’t exist. What becomes more difficult to grasp is that the reason it doesn’t exist yet is because people weren’t perceiving that color as blue. It turns out that when you start analyzing all of the languages, that the order in which words come into the language for color relates to when we begin to be able to reproduce them. So everybody starts off with kind of red and black and white and kind of…
[Margaret] Brown.
[Mary Robinette] And kind of a brownish-green and a greenish-brown. So, anyway. So, they reference this video which I then went and tracked down, where they talked to a tribal people who still do not have the word for blue. Show them this color wheel. To my eye, it’s like all of these greens that are exactly the same green and one blue that is very, very clearly blue. They’re like, “Which square is different?” Everyone sits down and goes, “Um, that one?” and points to the bottom right or “This one?” And points to the upper left. “That one?” It’s like getting the one that is totally blue is totally by chance. Then they show them another wheel which, to my eye, is all this kind of olive green all the way around. They say, “Which one is different?” They all go, “That one.” With no hesitation at all, to a square that, to me, looks identical to the others. What they have discovered through all of this is that once you have a word for something, that you’re able to define that and put things in that category. Until then, you don’t see it. What I’ve realized is that gender is basically the same thing. We’ve got… We talk about a spectrum. But it’s really kind of an umbrella. It’s sort of messy. But there’s no… The delineations are delineations that we have created because of language. So what’s happening now is that because language has expanded, we have more things we can talk about. Which means that when you are approaching that in your fiction, that starting with a binary is very limiting, and not necessarily as interesting and representative as you can be with your fiction.

[Brandon] Well, where would you go… Where someone’s starting off with this, what would you suggest? They’re just like, “All right, I don’t want to represent a binary, I want to do something that is exploring this direction.” Where do you go?
[Howard] The simplest path for me was reading things that are written by genders that are not me and that perceive and describe genders differently. My first experience with this not gender who isn’t me was David Brin’s Glory Season in which he reverses the gender roles that I was familiar with, and does so for biological reasons. I look at that now and I’m able to say oh, he is… He’s still making assumptions about the biological determination of gender roles, which is in and of itself inherently problematic in our culture, but by reversing things, he allowed me to see… He helped me to see things completely differently. That was my first step. Are there things that you guys have read that do this well?
[Mary Robinette] So one of the things that I found was pronoun.is. This actually came up very recently for me, ’cause I was helping… There’s a game that I very much enjoy, and they had set up a binary and then realized that they shouldn’t have and were trying to figure out… To course correct. So they wanted some non-binary pronouns. Pronoun.is deals with non-binary pronouns. That’s a very useful thing to look at. The other things that I find are looking at Tumblr’s and watching people talk about their own lived experience. Own voices? #ownvoices is also very useful. So if you do #ownvoices and #nonbinary, those two things will bring up conversations that you can listen to. It is important, I want to say, that you’re listening and not inserting yourself into conversations when you’re first trying to kind of understand stuff. But those are places where you can kind of watch people interact. Most of the information that I know has come from people who have been very patient with me to explain things. Which is not the best way to learn things, because it involves emotional labor on someone else’s part. Which is why I suggest doing some listening before you sit down and start asking questions.
[Margaret] Doing your basic research to get the 101 questions.
[Mary Robinette] Yes.
[Margaret] Before you do your more advanced field research, in a way. I think it’s… It’s one of those things where if you’re setting out to tell a story, and you deliberately don’t want to replicate gender roles as they are found in whatever your home culture is. For everyone at this table, gender roles in…
[Mary Robinette] 21st-century America.
[Margaret] 21st-century America.
[Mary Robinette] Actually, 21st-century white America.
[Margaret] White America, yeah. If you’re trying to break away from whatever feels home, normal to you, I think the point that Mary has really made, and what Brandon started us out with is, the temptation is like, “Well, I’ll take what we have and I’ll flop it. Men will stay home and raise children, and women won’t.” But right there, you’ve just replicated the binary and turned it on its head. Taking the opportunity to step into… To put yourself… As we were saying in the earlier episode, into sort of our unknown unknowns. It’s not just the opposite of what we have. It’s probably closer to your normal then you might want to think it is. What’s 90° different from your normal?
[Howard] You have to start somewhere. As I said, talking about the Brin novel, which was thankfully a little more complex than simply reversing it. It was pretty cool what he did. But you acknowledge that there is a first step. Then you want to do more research, and as Mary has said and as I would reiterate over and over and over again, listen to people and listen nonjudgmentally.
[Howard] Listen to their experience and try to understand how their experiences different from yours, and why their experiences different than yours. Not whether their experiences good or bad in relation to yours.
[Margaret] Yeah. I do want to stress, when I say your normal, I’m using your normal… Because it is subjective, whatever normal is to you.

