Writing Excuses 14.29: Field Research

From https://writingexcuses.com/2019/07/14/14-29-field-research/

Key points: Field research is mostly about the stuff you can’t get from books, the tiny details. Do your research before you go. Identify an expert who can help you. Offer an honorarium. Then go and experience visceral sensory details. Use the framework, known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns (a.k.a. Howard’s realm). Nothing replaces walking down a street thinking I’m going to have to describe this someday, what are the little details that can convince a reader of the large details. Try free writing everywhere you go, capturing sensory details. Do analog field research! Don’t forget, sights, sounds, smells, get it all. Tell your readers what someone else is feeling, so they can also enjoy the experience.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 29.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Field Research.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Margaret] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And field research is going to take more than 15 minutes to do.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Margaret] I’m Margaret.
[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] We’re talking about field research. The fun, fun part of our job where we get to go places and write it off.
[Mary Robinette] It’s… It is actually my favorite part of the job.
[Howard] I remember talking to Jessica Day George, who we’ve had on the podcast before, who said… Basically, tweeted and said, “I’m going to Europe and I can’t tell you where because it’s all about my next book.” She was going to look at castles and to look at historical stuff. That is not the field research that I get to do, but I remember looking at it and thinking, “Oh, that’s actually a thing, isn’t it?”
[Brandon] Yeah. It is great.
[Margaret] You get to embed with a space mercenary fleet, though, right?

[Brandon] So, I guess my first question for us is, when we’re talking specifically about field research, you’re going to go someplace and do a thing or interview someone for a primary source, how do you approach it? What is your methodology? How do you take the notes, how do you decide where you are going to go, that sort of thing?
[Mary Robinette] So the… I’ve done this both as a writer and then also come at it from puppet theater. A lot of what you’re looking at is the stuff that you can’t get out of the books. Most of this is going to be tiny details. So, what I do first is, I do a ton of research before I go, so that I’m not asking the stupid 101 questions. Because that’s a waste of everybody’s time. The other thing that I do is, I, in the process of doing that research, I usually identify an expert that I can reach out to. For instance, we were working on a play about Mary Anning, who is the first widely recognized paleontologist, or fossilist, excuse me. Was born in 1799. So I found Dr. Hugh Torrins, wrote to him, said we’re doing this, I’d love to… We’re going to be coming to London to do research, I would love to connect with you. This is the honorarium that I can offer. It’s not a big honorarium. It was like $150. For that $150, he went with us to Lyme Regis, he was delighted to talk about this thing that was his passion. He introduced us to the paleontologist that he knew, he introduced us to the fossilists that he knew. He told us which fossil… Fossilists were worth talking to, which fossil sites to go and look at, what details were relevant. So we went and did those things. Having an expert to give you kind of a targeted in about the stuff that you don’t know about was incredibly useful. That… From that, we were able to bring back a lot of visceral sensory details. Similarly, when we did the NASA thing, I got to go into the NASA museums a lot, but the difference between doing that and being taken on a tour by an astronaut…
[Brandon] Right. Climbing through the replica of the ISS…
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. It’s a totally different thing. So you can go without an expert, but for me, if you can find someone who is an expert or knows the area, you’re going to get a lot more out of it. Among other things, they’re going to help you shift your lens, so that you’re seeing things the way they see them.

[Howard] Circling back real quick on the honorarium, it’s worth noting that what you are paying for with 150 or $200 is not their time. You are buying their belief that you are serious about this. It’s a small sum, but by offering it… Experts often know to look for that. Oh, there’s an honorarium. Oh, you want to learn things from me. Okay, cool. I’m happy to do this.
[Margaret] Depending on where you are in your career and what you’re doing and who the expert is that you’re approaching, the definition of small sum can become flexible.
[Mary Robinette] Very much so.
[Margaret] If you’re going to a local university because you would like information from someone who is a professor there, or something like that, take them out, buy their coffee. That can be a perfectly appropriate honorarium for something like that. Especially if you’re in the early stages of your career and you’re doing something that’s basically on spec for you.
[Mary Robinette] When I was getting information about meteor strikes, I thought I only had one question. So I took a person out for coffee, and then it turned out that I had more than one question.

[Howard] There’s a framework that I use for a lot of things knowledge-related. Which is this grid that says there are the things that we know that we know. There are the things that we know we don’t know, the known unknowns. There are the things that we don’t know that we know. We have information, but we don’t know how to categorize it. Then there’s the unknown unknowns. I don’t know… I don’t even know how to ask the question that will get me the information that I need. Acknowledging upfront to yourself that there are unknown unknowns… Mary, you said you don’t want to ask the bonehead questions, you don’t want to ask the stupid questions. Sometimes you have to acknowledge that I’m going to ask some stupid questions because I just don’t know how this works. But you own that upfront, and then when you get thrown a curveball… You wanted to ask one question about meteor strikes and now suddenly you have 100. You’re not surprised by that happening. You accept, “Oh. Oh, my goodness, the unknown unknowns’ space was larger than I wanted it to be. Now I have a known unknowns space and a long list of questions, and I am prepared to forge ahead into that.”
[Mary Robinette] When I say I don’t want to ask the bonehead questions, again, working on Calculating Stars, there was no way I was going to learn the amount of orbital mechanics that I needed to know for those books. But I knew the area of information. Like, I knew this is the kind of thing, these are the effects I’m coming for. Whereas what happens to me a lot as a puppeteer is that I’ll get people who will email me and say, “Can you tell me how to make a puppet?” I’m like, “Okay. So there’s five different types, five different major branches of puppetry. Within each branch, there are subtypes. What is your budget? How… What is…” Like, that’s a question I cannot answer. I mean, there are books and books and books about that.
[Howard] It’s the same measure of complexity as can you teach me to build a bicycle.
[Margaret] Or the… I feel like the equivalent in my area of the biz. “So, how did you get started in the business?” Or, “How can I break into television?” Like there are a lot of blogs and a lot of books and a lot of information on that topic out there. If someone approaches me with that question, I’m sort of like, “Uh, Google is your friend.” If you have… If someone has done their homework and they have a more specific question, that’s when it’s like, “Oh. Yeah. I can help you out with that.”
[Mary Robinette] I just spent hours answering the “How do you build a wing?” Because they had watched a video and they came to me with a specific question. Then we did some follow-up stuff. Totally happy to do that.
[Brandon] This is 100% my experience as well, writing on books. Like, I just recently did a fighter jet book. I thought I had done my 101.
[Mary Robinette] Ha Ha. Oh, yeah.
[Brandon] Then I went to the fighter pilots and it turns out I was full of questions I didn’t know that I didn’t know, in Howard’s realm. But at least approaching it, once my eyes were opened, I was able to kind of get it closer, send it to the fighter pilots, have them say, “No, you still got it wrong, but your closer. Here’s this and this and this.” Kind of just work towards getting it right.
[Howard] You just named the unknown unknowns space Howard’s realm.
[Brandon] Yeah, Howard’s realm.
[Howard] Thank you. Thank you for that. When I sat down to draw the Munchkin Star Finder deck… I’m going to take this into a visual space for a moment. I needed lots of… I needed ways to do shorthand for a space pistol, shorthand for a helmet, shorthand for a Velcro pocket. Where with just a very few lines, I could do a thing. So I found myself googling a lot cartoon image noun. Then I would look at clipart, I would look at things so that I could get silhouettes of them. My favorite example of that was in the Star Finder book, there is this giant space creature that we just kind of acknowledge is a space whale. I wanted an iconic whale, that everyone would look at and just see whale. I ended up with the silhouette of the whale that eats Pinocchio and Geppetto. I used that as the silhouette. It looks incredibly simple when you look at it, but there’s 2 1/2 hours of research that went into that card because there were so many options for things which, when I simplified them, started looking less like a whale and more like a shark.

[Brandon] All right. Let’s stop for our book of the week. Which is actually not a book. It is… Howard.
[Howard] It’s not a Howard, either. It’s a podcast.
[Howard] PBS Spacetime. We’ll post the link in the liner notes. The original host was Gabe Perez-Giz. He never actually says his last name. Gabe. The current host, Matthew O’Dowd. These are astrophysicists, who, for about 15 minutes, talk about astrophysics. They go into the math. It is hard-core stuff. But the very first episode, introductory episode, is Gabe talking about let’s look at the Super Mario games and determine what the gravity is on the planet of Super Mario.
[Howard] What’s funny, the answer is it’s a lot heavier than Earth. Because he comes down so quickly.
[Howard] Which means Mario’s legs are like rocket engines. But there’s another thing that I’ll put in the liner notes is my playlist of chronological episodes. They been doing this, I think, since 2013 weekly. At the end of each episode, there’s an astrophysics problem for you to look at and try to answer. If you get to the problem… I didn’t do any of the problems. I don’t do math, I draw pictures. But I would listen to the problem very carefully and ask myself, “What realm does the solution lie in? Am I going to have to do calculus? Am I going to have to do astronomy?” Then, at the end of the next episode, they give you the answers to the questions from the previous. It’s super educational.
[Brandon] Awesome.
[Howard] Super educational.

[Brandon] So, we’re talking technically about field research. We’ve kind of strayed a little bit. I knew that we would with this topic. Let’s talk about going places. I find that nothing can replace just walking down the street with the mindset of I’m going to have to describe this someday. What are the little details that I’m going to notice? We’ve spoken many times on the podcast about how small details can convince a reader of a larger reality. If you get the little details right, they will actually assume the large details. So, for me, even if it’s I’m going to put this specific café in my book, and it’s a café down the street from me, it doesn’t mean I’m having to go to Paris. Just saying I’m going to put this building in, what do I notice that’s real about this building, has been super helpful for me.
[Mary Robinette] I usually try to do some free writing in whatever place that I go. I give this exercise to my students. It’s one of the first exercises, formal writing exercises, I was taught. Which is that you go someplace and you write for half an hour. You don’t let your fingers stop moving. You try to capture all of those sensory details. You’re basically banking them for narration later. The thing that I would say, also, while were talking about this, is that not everyone can afford to go to NASA or go to Europe. So you can also look for analog field research. So, it’s like, I can’t go perhaps to Europe, but I can find a narrow street. I can find a narrow street and feel what that’s like to walk down. I can’t go to that cemetery, but I can go to this other cemetery and I can notice these details about it. I can’t go into the NBL pool, but I can go into a pool.
[Margaret] I think, sort of what you’re talking about, is getting those sensory details. Because as much as I love my camera, when I’m going out and I’m going to a place, or I’m documenting something for research that I’m doing… It’s sort of like when you’re going on a vacation and you’re snapping so many pictures, you sort of forget to look at things outside the lens. What your camera captures is different than what your eyes capture. So making sure, even if you are photo documenting details, if that’s helpful for you, that, sort of, taking a step back, breathing literally and figuratively in the place where you are.
[Howard] One of my favorite research moments… It wasn’t really research. Going to Phoenix ComicCon. A bunch of us stepped out of the airport, and, boy, it was hot. We were in the shade, okay. We all commented, “Oh, wow, this is hot.” Then we stepped into the sunlight.
[Howard] David Willis, fellow cartoonist, said, in a very deadpan voice, “We’ve made a horrible mistake.”
[Howard] Everybody laughs. But that sensory experience, you look at the picture of the line between shade and sunlight, and it looks like that line anywhere that shade and sunlight might fall. But that was not what we experienced.

[Brandon] Along those lines, a reminder. Don’t just write down what things look like. I have to re-emphasize this time and time again to my students. You will naturally focus on sight, at least most of us will. Try to get the sounds, try to get the smells. Try to get how it feels to step out of an air-conditioned area into the heat. Get those details as well.
[Margaret] I had an apartment fire in the first apartment I was living in after college. The fire was actually in the apartment immediately underneath ours.
[Margaret] So, our apartment… Not so much. There was some fire, that had come up through the walls, but it was mostly smoke and the fire department coming in and wetting everything down. The most profound memories that I carried forward from cleaning out the apartment after that was the smell of smoky mildew.
[Margaret] Because it is summer in Boston, it is humid, there’s no air circulation because all the windows got busted out and are covered in plywood. Whenever I… I was writing something else, I described a fire, and it’s like, “The smell of smoke and mildew hung over the place in the following week.” It’s one of those things…
[Mary Robinette] Very, very evocative.
[Margaret] I never would have thought about it until I was there, trying to get stuff out of that apartment. So, smells are like hardwired to your memories.

[Howard] On the 2017 Writing Excuses Retreat, I got to tour a World War II era Russian submarine. One of the things that I noticed most was not how cramped the large spaces were, but it was when we peered into the cabins and I realized these one… I’m not a tall person, but these people must not have been very tall either, or they were curled up. There’s just not much space. A physical description of what you see can convey the size of things, but there is an emotion related to cramped, there is an emotion related to open space. There is an emotion related to all of my things that smell like burnt cheese. That, as writers, is one of the things that is the most critical for us to try to convey. You don’t want to tell your reader how to feel. You want to tell your reader how someone else is feeling, so that they can come along for that experience.

[Brandon] We are out of time. Hopefully, this has been helpful for you guys. Howard is going to give you some homework to kind of push it along.
[Howard] Yeah. Go someplace close to you, where you’ve never been. It can… A side street, a store, a restaurant, whatever. Bring your phone… Your phone. Your camera. Take a few pictures. Then go back, look at the pictures, and look for things in the pictures that your eyes didn’t notice. Sit down and describe what is in this photograph as if you are writing that is a setting for a story. As if a character is noticing these things. Teach your eyes how to look at the camera and see the things that the camera saw that your eyes didn’t see the first time around.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.


