Writing Excuses 12.46: Reinventing Yourself
Key points: Transitions can be conscious, and risky, because readers/fans don’t always follow you. Read your reviews — the four stars, especially, provide information about what to keep, and what needs tuning. Be conscious of your choices. But they do have benefits, too. You need to stay interested and engaged. Be aware of the market, but try to avoid letting yourself be trapped by it. How do you keep learning? Do new things, try them, learn how to do them. Talk to people who have experience doing what you want to do, and study how other people have done it (read!). Pick out places that your writing is weak, and then figure out how to correct them.
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 46.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Reinventing Yourself.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Mary Anne] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Wesley] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Mary Anne] I’m Mary Anne.
[Wesley] And I’m Wesley.
[Mary] I reinvented myself. He he he he.
[Brandon] I’ve been looking forward to doing this one all year, because…
[Mary] Have you really? Teehee? I’m not going to do this the whole time.
[Brandon] Well, if you were doing the mariachi band played by hamsters…
[Mary] La la la la… La, La la la la… La, La la la la… La…
[Brandon] Then maybe you’d be…
[Mary] La la la la… La!
[Brandon] That’s an inside joke. Go listen to a previous season.
[Brandon] So I’m really excited to have Mary Anne on this podcast because I know you’ve reinvented yourself several times during your career.
[Mary Anne] So… I mean, the short version is that when I started writing, I did poetry for a bit, then I decided I probably couldn’t make a living as a poet. Started writing short stories, and I wrote erotica for about 10 years. I did my own work, I edited anthologies for Random House, I wrote choose-your-own-adventure erotica books for Penguin…
[Wesley] Wait. What? Wait, I’m sorry. Rewind.
[Mary Anne] I did. They couldn’t call them choose-your-own-adventure because it was trademarked. So it was… I don’t know, create your own fantasy or something like that.
[Brandon] Why… Had that not been done before? That seems like a perfect mix.
[Mary Anne] It does. I thought it was really good. I enjoyed writing them. I wrote two of them. Kathryn in the City is about a young girl from Iowa who abandons her fiancé on the day of the wedding, and runs off to San Francisco to have adventures, and then you choose which adventure she has, and it’s quite fun. You can end up in a lesbian commune, or there are many options for you.
[Brandon] If I were doing that one, she’d just end up with a nice job as an accountant.
[Mary Anne] See, there is one option where she ends up in a nice interracial marriage, and there is another where she… It’s actually really fun when you write the choose-your-own-adventures because at the bottom of one I could say, “Go back to the top of the page.” So I had written one ending with an infinite orgy loop.
[Mary Anne] Right? So…
[Wesley] It’s like [inaudible] for erotica.
[Brandon] Okay. This is cool, but let’s move on.
[Mary Anne] I blame Wes. He got me started. So I wrote erotica for about 10 years. Then I was kind of tapped out. I had said everything I wanted to say on the subject, and I was finding myself getting more interested in race and ethnicity. I decided to start writing about Sri Lanka and the war and conflicts with my parents. All of that ended up with me writing sort of like the Joy Luck Club but with Sri Lankans, mother/daughter stories which turned into Bodies in Motion which came out from HarperCollins and was a kind of mainstream literary kind of book. I did that for about 10 years. Then I turned 40, and I wanted to have fun, and I came back to my true love, my first love, science fiction and fantasy, which is what I’ve been writing for the last five years.
[Brandon] So, let me ask you this. How did you start that transition? Were these conscious, or some of them kind of un… You just kind of fell into it, or… How did this go about?
[Mary Anne] Well, I would say it was pretty conscious. And it’s risky, I would say, because… And I was really aware of that risk because I didn’t know whether my readers would follow me from one genre to the next. I think they mostly don’t. This is the hazard of doing this kind of career, is you end up with different groups of fans, most of whom are not overlapping. That makes it hard to build a big career that way.
[Brandon] Mary, you are in the process of slightly reinventing yourself. I feel like you’re trying very hard to say, “Wait. I don’t just write Jane Austen with magic. I write short fiction.” You’ve been very… Very varied. Very varied?
[Brandon] You had a wide career of interesting different stories. But in novels, I feel like you’re like stepping?
[Mary] Yeah. This was, again, a very conscious choice. When I was starting my novel career, the books that I want to write are all over the map, much like my short fiction. My agent and I had the conversation of whether we wanted to have me write a series, which was multiple books in a core area, to try to build a solid audience kind of center, or if I wanted to try the Tad Williams approach, which was every book was a totally different thing. I felt like, given my interests and given what I like to read, that doing these several books in a series probably made more sense for me. But I really did not want to be pegged down as the Regency…
[Brandon] Right. There’s nothing wrong with Regency. You love it.
