Writing Excuses 10.45: Q&A at the GenCon Writing Symposium with Kameron Hurley, James L. Sutter, and Michael Underwood
Q: Can you give a tip or tips on how to incorporate successfully characters or societies that are from less represented sexualities or genders or races in science fiction and fantasy when you’re not from that group?
A: Look at history! I.e., research. Also, readers. Check out the alien next door. Does your world have the same prejudices? Listen.
Q: If you were an aspiring author trying to break-in right now, knowing what you know about the industry, what would you do/how would you do it?
A: Pay attention to the business, and work harder. Learn to break revision into tasks. Do everything you can to get paid for writing. It’s harder than you think, and it’s cooler, too. Don’t depend on external validation. Keep writing.
Q: A) How do you avoid “Would you like to read my manuscript?” B) How do you critique that bad manuscript?
A: Say no. If you have to comment, try to understand where they are, and what can help them fix something and keep writing. Be honest.
Q: How much do you telegraph the plot twist before it happens?
A: Give the readers clues, but try to let them figure it out just before you reveal it.
Q: How can I, a non-writer, be the best support for a writer?
A: Be willing to read it. Give them a reader’s responses. Just point to the problems, and let them fix it. Be willing to talk about plot problems and ideas. Ask why and help them get it on the page.
Q: How do you decide on the titles of your stories? Do you know the title at the beginning of your writing process, or does it come to you at some point later?
A: I let the editor or writing group do it. Strategic — what genre, what else does Amazon already have, how can we code the key points? Sometimes it’s the grain of sand that everything else accretes around. Unique, cool, but expresses what the story is.
Q: How do you know when you need to revise a second or third time or when you need to rewrite completely?
A: Trust your gut. Don’t be lazy. Some writers plan on rewriting everything. Each draft is a rehearsal, and the latest draft is a performance, of the story. If you don’t know how to fix it yet, be patient. Do the best you can do, but get it out there.
[With apologies to James and Michael for possibly confusing their parts below. I had trouble deciding who was talking several times, and hope I got it mostly right.]
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 45.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses. Q&A at GenCon 2015.
[Kameron] 15 minutes long.
[James] Cause you’re in a hurry.
[Michael] And we’re not that smart.
[Michael] Right on, guys. That’s fantastic.
[Howard] Dan? Are you here?
[Howard] Sweet. We are here at GenCon 2015. Our fair studio audience… Go ahead and make some noise for us.
[Howard] Has demanded the opportunity to ask questions of some of the guests here at the symposium. I’m here with regular host, Dan Wells, and Kameron Hurley, Mike Underwood, and James Sutter. James, you’ve been on the podcast before, and so have you, Mike. So, Kam, why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourself to us?
[Kameron] My name’s Kameron Hurley, and I am the author of the Gods War trilogy as well as the Mirror Empire. The sequel to Mirror Empire is out October 6th and that’s going to be Empire Ascendant. I am also probably best known for writing an essay called We Have Always Fought. It helped garner a couple of Hugo awards last year. I also write columns for Locus magazine.
[Howard] Sweet. Mike?
[Michael] I’m Michael Underwood. I’m an author. I write geeky urban fantasy and interdimensional genre hopping science fiction. My day job is North American sales and marketing manager for Angry Robot Books, which is actually supercool, it’s just really long.
[James] I’m James L. Sutter. I’m the executive editor for Piazo Publishing and a cocreator of the Pathfinder role-playing game. I’ve written a bunch of novels… Err, several novels, comics, and short stories. The novels are Death’s Heretic and The Redemption Engine.
[Howard] Fantastic. Let’s have our first question.
[Question] Hi. My question is, can you give a tip or tips on how to incorporate successfully characters or societies that are from less represented sexualities or genders or races in science fiction and fantasy when you’re not from that group?
[Howard] Oh, dear heavens. Writing the other in one…
[Kameron] It’s Saturday at the end.
[Kameron] Kameron, take it away.
[Dan] That is a long panel. That’s not just a panel’s worth of questions, that is a convention’s worth of questions.
