Writing Excuses 9.11: Micro-Casting
Questions and condensed answers:
Q: Should a pantser rewrite their book once they know the entire story?
A: Many pantsers do. They treat their first draft as a longform outline, make big structural tweaks, then toss everything and write it from scratch. Beware rewriting the same story over and over and over again.
Q: What do you find most useful from an editor while you are writing your books?
A: My process begins by getting the outline structurally solid with the editor, then she doesn’t see anything until the book is written and has gone through a language pass. I want nothing from my editor before I hand in a book. Some people do have a constant give-and-take with feedback from the editor all the way through writing the book. Often editors can help because of their understanding of the market and with big structural issues.
Q: Any chance of drilling down to scene, sentence level creation?
A: Can-of-worms (to be continued later)
Q: Any advice for pitching to agents and editors?
A: Trying to describe your novel as if a 14-year-old boy is summarizing his favorite movie ever. Focus on the cool things. Do not talk about plot this point. Avoid proper names, kingdoms, large back stories. Focus on the conflict. Find out what the agents and editors like! Combine the familiar and the strange (see strange attractor). Character, conflict, setting, — end with the hook. Run your pitch past beta readers, get reactions, hone it, and practice it.
Q: What is the worst writing/career advice you’ve gotten?
A: Archaic advice on saving a file and using the size to determine the word count. Another one is not to include a SASE, but instead include a headshot. Have your manuscript printed and bound. “If you really want to make any money at this, you should be writing romance.”
Q: How do you help a writer friend who is discouraged and wants to quit? How do you help them find encouragement and faith in their story again?
A: Find out why they are discouraged. Sometimes quitting is the right decision. There are many things that could cause this. Be a good supportive friend. Find the source of this.
[Mary] Season Nine, Episode 11.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, micro-casting.
[Howard] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Mary] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And the part of Dan this week will be played by a drunk mariachi band.
[Mary] I think it might be played by a mime.
[Howard] Oh, no, it’s a drunk mariachi band. I can see they’re all sleeping it off…
[Howard] Over there in the corner.
[Brandon] Oh, that’s what I get for trying to come up with hard ones for you to do. All right. We’re going to micro-cast, so I have gone to twitter and asked for what people want us to answer and we will answer it. But I do want to mention Eric James Stone once again filling in for us and joining us. Thank you, Eric.
[Eric] Happy to be here.
[Brandon] Okay. Question number one from Andrew. Should a pantser rewrite their book once they know the entire story?
[Mary] That is frequently what pantsers do, in fact. I know a lot of people who treat their first draft as a longform outline, and make their big structural tweaks, and then will toss the entire thing and write it from scratch. I don’t think that you need to do that. But just know that that is a viable option.
[Brandon] I think if you…
[Howard] Yeah, that’s the extreme option.
[Brandon] Well, I don’t think that it’s that extreme. I’m like Mary. Most people I know who do a lot of discovery writing, this is how they approach it. But I think it’s the should that is the… I think if there is a should, it is if you think you’re a pantser, try this. Does it make your book better in the way you want it to? Try the tool out. It’s something I as an outliner only ever do if there are multiple years between drafts. I’ve written one and it just doesn’t work and I put it aside forever. But I know Dan does it a lot, and Kay Linn, a good friend of ours in my writing group, does it for every book two or three times.
[Mary] Yeah. I know a lot of people who do it two or three times. It would drive me crazy, but I know people for whom it works very well.
[Eric] Just don’t get caught in the trap of rewriting it over and over and over again.
[Eric] Rather than getting it the best you can and sending it out.
[Howard] Yeah. The way the tool works is when you have written the story one time and you are able to identify all of the major structural problems and all of the minor character arc problems and you are now ready to rewrite it. The wrong approach is “Well, this version didn’t work, so I’m going to throw it out and start again and hope that the next version is better.” That’s… That way lies madness.
[Brandon] Yup. Usually Kay Linn will finish the book or at least a large chunk of it, exploring how the book works and what she wants from it. Then she can approach it.
[Howard] I would say don’t be discouraged by throwing away 50 or 75 or a hundred thousand words. If those hundred thousand words were required to set in your mind what the right hundred thousand words look like. There’s nothing wrong with that.
[Brandon] Okay. Next question coming from Brian who is @KillerMonk. What do you find most useful from an editor while you are writing your books? Excellent question.
