Writing Excuses 10.10: Q&A with the I Ching
I Ching, Interpretation, and Answers:
7. Although he reached a great position, Wise Liu did not care for earthly things. He brewed instead the pills of heaven, forging immortality in his earthly crucible.
I: When do I give up traditional publishing and start self-publishing?
A: When your back catalogue and unwanted material are sufficient. When traditional publishing isn’t connecting with your audience.
I: When should I quit my day job?
A: When you’re losing money by having the day job.
I: When should I stop writing for other people and start writing for myself?
A: What makes you want to write?
21. Marriage is a blessed union indeed, when done in accordance with Yin and Yang. The dragon and the phoenix coil together, uniting in a sweet dream of love.
I: How do you handle genre mash ups?
A: When the genres play well together, different, but able to talk to each other. When it’s awesome, and the story needs the combination.
20. All names in Heaven are unique, and even earthly things cannot be the same. Your future is set within the book of fate, which never confuses praise and blame.
I: How do you choose character names without telegraphing the character’s future?
A: Use twitter or spam as a name generator.
25. Emperor Ming slew his one true love, but a shaman took pity, and eased his heart with dreams of roaming upon the moon, his beloved mistress forever at his side.
I: How do you kill your darlings?
A: Look for what doesn’t fit, but you are tempted to twist the story to keep. Then set it free on the moon.
31: Two scholars went to the capital for examinations. One passed, and stayed. One failed and returned, carrying a letter from his friend. He fell ill, but eventually, thank Heaven, came home.
I: How do you deal with professional jealousy?
A: Realize that their success does not reduce your success. Remember why you are writing — because you love it. Celebrate their success, and recognize that wherever you are on the journey, there are problems, but they may be different ones. “A rising tide lifts all the boats.”
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 10.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A with the I Ching.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we have special guest, Wesley Chu.
[Brandon] Dan’s been wanting to do this for a while. This is crazy. This… We thought… We’re talking about story structure, we should shake up the structure of our podcast and try something new. Which is one of the reasons to try a story structure method is to shake up your writing and see if it helps you. So we are actually going to do this podcast in a very bizarre way. We’re going to use the I Ching. Which is… Dan?
[Dan] Okay. The I Ching is a collection of poems that you consult with sticks. In the similar way to a lot of cultures will roll bones or do kind of randomization as a way of consulting the gods…
[Mary] Like the tarot cards.
[Dan] Or spirits. Exactly.
[Wesley] Chicken entrails.
[Dan] Yeah. So the way this works is… I actually have an I Ching set that I’ve had for several years. Nate Hatfield, a mutual friend of Brandon and I, gave it to me. We… This was inspired by Philip K. Dick who did this exact thing in the writing of The Man in the High Castle. Where he would use… Consult the oracle any time he needed to come up with a new plot twist or a new chapter or whatever. So we decided the way we wanted to do this was literally just to let the universe ask us questions. We have shaken out the sticks…
[Brandon] We’re going to shake out sticks.
[Dan] Yes. We’re going to shake out some sticks. I’ve got… The way they work is they’re these little bamboo sticks. They have a number on them that correlates to a poem. They’ll shake one out, I’ll read the poem, and then the rest of the podcast is will have to figure out what writing question the universe is asking us.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s go for it. Give us a stick.
[Howard] I have never heard one of these poems before, so I’m looking forward to this.
[Rattle of sticks]
[Dan] All right. Number seven. “Although he reached a great position, Wise Liu did not care for earthly things. He brewed instead the pills of heaven, forging immortality in his earthly crucible.”
[Brandon] Wow. That makes me want to write a story. Howard, do you know what it’s asking us?
[Howard] At what point in my career should I give up traditional publishing and go the self-publishing route?
[Howard] I think that’s the question.
[Brandon] Okay. See, I think the question is more along the lines of at what point should I stop writing books for other people and start writing them for myself?
[Mary] Or maybe it’s just at what point do I quit my day job?
[Brandon] All right. Let’s answer those.
[Howard] Well, the answer to my question is probably when the value of your back catalogue and the things that your publisher doesn’t want are sufficient to carry you.
[Brandon] Or when you feel that traditional publishing is not picking up your books because your audience either isn’t connecting with them or is a niche audience that you think you can sell to directly much better than a large corporation can sell to them.
[Howard] When your audience is… What was it, the tease of heaven or something?
[Dan] The pills of heaven.
[Howard, Brandon] The pills of heaven.
[Wesley] am I the only one that thought about making meth from that poem?
[Mary] Yes. Yes, you are.
[Dan] So we know what the pills of heaven are for Wes.