[Brandon] I’m not sure if I have the language to even ask this question correctly, but is there a danger in exoticizing the unfamiliar and then going that direction and falling into clichés and tropes?
[Chorus yes]
[Mary Robinette] Absolutely. Which is why it’s important to do the research and to understand why you’re making the choices and also to know… This is why I recommend listening in on Tumblr or Twitter conversations, because this is where people are going to complain about times that they have been objectified or fetishized or exoticized. Where people are, just like doing things that are harmful. That’s where people will be complaining about it. Where your least likely to see some of the complaining in a published work, partly just because it’s gonna necessarily be behind the times. It’s not ideal, but it is useful.
[Margaret] I think that… going into recording this episode, that we were a little sort of all kind of sidling up to this topic a bit. In part, some of that probably comes from the fact that the four of us at this table, we have what, from a classical standpoint, is, we have a good gender balance at this table. But we do all identified as either male or female, as far as I’m aware.
[Howard] We recognize that the entire topic is inherently fraught.
[Howard] Because of how deeply it affects everyone, and how, to borrow a phrase from Mary, how if we write things incorrectly, it’s not just that we offend, it’s that by reinforcing a stereotype, we can do harm.
[Howard] I like that. I like the stated goal that as we write things, we want to represent things well, I want to tell a story that is interesting, but above all, I don’t want to hurt anyone by telling it wrong.
[Margaret] I think, you don’t want to use changes in gender roles or changes in gender identity… You don’t want to use that as the sprinkles on top of your sundae.
[Brandon] I was just about to kind of ask that question. Actually, because…
[Margaret] I’ll make this exciting, by having five genders! It’s like…

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Then I’ll have hopefully an interesting question along those lines.
[Mary Robinette] So, the book of the week is Autonomous by Annalee Newitz. This is really… So, first of all, it’s a good book and you should just read it. But the main character is a robot… Is a cyborg. In the net… No, it’s a robot. The character has a brain, a human brain, that does some visual processing. That’s the only thing that the brain does. There are no memories attached to it, there’s nothing. The character gets to choose what pronoun is being used. Most people, because it’s this in normal battle robot, use he at the beginning. Someone asks, “Is that what you want?” The robot realizes, “Oh. Actually, I can choose that.” By choosing she part way through the novel, it changes the relationship that she has with the other main character. It’s very interesting and an interesting exploration of the fact that as humans, we desperately want to put things into boxes. Like, a robot has no need of a gender at all. A robot is a robot. But our need to do that, and then the perceptions that we have about the role that that robot then fulfills based on the gender assignment… Or assigning the gender based on roles. It’s very interesting what that does, the things that happen to your brain, especially when the gender switch happens. Or the pronoun switch happens. Because… Robot, there is no gender.
[Margaret] Robots.
[Mary Robinette] When the pronoun switch happens. So, it’s a wonderful book. It’s also just… Let’s say there’s a lot of ecological terrorism and stuff going on. There’s lots of rollicking adventure and explosions. So it’s not just hello, gender studies.
[Brandon] Excellent.
[Mary Robinette] It’s really good.
[Brandon] That sounds fascinating.
[Margaret] It reminds me a little bit of… There’s a thread in some of the later books in the Parasitology trilogy by Mira Grant where… Spoilers if anybody hasn’t read these… Intelligent tapeworms are basically taking over their human hosts. They’re tapeworms. Tapeworms do not have a binary gender. There is one of these characters who does not identify with the gender of their current human host. There’s another tapeworm who’s like, “What is your problem with this? You are a tapeworm. You shouldn’t be identifying as male or female and being bothered by whether or not that matches the human body you are in.”