[Unsure] A study!
[Howard] That’s a Mary Robinette Kowal Writing the Other retreat worth of questions.
[Dan] Yes, but I that we can come up with something good?
[Kameron] Yeah. My background is in historical studies, and I tell people all the time anything that you could possibly think that you could make up in the fantasy realm has probably been seen and done before in the past. I tend to tell people to actually look at real history, at real stories, as opposed to kind of the media dump that you get on TV. It tends to be a very generic, generalized, really washed out plain of craziness. So do a lot of research. Challenge yourself. Understand when you’re being lazy. Look for some other resources besides kind of the stuff that’s being pushed at you.
[Dan] Absolutely. Research is great. Also, I’ve learned… My new series that starts next year is about a main character who is Mexican. I lived in Mexico for two years. But still wanted to take the extra step of running it past many, many readers from Mexico and Mexican heritage to make sure that I hadn’t done anything idiotic.
[Howard] I used this example on a panel earlier here at the symposium. Look for the alien next door. Look for the person in your life whose motivations are very, very different from yours and which you don’t understand. Here at GenCon, the example that I used was you’ve got all these people who are standing in line to get that latest thing that’s awesome. You may not identify with that at all. How do you get inside that person’s head and understand that motivation? Because that’s really, really alien to you.
[James] It’s interesting. We’ve tried very hard with Pathfinder to make a world that is very inclusive. Sometimes, people will say, “Well, why is it… Is it unrealistic that everyone’s so accepting?” What I ask is, “So imagine that you live next door to somebody who’s married to someone of a different ethnicity or of the same gender or whatever. Now imagine that your neighbor on the other side is married to a snake person or a sentient ooze or an intelligent magical color. Do you think anybody actually cares at that point, or even notices, differences in skin color or whatever?” Take a look at what prejudices would even make sense in your world, and you may find that a lot of our own world’s prejudices don’t even fit in your world. They aren’t logical.
[Michael] The best thing… One of the things I’ve done is to very specifically seek out voices from the marginalized groups that I’m hoping to represent without totally screwing up and to listen specifically for things that they get grumpy about. I use those and I lean against them. Then, if I think I can do it right, and then I use beta readers, I let the characters either repeat or contextualize those frustrations themselves, so that I can indicate that I’m aware of some of these things. It builds in a little bit of self-awareness. Then beyond that, it’s looking at the different aspects of difference, and then complementing them with similarities, so that I’m not exoticizing the character in any way.
[Question] Thank you.
[Question] Hi. If you were an aspiring author trying to break-in right now, knowing what you know about the industry, what would you do/how would you do it?
[Howard] No. Every [garbled]
[Kameron] We’re all nodding, yeah.
[Howard] I say that because my path was so weird and so lucky and I recognize that. I don’t know how I could repeat that if I was starting again. It frightens me a little bit. I think it’s okay to be frightened about that.
[Kameron] I came up through this the hard way, and it’s still very difficult, even where I’m at. I started submitting stories when I was 15 years old, and I’m 35 right now. I went to Clarion when I was 20. If you had told me when I was 20 that I wouldn’t have my first book published until I was 30, I would be like, “[Sob… Sniffle, sniffle].” But it’s like… That was the path. Sometimes you… I think we get jealous of some people and we’re like, “How is it that they got a book deal?” Sometimes it’s just luck. Sometimes it’s just they were at a different part in their… A different stage in their writing than you are. Some of us have to work harder. I talked to an author named Myke Cole about this all the time. Some of us have to work for 20 years, or to do draft after draft after draft, and we work harder than some other people. You just have to realize that that’s kind of the path and that’s where you need to go. As far as like… If I went back in time, I would really wish, I think, that I had paid more attention to the business. I know I pay much more attention to that now, and I’m certainly having a better career for it.
[Michael] One of the things that it took me a long time to learn was that my brain works best when I divide editing into… Or revision, into a series of various tasks. I edit the biggest problems first, and then the next biggest, and the next biggest. For years, I tried to revise everything all at once, and it was abysmal and I hated it all.
