Writing Excuses 10.4: Q&A On Ideas
Q: Is it ever acceptable for inexperienced writers to write derivative works?
A: Yes. It is one of the best ways to start. Fanfiction is a great training ground.
Q: How do you avoid being discouraged when something comes out with a similar idea?
A: Just because it’s similar, it is not the same as the way you are going to do it. If it’s good, people want more of that — and you have it.
Q: How do you know if your idea is a novel or a short story?
A: [Brandon] It’s a novel. [Others] Number of characters, plot ideas, and scenic locations. What do you want to write?
Q: Should you only write a story for a themed call if you already had such an idea, or should you work with the idea to fit a story to it?
A: If a theme excites you, write it. Consider it a challenge! Don’t write something you’re not excited or interested in.
Q: If you have an idea, but you aren’t familiar with the setting or genre, how can you practice setting description?
A: Pick a random location, and let your POV character start describing it. Find something in that setting or genre, and type it in — rekey it. Then go back and rewrite the free writing version to match the tone.
Q: When should you give up on an idea, even though you have a lot of passion for it?
A: When the idea no longer fits the story or book. Save it for later. If the story or book is problematic for your personal beliefs. If it isn’t working, set it aside. Sometimes, remember the idea, and rewrite the story to bring it out more! Don’t abandon because you don’t think it will sell or you don’t think people will like it.
Q: If you have lots of ideas, how do you decide what to work on next?
A: What am I most excited about now? If more than one jumps out, try combining them. Do a little writing exploration of each one, and see which one grips you!
[Mary] Season 10, Episode Three.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A On Idea Development.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] [chuckling] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we want to do this every month during season 10, where we are going to end the month with a podcast where we have a Q&A about the topic that’s relevant. Now in the future, we’re going to be asking you to send in your questions. We’re going to try to answer them on air regarding these topics, but right now, we have the fine folks from the Writing Excuses retreat.
[Brandon] They are going to model for you how to do this by asking us brilliant, engaging, and interesting questions for us to answer. They’re all getting this deer-in-the-headlights look.
[Brandon] In the future, hopefully, you will be able to do this for us. But let’s go ahead and just start.
[Mary] Go ahead. Andy?
[Andy] Okay. Ideas are hard. Is it ever acceptable for inexperienced writers to write derivative works?
[Mary] [gasp] Yes! [Chuckle] Yes. I think that a derivative work is actually one of the best ways to start as a new author. One of the things that I recommend to people is that… I mean, take a fairytale, and all you have to do is apply the techniques that we’ve been talking about, where you step it one or two to the side, and you have a whole new story, that you can use a plot structure that is already existing and that’s one less thing that you have to figure out what to do with.
[Brandon] In screenwriting, one of the things they actually kind… They require in a lot of the screenwriting courses and programs, is for you to write spec scripts for current television shows. Knowing that you would never be able to sell these, that there’s nothing you can do with them, but they can be a showpiece in your portfolio. Now, that’s not as widely regarded in mainstream publishing as a way to get a job, but the fact that so many of them use it and it works so well speaks to its value.
[Dan] What you’re really talking about with novels is fanfiction. So many, particularly in YA, so many of the really big writers come from fanfiction.
[Brandon] So if it’s something that appeals to you, then yes, it’s totally doable.
[Nicholas] How do you keep from getting discouraged when… About your idea, when something comes out that’s incredibly similar?
[Dan] Good one.
[Mary] Nicholas, let me tell you.
[Dan] Fricking Dexter.
[Mary] Jonathan Strange and Dr. Norrell.
[Brandon] Lies of Locke Lamora. It’s happened to me.
[Howard] I had people emailing me, asking me… I make Schlock Mercenary, mercenaries in space, asking me if I’d seen this cool new show Firefly. Whew, I am so glad it got canceled.
[Laughter] [Oh! Boo!]
[Mary] And our ratings tank.
[Dan] Okay. So when I first started publicizing the John Cleaver books, and everyone… Of course, everyone mentioned Dexter and said, “Well, what are you going to do about this?” Somebody, and I don’t know who it was, it was a random person on like tor.com’s message board said, “You know, just like there can be a million different books about detectives or a million different TV shows about doctors, we can have a bunch of different books about serial killers. That’s not who they are, that’s just their job.”
[Dan] It’s true. Just because it’s similar, they’re not going to do it the same way you’re going to.
[Mary] We have a…
[Howard] In fairness, when I finally got around to watching Firefly, A) I was brokenhearted that it got canceled, and B) I looked at it and realized this is nothing like what I’m doing. I mean, I can see why people would feel like it is similar, but I handled these things differently. They are…
[Mary] There’s a saying in public theater, the only competition is a bad puppet show. What we mean is that if someone goes to something and it’s fantastic, they want to see more puppet shows. So if someone comes out with an idea that’s like yours, they want more of that. And you’ve just supplied it. Jason?