[Brandon] So I have a question for you. We’re going to try this out, we’ll see if this works. I am writing a science fiction book which has alien races who don’t reproduce or view reproduction in the way that humans do. So I’m going to say what I’m doing here, and I’m going to ask you to point out directions I could go that would be bad or directions I could go that would be good.
[Mary Robinette] It’s only 15 minutes long, Brandon.
[Brandon] Yes, I know.
[Mary Robinette] People are in a hurry.
[Brandon] We’ll see if this works. If it doesn’t work…
[Howard] I’m definitely not that smart.
[Brandon] You guys won’t even hear this.
[Brandon] So, umm… All right. So what I’m writing right now is an alien species where their sexes are Lefts and Rights. They are Left and they are Right. A Left and a Right will combine together and create a new trial personality, that, if they end up liking, and their family ends up liking, they will give birth to that person who will have the memories of those, of that event of being this person for a while. If it is not, they will break the coupling, and it will not. So, for a period of several months, they are one individual together as one. Walking around and interacting, accessing some of the memory and knowledge of the two parents. I have humans interacting with this and really struggling to wrap their brains around it. Where could I go wrong? How would you approach something like this? Any suggestions for me?
[Mary Robinette] Well, I mean, the obvious question is what happens when two Lefts are compatible?
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary Robinette] Like…
[Howard] No. Two Lefts are compatible. Right?
[Brandon] Was that two… Yeah.
[Mary Robinette] No.
[Howard] Who’s on first. Sorry.
[Margaret] It’s… In a weird way, when you describe it to me, it almost doesn’t feel like a stand-in for gender or the biological sexes. It’s… You have two halves that are coming together and potentially creating a third being, but it seems like it’s not necessarily reading as reproduction, unless I’m misunderstanding what you’re saying.
[Brandon] I intended it to be their reproductive cycle. This is how they… This is how new individuals are born. [Garbled]
[Howard] So the two of them combine, and if they decide that they like what has been created here…
[Brandon] They will split and a baby will be born.
[Howard] Okay. That… The newborn… How do we determine if it’s Left or Right? Is that random, is that…
[Brandon] I think that is random.
[Howard] Okay.
[Mary Robinette] Which… Does the newborn come out of the Left or the Right?
[Brandon] I think they both have…
[Mary Robinette] They have to connect…
[Brandon] Yes.
[Margaret] Is it… Just like what… I don’t want to ask biologic sort of plumbing related questions here, but why is there a difference between Lefts and Rights?
[Brandon] Lefts and Rights… Hum. Um. Maybe because I’m just going with a binary because I’m used to it?
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Brandon] Would be my guess. I did want, when this individual is made, you can tell that there’s… They are larger than a normal individual and they have…
[Howard] There’s a seam.
[Brandon] There’s a seam. I’m probably shading… the only sexual dimorphism, if that’s the right term you would have, as kind of a red shade and a blue shade, so that we have kind of this alien different skin color that is kind of a trope in science fiction that I’m trying to play with.
[Margaret] But, I mean, why not have it be being and being, like Mary said, two beings are designated as Right, but why shouldn’t they be compatible, or why not have red, blue, yellow, green, aqua? Sort of like, oh, an orange and an aqua have gotten together.
[Brandon] I would say my reasoning for that, and it’s totally possible I could have bad reasoning in this. My reasoning for that is it’s a lot to take in in a YA novel, and I need to build on some foundations of quick conversation. I’m introducing like eight alien species in this book, so it felt simpler to say they have two sexes that are not anything like the two sexes you are used to.
[Mary Robinette] I guess the thing is as you’re talking about it, I’m like, “But why did they have sexes? At all?” Like, why isn’t it just these things combine and…
[Howard] The term you may want is the term that we use in chemistry. You have left-handed and right-handed sugars. They’re isomers.