Writing Excuses 14.27: Natural Setting As Conflict

From https://writingexcuses.com/2019/07/07/14-27-natural-setting-as-conflict/

Key points: Person versus nature, setting, environment! Adventure based on survival, disaster, endemic. Start with research! You have to be smarter than the Boy Scout in the room. In person versus nature, nature serves the function of the antagonist, stopping the protagonist from achieving some goal. There are often plateaus of goals for the protagonist to achieve. Sometimes nature is a time bomb. You can also use person versus nature as one arc or subplot in a story. Person versus nature, especially in science fiction, often has a sense of wonder reveal as the resolution. So it’s a mystery story, a puzzle box story. Setting is more interesting when the familiar becomes unfamiliar. Person versus nature, in MICE terms, is a milieu story, with the goal of getting out of the milieu, or at least navigating and surviving it. So, what does the setting throw up as barriers that block that? Especially unanticipated consequences of decisions that the character makes. Often there are anthropomorphized elements, too. What does the character or the setting want, need, and get? Start with entry into the milieu, end with exit from the milieu, and add in lots of complications in the middle.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 27.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Natural Setting As Conflict.
[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] And we’re in conflict with our environment.
[Howard] I don’t think you should do the joke.
[Dan] We are in Houston. It’s so humid and hot.
[Brandon] Yeah, we are.
[Mary Robinette] Oh, sweetness. It’s so cute that you think it’s humid outside.
[Mary Robinette] I’m just… Oh, poor bunny.
[Brandon] We, on the podcast, have rarely done anything where we’ve dealt with person versus setting. In specific, setting as natural setting, natural… Meaning, these are adventure stories that are survival based, disaster based, or even endemic based. These sorts of things. We’re going to talk about how to do that, how to approach making this type of story. You guys have any starting out pointers when you’re going to create a person versus setting story?
[Dan] Yes. Do your research. Because, in my experience, the more research you do, the cooler your story is going to get. Because you… Even if you think you know how to survive in a particular environment or overcome a particular disaster, the more you learn about the things that could go wrong and the various solutions that already exist to solve them, will suggest a thousand cooler things you hadn’t thought of yet.
[Howard] I… Years and years ago, I think I watched one episode early in the season of Survivor. I watched that for 10 minutes and thought, “Okay. It is taking them way too long to invent stuff that I learned how to make in Boy Scouts. There’s got to be a reason why these people don’t know how to do that.” Because when I was 10 years old… Well, 13 years old, it made perfect sense. I only had to be shown half of this before I figured out, “Oh. Well, obviously, this is the other half.” If you’re doing person versus nature, you have to be smarter as a writer… You have to be smarter than the Boy Scout in the room. Because the Boy Scout is going to be pretty disappointed if the story starts and they feel like, “Oh. I’ve got this.”
[Mary Robinette] I think, also, for me, one of the things about the person versus nature is that the nature is serving the function of your antagonist. So that means that your protagonist has to have a goal that the nature is stopping them from achieving.
[Brandon] That’s a very good point.
[Mary Robinette] That’s something that a lot of people leave out. That’s why frequently they wind up being very flat. So, a lot of times, it is a character driven goal or some other aspect, but it’s the nature that is keeping them from doing that.
[Dan] One thing I see a lot in nature survival stories is that the protagonist’s goal is allowed to change more frequently and more completely than normal. Because they achieve plateaus of, “Well, now I’ve got the shelter built. Okay, I can move on to another goal now.”
[Howard] I want to point out that it’s… When we think of person versus nature, we very often default to survival. But you can absolutely have a person versus nature story where the big conflict is I am trying to go up the hillside, and come back down with the perfect Christmas tree. The mountain doesn’t want to let me do that. The mountain isn’t trying to kill me. The mountain’s trying to ruin Christmas.

[Brandon] Would you call Calculating Stars, even though I know there are some villainous characters in it, would you call this a person versus nature story in some ways?
[Mary Robinette] Certainly part one is. I mean, I’ve… I’m killing the planet, so yes. But part one is very much we have to get out of nature. After that, it is… Most of the major conflicts are coming from societal problems. Where you’re having trouble convincing people that in fact the climate is changing on the planet.
[Brandon] Right. But there’s also this sense of we have to overcome this thing together as a species. I wonder if that could be put in that same category?
[Mary Robinette] I think it can. Because it… This is one of the things that when you’re introducing it into your story… I said that it serves the function of as… Excuse me, of an antagonist, that it’s preventing your character from achieving a goal. But the other thing that it can do, which is why I hesitated with Calculating Stars, is it’s not so much serving the function of an antagonist. It’s a time bomb.
[Brandon] Right. Yeah, that’s true.
[Mary Robinette] That’s what it’s doing. It is providing goals. It’s actually allowing people to break hurdles. So I don’t know that in… That’s in part two of the book, I don’t know that it serves the function…
[Howard] Well, what you’ve raised is… I don’t love a novel length pure person versus nature story because that’s a long time to wrestle with nature. That said, I loved The Martian.
[Mary Robinette] I was going to cite Isle of the Blue Dolphins.
[Howard] Yeah. I haven’t read that one, but I loved The Martian. But it is absolutely useful and beautiful to work person versus nature as one of your big arcs. Knowing how person versus nature works, and knowing how to do it correctly, means that if you’re using some sort of formula for timing the delivery of emotional punches, you know how to time these things.

[Brandon] Can I put you on the spot and ask for any tips along those lines? What makes these stories tick? Why do we love them? What are some of those beats? Dan’s already mentioned one, reassessing of goals, as you achieve smaller and smaller… Larger and larger goals, I should say. You start off saying, “I am helpless. I am going to die. Well, at least I’ll do this thing. Well, since I did that thing, maybe I can do this thing. Since I did that thing, maybe I can do this thing.” Then, it just escalates to the point that you believe that they can survive in this.
[Dan] Then they build a radio out of coconuts.
[Howard] In a science fiction setting…
[Mary Robinette] Gilligan!
[Howard] Often the… Yeah. Was it Gilligan who built that, or was it the Professor?
[Mary Robinette] The Professor. It’s always the Professor [garbled who’s building things?]
[Howard] I was pretty sure I saw transistor tubes in there somewhere.
[Dan] Those are also made of coconuts.
[Howard] Yeah.
[Howard] Coconut glass.
[Mary Robinette] Everything that you need, you just pull out of that ship.
[Mary Robinette] It was the most amazing… Anyway, your point being, Howard?

[Howard] Yeah. The point being, when you are doing person versus nature in science fiction, often the resolution is not oh, I learned how to make a structure out of sticks, the solution is some sort of sense of wonder reveal about how this alien environment really works. That moment… If you’ve planned that, what you’ve written isn’t what we classically think of as a person versus nature story. What you’ve written is a mystery story, in which we’re being a detective and we’re solving a problem. Then you wrap that around a story in which characters are in conflict and the solving of the mystery… It could be a time bomb, it could be a puzzle box type story, but… I do think of these things as name dropping the formulas as I’m building them, because that allows me to very quickly picture what it is I want to do. Then, when I have that picture, I start mapping character names onto it and moving things around. I’m writing a longform serial where I already have a whole lot of established pieces. Coming up with a story and then very quickly mapping a bunch of characters on it… The mapping the characters onto it is often the easiest part. It’s coming up with what is that fun reveal? One of the ones I’m working with right now in the Schlock Mercenary universe is Fermi’s Paradox. Which is fascinating to think of as person versus nature, because nature here is, and the mystery as it stands, Galactic civilizations have been wiping themselves out every few million years and we do not know why. Is it an enemy? Is it something natur… It’s a mystery. It is a reveal. It’s fun. If I can stick the landing, I’m going to make so much money.
[Mary Robinette] That’s really what person versus nature is all about. It’s about the money that you’re…
[Howard] I want to get out of these woods as a millionaire.

[Brandon] Dan, you have our book of the week this week.
[Dan] Our book of the week this week is what I consider one of the classic man versus nature survival stories. It’s called Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. It’s Newberry winning young adult novel. It’s about a kid who gets for his birthday a hatchet and throws it in his suitcase and hops on the little Cessna that’s going to take him to visit his dad on an oilfield in the Canadian wilderness. Part way there, the pilot has a heart attack and dies, and the kid has to do his best to land the plane in a lake and then survive as long as he can in the middle of nowhere. He’s the only character. It’s all about him doing his best to survive. It’s really… Everything we’ve been talking about in its purest little young adult form. It’s a fantastic book. Very short and easy to read, and awesome.
[Howard] Boy versus nature.
[Dan] I’m going to recommend one more, though.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Dan] We’re getting two book of the weeks for the price of one.
[Mary Robinette] Whoo!
[Dan] Ryan North, the guy who does dinosaur comics. He’s got a brand-new book out called How to Invent Everything.
[Brandon] Oh, I really want to read that.
[Dan] He sells this, he promotes this as kind of like a cheat sheet for time travelers. If you end up stuck in the past for whatever reason, and have this book with you, you will be able to invent electricity and penicillin and everything you need to make a civilization work. So, as a resource for writers who want to be able to describe characters doing this stuff, it’s a really good resource.
[Brandon] Yeah, I think it’s… He has this poster that I’ve seen for years, that is… Hang this poster in your Time Machine, that has all the little tips you would need. It’s done jokingly, and he’s adapted that now into an entire book.
[Dan] Expanded it into a full book.

[Brandon] Let’s… On the topic here, Mary talked about setting as antagonist. Let’s dig into this idea a little bit more. How do you go about making your setting an interesting antagonist? How do you go about having a story that perhaps has no villain other than survival, or… Yeah?
[Dan] One of the principles that I teach in my How to Scare People class is that something familiar becomes unfamiliar. That’s one of the basic premises of a horror story. It’s also exactly what’s going on in survival and disaster stories. Something like the Poseidon Adventure. It’s a cruise ship, we know what a cruise ship is like. Now it’s upside down. So we recognize everything, but it’s also weird and new at the same time. That gives us that sense of horror, and that sense of unknown. Even though we still kind of understand what’s going on.
[Mary Robinette] That’s exactly why the upside down is disturbing in Stranger Things. Huh. Interesting.
[Dan] Yeah.
[Mary Robinette] Surprising no one, for me, one of the tricks on making it an effective antagonist goes back to the MICE quotient, which is… It is often a straight up milieu story. So, for me, the thing is, again, you got a character goal, there’s the character goal of… Whatever their emotional character goal is, but then there’s also the goal of I want to get out of this place. I need to navigate this place. So, finding the environmental setting things that can throw up barriers, that challenge your character’s competence, and that are, often, I think, most effectively a result of a choice that they have made. So it’s like, well, we’ve got fire ants coming at us. So, in order to stop them, we’re going to flood this area to keep them from coming in. But now, having flooded it…
[Howard] Oh, no. Oh, no.
[Howard] Islands of swimming fire ants are a thing.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. Exactly. Yeah. This is a film. So it’s this unanticipated consequence that makes things worse. I think that’s often one of the ways that you can ratchet up the tension and something that a good antagonist does, is they react.
[Brandon] All right. And escalating. That’s like… That’s a very good point. Making it worse and worse and worse, even as our protagonist is leveling up in what they’re able to accomplish.
[Dan] A lot of survival stories also have… Not, they don’t have villains, but you can see anthropomorphized elements of the environment that function as a villain. You mentioned Island of the Blue Dolphins earlier. She’s got this rivalry, so to speak, with an octopus. She knows, she’s scared to death of this octopus, but she knows at some point she’s going to have to dive down into that part of the reef, or she’s not going to have enough to eat. So it’s building this thing up as a villain over the course of the story until you get a showdown. You get a similar thing in the movie Castaway with his tooth. I’m going to do my best to survive here, but sooner or later, I’m going to have to confront that tooth. It’s going to be a showdown.
[Brandon] Howard, earlier you mentioned something I thought was very interesting, which is using person versus nature as a subtheme in a story, which you pointed out, you like a little bit better sometimes. Any tips on keeping this as a subtheme or as a secondary plot cycle?
[Howard] The book, Michael Crichton’s book Jurassic Park, the character of Dr. Malcolm is… He is the personification of chaos. Chaos is the person versus… Is nature in person versus nature. Malcolm tells us we have a complex system and things are going to go wrong in unexpected ways and they are going to amplify each other and things are going to get worse. By giving voice to that, when it happens, it doesn’t feel like, oh, the author just picked the worst possible thing to happen and it happened. It feels like a natural consequence because now we can understand chaos theory. That is layered on top of a corporate espionage plot where it was corporate espionage that caused all these things… That we like to think caused all these things to go wrong at the beginning. But when you stand back and look at the book, you know, well, if it hadn’t been corporate espionage, it would have been something else. So having a character who gives voice to the nature without actually being on nature’s side can be useful.
[Mary Robinette] Something that you said made me actually think of Lord of the Flies, which definitely begins as person versus nature. One of the things that happens over the course of that, as the boys achieve goals… It’s like, okay, we’ve created shelter, we’ve created fire, and all of those things, is that the antagonist shifts from being the island to being the boys… The society of the boys themselves. I think that that’s something that you can actually do. Something that we see when we have human antagonists, that a lot of times on antagonist will shift. It’s not the antagonist that you thought it was the entire time, it’s something else. So I think that’s something that you can play with with your worldbuilding and your… The setting as…
[Howard] It’s an echoing of the principle… The story begins and there’s a thing that our main character wants. There’s a thing that our main character actually needs. And there is a thing that, in the course of the story, the main character’s actually going to get. Often, these are three different things. If you treat nature, the antagonist, the same way, the want, need, get being different things, there’s this twist as we discover it doesn’t matter what nature wanted, this is what nature needed… And this is what actually happened.

[Brandon] Mary, you’ve got some homework for us.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. So what I want you to do is, we’re going to take the milieu MICE thread concept. Which is that a story begins when you enter a place in a milieu story, and it ends when you exit the place. All of the conflicts are things that stop from getting out, they stop you from navigating. They are things that get in your way of achieving that exit strategy. So what I want you to do is I want you to pick a milieu. Pick a setting. Just pick your starting point, this is a character entering. Pick your exit point, that’s the character leaving. Then brainstorm about 20 things that are going to get in the way of your character exiting the place. Then, I want you to pick your five favorites and rank them in an escalating order of difficulty. So this is just a structure exercise. If you wind up with something that sounds fun, you can write it. But really, what I want you to do is think about a way to build that setting as antagonist, and that setting is getting in your way.
[Brandon] Excellent. This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.