[Jason] How do you know when your idea is a novel and when it’s a short story?
[Brandon] It’s a novel because…
[Brandon] Sorry, I had to say that.
[Howard] That’s always Brandon’s answer.
[Mary] I suspect that we’ll be talking about this a great deal when we get into the structure thing. For me, the things I look at are the number of characters and the number of plot ideas and the number of scenic locations that I’m requiring.
[Brandon] The further I’ve gotten in my career, the more I realized that I have a lot of power over designing a st… Taking a story in any of these directions. A lot of the novellas I’ve been releasing, early in my career, I would have only been able to write as a novel. Now I could write them as a novel or as a novella. It really comes down to when you learn how to plot a sequence and get some experience doing it, you will get a feel for how long that sequence will take. You can say, “Wow, I’ll need more here to fill out the full novel.” Or you can say, “I’ll just go ahead and take this as a short piece.” But a lot of the… If you go listen to our podcasts on short stories in the past, we’ll have a bit of advice on this. I think the MICE quotient one, we talked a lot about this idea, which is the idea if you introduce one element and then bring out with that element, that can be a short piece a lot more easily than a novel can be.
[Mary] I think that’s back in Season Six. Dana?
[Dana] So frequently you have magazines and anthologies that put out calls, put out these themed calls for themed short stories. So should you only write for those if you already had a similar idea, or should you try to work with that idea to try to come up with a story to fit it?
[Dan] I think the first obvious answer is, if that call for a particular theme gets you really excited, absolutely write that story. Because then, even if you don’t sell it, you’ve just written a story you’re very excited about.
[Howard] I have… Just recently, a friend emailed me and said, “Hey, I’m putting together an anthology and this is the theme.” I replied and said, “I got nothing. I got no ideas. I mean, in less you want me to tell a story about…” All of a sudden, I had an idea for it and I sent it to him. His response was, “That sounds great. When can it be done?” I feel like when you see a call for things like that, that might be an opportunity for you to step up and challenge yourself and see if you could write to that as a prompt.
[Dan] But on the other hand, don’t force yourself to write a story that you’re not excited about or that you’re not interested in just on the off chance that this one particular anthology will pick it up.
[Mary] Ditto all of that.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s stop for our book of the week. Actually, we have one of our students, Sunny, giving us the book of the week.
[Sunny] My book is City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett, a book I have not been able to shut up about. The author describes it as Game of Thrones meets Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It’s an epic fantasy where the gods are all dead because one guy went around and killed them. It’s a spy novel where one country is colonizing the country that used to colonize them. It’s also a murder mystery. Unlike a lot of other epic fantasies, it’s influenced by Eastern European and South Asian cultures. The main character is a gentleman of color and there are two middle-age women supporting characters. It tackles a lot of heavy topics, while it never loses its sense of fun. It’s an absolute pleasure to read.
[Mary] I want to read this book.
[Howard] Yeah, I’m in.
[Dan] Robert Jackson Bennett’s a great author. His stuff is wonderful.
[Brandon] My assistant loved this book and posted on my blog like a long explanation of how much he loved this book.
[Howard] audible.com… Audiblepodcast.com/excuse. You can start a free trial membership. City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett, narrated by Alma Cuervo.
[Mary] Okay. Elizabeth?
[Elizabeth] Okay. When you come up with an idea for a story and it’s in a setting or maybe even a genre that you’re not familiar with, how can you practice setting description?
[Mary] Well, I have an exercise for that. Since no one else seems to be jumping in… So what I do is, I pick a location for the… Just a random location in the space. I sit down and I take my POV character and I start describing it. I basically just have my POV character, because it’s a free writing exercise. So that’s one thing that I do. Then the other thing that I do is that I will look at something else that is set in that genre and I will key it… I will rekey it in. So I will like… I want my book to sound like… I don’t know, Patrick Rothfuss. So I will sit down and key in a chapter of Patrick Rothfuss, I’ll just retype it. Which gets those rhythms into my fingers. Then I will go back to that first thing that I wrote with my character, and I’ve already at this point laid out the groundwork and now I will rewrite and aim for getting that tone.
[Howard] That’s… What she’s describing may sound kind of freaky, but on the art side, I find that tracing something that someone else has drawn that you want to learn how to draw… No, I mean, I’m never going to publish something that I’ve traced from somebody else, but the exercise of tracing it informs a portion of my brain about how these lines go down. Informs a portion of Mary’s brain about how these words go down. It’s a neat exercise.
[Adam] When should you give up on an idea, even though you have a lot of passion for it?