[Brandon] So, let me ask you this. Is it wrong for me to want that? Just because, in the worldbuilding, that is what I like?
[Mary Robinette] It’s not wrong, but it feels like you’re defaulting it. That there are more interesting options. That’s really… Like, I don’t hear anything, as you’re talking, going, oh, there’s a real problem there. What I hear is that it’s not as interesting as I think you could be, and I don’t think it would take that many more words.
[Howard] I think the interest is going to stem from how the humans react to what they’re seeing. Because the humans are going to be our stand-ins for our interaction with this. If there are difficult questions that you want to ask, about how humans… About this, about our understanding about how this alien culture works, about how their rules may be different whether they’re a Left or a Right isomer… I’m already writing your book for you by giving you the word. The way the humans react, I think, is where you can get into the most trouble, because if you have somebody, and you almost certainly will, who is passing judgment, the way in which the narrative treats that person is going to tell the reader how they should feel about non-binary genders. About genders that are different from them.
[Margaret] Well, also, if you have two categories, and in order to have reproduction, two dissimilar categories, individuals of two dissimilar categories get together and create a third, it’s going to… I mean, if I were reading that cold, that to me would read as an allegory or an analogy of a gender binary. It’s sort of the… It’s the thing that eats grass and has long ears and a fluffy tail, goes around and hops. Even if it’s on an alien planet, it’s kind of a rabbit.
Mary Robinette] I feel like that’s kind of what is happening for me is that it still feels like you have a gender binary.
[Brandon] Is it okay, though? Like… I guess okay is the wrong term. If that’s the direction I want to explore…
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just… I think where I would… What I would say, and this is why I asked what happens if there are two Lefts that want to get together, is the assumption that everyone is comfortable in the body that they are born into?
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary Robinette] Which is not the case. It’s not the case with humans. It’s often… I don’t understand why it would be the case with an alien species. We know that…
[Margaret] Not to mention it assumes everyone is… Wishes to be compatible with somebody of the opposite handedness.
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary Robinette] Then I’m like, the other parts of my worldbuilding stuff are going, well, obviously… I assume that you are able to do more when you are coupled because there must be an additional advantage there. So therefore is there an advantage to being coupled, and do you have difficulty getting work when you are uncoupled? So these are the questions that I’m like… What happens, and what is the incentive to uncouple? If everybody likes this, this individual? Is it that you can only have the child if you uncouple? Like, what are the… There’s a lot of societal ramifications that are inherent in this that I’m…
[Howard] No, it’s… A concept that gets explored in science fiction a lot is the alien race that shows up and the idea of war or the idea of lying is completely alien to them. A society, a race in which gender… I don’t know what the word would be… Where you’re not happy with the body you’ve been born into or created into. A society in which that never happens would be very alien to us. Our interactions with those people, especially the interaction of someone who isn’t happy with the body they have, and is interacting with these folks, that could be interesting to explore. That path is fraught because you don’t want to say, “See, these aliens are better than us, because they’re just happy the way they’re born.” That’s not the message you want to send at all.
[Mary Robinette] Also, I don’t think that that would actually be… Like, I find that implausible. Anyway.
[Margaret] That’s a planet of hats.
[Mary Robinette] It’s a planet of hats. I mean, just because it’s… When you look at the behavior of… Granted, these are fictional creatures, but when you look at… Margaret already said it better, it’s a planet of hats if everybody’s comfortable.

[Brandon] Like, when it’s… One of the difficulties… I’ll say difficulties you run into when doing this is you can do anything. The question… Like, when you say why can’t it just be to individuals of any sort couple, I could totally do that. Absolutely. So I have to ask myself why am I not, or why do I want to do it this other way. This is the question when… we come into like is it sprinkles. Right? Is it sprinkles on your cake? When are you just adding these things to add flavor and is that… Can simply be reductive of the way that people see the world and using them to exoticize your story. Which is a dangerous path to go down. But at the same time, science fiction’s job, in my opinion, is to start asking some of these questions and say, “Reader, what if we encountered something like this? How do we respond to it?” And this sort of thing. So it’s really an interesting sort of tangled problem that is important to approach. Asking yourself where is it a sprinkle, where is it actually part of your story. Where would you say that line is and… Probably not a line, but that continuum. How do you go one way rather than the other?
[Margaret] To me, I feel like… And not to swerve away from the question here, but I think it is a question that’s difficult to answer in the abstract. Because it depends on the story you’re telling. There’s one thing when you’re constructing a story specifically to explore or make a statement about the role of gender in our society or potentially in alien society. But that’s also… It doesn’t mean that any story that has humans or aliens with other than binary gender has to be a story about that. Every story with a queer person doesn’t have to be about the struggles and agonies of being queer. Sometimes it’s just happening and you’re saving the world and it doesn’t really matter.
[Mary Robinette] For me, the line… When I see it done badly, it’s that they’ve added this thing and it has absolutely no impact on the society at all. Where the world maps exactly the same. It’s like, “No, of course. Women are in charge. This is totally a matriarchy.” And yet, our great leaders are all men. All of the courtship rituals are still the man coming to the woman and proposing. It’s like, no, if the women are in charge…
[Margaret] All the female characters are really obsessed with the men.
[Mary Robinette] These are… So if there’s no effect, that’s when I feel like it’s just a sprinkle. When I say effect, what I mean is not that it becomes a major plot point, as Margaret was saying. But that it affects the way the character moves through the world. The example that I’ve used in previous podcasts is I’m 5 foot seven, my husband is 5′ 11. So that very small difference between us affects the way we move through the world, in that when we go to get cereal down, he can just reach out and get it. I sometimes have to get a footstool or stand on my toes. It’s a small detail. But it does affect the way you move through the world. As someone who is white and a cis woman, I don’t ever have to do any defense about when I go to the store, about where I’m shopping. I don’t have to do any thinking about what bathroom I use. Never will I have to think about those things. So that affects the way I move through the world. I think that if you have… If you’ve introduced genders, that there will be people who have opinions about these genders. The gender roles. It’s going to affect the way the character moves through the world, if you have actually constructed a society around it. If you haven’t, again, it doesn’t have to be the plot point, but if you haven’t done that, then it is just sprinkles.
[Howard] There is story purpose, where your purpose in writing the story is broken if this piece is removed. I come back to that a lot. Is there a story purpose for this thing that I’m including? There’s the concept of the way a background color affects how you perceive the foreground color. You can put things in your story that exist so that we perceive the actual elements differently. Then it’s not just background. It’s background that influences our perception. That’s a… It’s complicated to think about, it’s easier to picture with one of those optical illusion things with the grays or whatever. But that model works well for me, because sometimes I will say a thing and realize, oh, it’s just a background. It doesn’t matter to the story. Except its existence makes the story tell differently. Does that make sense?
[Brandon] Yeah.
[Margaret] Yeah. When Mary was talking, sort of going back to the effect that it has, and I think that also ties to people… Whatever the gender spectrum looks like in the world you’re creating, people will have opinions about it. That said, if everybody’s opinions aligned to the opinions that you would expect to run into in our 21st century American white society, you probably haven’t thought through the ramifications so much. If this is what everyone has grown up with, why is everybody acting like men are in charge… Men are real men, women are real women, people who are neither real men or real women are kind of the auxiliary floating off in the background someplace. That’s the place… That’s something to be worried about, I think.