[Howard] Yes, I Ching. I also enjoyed Breaking Bad.
[Mary] Oh, so, I would say that when you are… And this is actually similar to Howard’s answer. That’s when the cost/benefit of having the day job… If you are losing money by having the day job, then you need to quit the day job.
[Brandon] Okay. I would say that for my question, writing for yourself versus writing for someone else, I always do the whole write for yourself thing. I say that. But I’ve met plenty of writers who are like, “I want to write for an audience.” There’s nothing wrong with that. So I think it’s a question that is more nebulous than a… Do I write for me? Do I write for other people? What makes you want to write should be your motivation. For some people, that’s going to be I want to connect with an audience.
[Dan] All right.
[Dan] Let’s shake out another one. Here we go.
[Rattle of sticks]
[Dan] We have number 21. “Marriage is a blessed union indeed, when done in accordance with Yin and Yang. The dragon and the phoenix coil together, uniting in a sweet dream of love.”
[Mary] So, I think this one is about genre mashups.
[Mary] How do you handle a genre mashup and whether or not these are things that are past their prime or it’s something that is in fact a wonderful marriage?
[Brandon] Excellent question, universe. I…
[Dan] And I think that the first answer is right here in the poem. That it is a blessed union when done properly.
[Brandon] So what does properly mean?
[Howard] Yeah, that’s the real question here, is what is the balance of yin to yang in your genre mashup?
[Mary] I think one of the things that I see when I’m… And this is something that I play with when I’m doing genre mashups myself is that you’re… By bri… Audiences like the combination of the familiar and the strange. So when you’re mashing up, those intersections means that the plot is not going to go in directions that they’re necessarily expecting. So one of the things that I’m looking at are two genres that are going to play well together, but are not necessarily right next door to each other, in…
[Brandon] Okay. This is kind of a… Date someone very different from yourself sort of suggestion.
[Howard] But not so different that the two of you cannot converse in the same language.
[Brandon] Very wise.
[Dan] I think the reason to do a genre mashup is A) because you think it’s going to be awesome, but B) because there’s a story you can only tell if you combine those two genres. You have a specific reason for wanting to do a mad scientist in a Western or whatever.
[Brandon] Oo. That’s a good idea.
[Brandon] See, I take a different tack on this. I think that most stories are secretly genre mashups. The way that the genres came about that we have is because someone said, “What if I did this over here? What if I took that idea and put it into my story?” I think every story is a mashup of things you as a writer have experienced before. So this is more of like when you’re going to do it consciously, decide what you’re going to take and what you’re going to leave.
[Howard] But those stories that you’re describing, that sit at the core of what we currently define as genres… Those are the places where the yen and the yang, where the dragon and the unicorn have found that perfect unity.
[Brandon] Eats the unicorn!
[Wesley] I think that harmony…
[Brandon] I don’t think it was a unicorn.
[Dan] It was a dragon and a phoenix.
[Howard] Oh [garbled]
[Dan] Dragon and unicorn is ridiculous.
[Garbled – There is no unicorn in Eastern mythology?]
[Mary] That’s because he’s doing a mashup.
[Dan] Whatever. Okay. New poem. Here we go.
[Rattle of sticks]
[Howard] Where did I get a unicorn? I don’t know. I’m going to get another stick.
[Dan] Number 20. Oh, so it’s right next to the other one. “All names in Heaven are unique, and even earthly things cannot be the same. Your future is set within the book of fate, which never confuses praise and blame.”
[Brandon] Mmm. You got this one? All right.
[Wesley] I think, for me, it’s pretty clear-cut. How do you choose character names?
[Brandon] Oh. Okay.
[Mary] Yeah. I was thinking not just character names, but also the problem of naming things in secondary worlds.
[Howard] How do I choose character names without telegraphing the character’s future?
[Mary] Oh, yeah.
[Brandon] Yeah, that’s a difficult one.
[Howard] Because… Darth Vader means Dark Father in German.
[Dan] Mount Doom.
[Brandon] Yeah, yeah. Mount Doom. That one… That’s a pleasant place.
[Dan] Don’t be happy, sleepy grumpy.
[Brandon] We joke about this, but I did this kind of unconsciously with my first published book. People are… We have these cool characters that represent people’s names. I looked through during the revision process and realized I’d used the traitor’s name for the symbol to make the traitor’s name. I’d used the nice one to make the nice guy. Like, it was straight down the line that I had just named these things after the characters’ archetypes in the plot and I’m like, “What was I doing? I almost let that go to press.”
