Writing Excuses 10.52: Moving On, with Ellen Kushner
Key points: How do you let go and start a new story? Deadlines. Box up the old clutter, or just leave it in a pile in the corner, but insist that you are done with it. Outline what is coming in the old story, so you know it is still there. Write fan fiction and short stories in the old universe. How do you juggle multiple projects? Use mnemonic cues, such as music, to help switch. Make more notes when switching. Use a physical activity to switch mental gears. Use a timer and force yourself to jump right in. Watch out for the magic helicopter ride when you write The End.
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 52.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Moving On.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] 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] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Ellen Kushner. Yay!
[Yay! Applause! Louder, louder! Can’t hear you!]
[Howard] Well done.
[Brandon] Ellen is a fantastic writer and a previous guest to the podcast. We’re glad to have her back. We are still on the Writing Excuses cruise for one more episode. This is the last one.
[Brandon] This is also the last episode of the season. Theoretically, you are at the end of a very long journey, where you… Which you have started in January and gone through and completed an entire story, using the trademarked Writing Excuses method.
[Mary] Or not.
[Brandon] We get royalties based on your success.
[Howard] Okay. Time to go do a trademark search.
[Brandon] But, it’s time to be done. Just like we are now done with our cruise and we’re now done with the season, it’s time for you to be done with the story you’ve been working on for a year, and it’s time to let go. This is hard. So I want to dedicate an entire podcast to asking the podcasters how they let go of a story and how they move on to the next one. Ellen, do you have any strategies for this? How do you get out of the mode of one story and into another?
[Ellen] Deep self loathing. That always works for me. It’s sort of a general sense that your story is ready to go to kindergarten. You can tie its little shoes, fuss with its little hair, and then say, “Off you go, darling. Have fun.” Because you’ve got another story coming on.
[Brandon] That’s right. I actually made the metaphor recently that that’s why you want to start new stories, so you have a different baby to cuddle for a while while this one toddles off to school.
[Ellen] That’s ex… There we are.
[Howard] That metaphor totally neglects the diaper aspects of…
[Howard] The cuddly new babies.
[Ellen] Oh, I don’t think so.
[Brandon] Yeah, yeah.
[Brandon] The revision process a month ago covered that.
[Dan] I’ve written a lot of stories with a long and painful diaper phase.
[Howard] It’s funny, Brandon, you mentioned… Okay, the cruise is over, we all have to… We have to be done, we have to get off the ship. They have just given us instructions for how to get our luggage off the ship. I realized that finishing a project, for me, is a lot like debarking, in that it’s more than just I gotta get myself off of this. I also have to take my processes, my files, my notes… There’s a whole bunch of cluttering my workspace that is result… That is attached to the thing that I’m finishing, and I need to scrape that off so that I’m starting clean.
[Ellen] I would actually like to suggest a completely different version, which is leave it all in a big pile in the corner. Immediately turn your attention to the new thing, so that you don’t have to do anything unpleasant or distracting. This works for me, and I have piles all over my office to prove it.
[Mary] I was going to say. I have seen your office.
[Mary] I have seen the narrow path through your office. But it is true that everybody’s brain works a different way. The main thing, whether it’s leaving it in a pile or whether it’s cleaning up and putting it in a box, either way it is saying, “I am… This is something I am not working on now.” This is really, really hard. Because you’ve been training your mind to turn to this story and think about the problems for sometimes a year, sometimes for some people like 10 years. Letting it go and training your mind to think about something else is really, really hard. I was very surprised when I finished the Glamorous History series that I actually went into a little… Actually, I went into a mourning period for it, which surprised me. No one warned me that that would happen sometimes. I guess this happens to parents, the empty nest syndrome.
[Brandon] Right. I’ve heard… I’m just watching for the day that mine are [all wrapped up?]
[Mary] I have cats. That’s working really well for me.
[Brandon] Well. I haven’t had mourning periods when finishing series because I… One of the things I do is I outline the rest of the series I’m not going to write, but I know where it would go. That makes me feel that the story lives and continues without me.
[Mary] Oh, interesting.
[Brandon] I actually have… Like every book that I’ve written, I have a paragraph or two written about here’s where it goes next. Even without ever intending to write those.
[Mary] Huh. I’m going to try that.
[Ellen] It’s interesting that you… That’s a great idea. But, for me, if we were talking… When you said story, I thought you meant short story. If you were talking novel… To me, the last few months of the novel are the “Aren’t these people ever going to go home?” part.
[Ellen] I am dying for them to leave my brain and my life. It’s like you throw this really great party, and it’s great and you’re all staying up and you’re all having fun until about three in the morning. Then you kind of keep looking at your watch, looking at the fact that there’s really no food or drink left, and they won’t leave your living room.