[Mary] So my editorial process is that we sit down and we talk about the outline, and we get the outline structurally solid. Then she doesn’t see anything else from me until I have written a book, done a language pass, and then I send it to her.
[Brandon] I would want nothing from my editor before I hand in a book. At least the first few drafts. In fact, sometimes recently because of deadlines, I’ve had to be working where I send a chunk and then write the next chunk while Moshe is editing that chunk, and I never look at the chunk he has edited until I am done with the book.
[Mary] Yeah. Now I know other people, and this… So this is very much a it depends on your writing process. I know other people who send it to their editor and get feedback and react to that feedback as they are working through. That there is a constant give-and-take all the way through the book.
[Brandon] Now I think a… What he’s getting at here is how can I be a better editor, perhaps? So let’s take a different direction on this.
[Howard] You know what, let me… Because my editor experiences have been very different from yours. I had two editors with the Extraordinary Zoology and Heartfire projects with Privateer Press. The first editor, Scott Taylor, I remember him looking at the story and saying, “Okay. We need an action scene right here. It can be kind of unrelated, but have something explode and the mule gets spooked, but we need an action scene here. We’re writing adventure fiction.” Essentially, what he was saying is, you have sold this story into a market for which you need more action in it. And there is not… That action is not in it yet. So from an editorial standpoint, if you as an editor know what market you are trying to sell the story into, and can communicate those market requirements to an author in a way that makes the author not feel like they are writing to the market… Good luck with that, but that’s…
[Mary] Yup. The reason… Yes. That ties to the reason that I do things the way I do with my editor, is that I want her to tell me things that I do not know how to already fix. So I’m asking for big structural issues, and that includes things like you need an action scene or this character doesn’t make any sense at all. That’s what I get with my editorial letter and then later we do line edit stuff which is [inaudible]
[Brandon] That’s exactly what I need, too. I will usually mention when I send a book off to Moshe… Well, sometimes I will, sometimes I won’t… What I think the biggest flaw that I’m looking for help in regarding is. Because my editor is good enough to not be changed by that. He can read it and knowing what my problem with the book is, can look for fixes without… Or if he thinks it’s not an issue, he will say, “This isn’t an issue, Brandon.” Where a writing group, often, if I tell them that ahead of time, they will immediately flag it as an issue and not even think about whether it’s not actually an issue.
[Mary] And look at that as a greater problem… Like, overlook everything else because they’re looking for that problem.
[Brandon] Right. And the editor… What I want from an editor is a person I can say things like that to. A person who can know where to push me. A great example is Moshe on Warbreaker where I have a number of kind of humorous characters. He got back to me and said, “You need to take your humor up a notch. Watch this movie and this movie and read this book. Analyze what they’re doing with their humor and try and incorporate some of that.”
[Howard] Part of what I’m hearing here is your relationship with Moshe is based on the fact that Moshe’s read like, what, 3 million of your words? 5 million?
[Brandon] A lot of my words.
[Howard] A lot of your words. If you want to be a great editor for an author, read some of that author’s stuff so that you know… Especially their best stuff so that you know which game it is that you are trying to help them up to.
[Brandon] Ben asks us. You guys do a lot of story level creation casts. Any chance of drilling down to scene, sentence level creation? It occurs to me that that is something that we could do more casts on. I wanted to mention the reason we don’t do is it so much harder to talk about, I feel, because it’s… That’s the sort of thing where you’ve got a paragraph and you can say, “Oh, you’re doing this, you’re doing this, you’re doing this.” But just talking in general… Use the right word. Be less passive.
[Howard] This is a cast… Or this is a question where it would be really nice to be able to sober up the mariachi band and have Dan in the room to talk to us about poetry.
[Brandon] Yeah, we need Dan for this one. Or Pat Rothfuss. If we could get Pat on to talk about sentence level stuff because… In all honesty, personally, this is not something I excel at. I create workable prose… Workmanlike prose, that’s what it is. I tried to make prose that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but Pat creates beautiful prose.
[Mary] Yeah, let’s can-of-worms this one.
[Brandon] Can-of-worms that.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and say… Let’s see. Thomas asks us it might be a little outside the scope of the podcasts, but any advice for pitching to agents and editors? I think we can give some advice on pitching.
[Mary] Yeah. Although again, this may be something we could do a whole podcast on.
[Brandon] We probably could, but let’s just do a few pointers here and we’ll see.
