Writing Excuses 11.44: Project in Depth, GHOST TALKERS, by Mary Robinette Kowal
Key Points: Catalog pitch and sales pitch are often different. Catalog pitch is to get readers, sales pitch is the emotional core of the story, with spoilers. Even though you know an event is coming, when it happens can still be a surprise. Changing viewpoints, letting a character explain why he’s a slimeball, can make them more real. Watch for the tension between who a character wants to be and who they are. Sometimes you can split a conflict into parts and play them at different points in time to misdirect the reader. Just because a story deals with horrific things does not mean it has to be a horror story. It depends on how the main character views things. Pay attention to what matters to the character. Emotionally powerful moments often combine two conflicting emotions at the same time. Also, telegraph that this moment, this goal is coming well ahead of time. Writing combines craft and internalized practice, and working on specific things at specific points. Use your revision to find and fix overused stuff, or places you left vague. If you know you overdo something, replace it with a different piece. You can keep a style book to help you with the colors of emotions, or other fine points! Don’t be afraid to use friends and 7 point plot structures and other tools to help with outlining, and to help fix places with problems. Remember, your reader only sees the final version, they don’t see the drafts and drafts. Don’t judge your first draft by anyone’s final version, even your own.
[Mary] Season 11, Episode 44.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Project in Depth, Ghost Talkers.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And, Warning. Spoilers. If you haven’t listened to one of these before, these are generally long episodes. We’ll go a little longer on this one. Where we dig into a story a great deal, and we reveal all the nifty-gritty details about it.
[Howard] I’m sorry. Let me deliver that warning just a little bit differently. I read Ghost Talkers on the plane, and I will be brokenhearted if you let me spoil this book for you.
[Howard] Got it?
[Brandon] Okay. So. Ghost Talkers. Mary?
[Mary] All right. So. This is the pitch that I gave, and I’m starting with this so you know… There’s the difference between the pitch that is on the catalog copy and the pitch that I gave when I sold it. The pitch on the catalog copy is basically Battle of the Somme. 1916. The British Intelligence Department has a group of mediums called the Spirit Corps. When soldiers die, they report in. They are getting instant troop updates. They find out there is a traitor. That’s the way the catalog copy goes. The way I pitched it is 1916. Spirit Corps, mediums. My main character’s fiancé’s reports in dead and she spends the rest of the novel trying to solve his murder, knowing that when they together complete his unfinished business, he will go away to beyond the veil. So that is the emotional core of the story, and I worked very, very hard that out of any catalog copy.
[Dan] So if you didn’t listen to our spoiler warning… Hah hah!
[Howard] There goes the inciting incident.
[Dan] Well, what I love about this novel is that that’s the inciting incident. Because the way you have got the first chapter, kind of the establishing shot of the book, it sets up all of these things. Me, as a writer, I read that and I’m like, “Oh. She’s going to do this and she’s going to do this and she’s going to do this.” I thought they were going to be like third act stuff and they’re like third chapter stuff.
[Brandon] Right. The mic drop happens right there.
[Dan] It was fantastic because suddenly… It fulfilled all of its promises so early and then went on into even more interesting stuff. It was great.
[Mary] Thank you. One of the things that was hard about this is it’s obvious to a writer… It’s obvious that I’m going to kill him. Trying to figure out a way to not telegraph how soon I was going to kill him, and also giving him enough stage time so that you cared when he died. Because having him die in the first chapter, that’s… You don’t care. So making the reader… Tricking the reader into thinking and believing that Ben was going to be a main character all the way through the book… And he is, because he sticks around as a ghost. But tricking them into thinking that that… That… That death is not going to come towards the end was really hard. One of the things that I did with that was that I realized… I was looking at… Why, when I’m watching a book or a film or something, I know that the character’s going to die. You do. You’re like, “Oh, that character’s dead. They’re totally going to be fridged.” I realized it was because those characters had story arcs that were very clean. That they existed only to interact with the main character, and they didn’t look like they were going to serve any other function in the story.