[Howard] You are not going to get that couch back.
[Ellen] Exactly. So I’m like, “Please. Go home. Leave. Now.”
[Dan] That’s more along the lines of what I think. I have to admit after hearing so many of you talk about the mourning period and how do you let go of an old project, that’s never been an issue for me. Finish a project and… I will honestly take a few days, not too many or I get cranky, but take a few days to do nothing if possible, and then start a new project. I’m usually so excited about the cool, new, hot, sexy idea that I don’t even remember the old girlfriend at all.
[Mary] You know what, it only happened to me with series completion. It didn’t happen in between books. I think it’s because of what Brandon was saying, that I was able to continue on, that their story was continuing on.
[Brandon] I had this for Wheel of Time. When I got done with the Wheel of Time, I had read… Written this… I mean, I had read it since I was a kid, and then I wrote the three books. It was the only series that I’ve written that I can’t lie to myself and say, “Oh, I’ll do more someday.” Because I didn’t own it. We had decided, Harriet and I, that it was done, that Robert Jordan wouldn’t want any more. When I hit that one, I actually had a lot of these things, where I’m like I can’t write these characters anymore. It was kind of traumatic because it felt like they’d been ripped away from me.
[Mary] I have actually been writing a little bit of fanfiction in my own universe, which is completely ridiculous.
[Ellen] Well, at least you’re admitting to it.
[Dan] And somewhat narcissistic. Let’s be honest.
[Ellen] No, no, it’s not narcissistic. No, actually this is what I did with the Swordspoint Riverside series. I don’t call it fanfiction. I call them short stories and I sell them for money. The real trauma of them is that I have to assume that anyone reading the stories has never read any of my novels. It’s a really fun challenge. Which is how I can bring you into my world and caring about my characters in not a lot of words. Also, how can I write in a really different style if I want to.
[Howard] This explains why they’re still on your couch.
[Mary] But this is why I call what I’m doing fan fiction, which is that I’m assuming that anyone who’s reading it has read…
[Mary] It’s really just something I do to get it out of my head. But the thing that helps me with short fiction, and with novels as well, is to immediately start working on the next project, which is the thing you were talking about of turning your back on the clutter in the corner. That I have to very quickly start working on the next project. Otherwise, I sit there and obsessively refresh my inbox, wanting to see if someone has rejected it yet.
[Ellen] Ah… Got it.
[Brandon] Or… Sometimes with me, I’m setting this aside before I’m getting to the revision, and I’m checking to see if they are giving me feedback yet. That will keep me from getting into the new book, thinking so much about the feedback. In fact, I sometimes tell my assistants, once the book’s done, just don’t talk to me about it until I’m ready for the feedback. Put it in a file and don’t tell me, because otherwise you’re going to keep me in that world.
[Ellen] Well, I want to fess up then, that I actually do… The last thing I want to do is start a new project. It’s nice that we’re on see and I can say this, which is that to me, writing a novel is a long sea voyage. My partner always goes, “Oh, I love it when you’re writing.” I’m like, “No. You don’t. Because I go away on a ship, all by myself. I very occasionally stop and provision.” But you… You really, your mind belongs to the story and your real feelings belong to the story. By the time I get off that ship onto dry land again, I do not want to go to sea anymore. I want to live my life again. It really does take me a certain amount of poking prodding to say okay, start provisioning and let’s get on board again. It’s very difficult.
[Brandon] Now, I’m going to stop us here to talk about some books. I actually want to do two. Because we actually promo’ed the Ellen’s book a month back on the podcast. Which we recorded yesterday, and I was just bad at coordinating with Ellen, because I wanted to have her on that podcast. So I’m going to let her pitch her book again to you from her own mouth. Then we’re going to have a fan also pitch a book. So when you tell us about Swordspoint or any book that you want our listeners to go check out of yours?
[Ellen] Well, I think you should go and check out Swordspoint, because I have just finished doing a group serial for serialbox.com of a 15 years before it prequel during which I found out why all the things that happened in Swordspoint actually happened. Swordspoint is basically a bunch of bisexuals killing each other.
[Mary] Wow, this is so different than my summary of it.
[Ellen] Oh, well. It takes all kinds. You haven’t had to do the elevator pitch for what is essentially Liaisons Dangereuses meets the Three Musketeers. So it’s been tough being the author of this extremely weird and indescribable book, and I very much look forward to hearing what you said about it.
[Brandon] Well, we also want to promote a book from an audience member here on the cruise who’s going to… Who has a chance to pitch one of their favorite books.
