Writing Excuses 15.26: Taking the Chance, with David Weber
Key points: Taking the chance, taking risks, is the only way to be successful. “He who will not risk cannot win.” To succeed, take the risk of failing. If you don’t submit, you can’t make a sale. Be a storyteller. At some point, it will turn into work. Keep going. When you can’t get the platonic ideal book on the page, what do you do? Write the damn book. Learn from it. Characterization is critical. You have to be you. Write the story that interests you. Choose your verbs wisely. Never bury dialogue inside a paragraph. Sentences are what you build books out of. Characters are what stories are about, sentences are how you tell the story. Get those two things right.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, episode 26.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Taking the Chance, with David Weber.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Brandon] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star, David Weber. Thank you so much for being on the podcast with us.
[David] Thank you for inviting me.
[Brandon] David Weber is one of the best-selling science fiction writers of all time, so we are super excited to have him. We are alive again at SpikeCon.
[Brandon] So, this topic was one that you suggested, David. The idea of taking the chance, meaning taking risks with your writing. What made you want to do this topic?
[David] Well, it’s not just taking risks with your writing once you’re an established writer. I cannot tell you how many people I’ve encountered who I think could have been successful writers, except that they were afraid to take the chance of failing at something that they had dreamed about. I could have been published easily 10 years earlier than I was if I hadn’t kept finding excuses to do other things instead. That means I’ve been publishing for 30 years and I’ve lost a third of the time that I could have been published at this point. I mentioned in the preshow when I was talking to our hosts that there’s a quote from John Paul Jones which has become increasingly important to me over the years, and it has nothing to do with not giving up the ship. But Jones said that, “It seems to be a law inflexible unto itself that he who will not risk cannot win.” So if you don’t take the risk of failing as a writer, you can never succeed as a writer. So you’re sitting there, and you have this dream that says I could be a writer. Perhaps you could. But if you keep saying I could be a writer long enough, one day you wake up and it’s turned into I could have been a writer, but the opportunity is gone now. Okay? So if you want to write, you have got to take the chance of being rejected, and possibly being rejected over and over again, until you find the right first reader, the right publisher that says, “Oh. I could do this.” Okay? You have to remember while you’re doing this, you control, or writers in general control a resource that publishers have to have. Publishers exist to publish. That means they need things to publish. Which means that they are constantly on the lookout for things to publish. Yes, they get a lot of dreck and there’s… the first readers pile is the slush pile, and people read it and they go, “Oh, my God.” I actually know of one book that was submitted on brown paper written in purple crayon. Okay? You don’t get read when you do that kind of submission. But if you don’t submit, you cannot possibly make a sale. I cannot emphasize… Over emphasize how important it is to be willing to do that. The other thing that I think you need to bear in mind is you can learn to write better with editorial support and with the practice. You can learn to write better. But what you have to be to make it work in this business is a storyteller. You have to have that bug. You can increase the skill with which you exercise that need to be a storyteller. But that’s a critical element. If you don’t feel that inside, if you don’t feel the story that needs… That’s growing that needs to come out, then you don’t need to try and be an author. Because you’re going to be fighting your own nature the entire time that you’re trying to write a story. Unless that is what it is your nature to be. Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, storytellers have to tell stories. That’s certainly true in my case.
[Brandon] Howard, you had something you wanted to say?
[Howard] Yeah. I was just going to… I like the John Paul Jones quote. We’ve had the opportunity to visit NASA a couple of times. They have that famous slogan, failure is not an option. Because there are times at which, boy, you just… You can’t allow yourself to fail. I created a maxim within my own universe, which is “Failure is not an option. It’s mandatory. The option is whether or not to let failure be the last thing you do.”
[Howard] The idea there… I mean, that doesn’t get you past the John Paul Jones quote, which is that you have to take that chance in the first place. But I am always reminding myself that I am going to fail. It’s just gonna happen. All I get to choose is whether or not I learn from it and whether I let myself quit.
[David] Well, NASA’s failure is not an option stands on the shoulders of every single thing they did that failed as they were doing the engineering, when they were developing…
[Howard] They blew up so many rockets.
[David] Absolutely. Okay? Failure is not an option means that ultimately we must succeed. It doesn’t mean that we won’t have the occasional catastrophe along the way. That we won’t have Columbia. That we won’t have…
[Dan] But, to your point about the whole premise of this episode, if NASA had never done anything that could have failed, they never would have gotten into orbit, they never would have gotten on the moon.
