Writing Excuses 15.08: Q&A on a Ship
Q: What have any of you learned in the past year that has improved your craft?
A: Talk to your editor early in the process. Use an outboard brain. Do the hard thing. Take a chance, make mistakes, and do something because it might be fun. Go watch Lindsay Ellis Three Act Structure. (Maybe this one? https://youtu.be/o0QO7YuKKdI)
Q: My question is when you’re having trouble, how do you know if it’s a “I don’t feel like writing today” problem or there’s a structural problem that your mind is trying to ignore because it would be difficult to deal with?
A: Look at the problem, what is the barrier to moving the story forward? Make yourself a checklist, an inventory of things that can go wrong. Trust your instincts.
Q: As published professional authors, how far ahead do you plan the futures of your careers? Do you know what genres, series, or even specific books that you’ll be working on in five years or in 15 years?
A: Committed idiot. Plan ahead, but publishing is volatile. Strategy, planning, but be ready to drop it. Be ready to jump in a different direction. Have a roadmap, and build a new one if you need to. Diversified income. Make plans for multiple scenarios, for whatever happens at cost points.
Q: How do you tell when a fight or a battle or a climactic final showdown is going on for too long?
A: When you wonder if it’s gone on too long.
Q: How do you continue to learn and improve on your writing craft, now that you’re further in your career? Have there been any times that you felt like you’ve plateaued and what do you do about it?
A: Learn by teaching. Externalize and explain, talk through the process.
Q: When you’re working on multiple projects, how do you manage or prioritize yourself such that you don’t get too disconnected from one project while you’re working on another?
A: Identify different phases, and avoid doubling up on phases.
Q: If you’ve got multiple characters with very strong voices, how do you feel about having multiple first-person perspectives? Horribly bad idea or just really difficult?
A: Try it. See how it reads.
Q: What are the most important elements to include on the last page of your book?
A: The end is a frame, matching your beginning. Show who the character is now, how things have changed, and give the reader the emotional punch you’ve been aiming at.
Q: What are some things we can do to work on developing and strengthening voice when writing in the third person?
A: Rhythms that are linked to the character’s personality, idioms, metaphors. Make the character feel specific and vivid.
Q: How do you decide who works best as an alpha reader and who works better as a beta reader?
A: Experience and personal preference. What are you looking for in readers, how are you using them?
Q: My question is in secondary world fiction, can you talk about how to decide between calling a horse just a horse or something unique to the world?
A: Does it connect to your story? If a horse is just a horse, call it a horse.
Q: How much leeway will an agent generally give a new writer if they like the idea or concept of a story or see promise in it, but it isn’t quite there yet?
A: Agents work with people, not projects. If they believe in the person, they get lots of leeway.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode Eight.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on a Ship.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dongwon] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.
[Howard] I’ve been on this ship for several days now.
[Dan] Which is a lot longer than 15 minutes. We are here at the 2019 Writing Excuses Retreat on a cruise ship in the Caribbean Sea. Actually, right now we’re in the Gulf of Mexico. We have a live audience in front of us. Say hello, live audience.
[Dan] Awesome. We have asked them to ask us some questions. Our theme this whole year is the questions of the audience. We’ve been trying to answer them, we’ll continue doing that throughout. Now, we have some live ones. So, our first question. Tell us your name and your question.
[Caleb] This is Caleb. I’m wondering what any of you have learned in the past year that has improved your craft?
[Mary Robinette] What any of us have learned in the past year that has improved our craft? I actually learned the value of talking to my editor really early in the process. One of the things that happened to me this year was that I had a number of events that derailed me from writing. I was working on a novel, and my usual process did not work. So… When I say editor, what I guess I mean is using an outboard brain. My usual process was not working, because I kept having life things go wrong. There were some family members at hospitals, then we were moving, and it was just a lot of things. Going to someone else and saying, “I cannot hold this story in my head. Please help me focus.” was immensely valuable and actually got me back on track.
[Dongwon] That’s convenient, because the lesson I learned this year was to talk to my clients early in the process.
[Dongwon] To make sure that everything’s on track. I think one of the things that I learned that kind of lined up with that is to not be afraid to push people to do the thing that is hard. Right? In that sometimes when you’re giving editorial feedback, because you’re working with somebody who puts their heart and soul into a manuscript, into a book, you want to be… You want to be nice, right? You want to go easy on them in certain ways because you like this person, you work with this person. For me, one of the things I had to really learn in this past year is to get involved early and don’t be afraid of saying, “Is this really the right choice? Is this the best way to get where you’re going?” Sometimes, breaking it down and doing the hard work is the most important thing. Whether or not that’s going to make someone upset.