[Brandon] All right. This has been really interesting. I hope this has been helpful to our listeners. Mary, you’re going to give us some homework.
[Mary Robinette] Right. So, I’m going to send you to a spreadsheet we have used before. Which is a spreadsheet about axes of power. We’ll link to this in the liner notes. Basically, what I want you to do is take a look at your characters, taking a look at their gender, and think about the axes of power. Like, which is the dominant gender, which is the subordinate gender, where do things line up on that spectrum? So, for instance, in 21st century America, a cis man, which is a man who was born into a male body or with male genitalia. So, a cis man is at the top. He’s the dominant. Cis women are farther down. When you get down to the lower end of the spectrum, we have non-binary, trans men, trans women, in terms of the power that they’re able to exert in society and the dangers that they encounter just living in the world. So what I want you to do is I want you to take this idea and look at the characters that you have in your story and decide whether or not you are sticking with the default or if you are shifting it. Whichever choice you make, just do it deliberately. Don’t do it by accident. That’s all I ask. But, as an exercise, break out of your defaults.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.


Writing Excuses 14.31: Cultural Setting As Conflict

From https://writingexcuses.com/2019/08/06/14-31-cultural-setting-as-conflict/

Key Points: To some extent, every story has some aspect of characters in conflict with their setting. Consider conflict as either a desire to move or resistance to being moved. Also, I don’t like the way this is built, and I want to change it. A.k.a, ideals in conflict with reality. Immigrants are automatically in cultural conflict. Children of immigrants, growing up, face a challenge between what their parents want and what the culture around them teaches. Nobody represents 100% of their culture, we are all slightly in conflict. But don’t use this as the main conflict, use it to make the characters more well-rounded. Start with a character in friction with their society, then let the main plot smash into them. Cultural conflict may not drive a story, but it often grounds us in the character. One story archetype is the person who doesn’t fit saves society. Consider sensory writing — what senses show the conflict of character and culture? What are the standard conversational moves that the character doesn’t know? Casual or respect? Use conflict with your culture to add layers to the plot and enrich your story.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 31.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Cultural Setting As Conflict.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Mahtab] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mahtab] I’m Mahtab.