[Howard] The thing that I think you did… Maybe this was deliberate, maybe not. I’m just going to chalk it up to deliberate because you’re that good with the craft, was Norris’s murder. When Norris is murdered… Norris was the character who, the night before, got punched out by the fiancé, for saying very inappropriate things. He reports in dead, and the fiancé is under suspicion. I realize, “Oh. You don’t have to threaten the fiancé with death. You can threaten the fiancé with discrediting. This may be a completely different story than I thought it was… Oh, shit, he is dead.”
[Mary] Yes, that was actually intentional.
[Howard] You did it. Yes, you did.
[Dan] So, I have another question…
[Brandon] Since we’re on this topic, though, one of my favorite moments was when I felt sorry for him.
[Dan] Yep, for Norris.
[Brandon] I brought this out in my review of Ghost Talkers. I couldn’t state it specifically, because I didn’t want it to be spoilery. But those little moments of… I assume this was intentional, too, of saying, “Oh, this guy’s a slimeball.” Now you see through his eyes and you’re like, “Oh, he feels bad about being a slimeball. I like him. Oh, he’s dead.”
[Brandon] Like those moments were so good.
[Dan] The line that sold that particular thing for me was when he was talking to her as a ghost and saying, “Yeah. He almost beat me up. But I was trying to get beat up, anyway.” That line just snapped him into focus as a character.
[Brandon] So authentic. And so relatable.
[Mary] It is… A thing that I’ve talked about on one of the other podcasts about figuring out who the character wants to be and who they are. One of the things that happened for me during the course of researching this was that I read a lot of first-person accounts from peop… From men who went to fight at the Battle of the Somme and survived. The amount of survivor’s guilt… But also the amount of emotional introspection that they were doing between who they thought they were before the war and who the war had turned them into made me realize that that was happening to every single character in that novel. That there is the person that they were before the war, and then there is the person that they are now, and there is the person that they would like to be and they can’t in that moment. One of the things for me about Norris in particular is that… I think the reason that that scene works is because you can see who he wants to be, and he will never have a chance to do that, because he is dead.
[Brandon] Yeah. Wow, that was so good.
[Brandon] All right. Dan, I cut you off.
[Dan] I wanted to ask another… So one of the other things that helped misdirect me into thinking that Ben’s death would come late in the book was the first chapter sets up the idea that if a medium kind of leaves their body too much, that it becomes hard to come back and it becomes enticing for them to leave and move beyond the veil. So what that told me was, okay, he’s going to die at the end and the big conflict will be that she wants to go with him. That is one of the conflicts. But the… I was not expecting you to break those two pieces up so one comes at the end and one earlier. So that worked very well.
[Mary] Well, thank you.
[Dan] Was that intentionally a form of misdirection?
[Mary] Yeah. There were a number of things that I was doing to try to misdirect. One was that. Ginger’s desire to try to go with Ben. The other was that I tried to set up a relationship conflict between them which is that he wanted to be very protective. So that it looked like the thing that was going to be happening between them was a tra… Not a tragically flawed relationship, but a broken relationship. That desire for her to go with him at the end was going to be related to that relationship conflict.
[Brandon] Okay. I’ve got a different question. A different direction on this. I was surprised by how little of a horror story this was, despite dealing with ghosts. There were moments… The moments where Ben poltergeists and things like this, or when you see him… Some of the descriptions go into horror. But they were like a seasoning here and there. For a story about mediums and ghosts and war, there was very little horror. I actually found that refreshing. I thought it might have muddled it too much.
[Mary] That was again something that came out of the primary research that I did. One of the most compelling texts that I read was a diary of a nurse at the front which was literally a transcription of a diary. She was at the Battle of the Somme and they would get… She would have these diary entries where she would talk about this trainload of soldiers who had been hit by mustard gas and were literally coughing up lungs. Just… The chemical burns on them. On soldiers… Just inj… Horrific injury after horrific injury. In the same diary entry, she would talk about how they had gotten permission to go to the garden at this nearby estate and how the peonies were in bloom. What I realized between her and the men talking about these things is how normalized the war had become for them. They had become so desensitized to it. So that’s one of the reasons that it doesn’t feel like a horror story, is because my primary character, my point of view character, is desensitized. She’s not having a horror reaction.
