Writing Excuses 9.22: Micro-Casting
Questions and Answers:
Q: Should you include your prologue as one of the three chapters in the submission packet when submitting to agents and publishers? Assuming they ask for three sample chapters?
A: The goal of the three chapters is to show off your writing and impress an editor.
Q: How do you get out of the spot where your protagonist has no motivation, and you can’t find it?
A: What do they need to achieve, and why do they want it? Does the motivation match the outline?
Q: What’s the best way to prove to a spouse that your writing is more than a hobby, short of getting paid for it?
A: A long conversation with your spouse. Show, don’t tell. Give up your own time, not your spouse time.
Q: When you take a long break after starting a piece, how do you get back to it?
A: Reread, use the outline. When you stop, write a note saying what’s next. Read the notes and brainstorming to see why this project is exciting.
Q: Where do you start research for historical fiction work, and how do you keep it from becoming scattered or overwhelming?
A: Start with broad reserach, wikipedia, and whatever your reference librarian recommends as a broad overview. Then drill down. Read primary source materials. Depend on your magic tool, the reference librarian.
Q: Let’s say you sold your first book. How do you tackle book 2 in a series?
A: Take the key part of your first book, then go deep with it. What does the character want to do next? What should this character learn next? Use the same characters and setting, but change genres.
Q: How do you go about writing something like Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere, an overarching story connecting multiple models?”
A: First, make each story stand on its own. Keep the connections loose.
Q: What part of being a writer do you guys most enjoy other than the actual writing?
A: Meeting people that I admire. Being able to go to the source. Fan art. Setting my own hours. Being invited to a TV show premier.
[Mary] Season Nine, Episode 22.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, micro-casting.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we’re taking questions off of Twitter again. So, Basque Chicken Seven as a question. [I love these twitter names?] This is one that’s very simple to answer, but I get it a lot, so I’m going to ask it. “Should you include your prologue as one of the three chapters in the submission packet when submitting to agents and publishers? Assuming they ask for three sample chapters?”
[Dan] Well, remember that your goal with those three chapters is not to set up your story, it’s to show off your writing and impress an editor. So if that prologue does that, then yes. Otherwise, no.
[Brandon] And if your prologue doesn’t do that, maybe you should cut your prologue.
[Mary] Yeah, if your prologue is optional… Lah.
[Brandon] Okay. That’s usually the answer you get is if your prologue is essential, then include it. If it’s not, then think about why you have that prologue.
[Brandon] Zero gain asks, “How do you get out of the spot where your protagonist has no motivation, and you can’t find it?”
[Howard] That’s usually time for me to take some methylphenidate.
[Dan] Ask for a better protagonist.
[Howard] Because I don’t have the motivation.
[Mary] Yeah, often it is an author thing. When I look at is what it is that they need to achieve and why they want it. If they don’t have a sufficiently compelling reason for why they want it, then I’ve made errors in my character creation in the first place.
[Brandon] The big difference in this is sometimes writers seem to want to consistently write someone who has depression. I run into a lot of my students that like… And a person with depression, it’s hard for them to get motivated about anything. That can be a story. It’s a really hard story to write. Basically every other char… Protagonist either excepting the one with depression or the one who… If your story’s about a person with no motivation, you should have built that character to be passionate about something, and ask yourself how you can make those passions align with the plot.
[Dan] When I run into a situation where the character doesn’t have motivation, it’s usually the outline is wrong. The character’s not motivated to do what I want him to do according to my outline. Therefore I need to rethink things.
[Brandon] Matthew Thomas asks, “What’s the best way to prove to a spouse that your writing is more than a hobby, short of getting paid for it?”
[Mary] That is a long, long conversation that you have to just sit down and have. It involves a very secure marriage and explaining. You have to be really open about why it’s important to you, and talk about the length of time it takes to develop as a writer and where you want to be and where you envision this going. But you can’t expect them… There is no “let me do this one thing” that will demonstrate that for you.
[Dan] I would also add show, don’t tell. If you’re constantly telling your significant other that writing’s important to you, that’s different than if you are constantly writing and they can see that it is important to you.
[Mary] But I think you have to do both.
[Dan] You definitely have to do both, and the discussion that you’re talking about is important. But that discussion is going to have a lot more weight if they can look back at your relationship and say, “Yes. I know from your actions that this is a big part of your life.”