[Dan] Yes. This is Erica, she’s one of our awesome writers, and she’s going to tell us about The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells.
[Eric] The Cloud Roads is a fantasy adventure featuring a pretty much entirely nonhuman cast. It’s fantastic seeing these characters with incredibly different sets of instincts who are also very reasonable and really relatable. We see them interacting with all sorts of other alien cultures. It’s a very different take on a coming-of-age fitting in story. The world is amazingly rich, with the sheer variety of life and… Hey, flying shape-changers.
[Dan] That is The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells. It is read by Christopher Kipiniak. It’s the first of a series, too, so if you like it, there’s a bunch more.
[Brandon] You can get both of these, Swordspoint or The Cloud Road on Audible by going to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a 30-day free trial, support the podcast, get a free book, and then get a book every month to listen to. I do this at Audible myself and I find that it helped me find time to read, knowing I’ve got this book that I can listen to while I’m doing something else. So instead of turning on the television and listening to random stupid whatever sitcom, I listen to a great book. It has improved my life.
[Ellen] And you can knit at the same time.
[Brandon] Yes, you can knit.
[Mary] Or drive.
[Ellen] Or clear the kitchen.
[Howard] Or draw.
[Ellen] How about cleaning the kitchen?
[Brandon] I do clean the kitchen while listening to the books. It’s very helpful. I’m up at like midnight when everyone else is in bed and I want to take a break from my writing, I listen to a book and I want to stay active while I’m doing it, so… I do the dishes.
[Mary] So if you would like to get your kitchen cleaned by Brandon…
[Brandon] Let me ask you a slightly different question, podcasters. One thing that I get a lot from fans and aspiring writers, they come and they ask, “How do you juggle multiple projects?” What do you do when you’re in the middle of something and you’ve got to put it down and move on to something else because a deadline has come due?
[Howard] Head hacking. I… There’s any number of mono… Mnemonic devices out there to help you remember things. What I’ve found is that certain sorts of things like music and work space, lighting, time of day, can serve as cues to which parts of my brain I’m accessing while I write this. When I’m embedded into projects for an extended period of time, like as of this recording I am between the Schlock Mercenary comic strip and the Planet Mercenary role-playing game, I carve my workspace into two distinct phases that are temporal and audible and lighting and whatever else so that… I’m hacking my own brain. Teaching my brain to switch between these two tasks a little more cleanly.
[Mary] Yeah. I… The two things that I do are I have to take way more notes about what the project is that I’m working on because I… When I’m switching between projects, I can’t rely on the things that I’m holding in my head to actually stay in my head without being replaced by the new project. So I’ve learned to make way more notes when I finish the work on project A and am switching over to project B. So that I remember where it was that I was. The other thing that I’ve learned to do is to have a physical activity that I use is a gear switching time.
[Brandon] Oh, interesting.
[Mary] Sometimes it’s doing the dishes or going for a walk, yoga, or whatever it is. But doing something physical because that doesn’t involve the verbal and problem solving part of my brain. While I’m doing that, I am consciously thinking about what the next project is so that I’m ramping up to get to that. Sometimes it’s I will walk 15 minutes to my coffee shop or whatever. Then, when I sit down, I have a timer and say that I have to just immediately jump in and spend usually 15 minutes just working on that before I am allowed to procrastinate. Because…
[Brandon] Good idea. Good idea.
[Mary] Because otherwise that’s the first thing I will do.
[Brandon] The first thing is you’ll open that solitaire or that email or that twitter. Dan or Ellen? Any strategies for this?
[Ellen] I like to play them off against each other.
[Mary] Oh, yes. Especially procrastination.
[Ellen] I tell them both I love them, and then I always hate the one I’m actually working on, and I’m thinking about how great it will be when I get to switch to the other one. So that keeps one of them always alive in your heart why you’re doing the actual work on the other.
[Dan] That’s awesome. I don’t know if I realized that I was using this as a tool to help switch between projects, but maybe that’s what it is. Because I don’t think switching projects as ever been a big obstacle for me. What I do do though is that I have chosen a soundtrack in a specific theme song for every story and every book I work on. To be fair, I think almost every book I’ve written has been written to a soundtrack of the Silversun Pickups. But there is always a specific song that I listen to first and say, “Oh, this book is this song.” Partials was Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones. I would listen to that when it was time to work on that book.
[Mary] Marie Brennan makes a playlist of… When she is writing that is specifically about the… About her books. Then she… You can go to Spotify and listen to it while you’re reading the book. It’s pretty cool.
[Howard] I make a playlist, but you can’t get it on Spotify.
[Ellen] Well, you have to up your game, right?
[Howard] I guess so.
