Writing Excuses 16.42: M.I.C.E. Quotient, After the Fact
Key Points: In editing, how can you use the M.I.C.E. Quotient to diagnose and solve problems? Identify weak points and story bloat. If the ending is flopping. look at the questions you set up and the kinds of conflicts in the middle, and see if the ending matches. What conflicts dominate the middle? Are they trying to escape? It’s a milieu. Are they answering questions? It’s an inquiry. Is the bulk of the middle spent being unhappy with themselves? You’ve got a character thread. Are they trying to change or restore the status quo? It’s an event story. Then look at the kinds of barriers that the character is encountering. Are things preventing them from leaving? Are things blocking their attempts to answer questions? Are they just getting more and more unhappy? Are things just going wrong? Then decide whether to pull the thread out or strengthen it. You can also use these questions to shape your outline. You can use the M.I.C.E. Quotient elements to look at the overall structure, and on a scene-by-scene basis.
[Season 16, Episode 42]
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, After the Fact.
[C.L.] 15 minutes long.
[Charlotte] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Mary Robinette] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[C.L.] I’m C.L.
[Charlotte] I’m Charlotte.
[Mary Robinette] And I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] We’re going to now take everything we’ve learned over the last seven weeks, and we’re going to use it as a diagnostic tool. When we get to the editing phase, how can the M.I.C.E. Quotient help us to solve problems in our work?
[Mary Robinette] So, way back in the dawn of this particular series, I talked about how to use it if you were a pantser. That you could use it to make choices about which direction that you were going. As a diagnostic tool, it’s very useful in identifying weak points and story bloat. So the reason that I wanted to break it apart into individual pieces when we first started is to help you understand what each piece does structurally. It’s a super unnatural way to tell stories, and it’s not something that you would normally do. But, it’s, as Dan pointed out earlier, it does make stories… It takes good stories and it breaks them and makes them worse when you strip them down to being a single thread story. But it does tell you what each piece does. So, if the ending of your story feels like it’s flopping, what you can do is look at the questions that you set up and the kinds of conflicts that dominate the middle, and then see if that ending matches. Then what you get to do is to decide which of those things you like best. One of the things that you may have heard me talk about in previous episodes is that I used to have stories that had a great beginning and a great middle and a great ending to three completely different stories that happened to have the same set of characters. What was happening was that I would begin a story that was a character story, and the conflicts that my characters struggled with in the middle were all in a milieu, and then when I’d get to the event, to the end, and I’d solve an event that I’d never really set up, and my character was still in the milieu, and their character issues were still unresolved. It was just not satisfying. So what was happening to me when I started figuring this out is that I would just back into stories and I would be like, “Well, this story’s good. I don’t know what I did.” The M.I.C.E. Quotient allows me to flag things and address them in a somewhat more systematic way. So, how do you identify these questions? When you’re looking at the story, look at the conflicts that dominate the middle. Are they trying to escape someplace or navigate? If they’re trying to escape someplace, you’ve got a milieu. Is the bulk of their energy being spent on answering questions? That’s a very strong inquiry. Do they have a big chunk of the middle where they are unhappy with themselves? You’ve got a strong character thread going on there. Then, are they trying to change the status quo? Change the sense of normal? Then there’s an event that’s happening. So that means that you know the kinds of barriers that you need to keep throwing out them. You can check to see if those are the kinds of barriers that are happening to your character. Are things preventing them from leaving? Are things blocking their attempts to answer questions? Do they just keep getting unhappier? Are more things just going wrong? If you take a look at those, and you’re like, “Oh, actually, yeah. Yeah. They’re supposed to be answering questions right now, but instead, all they’re doing is thinking about what a terrible, terrible person they are, and I don’t actually set that up, and I don’t pay it off.” So, at that point, your choice is you can either pull that thread out and remove the thing where they angst about their sadness, or you can strengthen it by adding stuff at the beginning and the end. The choice comes down to your personal taste and the purely mechanical question of length. If you’ve got the space and you like it, strengthen it. If you don’t have the space, or you don’t like it, cut it. So simple when I describe it that way.