Writing Excuses 14.26: Lessons from Aristotle, with Rob Kimbro

From https://writingexcuses.com/2019/06/30/14-26-lessons-from-aristotle-with-rob-kimbro/

Key points: Aristotle’s six elements of story, ordered by importance, are: plot, character, idea, dialogue, music, spectacle. E.g., fight scenes are often plot, character, spectacle, but if they are just spectacle, they may be boring. Different stories, different medium, different audience, may rearrange the order. Consider what you are trying to do as you write a scene. Beware of overdoing one element in your opening. Most openings are either character-driven, mostly plot and character, or voice-driven, mostly ideas, music, and spectacle. Aristotle also says there are three modes, lyric, epic, and dramatic. Lyric, the author telling their own experience. Epic, the author telling a story that happens to someone else. Dramatic, showing a story without an author’s presence. All mediums can be mixed modes. Finally, you may use a kind of collective creation mode with the audience, “I need you to imagine this with me.”

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 26.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Lessons from Aristotle, with Rob Kimbro.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Rob] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Rob] And I’m Rob.

[Brandon] Rob, introduce yourself to our audience.
[Rob] Sure. My name’s Rob Kimbro. I’m a theater director and teacher, and also sometimes adapter and a sometime colleague and collaborator of Mary Robinette’s.
[Mary Robinette] That is actually why he is here, because over the years, I have known Rob Kimbro for well over a decade at this point. He’s one of my favorite people to talk structural theory with because he comes at it… He’s a dramaturge among other things. Every time I talk to him, I’m like, “That’s a really good thing.” Then we’ll come back and incorporate it into the writing. He’s also one of us, because…
[Mary Robinette] He’s a science-fiction fan, he listens to the podcast. But we were talking about various things from Aristotle, and you brought up the six elements of Aristotle. Please tell us…
[Rob] I should say at the beginning that one of the things I’m not is an Aristotle scholar. But I am somebody who’s done a lot of theatrical adaptation, so taking stories from the page and putting them on stage. At one point, I did a graduate program in that. Aristotle’s Poetics was something I found really useful. There are a few different tools you can pull out of that book. But one of them is his idea that story… He says tragedy, but really it’s generalizable to story… Is made of six things. He puts them in an order. Those six things are, from the most important to the least, Plot. Character. Idea. Dialogue. Music. Spectacle. What I find is that’s a… It’s a taxonomy, it’s a paradigm, that you can apply to stories and think about how is this working and how can it work better. The place that I think it’s useful to depart from Aristotle is that he says… And he’s fairly descriptive… He says that the best story he sees, they go in this order. But what I find is that every story has its own order.
[Brandon] When he says order, order of importance or orders of…
[Rob] Order of importance.
[Brandon] Okay.

[Dan] Order of importance. I really… This is my first time encountering this idea, but it is explaining a lot of the things that I think rub people the wrong way about bad stories. A few episodes ago, I complained about how fight scenes are so boring. It’s because, it’s spectacle, and if you don’t have good plot or good character embedded in that spectacle, then the spectacle itself, that’s the least important one. That’s not enough to keep you going.
[Rob] Right. Although, a fight scene doesn’t have to be spectacle. But it often is. If the fight scene is character, if that’s what it’s doing, then you need to know that when you write it. Right? Or if the fight scene is plot. I think those are the three things it could be. If spectacle is what you need from your fight scene…
[Dan] It’s worth mentioning that sometimes you just want to watch Jackie Chan do something amazing with a ladder. That is spectacle that is worth your time.
[Mary Robinette] But Jackie Chan is never just doing something with a ladder.
[Dan] True.
[Mary Robinette] That’s the thing. He’s also laying groundwork for plot and character at the same time. He’s giving you geography. He’s doing… I mean, geography was not one of the elements, but…
[Rob] Yes.
[Mary Robinette] But it is one of the reasons that you are willing to give him that. In addition to… No, actually, you’re right, it’s all about the spectacle.

[Rob] It can be. Because Aristotle puts it sixth, but it’s not always sixth. Like, I think… They’re going to be different for any medium. So, like, in a written medium, music is often likely to be down at the bottom of the list. You’re doing something fairly unusual. Spectacle you might think is also near the bottom in your novel, but I think of things like George RR Martin’s castles. The way that every stronghold he does in those books… Like, that’s written word spectacle. When he talks about the size of Winterfell, or the…
[Dan] I think it’s worth considering audience as well. In one of the theater classes that I had in college, my professor would refer to things like Phantom of the Opera as tired businessman shows. They’re all spectacle and music, but sometimes that’s all your audience wants.
[Rob] Sure. Sure. There’s an adaptation I worked on at McCarter Theatre of a book called Crowns. Which is… The source material is this coffee table book. It’s photos of black women, southern African-American women in their church hats. Each one gets a little like paragraph of that woman telling something. That book is spectacle and character.
[Mary Robinette] It’s nice.
[Rob] Through the hats, it’s these snapshots of character. Then… The book’s by Mayberry and… I can look it up if we want to put it in the liner notes. But Regina Taylor took it and made it into a play. One of the things about that process is at that point, you have to have some plot. Like, you don’t have to have a plot in the coffee table book, but you have to have plot. The things she did that was brilliant is the show is laced with music. Incredible, often gospel, music throughout. So in that adaptation, the order of those six elements change. That’s part of the success of the adaptation.

[Mary Robinette] So how about the two in the middle? Because we were talking about plot and character, and then music and spectacle. What are the two in the middle… Like, how do those map to literature in our…
[Rob] Sure. Well, I think… I mean, dialogue. Like, I think about Aaron Sorkin. Like, I… I believe television is primar… I would argue, primarily a character medium. I think. I think books tend to do plot and ideas really well. But you can shuffle. I mean, movies are big on spectacle, relatively speaking. TV, I think, tends to do character and plot. But when you watch an Aaron Sorkin TV show, sometimes what you’re there for…
[Mary Robinette] Is the dialogue.
[Dan] Just the words.
[Mary Robinette] And David Mamet.
[Dan]… Anderson mention as well.
[Rob] Tom Stoppard, sometimes, is that kind of…
[Dan] Well, off the top of my head, that’s why I like Catcher in the Rye, is not so much the characters or anything that happens to them, but the way that it is written. That’s also what I love about the Kingkiller Chronicles, is the language and the dialogue.
[Brandon] You could almost argue that that’s music. Also, though.
[Mary Robinette] I was just having the same thought. I was like, where… Because I feel like the lyrical language falls into a different category than spoken language, the dialogue language. That’s a really interesting thing, because I feel like with my own writing, the music of the language is not as important to me as the dialogue. Like, the way the characters interact in the way that’s communicating to each other. I am less interested in writing a sentence that is a beautiful sentence for the sake of being a beautiful sentence. Which some of my Goodreads reviews talk about.
[Rob] But then I think part of the usefulness of this is the what are we here for? What am I expecting my audience to be enjoying in this work? It’s generally not all six at the same time. Or not all six at the same time. I think it’s useful… I think it can be useful in the way that all of these writing tools are, just to help you think about what am I trying to do right now, as I write this fight scene.

[Dan] So another thing that I see a lot, especially as I am reading short story submissions from brand-new writers, is that they are trying to really knock our socks off on the first page or the first chapter. What they’re actually doing, under the hood, now that I know this system, is that they’ve picked a different element to promote. They’re going to give us gorgeous language in the first chapter, without realizing that they’re making a promise and then not fulfilling it, because the rest of the book is not about language. They were just trying to impress us.
[Mary Robinette] I took a class from Donald Maass where he talked about openings. It was just a class on openings. He broke it down into their being basically two major types of openings. Character-driven openings, and voice-driven openings. That they are not… You can have a voice-driven opening that is also a character opening. But that in a character opening, what you’re trying to do is ground the reader in who we… Who the character is and where we are. So you try to hit them with basically plot and character. That a voice-driven opening is all about the language and the ideas that you’re evoking in the reader. I’m like, “Oh. Oh. Yeah. It’s all about the bottom three. Ideas, music, and spectacle.” Which is probably why I tend… I mean, I personally tend to gravitate towards things as a reader that are driven by plot, character, and dialogue, more so than I do with things that are just… That are voicy.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, which is, very surprisingly, Aristotle’s Poetics.
[Rob] Right. Which is the book where he lays all this out. You’ll find, when you go to that, that the ideas I’m talking about today are modified by my experience in teaching and the people who taught me. But it’s not that long. It’s public domain, of course. You can find it on Project Gutenberg or any number of places like that.
[Dan] Cool.

[Mary Robinette] Cool. So. You… I feel like… I keep wanting to talk about this, but I also know that we have modes that we can talk about as well.
[Rob] Right.
[Mary Robinette] Which is… That was one of the other things, when you mentioned, I got really excited about.
[Rob] That’s where we started this conversation, right? So that’s a thing… Classification of story thing. So we talk about… Or at least when I teach and I hear you guys talk about medium. What’s your interface between the author brain and the audience brain? Genre. Which I think are about audience expectations to some extent. Modes is a classification system that’s about the relationship of the author to the story and to the audience. So Aristotle says there are three modes. Lyric, Epic, and Dramatic. In Lyric, an author is telling of their own experience. In Epic, an author is telling a story that happens to someone else. In Dramatic, you’re shown a story without an author’s presence. Okay? So some other people picked that up, and you’ll hear it described sometimes as narrator talks… Only narrator talks, characters talk, narrators talk and characters talk. What gets tricky is that there’s a lot of writing about it that assumes that plays are dramatic mode. That that’s what they’re doing, you’re showing a thing. That written, that’s epic… Like, Homer is epic mode. He is telling a story that is happening. But that’s kind of a trap. Because to write effectively in any of these modes, it’s useful to realize that your med… All mediums can be mixed modes. You can activate dramatic mode in written prose. For example, the phrase about Jane Austen’s writing, clear and direct?
[Mary Robinette] Yes.
[Rob] Am I getting that right? Is I think, an attempt to do dramatic mode… Or a method for doing dramatic mode in writing. The author is disappearing and you’re just seeing a scene. You’re being shown a scene. Whereas, in other places, you get narrative mode, where the author comes in and becomes more present.
[Mary Robinette] Jane Austen goes back and forth in that, as well. That was one of the things that, for me… I heard Rob do this talk at the Nebula conference. One of the things that, for me, got exciting was realizing that it was talking about the way I as the writer am relating to the audience. That I am relating to them through this medium of fiction. But that there were things that worked very well in fiction that didn’t necessarily work as well on stage, or that worked well on stage that I would try to do in fiction that wouldn’t work. But a lot of it had to do with shifting my thinking about what mode I was in. Where I was, and how that relationship was shifting.
[Rob] And figuring out how to activate the modes you want. So, what kicked off that talk that I did at the Nebulas is there’s a passage from Tolkien where he says that fantasy can’t work on the stage. It’s in an essay in Leaf, Tree and Leaf, whatever that collection of essays is. He says fantasy doesn’t work on stage. He goes so far as to say the witches in Macb don’t work. When you read what he’s saying, he’s saying essentially that it’s because the stages dramatic form. You have to show it, and we’re not going to believe it, and suspicion of disbelief is shattered. Horace says something similar in his Ars Poetica, that basically you show me something I can’t believe and I’m not going to go there. But what I find in practice, and what I think people who like those plays, like Midsummer Night’s Dream, find in practice, is that if you can find ways to activate a narrative mode in the audience, which is sort of a collective creation mode. Like, I need you to imagine this with me.
[Dan] Yeah.
[Rob] Then it can work. You can do that with a narrator device, you can do that with puppetry.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Rob] Which is something Mary Robinette and I have done together. We did… We worked together on an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants a few years ago. There’s a lot of fantastic in that. Part of the way you do that is, if you do it with a puppet, the audience knows that’s not a frost giant, or, that’s not a bear. It is us imagining a bear.
[Dan] Yeah. This concept of kind of collaborative fiction with the audience is something that Penn and Teller do. They do it overtly. One of the things that fascinates them, and when they said it in an interview, it fascinated me, is that once they have spent all the time laying out what this narrative is going to be, the audience will keep believing it, even when they know it’s false. The example they gave was someone can, after the show, go up and have an entire conversation with Teller, and then talk to Penn and say, “It’s so cool that Teller never talks.”
[Dan] Now, you’ve just talked to… You just had dinner with him. But no. In their head, Teller never talks.
[Rob] Right.
[Dan] Because that’s part of what they’ve bought into in order to enjoy the story.
[Rob] There’s something you have to be careful with on stage in this, is if you get too dramatic mode, if you get too fully in we’re showing you the thing, then you’ve let the audience off the hook. The audience doesn’t do the work. I think, television and film can be this even more so, because were not used to doing creative work when we’re watching those. Then the fantastic becomes harder, if we’re not primed to imagine with.
[Brandon] This has been fascinating. I really like when we have a chance to sit down and do episodes like this that are topics we would never have approached on our own. Thank you so much for being on.
[Rob] Thanks for having me. This was fun.

[Brandon] You have an exercise.
[Rob] I do. I do. So, let’s go back to the elements. So what I’m going to suggest is the exercise is take something you’ve written. Then, rank what those six elements are for that. What’s the most important, what’s the least important? Again, those are plot, character, idea, dialogue, music, spectacle. Then go back, rearrange the order, and rewrite it to do that.
[Mary Robinette] Fun.
[Brandon] Awesome. This has been Writing Excuses. Thank you so much, Rob, for being on. You guys are out of excuses, now go write.