[James] I would say just do everything you can to get paid for writing. Really put yourself out there. Anything you like doing… If you want to write novels, write novels. But if you like journalism, if you like games, if you like any of those things. All of those are different avenues to being a professional author, and you might hit more in one quicker than you do in the others. Any sort of professional writing make you better, will give you more insight into the business at some level. That can be a nice way to get some momentum, even while… Even if it does take you a decade to sell that novel.
[Dan] The first two responses to the question were I did this the hard way. That’s because there is no easy way. The two things that I always remember about this job that I would tell younger me are a) this is so much harder than you think it’s going to be and b) do it anyway, because it’s so much cooler once you actually do it. So much better than you ever dreamed.
[Howard] The motivational piece that I need… I mean, I lead with quit because I’m looking for a punchline. The motivational piece that I need is rejection is not negative validation. You should not be requiring external validation to continue working on your craft. For heaven’s sake, keep writing. Because those things that you are tempted to see as negative validation are going to happen throughout your professional career. You cannot make them go away. If you’re the sort of person who can’t write while that’s happening, you’re going to have real problems. So learn how to keep writing first.
[James] As an illustration, the story I have that was the most rejected is also now the one that has been most reprinted. So just because you get a rejection, doesn’t mean that the story’s dead.
[Kameron] Yeah. Rejection’s not failure, it’s just another part of the process.
[Dan] Awesome. Let’s bring on another question.
[Question] Two part question. One… Well, part A. How do you best handle slithering out of making a commitment when somebody says, “Oh, I’m a writer too. Would you like to read my manuscript?” B, assuming you fail at part A, what is the most tactful way that you can convey, “I’m sorry, but your writing mechanics are so painfully awful that I started gnawing at my own liver on page 4 and I did not make it past that?”
[Howard] Okay. I think that your delivery of the second part of the question is probably a great example of how not to do it.
[Howard] I get asked a lot. Will you review a manuscript for me? I’ve gotten good at saying no. I’m sorry, I don’t have time to read the things that I want to read, and you want to add to the pile? I’m so sorry, but I just can’t. When I do read something, and it’s not good… This is tricky. I try and gauge where that person is in their writing career, and I try and give them the advice that they need to fix a problem and to keep writing. I don’t want to tell them, “Wow, this is so eye-bleedingly bad. I haven’t seen a manuscript this bad since my five-year-old tried to tell me a story about Legos.”
[Howard] I try and find a good thing. I try and find a correction I can make, and I want to be encouraging, because ultimately, even though I said quit earlier, I want people to keep writing.
[Dan] Do we have any more brilliant [garbled]
[Howard] Did I answer the whole question?
[James] Exactly what you said, pretty much. Just try and be honest inasmuch as giving them some honest feedback, if you have time. Give them some honest feedback that can help them. But it’s not your responsibility to teach them everything they need to know. And, frankly, they gotta learn also that if they’re going to ask people, they’re going to get the feedback that is honest. That’s going to be real painful for a lot of people, but…
[Kameron] It’s such a challenge, because many people really want validation from you. They’re not really looking for a critique, they want to be validated as writers. You know, the real wake-up call for a lot of folks is that you’re not going to get validation from publishing. If you are waiting for external validation for what you are doing, you’re never going to be at that point. So for me, to be dead honest, I’m just too busy. As Howard said, I can’t keep up with my own writing and manuscripts that I need to read. Let alone, I get asked to do blurbs for stuff that’s coming out from publishers and from friends. So I just kind of go, “Hey, I’m too busy.” If someone sends me email, it’s just not something that I can respond to because for whatever reason. I’m just like… I generally just don’t say anything. I put it in another… In my system, just another folder, and we just don’t address it. As a writer, your time is incredibly precious. I mean, you should be very careful about how you’re spending those resources. So it really depends on where I’m at. But usually, if it’s like, “Um, I don’t know that we need to go there,” I’ll just… I just let it go. Let it go, let it go…
[Howard] If I can tap you again real quick, I think that you’ve got our book of the week.