[Dan] So, I have a really good example of this from my own work. One of my early novels is called The Hollow City, which is about a man with schizophrenia. I… In the first draft of that, I had a chapter in which he was trapped in a room, he’d been locked in, and his medication is wearing off and he was starting to have delusions and hallucinations and this sense of, “Oh, no, I’m going crazy.” It didn’t work. It didn’t work in the least tiny bit. In hindsight, it is easy to see that I had started a milieu story, him locked in a room, and he needs to survive and escape. But every obstacle I had thrown at him and every solution that he was coming up with were all character-based, because I was trying to focus on the room and on his kind of conquering his mind at the same time. It just wasn’t working. I’m not saying that that kind of thing couldn’t work, but I certainly was doing it all wrong. So, looking at it in these terms helped me to figure out, “Oh, that’s why this doesn’t work. That’s why this is a problem.” I was able to fix it.
[Mary Robinette] You just reminded me of something that I cut out of The Relentless Moon. In one of the chapters… This is… I don’t count this as a spoiler. Things go wrong in space. Surprise. But in one of the chapters, as a consequence, I had someone get a concussion. The person who got the concussion wasn’t one of the main characters, it was someone who was on a ship that they were on. The problem that I had was that this was now a new event thread that was not related to my other event threads. It was a disruption of the status quo, and it was one that I was not planning on tying up or resolving in any way. But people were going to want it resolved, because I had injured a character, and my characters cared about the person. But it wasn’t part of the big events that I was trying to solve. It was a different kind of event. It was pulling focus away from the main events which were things going wrong because a saboteur was doing them. So I pulled it completely out of the novel all together. It was, again, that thing of looking at it and going, “Okay. What is the answer that I’m going to be giving to this? Does that answer fit with the ending that I’m heading for? Do the conflicts that people have to go through to resolve this fit with the other kinds of conflicts?” Because to help the person with the concussion, that meant… It was all of the solutions that were around that were lots of time in hospital rooms. Those were not things that I was interested in doing.
[C.L.] I think the biggest thing that I had to do, and to learn, in writing novels was… In Witchmark, everything was too easy. When Miles decided that he needed to know something or do something or talk to someone or anything, it would be like, “Okay. So you do that.” I wasn’t coming up with problems. What I was basically doing was I didn’t have a character, I had a mail carrier. He would go to a place and somebody would hand him information. Then he would go to a different place and somebody would hand him more information. That was the only thing that was happening.
[Charlotte] I mean, I know that this episode is titled After the Fact, and we’re using it… Or we’re talking about how you can use it as a diagnostic tool when you’re editing, so that evidently is presuming that you have a body of work. I don’t have a middle for my novel right now, and I certainly don’t have an end. So I’m wondering whether I can use these kinds of questions at the start of my… Starting to plan my novel to help me not have weak points and to help me not have story bloat at all.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. You can absolutely… Say the… If you’re an outliner, you can absolutely use it as a way of thinking about the shape of the story in outline form.
[Charlotte] Yeah. That’s [garbled]
[Mary Robinette] So you get your outline and you look at it and you’re like, “Oh. There is not enough of X.” Or, one of the things that I have done is I have color-coded things based on which M.I.C.E. element is kind of the major driver of any given moment, and looked at it and realized that it’s very heavily weighted towards one in the beginning, and then another one comes to dominate. That will happen sometimes naturally, but frequently, when you’ve got something that’s out of balance, it is because of something like that. It’s because your focus as the writer shifted during the course of writing it. What I also will find when I’m doing outlining is that my understanding of the story is different when I get to the end then it was it… At the beginning. But I don’t necessarily go back and clean that up to make it fit the ending unless I do several passes through that outline. Even then…
[Mary Robinette] When I get into the story, I’m still doing revisions based on new understanding, but trying to keep things in those… Within whatever I decided are the major drivers, trying to keep my focus in those areas, helps.
[Dan] Let’s pause for a moment for our book of the week really quick. We’re going to do something a little different this time around. Our wonderful audio guy who records all this stuff for us is Marshall. Yay, Marshall.