[Howard] For me, it was when I joined the TypeCastRPG role-playing game and decided that, you know what, for fun, I think I’m going to try to live sketch things that happen during the game. The pressure there being I need to turn out a… What is ultimately a single panel comic strip that depends on the context of the game in a minute and a half. Then we did a live show at [FanEx] and they set up an Elmo and I… To borrow the metaphor, screwed the courage to the wall and said, “I’m going to make terrible, terrible mistakes and I’m going to do it when my arms are 10 feet long on this screen behind me…”
[Howard] “But I’m going to do it anyway because it might be fun.” It unlocked a piece of my brain that allowed me to visualize more quickly and draw faster and draw things I’ve never drawn before.
[Dan] Fantastic. Just, really quick for me, I talked about this in one of the classes that I taught here on the retreat, the Lindsay Ellis’s episode about three act structure and the way that she explained it made three act structure work for me in a way that it never has before. So everyone go watch that. It’s brilliant.
[Dan] All right. We have another question.
[Allison] Hi. My name is Allison. My question is when you’re having trouble, how do you know if it’s a “I don’t feel like writing today” problem or there’s a structural problem that your mind is trying to ignore because it would be difficult to deal with?
[Mary Robinette] I wish I knew the answer to that one.
[Mary Robinette] That’s a really super common problem. The way I evaluate it is whether or not… Is to interrogate the quest… The problem that I’m having. I look at the problem and I’m like, “Okay. What is the barrier between me and moving this story forward?” If it’s… If I can’t identify a barrier, that means that it’s probably me, it is not actually the story. If it is… Sometimes it is… There is actually a problem with the story that is really difficult to diagnose. That’s when handing it to someone else to look at becomes useful. But most of the time, if I ask just what is the barrier that is between me and moving forward, or the character and moving forward, that will unlock what the problem is.
[Howard] I’ve found that, for a lot of people, by the time you reach a point in your writing career where you’re comfortable answering this question, you may have moved beyond actually writing down the equivalent of a preflight checklist. But having a preflight checklist, having a way to take inventory of the things that can be wrong… They might be diagnostic tools like pacing, three act structure, character arc, conflict, seven point whatever… The sorts of things that we talk about here on Writing Excuses all the time. When I’m writing jokes, I have this sort of checklist. I’ve internalized it. But what I found is that when I’m stuck, I have to take inventory. A lot of the times, it’s me. I haven’t had enough sleep. I haven’t eaten correctly. I’m exhausted because of an emotional thing. The temperature in the room is wrong and it’s making me grouchy. This character is at the wrong point in their character arc for me to write the scene that I want to write, therefore, I don’t feel justified in writing it. By the time I’m able to articulate these things, the unlocking starts moving really quickly. I can see where the problems are, and where the problems aren’t.
[Dongwon] I think it’s probably the most frustrating advice I give, and also the most important advice that I like to give, is that you need to learn to trust your instincts. Right? But this is a case where it’s very hard to tell where the line between your conscious thought and your instinct is. So, the thing I think about a lot is what Howard was just talking about is the ways in which your conscious and subconscious mind are connected to your embodiment, right? So, a lot of things that can help you are really core mental health and mindfulness techniques, right? Meditation, yoga, go for a run, go take a shower, go take a break. Find something that uses up part of your brain so that your subconscious can chew on it. Then come back to it when you’re feeling calm and relaxed and centered, and try and get in touch with what is your core emotion here? What is your instinct telling you, versus what is your fear telling you? Right? If that instinct is saying, “Actually, it’s a structural problem here,” then focus on that, and do that hard work. On average, if you’re having that question, you’re probably right, that the problem is bigger than I don’t feel like writing right now. On average.
[Mary Robinette] I forgot that I have an entire blog post on this that we’ll put in the liner notes. Which is… For those people who never go to look at the liner notes, you can search for it. It’s called Sometimes Writer’s Block Is Really Depression. I talk about how to diagnose the kind of delays that you are having and the kind of… Like, if your drowsy, it’s probably that your story is boring. If you are restless, it’s probably that you don’t actually know the next thing that’s going to happen or you don’t believe it actually, I think. But, anyway, Sometimes Writer’s Block Is Really Depression. It includes how to diagnose it, and then a long list of tools for when it is… The problem is not with the manuscript, but external to the manuscript, to your own life. Some things to help you move forward.