[Mary] I love it, but I also know that… That that kind of thing does have a shelf life at a certain point, and also that there are certain things that keep reappearing. So even when I was writing the Glamorous Histories, I was trying to prep my readers for the fact that I was going to write different things.
[Brandon] Each of the books in the series feels like a different genre.
[Mary] Yeah. That’s the thing that I did, was I was using different genre structures for each of the novels while keeping the same set dressing. So then, Ghost Talkers is still historical. So you’re… I tried to… I did the thing that everyone tells you not to do. Which is I read reviews.
[Mary] Because some of this is coming out of my theater background, that I find reviews very, very useful. Five and four star reviews are people who are in… Those are my… That is my target audience. Those are the people who loved what I wrote, and I want to know specifically why they loved it. People write one star reviews are just hilarious in the depths of their hatred. Those, I just read for comedy value. People who write three and two star reviews, they wanted me to be writing a different book. Those people I kind of don’t care about. The four star reviews are really, really helpful because those are the people that the book was almost perfect. So those are the ones where I’m like, “Okay. That is the thing I need to keep, I need to watch out for this.” It’s part of how I realized that my endings tend to be too fast.
[Brandon] Okay. See, with my career, I made some very conscious choices at the beginning. I thought I didn’t want to get stuck in one series. But I do have a general style that I like to do. Even when I’ve written science fiction or detective stories, you see the kind of goofy setting stuff that I do appearing in those. So I wanted to train my readers early on that you can jump to a new book, you will still get the stuff that you love. It will have just a different setting to it. That was a very conscious choice. It was actually market wise… The publisher didn’t love it. Elantris, my first book, sold very well, and Mistborn, my second book, sold about 10 to 15% worse.
[Brandon] Yeah. A lot of people don’t realize that. It was because… At least they told me at the time, you get a boost by being a first-time writer…
[Brandon] You get a little extra attention by having your first novel. If the next thing isn’t a sequel, a lot of people say, “Ah. You know, I’ll read that in paperback, maybe. I’m not going to run out and buy it.” They run out and buy sequels. Mistborn, then, had a really terrible cover on the paperback. It was the closest I came to losing my career right then. Because they ordered… Because it was the bookstore era, before e-books, they ordered 15% less of Mistborn for the second Mistborn, expecting the same trajectory. So that jumping and not doing a sequel first was dangerous and risky.
[Mary Anne] You can get into a death spiral.
[Wesley] The industry, in general, encourages series right now.
[Brandon] They do.
[Wesley] I mean, I’m with you. Like, I have a general style that I’d like to write, and when I… I mean, obviously… The Lives of Tao is very… It’s a light comedic thriller with aliens. When I went to something serious, like the Time style, which is a more space opera, kind of dystopian, somewhat depressing science fiction, I lost readers that way, because they were like, “This isn’t funny. I’m here for the funny, and you’re not giving it to me.”
[Brandon] Right. So you have to be conscious about these things. But there is a benefit. I would say, Mary Anne, for you, if you’d had to keep writing the same thing, it sounds like you would have just stopped being a writer.
[Mary Anne] It would have been terrible. I mean, I think you have to… This is an art. Right? You have to keep yourself fed as an artist. That means you have to stay interested and engaged in the material.
[Brandon] Right. For me, I… It’s that same sort of sense. I did not want to get stuck in a big series. I also didn’t want all my eggs… I’d heard so many times from authors who I won’t name where they complain, “Fans only want this one thing from me. I’m so tired of writing that one thing, but I have to, to pay the bills.” That scared me. So that was a conscious choice, and it’s paid off for me. I’m able to write in multiple different genres… I mean, they’re all sci-fi fantasy, but subgenres and things like this, and multiple different series, and they all kind of sell pretty well.
[Mary Anne] I do… I wonder whether you need to have a certain level of success and talent to pull it off? I’m thinking, I had a conversation with Paolo Bacigalupi about how he has written all these different books that I love, and they’re really varied. Right? He’s got his themes that he keeps circling around, around the ecological climate change issues. But Ship Breaker is so different from his other books. I mean, they’re just varied. He said that it was because Windup Girl did so well that the publisher was sort of willing to give him the freedom to write these other books. Right? So I think you do have to think about the market a little bit, too. You’re in a negotiation with other people…
[Brandon] I will be the first to admit, I was… I am super fortunate in this. It has not gone as well for other authors who tried the same thing.