[Kameron] I do. My… The first book in my fantasy series, The Mirror Empire, is about parallel universes colliding into an epic battle. One world will survive, one world will perish. Which will it be? The sentient plants, blood mages, satellite magic. Available from audible.com.
[Howard] Okay. Go out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, and you can start a free trial membership, and pick this up for free.
[Howard] Next question?
[Dan] We’ve got four more. We’re going to answer them very quickly.
[Howard] Well, no, it occurs to me that we could run a little long and turn this into sort of like a special wonderful awesome episode.
[Dan] A special?
[Howard] Because these people have been so patient.
[Howard] So, we’ll try and get as many questions as we can.
[Dan] You guys hear that? Howard likes you.
[Howard] There’s still a little bit of the pill left.
[Question] How much do you telegraph the plot twist before it happens?
[Dan] Okay. So I always… Honestly, this goes right back to the first episode we did on plot twists with Mike Stackpole. I’ve remembered this metaphor ever since he told it to us. Which is, you are playing name that tune with your readers. You want them to win, but you don’t want them to win until a couple of sentences before you reveal it anyway. So how soon do you telegraph it? You gotta give them clues, but you don’t want them to actually guess it until right before, because then they feel really, really smart.
[Michael] I try to seed it in, but my optimal response is, “Oh, no. Oh, no, not that. But it had to be that.”
[James] Everything you guys said was right on the money.
[Howard] Okay, let’s take another question.
[Question] So I’m not an aspiring writer, but my roommate is. So how do I be the best kind of guy to bounce ideas off, test reader, that I can be with… Even though I’m not a writer, but I’m very interested and I’m very accessible?
[Howard] For those of you not benefiting from the video feed, the person asking the question is made of gold, platinum, and diamonds and awesome.
[Howard] And we automatically love him, because… Thank you so much. Because people who are willing to read your crap before it’s good are a huge resource.
[Michael] I actually would say that the fact that you’re not… You say you’re not a writer yourself is a huge boon as well. Because then you can just give them the response of a reader. You can say, “I found myself getting bored in chapter 5. For some reason, I didn’t really like the hero in here because of how he made me feel here.” You aren’t trying to… Often writers will try and tell people, “Oh, what you really need to do is X, Y, Z.” But as a beta reader, that’s not really your job because it’s their book. They should solve the problem. You can just point out the problem. So that’s the most helpful thing.
[Kameron] Yeah. My husband’s a tabletop gamer and so he does a lot of GM work which is actually perfect, because we talk out plot problems quite a lot. I’ll say, “I put this character in this cell, and there’s no way to get out. There’s this filter that will like totally sear her flesh if she tries to go through it.” He’s like, “Okay?” We start working through problems of all right, well, what’s in the cell with her? Who’s outside? Does she have any compatriots on the outside? So we work through those plot problems together. Sometimes it’s just being interested and engaged in the story, and willing to be kind of the person to bounce those ideas off of. Because a lot of times what happens is, when you’re listening to someone and you can tell they’re kind of tuning out. Instead of it being like a racquetball thing, where it’s like I bounce, and you bounce, and that’s the ultimate, that’s what you’re looking for.
[Michael] One of the best questions you can ask, I think, for a friend or somebody who’s working on something is, “I’m sorry. I don’t know, why is that? Why is this thing here? Why do these people do this? Why did this thing happen?” So that you can poke at a writer’s causality. Because sometimes, we have a strong sense of something, but it’s not on the page.
[Dan] I use my family for this all the time. That’s become our new thing at dinner. We’ll be sitting around and my daughter will go, “Are you going to make us solve your plot problem again?”
[Howard] Are you going to eat your vegetables?
[Dan] I’m like, “Yes. I am. Okay? This guy’s on the top of a skyscraper. They need to kidnap him on the bottom floor. How do I get him down without using the elevator, really, really fast?” My kids are all like, “Okay?” Then they dig into it and go for it. Often that’s all it takes. Like Kameron was saying. Just someone who’s willing to brainstorm cool ideas. So, I hope that helps. Awesome. Let’s get another question.