[Dan] Awesome. Cool. Next question.
[Matt] Hello, my name is Matt Chambers. My question is as published professional authors, how far ahead do you plan the futures of your careers? Do you know what genres, series, or even specific books that you’ll be working on in five years or in 15 years?
[Howard] 10 years ago…
[Dan] Now I’m just depressed.
[Howard] 10 years ago, I could have told you that 10 years from now, I would definitely still be doing Schlock Mercenary. Five years ago, I could have told you when the major Schlock Mercenary mega arc was going to end. Two years ago, I could have, but wouldn’t have, told you how it was going to end and what all the book plans and plot plans were around that. This year, I am re-thinking all of that, because I was probably an idiot, but I’m committed, so I’m sticking to it in a blind panic.
[Dan] Committed idiot is actually a great thing to put on my business cards. Six years ago, I had the very best year of my career up to that point, and since.
[Howard] Oh, dear.
[Dan] I thought at the time that I knew I would be doing six years later, and had no idea that one of my publishers was going to dry up completely, that one of my series was going to tank abysmally. So, kind of my answer to this is that it is very smart to plan ahead, but that this industry is very volatile. A lesson I did not learn early enough is how to plan around that volatility. The good news is we’re going to have one, and possibly two, episodes on this exact topic later in the year with Dongwon about how to plan out your career and how that career can change and how to reboot it when it falls apart.
[Dongwon] Yeah. I love talking to my clients about strategy. A lot of times, what most of them are planning three, four… Not even books, like 3 to 4 contracts out, right? And a contract can be 2 to 3 books. So it’s what are we doing here, what’s coming after that, what’s coming after that? The important thing, as Dan kind of touched on, is that you have to be sort of ready to throw all of that out at the drop of a hat, right? Publishing is extremely volatile, you have no idea what’s going to happen when that book hits the market. So you have to be kind of ready to jump in a different direction. Sometimes you have backup plans, and sometimes you don’t. But always have something… Some roadmap of where you want to go. Then be ready to build a new one when you need to.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I… Much like everyone else, my plans change. The things that… For me, the metrics that have been working is that I have… I have kept my income stream diversified, so that’s why I have three different careers running simultaneously. So that when one of them is not doing well, I can fill in the gaps with one of the others. I also think about the shape that I want my career to take. That, generally, is that I want to be able to turn down the gigs that I don’t want to do. Which means that if a really lucrative contract comes in, and I’m like, “That looks… I mean, the money looks really great, but I don’t want to be pigeonholed into doing that kind of work,” that’s not… That is something that I can think about turning down, and that I can decide in the moment. I have a giant list of novels that I want to write. I won’t get to write them all, probably. But I keep them. Then, I think, the last piece of advice that I was just given this past year… I was in an enviable position, which is that I had just won the Nebula and the Locus, and we were looking at the Hugo. I was like… People kept saying, “Well, you’re going to win it.” I’m like, “You can’t think that. That’s not healthy. Certainly not healthy for me.” Then my agent, Seth Fishman, said I should think about it like applying to college. That you don’t know whether or not you’re going to get into college, but you make plans for both scenarios. You make plans for well, if I get into college, I’m going to need to be able to put these things into place. If I don’t get into college, then these are the backup plans that I have and this is how I’m going to occupy my life. So I think that that’s one of the things that is very useful, is to think about the possible cusp points in your career, and to think about positive outcomes for either cusp point. So that’s… That has been very helpful for me. Fortunately, I did get into college, in this particular scenario.
[Mary Robinette] But it was also… Even the positive things can rock you if you are not prepared for them.
[Dan] Awesome. I want to pause right now for our book of the week, which is also Mary Robinette.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. I want to talk about a book called Jade War, which is the sequel to Fonda Lee’s… Wait. Yes. The sequel to Fonda Lee’s Jade City. I just had this moment of thinking that I had them backwards. So, I blurbed the first book, and the second book is every bit as fantastic. It is the Godfather meets like a Kung Fu wire film. It’s secondary world fantasy, but it feels like 1960s or 70s Earth. But there are people who can use jade and they can do magic, except they don’t think of it as magic, it’s just part of an… It’s just completely woven into the world. It feels so real that I am surprised that it is not. The relationships are compelling. If you are someone who likes a well-written sex scene, it is not the entirety of the book, but there are a couple in there that are some of the hottest and… Like, really beautifully drawn consensual sex scenes. The consensual parts is the part that I find appealing. But the…
[Mary Robinette] Just the entire thing, it’s great. It’s Jade War by Fonda Lee.