Writing Excuses 14.25: Choosing Your Agent

From https://writingexcuses.com/2019/06/23/14-25-choosing-your-agent/

Key points: Your agent works for you. You have a choice, make it a good one. Think about who you want to work with, who is going to be the right business partner in the long run. Someone who can help you run your business. Who do you want as part of your brand? Make sure they can do a good job. Look at online resources, talk to your network. Ask the agent to talk to their other authors. You may need to change agents as your career changes, or their career changes. Keep the lines of communication open, talk about goals, figure out what you both need. To find an agent, look for authors who have a similar communication style, and talk to them about their agents! Think about someone who can fill in your weak spots. Check which genres the agent works in, and what level of editorial involvement you want. What communications style, how frequent do you want contact? Remember, charisma is not a dump stat. Consider the Kowal relationship axes, mind, manners, money, morals… Murder! Or the Marx Brothers.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 25.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Choosing Your Agent.
[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] Dongwon is joining us again. This is his third episode with us. Dongwon, I understand that you have spent some time working as an agent.
[Dongwon] I have. I actually started my career as an agent, and then wandered off for many years doing other tasks in the industry, and have come back to being an agent in the past 3 and a 1/2 years now.
[Howard] Well, this morning, we had the opportunity to hear you talk about the publishing business. One of the parts that was most interesting to me was that opening salvo of choosing your agent and what that relationship ends up looking like.
[Dongwon] One thing I like to talk about a lot is making it really clear to writers that your agent works for you. If you’re in the query trenches right now, the power dynamic feels very weighted towards the agent’s side. You’re trying to get their attention, you’re trying to get someone to pay attention to you and make an offer of representation. But one of the things I like to really drive home is once that offer of representation has been made, the power dynamic completely inverts. Now, what the agent wants is for you to choose them. One of the reasons that we chose this phrasing for the episode title is the idea that you have a choice in this relationship is a really important one. It’s one that I think a lot of writers lose sight of, because they’re just so focused on getting an agent, any agent. Instead, what I’d like people to do is start thinking very carefully about who they want to work with. Who’s going to be the right business partner to them over the course of their career? Ideally, an author-agent relationship will go on for years, and hopefully decades. Optimally, it’s the course of both of your careers. You need to think carefully about who you’re going to be working with over that period of time, and who you want to be helping you run your business.
[Mary Robinette] This is… I want to say, something that I stumbled on, you’ve heard me talk about on previous episodes, where my first… My very first agent was not a good agent. We often people say, “A bad agent is worse than no agent.” The concrete thing that I had happened was that my first agent… I was… I had warning flags that went off. But it was an agent, and they were excited about my work. I had heard so much about how difficult it was to get an agent. So, even though I had some warning flags that this person might be flaky, I went ahead and signed. What happened was they sat on my novel for a year without sending it out. That was a year in which it was ready. So this was a… actively holding me back. The other thing that can happen with a bad agent, or with an agent who’s… This is… These are people who are just like not good at their job, is that if they try to sell your work incompetently to a publishing house, and then you leave them and you come back, it’s going to be very difficult to sell that same title later.
[Howard] That’s the… There’s a principle here that… It’s a broader business principle, harkening back to, Dongwon, what you said earlier about you’re choosing a business partner. This business partner is carrying your authorial brand as the flag when they march into the office. If they misbehave, if they do a bad job with the pitch, if they happen to be somebody that’s for whatever reason, that editorial team, publishing team, just really doesn’t like having in the room…
[Mary Robinette] That one actually is less of an issue, because, as long as they’ve got good taste…
[Howard] As long as they’ve got good taste. But you just know that whoever you are picking, a portion of who they are ends up as part of your brand, at least to the editors and publishers.
[Dongwon] A lot of the industry’s interaction with you will be filtered through your agent. So if your agent has a certain reputation, has a certain way of operating, that is going to influence how people see you. It’s not entire. You will have your own brand, and, I know, many writers have the opposite reputation of their agents. But Howard is absolutely right, that in those initial contacts, those initial meetings, that would definitely color it. So, sort of… The first step in choosing an agent is don’t choose someone who’s bad at their job. This last year, there were… Have been a couple sort of highly publicized incidents of agents who turned out to be acting against their own writers’ interests. That’s been a very challenging moment. My heart goes out to all of those writers. It can be hard to spot that person. There’s some online resources that you can use to check out, like query tracker or query shark, but really, your best defense is having a good network. Talking to your friends, making friends with other writers, and asking around about somebody’s reputation before you make a decision to go forward with them.
[Dan] You’re also well within your rights to ask that agent if you can talk to some of their other authors. I get a lot of requests from my agent, “Hey, could you talk to this person? I would like to acquire their book.” I’m always happy to recommend my agent. If you get an agent whose authors are not happy to recommend her, maybe stay away.
[Howard] Are you still with the agent you were with a year ago?
[Dan] Yes. Sarah Crowe. She’s amazing.

[Mary Robinette] So I just… I actually just changed agents in the last year. The reason I did that was not because I had a bad agent. My agent was very good. But my career trajectory was such that I needed a different type of agent than I did at the beginning of my career. So the thing that was happening with my career trajectory was… The reason that I felt like I needed someone who was a little more aggressive, was that I was in the downward spiral. This happens to a number of writers in the course of their career, that there’s what they call the death… The series’ death spiral. So I’d had that happen. Then I had a novel that came out, and my book tour began on election day in 2016, which was a fraud year regardless of where you were. Book sales generally were declining. But when people are looking at your numbers, they don’t look at the current events that are going on around it. They just look at the numbers. So I needed someone who was more aggressive. It was a difficult choice, because it would have been easier if my agent was doing things that were actively wrong. That wasn’t the case. It was just I needed a different style. This is one of the things that I think you have to… While it’s ideal to have an agent that stays with you over the course of your career, it’s also important to know kind of what you need going into it.
[Howard] That is… And again, coming back to the general principle of business partners, there is this point of diminishing returns between what I need out of a new agent, what I lose if I don’t switch, and the cost of switching. It’s easy for us… in crossing that chasm, it’s easy for us to overestimate the size of the peril, and just, out of fear of changing, stay in the same place.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Howard] It’s difficult.
[Dongwon] Many, many writers will have multiple agents over the course of their careers. There’s nothing… There’s no inherent problem to that. Like any long-term relationship, what you need out of it will change over time. It’s also important to remember that your agent is also not a fixed point. They’re evolving in their career as well, and how they operate, what circumstances they’re in, what agency they’re at, all those things can shift and change over time. Those changes will impact, and impact how the business operates. So it’s very important to keep that line of communication open, and be talking about your goals, and are they being met in this relationship or not, and then figure out what you need out of that.
[Mary Robinette] That was very much the case with my agent, my previous agent, was that they had had a promotion at work, and were suddenly handling more things than they had been. So the attention that they were able to give to individual authors was shifting. Like, none of us were being neglected, it was just the communication style had changed. The aggression, I think, had shifted, or at least my perception of it. So that was one thing that was also going on there, was that a change in my agent’s life as well.

[Howard] Let’s take a quick break and talk about a book. Dongwon?
[Dongwon] Yeah. This week, I want to talk about Sarah Gailey’s Magic for Liars. This is Sarah Gailey’s debut novel, coming out from Tor Books. It should have just come out on June Fourth. It is a murderer-mystery set at a magical school for teenagers. It is not a young adult novel. It is a very adult novel about a woman who is called in to investigate a murder of a faculty member at this school. The protagonist’s twin sister also is a teacher at this school. As you would have it, that sister is magic and she is not. She needs to figure out what happened and unpack this really gruesome murder and figure out why teenagers are so goddamned terrifying.
[Dongwon] Especially when they have magic powers.
[Howard] Okay. As the father of two current teenagers, I would love to know the answer to that question.
[Howard] Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey. I’m a big fan of Sarah’s. Their cowboy hippopotamus books.
[Howard] Loved those so much.

[Howard] Okay. I want to talk about your toolbox as an author. I’m big on the toolbox metaphor. What are the tools that authors have at their disposal to start searching for agents who meet their criteria?
[Mary Robinette] We’ve talked about a couple of them on previous podcasts. The advice that I’m often given… Had been given and often give is to pay attention to what authors are happy with their agents. Specifically, looking for authors… There’s… We always are told to look at the authors whose work is similar. But I actually think you should also try to look at the author… Authors whose process is similar. Because that’s going to be people with whom you have a similar communication style. I’m going to continue using myself as a useful representative example. When I left my previous agent and moved on, because of where I am in my career and I am… I do have multiple Hugos. I am marketable. I had the good fortune of having a couple of choices. I was doing due diligence, and I went into it expecting that at the end of having done due diligence that I would be signing with Dongwon. I was just like, “But I’m going to check with some other people just in case.”
[Howard] Oh, she went there.
[Mary Robinette] I cleared it… I cleared this with him before, before we got into it. It was a really hard choice. Because, like the authors that he represents are people that I like, there people that I have a lot in common with. I think he’s wicked smart, and there were all these different things. When it finally came down to, Dongwon and Seth Fishman, who is my agent now, was I realized that what I needed was someone who filled my weaknesses. The difference between their agenting styles, in a lot of ways, they’re both very good with developmental stuff and things like that, but Dongwon is about building relationships, and Seth is a shark.
[Mary Robinette] And…
[Dongwon] I’m a nice shar… No.
[Mary Robinette] I know. Well, that’s the thing. It’s like you’re the nursemaid shark. He’s… There is nothing…
[Mary Robinette] But it was basically, I was, like I’m good at relationships. That’s not the spot that I need bolstering. So both of them would have been a good choice, but it was really about learning what I needed. It’s quite possible that that is what I needed early in my career as well, but I didn’t know myself as well, as an author and what my process and how I was going to fit into the industry was. So when you’re looking at the toolbox, it’s important, yes, to be able to find the agent, but just knowing a list of agent’s names is not as useful as knowing what it is you need out of the agents. So, Absolute Write is a good source for checking to make sure that the agent isn’t shady. I also find that if you type in the agent’s name and scam afterwards…
[Dan] And hope there’s no hits.
[Mary Robinette] Hope there’s no hits, yes. Harassment after that. These are… Scandal. These are good words to just kind of…
[Howard] Good things to not be attached to.
[Mary Robinette] Then, looking at Publisher’s Weekly, Locus. Looking at who made sales, and…

[Howard] In 2006, I, we played with the idea of having Schlock Mercenary represented, agented, shipped out to a publisher, because self-pubbing actual paper books that weigh actual tons of actual mass is hard work. My friend Rodney had written a technical manual a few years earlier, and had an agent… His experience with the agent was funny. He said, “Yeah, I’ve already sold the book. I can’t mess with… There’s nothing you can do.” She said, “I tell you what. Let me represent you. I know the contract’s been signed, but let me represent you.” She went in. She got him a 50% raise on the book. Her 15% came out of that, and Rodney was like, “Oh. Oh, I do need an agent.” Rodney introduced me to that agency, which was the Barbara Bova agency, which does a lot of science fiction. So I came into this from outside the industry, through a contact to was just somebody I knew in the tech world. Part of the toolbox is talking to people and listening to their experiences. That experience of Rodney’s… Like, I want that to happen to me. That agency… The results were the best possible results. Which were… Everybody we talked to said, “We love this, but it’s not what we do.” Or, “I mean, we already read it, but it’s not what we do.” And, “Wow, this sounds awesome, but it’s not what we do.” The agent went out and determined that the market I wanted at the time didn’t exist. The relationship’s over now, because the agent’s not going to make any money. But that is… I consider that a success story.
[Dongwon] It really is.
[Howard] Because I found an agent who, in the space of six months, told me that the business plan that I already had was the right one.

[Dan] So, let’s expand this toolbox a little bit more. When you’re talking to people, when you’re talking to other authors, what are some of the questions you can ask them to find out how they work with their agent? Two of the big ones for me. First of all, is what genres does your agent work in? Because I got the… I started with Sarah because I had written a horror novel, but I knew that I wanted to write more than that. One of the reasons that she and I work so well together is that she covers horror, but also science-fiction and also YA and middle grade, which kind of covers all of the playgrounds that I wanted to play in. Not every agent does. So finding someone who’s willing to go with you when you start hopping genres is valuable, if that’s what you want to do. One of the other ones is what level of editorial involvement do you want your agent to have. Because different agents do it differently, different authors want different things. So if you want an agent who will be very hands-on or very hands-off, ask their authors what that relationship is like.
[Dongwon] That’s one that you should also ask the agent directly. Going back to Mary’s example, we had a series of very long conversations. I mean, we probably spent upwards of seven or eight hours on the phone over the course of a few weeks talking a lot of this through. When… I get nervous when I’m signing a new client if they’re not asking me questions, then I start to have a little bit of a hesitation in my mind, actually. Just because I’m worried that they’re not putting the work in to make sure that this relationship is going to work out, and that I’m going to be right for them. Really, at the core of this, is communication style is really one of the most important things. Do you want someone who’s very formal in their communications? Do you want a letter that’s laid out? Do you want something that’s very casual? Do you want to be… Talk to your agent once a week, once a month, once every six months? I have certain clients I talk to almost daily, and there certain clients I talk to about every three or four months. It depends on what it is. I am very informal in how I relate to a lot of my clients. I think, for certain people, that would drive them nuts, right? There’s certain people who really appreciate that, and sort of need that ability to check in periodically and be like, “Hey, is everything okay? Am I on the right track? Is this going well? What’s happening with this?”
[Howard] At risk of going over-general again, this is the… Your reminder that charisma is not a dump stat.
[Howard] The ability to have a conversation with someone in which the two of you connect and determine what you expect out of this kind of relationship… You can build that skill set without talking to agents. Learning that skill set when your feet are in the fire is frightening.

[Mary Robinette] So you remember in a previous episode, I talked about the Kowal relationship axes, which my mother-in-law came up with as a way to describe someone that you’re dating. That you want to be roughly aligned on intelligence, you want to be roughly aligned on where you feel money is important, morals… Actually, you want your… You want a moral agent. Towards you!
[Mary Robinette] But manners, similar communications style. These apply to your agent as well as to a character. There’s a really good agent that is someone that I could have gotten because they are… They’re the agent of a friend, they’re very successful. I would have run a fire poker through them within two minutes of conversation. Because our communication styles are wildly out of alignment. At the same time, you’re not looking for a best friend. Right? It is a business partner. It’s good if you can be friends. But that’s not… You need someone who is good at their job first, and then someone you can communicate with second.
[Howard] Mind, manners, money, morals, murder…
[Mary Robinette] Marx Brothers. We try to be more positive about it.
[Howard] All right…
[Dongwon] I will say, I often try to avoid the romantic relationship analogy when talking about finding your agent, but it is inevitable that it comes up at some point, because I think there are a lot of similarities and parallels.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] There definitely are. On those notes, Dongwon, do you have homework you can assign to our listeners?
[Dongwon] Yeah. So, your homework assignment is going to be a little bit of self-examination. I want you to think about your career and what’s important to you and how you like to operate. Think about times you’ve been in a business setting, at a job, in a meeting, and think about the things that you found very frustrating, and what you would find your dating to work with over a long period of time with somebody who is working with some of the most important work to you. Make a list of those attributes. What are you looking for in an agent? What kind of communication style? Do you want someone who edits you, do you want someone who doesn’t? How would you like them to pursue a deal? Do you want them to go all out all the time, or do you want them to build relationships and be very targeted? Those are questions you should ask yourself, and start making that list of the attributes that are important to you.
[Howard] Make the list. You gotta write this down, because this is Writing Excuses, and you’re out of excuses. Now, go write.