[Dan] See, I made the huge mistake in Serial Killer of naming the bad guy Crowley without even thinking about Alastair Crowley, which is what everyone immediately thinks of with the bad guy. It’s like, “Oh. You named this man after a famous Satanist. I bet he’s the villain.”
[Dan] No, I named him after my real estate agent, and it was just an accident.
[Mary] I bet he became a villain.
[Dan] Well, he is now.
[Brandon] Wes, you interpreted this one. Give us your answer.
[Wesley] I honestly… This drives my editor crazy, but I like to use twitter.
[Brandon] Oh, yeah?
[Wesley] So, I mean, I know that like I’ll tend to pick an evil name for an evil character and… [If I express myself?] I… My thing is, I want all my names… I write in the modern day world. So I want my characters… Their names to be bland. Because I don’t want to give anything away. So I actually use a lot of twitter names. Whatever is on my feed, I kind of go through some of the names and I go, “Oh!”
[Howard] That explains why half your characters’ names begin with a hashtag.
[Wesley] Like twitter is my secret name generator.
[Brandon] Tao is a really great character.
[Dan] That’s fantastic.
[Mary] I used to use my spam filter.
[Dan] Yes. You get such great names in that.
[Mary] There are some really, really good names. Scott Huang in Kiss Me Twice is actually straight out of… I think he was trying to sell me real estate.
[Dan] Well, it’s a great source of names, the real estate industry.
[Dan] All right. Here we go, here we go.
[Brandon] Wait, we gotta stop for our book of the week.
[Dan] Wait? Okay.
[Brandon] The book of the week is The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick.
[Dan] The Man in the High Castle is… I think it was Dick’s first novel. Is that correct?
[Brandon] No idea. You’re the Philip K. Dick guru here.
[Dan] Yeah. I don’t know. It won a ton of awards, and is a fantastic story. It is essentially an alternate history, and one of the first alternate history novels. In which the Allies lost World War II and the United States has now been taken over by the Axis powers. The East Coast is run by Germany, the West Coast is run by Japan, the Rocky Mountains are a neutral zone between them. It’s not as mindbendingly weird as a lot of Philip K. Dick’s stuff is. It’s just a really fascinating setting with some really compelling characters in it. So, you can get it. It is read by Tom Weiner. You can pick that up for free as part of a 30-day trial at audiblepodcast.com/excuse.
[Brandon] All right. Howard, you are now allowed to shake the sticks.
[Dan] Okay. Shake the sticks.
[Rattle the sticks]
[Dan] And out comes… Number 25. “Emperor Ming slew his one true love, but a shaman took pity, and eased his heart with dreams of roaming upon the moon, his beloved mistress forever at his side.”
[Dan] That’s like a really cool writing prompt, actually.
[Brandon] Yeah, yeah. That is.
[Mary] That’s clearly about kill your darlings.
[Brandon] Yes. How do you kill your darlings? Or your characters? Which one do we think it is? Do we think it’s darlings or characters?
[Howard] Oh, no, it’s darlings because I think that hurts far more.
[Brandon] Okay. So let’s talk about killing your darlings.
[Mary] So this is a piece of advice that I think a lot of people misunderstand. A lot of people I have seen look at it and think that what they need to do is go through the manuscript and find the thing that they love the most and take it out. I’ve actually… I’ve seen and I’m just like, “No! No.” What it means is when you hit something and you know that it doesn’t fit in the story but you love it so much, so you’re tempted to leave it in the even though it doesn’t fit, that is the thing where it’s like, “No, sometimes you actually do have to kill your darlings.”
[Brandon] Well, you’ll…
[Howard] That’s where the other half of the poem comes in. You kill your darling, it’s now no longer in this book, but it lives on in your trunk. It lives on on the moon.
[Brandon] You can identify these by where you are jumping through a lot of hoops to justify to yourself and to your alpha readers and things why this section needs to stay in the book. When you are defending it so aggressively and you realize you’re just making all kinds of mental gymnastics why this belong, you’ll know. All right.
[Dan] Okay. Here we go.
[Rattle of sticks]
[Dan] We have shaken out number 31, which says, “Two scholars went to the capital for examinations. One passed, and stayed. One failed and returned, carrying a letter from his friend. He fell ill, but eventually, thank Heaven, came home.”
[Brandon] [chuckle] Oh, wow. What’s this about? What is it trying to ask us?
[Mary] Rejection letters.
[Wesley] Writing group critiques.
[Brandon] Writing group critiques?
[Mary] Oh, yeah.
[Dan] Dealing with criticism in general.
[Brandon] Dealing with… No, I think dealing with… This is a question. What happens when one of your friends has a lot of success you don’t?