[Brandon] Cultural setting as conflict. A little preface here. This is using my definitions for worldbuilding. I define physical worldbuilding as all this stuff that exists if human beings or sapient races weren’t around, and cultural setting is all the stuff that they create. I think I announced that last month, too. But just so you know, when I say cultural setting for this particular podcast, we’re talking about all of this. Religion, linguistics, economics, all of this stuff. We want to talk about how to put your characters in conflict with their setting, and with their culture. Obviously, this is one of the great ways to tell a story. In fact, I think every story that I write has some aspect of a character in conflict with their setting.
[Howard] I think the easiest place to start with this is to look at the conflict as either a desire to move or a resistance against being moved. For instance, if you are a member of the wealthy class, you do not want wealth to be redistributed, because that is moving you into a different place. If you are impoverished, perhaps you want to move into a different class. Those two work within whatever framework of the culture may exist. I mean, whether it’s economic or gender or racial or multi-species or whatever. I want to move or someone is trying to move me, is one of the easiest ways to define the conflict. The other big one is I don’t like the way this is built. I want to change it so that everybody can move. Or nobody has to move. Or something.
[Brandon] Right. Putting your ideals in conflict with the actual reality of the system.
[Mahtab] You know what, the very fact… Just from personal experience, the very fact that I’m an immigrant in Canada is straightaway a cultural conflict. Because there are certain things that I’m used to doing in India, there are certain traditions that we follow, certain norms. But take that out and put me in a North American setting or a Canadian setting, and all of a sudden, I want to follow certain things, but I cannot. So, I mean, just… For example, I love cooking Indian food. When I first came to Canada and the winters were cold, I would cook with the doors closed. I would be smelling like a day-old samosa. Maybe a week-old samosa. Then you’d go out into the world and you would have people just kind of… I was nose blind, but people would wonder, “Does she not know what she smells like?”
[Howard] What is that smell?
[Mahtab] It took me a while. I mean, I had to get onto an elevator with someone who was a lot more fragrant than I was till it hit me. So, the fact is, I can still cook Indian food, but even in the midst of an Ontario winter, I have to have all the doors and all the windows open… Not the doors. All the windows open, proper ventilation, and then… So it’s just like… The fact is that you can have conflict if you just take someone who’s used to following a certain cultural norm, put them in a different setting, and that’s it. Also, with kids growing up. When, especially, the kids are young, the parents are not very well educated or not very well integrated into a certain culture. They are still holding to the old norms, whereas the kids who are growing up are now influenced by the culture they are growing up in. They are treading a very fine line between what should I follow, because this is what my parents want, and this is what my friends and teachers and everyone are doing. It can be huge. I mean, I’ve seen a lot of teens go through a lot of anguish because of that.
[Dan] There was a really cool movie a couple years ago, and I can never remember the title of anything. Sorry. That was about a group of Korean American teenagers, all of them first-generation Americans, who went to like a cultural summer camp. Their Korean families are like, “You need to know about our culture from back in the old country, so you’re all going to go to this thing.” It was just fascinating to watch that whole dynamic play out as they were trying to embrace their roots while also staying true to who they had become. There is a lot of cool compelling stuff that can be pulled out of this.
[Brandon] Is it called Seoul Searching?
[Dan] Yes.
[Brandon] I just googled it for you.
[Dan] Seoul Searching, Seoul being the pun. Ha ha ha.