[Wesley] There are guys like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files where… I mean, he’s got what, 15 books, and they’re fantastic. I mean, readers keep coming back for them, and he’s happy to keep writing more of these books, and that worked for him.
[Mary Anne] I can’t… Oh, sorry, Mary.
[Mary] That’s okay. But he has a fantasy series that he actually loves… An epic fantasy, secondary world fantasy, that he actually loves more.
[Brandon] He does. He does, and I’ve read it, and it’s quite good. So, yeah.
[Mary Anne] It’s kind of interesting, looking at authors like Laurell K. Hamilton, right? Because if you… I don’t know whether you’ve ever read her stuff, but she has this series of books that did super well, very popular, she’s been coming out in hardcover for quite a while to great sales. But the books themselves like went downhill. She kind of lost track of the plot, and was just sort of indulging herself, I think. Then she… There came a point where she sort of started over with a new series, similar. That had a great energy and it was going well. That kind of ended up in the same place.
[Mary Anne] I feel bad as a fan because I do keep buying and consuming the series, both series, even though they’ve kind of gone notably downhill. I feel like I am enabling her…
[Mary Anne] Do you know what I mean? Like, I’m…
[Mary Anne] Making it possible for her to not do what she really wants to do.
[Wesley] I mean, authors get bored.
[Mary] This is why I capped… when I started the Glamorous Histories, I’m like, “I’m writing five books, and then I’m stopping.” Because as a reader, I fatigue, and I also felt there’s a limit to how far you can ratchet up things with your main characters before they’ve just got to be walking bundles of PTSD. I also want to call attention to something that… A lot of the choices that we’re talking about are choices that you make after you become a published author.
[Mary] It’s a different thing when you’re an early career writer. To a certain degree, this conversation that we’re having… These are conversations that we have with our agents, and with our editors, about what they think is going to be salable. So that thing that Mary Anne was saying about you have to think about the market? Yes. But you don’t have to think about the market. You have to have a conversation with someone whose job it is to think about the market.
[Brandon] I think Dan would want me to point out his story, where he thought he was an epic fantasy writer. He’d always read epic fantasy. He tried a horror novel…
[Mary Anne] I’m sorry, which Dan is this?
[Brandon] Dan Wells. Our podcasters… Normally here, but he’s in Utah right now, we’re recording in Chicago. Dan tried multiple epic fantasy stories, and then on a whim, tried a horror story, and fell absolutely head over heels in love. He’s always loved horror films. He’d not read a lot of horror books, when he found his niche here. He had reinvented himself before he became a published writer. That’s the book that sold.
[Mary Anne] This is why I love teaching intro level creative writing classes. Because I can talk the students into trying many different things. That’s really a great space to play. I think writers will often fall into ruts, unless they’re prodded.
[Brandon] I need to cut us here, because we’re going to do the book of the week.
[Brandon] And I’m going to pitch that at you, Wesley.
[Wesley] Okay. I have a book coming out. So I am cowriting a book called The Lost Book of the White with Cassandra Clare. It is based in her Shadowhunters universe and follows everybody’s favorite [Gagian?] warlock Magnus Bane… And speaking as kind of reinventing yourself… I am known as a science fiction/thriller author. In this book, we are writing about Magnus Bane while he is on vacation with his boyfriend, Alec Lightwood, the Shadowhunter.
[Wesley] It is happening… It is an interquel, which is happening in the first half of the fourth book of her main series, City of Fallen Angels. I believe it’s out November 17th.
[Brandon] Can people read that independently if they haven’t gotten into the series yet?
[Wesley] It is her first… It is our first adult novel in that world. I think you can. Obviously, if you… I mean, she has 12 books in her universe right now, so there’s a lot of history behind it spanning hundreds of years, but it’s set up in a way that it can be read independently.
[Brandon] Okay. Excellent. I need to veer us toward another topic, because we’ve only got a few minutes left for the podcast. I want to veer us toward how do you keep learning as a writer?
[Wesley] So I wanted to actually kind of go back to this. I famously was a science fiction/fantasy thriller writer before. I famously have like avoided like sex scenes and making out and just like getting too deep into that. With this book, I’ve had to just go like headfirst into kind of not only reading some erotica and kind of like really like figuring how romance… The structure of romance novels and erotica novels work. It’s one of the best ways to grow. I’ve grown so much as a writer, just because I’ve had to kind of focus on something else.