[Howard] The scariest moment for me was when she explores and exploits her power as a medium to mess with our bad guy and tortures his poor brain. True to horror stories, part of the fear is not that you’ll die, but that you’ll become something that I, as a reader, can no longer love. Part of it is that boy, I really want her to score on this guy, but this is a terrible, terrible things she is doing. That moment took all of the desensitizing that I could see with the characters throughout the book and stripped it away and used it as a pokey stab in my eye. Sorry, that metaphor fell really flat.
[Mary] Well, I mean, there was a lot of pokey stabbing, because there was… that scene had the knitting needles in the eye.
[Mary] Yeah. Well, you know. She was going in and manipulating somebody’s nightmares. But yeah, that is, for me, one of the horror things is that moment when the character begins to become something else. I think one of the reasons that Ben’s poltergeisting read more as horror is because that is a deviation from her normal, and she’s not desens…
[Brandon] She is not in a horror story in her mind. Even though there are elements that we would consider horrific because even ghosts are normal to her.
[Dan] Well, the reason I think that the poltergeist scenes worked as horror is because the fact that there is a poltergeist and things are moving on their own, that’s not scary. Because we can see the ghost and we understand the ghost. What’s scary is oh, no, Ben’s going to lose it. He’s not going to be Ben anymore. That’s what makes it frightening.
[Mary] Yeah. Which is… For readers, the technique that I’m using there is getting into what matters to the character. Had she been terrified of the movement of the papers, I would have written those scenes in very, very different ways. But I’m focusing on what matters to her. Which is a trick I learned from Jane Austen.
[Brandon] So, let’s stop for a book of the week. Which is actually not Mary’s book.
[Brandon] Because we did that last week, and you should have read it by now.
[Howard] Sure hope you already have it.
[Brandon] Dan. Book of the week.
[Dan] This week we’re going to talk about an actual, straight up, horror story that I read recently, which is Hex by Thomas Oldehuveldt. He’s a Dutch author, and is a really big deal over there. He brought this book back. He brought it to America, and not only did they do a language translation, but he took the chance to do a full cultural translation of it. So instead of taking place in the Netherlands, it takes place in New England. So it’s really kind of a 2.0 version. It is a fantastically terrifying story about a ghost who… Or a witch who has been around for 350 years with her eyes sewn shut, and is basically haunting a town. It is, in many ways, a horror dystopia novel, as you watch the way the town has contorted itself to deal with the fact that there is a witch there. It is just a beautifully dark and wonderful novel.
[Brandon] I was rooming with Dan at DragonCon when he was reading this. He was just glued to it and gasping and things like this. Like, it really made me want to read the book.
[Dan] I have to admit, we… When we had Robin Hobb on the show… I don’t know if that episode has aired yet, it’s the bonus episode. She talked about the same novel. It’s that good that I wanted to talk about it twice. So…
[Brandon] All right. So, I’m going to pitch you another question, because I have the microphone.
[Brandon] I’ve told you before earlier this week that my favorite thing about Ghost Talkers hands down was how by the end you made me want Ben to move on. I knew as I was reading this story you would have to… This would have to… You’d have to stick. Because, being me, I totally want the woman and her ghost boyfriend solve crimes, the series, right!
[Brandon] Like this is totally the sort of thing that Brandon loves. And it’s the sort of thing that Brandon would write, right? So I knew that you probably weren’t going to do that. Just because the rules you set up, this would be a gross violation of the rules of the setting. I knew that I, by the end, had to want him to go. At the end, it was heartbreaking, but I was like, “Oh. I’m so glad.” It was almost… It was the moment you have if you’ve ever had this moment with a loved one… I had this with one of my grandmothers, where at the time where she passed away, instead of being tragic, it was, “Okay. It’s time. I’m glad that you are getting this peace.” I felt that for Ben.