[Brandon] I… It’s interesting to think about this, because nobody 100% represents all aspects of their culture. None of us do. Which is this weird thing to think about, in that there is this nebulous sort of culture, right? Whichever set of culture… Religious culture or whatever. Society. There’s nobody that is that thing. We are all not aligned exactly to everything in that culture. So we’re all going to be slightly in conflict with our culture. There’s not a person who isn’t. We’re just going to be in conflict with it in different ways. I think as writers, sometimes, we want to make this the main conflict of the story. Sometimes it’s appropriate to do so. Sometimes this is what our story is about. But I think in every story, these sorts of things are what’s… Are the sorts of things that are going to make your characters become well-rounded and feel real. People often ask me, “How do I make well-rounded characters?” Our kind of cliché but true response is don’t write them to a role in a story, write them as they are and make the story kind of come along and make things messy for them. I think this is one of the ways you indicate this is these characters are going to be having friction with their society and culture, even before whatever the main plot of your story is comes along and smashes into them.
[Howard] It’s not uncommon… I say it’s not uncommon. I can’t actually think of any examples off the top of my head. But you have a protagonist whose motivation is I want to fit in with my family. Or I want to get a promotion. It’s very cultural, but then they are thrown into an adventure that has nothing to do with fitting in with their family or getting a promotion. At the end of the adventure, they have changed or their family have changed or the corporation has changed, and they have the thing that they need. So the cultural conflict there is not necessarily what’s driving the story, but it’s what’s grounding us in the character.
[Dan] One of the books that I talked about last month, A Memory Called Empire. Like I said, it’s a political story and it’s a murder mystery, but the main character is an ambassador from one tiny nation who has gone to this massive Empire. What’s fascinating about her attempt to fit in is that she loves their culture. So it’s specifically kind of has this subplot in there of you’re the big evil empire that’s trying to consume my little nation, but I love your art, I love your stories that you tell, and I watch your TV shows all the time. It added a really interesting dimension of that cultural conflict.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and do our book of the week.
[Mahtab] Right. So, the book of the week that I’d like to recommend is one that has been written by yours truly. It’s called Mission Mumbai. This is a story of a friendship between two boys. One of them is an Indian, Rohit Lal, one of them is an American, Dylan Moore. They have a friendship that is based on their love of reading fantasy novels. But it’s a very fragile friendship. When they take a trip to India, that is when they realize that there is a certain amount of jealousy involved. Their friendship is not as strong as they expected it to be. But one of the reasons that I love having written this story is that I take someone from a North American culture and put him into the Indian culture. Which is just as alien as having gone to a totally different place. I give both the boys certain problems. It’s only when… Their friendship is stretched really, really thin, and it’s only when both the boys decide to put aside their own issues and help one another is when their friendship becomes a lot stronger. So it’s a coming-of-age, it’s a friendship, it’s a loyalty story. But it’s also a fun way of exploring India from your own room.
[Howard] Less expensive than plane tickets.
[Mahtab] Absolutely.
[Brandon] Awesome.
[Howard] That’s Mission Mumbai.

[Brandon] For this podcast’s second half, let’s kind of try to drill into the why… Or the hows. The nitty-gritty details of how to use conflict with culture as plots in your stories. I’ll give an example. Oftentimes, I notice that in films and in books, one of the things you do at the beginning is show the character not fitting in as a method of showing what their kind of arc is going to be. They’re the person that doesn’t fit into their society. Taking classic Disney movies, if we look at Mulan. Mulan doesn’t start with her out sword fighting. It starts with her not fitting into the society of gender roles and the marriage rituals and things that she’s expected to participate in as a way to reinforce that she’s kind of outside her culture. So that when she leaves to go do something very different from what someone in her situation would do, you believe that she would do this. Because she obviously doesn’t quite fit in. Then, the whole story is about this idea of the person who doesn’t fit in being the one who saves the society. You see this used a ton. It’s a really great story archetype. It’s used in Dragonlance, it’s used in a lot of different stories. It’s one of those ways you use someone in conflict with their setting in a small way to inform your entire story.

[Howard] We talk about sensory writing quite a bit. Mahtab, you described the way you smell when you’ve been cooking. The smells of things, the colors of things. When you’re uncomfortable with a culture, if you’ve been dropped someplace where you are not comfortable, which of your senses are uncomfortable? Which… Where are you feeling the conflict? Is it because it’s too loud? Is it because it’s too quiet? Is it because it doesn’t smell like you want it to smell? Is it because the flavor of the food that makes you comfortable just isn’t available anywhere? Is it because you’re one of those people who is genetically unable to appreciate cilantro? Because there’s a group of people for whom cilantro is just terrible. These sorts of… And Indian food, which I love, and I love cilantro too, has lots of cilantro in it. So you got this whole class of people who are genetically unable to appreciate the thing that you cook, Mahtab. Those senses are a great way to ground us in a character’s fitting in or not fitting in. How much you love the smell? How much you love the color? How it feels like being embraced to all your senses?
[Mahtab] One of the things that I also felt or experienced when I came here is that there is a whole unspoken language which is just by looks and gestures, and some things that are… I mean, just to give an example. Whenever you start a conversation, now, I’m not saying that it’s not done in India, but over here you discuss the weather a lot. In India, all you have is rain and heat.
[Mahtab] So you really do not open a conversation with, “Oh, we’re having a really nice day today.” So when I was doing sales and I was on calls, I would be like, “Hello. I’m calling from so-and-so and just wanted to talk to you about XYZ.” I was told, “Nonono. You’re supposed to talk about the weather,” and this and a TV series going on or something. Or a little bit of the news. So, the thing is that in terms of making the story or the character a little bit more layered, it’s not just the sensory, which is very, very important. But it’s also the unspoken stuff that the… The norms that the culture that you’re in follows, which is not quite what you do. So there are lots of clues that you have to pick up which are not… Sometimes, may be told to you, but sometimes you just have to observe. It took me at least a few years of observing, or being corrected or being told that this is what you’re supposed to be doing. Again, I had no idea about time zones. I remember calling someone at 6 o’clock in the morning from the East Coast to the West Coast…
[Mahtab] I’m like, “Hi.” He says, “Do you know it’s 6 o’clock?” I’m like, “Why did you pick up the phone, then?”
[Brandon] When I went to Korea for the first time, the thing I kept getting in trouble with is, Americans can be very casual with how they give things to one another. Which is nothing… Something I hadn’t ever thought about. But, in Korea, a lot of people expect you… If you’re going to give something… Just, like, if you say, “Hey, pass me a roll,” that you’re going to hand it and present it to them as a gift, with two hands.
[Mahtab] Two hands, yes.
[Dan] Two?
[Brandon] Two hands, and kind of respectfully. Whereas Americans, we’d be like, “Hey. Roll!” I did that to someone. They’re like… I’m like, “Hey. Roll!” And threw it. They were like hugely offended. This was a teenager my age, but that is just not something you do in that culture. It was one of those things I had to really get used to. The kind of casualness versus respectfulness.
[Howard] I have to remember not to ask anybody to pass me the bread in Nebraska.
[Garbled] [without having my eyes open. Boom!]