Writing Excuses 14.24: Political Intrigue

From https://writingexcuses.com/2019/06/16/14-24-political-intrigue/

Key points: Political intrigue? The fun of not knowing all the answers and having a character who doesn’t know who they can trust. Shifting the dynamics or balance of power. Am I looking for the answer (aka mystery) or am I trying to find out why this is happening (aka thriller)? A heist of information! Why are people doing things, what are their motivations? Who has informational advantage? Beware of boredom! Give us a reason to care, make sure we understand the stakes. Scheming leads to actions, and actions lead to complications and ramifications. There must be change, not just scheming. Build rooting interest and sympathy for a character before you dive into political string pulling. The machinations of your villain should be smart, not just insanely convoluted. Secrets and informational advantage are the keys to political intrigue.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 24.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Political Intrigue.
[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] Or are you? [Dum, duh, dummmm!]
[Margaret] Last I checked. I hope so.

[Brandon] Let’s talk about political intrigue. So, can we define this? What do we mean by this? I’ll give you a little starter, primer. When I was pitching books, back when I had no idea how to pitch books, right?
[Brandon] I was just wondering around the World Fantasy convention, trying to pitch my book to anybody who was standing by looking bored.
[This potted plant…]
[Brandon] I pitched to somebody, I think it was an editor at Delray or something. I pitched my book as a political book about such and such. They listened and like, “Oh. You mean political intrigue. Not political book. Make sure you add that word intrigue on when you do this pitch in the future…”
[Howard] To somebody else. To somebody who is not me.
[Margaret] But solid advice for a free sound rejection.
[Brandon] Yeah. I always thought, oh, I was presenting… Because what I really did mean was a political intrigue book. I was not writing a book about politics, it was about the fun of not knowing all the answers and having a character who doesn’t know who they can trust.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I think… I mean, the word intrigue, it is intriguing, it is engaging, the curiosity of it, the quest for answers. I sometimes joke that… And it’s not really a joke… That the third book in the Glamorous Histories, Without a Summer, is a political intrigue disguised as a Regency romance. It is all about the way things are shaped in court, and although my characters wind up being somewhat peripheral to it, it is all about shifting those dynamics.
[Brandon] I can…
[Howard] It’s worth pointing out that in Season 11, when we talked about the Elemental Genres, we drew a distinction between mystery and thriller. Re-listening to those episodes as we talk about political intrigue might be useful, because in some cases, the mystery is I want to answer the question. In thrillers, often it’s I already kind of know what the answer to the question is, but I don’t know why this is happening. There’s looking for the answer, and then there’s looking for a way out.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I sometimes think about political intrigues as a heist of information.
[Brandon] Yeah. I think that that’s a…
[Howard] Info heist.
[Brandon] That’s a great way to put it. When I’m looking at this, it’s often you don’t know other people’s motivations. The main character is trying to figure out where does this person lie, where do their allegiances lie? What are their actual goals? And these sorts of things. As I was thinking about political intrigue, I realized a lot of what I write is political intrigue. Because, if you want to have fast-paced intense fantasy, one way is people always fighting, but that kind of gets boring to me very quickly. So the next step for that is trying to figure out people’s motivations, and the plots they’re pulling, and things like that.
[Mary Robinette] It is ultimately about trying… There is a character who’s trying to shift a balance of power.
[Brandon] Yeah.
[Mary Robinette] That is a key element to a political intrigue, is that shift of power.
[Margaret] I think… Because sometimes the political intrigue can definitely be the informational heist of trying to obtain information. But that doesn’t mean that necessarily it’s a quest for something, like that is a part of the guise of I am trying to accomplish my goal of X, and it is made difficult by the fact of the shifting sands that are all around me.
[Howard] It’s worth looking at a couple of terms here. The term political. It’s easy to get bogged down in current politics, or current events. Really, what’s meant here is balances of power. Who has power over who else? How are these powers related? How is this power expressed? This group has power because they control the military. This group has power because they control the making of laws. Understanding that when you’re thinking of the word political is critically important. As is just politics at like the university level or the family level. On the intrigue side of things, the term that I fall back on is informational advantage. Which is something that comes up all the time in sociology. The idea that one group has informational advantages over somebody else, and that gives them power that cannot be disrupted until, coming back to Mary’s heist of information, until the information has flowed the other way and the advantage doesn’t exist anymore.

[Margaret] What you were saying reminded me of the idea that power can take many different forms. One of the classes that I teach fairly frequently is one in adaptation. Where we ask students to take a piece of literature in the public domain and change it somehow. I had one student, he was adapting Macbeth. But he adapt… He set it in a junior high school classroom.
[Margaret] So you had all of the political machinations of Macbeth, but it was all revolving around, it’s not the crown of Scotland, it’s who’s got social and political capital inside this group of tween’s. So it doesn’t necessarily have to deal with kings or presidents or government, if you’re talking about political intrigue.
[Brandon] Absolutely. I mean, the number of times that a Shakespearean political intrigue story has been re-done as a teen high school drama… I think you would be shocked to see how many times they’ve done that and how well it translates.
[Margaret] Or as a motorcycle gang.
[Yeah. Yeah.]
[Mary Robinette] The thing is that… That’s important about this is that when we’re talking about this shift of power and capital, we’re not talking about the shift of physical power. Which is why Avengers: Civil War is not a political intrigue at all. Even though it is very much about a shift of power.
[Brandon] Right. Whereas…
[Mary Robinette] Winter Soldier kind of is, though.
[Brandon] Winter Soldier kind of is. Yes. Exactly. That’s a very good way to put it. So my question to you is, and this is coming from the professor mind where… I get a lot of students who obviously are trying to do this, and it is b o r i n g…

[Brandon] So boring. How do you keep this from being boring, and highlight what makes it interesting?
[Mary Robinette] The same way you do it with everything. Stakes. And giving us a reason to care. What happens if the character fails to accomplish this thing? Why do we care that they’re going after this information? If we don’t care, we’re not… It doesn’t matter how compelling you make breaking into some place, it doesn’t matter, any of that, if we don’t care. That means telling us about their motivations, that means telling us about the physical visceral sensations that they have when they’re trying to hack into a database, or use their mystical powers, whatever it is. If we aren’t getting those things, it doesn’t matter what set piece you’ve got, it’s going to be dull.
[Margaret] To me, it’s that machinations have to result in actions, and actions have to result in complications and ramifications. Things that change… The shifting status quo has to actually be shifting. You don’t want a bunch of people sitting around scheming, but nobody ever actually does anything.
[Brandon] I think that’s part of the problem my students run into. I think part of the other problem is that they assume just like action, that political intrigue is naturally interesting. So you get these chapters where they forget they need to establish rooting interest and sympathy for a character, and then just immediately dump the political situation on us. They start, this is a young prince at court, and here’s the politics of what this person’s behind the throne and all that. You’re like, I don’t care yet. So since I don’t care yet, I don’t want to know who’s trying to secretly pull the strings. I want to see this character and see the impact on their immediate life, and make sure that I’m interested, and then start layering this on.
[Howard] If I need to know who is motivated to kill the CEO, then it’s useful for me to know a little bit about the lines of succession to being the CEO or what happens if there is no CEO. But relaying that information to me organically through the story versus narrating to me the constitution of the corporation of the book that you are writing…
[Mary Robinette] I’m getting bored…
[Howard] Are two completely different things.
[Mary Robinette] Just listening to you.
[Howard] Yes…
[Margaret] I think there’s an assumption sometimes that in order to understand or be interested in a chess game, you have to see the entire board.
[Mary Robinette] Oh, yeah.
[Margaret] In terms… For chess, yes, that is literally true. But for metaphorical chess, often you want to, as you say, reveal things more organically. Stick to your point of view and let this get discovered…
[Howard] Position the camera right over the bishop’s shoulder at what the bishop is aiming at diagonally, and suddenly we’re invested in the direction that the bishop can go.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. I’m going to make the argument that you have to see the entire board to play chess. You don’t have to see it to watch chess.
[Margaret] Oooo!
[Brandon] Well, I also would make the point that playing chess when somebody else can see the entire board but you can’t is part of what a lot of political intrigue stories are about.
[Mary Robinette] That’s true.
[Margaret] Oh, yeah.
[Brandon] Right. Somebody is moving all these pieces, but you can only move this little one.
[Margaret] Well, how long of a driver in Game of Thrones is it that… The Starks arrive in King’s Landing and all of this stuff is going on, and it’s Ned blundering around in the dark trying to figure out what’s actually happening.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. I’m going to pitch at you The Star Touched Queen by Roshani Choshki. This is a fantastic book. I love this book. You probably don’t need me to tell you that. I mean, it was a finalist for the Locus Award and various other major awards. It is a really cool political intrigue story that starts in the political intrigue of a secondary fantastical world based on Indian history and mythologies, where the main character is part of a harem. She’s grown up in the harem. She’s the daughter of the king. We start to inch into political intrigue, until it turns about-face and turns into political intrigue in the world of Faerie from Indian mythology. That happens very naturally, but also very surprisingly in a very cool way very early in the story. From then on, you’re like, “Oh. She was having to play 2D chess where she didn’t know all the pieces, and now she’s playing 7D chess and she doesn’t even know what kinds of creatures are playing on the playing field with her.” It is written beautifully. The language is beautiful. The intrigue is interesting. The mythology is fascinating. It is just a really well done book. So that is The Star Touched Queen by Roshani Choshki.

[Brandon] So let me bring it back to you guys. One of the questions that I have is when you’re doing political intrigue, and when you’re reading it, often times you will eventually find out the machinations of the villain, who was behind the scenes, and it is the most convoluted…
[Brandon] They were… Their method of winning this chess game was to have like 17 different things that don’t mean anything, and at the end, they’re like, “Ha Ha! I’ve won this.” It just… It really bothers me when the brilliant machinations come to fruition and they’re kind of dumb.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah. I have a lot of problems with that, where you’re like, “There are really a lot easier ways to accomplish that. Why didn’t you…”
[Howard] One of my favorite lines… It’s from one of the Lois McMaster Bujold Miles Vorkosigan books is, from somebody who’s doing this political chicanery, and she says, “I don’t plan a path to victory. I plan so that all paths lead to victory.”
[Mary Robinette] Interesting.
[Howard] As you unravel what this character is doing, you see, yes, it was convoluted, but it was convoluted because depending on the things other people do, you put me on a different path that leads to me winning. That’s super interesting. But when it’s super convoluted because all of these things need to work exactly right for me to cross the finish line, suspension of disbelief fails.
[Margaret] I will say for… I was going to comment, on the flipside, so I don’t know if you want to duck in first?
[Howard] Go.
[Margaret] The first television show I ever worked on was called The Middleman, and the catchphrase of all of the villains on that show was, “My plan is sheer elegance in its simplicity.” The plan was never simple. Ever. I believe if we had had Season Two, it would have become, “My plan is sheer elegance in its draconian complexity.”
[Margaret] You can use that to great comic effect. Phineas and Ferb does this really well. Dr. Doofenschmirtz has a very simple problem with a very simple solution, which he decides to solve in arcane ways that don’t work.
[Howard] It’s Pinky and the Brain.
[Margaret] Exactly.
[Howard] The Brain… Yeah.
[Mary Robinette] So a lot of times these plots are in fact a Rube Goldberg machine. The way I handle it is that I actually plot my villain like a hero story, so that they pick the simplest solution possible. All of the plot complications are them compensating for things going wrong.
[Howard] Well, when we come back to the idea of intrigue, and the term informational advantage, the complexities for political intrigue plots are often I have a very straightforward path and it remains straightforward if I have kept secrets from the following people. If I have informational advantage at all of these stages, then I will win. Now, once you as a writer have plotted that out, you switch sides to your heroes, and you now have a big list of obstacles that they need to clear in order to succeed, and they don’t even know what the obstacles are.
[Mary Robinette] I think, again, highlighting the fact that secrets are really important in political intrigue.

[Brandon] All right. Well, let’s go ahead and go to our homework.
[Margaret] Yes. The homework this week is to take a classic fairytale, something like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Little Mermaid, whatever floats your particular boat. Take that story. Now assume the story we know is only a cover. What was actually going on? Incorporate as many details from the original story as you would like. If baby bear had the smallest serving of porridge, why wasn’t it the coldest? Why did they leave their breakfast on the table when they went out walking, anyway? Come up with the undercurrents that explains what we see on the surface.
[Howard] Goldilocks and Three Russian Bears.
[Margaret] Da.
[Brandon] This is my favorite one we’ve come up with, so I’m really looking forward to what you guys come up with. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.