[Mary] Oh, good. That was a lot of what was driving that was… I’m going to hope that my mom is not listening to this episode. Not… Just because it will be painful for her. Grandma lived to be 109. She was sharp. She could still thread a needle at 103. At 105, she was still living on her own. But the last four years were rough. The last year of her life, she had lost her sight. She had outlived two of her children. She had outlived her younger sister. She had lost much of her hearing. Her mind was still sharp. But she could no longer interact with people. She was ready to go. She’s… She is? She was. Is. Deeply Christian. Very powerful spiritual belief. She was… Kept saying, “I don’t understand why he hasn’t taken me home?” When she finally got to die, I was so happy for her because she got to go home. So what I tried to do when I was writing that scene, and building toward… Sorry. For those of you not watching video, I am getting choked up. What I was trying to build for their was the sense that Ben was getting the peace that he deserved.
[Brandon] And it worked.
[Brandon] It was absolutely my favorite moment.
[Howard] It worked on both sides of that coin. I did not… I mean, I wanted Ben to stay. I knew that Ginger wanted there to be a way for Ben to stay. My meta-storyteller knew that if you Disneyed it…
[Howard] Or Brandoned it…
[Brandon] No, no, no. Don’t do that. I’ve had characters die, too.
[Howard] And they got together and said… I know you have.
[Brandon] It would…
[Howard] But if you had done that, then their victory would mean less. So when he left, yes, I was overjoyed that he was getting to move on, but I recognized that this was a triumphant sacrifice and I was allowed to feel bad and love it at the same time.
[Dan] Well. That’s the point that I want to make. Kind of is a general advice thing is really some of… Think about the moments in books and in movies that really, really get you. That are emotionally very powerful. Often what is happening is that you’re feeling two conflicting emotions at the same time. You’re feeling sadness that he’s leaving, but also joy that he gets to move on. Those don’t seem like they should be able to coexist because they are in opposition to each other, but you do feel them. I remember a scene, and I can’t remember where it’s from, where a daughter and her mother are talking about how they want to stay together, but they can’t stay together. You’re so happy that they have this moment, but you’re so sad that it’s going to be their last moment. Those kinds of scenes are so powerful.
[Brandon] Go ahead.
[Mary] For me, it’s about the size of the hole that the character leaves in the person’s life that stays behind. But also, one of the things again technically that I was doing was that I was telegraphing all the way through that this was the goal that they were working for. That Ginger was working… Even though she did not want… She wanted Ben to stay, but that she knew the price of him staying. So that she was working the entire time towards him leaving, and much like one of the reasons that I was happy for Grandma is that she had stated so many times how ready she was to go. So that, I think, is one of the techniques that you can use when you’re working towards something like that, is to make it clear that, no, this is the goal that we’re working towards.
[Howard] So, I have a question. Stepping away from the story elements and the meta and all of that. You… I have this sense that the book succeeds not just because you crafted a good story, but because you dug into this thing and laid line level craft onto it over and over and over again. Is that…
[Mary] Sorry. There are places. Absolutely places. The opening got a lot of work. Because I’m introducing a ton of characters. Because it is an ensemble thing. There are other places where that would be accurate. But this is… Thank you for thinking that.
[Howard] Well, it’s possible that you’ve internalized a lot of what I describe as line level.
[Mary] Well, that’s what I was going to say, is that the thing that we talk about all the time on the podcast about practicing something over and over and over again until you can do it… Until you’ve internalized it, is that I have practiced a lot of those things. Now, there are places in the… A number of places in the novel where what I did was I was like, “Okay, I’m going to work on the emotional thing.” Ginger’s… Ginger body language. Ben, what are you doing? Body language. I would literally put brackets body language. Then I came back and was more specific about it. The other thing that I do, and again, this is a line level thing, is that I allow myself to you shorthands. I know, as a writer, that my characters tend to look and they tend to breathe, they tend to smile, nod, and blink. Those are the body language pieces that I overuse. I’m like, “I know that I do that.” So what I do is, I let myself do that, and then I have a list of words. I tell you what. We will attach that list of words…
[Howard] Right on.
[Mary] Into the liner notes. I have a list of words that I know I overuse, and I do a find on them. What I do is I go back and I look for something that is more specific to the scene that allows me to… And specific to the character’s emotional state in that scene as well.
