Writing Excuses 9.31: Critiquing “An Honest Death”
Key Points: What people liked about the story? The main character. “I like stories about people who are competent.” When competent characters run up against something outside their competence, that creates good conflict. The concept was good. The pacing was good. The dialogue, the choice of first-person present tense. What’s not working? Secondary characters are too similar. Be careful about maid-and-butlering, and overdoing the information. Beware of world builder’s syndrome. Watch out for technology assumptions. Sometimes when you think you have painted yourself into a corner, friends can suggest a way out. Beware of over-complicated plans. Make sure you know how the main character is involved in solving the problem.
[Brandon] Okay. This is Brandon from the future, cutting into this episode to say, “Yes, indeed, the Writing Excuses anthology is available. It’s called Shadows Beneath. We have it in a gorgeous hardcover as well as in e-book forms on all of your favorite e-book platforms. If you buy the hardcover, we send you the e-book for free. So if you haven’t read the story we’re doing this week, you’ll want to stop right now, pick up a copy of the anthology, read through that story so that then you can follow along with this critique session and see what professional writers have to say about a story going from first draft to last draft.”
[Mary] This episode of Writing Excuses is brought to you by Audible. Visit audiblepodcast.com/excuse to start your free trial membership.
[Mary] Season nine, episode 31.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, critiquing Howard’s story.
[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 will be played by a rowdy group of European soccer hooligans watching American football for the first time.
[Brandon] And we once again have Eric James Stone joining us. Thank you so much, Eric.
[Eric] Thanks for inviting me.
[Brandon] All right. So. We have done this with the other people in the Writing Excuses crew, where we each wrote a story and have critiqued them. Last but not least is our friend Howard.
[Brandon] Who has written a story and you will be able to go and download this as part of the Writing Excuses anthology. You should go do that right now, before you listen to this, because we’re going to spoil. What we want you to do is read the story. We will include in the e-book edition the draft that Mary and I and Eric just read so that you can read the story, listen to our critique, and have in front of you the original draft so you can see what we went through. But it makes us feel much better if you’ve read the story first because seeing it in its glory and beauty…
[Howard] Because one of the things that we are going to talk about is the fact that what Brandon and Mary and Eric have read really isn’t the whole story. I am stuck and need help getting the characters and the plot and all the things to one of the possible endings I have in mind.
[Mary] The reason we decided to go ahead and do this with a partial story is that we know that this is something that happens to a lot of you. So one of the things we’ll be talking about are the tools that you can use to get yourself out of this spot.
[Brandon] Now, like the other podcasts we did of this nature, this will go longer than the 15 minutes. So be prepared. This is going to be a long episode as we begin to Howard’s story. I’m just going to lead the discussion as I normally do with these. As I often like to do… I don’t remember if I did it with the other ones… I like to start with what’s working whenever I’m doing a critique. Because I don’t want the writer to fix what’s working.
[Brandon] So let’s talk about it. What did we like about this piece?
[Eric] Well, one of the things I really liked is, I like the main character, the security guard. I like stories about people who are competent.
[Brandon] He was very competent. And it was shown to me how competent he was. There was very little telling of that, and it was great.
[Eric] Yeah. So that way… With a competent character, if they run up against something that’s outside their competence zone, that creates some good conflict. This story, I think, as a really neat concept with the whole immortality coming up thing and then is it Death, is it aliens, what’s interfering here? So I really liked the concept there and really wanted to know how it was going to end.
[Brandon] One thing I want to highlight that was working very well for me was the pacing. The way that you included your breaks really enhanced the sense of pacing. You had a nice little zing at the end of most of them. I was just… I was really engaged by this story. All the way through.
[Howard] I remember you actually cursing me when you got to the portion of the document that read “Boneyard” instead of…
[Brandon] I’m like, “What!” You had kind of indicated you weren’t done, and I’m like, “I’m hoping that means he just doesn’t know what to do with the epilogue.” Like I with my story.
[Brandon] I read the whole story, and then you’re like, “I don’t know quite what to do…”
[Howard] Oh, dear.
[Brandon] No, it just stops. I’m like, “Argh. Tayler!” So…
[Mary] I… One of the things that I liked was the dialogue. Particularly because this is first-person, and you’re writing in first person present tense. I like the immediacy that that gives. I also like the character interactions.