[Dan] They had to be willing to take those risks and screw up horribly in order to achieve what they eventually have achieved.
[David] That’s absolutely true. It’s… Okay. No task worth doing springs fully blown and fully performed from the brow of Zeus. Okay? You have to go out there and make it work. All right? Now, most of the successful writers that I know would write whether anyone was buying their work or not. We have to do it. That’s part of that storytelling bug that I was talking about. Okay? Whether we’re writing for our own entertainment, our family’s entertainment, or just because, my God, it’s 2 o’clock in the morning, I can’t sleep, I gotta do some more writing, we write. If you don’t have that kind of… Robert Asprin once said, and Robert and I did not necessarily see together on all things…
[David] But he said, “Successful authors are like rats. If we don’t wear our fingers down on the keyboard every day, our fangs grow through our brains and kill us.
[David] Okay? It’s still a valid metaphor, even though I use voice recognition software when I write now. But it’s true. If you… I have this need to be crafting stories. Okay? Now, for the last year or so, I haven’t been, and that’s because I face planted into a cement floor in Atlanta the day before Dragon Con and gave myself a concussion, broke my nose into places, stitches inside my mouth, the whole 9 yards. It has taken me effectively a year to recover from the concussion status to where I am once again really writing. Okay? It’s been a real trial for me and for people who were expecting books from me and everything else, but sometimes, the need to tell stories is sort of temporarily stymied by the fact that, you know what, my brain’s not working.
[Howard] One of the first things that I learned about… I’m a web cartoonist, and one of the first things I learned in this regard was when I still had a day job, early 2000’s, we would take… I was in the software industry. We’d take two weeks off around Christmas, because kind of the whole industry wound down. For that two weeks, I told myself my Christmas present to me is that I’m going to pretend I’m a cartoonist full-time. I’m just going to do this. I would tell my plan to people. They’re like, “You’re going to pretend to have a job over Christmas?”
[Howard] “Okay, one, you’re a broken human, and, two, what does your family think?” What I found is those are some of my fondest memories of this. Yeah. Storyteller gotta stug… Gotta story tell.”
[David] There comes a time, in a given project or whatever, where it turns into work. Where you have to drive yourself to it. You have to do that. I have, in every book, I have what I call the chapter. That’s the point at which I say, “This entire book is dreck. What was I thinking? Oh, my God, I can’t get this to come together.” The only thing that I can do is just keep grinding it out and saying, “Boy, this is sucky.” Okay, that kind of thing? Then, when I get to the final edit, I can’t identify the chapter.
[Howard] I was going to say, you’ve refined your process to the point that only happens for one chapter doing a project?
[David] No, that’s… Pretty much, yeah. You know. It’s this kind of thing.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and… Let’s stop for a book of the week, then we’ll get back to it.
[Brandon] You have our book, or books of the week, this week.
[David] I have two. One is The Gordian Protocol, which came out in May, with Jacob Holo. Who is a BMW engineer in an alternate universe. I think that our backgrounds, the synergy was really, really good. He’s got three or four self published novels out. This will be his first traditionally published novel. Is his first traditionally published novel. This was not one of the two I was thinking about, but he has just handed me the draft of the Valkyrie Protocol, which is the sequel. It’s pretty much ready to go. We have to wait for him to get a hiatus in that real-life job to do a little tweaking that I pointed out to him. The other book that I’ve just handed in is the sequel to Out Of the Dark, which, yes, is the one with vampires in it. This one is rather cleverly titled Into the Light. I did it with Chris Kennedy, of the Four Horsemen universe and whatnot. He was my co-author on it. I’m really pleased with the way that it worked out. The vampires are a little flamboozled when they begin finding out some things about their own past and their own existence that neither they nor the earlier writers who didn’t like the vampires didn’t know. Okay? For… I won’t go any deeper into it than that. But suffice it to say, that Vlad Tepes was a tiny bit mistaken about exactly how and what he became when he became it.
[Brandon] This topic’s very interesting to me, because I work with a lot of aspiring writers. I teach at the University, and of course the podcast, and things like this. Looking back at myself when I was first making the choice to start writing, one of the things that I think holds back new writers, and I’ve kind of found some language that I can describe this more recently, is that, for me, there was this beautiful book I imagine somewhere out in the aether, right? It was like the Platonic ideal of a book. As, having read for many years, and sitting down to write the first time, it was like I knew this book was out there, but then my crude fingers could not get that book on the page. It was really frustrating to me. Because it felt like… It wasn’t fear that I think stopped me, it was this sense that I was taking something beautiful and I was making it something flawed and terrible, because my skill wasn’t good enough. I’ve found multiple other aspiring writers that kind of have this same attitude that… Less fear, more like, I guess I must not have done enough worldbuilding or I must not have thought it through enough, because this beautiful story, I just can’t make it come out on the page.
