Writing Excuses 15.04: Revision, with Patrick Rothfuss
Key points: How do you know what needs to be changed? Trust your own reader reactions. Mark it up, Awesome, Bored, Confused, Disbelief. Walk away from it, then come back and ask yourself do things need to change? Or write something else, read something else, then ask yourself. Also, try breaking your story down to scenes, or even French scenes, and identify the purposes for each scene. If you are using a structure, make sure it doesn’t feel like canned beans, that all the pieces are there, and that it is what you wanted to do. Think about MICE, and check the threads. Do you have extra threads that aren’t needed, or that are never resolved? You may want to pull them out. Consider moments of tension and resolution. What do you do if a secondary character is taking over? Don’t worry about it. You can have multiple interesting characters in your stories.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode Four.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Revision, with Patrick Rothfuss.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Pat] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Pat] And I’m Pat.
[Dan] We are super excited to have a special guest for you today, Pat Rothfuss. Pat, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
[Pat] I write fantasy novels sometimes and I do charity sometimes and I’m a dad sometimes.
[Dan] Awesome. Your main book that most people know you for is…
[Pat] The Name of the Wind.
[Dan] The Name of the Wind. One of the best-selling fantasies and best written fantasies…
[Dan] In my opinion.
[Mary Robinette] That’s why we’ve got you on to talk about revision.
[Dan] Revision. So let’s… We’re going to talk about, and the first thing that I want to ask the… You guys is, how do you know what needs to be changed? When you look… You’ve finished your first draft, you’re ready to start revision, and it is time to cut something out or make something better. How do you know which parts need to be cut out or made better?
[Mary Robinette] So, one of the things that I do is I actually trust my reader reactions. I… I’m talking about before I hand it to a beta reader, that… Or sometimes even after I hand it to a beta reader. One of the things that I look at are the ways that I respond to it. When I get a piece of media that I love… Like, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen the Princess Bride. I still have an emotional response to it. So I can trust that if there’s something that I really love, I will continue to have an emotional response to it, even though I know exactly what’s going to happen. Therefore, I should still be having an emotional response to my own work, even though I know what’s going to happen to it. So what I do is I pay attention to places where I’m bored, or when I’m reading it and I’m like, “What? What? What does that mean?” Like, when I don’t know…
[Mary Robinette] What I meant with my own stuff, like, that’s a problem.
[Dan] That never happens to me.
[Mary Robinette] Sometimes… So, I have awesome, where I’m like, “Hey, that’s good!” Which you do have, you know. Bored, confused, and disbelief, where I’m like, “What?” Sometimes the disbelief is it’s just like an itch. It’s like that doesn’t quite… It feels off. So I pay attention to those. Generally speaking, what I found is that most of the awesome things, I can leave alone. Not all of them, but most of them, I can leave alone. The bored ones are usually an indication of a pacing issue, which means I need to tighten it or I need to unpack it to give the reader a reason to care. The confused ones are always an order of information thing, where I just haven’t passed it to them in the right order. Sometimes it’s still in my head. The disbelief is something where I’ve violated their sense of the world. Either the natural world, the physical world, or the metaphysical world, which is the character’s life. So I address those based on my own reactions. But I have to like pay attention and trust it. The thing that I do is I mark it, but I don’t make the changes, because that flips me out of my reader brain.
[Pat] Hum. That’s cool.
[Dan] Now, I couldn’t help but notice though that that’s A, B, C, D.
[Mary Robinette] Yes.
[Dan] That’s awesome. I’m going to add to that Evil. If you want to go all the way to E. Because writing horror, if my readers write back and say, “How dare you do this? Why are you such a monster?” That’s something I know I probably want to keep in.
[Mary Robinette] I would call that awesome.
[Mary Robinette] Might have been a [scream]
[Mary Robinette] When you do that.
[Howard] That also begins with A. For my own part, I don’t get to begin with what needs to change. I have to begin with do things need to change? Because when I’m scripting the comic, I will sit down, I will script a week of scripts, and I want to sit down and I want to start drawing. I want to move to the next stage. If I put art on a bad script…
[Howard] I’ve wasted a whole bunch of time. So my rule is I write it. Then I walk away from it. I come back to it, and I look at it, and rarely, rarely do I allow myself to put art on something I wrote that day. Because the answer to if… Does it really need to be edited, is always yes. The answer is always yes. But it’s not the Howard who woke up this morning and wrote it who will say that. It is the Howard who went to bed having written it and woke up the next day and realized that yesterday’s Howard is just not as smart as he thought he was.