[Brandon] I feel like you picked the right tense, and it helps… It enhances the story.
[Howard] That, by the way, is very gratifying, because as I was first writing this, I remember thinking, “You know, I used first-person present tense when I was writing the horror stories for Space Eldritch. I should just go with the straight third person limited.” I could not find the voice for the characters. So I changed characters. The original pitch for this was our protagonist was the CEO.
[Brandon] Oh, okay.
[Howard] But in that version of the story, he was just telling people what to do, and I thought, “This is boring.” He’s not… I mean, yes, he has to think a lot and do things, but all he is doing is telling people things. So I searched characters and it still didn’t feel immediate enough. Then I switched tenses and that appears to be where my stride and the pacing of this story fits. So I’m glad that’s working.
[Brandon] I remember brainstorming this way back when we did it, and even having brainstormed part of this with you…
[Mary] I was still surprised by stuff.
[Brandon] I was surprised by things. It was working real well. I still don’t know what the ending is. Even though we brainstormed the concept, I don’t know if this is an alien or if it’s actually Death or if it’s industrial espionage. I love that about it.
[Brandon] Why don’t we go ahead and look at what’s not working for the part that’s already here, and then for the second half of the cast, we’ll tackle this sort of larger issue of how do I end the story, can you guys help me brainstorm an ending, this sort of thing. Okay?
[Mary] For me, his seconds are too similar. I found that I was doing a fair bit of confusing of who else was there. I think it has to do with speech patterns, and also his assessment of where they fit into the competencies. Because everybody seemed to be of equal competency levels.
[Brandon] And doing the same kinds of things.
[Mary] And doing the same kinds of things.
[Brandon] But, you know, one of the things that snapped when I learned that Mo was short for Mohammed. Wasn’t it?
[Brandon] That character suddenly became clearer in my head. It’s the whole Orson Scott Card thing, right? Where it’s not necessarily that he was an ethnicity, but the fact that he was now a longer name, different from the other ones and of a different… Like Orson Scott Card said, “When you’re naming characters, try to make each name distinctive from the others in an interesting way.”
[Howard] That was exactly what I was doing. With regard to their extreme similarity, that is always a problem with me with secondary characters during first and second drafts. It’s not until I have the story shaped the way it needs to be shaped that I can go back in and tweak the dialogue so that the characters’ speech patterns identify themselves a little more directly.
[Brandon] Looking back, at the start you called him Mohammed the first time, but I wasn’t into the story yet. He was Mo for a long time, and then when you called him Mohammed again, that’s the first time I grabbed onto Mohammed.
[Mary] I completely missed… I mean, I didn’t… It wasn’t sticky for me.
[Eric] Yep. It didn’t stick for me either. The one that did stick for me was the…
[Howard] Failalo? The Polynesian name?
[Brandon] So. Talking about things that didn’t quite work. I’m going to try to start larger and go smaller. I’ve got some text-based things, but we’ll get to those later. I felt that there were a couple of places where the narrative got a little clunky for me. One was there was some maid-and-butlering in the scene between Woolrike? Wollreich?
[Brandon] Wollreich. That’s right, we just had a rike. Anyway, Wollreich and the protagonist chatting and it was like, “As you know, we hired these people…” There was a lot of information in there that as a reader I felt like I didn’t 100% need.
[Mary] I had a lot of that too. I went through and I marked in the text… There were… For me, it was a lot of the stuff about how incredibly valuable this thing was. I’m like, “You know what, I just need somebody to tell me this is valuable and I do not need them to justify it.”