[Brandon] On this topic, before we get to Dan’s question, I do the same thing. I’ve found a tool that works really well for this is I turn on Track Changes, then I do a search and replace for the word or phrase with brackets around it, and it can change only that phrase in the brackets, so that when I get… Then I do a revision, and I can see… Sometimes I still want to use that word or phrase. But they jump out at me in a different color, so that I can see that I’m using one of those things I do very frequently. It’s very nice.
[Mary] That’s a really good trick. One thing I’m going to flag for readers is that when I’m talking about this find replace thing, and Brandon is as well, I think. That when I’m looking for… I know that I overuse the word look. I don’t replace it with gaze, glance. What I do is I replace it with a different piece of body language. What is another thing that my character would be doing in that moment?
[Brandon] Right. Yeah.
[Dan] So, we’re going long, but we’re going long on purpose. We haven’t even really talked about the magic yet. The details of the spiritualism. You do such an incredible job with this. One of the things I loved about it was kind of almost as a side effect of the way the spiritualism works, the mediums are also all empaths. Because they can read emotions by color. So my first kind of basic question is, did you work out beforehand a spectrum of emotional colors?
[Mary] No and yes, all at the same time.
[Mary] There is a book that I was using… I’m going to get the main title wrong. But it’s something to the effect of… It’s a book from 1928, How to Improve Your Psychic Powers. That’s not quite the title. It’s pretty close to it, though. By a beautifully named author. Hereward Carrington. Seriously.
[Dan] I need to have another child…
[Dan] Just to use that name.
[Mary] Right? So… It is all about auras and… So I used that. But I couldn’t remember them, frequently. So there are times when I would say, “And his aura flared color.” Or I would just put down whatever color I was feeling in that moment. I was an art major, so there are certain cultural connotations to color. So I would just put down what I was feeling. I tried to go back and fix it. Then my copy editor, who is… A saint, went through and for the… The… The… Oh, what’s that thing?
[Howard] Continuity pass?
[Mary] Not the continuity pass. The… Style guide. The style guide has a list…
[Dan] Oh, wow.
[Mary] Of all of the colors and the emotions that they are attached to.
[Dan] She earned her paycheck on that one.
[Mary] She… That’s Loren Hogan.
[Brandon] So convenient for a sequel.
[Mary] So convenient for a sequel. Oh, you have no idea how happy I was to see that. So there were a number of places where I had to change them to fit… To be accurate. Accurate?
[Mary] To be accurate to my own…
[Dan] Hereward Carrington would be proud.
[Mary] He would. He would be very proud.
[Dan] Well, one of the things I liked about it was they were not just colors, but that there was… There was texture to them as well. My mom has synesthesia, and connects colors to words. One of the things that she points out is that a letter is not necessarily just yellow, it’s metallic yellow. Or it’s fuzzy yellow. You have… It’s rarely just a color in your book. It’s a hazy color or it’s a sharp color or… There’s always something extra.
[Mary] Yeah. I decided that one of the things about the spirit world is that since you’re no longer connected to a physical form, that you would ex… that there was not a filter happening that was forcing you to experience things on only one channel. So they’re experiencing things on a lot of different channels. I think at one point, I talk about cinnamon red. It’s not that it looks like cinnamon red, it’s that it is red that smells like cinnamon.
[Brandon] So I’m going to wrap us up here with one last question, though it’s kind of a bigger one. I know that you did some plot work with Dan in a brainstorming session for this book. I would like you guys to talk about that a little bit, how it worked, how it helped. I think that will be useful to our listeners.
[Mary] So, Dan probably does not remember this quite so much. It was at one of the early…
[Dan] It was at the second writing retreat that we did.