[Mary] So one of the things… I think this is actually one of Dan’s suggestions. Boy, I don’t know if he can…
[Howard] I’m going to go pass some coffee to the mariachi band.
[Mary] But one of the things he says is that if you think about trying to describe your novel as if a 14-year-old boy is summarizing his favorite movie ever and you just focus on the cool things. You’re not actually talking about the plot at this point.
[Howard] That’s actually my outlining technique, but…
[Brandon] I would suggest in line with that, stay away from too many proper names. Don’t tell them what kingdom it’s happening in. Don’t tell them the character’s huge backstory. Focus on the conflict and what really works. I have had… I’ve asked this of various agents and editors, and they all have different tastes. Like Joshua says, “Never give me the… Anything that sounds like a movie trailer.” But it’s very hard to not do something that sounds like a movie trailer.
[Howard] In a world…
[Brandon] And he doesn’t want rhetorical questions. He doesn’t want “What would you do if your mother was an alien?”
[Howard] I would also stay away from the “Well, it’s like Babylon 5 meets Calvin and Hobbes.”
[Brandon] Yeah, that’s the sort of thing that he was pointing at that he really disliked.
[Mary] The thing that works well for me is to combine the familiar and the strange.
[Brandon] Yes. Read Terry Rossio’s essay http://www.wordplayer.com/columns/wp02.Strange.Attractor.html on the strange attractor, which is this whole thing done in a Hollywood context of how to pitch and come up with this strange attractor, the familiar and the strange.
[Howard] My formula for writing back cover copy works well for pitching. That is character, conflict, setting, hook. There might be a dozen characters in this book that are important. There might be a huge angle to the setting that is important. But if you distill that as far down as you can so that each of those elements is represented and you end with the hook… And I don’t know what the hook might be, it might be a strange attractor, it might be… I don’t know what it looks like. If we knew exactly what hooks looked like, then we’d all be millionaires pitching to Hollywood.
[Brandon] Oh, we do know. We’re pretty good at it. Like you and your story that we either workshopped in the last episode or will workshop soon… We don’t know when that will be.
[Howard] It’s the 30 minute episode.
[Brandon] Yeah, it’s the 30 minute episode. Your… You have a hook right at the end of like scene two, great one. So…
[Mary] So, the thing that I will say, regardless of how you win… What the actual words of your pitch wind up, is that the next step is exactly the same thing that you do with fiction, which is that you run it past beta readers and you get reactions to it. You hone it based on that and make sure that you’re getting the reaction from the pitch that you want. The reaction you want is “Oo, I want to know more about that.” That is the reaction you’re getting… That you’re looking for. Then you practice it.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s stop for our book of the week. Eric? You are going to pitch a book to us.
[Eric] Yes. The book is Ghost in the Wires by Kevin Mitnick and William Simon. Kevin Mitnick was on the FBI’s most wanted list as a hacker back in the 1990s. This is basically the story of his life and how he went from being a hacker hiding from the FBI to a security consultant now. The most interesting thing for me was I thought it’s going to be all about how to penetrate computer systems and things like that. Most of what he did is what he called social engineering, which is convincing people at companies to send him stuff or to give him passwords. So a lot of this was not technical, but rather about how to get people to do what he wanted by convincing them that he was authorized to [garbled]
[Howard] In leverage terms, he was a hacker and a grifter.
[Brandon] Great. How can they get a copy of this book?
[Howard] audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Start a 30-day free trial membership with Audible and have… I don’t know who the narrator is, but have a narrator read you the story of Kevin Mitnick, The Ghost in the Wires.
[Brandon] Okay. This might be a hard one. Christopher, the Writerist, asks what is the worst writing/career advice you’ve gotten?
[Mary] [laughter] Sorry. When I… I was once told by an established professional writer that you need to save your file as a dot txt and then look at the size of the file because that would tell you the word count and that you needed to… It had to be in ASCII… It was just like this weird… I’m like, “Why don’t you just use word count?” But he had grown up in an era when that wasn’t the thing and he had to do it all by file size and this weird archaic thing.
[Brandon] Wow. Okay. I would say the one that stands out to me is when a student came to me and said they had been told that when you submit your…
[Brandon] Manuscript, you should not include a SASE, because if they really want the book, they’ll get ahold of you, and not including a SASE… Self-addressed, stamped envelope, back in the days where you did print submissions. You should not include that because it’s a sign of confidence that they will like the story. But instead, you should include a headshot…
[Brandon] Because… That publishers look for attractive writers. This was a writer who had been giving this advice. I went to their website and lo and behold, this was their advice on the website.