[Brandon] At the same time, in that same sequence, we have like the… Our main character saying… This is… I’m thinking of stepping down or something like that which didn’t seem to work. I mean, I can understand him being shocked, but somebody needs to run security for this. They are going to need somebody. So it makes perfect sense that it would be him. But he’s like, “Oh, I’ve just realized my mission parameters are much larger than I thought. This is a big deal, I’m overwhelmed.” But there was this discussion of “I may need to quit, sir” or things like that. I’m like, “Who’s he gonna… Is he going to hire someone better than you?” I mean, I don’t understand that interaction completely. It was part of this… Do we need all of this? I’ve been presented with a character who’s like, “Tell me what we need to do. I’m going to then take the next few steps.” For him, finding out “Wow, you’re doing this awesome thing. Okay, I will have to deal with that.” Felt like… Anyway…
[Howard] I need to figure out how to fix that, because at least in the way I’m envisioning the further unfolding of the story, the corporate espionage angle here is pretty important and one of the principles behind protecting against corporate espionage is the value of the data in the value of the knowledge that the data exists…
[Mary] But you don’t need to spend as much time on the page getting to that.
[Brandon] That’s what I feel too. This was all good. In fact, I even like this conflict of am I capable of handling this. I just felt there was way too much spinning of wheels in this scene for me. I’m just giving reader response.
[Howard] No, no, that’s good. What I want to make sure of is that that’s not… That the thematic element isn’t the problem, it’s the way I’m over-narrating it.
[Mary] It is.
[Brandon] Right. I mean, one that I highlighted, just to go back, this is like “You know that inbound marketing team we created?” I’m like, “Why do we need to know about… What? They’re doing market research?” I mean, I think in just a couple lines you could say… You could get across the idea of this is how were going to profit on this with less back and forth. I don’t know. This is… I just was bored there.
[Mary] Likewise. It was because I got it really early on. So I think… Like you need a better…
[Howard] Part of this is…
[Mary] You figuring out what the…
[Howard] The world builder’s trap of I have figured out how the CEO and the Board of Directors is structuring this to protect the data as well as they can, and I want to share how clever I am with my readers.
[Mary] Yep. But you don’t actually need it for this story progression.
[Howard] Yep. Dialing back the sharing of the clever.
[Brandon] Although, on another tack, I’m not sure if this is for everyone else or not, but I kind of want to know if you’re going to mention we’ve discovered the secret to immortality. Either to just say that or to go further and say it means this and this or something. I don’t know. Maybe this isn’t the right time for it, but at the end I’m like… What is it?… All he says is “We’ve introduced an order of magnitude increase into human longevity.” The guy’s like, “You’re sure this works?” He says, “Yes.” The reader is like, “What does it mean, you’re sure it’s working? You’ve only had two years. Does it mean our cells are no longer breaking down?” I want a little line of proof.
[Eric] I had some plausibility problems with that as well.
[Howard?] As do I.
[Eric] Now, you can say it’s working in mouse studies or whatever. The original mouse who got it five years ago is still alive or whatever. I don’t know how long mice actually live.
[Brandon] I just need something there. I don’t need all the technobabble, but I need some… I need him to offer our guy some proof.
[Mary] I mean, if you said, “On a cellular level, aging is no longer happening.”
[Brandon] Yes. That right there. That tells me what kind of immortality this is.
[Mary] One of the places that I had a thing of disbelief was that his team, granted all hyper competent and everything, would just happen to carry around bugging equipment on them, when they’re doing a panic call. I’m like… Because he said, “It’s about the size of a wall plate,” when he’s talking about the transceiver. I’m like, “Having the camera dot, I can…” Okay, maybe that’s just in your bag all the time at a place where they don’t want you to do any…
[Howard] No, that’s a good point.
[Mary] They don’t want you to do any of this stuff. But you… I mean, what budget item was your secret bugging equipment on? So that… I had some… I had some disbelief with that.
[Brandon] Wow. That’s interesting. Now you say it, yeah, it pops in. With me, my problem with the bugging equipment was actually that I didn’t have explained to me how it worked. You assumed I knew, and I’m like… When they went in and they’re like, “Let’s download the feed.” I’m like, “What? Why?” I thought you were going to go look at a screen and have someone watching that all the time, he does that’s how security footage works for me and things. I was very confused at how…
[Howard] That’s funny.
[Mary] I also felt that there was going to be a… Let us… We want some live footage of him. I think… I mean, as fantastic as it is, watching them be… The problem with this is that it’s… This is one of the places that you demonstrate their area of competence and how well they work as a team. So for the overall story structure, important. But in terms of getting us the next information we need, all you had to do was to get rid of his prohibition against having the…
[Howard] Yep. You’re absolutely right. Well, and the other thing…
[Brandon] I’m going to go a different direction on this. I’m going to disagree. I really liked that scene.
