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Transcript for Episode 2.1

Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 1: Q&A At Mountain Con with John Brown


Key Points: Setting drives characters who drive plot. Getting the right visual details can be as simple as looking at a picture while writing, although lush minimalism and studying masters also helps. When characters deviate from the plot, you need to consider why, and decide whether to go with it or bring them back to the plan.

[Howard] 15 minutes long because you’re in a hurry [Dan] and we are so obviously not that smart [Brandon] it’s just me.

[John Brown] I’ve been writing a long time. I just broke into the market, Tor gave me a three book deal. My first book will be out in September 2009 called Servants of a Dark God. Epic Fantasy.

[Ken] what is the perfect relationship between character and setting and how do you develop it?
[John] I don’t know that there is a perfect relationship beyond wanting characters who would be in a setting. However, having said that, some of the best stories come along when you have people that don’t belong to that setting. For example a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Fish out of water stories, where someone from the city goes out into the country.
[Brandon] I hate to be a broken record since we’re actually on MP3… come on, that was funny. I would say that the perfect setting character relationship has to do with conflict. It’s really all about the conflict…. setting is only as interesting as its effect on the characters… look for conflict. Put the character in conflict with the setting. Make the character in contrast.
[Dan] description of using an outsider because insiders wouldn’t give the reader the right viewpoint. Look at the purpose to decide whether to use insiders or outsiders.
[Howard] you can’t have the setting drive the plot. You can have the setting result in events which result in characters making decisions that drive the plot. It has to be character driven or we will get bored.
[Brandon] if the sandworms are going to eat Paul, we’re scared because we care about Paul. … setting drives the characters to drive plot.
[Dan] the sandworms are not cool in and of themselves. They’re only cool when they are eating someone, someone is riding them, when they are in relationship to the characters.

[Eric] I’m often accused of writing stories that are set in a white room, because I don’t provide enough visual detail. How do you provide visual details?
[John] I don’t think you always need setting…. some stories it doesn’t matter. If it’s important to the story and it jazzes you, that’s the time when you put it in.
[Brandon] a lot of people read for setting detail, for a sense of wonder…
[Howard] if you’re writing in a white room where setting really doesn’t matter, it’s like a meal served in a restaurant for ambience doesn’t matter. The only restaurants I can think of where ambience is irrelevant are fast food.
[Brandon] did you just compare Orson Scott Card to fast food?
[Howard] no, I compared Eric to fast food…. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this kind of writing. There are stories that support themselves without ambience and others that don’t.
[Dan] getting around to answering the question, the Runelord series by David Farland has a lot of rich detail. I’ve talked to him about this, and he keeps reference books nearby. So when he starts to write about a character, he opens a reference book, flips to a picture, and describes them. So one answer is to keep visual reference books available.
[Brandon] I think we’ve said before that one approach is to overstate something unimportant and understate something important…. lush minimalism… I try to write some lush sensory details, but then be sparing in action and dialogue.
[John] there are some authors that I love who really provide good details. I can take one of their books and with a crayon look through 30 or 40 pages and highlight their tricks.

[Unknown] do characters ever deviate from the plot plan that you planned for them?
[Dan] that’s what characters do best.
[Brandon] how do you approach it when characters do something that you don’t want or didn’t plan?
[John] it happens all the time. I have a couple of responses. One is that I’m bored with the story. I’m going to take it somewhere else, where do I need to go? If this character has hijacked my story, what they are doing is clearly more interesting than everything else that I had planned. So follow the character, let’s do take 2, and see where this character takes us. Another way — whatever is going on, I need to change it so it is interesting to me. I’ll go back and invent… let me fix it. Last point — I love it when this happens. I’m doing things that are surprising to myself. But that’s part of the fun of writing.
[Howard] that is when I surprise myself. If I’m surprised, the readers will be surprised. So I’m going to keep it, I’m going to roll with it.
[Brandon] my characters don’t surprise me. I don’t think about it that way. I do have aha moments, when I realize I could do this instead of what I had planned. I do come up with better ways, so I need to do rewriting. But I’ll often tell myself I’ll fix it in post and just keep writing.
[Dan] I have two things to say about this. First I want to stress that so many writers are so obsessed with following their muse that they will follow it somewhere dumb. Sometimes you have to stop and smack your characters around. Tell them to follow the plot. [Skip story about two characters talking about their fathers].
[John] I have to believe in what I’m writing. Sometimes I have to go back and figure out what would make the characters do what I want them to. Sometimes that involves rewriting.

and the session ran out of time.

Current Mood: wavering
Current Music: More Like Her, Miranda Lambert