[Howard] Oh, dear.
[Brandon] Maybe the person misconstrued… The student did. But yes, I would say that was really bad advice.
[Mary] That’s terrible advice.
[Howard] Eric, what have you got?
[Eric] I remember being told that you want your manuscript… Your book manuscript to stand out when you send it to the publisher, and so instead of sending them just a bunch of loose pages, you should have it printed up and bound like it’s already a book, because when they see it that way, they’ll think, “Wow, this really could be a book.” So you should send it to them that way.
[Mary] Wow, that’s…
[Howard] Okay. So mine. Brandon, you might actually remember this. Brandon and I and Pat Rothfuss and two or three other people were sitting with a couple of writer aspirants at the… In the hotel lobby at PenguiCon and some little old lady did a drive-by advice, where she walked past us, heard part of what she was saying, and in all seriousness said, “Oh, please. You shouldn’t be writing in that science fiction genre. If you really want to make any money at this, you girls should be writing romance.” Then she stormed off. It’s not necessarily bad advice to write romance, but that was the moment in which I saw the worst giving of advice ever.
[Brandon] Oh, right. The method of it was just… Yeah.
[Howard] It was awful. But it led to a wonderful, wonderful discussion in which Pat dropped the F-bomb on me.
[Brandon] Okay. Jenna asks how do you help a writer friend who is discouraged and wants to quit? How do you help them find encouragement and faith in their story again?
[Mary] Oh. Well. You know… This is going to be kind of weird. But, in some cases… I look at why they’re discouraged. Because sometimes people want to quit and that is in fact the right decision for them. You need to recognize that because it’s not the right decision for you does not necessarily mean that it is the wrong decision for them. So the first thing that I would do is find out why they want to quit. If it is just… If it’s self-doubt, then that you address and you help them get past. If it is that they don’t actually enjoy it, let them quit. Don’t force people to do something they don’t enjoy by making them feel guilty about…
[Brandon] Wow, that’s great advice. That’s not where I expected this to go, but…
[Howard] If somebody in 1999 had pulled all of the right social engineering, wet hacking buttons on me and convinced me to relaunch the music career, I would never have become a cartoonist. It is entirely possible that the thing that you love that they are doing, the writing that they are doing, is not in fact the thing that they are quote unquote meant to do.
[Brandon] Now it is… Let’s say it is equally or more possible that they really, deeply desire to become a writer but there are a host of things that could cause this. Either they have actual chemical depression or… Depression. You need to be a good supportive friend in that realm.
[Mary] Yes. Absolutely.
[Brandon] Which is something that we can’t cover here. Or they are hitting that stage of writing where they are a good enough reader to recognize that the writer… Their writing does not match their dreams for what they want to be. In that case, most writers hit that, and they need to practice a lot to get past that, and it is a hard thing.
[Howard] You know what. We did that cast…
[Brandon] Yes. Advice to my friend Scott?
[Howard] Well, no. There’s advice to my friend Scott. But we had Mette Harrison on where she talked about the 21 reasons why you don’t have time to write. If you, as a friend to a writer, are familiar with this material, you might be able to look at them and say, “Oh. I see what the problem is. The problem is that these things are interrupting you.” Or “This is discouraging you.” Or whatever. If you are familiar with the things that get in the way for writers, you’re probably going to have a much better toolbox for…
[Brandon] Right. But I will go back to what Mary said. Don’t force them to do something they don’t want to do. Find the source of this. If it’s depression, then being positive and upbeat is often not the right answer. Being empathetic is the right answer. Saying, “Wow. That stinks, and I understand.” This is just hard. I don’t know. There could be so many things causing this.
[Mary] Yeah. But really, the first step is to find out why they are discouraged.
[Brandon] All right. We are going to end right here. We’re going to get to more of these questions on a future podcast, so we’re not done with all of them. I am going to ask Eric… No, I made you do it twice. I’ll make myself do a writing prompt. Your writing prompt is something magical is preventing your friend from pursuing their dreams, but you don’t know what it is. Write a story about a character who’s trying to figure it out. Maybe if they finish the story, someone will die. I don’t know. But… There you are. You have your writing prompt. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.