[Mary] Oh, no, I like it too.
[Brandon] But I think it’s just… Easily justified with simply having him say, “I’d been looking for an excuse to convince myself to bug his room for a long time now. My men knew that. I have not gone forward with it because bugging my employer is not something I do unless I have a good reason.” Answer right there.
[Howard] Yup. That solves it. One of the reasons that it is important to me is that on a story level, the reader needs to be shown that the interloper, whatever he is, Death, alien, whatever… The interloper already knows enough to know exactly where the camera is in to speak to the camera.
[Brandon] Right. And the camera is not the corporation’s. It is our individual’s… Security team’s.
[Mary] No, that’s true.
[Mary] That’s a good point.
[Brandon] That adds a lot of layers to this.
[Howard] We’re swiftly running up against the corner that I’ve written myself into.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, and then let’s go to the corner. Okay? So our book of the week this week… Mary, you’re going to do The Firebird?
[Mary] Yeah. So this is The Firebird by Susanna Kearnsley. This is a book that I picked up because I really like the narrator, Katherine Kellgren, and I went to see what else she had narrated, and she’d narrated this book by Susanna Kearnsley who I’d met at a convention and like. So I was like, “Oh, let me listen to this book.” It’s a little outside my genre, and loved it. This is… It’s urban fantasy… Or paranormal romance, I guess, but… Basically what she’s doing is she’s taking the traditional Firebird tale and she is retelling it in two time streams. One of them is a… I think 1400s Scotland? Maybe 1600s Scotland… I’m a little… I can’t remember now because it’s been a while since I’ve listened to it. The other is contemporary. So you’re getting the quest for the Firebird told through these two different time streams that weave together beautifully and also stand on their own beautifully.
[Brandon] Wow. That’s awesome.
[Mary] So if you want to look at nested narrative structures and really good character relationships, this is wonderful. The only caution that I have for you is that you should not listen to it while you are driving if you are prone to weeping.
[Brandon] Okay. All right.
[Mary] Because it’s got some very effective storytelling.
[Howard] Audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a 30-day free trial membership, and pick up…
[Mary] The Firebird by Susanna Kearnsley.
[Howard] The Firebird by Susanna Kearnsley.
[Brandon] All right. So let’s address the big problem. Which is that our story that we were all really enjoying ends. Without and ending.
[Howard] Ends in the wrong place. Let me start by telling you the intended structure of the story is the thing that happens next is that the easy, logical answer for what’s going on is that our protagonist and his team are, for some reason, spoofing everybody with their camera and their tricks. Now this team has been brought into the full corporate secret. So… The bodyguards are there in a room full of the company’s brain trust, and honestly, the bodyguards are all armed. This is a situation that the brain trust is probably very, very uncomfortable with. Their logical action would be to immediately demand that the bodyguards disarm themselves. Which makes perfect sense. It follows…
[Brandon] Well, if I were in this situation, I wouldn’t do that. If I were in this situation, I would play along immediately. If I suspected the bodyguards, I’d say, “Wow, we need to do more research, investigation into this. Let’s set up a better surveillance and see if we can do this.” Then once the bodyguards were gone, then I’d deal with it. I don’t deal with it in the room right there with them.
[Mary] When someone is in the room with you and they have weapons, you do not escalate. You defuse.
[Brandon] Yep. So I would try and… That’s… I think that…
[Howard] Okay. You know what, that works even better. That actually works even better. Because what they wanted to do is, they want to get the bodyguards out of the room. What the interloper wants to have happen… And the interloper is playing everybody.
[Brandon] Right. Okay.
[Howard] That is something that needs to be made clear as the story unfolds. This is a story goal. That is what the interloper expects to have happen, is that the bodyguards will be neutralized. Then the interloper and his interloper buddies will materialize in the room and murder everyone.
[Brandon] Okay. Okay, so what you have right now is… We are on our last act of this story.
[Howard] Yes. We are heading straight into…
[Brandon] This is the climax right here.
[Howard] Straight into the last act.
[Brandon] What do you want the interloper to be?