[Brandon] Right. Instead of giving up time with your spouse, if you are giving up your videogame time…
[Brandon] And saying, “I am giving this up to spend my time writing,” that means something.
[Howard] I think that may be, if you’re going to make any sweeping generalizations at all here which is hugely dangerous, that’s the one I would make, is that your relationship with your spouse needs to be the thing that’s sacrosanct, and writing needs to be displacing something else that your spouse knows that you love. So that they know that you are serious about it.
[Brandon] You’re going to say, “I’m getting up an hour earlier in the morning before going to work to do my writing.” That will mean something.
[Dan] It’s also worth pointing out the thing that convinced my wife that I was serious about this is that she read my writing and she liked it and she was sold… That was the moment when she became as sold on my dream as I was.
[Howard] I would love to have Sandra here to ask her. Because we joke about when I started cartooning… I remember telling her, “I think I’m going to take up doodling as a hobby.” Those were my exact words, and she smiled and nodded, and within two weeks, I was convinced that I wanted to have a career as a cartoonist. I don’t know what her mindset was and I… Sorry, I need to open a can-of-worms with her over dinner. You can go ahead and ask your next question.
[Brandon] Okay, okay. Let’s see. Someone complaining my series isn’t done yet. Oh. Brandy Blanick asks, “When you take a long break after starting a piece, how do you get back to it?” Which is an excellent question.
[Mary] a lot of times, I’ll reread the stuff that I’ve been doing to remind myself of where I was. This is part of why I outline. I will also… A lot of times, I will do the reread and then plan a physical activity where I can do like plotting nonverbal stuff while I’m doing that, like walking around the block or something. But I do try to do that in a way that it’s not going to engage the storytelling part of my brain with any other stories.
[Brandon] Right. I try to keep my draft… I do this exact thing, but I do a polishing draft as I mentioned a few weeks ago. Don’t… I’m not going to make structural changes, I’m not going to do big revisions, I’m going to polish the language and as I said dump everything back into RAM, so to speak.
[Howard] I do language polishing. I also… And this requires a little bit of planning… When I stop writing, I always try and write at least 10 or 15 words that are a note to myself that basically says the next scene is when the character demonstrates why he’s angry about this and such. It’s just a note to me so I’ll know where I’m supposed to start.
[Dan] I always like to go back and read through my early notes and my brainstorming stuff, if I’ve had to leave a project for a long time in the middle. Sometimes that helps me refocus, but mostly what it does is it reminds me why I’m excited about that project.
[Howard] Why did I write this in the first place?
[Dan] Because… Yeah, why was I so passionate about this two months ago when I had time to work on it before. That gets me back in the zone.
[Brandon] That’s great advice. I never thought of that. So glad you’re back, Dan.
[Mary] Yeah. We’ve missed you.
[Howard] That’s what I need to do in order to finish my piece for the Writing Excuses anthology. [Bah da boom]
[Brandon] This one’s kind of targeted a little bit more at Mary. “Where do you start research for historical fiction work, and how do you keep it from becoming scattered or overwhelming?”
[Mary] Okay. So where I start… Usually I… It starts accidentally that I have read something that makes me excited about the era. So what I usually do is start doing a very broad, broad research, and sometimes it’s honestly I will read Wikipedia articles which tell me about kind of the big overview, and then I go to the reference librarian and I say, “Give me books.” I look for a couple of broad overviews and once I’ve done those, I will start drilling down into the specific areas that I’m particularly interested in. A lot of times the research that I use is not stuff that winds up… Or a lot of times the research that I do is not stuff that winds up in the novel. But I find that if I have kind of a good basis for the period, that it will help me structure the characters better because I know kind of what the popular events are. I read as much as possible, primary source stuff. Popular journals, diaries, these are fantastic. But mostly, mostly my main thing that I will just say over and over again is reference librarians are your best magic tool.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and do our book of the week, which is actually also yours, Mary. You were going to promo The Fall of the Kings.
[Mary] Yes. This is The Fall of the Kings by Ellen Kushner. This is really fantastic as an audiobook. One of the things… So if… She has several other books, but you can actually step into this as a solo even though it is technically a sequel. One of the things that’s really interesting about this as an audiobook is that part of what Ellen was particularly excited about when she wrote it was the relationship of the students. But a lot of her readers were focusing on characters from the previous novel. So in the audio, what they’ve done is that all of the student scenes are fully voiced, it’s a full cast, and the other scenes, many of them, not all of them but many of them, are just Ellen narrating. But it’s got an amazing cast…
[Howard] That’s almost like a teleplay.