[Question] How do you decide on the titles of your stories? Do you know the title at the beginning of your writing process, or does it come to you at some point later?
[Dan] Okay. I’m going to tell you a story. I wrote the first three John Cleaver books. Then figured I was done. Then, like three or four years later, I got an idea for a new one. So I emailed my German editor. I was living in Germany at the time. I emailed him and I said, “Hey, would you be interested in another John Cleaver book?” His response was to email me the cover he’d already mocked up for it.
[Dan] Complete with a title.
[Dan] I said, “I haven’t even started it yet. How do you know what the title is?” He said, “I’m just going to change your’s anyway.”
[Dan] Which is a long way of telling you that I don’t really do my own titles. Because I’m really bad at it. So I always rely on my editors or my writing group to title them for me.
[Kameron] I had a really interesting experience, because when my first three books came out, I was like, “Oh, I’m going to call them God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture.” Well, what does that say to people? People think they’re religious fiction. They’re about this badass bounty hunter on this secondary world, and there’s a big hole war and it’s crazy. So people didn’t know what they were. They didn’t know what they were getting. What I do now is my agent and I sit down once I have finished whatever stupid comp title I put in there. We go, “Okay. What’s the genre we’re writing in? What titles again, don’t pop in Amazon, because we want to have something unique?” So we sit down and we go through just a bunch of different titles and stuff together. Sometimes my editor and I’ll go through that with me. But with Mirror Empire, that was a very strategic title. It was like, “Okay, it’s about mirroring universes colliding.” Cool. But we want something that codes epic fantasy. The empire thing codes the epic fantasy. Then in… I have a book coming out that is a space opera, and it’s called The Stars Are Legion. Hah. It says stars, it means science fiction. Are Legion, it’s about space opera. Hah-ha. So I have a very strategic way of going about looking at titles now.
[Michael] A lot of my titles are the first or one of the first things I know about the project. So, Geekomancy. It’s about geek magic. Everything accretes from there. Genrenauts is the same thing. A space opera I’m working on. For a long time, it was The Space Opera I’m Going to Write.
[Michael] Then it was Hooked on a Space Opera. Because it was influenced by Guardians of the Galaxy. I just circled around and around and around. I did what Kameron did. I tried to figure out, I need a title that codes space opera in a particular way. I went through 10 or so really, really terrible ones, until I got to something that was evocative and thankfully alliterative. Annihilation Aria.
[James] I love really elaborate, intricate, creative titles, like James Tiptree style titles that I just love, and I’m terrible at them. I want everything to sound like a heavy metal epic, and it never does. Both of my novels ended up with the working title being the title, but… So that’s what I do. But, what I say to all the authors that I work with is, I make them give me a huge list. Just a shock and blast. Like, give me the title you want, and then give me 10 variations on it, and give me every keyword that you think might fit. We’re just going to jumble these around until we find something that I like, you like, and the publisher likes. It’s never the first one. I mean, never. So it’s exactly what you’re talking about. You need something that’s unique, sounds cool, but expresses what the story is.
[Howard] Right on. Let’s take another question.
[Question] How do you know when you need to revise a second or third time or when you need to rewrite completely?
[James] Outside of the editor telling you you need to?
[Howard] Well, the time when my editor at Privateer Press told me essentially, “Yeah, the format you’ve been writing to isn’t actually the format we’re going to use. So you probably want to restructure this.” “Oh, yeah. I probably do.” That was time-consuming.
[Dan] This is an important one, though. As we say often on this show, revision is one of, if not the most important, parts of having a good book. So before the point… Before they get to the point, because most of our listeners don’t have an editor to tell them this, how do you know?