[Howard] Okay. The interloper is… And that’s the other trick, is revealing this information in some way. The interloper is a species of alien that… Some sort of extra dimensional alien that has found a way to feed off of energies released when people die. They can materialize in our plane and kill us, but when they do that, they are exposed to us killing them back. Which is something that they don’t want to have happen. If we just die naturally, well that’s awesome for them, because then… Hey, free food.
[Brandon] If we stop dying…
[Howard] If we stop dying, they all starve. So what they are trying to do is set up a situation in which they can maintain the status quo. For whatever reason, this to them seems like the best strategy.
[Mary] So I’m going to say that this is one of those scenarios where I feel like the bad guy’s plan is too complicated. The bad guy’s plan of I need to convince them to not do this… The plan up to the point of…
[Brandon] Let’s stop this.
[Mary] Let’s stop this.
[Brandon] That works good.
[Mary] That plan all makes perfect sense. The let’s kill all of these guys is really, really… Forgive me… Really, really stupid. Because if you can materialize anywhere…
[Brandon] Yes. You just smashup all their computers and their equipment, for one thing.
[Mary] And then you materialize in their bedrooms at night and kill them in their sleep.
[Mary] Smother them with pillows.
[Brandon] Or you materialize in their bedrooms while they’re going to sleep and like, “I’m Death. I can go anywhere you… Let’s prove it. Go and lock yourself in any room you want. I will appear there. I can prove to you I am Death. Now stop what you’re doing.
[Howard] See, that’s one of the problems that I’m up against, because as I was trying to define a… For lack of a better term, a power set… Why don’t they just materialize everywhere? What is the cost for them of materializing and dematerializing? It’s got to be something beyond the risk of being seen. I also wanted to play with the fact that Texas I did some research into Death imagery. The fact that they look like a classic representations of Death is cool, but those classic representations of Death are the last 800 years, 900 years. So either they haven’t always been around for this isn’t what they’ve always looked like. But once I start opening all these cans of worms, the story gets bigger and bigger and bigger and that’s not what I wanted.
[Brandon] I think you were just fine saying, “They discovered our plane about the time these depictions of Death started appearing.” Solves a lot of your problems there. But the bigger problem is this one of how do we end this? Eric? You’ve been quiet for a bit, and you’re really good at this stuff. Do you have any advice?
[Eric] Well, I think part of the problem is how is the main character going to be involved in solving this problem?
[Howard] That is… I hadn’t actually gotten around to describing that. The main character… The way I had imagined it is that either when he is disarmed or when he is sent from the room, realizes that “Oh, this is a scenario that somebody potentially has planned for. Those people are now all in that room without protection. I’ve identified a threat that can materialize anywhere. I need to be back in that room.”
[Brandon] Okay. I think Mary’s argument that they can materialize in the bedrooms at night is really a big deal for this story.
[Mary] Yeah. So… Which may involve… This may be one of those places where you actually have to rejigger your middle a little bit. So it might be that this big scene that we have happening in the office gets shifted to a bedroom.
[Brandon] Right. Or you can rejigger it so that…
[Eric] Is that the right verb?
[Brandon] So that their experimenting with this whatevers… Immortality stuff involves the creatures’ home planet. So because of the science that’s going on in this lab, this causes the creatures to manifest here. They’ve broken open this plane, so it’s not just chemicals. It changes your story a lot. But it gives you a connection there that then it… It’s me, I’m looking for a magic system explanation. This is what I do. Then fixing it is a matter of if they can only manifest here, what do we do? Anywhere we’re going to use this, they manifest, so we come up with a solution that causes that they cannot manifest where were doing our research or something.
[Howard] The original version of… I say the original version of the ending. The ending that lept to mind as the story came to me while I was driving is that there is a fight. We realize that we can kill them. We somehow realize what their plan is, and that their numbers have bloated hugely as our numbers have gone up because there’s so much food. Now there are maybe millions of them, who can appear at will and will need to in order to eat. So we are going to give humanity immortality. Now we need to arm you, because you’re going to have to fight for it.
[Brandon] That’s a cool ending.
[Howard] It’s a really cool ending. I just gotta figure out how to get there.
[Brandon] That’s a great ending. I like that.