Writing Excuses 14.23: Governments Large and Small

From https://writingexcuses.com/2019/06/09/14-23-governments-large-and-small/

Key points: Bureaucracy, meritocracy, monarchy, Howardarchy, rabbits? How do you worldbuild governments? Look at the power structures in which you live, the expressions of power, the expressions of control. Autocratic, democratic, meritocratic? How do you make political intrigue interesting? Someone to hate, to vilify, a villain! How do you enforce things? Drama can be how do you navigate the system and overcome the constraints. Worldbuilding elements? How do you design and enforce laws? Taxes! The allocation of resources. Four estates: executive, judiciary, legislative, and the press. Where does power come from, who holds it? Communications. Succession.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 23.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Governments Large and Small.
[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] We are in a bureaucracy. No, we’re really not. We have a lot of paper, though.
[Howard] We’re in a meritocracy.
[Brandon] I wish.
[Dan] No. We wouldn’t be on the show anymore.
[Brandon] Actually…
[Dan] It would just be our guest cohosts.
[Brandon] Government.
[Howard] That’s… What kind of ocracy are we in? We’re not here by merit. We’re here because we got here first.
[Brandon] That’s right.
[Dan] Okay.
[Brandon] There’s a government for us. We started it, so… It’s our thing.
[Howard] It is… What do you call it, inherited power?
[Dan] [garbled There’s a white guy dipped in there somewhere]
[Howard] Besides monarchy, but that’s not… It’s not monarchy, it’s…
[Dan] [garbled]
[Brandon] We’re just going to call this a Howardarchy…
[Brandon] That…
[Dan] That’s a great word.
[Howard] That’s terrible.
[Brandon] So…
[Dan] It sounds like a great name for a rabbit.
[Howard] Okay. So we’re talking about governments large and small.
[Brandon] Yes.
[Howard] And looking at if you’re going to worldbuild governments, start by looking at power structures in which you live. Because… I mean, the very word government. Governing is an expression of power, an expression of control. What are the methods by which your family is governed? What are the methods by which you personally govern yourself? What are the methods by which your workplace is governed? Are these things… Does it feel autocratic, does it feel democratic? Does it feel meritocratic? People got here because they know how to do things well, so we all kind of agreed that they should be in charge because they do it better than anybody else? Looking at those things at the level where you live is probably the fastest way to learn how to make it interesting when you’re trying to write about it in stories.
[Brandon] Well. That’s… This has been Writing Excuses…
[Howard] [garbled That was autocracy]

[Brandon] I’m going to… Let’s play off of that idea right there. One of the things… Every time I kind of bring up politics is a story… A method of telling a story, people’s eyes seem to glaze over. I remember back… Way back when Dan and I were going to conventions and pitching things to people, I pitched to an editor at Delray and I said, “Well, it’s a political book with political intrigue and stuff.” He’s like, “Never lead by telling someone it’s a book about political intrigue. They will get so bored so quickly.” I’m like, “But lots of books are about political intrigue.” That is the entire Game of Thrones series. So how… Obviously, it can be made to be interesting. How do you do that?
[Mahtab] You have one person who you can all hate. Which is why…
[Dan] House of Cards.
[Mahtab] I mean, that can… Yeah. Monarchy. That’s why it works so well, is because… That’s why I don’t think democracies work so well unless you have one person who’s the face of the democracy that you can identify as someone who is probably doing wrong, and then… I think you need one person to vilify, basically.
[Brandon] Okay. So for…
[Howard] George Orwell’s 1984. You had to have the two minute hate, because we had to have something to center around to not like. I think that we often conflate politics with sociology and economics and ecology and all kinds of other things. Politics is fascinating because it is the way in which power is wielded over other people. You can have a belief that everybody should have free food. You can have a belief that everybody should starve unless they can win a sword fight. You can adopt these two social logical beliefs. How do you enforce that? Do you enforce that was sword fighting? Do you enforce that with money? Do you enforce that… How does that work? That is where it becomes political. For me, when you talk about political intrigue, what you’re talking about is people wielding power over other people. Ripping the rug out from under them so that they no longer have the power they thought they had. It’s less about political position and more about…
[Brandon] About changes and power dynamics.
[Howard] More about the musculature, more about the arm bar, the…
[Dan] Yeah. What fascinates me about political stories, political fiction, is the movement within the rules. So, earlier I mentioned House of Cards which was the Netflix series which I loved and tell Kevin Spacey imploded. Also, the British series, The Thick of It, which was then remade into the American series Veep. Those are fascinating and fantastic shows that show the inner workings of government. They’re fascinating because every episode is more or less we need to accomplish X. How? We can’t just go and do it because there’s a bureaucracy in the way. So we need to get a favor from this guy. Then we need to get this woman on our side. Then we need to give them a quid pro quo, and do something for them, so that they’ll do something for us. Watching all of the hoops that have to be jumped through and watching the political strategizing that goes on, that’s what makes it fascinating. So I almost think… There are certain aspects of political fiction in which a single hateful figure, like a dictator are very valuable. I think that’s one of the reasons we default to dictators so much, because it gives us a villain. But I think you can get just as much drama out of the constraints placed on how do we navigate this system. So it’s not so much that there is a face that we can hate as just the red tape we have to cut through.
[Mahtab] But even though I said it’s good to have a monarchy or a dictatorship or you have one person… Just thinking back to rural India, where you do not have one person, but you have a panchayat, which is basically five elders of the village who sit down and mediate. That is their political, or their government, basically. I mean, you do have a federal government, you do have a state government. But in the villages, it is the five people who control the fate of the rest of the villagers. So it could be anything from domestic violence to crime to rape to whatever, and it’s these five people. Sometimes they come up with really good solutions, and sometimes they are just as corrupt. So, they could all collude and pass judgment. So, you have to see the framework in which your setting that government. To have a dictatorship in a rural Indian setting may not work. But having this kind… It’s good to kind of explore what would work in a certain society based on their culture, their norms, what they believe in, who they look up to. Because elders are respected in India. I don’t see that kind of respect in North America where people are questioned, even if they’re…
[Dan] We don’t respect anybody.
[Mahtab] Teachers and elders. I don’t see the kind of respect that they get. That comes from the cultural aspect of India where you respect your elders, even if they’re wrong, you respect them and you pretty much do what they say.

[Brandon] Let’s do a book of the week, Dan.
[Dan] So, our book of the week is A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. This is a Tor book that I absolutely love. It gave me the same kind of political espionage science fiction vibe that Dune did. It’s a very different book, but it still has that flavor. It’s about a diplomat from a space station society who is traveling to the heart of this massive intergalactic Empire to be the new ambassador there in the midst of a huge crisis. It has some really cool technology, it has some incredible cultural stuff. There’s kind of ritualized communication and poetry is the way that this big civilization talks to each other. But really, it’s kind of a murder mystery that can only be solved by navigating the kind of underbelly of this government. It’s just really good. I really love it. The language is beautiful and the culture is fascinating and the politics in it are just vicious.
[Brandon] A Memory Called Empire.
[Dan] Yes.

[Brandon] So, next week we’re going to dive… Do a deep dive into political intrigue itself. So, for the remainder of this discussion, I want to back up just a little bit and talk about the actual worldbuilding elements. What are things that our listeners need to take into account and consideration when they are worldbuilding specifically a government? I’m talking about, for instance, one of the most important purposes for a government is to design the laws. What is legal, and what is not? Who decides that, how is it arrived upon, and how is it enforced? These sorts of things. What other things do people have to consider when they’re building a government?
[Mahtab] Taxes.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mahtab] Taxes is a… I mean, most people hate taxes, they would question it. Why would people be taxed for certain things, and… If they didn’t pay it, or what is the… What are the taxes paid for and how are they paid? That could be a very interesting story. There was a… We were just talking about it, there was a movie called Lagaan, which is taxes raised on villages during the British Empire. The only way to get out of it was for the villagers to play cricket. If they lost, they would have to pay three times the taxes. But because the villagers were so bowed under the weight of it, they took that risk and they went ahe… It’s brilliant, but I think taxes is a huge point.
[Howard] Even… Take taxes and pull a step back from that. Ask yourself, what is the… How is the government managing the allocation of resources? Is it possible, in your fiction or science fiction thing, for a government to govern, to operate in a way where resources don’t need to be allocated to it? Where it can allocate its own resources? It doesn’t need taxes, because it has its own source of power, money, whatever. These are fun questions to ask. The… I guess… I come back around to the way in which power is expressed a lot. I like the model, the four estate model, we talk about a lot in the US, where you have an executive branch where power is expressed in terms of enforcing laws. The military, the police. The execution of judgment. You have a Judiciary branch in which power is expressed through interpretation of law. You have a legislative branch in which power is expressed through the creation of law. You have the fourth estate, where power is expressed through the dissemination of information to the people who vote for all of the people who make, execute, and interpret the laws. It’s a really elegant sort of model, that says nothing about conservatism or liberalism or progressivism or green or whatever. It’s all about the way in which power is expressed. I love looking at that model, and then finding ways to break it, in the same way that governments break in our world. Which is, when somebody crosses between two domains of expression of power, so they now have more power than they otherwise would.
[Dan] So, another way to look at power is, where does the power come from, and who holds it? I remember reading this really compelling essay about… Talking about the difference between United States government and the European governments that many of us came from. United States government was formed after the invention of the gun. Which means that people were able to defend themselves and did not need a government to protect them. So we have a completely different attitude about the power government should have, the amount of allegiance that we owe to our government, the amount of things we rely on our government for than the European governments that have existed since the feudal times when you needed a lord to protect you. So looking at… Well, when was this government created? How… Under what circumstances was this government created, and how has that affected the way they perceive it?

[Brandon] Two things we haven’t talked about, also. Historically, one of the main reasons that governments collapsed is that they weren’t able to rule a large enough area. They captured more land than they were able to communicate with quickly and maintain control of. So one of the things that I suggest, if you’re creating a fantasy government, is look at how is the information getting around. How is this far-off piece of your Empire being governed? How realistic is that? Before you get to easy, quick communication, it’s very hard to maintain a large government. It will collapse under its own weight. Or you’ll have to do some of the things that they tried in some of the early Western governments, where they would have… There would be three kings, kind of, who all worked as one, and they each had this little part that they were king of. But together they were one government. Find ways to try and rule something bigger than one person can rule. The other thing we haven’t talked about is succession. How does the power change hands in this government?
[Howard] Larry Niven’s story called One Face, which I love for its expression of… Political intrigue is kind of the wrong way, wrong word, but the succession of power. A spaceship, hyperspace, gets knocked out of hyperspace, they don’t know where they are. Their computer isn’t working right. The computer is really smart though, but it’s not quite working right. They figure out, oh, we actually made it back to Sol system, but the sun got bigger and ate Mercury and Earth now only has one face. All of… So Earth is a dead planet. We have no idea what to do. They ask the computer, “Do you have any suggestions? What should we do?” The computer is dying, and the computer says, “Promote the astrophysicist to Captain.” Then it dies. I love that, because what it says is, the wrong person is in charge. You put this person in charge, he can solve the problem. Now I’m dead. The problem is… Well, we gotta find a way to spin Earth again. Because everything you guys need is frozen on the other side of it. You just crashed, and you can’t see it yet. But the astrophysicist is going to figure that out. So, I love… Sure, I’ve spoiled the story for you. But that whole aspect of succession where God, if you will, has said, “Look, he needs to be king. I’m not telling you why. I’m out.”
[Mahtab] I’ll still read it. It sounds interesting.
[Dan] I love this idea of succession. One of my favorite movies is called The Lion in Winter. Which is about Eleanor of Aquitaine and her husband who is probably named Edward and then their children, Richard the Lion Hearted, Prince Lackland, and the third one no one remembers. The entire story takes place over one night in which the two parents are trying to decide which of their sons will inherit. We have this concept of royal primogeniture, which, yes, existed. But if the wrong son was going to inherit, you had ways of making sure he didn’t. So they’re trying to decide which one is going to take over when the king dies. It is constant political scheming, backbiting, stabbing, murdering, sleeping around… All in the course of one night. It’s fantastic.

[Brandon] We are out of time. Howard, you’ve got some homework for us?
[Howard] Yes. I’ve been beating on this drum already. But I’m going to let you guys pound on it now. The four estate model. Executive, legislative, judiciary, and the press. Find expressions of power that are outside of that, or that are subdivisions of that. Create your own numbered model in which government, or society, because the four estate model is larger than just government, in which expression of power within your society is categorized and build your governments around that.
[Brandon] Awesome. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.


Writing Excuses 14.22: Characters out of Their Depth

From https://writingexcuses.com/2019/06/02/14-22-characters-out-of-their-depth/

Key Points: Watson (aka The Howard, cabbage head, gateway character, Bilbo, the apprentice) can help by getting things explained to them. It gives readers someone that they can ride along with and get introduced to the universe. Writers can use this to introduce a concept and drive it home. It gives the audience someone to identify with, who is getting oriented and figuring things out. Give them an arc of growth. Avoid using them for “As you know, Bob” explanations. Sometimes make them (and the audience) work to understand things. Buddy cops are a good example. Make sure your Watson has agency! Sometimes you want the reader to be confused, but ground them first, show that they can trust you, then… hit them (and your Watson) with confusion. Don’t just bury the reader in confusion, pick the ones that are important. And remember, Watson, sometimes what’s important is that the dog didn’t bark.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 22.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Characters out of Their Depth.
[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 in over my head.

[Brandon] Yes. We’re going to talk about characters who are in a little bit or a lot over their heads. Let’s get right into this. I often really like the idea of a Watson character. This is a character who fills the role in the plot that they get things explained to them. Based, obviously, off of Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories.
[Dan] He’s also sometimes referred to as the Howard.
[Brandon] The Howard. Yes, the Howard. The cabbage head.
[Howard] That has been my contribution to…
[Howard] The body of world literature for the last decade.
[Mary Robinette] It’s appreciated.
[Brandon] So. Why, number one, would we want characters to be out of their depth and…
[Howard] I need a job.
[Brandon] Why, then, put them in and then take such efforts to explain things to them?
[Howard] The simplest way to explain this to non-genre fiction readers is if you are picking up genre fiction for the first time, these things are not going to make sense to you unless there is a character to whom it can be explained. You get to ride along with that character and get introduced to this universe. For people who are familiar with genre fiction, for people who love hard sci-fi or deep magic secondary world fantasy, often, they expect just to be immersed and having a Watson, having a Howard in the book isn’t all that important to them. But it’s still useful if you are trying to introduce a concept and drive it home so that it doesn’t get forgotten. Something with particular import.
[Mary Robinette] In children’s theater, we call this the gateway character. It is the character with whom the audience identifies.
[Howard] That’s much friendlier to me.
[Mary Robinette] The idea is that the character is going through a similar experience to the audience, so the audience doesn’t know what’s going on, they’re having trouble being oriented. So having a character who is doing that, who is actively proceeding through being oriented and figuring things out gives the audience a gateway into something that would otherwise be inaccessible. It’s an important character to have in children’s stage and fiction as well, because that’s basically a child’s experience of life.
[Howard] Everything is new to them.
[Brandon] This is why you see portal fantasies a lot in middle grade. Much more so than you see in science fiction and fantasy for older readers, just because the same thing, it lowers the learning curve. It also is shared experience.
[Dan] Well, that… I was going to mention fantasy, too. Because we’re calling this the Watson character, but that’s exactly the role that Bilbo plays as well. Hobbits in general. They have never left the Shire, they have never seen the cool stuff we’re exploring. Countless apprentice figures in epic fantasy are filling this role.
[Howard] Lines like… Now I don’t remember the line… Where Samwise is talking about he’s only heard of these things in songs. These things are only heard of in legend. Then he meets them and they are different, they are relatable. It’s incredibly powerful.