[Mary Anne] I was actually on a panel with Nalo Hopkinson at WisCon and we were talking about this. Nalo is like, “Oh, I could never write a sex scene. I could never do that.” The next year, we were on a panel again, and she was like, “Mary Anne, I went off and I wrote a sex scene.” It was just… Like, you can learn. I can learn to write fight scenes. I had to study it, but I could. I can learn how to do that, you can…
[Wesley] My favorite beta note from like when I was copy… When I was beta’ing this, The Lost Book of the White, is somebody goes… My beta copy editor says, “This is surprisingly a great sex scene.” I’m like that was the nicest thing that anyone has ever told me.
[Mary] And who helped you learn to write them?
[Wesley] Uh, so, when I first got this assignment, I was freaking out a little bit, because I fade to black. I was one of those fade to black kind of guys. So Diana Gabledon kind of like gave me some advice. She sent me her how to write sex book which is the gr… Fantastic book. It uses scenes from The Outlander as examples. I read the book, and then she’s… She told me to look up what yaoi is, which is Japanese gay anime porn meant for straight women.
[Mary] So, the thing that, before we go too far down the specifics of this, the thing that I want to point out that we are going to be talking about a lot here is that when you’re trying to reinvent yourself, when you’re trying to go into a new genre, you do two things. One is that you talk to someone who has experience writing that. The other is that you spend a lot of time interrogating text that is written in that new genre. Like, when I had to do Valor and Vanity, which is… I had to? I got to do Valor and Vanity, which is a heist novel disguised as a Regency romance. I watched so many heist films, and made a note of what are the consistent plot devices that I see. I sat down and I talked to Dan, who loves heists. I talked to Scott Lynch, who loves heists and rights fantasy heists really, really well. So it’s this combination of things where you can’t just say, “I think I’m going to write something new.” You actually have to put the work in.
[Brandon] But it’s so much fun…
[Mary] It’s so much fun.
[Brandon] To learn something new.
[Mary] It is.
[Wesley] It is. It’s often uncomfortable, too.
[Mary] Yeah. Absolutely. It is… I mean, even with the heist things, but all sorts of things. That’s… That, I think, is one of the… For me, the thing that I say, kind of my driving goal is as a writer, I want to be better tomorrow than I am today, and I want to be better today than I was yesterday. Which means always, and this is the thing that’s uncomfortable, looking at my writing to learn what my weak spots are. It’s very easy for us to go, “Oh, my writing sucks.” But that is not helpful. What is it… Like, be specific. What is it about my writing that is weak? And how do I correct that weakness? Like, my endings tend to be too fast. What is it… So I’ve identified that. What are the steps that I can take to make them… Not just, “Oh, this ending is longer,” but more satisfying.
[Mary Anne] I was recently showing some non-writer friends of mine and my sisters some critique notes that I’ve gotten on this recent novel that I was working on. They were like, “Oh, my God, they’re so mean. How do you… You should like yell at them or something!” I like, I had not even noticed. I was like, “They’re not mean. They’re just being honest.” Like, this is part of the job, right? Like, you take the criticism, and you think about it, and you learn from it. I’m… I wanted to call out one thing which is that it’s not just that you want to read the work that is in the area that you’re trying to move into, but you need to read it as a writer. So like, right now, I’m rereading Game of Thrones. The first time through, I just read as a reader, and I enjoyed it. Now that I’m trying to write epic work, I’m looking at the structure, and I’m like, “How did George do this? What choices did he make?”
[Wesley] I always say, if you get too comfortable with your own writing, then… I mean, you gotta ask yourself if you’re still improving? I always say that every book I’m writing is the hardest book I’ve ever worked on. That’s because I am assu… I’m hoping that I’m getting better and I’m trying new things, and because I’m trying new things, I’m always uncomfortable.
[Brandon] Well, I’m going to call it here. This is something that I think all of us do even before we get published. It’s something to be thinking about, but we always all want to be better. I think what Mary said is that we want to be better writers each day after another. Reading outside our genre, that’s going to help so much. You might find something that you really, really love.
[Brandon] Mary Anne, you have some homework for us?
[Mary Anne] Yes. So, this is continuing with what Brandon was saying. What I do when I’m switching genres is I going to immerse myself in the genre. Because often, it’s been a while since I’ve had time to read a lot of it. So, I would go, decide I’m going to try fantasies, science fiction, horror, whatever it is. Find a year’s best anthology. And from… And a recent one, because things change over time. Just read through it, that’s going to give you a huge variety. Or, if you’re not a short story person, then go to the award winners from the previous years. The Nebula awards, the Brom Stoker awards, whatever it is, and read the nominees for best novel.
[Brandon] Excellent. Well, this has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.