[Mary] One of the things that I was struggling with was partly the question of how to disguise the fact that I was going to kill Ben. The other thing that I was struggling with was how to make the front part of the novel move until I got to the point where I killed Ben. Because, as I said… As we’ve talked, it is the inciting incident. But in order to make you care about Ben, I needed… It’s actually chapter 6 that I kill him. So I needed basically five chapters of filler. How to keep it from feeling like filler? How to keep a plot that was moving in that first part? So the thing that Dan was helping me with was… He was using his seven point plot structure which I… Is not something that I have…
[Dan] Yeah. Well, it’s not a thing… I think I’m the only one. I talk about it all the time, but I think I’m the only host that uses it regularly. Really, what we did was we sat down with the outline that she had worked out and kind of reverse engineered it. What would the seven points be, and realized… At that point, it became glaringly obvious there was no pinch one. Pinch one is defined as not the inciting incident, but a bad thing that happens that forces the characters into action. They have cool things, they have cool powers, they have cool knowledge, now they have to use it because something has happened.
[Mary] The specific moments that came into the story that was not there is the death of Norris. That was not in the original outline. It was specifically because of the conversation. I had someone dying. I knew that there was a death. But I didn’t have it being someone that they had encountered before, and I didn’t have it being quite so directly tied to the spy plot line.
[Brandon] I love this, because it’s a real world example of something that I tell my students a lot. Which is, in the moment, I’m not always using all these tools we talk about on Writing Excuses. I’m doing things by gut and instinct. But during outlining and most importantly when something is wrong, that’s when I go back to these tools and say, “What is wrong? What is my elemental genre? What is the plot structure I’m working with?” Those tools fix problems so well. I often do it with other people.
[Mary] Yeah. Absolutely. That’s saved me multiple times. It is… It’s very comforting to realize that your reader is only ever going to see the finished draft. Unless you decide to show it to them in…
[Dan] In a pie see [pie ce?]
[Mary] In a pie see. But…
[Brandon] That’s an inside joke for people who have attended a Writing Excuses retreat and/or cruise.
[Mary] But… So you can futz around and try a lot of different things. One of the trivia things is there’s a character who does not appear in my outline at all, and that is Mrs. Richardson.
[Dan] Who’s my favorite, and you’re so mean.
[Mary] She is nowhere in the outline. At all. This is a character who winds up being fairly major.
[Brandon] I was convinced there was something sneaky with her because she felt so major in a small… Like hinting way. I loved her, and I’m like, “Mary’s not going to make me love this person without her being evil at the end.”
[Brandon] Then I was wrong and it was that you killed her instead. But I was happily wrong with that one. Because I thought it was, for me, a nice twist when that happened. What was nice is, at the time, it felt like just this is what happens on the front of the war. Which I was ready for without knowing it. Because it reinforced that this is a dangerous place.
[Mary] That was an example of… We talk about how… That outlining to discovery writing is very much a spectrum. This is really an example of something that I discovery wrote. Because I knew that I needed to do something that would make the horrors of war personal.
[Brandon] It worked. It was important.
[Brandon] I do think I’m going to call this here. We could probably talk for another hour about this book. It is awesome.
[Mary] Thank you.
[Brandon] You guys should all go read it. As I said a couple weeks ago, you should really listen to it. Because I loved listening to it.
[Howard] If I can offer a quick take away, often, reader, you will read something that you will find it discouraging because it’s just that good, and you can’t imagine anybody brilliant enough to have done this. In listening to this podcast, what we’ve seen is that after three or four passes, applying craft, going and getting help, and talking to people, yes, Mary can be that good.
[Howard] That’s the sort of thing that we want all of you to be. That’s why we present these tools. That’s why we have the conferences. Because it takes this kind of work to make something like that.
[Brandon] Any final words, Mary?
[Mary] No, I think that what Howard said is spot on. It’s… Understand… And the reason we do these Project in Depth’s is really to understand that you should not judge your first draft by someone else’s finished draft. Nor, when you’re working on a later book or a later project, should you judge your first draft on your own finished work.
[Brandon] Those are words to live by as a writer. So this has been Writing Excuses. Thank you, Writing Excuses Cruise for listening.
[Brandon] These are the souls who have read the book. Because we didn’t… We sprang this on them. So a lot of the room had to leave, to not be spoiled. This has been Writing Excuses and you’re out of excuses. Now go write.