Writing Excuses 9.17: Micro-Casting
Questions and Answers:
Q: Should you submit your story’s prologue along with your story’s first chapters at the submission stage?
A: If it is important enough to include in the story, yes.
Q: What do you do when you’ve got some pro sales, get to the second round with some editors, but can’t get further? How do you get to the next level?
A: Keep writing and submitting. Think about your validation and rewards.
Q: How do you manage scene-sequel in a multiple POV novel?
A: Write the individual character POVs separately, with scene-sequel, then interweave the threads. Remember that scene-sequel is a pacing tool for the reader, not the characters.
Q: How do you tell if you are doing passive voice and why is it so right or so wrong?
A: If, at the end of the sentence, “by zombies” can be added, passive it is. What’s wrong? It can be distancing, and is often overused.
Q: What’s the difference between Deus ex and an unexpected or unforeshadowed turn of events?
A: It depends on what you want the scene to do.
Q: How do you maximize the emotion created when killing off a main character?
A: It depends on what the reader thinks of the character. To give the death a certain emotion, you need to have created emotions regarding that character for the readers. If the readers are emotionally invested, and believe that this character will not be killed, then a death creates sadness.
Q: If you are a pantser, how do you keep your story from growing larger than you are capable of handling?
A: Most writers begin pantsing, and have a book spiral out of control. Too many characters, viewpoints, plot threads. Control the number of characters and scenes. Reuse characters and tools. Especially, keep the number of viewpoints down. On the other hand, learning to deal with an out-of-control story can be a valuable lesson for the writer!
Q: When someone you meet for the first time asks what do you do for a living, how do you answer?
A: I write and illustrate science fiction. I write fantasy novels. I’m an author. I’m a web developer, but I am also an author.
Q: How do you get out of the “He did this, then she did this” stage directionesque style of writing?
A: Let the order of the actions establish the chronology, not the “then” words. Make sure there is a strong viewpoint, with emotional ties to the action. Do multiple things with your writing at the same time, evoking character, setting, and plot.
[Mary] Season nine, episode 17.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, micro-casting.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Eric] 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…
[Eric] Eric James Stone.
[Brandon] Micro-casts. All right. More of your questions asked to me via Twitter and Facebook. All right. First question. Jamie asks should you submit your story’s prologue along with your story’s first chapters at the submission stage?
[Mary] Well, it depends on what the agents… I mean, my answer is if it is important to the novel, then it needs to be in there.
[Howard] Yeah. If the prologue is important enough that you included it before the first chapter, then…
[Brandon] Yes. If you’re wondering this, then maybe the wonder should be if you should cut your prologue. But yes. You might just be asking this saying send me the first three chapters, the prologue is one of those. That’s what they mean. So go ahead and submit that. Some people get confused by that. Yes. Submit it.
[Brandon] What do you do when you’ve got some pro sales, get to the second round with some editors, but can’t get further? How do you get to the next level?
[Mary] Oh, that is such a frustrating period of time.
[Eric] Keep writing stories, keep submitting them.
[Howard] Win a Nebula award.
[Mary] Well, no, you have to… So it’s… You know it’s… This happens to every writer, where you will hit a dry spell where it just feels like you can’t sell anything and don’t… I can say don’t worry about it. But you will worry about it. Just know that it is not unusual for it to happen and that the only solution to it is to keep writing.
[Brandon] Yeah, and keep reading.
[Howard] Yeah. Sometimes… How do I say this? It is very validating to sell. But if selling is the only validation you experience from the writing, you’re going to have a really hard time with this dry spell. You need to realize that part of the reward of writing is having written something wonderful, and you need to keep writing.
[Brandon] That’s a very good point.
[Howard] Don’t let the absence of sales tell you that you are not a writer.
[Brandon] Very good point.