[Mary] But you know… I mean, you don’t have to… You don’t actually have to work as hard to get there as… Because all you need is… For that ending, is for your alien to appear and for there to be a firefight and for the alien to be killed.
[Mary] That’s all you need. You already have everything in place. So you don’t need to get your good guys out of the room. You don’t need to do… You could actually…
[Brandon] You need to do… Find out the alien, have your good guy make the call that I’m going to go to his house at night, one of these things is going to show up, and I’m going to shoot it in the head or something, like Mary suggested earlier, which could be a valid way to go about this. I don’t know. The discovery that needs to be made is that these are aliens, this is what they do.
[Mary] One of the… If you want to do something with… Like have them look at the tape and be like, “Okay, so there’s… This thing occurs right before he appears.” This gives us a warning signal. So rather than have our guy push a panic thing…
[Howard] Was that… UV scatter? I actually forget…
[Mary] It was UV scatter, and it’s like, “Okay, if UV scatter is happening…” Or “look at the way he’s looking at things. We suspect that he is only seeing in this spectrum.” Or something.
[Brandon] Right. The other thing that you have going on here is that it looked right at the camera. So it saw them. What can it see, what can’t it see? Could it see you because it was watching the room and it didn’t get distracted by this thing? If you palm the thing and stuck it somewhere unobvious… If there were two cameras and it only spotted one of them, it tells us something about the alien that they can use. You need some sort of information about the alien that can be exploited.
[Mary] And something that… It is… Something in our main character’s area of competence. Which would be about threat assessment. If all of the scientists are looking at him, going like, “Well, it’s alien. Da-da-da-da.” And he’s like, “Screw that. This thing doesn’t have binocular vision.” Or something…
[Howard] That’s exactly what I’m trying to set up. Is that he approaches this from threat assessment. They approach this… They come close for threat assessment when they’re talking about game theory and trying to understand what the motivation would possibly before running this sort of a scam.
[Brandon] I kind of like using the theme of the story. I kind of like the ending being him brushing in someplace and shooting the thing, just because it matches the first scene so well.
[Mary] It could be clearly this thing wants to talk to you. Because he’s like, “The only time this thing appears is when this room is empty or when Wollreich is in it by himself.” So let’s set up a scenario where…
[Brandon] You could have a let’s interview the alien scene where it’s like, “All right. We’re going to talk…”
[Mary] I don’t even…
[Howard] That’s… I like that because part of what that can give me is a scene break in which a lot of the discussion among the brain trust…
[Mary] Happens offstage.
[Howard] Yeah, happens off scene. As I talked to Mary about this in the commute from the airport before we stopped talking because we realized we might have a fun episode here… Oh, my gosh, we’re into 30 minutes.
[Brandon] Yes. I warned people. We’re going to have to wrap it up here really soon.
[Howard] I know we will. The… One of the problems I had is I wanted all of this information to be revealed, and I wanted to show instead of telling, but I had too many characters. I had too much information for one character to have it all, and too many characters for a short story to work. But if I can roll that offscreen and have somebody say, “All right. Wollreich, we need you to be in the office by yourself. Here’s the list of questions, and let’s see if this thing comes in.” Our hero has not told anybody that his threat assessment is “When this thing appears, I’m going to let Wollreich start talking, and then I’m going to kick down the door and shoot it in the head.”
[Brandon] See if they die?
[Howard] And see if it dies.
[Brandon] Okay. Well, we do have to wrap up. Hopefully this was useful for you. You can see this kind of story is really hard to feedback as a writer… As a writing group because it’s not done. It’s the same sort of problem we had with my story, where my ending was not the right ending, and we kept searching for it, and it was through the discussion that I got closer. But it is a tough thing to do. We’ll have to see how you do, Howard.
[Howard] This discussion has shown me that the corner that I had painted myself into is shaped differently than I thought it was. The part that I thought was a wall might be a door.
[Brandon] All right. So, writing prompt?
[Howard] You have painted yourself with actual paint into an actual corner, but there is a magic system in which the paint and the corner are significant elements. Why is you have painted yourself into a corner such an important element in this magic system that you’re going to make up?
[Brandon] Awesome. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.