[Dan] Well, to get back to your question, why would you use this kind of character? One of the roles that it serves, if you’re doing this kind of apprentice, the Bilbo version instead of the Watson version, is that the character’s going to change. So suddenly we have an arc of growth. So we’re giving… We’re dropping someone in over their head, and then watching them learn how to swim.
[Mary Robinette] They also provide a really easy way to do exposition for your worldbuilding. So they serve a number of different functions. I’ve just been reading Becky Chambers The Long Way To a Small, Angry Planet. Rosemary, who is one of the major point of view characters, has never been on a long haul deep space ship. She grew up on Mars. She is in over her head. She’s very competent in one area. All of the other areas, she’s read, she’s got book learning, but she doesn’t know. Because a great deal of what this story is, is the long journey to the small, angry planet, what winds up happening is that as they get farther into the territory, more… It’s interesting, because more and more of the characters wind up becoming Watson characters.

[Brandon] This is where I was going to go next. You two have both pre-answered my question.
[Dan] Aha!
[Brandon] Because you are so smart. But, my question is, a lot of times, these sorts of characters, particularly when done maybe shallowly, become audience favorites to hate. The opposite of an audience favorite. Whatever that is. They pile on this character, because this character is so often… Dan and I have a joke about a certain property that we will…
[Dan] Oh, I was totally going to mention it.
[Brandon] Leave unmentioned where the Watson character… You just get so tired of having to have things explained…
[Dan] This person not knowing anything.
[Brandon] That you just check out from that character. You’re not interested in them at all. So. How do you avoid that? Dan pre-answered it by saying making them have an arc. Which automatically builds our interest in them. How else can you make one of these characters work without being…
[Mary Robinette] Avoid… A lot of times, the things that are being explained to the Watson character are really an As you know, Bob. They are things that the character should know, and sometimes there are things that the audience already knows. It’s annoying. It’s like, “But we know this.”
[Brandon] Right.
[Howard] Force the Watson character… Don’t give them as much information as you were planning on giving them, and give them the moment where they still don’t understand, and then they put it together. That’s… I wanted to bring up the… It’s almost a workshop in Watson characters and exposition, and that is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In which Arthur Dent knows nothing, and every time he asks questions, Ford says, “Read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Then the narrator reads the book to us and gives us the exposition. I’m not saying that this is a brilliant and perfect way to have done it. I’m saying that in terms of story structure, you can look at this and you can see, these are when we needed to know these things, and it’s very clearly telegraphed. If you look at it in terms of the outline of the story itself, there’s a lot to be learned there.
[Dan] Okay. One way to do this is the buddy cop. A lot of people don’t consider the buddy cop to be a kind of fish out of water character over their head thing, because really it’s two. You’ve got Jackie Chan, who doesn’t know anything about LA, and you’ve got Chris Tucker, who doesn’t know anything about Chinese culture. The two of them have to work together. So they’re each an expert, and in over their head at the same time, and are bouncing off of each other constantly.
[Mary Robinette] That is a really good example, because it equalizes the power dynamic.
[Dan] Exactly.
[Mary Robinette] A lot of that is, when the Watson character can become annoying, is that they… Not only are they a fish out of water, but… In terms of knowledge base, but that also reduces their agency and hierarchy. It’s fine in a short story, like the Holmes things, because you don’t have to sustain it. But an entire novel of that can get draining.
[Brandon] You’ll notice… At least I’ve noticed, in different adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, Watson is dumber in some of them than he is in others. You read the original stories, he’s actually a very competent, smart person who is just not as smart as Holmes. So, you read this, and you’re like, “Wow. Watson’s smarter than me. Holmes is even smarter than him.” Rather than being like, “Oh, Watson, you idiot.”
[Howard] I dearly love the CBS Sherlock Holmes, the Elementary with Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. Because Watson is so sharp. We get a character arc for Watson in which we are introduced to Holmes deductive methods very Watsonianly…
[Howard] For lack of a better term. But once you’re embedded in the series, boy, she’s smart.
[Dan] Well, what’s really going on there is the thing that we talk about all the time, is the elements are doing more than one thing. Watson is not just there to be the cabbage head. She’s there to do many other things as well. That makes for an interesting and cool character.

[Brandon] Let’s pause to talk about a time when I was a cabbage head.
[Dan] Oooh!
[Brandon] Yes. This is very fun. I ran across, a little while ago, a video essay on YouTube by a creator called Super Eyepatch Wolf. This essay is called Why Pro Wrestling Is Fascinating. Why professional wrestling is fascinating. I am one of those people who always in the back of my mind smirked or even sneered a little bit about professional wrestling and all those people, all those fools, who would participate and partake in this media. I watched this essay. I saw someone who was deeply passionate and connected to something that was very outside my own experience. A lot of this essay is about Pro wrestling in Japan. The author’s love of this just beamed, shone through to the point that I was so invested in these characters in the Japanese Pro Wrestling Federation I knew nothing about before this essay. It just knocked me off my high horse. Taught me how someone loves a narrative that I am not familiar with but I could totally see myself loving. It just taught me a whole bunch about life and understanding other people’s passions about the world. So, if you, like me perhaps, have looked down your nose at some piece of media, perhaps Pro wrestling itself, go watch this essay. Because watching someone who is an expert in their field talk about something they love can really show you that we’re all cabbage heads sometimes. It’s part of life, and it’s a good thing.

[Brandon] There’s one more topic along these lines I really want to touch on in this particular podcast. That is talking about scenes where you want the reader to be a little confused. Because I’ve noticed, in a lot of new writers, when I’m reading their writing, they’ll often put in things that are intended to be confusing. Worldbuilding elements that haven’t been explained yet, and the readers, the feedback will be, “Well, I’m really confused.” The author says, “Aha. You’re supposed to be.” That’s a good instinct. You don’t want to give readers everything upfront, you want to leave them questioning and wondering. But it goes wrong when you’re reading it as a reader and you think, “I’m confused and I don’t want to read anymore because it just keeps getting more confusing.” As opposed to, “I’m confused, but the character’s confused, and I’m excited to find out the answers.” How do you distinguish between these two things?
[Mary Robinette] I think… The answer is actually somewhat embedded in the way you phrased the question. Which is I’m confused, and the character is confused. One of the things that does is it puts your reading experience in alignment with the character, which can give you a more intimate experience. The other thing is that it lets you know that it’s a design state. It’s like if the character is confused, then this isn’t supposed to be something that is easy to understand. That’s one of the functions that the cabbage head character can have for you, is that… To signpost that design state. For me, one of the other things is to… Is that you need to be selective about the things that you want the reader to be confused about. When I see this, a lot of times, the writer has delivered a bunch of different confusing things. So you have nothing to ground you. So, for me, what I do what I have something that I want… That is deliberately supposed to be confusing, is that I make sure that my reader is grounded on a couple of different things, so that there’s some trust and a little bit of orientation before I hit them with something that is confusing. One of my favorite examples of this is actually in Buckaroo Banzai, which is… It’s a throwaway line. But they’re on a tour of the Banzai house, with the Jeff Goldblum character. They walk into the room, and they’ve clearly been talking about other things that they have been touring through, and there’s a little bit of, “Oh, yeah. You did that thing with the flux capacitor, and that’s fascinating…” Flux capacitor is wrong, but we’ll just keep going. “Oscillation overdrive. You did that.” And then, “Why is that watermelon in the vise?” “I’ll tell you later.” They keep going, and they never actually come back to it. But what it does for you is it says there are going to be some things in this world you understand, and there are going to be some things that you don’t. But there are people here who will guide you through this. It is… It’s such a simple throwaway line, but it is very much a trust building thing.
[Brandon] It’s also a perfect example of something we talked about last month, which is using setting details to reinforce theme by having this setting detail that they promised to explain, but they don’t. It actually leaves you saying, “Ah, there’s just so much more to this world.”
[Howard] I think another good example of it is the 2016, 2017 BBC adaptations of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. There are scenes in there where it is an avalanche of this doesn’t make any sense. It’s a huge amount of information. It’s the sort of thing that you would put down the book, would turn off the TV, and then the Watson character says, “Wha… Dirk? What is going on? How is all of this related?” Dirk says, “I don’t know. I just know that it’s going to be.” Suddenly we get it. Oh. This is what a holistic detective does. The point of this is that all of this information doesn’t make sense now. You’ve just promised me that you’re going to tie it together later. I loved that. I was absolutely onboard at that moment.
[Dan] Another example that comes to mind is Thor: Ragnarok. When Thor first arrives on the crazy, weird planet with no powers and has no idea what’s going on, he’s very much in over his head, and all the initial stuff with like the people picking through the junkyard is very confusing and never really gets explained. What makes it work is when the woman shows up, when Valkyrie shows up. The fact there are now suddenly two factions stabilizes that world, and we realize, “Oh, I don’t necessarily have to understand all of this, because I know now that there are two different groups of people that can interact with it in different ways.” That makes it seem much smoother without really telling you anything.

[Brandon] We’re going to go ahead and break here. Howard, you have some homework for us.
[Howard] Yes. Pick something you haven’t read, something you haven’t watched, something that is new to you. If you got Netflix, you open up Netflix and turn to something maybe you just wouldn’t watch otherwise. Watch the first five minutes with a note card or notebook or something in your hand. Then stop and write down all of the questions you have. Make a list of the stuff that didn’t make sense. If it’s a book, five pages, 10 pages, I don’t know where the cutoff mark will be for you. But you consume a portion of the media, right at the beginning, write down all of your questions. Now, continue to consume. Continue to watch, continue to read. Look at your list of questions and see which ones got answered. See which ones turned out to not be important. See which questions you didn’t even get around to asking that turned out to be important.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.


Writing Excuses 14.21: Writing The Other – Yes, You Can

From https://writingexcuses.com/2019/05/26/14-21-writing-the-other-yes-you-can/

Key points: Does #ownvoices mean you can’t write inclusive, representational, diverse fiction? No! Yes, you can write the other! Do the work to get it right, don’t be so afraid you don’t try. Resist the default, and represent the world we live in, with all the richness and complexity it has. Write the best character of that identity. Do the research, read books, talk to people, listen to feedback. Do your due diligence, your homework, and do a good job. Bad representation often looks like bad writing, with a character acting as stand-in for an entire culture or identity. People are more complex than that! Give your characters specificity. Read magazines aimed at that group. Talk to people. Read 100 books, fiction, nonfiction, children’s books. People don’t pitch fits about books they love, but… criticism happens. Don’t worry about taking up space by doing this, help lift the boat for everyone by promoting the great authors you find. Do your best, give it your best effort, and be ready to take your lumps.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 21.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses. Writing The Other – Yes, You Can.
[Tempest] 15 minutes long.
[Dongwon] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Tempest] I’m Tempest.
[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.