[Pat] I actually… I love that, because I always talk to like my students, or if I’m talking to people about writing, like, how do you get distance? That’s what you always need from your writing is distance, and it’s so hard to get objective space away from something you made yourself. Sometimes it’s time, but honestly, time is magnified by a good night’s sleep. Or, like physical distance, or change of venue, in addition to other things. But, yeah, a good night’s sleep, especially if you didn’t… I would say, the night’s sleep is almost… The benefit of that is eradicated if you do what I do, which is you write until you’re exhausted, and then you immediately fall into bed.
[Pat] Then, like you wake up, and it might as well have been five minutes ago that you wrote it. Even though you might have been asleep for eight hours.
[Mary Robinette] One of the things that I think about… Like, I do the things that you’re talking about. But the other one that I find useful to speed up, like when you’re on deadline and you don’t have time to take time, to like set it down and let it breathe for six months or year or what have you. I found that narrative distance will often help me. That if I write something else or I read something else, that it resets my brain. So that I’m coming back to it as a new story. It resets my reader expectations.
[Howard] Going back to the well is not going back to the well because I need water, it’s going back to the well because I need to throw myself into the well…
[Howard] And climb back out, new.
[Mary Robinette] I will say that this for me is a revision thing. It doesn’t work for me as a drafting thing. Drafting thing, I have to be careful about holding the right story in my head…
[Pat] I always think of that is effectively like loading up into active memory the world. Although, honestly, if I’m revising plot or structure, I need to hold all of the world and the structure and the tension and the pacing. So that still needs to be in active memory, which is why that’s dangerous for me to like really get engaged in a compelling piece of TV or… But especially print stuff.
[Dan] So… When the time comes, then… We’ve talked about getting distance from the work. We’ve talked about using readers and trusting in their feedback. What other methods do you have for knowing what needs to be changed?
[Pat] I’ve got a good one structurally that I didn’t mention today, that I kind of wish I would have remembered. This was way back in the early days of Name of the Wind. I was trying to get the beginning to work. I struggled with the beginning more than any other part of Name of the Wind. Even so, I got it to the point where it’s passable. I honestly still don’t think it’s good. But I broke down… I… Every chapter into scenes, and every scene, by which I mean every… Where I broke it with asterisks. Then I subdivided it even further into French scenes. Which I don’t know if that’s a common term, other than in like the study of Shakespearean drama. Because you have like Hamlet, Act II, scene four. But every time somebody enters or leaves the stage, it is a new French scene. Even if there’s not a scene break. One of my drama professors pointed out that every time someone entered or left, it was a different scene, and there was a new purpose to the scene that Shakespeare was fulfilling. Because Shakespeare was a really amazingly tight writer. So I broke down every single French scene in the first huge chunk of the book, and I talked about what I was… What the purpose of them was. Some of them had like three purposes. That was great. But some of them only had one purpose. Then, stacked up against each other, it said it was like Kvothe is smart and cool. Shows Kvothe is smart and cool. Shows Kvothe is smart and cool. I’m like, “Oh. That’s why this is draggy and dumb. I’m doing the same thing again and again.” These all also kind of talk about the world, or they build character, but their central element is all the same. That’s why this seems boring and it’s not compelling and it’s not tracking along like it should. So that helped me spot the problem that I then needed to like figure out how to fix.
[Dan] Was… If I can ask, just to dig a little deeper here, was there something specific that you’re like, you know, if all of these are just showing Kvothe is smart and cool, what did you decide to add? Like, I’m going to have a scene that shows he’s fallible. Or were you thinking more tonal, or…
[Pat] That was actually back in… I can’t remember where I was writing up this document. That was in 2001. So it was still six years before I was published. So this was really in the early days of me getting a good grasp on how I thought about tension and pacing and reader curiosity and all the things that now I consider myself quite good at, although I think of them… I think I conceptualize them a lot differently than a lot of people who like have studied them or worked in writers groups. Just because I was sort of like foraging in the wilderness, and I came up with my own weird things. So now, like I look at the old Star Trek, and I’m like, “Oh. A plot, B plot. That’s what they’re doing.” This is a story shape. So I was like if I have a short arc, then I just need to make sure you start something, and then eventually you have tension until it resolves and you need to support it and tell it resolves. But you also don’t want to have… You don’t want to started in one chapter and end it in the next, because then you haven’t given any room for tension to grow and your reader to be curious and engaged. So, I just wanted… I always now make sure that there’s space and difference. But I don’t do A plot, B plot. It’s a mess.