[Dan] Cool. Thank you very much.
[Dan] Now, we still have several questions to get… Left. We want to try to get to them all. We’re going to let this episode run a little long. But we’re going to call this the lightning round, okay? So ask your question, and then one of us will answer it instead of all four. So, go.
[Cameron] Okay. Hey, guys, my name is Cameron. I was wondering how do you tell when a fight or a battle or a climactic final showdown is going on for too long?
[Dongwon] When you wonder if it’s gone on too long.
[Dan] [Haha!] Excellent answer. Next?
[Caitlin] Hi, I’m Caitlin. How do you continue to learn and improve on your writing craft, now that you’re further in your career? Have there been any times that you felt like you’ve plateaued and what do you do about it?
[Mary Robinette] I learn by teaching. When I was a pup… Getting trained in puppetry, what my instructor had me do is he would have me learn everything with my right hand, he would teach me with my right hand, then he would have me teach my left hand how to do it. What he said was any time you have to externalize and explain what you’re doing, even if it’s to yourself, that it causes you to hone your craft and to get rid of the parts that aren’t important. I find that when I am teaching students, even if it’s someone that is a peer and just saying, “Hey, this is the thing that I’ve learned today.” Even if they don’t necessarily need to know it, but I’m talking through the process, that it makes me better at my craft.
[Jessica] Hi, I’m Jessica. When you’re working on multiple projects, how do you manage or prioritize yourself such that you don’t get too disconnected from one project while you’re working on another?
[Dan] My answer to that has always been that I will identify the different phases that each project has to go through, and then make sure that I’m not doubling them up. So I’m never writing two things at a time, but I could be writing one while revising another or outlining another or editing or proofing or whatever it is. That way, it makes it much easier for me to keep them in my brain, because they’re all in different parts of my brain.
[Kevin] Hi. I’m Kevin. If you’ve got multiple characters with very strong voices, how do you feel about having multiple first-person perspectives? Horribly bad idea or just really difficult?
[Howard] I love the way POV use changes in our culture over time. I think that that could work. I don’t know that I’ve seen it done, but I’ve thought about doing it myself. I think that 20 years from now, that could end up being the rule rather than an exception, because these sorts of things are cultural. If it’s what you want to do, go for it.
[Dongwon] I just want to jump in with one little note, is the thing I run into a lot from writers and in the writing community, is people think about POV really, really rigidly. So, like, if I start in third person limited, I have to stay that way all throughout. Whereas, I think, we’re seeing a lot of things that are really pushing back against that. N. K. Jemisin’s Fifth Season is a really great example. Even Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside, you’ll see POV jump around from first person to third person, you’ll see tense shifts, things like that. So feel free to really sort of experiment with the different perspectives and the different POV’s that you have. You can drop into one just for a chapter or a scene, and then they can never reappear again. So, feel free to try different things and experiment and see how it reads. I think writers and crit groups are very focused on consistent POV. I don’t think readers even notice.
[Emma] Hi. I’m Emma. What are the most important elements to include on the last page of your book?
[Howard] Your Patreon.
[Mary Robinette] So, what I think about when I get to the end is it is a frame. I am framing something that I set up at the beginning. At the beginning, I made promises to the reader. One of the things that I promised them is that they would feel a certain way when they get to the end. So when I look at that last paragraph, I think about it as the beginning in reverse, the inverse of that. I try to make sure that I’m showing who my character is now, where they are now, and the ways in which things have shifted. Doing that in a way that makes the reader have that emotional punch that I had been going for through the whole thing. Like, if I had been wanting them to have a sense of dread all the way through, and then the catharsis of relief, then that last thing needs to contain relief. If I want them to still feel dread, then that last thing still needs to have dread in it. So it’s a… For me, it’s the frame, it’s the button, and that’s what I look for at the end.
[Jess] Hi. I’m Jess. What are some things we can do to work on developing and strengthening voice when writing in the third person?
[Mary Robinette] I can take that one.
[Dan] Do it.
[Mary Robinette] So. Coming from theater and audiobook, the thing about third person and the way… Is that it is actually still very much first-person in this real simple way. The narrator is telling a story to the audience. The narrator is sometimes very closely linked to a third person character, but even so, there is a storyteller who is speaking to the audience. What you’re looking for with the voice are rhythms that are linked to the character’s personality. If it is a tight limited third person, you want to use everything… You want to make sure that the idioms that you’re using, the metaphors that they’re using, that these are all linked to how they self define themselves. All of that is going to make the character feel specific and vivid in ways that aiming for the so-called transparent prose will not.