[Dan] Awesome. We have been talking about Writing the Other a couple of times so far this year. There’s one question that we get a lot. I would go so far as to say the single most common question we get on this podcast whenever we talk about diversity or decolonized writing or any kind of writing the other at all, which is, “But I’m not from that thing. What about #ownvoices? I’m not allowed to do this.” Tempest, what do we do?
[Tempest] Well, first of all, like I wanted to talk about this in specific because, in addition to like that sort of general question, “Ah, what do I do?” But I also hear a lot of writers who come to me and they say, “I wrote a book and it has a character who is black and I’m white or is disabled and I’m abled or whatever. I took it to my editor, took it to my agent, and they said oh, you can’t do that, because #ownvoices, like, you just can’t.” I’m like, “Uh, that’s incorrect, oh, I’m so sorry.” Because then they come to me and they’re like, “Well, what do I do, because I want to write inclusive fiction, I want to write representational and diverse fiction, but my agent or my editor or a potential agent or a potential editor is saying I can’t?” So, I was just like, no, I don’t want people to think that this is a problem. Because I understand some of the impetus behind it, because yes, #ownvoices fiction is very important. But at the same time, I don’t just want people to only write characters who are like them. I teach classes on Writing the Other, I’m very invested in the idea that you can. But I also want to talk through like some of the reasons why agents or editors might say this, and some of the things that you can come back to them with. Dongwon is here because I really wanted to ask him, like, “Do you know why… Have you heard this said, and do you know why it is that editors and agents might say this to an author?”
[Dongwon] I have a strong sense of why agents and editors are saying this, or why there’s a perception that people will say this. I suspect it’s happening less than it sounds like it is. Or people are misinterpreting what is being said in some ways. That said, one of the things we really need to do to fix this in the long term is get more diversity, more representation of different cultures, inside publishing houses, so that people who are actually informed about how this conversation should go are in decision-making positions. Right now, what’s happening is you have two people who may not know the situation talking to each other and trying to figure out how to get it right. Right? So if you have a white editor and a white agent and a white author, all trying to figure out how do we publish this book with a black protagonist, it increases the odds of getting it wrong. I think the fear can kind of magnify as they are in that conversation. One thing I want to say is a lot of this is coming from fear, right? Is coming from fear that you’re going to get in trouble, you’re going to get yelled at, your book’s going to get canceled, whatever it is. I think there is some value to that. I think the fear can be a good thing in some ways. Because it means you’re going to put the extra work in to get it right. That said, I don’t want you to be so afraid that you don’t even try. Because the thing that we really need to resist is the power of the default. The default is this idea that if you are not writing characters who are from other cultures or have other marginalizations like disability or queerness or whatever it is, then we’re not going to get that inclusive fiction that we all want and deserve. So what we need to do is resist the default, and the only way to do that is by representing the world that we live in, which often has people coming from all kinds of cultures, all kinds of marginalizations, that are intersectional and rich and complex.
[Tempest] Definitely. So, the biggest thing is, the first step you always have to do is just make sure you have done your due diligence in making sure that you have like written the best character of that identity, whatever they are. That means ensuring that you have done the research, that you have read the books, like the Writing the Other book or any other book, or any essay or whatnot, about like writing people from that culture. After you’ve done that and after you’ve finished your draft, making sure that people from that culture have read it. Have given you feedback on it. All the steps. Then, once you have done that, that’s sort of like your foundation, your base. Then when you give that book to an agent, when you give that book to an editor, and you can say to them, “Hey. So I did this amount of work. I made sure that, like, I took this class, I read this book to get this right, to learn how to get this right. I talked to these people.” Maybe you want to ask them, like, “Do you know a sensitivity reader that we could hire?” But just making sure that you can alleviate some of that fear. Because a lot of the fear, yes, comes from the fact that there have been many high-profile cases recently of a book’s coming out, and the representation is really not on point, and everybody on the Internet is yelling. But the other fear that actually authors have is that somebody’s going to yell at them for writing a character outside of their identity, and it’s just because they wrote a character outside of their identity. Which is actually not what happens. What happens isn’t just that, like, “Oh, you’re a white author and you wrote a character who’s black. You shouldn’t be doing that. #ownvoices, #ownvoices!” It’s that you did a bad job of it. That’s when people start to get angry, when an author does a bad job of it, and they then don’t apologize and it’s clear that they didn’t do the work, they didn’t do their due diligence. So, you have to do all that first, because then you can sometimes alleviate the fears that agents may have or editors may have.
[Dan] Doing that diligence is so great, it is such a great feeling. I’m in the process right now of trying to sell a book that I’ve written where the main character is a foster child. That is not something I have any personal experience with. So I went out, I talked to foster kids, I talked to foster parents, I interviewed half the Utah care system for… The people who work with them. I made sure that I was doing this. Over this draft, I kept weeding out all of the clichés and all of the problems. Now that I’m taking this around and people are asking, I am able to say, “Well, actually, I have done this. I’ve done my homework. I’ve looked at this and I’ve looked at all this.” It helps you to feel better about yourself. But it also, it made my book so much better to do that homework.
[Tempest] Yeah.
[Dongwon] The thing that I often find is when you have bad representation, it’s often indistinguishable, for me, from bad writing. Right? Like, the way that comes into play so often is when writing those characters, they’re acting as a stand-in for the entire culture, the entire identity, in some way. This is not how people operate, right? I’m the child of Korean immigrants. But… Being a Korean American is a really important part of my identity, but it’s certainly not the only vector on which I operate. I have a complex relationship with that. The way you can get around this issue is by writing specificity into your character. Making sure that you’re not writing a black character or a Latinx character or a queer character, but instead, you’re writing a specific person, who comes from a place in a city in a neighborhood, and from a family that has a history, and all those things. If you invest it with all the detail that you would give… Hopefully, any good character that you’re writing. That can really help make sure that you’re not going to have the kind of generic stand-in that is then very easy to say, “Well, you’re saying that all black people are like this, or all Asian people are like this.” So you really want to make sure not only that you’ve done your homework, but that you then remember to apply it to writing a character that is nuanced and intersectional and really well-developed and has a rich, complex interior life.
[Dan] Which is something you’re going to want to do regardless.
[Tempest] Yeah. Exactly.

[Dan] Tempest, what is our book of the week?
[Tempest] The book of the week is My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier. The reason why this book is so relevant to this conversation is because Justine has infused this book with so many different types of people who are like main characters and secondary characters. I was like… I loved her books ever since she started writing novels. But this one, I was particularly impressed with because of this reason. The book centers on a young boy named Che who… He’s actually 17. His sister, who is 10, is a psychopath. He has been trying to protect the world from his sister, and also his sister from the world for most of her life. But things come to a boiling point when their family moves to New York City. So, because their family has moved to New York City, there is now, like, the whole of New York City in front of them. New York City is a place that is full of people who come from all different kinds of identities. So we have the girl that Che falls in love with, and her roommate, and then the family that is friends with his parents, like, they have kids. Then the oldest daughter, her friend group. There are just all these people, all these different identities, and all handled really well. They’re all identities that are not the identities of Justine, wrote the book. But because she is a person who, again, she does due diligence and she also, she has lived in New York City, she understands how the diversity works there. She brings that to her books always, and I just really loved this one, so I definitely suggest reading My Sister Rosa.
[Dan] My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier.

[Dongwon] I really love that you chose this book. In part, because I think part of the problem with this conversation is we don’t talk about the times where this goes well, right? The things that we talk about are where this goes badly, and everyone on Twitter is screaming.
[Dongwon] There’s a little bit of schadenfreude fun to that, but it can also be very unpleasant. Then, we have #ownvoices, right? #ownvoices is a hashtag that is a really wonderful celebration that is a really wonderful celebration of people who are writing their own stories and their own identities. That is very powerful, and we should continue to celebrate that. Lord knows, I’m not saying take away from that. But, at the same time, it’s also really great when you see this done really well. Justine is a great example and it’s something she’s been doing for a lot of her career, is writing people who are outside of her identity and doing a really good job on it. I think a lot about The Expanse, which is a thing that I was lucky enough to have worked on that has a lot of characters derived from Earth cultures that are not the cultures of the guys who wrote that book, who are both extremely white. They’ve given us some of the best women of color that we have in science fiction, but also on TV. Christjen Avasarela is a character that I adore. Getting to see this character on television and representing her culture and dressed in a beautiful sari and all these things is something that is, I think, really powerful and really wonderful that these guys have been able to bring to the table.
[Tempest] Thinking about like the kinds of homework that you can do, obviously reading as much about a culture as you can. If you’re writing something that’s set in contemporary times, one of the best ways to sort of like start your research about that culture is to read magazines that are intended for people from that group, and get as specific as you can. Like, you’re like, “I want to write a black character.” Okay, wait a minute. Is it a black woman? Is it a black man? What age are they? Are they from the Midwest, or are they from California? Because, like, all of that is going to produce a very different person, right? So, this is also the same with magazines. Magazines are sometimes laser focused on like one aspect of one kind of people, right? But this is also why they can be really good sources of like foundational research. Talking to people, which we have mentioned many times.
[Tempest] Just, like, having conversations with people from that group and asking them about some of the specific aspects of their culture in order to help you create a specific person. One piece of advice that I love. This came from an article. It’s, like, you have to read a hundred books, if you’re going to write a character from a culture. A hundred books seems like a lot of books. It seems like a very… A monumental task, but these books can be nonfiction books, as well as novels. Even children’s books count, because sometimes, when you’re like trying to dip your toe into an identity or a culture, it helps to get down to that level of “Okay, like what do kids who are this identity read?” I should read what they read because they are learning about their culture from these children’s books, or they should. So, yeah, reading all the books is a great way. But, essentially, you just want to be able to come to anybody who has said to you, like, “I don’t know if you should because #ownvoices,” and say, “Well, actually…” Well, they’ll say, “Well, actually.”
[Tempest] Say, “I have done this research, I have done this work. I have made sure that I have done the best that I can. I am also willing to have a sensitivity reader and learn from them.” That’s the other thing, is that if you are projecting to your potential agent or a potential editor that you are willing to do more work to get it right, that’s probably going to make them less fearful. Because they’re going to say, “Okay, like, I’m not going to like have to fight this author to make this book right if I want to buy it.”

[Dan] I want to get back to something that Dongwon was talking about earlier. Just good characterization. Since so much of this is driven by fear, when you think about it, no one is going to pitch a huge fit about a really wonderful book that everyone loves. People are going to love that kind of thing. If we look and we see our own culture represented really well, then it doesn’t matter who it came from, we’re still going to love it. So we don’t need to be as afraid of that kind of thing.
[Dongwon] Well, I also want to point out criticism is going to happen, right? I don’t care what you’re writing about, I don’t care if you’re writing about only white characters, white cis het characters, or what it is, somebody’s going to come for you. You’re going to get a one star review. Sometimes a review is “I ordered a toaster and I got this book instead,” right? I mean…
[Dongwon] But the thing is, there’s no protection from criticism, right? I recognize that when that criticism says you wrote my culture badly or you got this wrong or I think you’re racist, or whatever it is, that’s incredibly hurtful, right? But there’s a wide range of criticism out there, there’s a wide range of sort of receptions. I think a lot about Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, and I’m probably going to get in trouble here talking about this. But, for me, that character had a Korean American character as a love interest, and… He’s hapa, he’s half Korean, half white, and it was the first time I’d really seen that on the page. That book meant a lot to me, to see that. All of my Asian American friends are currently screaming into their telephones while they listen to this about a lot of people think that was a really bad representation. A lot of people have a lot of problems with how Park was represented in that book. It’s been a long time since I read it. I should probably go back and check and see if I still have issues with it, or if I have new issues with it. But it’s… The book is beloved. There are ways in which she got it wrong, and there are ways in which she got it right. Ultimately, what I’m going to say is, I think that that’s okay. Right? I think it’s okay that many of my friends and my peers have problems with that book, and I think it’s okay that a lot of people love that book. The thing that I would love to have is more nuance in this conversation going forward. At the same time that we should also be ready to call out things that are actively harmful and hurtful. It’s a difficult part of the conversation, but it’s an important part.

[Tempest] One last thing is, sort of the end of this worry that a lot of authors have when they come to me and talk about this is, “Am I taking up space by doing this, then?” Sometimes you are, and that’s actually a good question to ask yourself, like, are you actually taking up space that’s for somebody else? But at the same time, there are things that you can do as an author to make sure that it’s not just you who is putting out the representation from this group. Like, as you are doing your reading, your researching, and asking people, you’re going to come across other authors who are from that identity that you’re trying to represent, right? So then it is on you to say, “Hey, everybody, have you heard about this wonderful author? Like, I’ve just read this great book. I read it for research, or I read it because I loved it. Do you know about this? You should read it.” If you have people who you know who are writers who are from that identity, introduce them to your agent, introduce them to your editor. Make sure that like other folks on twitter no. Like if they’re participating in [pit…] be sure to retweet so that more people see their thing. Just constantly do that, constantly make sure that you are lifting up the voices of the people that you are trying to represent. Because then, that hopefully raises the boat for everybody. So then, it’s not as if you’re taking up the only space, because now more people know about this author or this issue or whatever. So you can use your privilege to help people who don’t have as much privilege to be able to come into this space more. Like, it’s never just a we can only have this many things. Like, right now, if we only have this many things, you can expand the number of things that we can have with your voice. So always make that part of your process, too.
[Dongwon] I think Rick Riordan is like the gold standard here, right? He took the Percy Jackson series, and not only Trojan horse having a white character as the protagonist, and then brought in all these other cultures, all these other perspectives, but he’s now putting his time and energy into launching the Rick Riordan Presents in print to really celebrate stories from other cultures and writers from other cultures. And doing it… He’s using his power and privilege to make sure he’s lifting the voices of other people, and not just profiting off of their experiences and their stories. It’s a really beautiful thing to see. I’m very happy to see that this is where the industry is headed.

[Dan] That’s great. So, we’re going to talk about homework. I want to make clear one thing. When we talk about doing your due diligence, doing your homework, before doing this. All of the homework you do, all of the sensitivity readers that you hire, is not the magical rubberstamp of immunity…
[Dan] To complaint.
[Tempest] Exactly.
[Dan] So I don’t want people to come back to us and say, “Hey, I did everything and people still yelled at me and now I’m mad at you.” You gotta be ready to take your lumps. But we do want you to try. We do want you to do your best. Give it your best effort.

[Dan] So, in light of that, Tempest, what is our homework today?
[Tempest] The homework is to make a list of the things that you did or are going to do to ensure that you have done that due diligence. So, I will always say, when people come to me and are like, “Oh, can I write…?” Yes. Yes you can. Read the book Writing the Other. I’ll never stop saying this in my life…
[Tempest] Read the book Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. Go to writingtheother.com where there are, like, other free resources for doing this. If you, like, still feel like, “Oh, I need stuff,” like, you could take a class, whatever. But make sure that you have the foundation, the knowledge, going forward to be like, “Okay, these are the things I need to do.” Then do those things. Like, make a list of the kind of stuff that you have read, the kind of research you have done, and the people that you’ve talked to. If you want to go ahead and go so far as to get a sensitivity reader before you actually present the project to the agent, to the editor, whatever, do that. Then, make sure they know. So it’s like have that list and have that ready for when somebody, whether it’s the agent, the editor, or even somebody else says, “But, you’re not this type of person.” It’s like, “No. I’m not. But these are the things that I did to be sure that, like, I did the best that I could to represent this person in a way that is true to, like, who this person is and their identity.” It’s not going to be 100%, and that’s okay. But what you gotta do is just make sure that everybody knows, I didn’t just sort of show up on Monday, and I was like, “I did this.”
[Dan] That’s great. Dongwon described this earlier as your homework is to show that you’ve done your homework. So that’s what it is. Preparing this list in advance is also going to help make sure that your homework is right.
[Tempest] Exactly.
[Dan] You might get halfway through this process and realize, “Oh, you know what. This argument’s really super weak, isn’t it?”
[Tempest] [garbled]
[Dan] “I haven’t done enough. I need to do more.” So, anyway, this is wonderful. We really hope that you feel inspired by this episode, rather than afraid. We want you to try new things. We want you to represent more people and write outside of your own experience. It takes work, but it’s worth it. So. This is Writing Excuses, you are out of excuses, now go write.