[Pat] I mean, mine is… It’s all held together with like bailing twine and barbed wire.
[Mary Robinette] I mean, barbed wire holds things together pretty darn well.
[Pat] Yeah, but it’s painful. Like, don’t follow those footsteps. It’s… It works, but it’s not a system that I think can be necessarily emulated or recommended.
[Howard] Funny you should say that, because in terms of defining a structure using A plot, B plot as an example, if I can look at something I’ve written and, after the fact, tell myself, “Ah, I’m doing A plot, B plot.” That’s awesome, because it’s something that I know the reader knows how to resonate with. If I’m working… If I can’t tell what the form is, what sort of structure I’m working in, unless I have done something to tell the reader that their expectations are going to be subverted, unless I’ve warned them, they’re going to run into that and perhaps have problems. So I love finding that I’m working in a given structure, because then I can say, “Ah. Okay, I’m doing A plot, B plot. How do I do it so that it doesn’t feel like canned beans?”
[Howard] “How do I… What are the pieces that are missing, what are the pieces I’m doing right?” And, the question that I always have to ask the moment I discover I’m doing something structurally or trope-wise or whatever is, “Wait. Is that what I meant?”
[Howard] Is that what I wanted to do? But I love finding it because I know that if I speak using a structure… Three act format, hero’s journey, A plot B plot, whatever, the reader will know how to respond.
[Dan] Okay. I’ve got another really cool question I want to ask you guys, but first… Let’s break for our book of the week. Well, it’s actually… Oh, it is a book this time. Yes. Tell us about it.
[Pat] I have to gush about The Murderbot Diaries, which I’m guessing a lot of you already know about. They won a ton of awards last year. They’re a series of four novellas by Martha Wells. I… No offense, Mary, but…
[Mary Robinette] They’re really…
[Pat] They’re my favorite things that I read…
[Mary Robinette] They’re really good.
[Pat] In, like, these last couple of years. They’re so good. I have not empathized with a character, with a murderbot, with a character more than murderbot maybe ever in my life. I cried. They’re amazing. So good I actually hugely geeked out on Martha Wells at the Hugos…
[Pat] It was so embarrassing, because I was just like… I was just like, “Oh, I want to mention that I like her books.” But I was just, “Bwah…” I’m just like, oh, I did that. That’s so embarrassing. I can do it, too.
[Pat] They’re so good. Make sure you read them in order, though. Read the first one, because there’s a continuous storyline. I can’t recommend them highly enough.
[Dan] Awesome. That is The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells. Who has an excellent last name.
[Dan] Now, before I get into my other question, you… Mary Robinette, you looked like you were going to say something?
[Mary Robinette] So, we were talking about tension. One of the things that can happen when you’re looking at revisions and you’re trying to decide, you’re like, “Oh, this doesn’t have tension. This doesn’t have a thread.” Like, deciding which thing to keep and which thing to get rid of can be tricky sometimes. So, I talk about the MICE quotient in terms of frame a lot. But it’s also really good for defining which pieces of conflict to keep in a story. What I find is, like, if I have an inquiry story, what I know is that the story ends when my character answers a question. So all of the conflicts in the story need to be preventing the character from asking a question. So, if that’s one of those 14 plot threads that are going through the story, then I can’t let the character actually get to that question. So if I have a thread in there that is… If this scene is like… Is about an inquiry, and it’s about a different inquiry than the main one that I’ve been asking, then that may be a thread that I don’t need. Or, if it’s something that I never resolve later, it’s like get rid of that. I just went through, I… I blame Brandon, but I just finished writing the Relentless Moon. My finished draft was 180,000 words. The previous novel in the series was 99,000 words.
[Mary Robinette] It’s like… I completely blame Brandon, but I wanted to cut it down significantly.
[Howard] Now you have two more books.
[Mary Robinette] Now I have two more books. Exactly. So one of the things that I looked at… Looked for were threads that I never really used. A lot of times, you use something and it raises tension in a scene. It’s great in the scene, but you don’t pay it off later. So those things when you pull them out can dramatically reduce the length of your work, but also tighten it and make it structurally a lot more solid. It’s not that everything needs to wrap up at the end, because life is messy. Sometimes, it is nice to have something that’s still a little fuzzy at the end. But that’s… Those are things that you look for. It’s like, is this serving the story? Does this have a payoff at the end? That’s the kind of thing I look for.