[Brandon] All right. How do you manage scene-sequel in a multiple POV novel? That’s a good question. I use a lot of POVs in my books. Stormlight Archive, which I just finished the second one of and should be coming out soon… Hint, hint… Is… Well, often I will be rotating between three characters and I do think about scene-sequel with this. But I write the character viewpoints separately. So when I am interweaving them, I am looking for chapters that complement each other and when I do my polishes later on, when I do my revisions, I’ll be reading the book straight through and running into chapters that just don’t match the chapters around it. At that point, I either have to revise the chapter or I have to rebuild the interweaving. It might work better for scene-sequel if I were just writing strictly chronologically, but I’ve found that when I do that, my emotional power for a character arc in a given character often has more trouble. I need to go [meddle in?]
[Howard] It starts to bleed off.
[Brandon] So it’s a very different rhythm.
[Howard] My decision points for scene-sequel hinge upon the central rule that scene-sequel format is a pacing tool for the reader to catch their breath or to be forced breathless and dragged along to the end of the story. It is not a pacing tool to necessarily allow the characters to catch their breaths. So I may have a character for whom the whole last half of the story is taken at a dead run. I am going to break scenes… Break for scenes with that character and then cut to another character who will let the reader catch their breath. But when we go back to the character who’s at a dead run, they are still in scene mode. They might not get a sequel until the very end.
[Brandon] To be honest, when I write climactic scenes like that, I always go into strict chronological. I write one viewpoint after another instead of writing them…
[Howard] Because you’re pacing the end of the book.
[Brandon] Because I’m pacing the end of the book in a very different way than when I’m pacing the middle and beginning of the book.
[Brandon] How do you tell if you are doing passive voice and why is it so right or so wrong?
[Mary] So, the basic rule of thumb with passive voice is if you can add “by zombies” to the end of the sentence, then it is passive voice. So…
[Brandon] He was eaten by zombies.
[Mary] By zombies.
[Brandon] That’s the obvious one, but yes. The ball was caught.
[Mary] By zombies.
[Brandon] By zombies.
[Mary] So that’s the…
[Howard] But that’s a great cliffhanger sentence for the end of the first chapter.
[Mary] Yes. The reason that it is such a big deal for… First of all, passive voice is perfectly fine. It’s… What runs into problems is that it can often be distancing. And it is often overused by new writers. So when people are saying, “Never use passive voice,” that’s kind of an exercise thing that people are telling you to get you out of the habit of it and get you into the habit of thinking of other structures.
[Brandon] Yeah. In general, as a rule of thumb, passive voice is more confusing and less immediate. These are things you want to avoid in your prose, so that’s why…
[Mary] We’re going to put this in the liner notes, but we’re going to link you to Grammar Girl, who has a wonderful thing on passive voice and explaining what it is and how to recognize it.
[Howard] And when in the past I’ve said that Writing Excuses should be your favorite writing podcast, I will allow that it’s possible that Grammar Girl might…
[Brandon] Yes. Writing Excuses can be number two. That’s allowed.
[Howard] We will allow Grammar Girl to take the number one slot.
[Eric] By zombies.
[By zombies! Laughter.]
[Brandon] Hans or Hans… Probably Hans, but you never can tell, asks I talked about Deus ex machina. What’s the difference between Deus ex and an unexpected or unforeshadowed turn of events? For example, a mugging happens in your story. Unexpectedly, your characters are saved by a cop walking by. Deus ex machina or not? And I am going to say, it depends on your goals as a writer for that scene. Very frequently, you will read in the beginning of a book, the character getting saved by their good friend who is happening to pass by, and it is… The goal of this, while you could do this as a very lazy sort of writing, but you can do it well too. But the goal of that scene is to introduce the character, the friend, in a dynamic and interesting way. So while it is solving a problem, your goals for that scene was not to have them think about “Wow, that was a close scrape, I’m glad they got through.” Your goal for that scene was I want to introduce this character in an interesting way.
[Howard] The mugging and the cop is… I think the best example of this from famous fiction is the hobbits and the barrowwights saved by Tom Bombadil. That scene serves to show us that the hobbits are way out of their depth. And that scene is very unsatisfying and unfulfilling for a lot of modern readers. I think that’s one of the reasons that it was cut from the movie and was replaced with other tools to show us that the hobbits are incompetent and out of their depth.