[Dan] Just throw it at you. The Asian market where I shop, even the receipt. They will pull it out. They’ll rip it off the thing. Fold it, and hand it to you with two hands. Because that is how you’re supposed to do it. One of my very favorite cultural stories is a TV show called The Americans. I don’t know if you guys are familiar with that. It’s Soviet spies, sleeper agents, living in the United States in the 1980s. So every episode has like an espionage story, but the overall story it’s telling is how do these people who are like trained, practically brainwashed to hate America, how do they live and fit in and look and act like Americans.
[Howard] I grew up during the 80s. I would not want the job…
[Howard] Of fitting in in the 80s. Oh, man.
[Dan] It’s just a really compelling thing. They’re doing a lot of the stuff that we’re talking about. Where they will confront situations where they would do something the way it would be normal to them. Obviously, they have been trained in American culture, but it comes off wrong. Or they react the wrong way to something and they have to remember, “Oh, no. I’m American. I have to treat this like an American, not like a Russian.” It’s just really, really interesting, and really well done.
[Howard] There are a lot of cultural dialect sorts of things, whether it’s jargon or just dialect things. In the UK, just now means immediately prior. What was that noise? A bookcase fell over just now. In South Africa, just now means really soon, about to happen. Yes… Not really soon, but kind of soon. I’ll be there just now. I’m on my way, I’ll be there just now. Are you in a hurry? Okay, fine, I’ll be there now now. Okay, I like now now as a construct. When I first heard it, I thought, “Well, that’s brilliant. That’s a great way to say ASAP.” But these sorts of things, if you don’t… I don’t want to crossover too much into the language discussion we’ll be having later. But there have been a lot of times, especially online, where all participate in an online chat about a game and realize, “There is a jargon here.” Somebody just threw a string of characters, and they are very clearly making a request, and I do not know how to respond, because there’s like six acronyms in there.
[Howard] And I don’t know what any of them stand for.
[Mahtab] I would just like to say here that conflict with your culture is important, but don’t make that the focal point of your story. Just use that to flavor it, to add layers to the plot which would make it richer. But don’t make that the focus of the story. Because that would be too kind of clichéd or stereotyped, and you’re just going to end up going a very predictable path. But use that to just enrich the narrative.

[Brandon] So, we’re out of time on this, but we will come back later in the year and do an episode on worldbuilding culture and mores, so you can look forward to that. I have our homework this week. I’m quite tickled with this one. I want you to clone yourself and make an entire planet of clones of you. I want you to decide what the culture would be like if everyone on the planet were you. Then, I want you to create a trading post with this planet where people off world who are not you have to trade with you and what they have to go through in order to make trade deals with an entire planet of you.
[Howard] There’s going to be a war, and my planet’s going to get wiped clean…
[Howard] Very, very quickly.
[Dan] The galaxy will decide we can’t let this planet hang around any longer.
[Howard] Nope.
[Mahtab] I am going to try that prompt.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.