[Mary] It’s almost a teleplay. The scenes with the students have sound effects. You can hear rain, you can hear glasses clinking.
[Howard] Well, then it is a teleplay at that point.
[Mary] But you still get narration as well with that.
[Mary] But you’ve got narrators like Neil Gaiman in there. And Katherine Kellgren, who’s one of my favorite female narrators. And Simon Jones. It’s really… It’s wonderfully done. It’s really… If I didn’t call attention to it, you wouldn’t… I don’t know that you would know why this is happening, but it really does make those characters all much more vivid. It’s a wonderful audiobook. I highly recommend it.
[Howard] audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a 30-day free trial membership, grab yourself a copy of The Fall of the Kings by Ellen Kushner, narrated by lots of neat people including Simon Jones and Neil Gaiman and Katherine Kellgren.
[Brandon] All right. Next question. Ryan Van Lone asks, “Let’s say you sold your first book. How do you tackle book 2 in a series?” You’ve done this a few times, Dan.
[Dan] Yes. I’ve done this a lot. There’s different ways to do this. Number one is you take the key character or the key conflict or the key magic or the key technology that was presented in the first book and then go deep with it, like what we talked about last week. Figure out another way that that could be misused or abused. Figure out something else that could go wrong. And then… Or just look at your character and say, “Well, after their experience, what do they want to do next?” Another way is to look at character arcs and say, “In the first movie, Peter Parker learned this. What’s he going to learn in the second movie?” And then build your structure around that.
[Brandon] Yeah. Good advice. I think specifically on this one… If anyone else has anything to chime in… I think looking at you finished a book, now doing a sequel rather than I’ve plotted three books and we’re moving on…
[Howard] I think that it’s helpful to remember that you own this whole project. So you can take risks that Hollywood is unwilling to take. When Hollywood runs a sequel, the producers are saying, “We want more of this, only make it bigger.” What you’re able to say is, “I don’t want to do more of that, but I’m going to take these characters and do something else.” You can ex… You don’t need to treat it like a Hollywood sequel, you can make it different. Now whether or not your editor’s going to buy it is another matter altogether, but I want you to be interested in writing it.
[Dan] You know what I did with Partials, there’s three books and I kind of did what they did with the Alien movies, where every one, it’s the same aliens and the same character and the same setting, but each movie is a different genre. Like the Partials books are, the first one’s a dystopia, the second one’s a quest, and the third one’s a war story.
[Mary] That’s what I did with the Glamorous Histories as well. The first one’s a straight up Jane Austen pastiche, the second one is a military spy novel masquerading as a Regency romance. Then I have a political thriller masquerading as a Regency romance, heist novel, and then the last book is basically Regency Grimdark.
[Dan] Nice. [Inaudible]
[Howard] And that’s how I approached the Schlock Mercenary books.
[Brandon] Regency Grimdark?
[Scrambled, several speakers]
[Howard] It’s down there really deep. Really deep. But it’s there. Subtle visual metaphor decoded.
[Mary] Yeah. I love the fashion that you use in that. It’s just… It makes me weep.
[Brandon] “How do you go about writing something like Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere, an overarching story connecting multiple novels?” asks Kaylin N. Powers.
[Mary] How do you do that, Brandon?
[Brandon] Well, I was throwing a bunch at you guys. I’m like, “Let’s do a Brandon one.” Howard does this too, though. Connecting a lot of different stories. One of the big things that I keep in the forefront of my mind is I want each story to stand on its own. This is important for me in a series as well. I like it when in a long series of books, each book is its own thing. I actually think this ties into what Mary was saying is one way to do it would be to say each book… Let’s make sure that each one has a different theme. For something like my books, each series is having a different theme. Where we have the Mistborn books which are heist books, and we’re having Stormlight which is straight up war-based epic fantasy. Then I’m doing Warbreaker which is actually political intrigue, trying to stop a war. So I’m picking these and I’m doing themes. One’s more humorous, once more this… So that I’m approaching each one in a different way. But the connections have to, for me, be loose enough that if someone picks up the middle one and hasn’t read any of the rest, they love that book. They never notice what they’re missing. And they…
[Dan] I want to stress that. Because, all love to Brandon, I am not super interested in the giant Cosmere. So I ignore it. I still enjoy the books, and I love them for what they are.