[Brandon] Yeah. So ask yourself these questions. You can use quote unquote deus ex machina. It is another tool of yours. But what it does is, is it undermines the conflict and the competence of the character.
[Brandon] All right. So. How do you maximize the emotion created when killing off a main character?
[Howard] Well, no, no, no. I say adverbs…
[Brandon] Very, very, very dead.
[Howard] No, no, no. I say adverbs. Adverbs by themselves don’t work well, you have to also incorporate [dramatic pause] passive voice.
[Brandon] He was stickily dead. He was…
[Howard] He died badly.
[Mary] Dead, he was.
[Brandon] I would say that…
[Howard] He was eaten by zombies.
[Eric] He was killed badly.
[Brandon] It depends…
[Brandon] Your… The reader’s emotional reaction is going to depend on what they thought of that character. If you want the character’s death to have a certain emotion, you need to have created a certain different set of emotions regarding the character. For instance, if they really hate the character, they’ll be strong emotions of “Yes, finally!” If they’re really annoyed by the character, they’ll be emotions of “Finally.” Those are two different sorts of things, the cheering “Yes, he’s dead,” and the “Oh, I’m so glad they got rid of that character.” So these are… It depends on if you’ve laid your groundwork or not.
[Mary] Likewise, if you actually want a reader to feel an emotional… If you want them to be sad about the character, you also have to lay your groundwork for that. The question then is how do you do that? That is… That really gets into a lot of things where you’re having to think about this all the way through the book so that the character… If you want them to be sad, they have to be emotionally invested and they kind of have to think that you aren’t going to kill them.
[Brandon] Right, right. [Very fast?]
[Howard] When I first met Felicia Day, I told her to her face, “I am so glad your character died in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog because I don’t see any other way for that story to be successful.” I share that with you guys not because I was a horrible person to Felicia Day. She agreed, by the way. But because if you watch that show and try and envision that show working with her character living…
[Mary] I can write that ending.
[Brandon] All right. There’s a challenge. I think that will be our writing prompt.
[Howard] That may be our writing prompt.
[Brandon] But let’s go ahead and do our book of the week. Which Howard is going to promote for us, and the book of the week is about fear?
[Howard] Yes. I need to… The book has a colon in the title and I need to look it up… The Gift of Fear: and other Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence by Gavin de Becker. This is a nonfiction book which I picked up… Sandra read it and then handed it to me and said, “You, as someone who has a public facing career where you interact with strangers all the time, you need to read this.” I read it and I realized that some of the many times I’ve been uncomfortable in crowd situations… There have been situations in which my brain was trying to tell me something useful and I wasn’t paying enough attention. This book… I’m not going to mince words here… This book can save your life. It is well worth reading. It is well worth having read to you. It’s only three hours long, and it’s extremely valuable information. The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. You can pick it up at audible. Visit audiblepodcast.com/excuse and start a 30-day free trial membership and you can have it read to you for free.
[Howard] Oh, it’s narrated by the author. Narrated by Gavin de Becker.
[Brandon] Cedric asks if you are a pantser, how do you keep your story from growing larger than you are capable of handling? You know, this is an interesting question because I think most writers that I’ve met, at least when they start, they often are pantsing quote unquote… They’re discovery writing before they figure out this whole outlining thing and stuff like that. I think most writers in the beginning… That could be different, but even I who am a strict outliner nowadays, my very first books, I didn’t know about… I didn’t know how to create a book outline. I’ve never written a book before, so I just pantsed. And lo and behold, the book spiraled completely out of control. Too many characters, too many viewpoints, too many plot threads, everything just became this big heaping disaster where I finally ended the book halfway through and said, “This is the ending.” Then I wrote the second half and tried to tie these things up. Dan, I know, did the very same thing on his first book. It just completely spiraled out of his hands. We were both trying to write epic fantasy. So we had maybe very large aspirations.