[Dan] Yeah. I want to absolutely second that. We’ll make sure to put this in the liner notes, but I recommend you all go and find the YouTube videos by Lindsey Ellis. She’s a film critic and she has one on three act structure where she re-contextualizes three act structure entirely around moments of tension and resolution. Which redefined it for me in a way that I had never understood it before. It really has changed the way that I revise, because now I’m not looking at, well, is this thing done, but what is the tension of this scene or this act or this whatever and when is that going to get resolved. So it’s really great.
[Dan] So, anyway, I want to ask another question that I’m excited about. Which is, let’s say that you are looking at your work, you’ve finished one or more drafts and you realize that a secondary character has become far more interesting than your primary character. How do you fix that problem? How do you approach that? Do you just make that character more boring, do you make the main character more interesting, like, what do you do?
[Pat] My… Because this happened to me, and I struggled with it a lot early on, because it is scary. You’re working hard to make your main character compelling. Then, suddenly, you create like sort of a charming fairy who steals every scene in the opening, when what you need is for everyone to be interested in your mysterious innkeeper. And…
[Mary Robinette] What are you talking about?
[Pat] Just in theory. These are archetypes.
[Howard] They are now.
[Pat] In the tarot. Mysterious innkeeper. I should do my own… Oh, sorry. But the big solution, I feel, is don’t worry about it. Because you certainly don’t want to say, “Oh, this part is too cool. I better take it out.” That’s always a losing proposition. Okay? Come at me, later…
[Pat] Because what I just said isn’t true.
[Pat] But the vast majority of the time, what is lovable about Bast is that Bast is simple. Bast is… He is not actually one note, but he seems very one note, and simple things are easy to digest and sort of… Some of these, like Han Solo, like lovable rogue type characters, are sort of compelling in themselves. Whereas more complex characters… It’s the difference between your high school crush and the person that you marry for 10 years. You marry that person and you stay with them for 10 years because you have a rich important relationship with them, but that doesn’t mean that like, that week you went to Morocco, you didn’t have something really amazing and tempestuous with a dark-eyed woman there. Both of those are good, and honestly, in the same way that I think having both of those leads to like a rich and satisfying life, you want both of those things in a book. It’s just they both satisfy different needs, even if one of them is a little shinier on the surface.
[Mary Robinette] I completely agree with you. I’m going to say that I got distracted by the analogy, and I would love for you to do a different analogy that’s slightly less sexist.
[Pat] Yeah. Well, I mean I… Mary, which part is sexist? Like…
[Mary Robinette] No, the… If… Comparing… Sorry. I’ve seen you use this analogy before, and it bothers me every time. Comparing moments of writing with women.
[Pat] I see. I think of it as I have relationships with characters, and I have relationships with women. So I’m mostly thinking of my own experience, but I see what you’re saying because what you’re kind of coming at is I’m presenting this as a universal as opposed to my personal experience.
[Mary Robinette] Yes.
[Pat] That does seem sexist. Yeah. So…
[Dan] Do we want to… I mean, we’ll keep rolling. But do we want to go back and cut that out?
[Mary Robinette] That’s up to Pat.
[Pat] I could do it either way. I mean, I think it’s valuable to see a misstep and correction for some people. It kind of depends on the tone that you want to achieve here. It sort of eats up some airtime.
[Mary Robinette] Well, I mean we are talking about revision. So this is actually a good revision.
[Dan] Well, actually…
[Mary Robinette] Like, when you get called on something in a critique and you have a pushback, you have a no, I don’t think this is right. But then you think about it, and you’re like, “Okay, well, what is my area of intention with this, and how do I get this across without triggering that again?”
[Dan] That’s awesome.
[Pat] That actually is great, because like… I was like, “Oh. I was trying to achieve this.” You’re like, “You might have been trying for that, but here’s actually the effect of what you said.” I’m like, “Oh. Right. I probably, for some of my audience, I hit that effect with this, because I was coming at this from my own experience. I wasn’t anticipating the effect on other people.” So, now, an attempt to revise, like… That’s the tricky bit of revision for me, is thinking… This one came out of me very naturally and it seems compelling because of its organic nature. But now I’ve got to stop and sort of disentangle myself from the affection of the original. Because it came out of sort of an honest emotional place in my personal experience. Then I’ve got to think how does that work? Than that, in my opinion, is the real work of writing. Because when it comes naturally and it’s good, you’re golden. That’s not work. The work is looking at it and saying, “Uck. I’ve got to lay some bricks.” Honestly, I don’t know what I would do. I don’t know how I would revise that analogy.
[Howard] Can I take a stab at it?
[Pat] Yeah, yeah. Help me.