[Mary Robinette] Yay, Marshall.
[Dan] He has a fantastic podcast that he does with some other writers. He’s going to tell us about it.
[Marshall] Yeah. Thanks for letting me on here, guys. Our podcast is called Just Keep Writing. The tagline is “a podcast for writers by writers to keep you writing.” You might notice that some of the names are familiar if you’ve gone on the Writing Excuses retreats and that kind of thing. I do the podcast with Nick Bright, Wil Ralston, and Brent Lambert. We’re kind of a community focused podcast that we discuss craft, our own writing processes, and our journeys. So, for example, lately we’ve been doing a lot of talking about editing, speaking of editing, with Brent, who’s a professional editor. He works for Fiyah magazine as well. We’ve been talking about his recent work and editing process. We’ve done author interviews. Mary Robinette and Dan have both been on. Piper J. Lake as well. Brent and I do a kind of a spinoff called Just Keep Writing While Black, where we interview black debut emerging authors. So, we’ve been having a lot of fun. So, definitely check us out. We’re wherever you find podcasts. Justkeepwriting.org. We also have a Discord channel which is… We do collaborations, write-ins, feedback, and that kind of stuff too, and we’re on social media. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. So, check us out. Thanks, guys.
[Mary Robinette] Thanks, Marshall. It is a very good podcast.
[Garbled to you]
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. The podcast is one of the reasons that we realized that when we needed an engineer, that we should ask Marshall. We have been very happy that he has been joining us for these.
[Mary Robinette] Okay. So let’s continue talking about how to kind of use this as a diagnostic tool. You can use it to look at the overall structure, but you can also use it on a scene-by-scene basis. So when we were talking earlier, in one of the early episodes, we talked about how you could have a M.I.C.E. element that existed only in one spot in the story. So, if you’ve got a scene that isn’t working well and you’re trying to figure out why, look to see what in that scene is… Which M.I.C.E. element is kind of your dominant driver in that scene. You’re asking the same set of questions. As an example, which I have given before in a previous episode, when I was working on Glamour in Glass, I think… Yes! Forgetting my own books. I had a problem, I had a plot problem, because there was a thing that hadn’t been invented yet, but I had hinged everything on. I had to fix it. I had to pull that thing out and I had to fix it. I was struggling trying to figure out what to replace it with. Then I stepped back, and I was like, “Okay. In essence, this scene is a milieu scene. They have to get in, rescue someone, and then get back out.” So if I know that it’s a milieu scene, that means that all of my conflicts and also all of my solutions are coming from the milieu as the primary driver. That allowed me to plot my way through this scene and to fix the scene. So if your character is struggling with themselves and you’re having problems moving them forward, remembering that is an internal conflict, it is a conflict that happens with themselves, that means that your conflicts, but also your solutions can come from inside the character. Or you can braid something and move it through to shift the focus. If you’re at a thing where you don’t want to solve it, and you want to push it someplace else, you can ramp up the tension by having that other thread come through. So, looking at it afterwards when you’re trying to figure out what is wrong, using the M.I.C.E. Quotient after the fact to go, “Okay. This is what’s gone wrong with it and here are some possible solutions.” It just gives you another set of tools. Right. So, thank you for joining us on the exciting master class about the M.I.C.E. Quotient and our deep dive. I hope these tools are useful.
[Mary Robinette] Your homework assignment is to apply them not to the fairytale that I’ve been having you work with, but something that is a current work in progress. I want you to look at something that you’ve been struggling with. Look at it, see if you can identify the M.I.C.E. Quotient elements, and if that gives you a new set of tools to understand what is going wrong with that and how to fix it. Then fix it. It’s a very simple exercise this time. Thank you so much for…
[Dan] All you have to do is…
[Mary Robinette] Fix it.
[Dan] Fix your thing.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. That’s it. If they’re trapped someplace, figure out how they get out.
[Dan] The end.
[Mary Robinette] If they’re not happy with themselves, figure out what can make them happy. If you have imposter syndrome…
[Mary Robinette] The best way to fix that is to be out of excuses. Now go write.