[David] Well, that’s…
[Brandon] So, I guess my question to you is strategies for writers who are having trouble making that transition, taking that chance, giving themselves permission to fail. What are some strategies that people could use to do that?
[David] Write the damn book.
[David] And when you’re done, if it’s not what you thought you were going to come up with, file it under this was a learning experience, these are the things that I can see that I did wrong. Do those right in the next book. I have an entire file cabinet at home that has probably 300 short stories in it, that were written solely because they were things that I wanted to play with as a writer. How was I going to describe this? How was I going to handle this bit of characterization? You… Basically, this is one of the crafts that the only way you can learn to do it is to do it. There’s not a credential program somewhere that is going to say, “Okay. Now you have a diploma. You’ll go out there and be a successful writer.” Okay? There are all kinds of courses that you can take and training that you can seek that will help you, give you tools that you might not have otherwise. But there’s nobody out there who can teach you how to be a writer. Anybody who says we will teach you how to be a writer is taking your money. Okay? Because what they can do is they can teach you how they are a writer. They can teach you how these three guys over here are writers. They can’t teach you how you’re a writer. Okay? Characterization. Characterization is a critical component of any story you’re going to tell. How do you build a character? Okay? One of the things that I do when I’m doing writing workshops is I rollup a character from one of the role-playing game series. I tell my students, I say, “Okay, this is the character that you have. This is the age, this is the gender, everything else. Go home, and between now and the next session, write me an explanation for why this character exists with these skills, these abilities, these disabilities.” They frequently turn it into what is actually a very good short story. Okay? In getting out who this character is. That’s the kind of thing that you have to be able to build on your own. I can give you that assignment, and tell you to go home and do it. But I can’t say to you, the first way that you should do it is by doing thus and so, because the best that you could learn from that is how I do it. What makes a writer succeed is that writer’s voice. You can take exactly the same story, the exact same plot, even the exact same characters by name. Okay? And have two different writers do the story. You have two totally different stories. Okay?
[David] One of them is going to be the way that you tell the story, and one of them is going to be the way that somebody else tells the story. What makes you a successful writer is your voice finding its audience. You cannot do that trying to be someone else. You have to be you.
[Dan] Yeah. I… Finding that voice of your own is critical and it is difficult. I like to think about this in terms of Ender’s Game. Because they had the kids in the Battle School, and they would fight against each other. Then there’s this really critical scene towards the end of it, where Bean stands up in the lunch room and says, “Guys. We are doing the same strategies over and over and over. We will never learn anything new until we give ourselves the freedom to fail.” That’s when they kind of throw out the whole competition system and they say, “Okay. We’re going to try this, and it probably will be awful, but we’ll learn something from it.
[Dan] So I imagine someone out there listening to this podcast thinking, lack of risk-taking is not my problem, I’ve tried everything I can think of. It’s… I’m just not selling anything. Maybe what you need to do is something ridiculous. Maybe you need to change genre. Maybe you need to try something new. Maybe you need to put that big golden book that Brandon was talking about, that idealized thing that you have in mind, put that on a shelf and write something different.