[Brandon] That has to be first. All this other stuff can be fun Easter eggs for me, but that has to come first.
[Howard] For me, it always comes back… I say always. Almost everything that I do to make my works better comes back to the promises I’m making to the reader. In order to build a grand overarching whatever, there have to be things left unfulfilled somewhere in the story so that those threads can be picked up someplace else. I try and make sure that that is a low-level promise that I made to the reader, and not the one that they’re going to feel really disappointed by when it doesn’t get wrapped up in this book.
[Mary] Yeah, when we’re doing… When I was doing puppetry, the thing was it had to be entertaining for everybody who was coming. But that not everybody who was coming had to get everything. Like the kids did not have to get all the humor, they just couldn’t feel like they were missing something.
[Brandon] As a contrast to what we did before in a previous podcast, “what part of being a writer do you guys most enjoy other than the actual writing?” As a contrast to all the stuff we weren’t warned about.
[Dan] Okay. I will tell you that three days ago, I had lunch with John De Lancie and hung out at his house for a couple of hours.
[Brandon] That’s pretty cool.
[Mary] That’s… Squee!
[Dan] Meeting people that I admire is amazing. Being friends with Kevin Anderson is awesome. That’s…
[Mary] Yeah. I have a couple of friends that I have to very firmly squash the squee when I’m hanging out with them because this back part of my brain is going “eeeeyabieeee.” I’ve completely lost all verbal ability at that point.
[Brandon] We were reading one of Pat Rothfuss’s books, my writing group, we’d stopped and were talking about his picture book. There was a disagreement on something about it. So I’m like, “Let me text Pat and see what he has to say about this.” I text him and he called me back. We had this big conversation so then I could tell the writing group what he had meant and things like this. Being able to go to the source is awesome.
[Mary] I have to say one of the other things that I really, really love is fan art. I just think… Any… The fact that I have made something that makes people want to create and be in the world longer feels… And part of it, I was an art major in college, but it fills me with such giddy glee, I’m like… I’m just… I had no idea that that was going to be a thing when I signed up to be a writer and I love it.
[Howard] I describe that in different terms. I have captured a portion of another human being’s imagination and brain and time and they are continuing to spend it in my universe without me doing any extra work. That’s the highest compliment they can possibly pay me.
[Brandon] I will cap this one off by just saying being able to work for myself, set my own hours, and be part of something like the… Being a creator owned property when… I listen to my friends talk about the jobs they do sometimes. They do great stuff, but being a cog in a machine putting out a product that… I mean, I remember talking to my good friend Isaac, and he did all this work on something that didn’t ever even get released as a video game developer. That… It just got thrown basically in the trash. At the end of the day, when I get to do is my vision, I can release it, people can experience it, there’s that direct connection, and I have an enormous amount of control over my art. That is really one of the best parts of being a writer.
[Howard] The difference between creating a thing that you own and being part of like the cast of a TV show…
[Brandon] Which is awesome.
[Howard] Or a Hugo award-winning podcast or something like that… Oh, wait. That’s actually kind of nice.
[Mary] See, this is… Yeah, that is kind of nice. This is the part where I can’t go like, “Yeah!” Because I’m… I miss the puppetry. I have to say that stories of things gone terribly, terribly wrong as a writer are not nearly as funny as the things that go terribly, terribly wrong as a puppeteer.
[Brandon] I’m sure all of that stuff is awesome. I’m just saying…
[Mary] But I get all the…
[Brandon] Setting all my hours and stuff.
[Mary] But I got all of that. Well, granted, not on the school tours.
[Howard] Setting my own hours so that I get to go to movies on opening day, write about the movies, and then having a local TV studio invite me to a premier because of the stuff that I am writing for grins in my free time. Yeah, that’s just cool. How did that even happen?
[Mary] Having someone give me money for like writing down a daydream. Sweet.
[Brandon] All right. Dan, have you come up with…
[Dan] I have a writing prompt for you. Right now, wherever you are, in your car, in your office, wherever. Look around. Identify an everyday object, and then write a post-apocalyptic world in which that object is used as currency.
[Brandon] That’s awesome. All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.