[Brandon] Ooo… There are a lot of ways to answer this. One that commonly comes up is the one that Mary mentioned with Lock In, the John Scalzi book where an idea that started him along the path to writing this book, and then by the end of the book, the idea isn’t in the book. In that case, I would say it’s when the idea you came with is distracting from what’s become the main plot of the book. That’s one reason to abandon one, is when shoehorning this in no longer fits. You can always take that idea and say, “You know what, I’ll do this later. I can do it for a sequel or I can do it for another story at some point.”
[Mary] You can also look at something and if you realize that it’s going to cause you to write a book that is problematic or a story that is problematic because you are inadvertently reinforcing a negative paradigm about racism or sexism or something… You may look at it and go, “You know what, I love this…” I had a… I actually have a story idea that I would… I love it, and I will never, ever write it. Because… Because of the negative stereo… Negative paradigms that it reinforces about sexism. I would have been writing a sexist story that… It was just like incredibly misogynistic. So I… Which is kind of funny.
[Mary] So those are some reasons. Then, one other that I would say is if you… If it’s failing to fire. If you don’t understand the conflict. I… Two episodes ago, I think, I talked about the thing with the honey ants. That is actually a story I wound up writing. But I had to set it aside for about three years before I had a story to hang on it.
[Howard] My story in the Writing Excuses anthology, An Honest Death, I had that decision point. I think it’s important to show this as a contrast. I was stuck on the story. I realized I was stuck, because the idea that I was in love with was not fitting the story the way that I was writing it. What I decided to do is go back and reread that idea and look at that idea and write that idea backwards into the story because that was what I was in love with. When I started doing that, the fire was lit again and I knew how to fix it. If that doesn’t work, then it’s probably time to pick something else.
[Dan] Now, you know, what you don’t do is abandon an idea just because you’ve convinced yourself that it’s not going to sell somewhere or that nobody else will like it. If you are still passionate about it, and so passionate that you want to keep going, just keep going. If it’s working for you, that’s what matters at this point.
[Marty] So aside from work that you might have under contract, if you have a lot of ideas, multiple at a time, are there… How do you decide what to work on next, if you have a lot you’d like to explore?
[Brandon] Oh, boy. I have to do this so often. It’s actually quite frustrating sometimes that I have so many contracts. Now… That’s…
[Brandon] Oh, the problem!
[Mary] Sadness, sadness, sadness.
[Brandon] But in the early part of my career, when I finished the book, before I was published, I was able to say, “What am I most excited about now? Let’s write that.” Nowadays, I have to say, “What has the most recent dead… The closest deadline, and how can I get excited about it?” As opposed to the other way around.
[Dan] Whereas right now, your question? Whatever you’re most excited about. You read through your idea book and you go, “Yeah, that one, that one… Oh, yeah, that one!” Which ev… That one that jumps out to you. Or if none of them in particular, then start combining them together.
[Howard] I have a… I think I’m kind of uniquely positioned among the cast in that there are ideas that I have, and I know that I can write down a few notes about the idea, and then hire a writer and an illustrator and a colorist to execute these as a bonus story in the back of the Schlock Mercenary book. That is so incredibly rewarding, to be able to take an idea and hand it to people who are creative in different ways and see it take on a life and a vision that’s different. That’s fun. It’s expensive.
[Mary] I was going, “Boy, that does sound nice.”
[Howard] But sometimes it pays for itself.
[Brandon] One thing that I want to mention here, and this is in conjunction with the last one. Kind of what… Along what Dan… The lines of what Dan said. I would suggest taking some of them and doing a few… A little write of each one. See what one you’re really getting gripped by that first chapter. But the danger of that is, a lot of times writers will find a habitual place that they abandon a story. If they write one chapter, then are always… Chapter 2 is always hard. They start on chapter 2, and then tell themselves, “Oh, this idea must not be good enough.” Or when to abandon a story you’re passionate about… You may hit that point, that 75% point or whatever it is for you, and every story feels like it’s time to abandon this story. You want to not get in the habit of abandoning stories. That could happen with the free write on each of these different ideas.
[Mary] That’s why you’ll hear the advice to early career writers to finish everything that you write, because you’re learning to identify which ideas… You’re still training that part of your brain, the identification part, and you have to figure out your own process and where the difficult stage comes for you.
[Brandon] Dan, you have a writing exercise for us.
[Dan] That’s right. We’ve been talking about ideas all month long. Next month, we’re talking about character. So. Get ready for that. Take one of the ideas that we’ve done. It can be one of the ideas you worked on in a previous exercise, or something new that you have in your idea book somewhere. One idea you’re very excited about, and then do one of my favorite writing exercises. You’re going to audition five characters for the role of main character in your story. Five people who are completely different, different backgrounds, different jobs, different levels of expertise, different ages, different ethnicities, different genders. People that you would never think would be a good protagonist in your story. Try them out. Find some way that they could fit into that story.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.