[Howard] Can I take a stab at it? There is the music that I write to, and there is karaoke night.
[Mary Robinette] Oh, yeah.
[Howard] Karaoke night is a thing that… It is music. It is performative. It is songs that we are familiar with, but karaoke night is not what I want to listen to when I am trying to write. I have thousands of hours logged on the same 200, 300 songs in a playlist that I use for writing. Those are my go to, those are my main character. But without karaoke night, that’s kind of lifeless. Without singing in the shower, without these other pieces. So coming back to the original question, which was, what do you do when a character is… When a secondary character is overshadowing your main character. What do you do when karaoke night… Everybody is loving that way more than the main musical theme of your book.
[Howard] Well, what is it that there loving about karaoke night more? Why is it… Oh, well, it’s because the characters are interacting here in a way that is energetic and fun. Why is that missing from my main character?
[Mary Robinette] This is why I don’t play D&D more than a one shot, because that narrative…
[Mary Robinette] is often… Is that becomes more compelling to me. That’s a side quest in my quest for writing. It is the secondary character that has become more interesting. But I did like what you are talking about the relationship that you have with the thing. You were going to say something.
[Pat] That’s what I want to ask. Because what you did… When you were talking about that, I’m like, that makes sense. But it also gave me a moment to sort of stop, and to back away from it, and think about the primary issue you had with it. Was it the fact that I was talking about relationships, or the fact that they were gendered female?
[Mary Robinette] It was that they were gendered female, but specifically, that they were gendered female and based on appearance.
[Pat] Well, the first one wasn’t. I said the marriage of 10 years…
[Mary Robinette] Yup. Oh, that’s true.
[Pat] The other one was…
[Mary Robinette] But the second one…
[Pat] No, the other one was a week in Morocco. It was a vacation. I said a beautiful dark-eyed woman. What if I said a dark-eyed beauty and a marriage of 10 years? Does that resolve the sexism?
[Mary Robinette] Oh. That…
[Pat] Because that might be a simpler fix than changing my entire analogy.
[Mary Robinette] That is an interesting idea. I’m not…
[Pat] This is revision. Right?
[Mary Robinette] That may in fact have solved it for me. Although I think because beauty is still a gendered word in modern…
[Mary Robinette] That I would still probably read it the same way. Also, because… There’s also than the Morocco and dark-eyed and what are you [implying] there…
[Pat] There’s some racism stuff there potentially. This is why we revise.
[Dan] I really wish we could say that we had planned this, because I think it worked out perfectly to tell you all these points of revision and then to demonstrate them all in order…
[Dan] Like trusting reader feedback, then work shopping, and all these different things that we did, to getting distance from it. But that is all the time we have. I’m really glad that this worked out the way it did. This is been a fantastic episode about revision. We have… We want to leave you with some homework to do, which Mary Robinette has.
[Mary Robinette] No, I think Pat actually had this.
[Dan] Was it Pat? I don’t remember who it was.
[Mary Robinette] I think we both had the same one.
[Dan] Okay. Well, we’re going to have Pat say it, then.
[Pat] Mine actually might have been the one that I already mentioned, where, go through your chapters and list your purpose. Because if you have never done that, it is incredibly informative. Also, it helped me realize that I want the scene to have at least three purposes, so that if two of them don’t land, there’s still something in it for the reader. But what was your’s?
[Dan] You get to homeworks this time.
[Mary Robinette] That’s right. It was the 10% solution.
[Pat] Oh, yeah, yeah.
[Mary Robinette] Which was… Which I think we’ve done on the podcast before, and it is still worth revisiting. Which is to examine your work and look at cutting it by 10%. You can go through and say, “Okay, I’m going to cut this paragraph by 10% or this page by 10%.” But this process forces you to examine it and think about why is this word here? What is it supporting? A lot of times, you cut that 10% from your thing by saying, you know what, I’m going to pull this entire subplot out.
[Pat] Yeah. This is something I did repeatedly to Name of the Wind. I would always think, well, that’s it. I cut everything that could be cut. But then another couple of months later, I would go through it again, and I’m like, “Actually, now that it’s cleaner and tighter, I can see other things that weren’t as clean and tight.” And I do… I aim for every page 10%. So if I’m not cutting a line or a sentence or a phrase… It really forces me to consider what is essential on a page.
[Mary Robinette] If you’re someone who writes short, which happens too sometimes, it is also worth, as an experiment, adding 10%.
[Mary Robinette] To decide where things need to be fleshed out.
[Dan] Cool. Well, that’s great. This has been our episode. You are out of excuses. Now go write.