[Morgan] Hi, I’m Morgan. How do you decide who works best as an alpha reader and who works better as a beta reader?
[Howard] Sad, sorry experience.
[Dan] Yeah. I mean, that really is the answer. I know Mary Robinette and I, for example, have very different criteria as to who we count as an alpha and who we count as a beta reader. That… It all comes down to experience and personal preference, I think.
[Howard] For my own part, an alpha reader… When I’ve handed it to an alpha reader and gotten it back, I want to feel energized about doing the things that need to be done to fix it. I want my offer readers to energize me. My beta readers I want to be a little more critical and help me fine-tune things. But I’m fragile that way.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah, I’m… Just to demonstrate that we are sometimes counter. The thing that I’m looking for in a beta… In an alpha reader is someone who is asking me the right questions to help me unpack it a little bit further so that the beta readers are getting something that is closer to the story that I’m trying to tell. The beta readers, I am using them as a general, but the alpha reader… For me, the alpha reader in this case is Alessandra Meechum [sp?], most of the time, and she is… She’s what is sometimes called the ideal reader, which is that she represents the core audience that I am writing for. So when I’m writing, I am specifically writing to see whether or not I make her go, “Oh, I love this,” or “I hate this so much.”
[Mary Robinette] That often pleases me a great deal.
[Mary Robinette] So it depends how you’re using them. I’m using her to shape the story. I’ve spotted… Sometimes I’ll spot someone in beta and go, “Oh. You also sit in that ideal reader category.” There are some stories that I’m going to write at some point that she will not be the ideal reader for, and I’ll switch out alphas for that story. But that’s what I look for.
[Dan] It’s worth pointing out that Alessandra is in the room, and beaming like the sun to be referred to as an ideal reader. So.
[Nick] Hello. I’m Nick. My question is in secondary world fiction, can you talk about how to decide between calling a horse just a horse or something unique to the world?
[Dongwon] I would say only rename things if there’s a big sort of… If it connects to the core of your story, right? If the question you’re asking is about, I don’t know, national identity, for example, then it can be very complicated to use an existing country or an existing sort of language structure. So… If… Unless you’re asking the question of what is the meaning of horse, then I wouldn’t rename it, right? But if you’re trying to disrupt ideas of like what do we consider animals, what do we consider our relationship to them, what are beasts of burden, then that’s a case where maybe playing with it would give you an opportunity to really do a lot more there. But, in general, if it’s a horse, call it a horse.
[Matthew] Hello, my name is Matthew. How much leeway will an agent generally give a new writer if they like the idea or concept of a story or see promise in it, but it isn’t quite there yet?
[Dongwon] I wonder who’s going to answer this one?
[Mary Robinette] I don’t know. Well, I’ll take… No.
[Dongwon] The thing that I talk about a lot is that I work with people, not projects. Right? I sign a client, I don’t sign a single book. So, the answer is if I believe in the person, then all the leeway in the world, right? That’s something that we’ll work together to make it right. What goes into that decision is hard to articulate in a lot of ways. But I have to be excited about this person’s potential to do something really interesting… Even if they’re not quite there yet. So there are clients I’ve worked with for years and years and years, and we haven’t gotten out with anything. But we’re still working together, we’re still honing in on what the right project is… Or how to do X, Y, or Z. So, the answer is, it depends a lot on the person. The right circumstances, it’s okay if that book isn’t quite there, so long as I can see you’re doing something interesting and I can see that you are someone who has all the chops, all the drive, all the ambition to get to where you need to get to.
[Dan] Great. So, that is all our questions that we have. I’m sure that there are many more burning in your hearts right now, but… Thank you for listening. We have a piece of homework for you. So, once again, we’re throwing this to Dongwon.
[Dongwon] So, I think that the openings of novels are really, really important. It’s a great opportunity to hook your reader. More than that, it’s an opportunity to get someone to say, “Yes, I’m going to spend $20 or whatever it is to buy this book.” So what I would like each of you to do is take the first line of your work in progress or something that you’ve finished and rewrite it three separate times. Make sure that when you write each one, it’s not three variations on the same sentence. Try and shake those up as much as possible, right? Try a different voice. Try a different style. Try different… Even like points to start the scene and see what jumps out at you. What is the most exciting, what grabs you, what are you excited about to keep going with. I think that will tell you a lot about how your opening scenes should work so that your pulling the reader into your story as forcefully as possible.
[Dan] Perfect. Okay. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.