[Mary] Oh, good.
[Brandon] In writing.
[Dan] Like this one friend of mine. He’s like a mega bestseller. He is… I hate him.
[Mary] Yeah. I have two of those friends. Three. Four of those friends. I hate them all.
[Brandon] Let’s ask you this, Dan. We were in a writing together…
[Brandon] And you introduced me to an editor at a convention. He bought my book and rejected yours.
[Dan] Yes. Which did not, honestly, bother me a ton at the time because A) the fact that you sold your book was actually very heartening at that point. It was very cool to me, and I thought, “Well, if he can do it, I can do it.” That particular book I knew was a hard sell in the first place, because it wasn’t as good as it should have been. It was very weird and very niche to begin with.
[Howard] When you came home from the convention, you had fallen ill, but you lived.
[Dan] That’s true. I did live through it, so that was good news.
[Brandon] Do you have advice? Like this… The thing… The reason I point out this is I lips us people who asked me questions about this, they usually are beating around the bush on, because they don’t want to admit it, but professional jealousy is a real thing, like that we all have to deal with when we’re like, “How did this person’s book do so well?” Or “Man, I really love him, but why does his book… Argh, they always mention him!”
[Dan] Yeah, I… And this happens. This just happened a few weeks ago at FanX, Brandon and I had a panel together with like 700 people in the audience. 690 of which were there to see Brandon. Then it was time for Q&A and everyone got up and said, “I have a question for Brandon.” That does get hard. That can be very discouraging to sit there.
[Brandon] This happens to me, too. Here’s my story. So at least I can pretend to sympathize.
[Brandon] We’re in Spain. I sell really well in Spain. We do pretty well. My books have gone through three or four or five printings, something like that. I’ve been to visit Spain several times, building that audience. I was there with Pat Rothfuss. I knew I had a big audience in Spain. Around the world, you don’t always have a big audience. It’s not the same as in your home country. So I went to this book signing and walked around the corner. There was this huge line. I knew it was my line because it was planned. I was like, “Oh. I sure hope Pat’s not going to feel bad.” Because he’s never been to Spain, he told me. So I walked in… I continued on. Then I saw that they had turned his line to go the other direction, because it was like 20 times as long. I got to the front, and Pat was there grinning. Held up this book and it said 50th printing. Granted, I printed five.
[Brandon] He’s like, “Yeah, we’ve sold…” He listed a number that I figured out was something like 1% of Spain has read his book or something. Like mind numbing. So I’m like, “Really? Here, too, Pat?”
[Mary] I have to say that I think one of the keys for handling this on both sides, when you’re the one who’s not having the success is to actually… It really is important to celebrate the success of your peers because… I mean one, it’s just a happier place to live in, but on a selfish level, if you can celebrate them, they will want to remain friends with you and can help you in your career. Because one of the things that becomes hard when you’re on the successful side is that the things that you have… That you still have problems, but they are a different class of problems. It’s sometimes like when I am complaining to a friend who has not yet sold something about, “Oh, I have so many deadlines…”
[Wesley] It’s an awkward thing to do.
[Mary] So it’s important to… On both sides to just recognize that everybody is at a different point in this journey and just because one person is having success does not necessar… It doesn’t stop other people from having success.
[Dan] The thing that I want to stress here, because I’ve… Being good friends with Brandon and with James Dashner and people like that, I have had these big crises of why am I even doing this? The answer to which is I love it. I’m not in this business to sell more books than somebody else. I’m in this business because I love it. So once you put it in that perspective, it doesn’t really matter anymore how much more or less successful you are than someone else.
[Mary] Yeah. But I would like a dump truck of money.
[Wesley] I mean… Mike Cole likes to say, “The rising tide lifts all boats.” So what’s good for your friend who is a more successful author is probably good for you, too. No one’s taking anything away from you. Their success isn’t taking success away from you.
[Howard] Honestly, I think the most important thing is what Mary already said, which is that it’s a better headspace to be in when you can rejoice in the success of other people. That’s not just professional jealousy, that’s jealousy over anything. Learning to be happy for other people is happier.
[Brandon] All right. We are way out of time.
[Howard] Oh, dear.
[Brandon] But we are going to let the I Ching give us a writing prompt. So shake that one more time, Howard.
[Rattle of sticks]
[Brandon] Give us a good one.
[Brandon] Here’s your writing prompt.
[Dan] Number 44. “Competing fiercely to become Spring’s queen, the garden of flowers blossomed to their full beauty. Who will win the golden crown of glory? Among them all, only the peony stands out.”
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.