[David] Okay. Let me tell you one of the most critical things that you should bear in mind as a writer. Write the story that interests you. They say, write what you know. Well, I don’t know anybody who’s been a starship captain. Okay? I’m sorry, there just aren’t too many of them around for me to go interview, that kind of thing. But if there’s a type of story that is especially suited to you, that you enjoy reading, etc. Point number one, you’re not unique. That means there are other people who enjoy reading that same sort of story. It may not be what’s currently hot. But publishers don’t necessarily look for what’s currently hot. They look for what they expect to be durable. Some publishers do. They want to push you into writing whatever is selling right now. Avoid them. Okay? I’m sorry. But you should. Okay? Now, if they say, “We’ll pay you a stack of money to write it,” then you can say to yourself, “Okay. They’ll pay me a stack of money. I’ll get some practice writing, and then I’ll be able to go do what I want to do.” But, point number one, if you like it, other people will like it. Point number two is if you like it, you will write it better than something you are writing that you feel that you have to write in order to be hot, in order to sell your work. Okay? Point number three is publishers are constantly looking for things to publish. Now, some publishers, for whatever combination of reasons, have blinders on or at least blinkers. Okay? Maybe, it’s like, I don’t agree with the political philosophy in that book. There’s all kinds of idiosyncratic factors that can come into play. But the bottom line is publishers need stuff to publish. Keith Laumer once said that there’s not the great unsold novel. There’s only the great unwritten novel. Because if you write it, and it is good and you submit it long enough, you will sell it because publishers are looking for things to publish. The editor who discovered Thomas Wolfe… Thomas Wolfe had been rejected about eight or nine dozen times. Okay? Then this guy found… Discovered Thomas Wolfe and made his entire career out of the fact that he was the guy who discovered Thomas Wolfe. He was asked by another editor at one point. The guy said, “I read the first quarter of a million words, and it sucked. Where did you realize…?” He said, “About word 300,000.”
[Hmm, hmm, hmm.]
[David] Okay? What I’m saying to you is that eventually, if what you have done is publishable, it will find a buyer. Sometimes, even if what you’ve done isn’t punishable… Publishable. Punishable? There was…
[David] I’ve read some horrible books before. But even if what you’ve written in its current form isn’t publishable, sometimes you’ll get that little comment back that will tell you why it wasn’t. More often than not, you’ll get a form letter that says, “I’m sorry. It doesn’t really meet our needs at this moment. Etc., etc.” But sometimes you’ll get that little flicker of a response, and you go, “Oh!” Now, I’ve been doing this… I’ve supported myself as a writer since I was 17. I’m 67 this year. So I’ve been writing… I’ve been earning my living pushing words around for 50 years. Okay? I’ve been a published novelist for… Well, we sold the first… I sold the first book in April 1989. So this is the 30th year since I sold the first book. In the course of that time, I like to think I’ve learned a few things. Okay? There are some very simple things that an author… Okay. For example. Any aspiring writer should realize that the most important word in any sentence is the verb. Choose your verbs wisely. Don’t say, “He came quickly to his feet.” Say, “He leapt to his feet. He jerked to his feet. He jerked upright.” Okay? Never use an -ing verb when you can avoid it, unless you want the voice of what you’re writing to be passive. All right? Never bury dialogue inside a paragraph. If there’s dialogue in a paragraph, start the paragraph with the dialogue and arrange the internal mechanics to make that work. Okay? Don’t worry about choppy paragraphs. Worry about where you want to direct the reader’s eye. You’re setting the cadence, you’re creating the rhythm. Maybe you need short choppy sentences and paragraphs at this point. Maybe you need one line paragraphs for emphasis. Okay? Maybe the one line paragraph that you need is, “In the world blew up.” Okay? Because you’re in the middle of a combat situation, there’s a missile incoming, the character you’re writing about doesn’t know it. There’s combat chatter, they’re saying, “We’re under fire,” the character’s turning around. Then the world blew up. As a separate paragraph. So think about those sorts of things when you’re writing. That’s not a question of my telling you to write in my voice. Because these are things that any writer can profit from, in the way that they construct and craft sentences, and sentences are what you build books out of.
[Brandon] We could probably sit here for another hour and listen to this.
[Brandon] Because these are excellent points. But we are out of time. I want to thank our audience at SpikeCon. Thank you guys.
[Brandon] I want to thank Mr. Weber for coming on the podcast.
[Brandon] Do you have a writing prompt you can give to our listeners?
[David] A writing prompt?
[David] Something to do. I would say, go home and create a character. Okay? Not one that you set out to build because this is going to go in your story. But give yourself the assignment of taking a character that you didn’t create because you rolled it up or whatever. Then, build in your worldbuilding bible, in your tech bible, whatever, build why that character is who that character is. Because stories are about characters. If the character is not interesting to the reader, the story will go nowhere. If the character is not interesting to you, and understood by you, you will not be able to communicate it to the reader. Your characters will still, if you do this long enough, the characters will evolve in the storytelling, and they should. So, as the life experience of that character is shared with your readers in multiple books, you have to understand how that character changes and incorporate it. Characters are what stories are about. Sentences are how you tell the story. Get those two things right, and the story will usually succeed. A weak story that is well told will succeed, where a strong story that is weakly told fails.
[Brandon] Awesome. I don’t know that we could put it better than that. So, this has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.