[Michael] I’ve got an idea. I think that… While editors and beta readers and all those people can tell you a lot about what you should revise, I think the number one thing is you have to learn to trust your gut. Also, to listen to it and not let yourself get lazy. Because we all have places in the manuscript where you kind of feel like you know that part may be really doesn’t quite feel right, or you kind of think it’s wrong but you’re so tempted to just like slip it by and see if anybody calls you on it. Like, “Oh, the beta readers didn’t say anything, so it must be okay.” The answer is, no, you need to… If it doesn’t feel right to you, you know something is wrong, it’s way better to go back and mess with it now until you’re happy with it, rather than put it out there. Because even if it does get out there, in five years, you’ll still know that there is a problem in that book. So you just… You can’t be lazy. You have to be honest with yourself.
[Kameron] For me, I have a writing process where I simply understand that my first draft is like literal word vomit. Like, “Uuh.” It’s just… I spew out 5,000 words, 10,000 words sometimes in a day. I generally write like one day a week, so… But it’s getting something on the page. I am a reviser. My first drafts are horrible. My agent… I just recently got a new agent, a year and a half ago, almost 2 years ago. She’s like… She wanted to see my first drafts. I was like, “No. You’re going to think I’m a horrible writer and you have made a terrible decision.” But she wanted to see them, so that we could work out things in the early process. But… So I understand that anything that I write is going to be rewritten. There are very few times where I will write something all the way through and go, “Yeah. I nailed that. Right on.” A lot of the time, I’m figuring out the plot, I’m figuring out the characters, and I understand that, because by the time I get to the end, everything’s changed about what I think about them, so I have to go back and again lace those things into the manuscript. For me, that’s just kind of… I guess there’s a gut check certainly, but you need to reach that level of your craft where you actually can trust your gut. That involves lots of reading, lots of studying, lots of active practice as far as understanding the… How plot works and the structure of stories. So…
[Michael] The thing… One of the things that really made revision come alive for me and be much less stressful was thinking about every draft as a performance of the story, and that I could treat drafts one through however many as rehearsal. I could go back and say, “I can tell that better.” Or “Look, I can fix the broken part of the song.” It was freeing to be able to step back from it, regard it as an incarnation of the thing, and do not think that it was 100% part and parcel with the whole thing that exists in my brain and can be better.
[Howard] It’s important to recognize that when you are revising, you are leveraging a skill set in order to fix problems that exist in your manuscript. You may not have developed the skill set to fix that problem yet. It is entirely possible for a new writer to arrive at revision 3 without the ability to execute on revision 3. I don’t know how you identify that. I don’t know how you find out for yourself that you don’t have that skill set. But I suspect that for newer writers, you write it, you revise it once per whatever needs to be done, and then if it’s not working, it might be time to write something else to refine the skill set. Because you can… Once you’ve developed good revision skills, the stuff that sitting in the trunk is a gold mine that you can go back to and one revision pass, and it’s awesome.
[Michael] But… Sorry. But if you’ve done the best you can do… Like, sure, there’s probably a revision step four, five, or six that in 20 years you’ll know how to do, but if you’ve done the best you can do right now, send it out there. Let it get rejected, because maybe it won’t. We’re all getting better all the time. So don’t let yourself be stymied by what you don’t know yet.
[Kameron] Yeah, to add kind of onto that one, I look back at my first novel that went out the door, and the narrative structure is just a hot mess. It is a mess. I recognize that, but I did the absolute best that I could. So I did the absolute best that I could, to my ability, at that time, and then it was time to go. It had to ship. At a certain point, some things have to ship, and you have to put it out there. Again, as Howard said, sometimes the best thing to do, don’t be afraid to wait a few weeks, a month or two, on a manuscript. But at a certain point, if you’re… It’s great to finish stuff and then send it out.
[Dan] Awesome. So this… These have all been wonderful answers and great questions. Thank you all for being on the show.
[Dan] We have a writing prompt coming at us from James Sutter.
[James] Yeah. In honor of the recent Pluto missions, I’m going to say take a piece of real world astronomical phenomena, something like a tidally heated planet or a tidally locked planet and make it part of the setting of a story.
[Dan] Very cool. All right. So, this has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.