[Mary] So, I’m glad that you mentioned the multiple characters and multiple… One of the ways to ramp up tension or something else is to have someone else into the room suddenly to convey a piece of information. That’s the thing that adds… That has more and more characters. So one of the things you can do to control scale is to control the number of characters and the number of scenes. So look at the things, when you… What will happen to you as a pantser is that you’ll be like, “I don’t know what happens next. I’ll bring someone new in.” Look at the tools that you’ve already used and repeat somebody. See if you can solve whatever problem it is that you have with tools that you have already introduced without going and getting something new.
[Brandon] Right. And the more viewpoint characters you add, the more this is going to spiral. I would try to keep the number of viewpoints down, in particular. For starting novelists, stick to two or three, maximum. Try doing one.
[Howard] I’m going to be daring and I am going to… I’m going to disagree and say that that particular failure mode will be a fantastic experience for you. There are things that you might not be able to learn without having written your way into that mess. At some point, you… As a professional author, as a writer with decades under your belt, you’ll be able to sit down and write a character… Or write a book that has 20 important characters, five of whom are critical POV characters and you’ll be able to manage all of that. At some point, though, you need to set out running a race that is longer than you have the physical strength for, and then you need to walk the last mile and get a feel for just how long that track is.
[Brandon] Rob asks when someone you meet for the first time asks what do you do for a living, how do you answer?
[Howard] I write and illustrate science fiction.
[Brandon] I write fantasy novels.
[Mary] It depends on the context for me, because I have three different careers.
[Mary] So usually these days, I will answer with I’m an author. That’s usually all I will say. I won’t say science fiction or fantasy, because I will let them ask the next question. The reason I start with that one is because of the three careers, that is the one that having someone go “Oh, really, let me go look up your work…” That’s the one that’s most likely to… Like someone is not going to say, “Oh, let me hire you for a puppet show” or… And I don’t…
[Brandon] Oh, I need someone to read my audiobook. Yeah.
[Mary] Yeah. But “Oh, really, let me buy your book on my Kindle right now” has happened. So that’s the one that I usually start with. And then the part of the reason that I just say I’m an author is because it gives them room to ask me another question, which turns it into a conversation rather than a sales pitch.
[Brandon] Well, you don’t… You say three careers. You don’t mention the superspy one then?
[Mary] Shh. Please.
[Eric] Because I still have a day job as a web developer, in contexts where my author persona is not primary, I’ll say I’m a web developer, but I also am an author. If I’m at a convention, I’ll say I’m an author and my day job is as a web developer.
[Brandon] All right. Final question. How do you get out of the “He did this, then she did this” stage directionesque style of writing? Which is actually a very good question because I see a lot of my writing students falling into this beat-by-beat this happened, this happened, this happened type of writing.
[Howard] Is the problem… In that question, is the problem the word then? Because what I’ve found is that yes, then can be incredibly overused because what you are doing is establishing chronology with words that you don’t need because the order of the actions themselves establish the chronology.
[Brandon] But I’ve noticed this in my students’ writing. What this person is asking… Travis, I believe… Is how do you avoid this. When I notice this, it’s because the author is not putting something deeply enough into a viewpoint.
[Brandon] And they’re not having an emotional… The character doesn’t have an emotional tie do what is happening or the descriptions are not evoking character. You’re doing only one thing with your writing when we want to evoke setting, character, and plot, and they’re evoking only plot.
[Mary] Yes. I’m just going to ditto that.
[Brandon] Okay. Mary. Do you have a writing prompt for us?
[Mary] Yes. What I want you to do is, since we were just talking about action, I want your character to be doing two things at once. I want them to… And you can pick any two things at once.
[Mary] Any two things at once.
[Eric] Walking and chewing gum.
[Mary] Well, for instance, the entire time…
[Howard] Talking and selling.
[Mary] Yes, talking and… The entire time we’ve been podcasting these 16 episodes, I’ve been sitting here selling a Regency dress. So I want you to have your characters doing two completely unrelated things, but that are both plot specific.
[Brandon] Awesome. This has been Writing Excuses. Thank you all very much for listening and thank you again, Eric, for filling in during these episodes for us. You all are out of excuses. Now go write.