[Brandon] This has been great. I want to actually give everyone a chance to kind of give final words for this season. Just imagine, there is a listener who has spent an entire year working on one story. Now they are done. What do you want to tell them? What encouragement, what discouragement, what do you want to say to these people?
[Mary] Holy cow. Good job. This is… It’s not easy. Reaching the end of anything, whether it’s a short story or a novel, that’s fantastic, and you should be really proud of yourself.
[Brandon] I will jump on that and say the same thing. If this is your first, in particular… I remember still that moment of finishing my first and I didn’t… The most I’ve ever grown in my life as a writer was writing that first story. Finishing it was the most important point in my career to date. More important than getting the Wheel of Time phone call was actually sitting down and finishing that story.
[Ellen] I’d like to add that magic happens the moment you write the last word of the first draft. You don’t believe it until you see it. Which is that you’ve been slogging along over this landscape trying to figure out how to get across rivers and whether this forest is going to be too dense or not. Suddenly, when you write The End to even your first crummy draft, a magic helicopter comes. It lifts you high above the landscape. Suddenly, you can look down and go, “Oh, good Lord. There was a bridge just half a mile beyond where I forded the river and lost all my horses. When I do my revisions, I can take that bridge.” Congratulations.
[Brandon] Dan or Howard? You got anything? You’re looking puzzled.
[Howard] Yeah. No, I’ve… I’m imagining the magic helicopter that I wish had showed up for me.
[Howard] The… There are two principal differences between the working writer and the person who wants to be a working writer but is not yet. Difference number one is that the working writer has finished a book. Has finished a project. That is the first big hurdle. The second big hurdle is that the working writer has finished two. You have finished one. It is time to put that next notch, it is time to hit that next rung.
[Dan] All right. I actually was waiting for the end, because I’m going to give you your homework. I have essentially built my career on trying new things. I wrote fantasy books forever and then thought, “You know, I’m going to try a horror novel,” and loved it. And got published in horror. I did third person forever and then I thought, “You know what, I’m going to try first-person this time.” Just at every stage, and sometimes my editors get incredibly frustrated. Dan Wells, why did you send me this book when it’s nothing at all like anything you’ve ever published before? Well, because I wanted to try something new. That’s what you’re going to do now. We want you to brainstorm new ideas. Go back to the beginning of the season, when we talk about how to get ideas and what to do with ideas, and really branch out. Push yourself. Work on something that is very new, either in a new genre or a new style or a new something. But brainstorm some ideas for a brand new project.
[Brandon] Now, if I might be so bold, I want to mention something to you. You have been listening to these podcasts, and we have been on a boat. Indeed, we are on the Writing Excuses cruise right now, and we are wrapping it up. But we are coming back next year. As you are listening to this podcast, we have actually opened up the opportunity for you to make reservations to come with us to the Caribbean next year. So if you have ever wanted to say go to dinner with Howard and make wisecracks about his pants…
[Brandon] Or if you’ve ever wanted to lay down at night, comfortable in the knowledge that Dan is somewhere trapped on the boat with a knife with you…
[Brandon] Then you can come on the cruise. If you want to see if you can write more words than me in one week, you can come on the cruise. Or if you’d like to go to a masquerade ball dressed up like a steampunker and meet Mary in her Regency dress… These are all things that happen on the Writing Excuses cruise. We will post in the liner notes how you can come and reserve yourself a cabin. Come along, hear from wonderful guest instructors, have breakout sessions, write books, eat great food, and maybe fall in the ocean.
[Mary] Don’t fall in the ocean.
[Howard] Don’t fall in the ocean.
[Mary] They stop the boat. It’s not good.
[Brandon] You could fall in the ocean off the docks or on… I fell in the ocean several times.
[Ellen] Okay. Sure. You can see the world. You can even go to countries that you wouldn’t fly to because suddenly the boat is there in the morning going, “Hello. Would you like to go to a new country, because it’s just outside the window?”
[Brandon] So, do…
[Dan] I have to say, because you mentioned me and a knife… Everyone in the audience is laughing. Two nights ago at dinner, a knife plummeted out of the sky
[Dan] And hit my dining room table.
[Dan] So some rad things happen on this cruise.
[Mary] I mean the trigger wire that he had placed for it was very clever.
[Ellen] Oh, I thought it was the people on the deck above us.
[Brandon] As a final wrap-up, thank you audience. Thank you for listening to our Writing Excuses Masters Class, thank you for supporting us as a podcast all of these years, encouraging us and writing along with us, and becoming our colleagues as you finish stories. Thank you so much. Good job this year. Let’s look forward to another great year. This has been Writing Excuses Season 10 Master Class. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.