Writing Excuses 9.33: Micro-Casting
Questions and Answers:
Q: Are there biases against non-English writers writing in English who try to get published? And do we have any suggestions for them?
A: As long as the English is competent, no.
Q: What is the most difficult thing Howard experienced when first creating Schlock Mercenary?
A: Teaching myself to draw.
Q: Are you ever too old to try to get published?
A: No. In fact, common to see retirees writing and getting published.
Q: How do you keep a milieu story focused on the environment?
A: Rare to write straight milieu story. Keep the conflicts in the middle focused on getting out of the milieu.
Q: Can I have a piece of Brandon’s hair to clone him?
Q: If you could go back and rewrite your first published work, how would you change it?
A: I did. I fixed up several of the first novelist mistakes, too fast climax, too many characters, not enough time on two main characters. I would resist the urge to change too much, but I would fix things that are confusing to readers. I want to avoid changing them. If I could, I would fix the foreshadowing of that the characters and story will become.
Q: I’m looking to improve my proofreading and copyediting. Do you have any advice on doing this?
A: Find ways to slow down. Cover up the text so you can only see one line, use a pen to mark each word, read it aloud, read it backwards.
Q: How much time do you typically spend per day writing?
A: Not enough. I need blocks of time, so four hours every four days is better than one hour every day. What you’re writing is important, it should be things that improve your writing. It depends on the person, some people are binge writers.
Q: Do you add foreshadowing in the editing stage or are you just that good to put the right subtle hints in as you go? No. Foreshadowing gets tweaked all the way, but it depends on feedback. Sometimes you write something and see what needs to be added later. Often hang a dozen guns on the wall, and then pick the ones to shoot and the ones to leave as red herrings.
Q: How does one continuously improve one’s craft as a writer?
A: Try something you’ve never done before, a genre, a form, a length. Practice the things you are not good at.
Q: Do you have any writing exercises that you do consistently?
A: Describe the place you are. See how a scene would play from another character’s point of view. Throw in a randomizer and make yourself follow where chance leads you.
[Mary] Season nine, episode 33.
[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] And I’m Howard.
[Brandon] We’re taking questions this time off of Facebook. So on Facebook, Martin Olsen asks, “Are there biases against non-English writers writing in English who try to get published? And do we have any suggestions for them?”
[Mary] I have several friends who are non-English writers writing in English and they have not noticed any problems with this. As long as the English is competent, I’ve heard several agents say that they actually like non-native writers because they have a tendency to approach the language in different ways than… And to not use the same clichés that native English speakers will use.
[Brandon] Excellent. We’ll just take that as our response.
[Brandon] Next one’s actually directed at you, Howard. Scott Richards asks, “What is the most difficult thing Howard experienced when first creating Schlock Mercenary?”
[Howard] [whoosh] Wow. The most difficult thing? I had to teach myself to draw. It was a thing that I did not know how to do. It was continually frustrating because there were stories that I wanted to tell that I put on the back burner because I wasn’t ready to tell them yet. Not because I didn’t know how to tell the story, but because I didn’t know how to draw the story. The first Schlocktoberfest story, with the diamond beetles where we switched points of view in the last week of the story, which was huge fun to write… I sat on that for 14 months because I just wasn’t ready to… I wasn’t ready artistically. So that learning curve, the artistic learning curve, was the most difficult. And to be honest, remains the most difficult because… Reasons.
[Brandon] Next question. Joy asks, “Are you ever too old to try to get published?”
[Brandon] No. I’ll share a little story here…
[Howard] Okay. No.
[Brandon] When I broke in, I was 29. I think I’ve shared this story before. My editor talked about just how young I was. It was just so bizarre to him. When he wrote out the press releases, he compared me to Christopher Paolini, which he was 15, and I was 30. But to my editor and basically everyone at Tor, that was basically the same thing, because you young kids. This is an industry where you regularly see people retiring and writing and then getting published. There is, I would say, no bias against it. Go for it.
[Brandon] Rachel asks, “In telling a milieu story, what are some pointers to keep it from becoming about the characters and instead staying focused on the environment?”
[Mary] Well, there are very few times when you’re going to want to write something that’s a straight milieu story, because they are frankly, dull. But it is… Basically what you’re looking at is in the middle part of the story, when you’re looking at the conflicts. The conflicts all need to be related to getting out of the milieu. A lot of times, people introduce conflicts that are related to interpersonal relationships between the characters, and that’s when it’s going to switch over to a character story.
[Brandon] Right. I would say that, when you talked about this, we talked about the idea of bracketing, where it starts with the milieu, goes into character conflict, deals with the character conflict, and it ends with the exiting the milieu.
[Dan] The thing I want to point out is you don’t have to slave yourself to…
[Mary] Picking one.
[Dan] To one specific thing. I mean, if the story you’re trying to tell is a character story, then just tell a character story and don’t worry about forcing it into a milieu.
[Howard] Alan Dean Foster’s Sentenced to Prism was a man versus nature story, with a guy on an alien planet where nothing works like he expects it to work. Very much a milieu story with some character stuff in it. I think using that as a model, I think that a lot of man versus nature stories are great ways to handle this.
[Brandon] Right. There’s somebody who wants a piece of my hair… So they can clone me.
[Brandon] Philip asks, “You mentioned you have learned a lot since Elantris was published. If you were to rewrite Elantris now, how would you change it?” I would suggest that we throw this out to the podcasters. If you could go back and rewrite your first published…
[Mary] I did.
[Brandon] Okay. How did you change it?
[Mary] The UK edition of Shades of Milk and Honey is two chapters longer than the US edition. There were a cou… Basically, I had a lot of first novelist mistakes. My ending wrapped up too fast. I dropped some characters. I didn’t give enough screen time between my main character and the romantic lead that she wound up with. So I went back and fix all of those things.
[Brandon] I would say for me, I would want to strongly resist the urge to change too much. Like, I could update the entire book to my contemporary writing style. I got much better at prose, for instance. I would not want to do that, because I feel like if you tweak the art too much, you run into problems. But there are a few things that I would do that are just basically things like this. Like, my climax of Elantris… What is actually happening is really confusing to a lot of readers. I didn’t explain it well enough. The math doesn’t quite match what is going on. The math and it matching is really important for this story. I would fix that one big problem to make it much more clear what’s going on. Otherwise, I would leave it the same, because I don’t want to be changing my art. Either of you want to weigh in?
[Howard] Oh, boy.
[Dan] Yeah. I fall in… Like what you just said. I could go back, and I have recently gone back and reread Serial Killer as I start to write the new one. I can see a lot of problems with it. But I wouldn’t want to change them. That might not be what the question is.
[Mary] No, I think that…
[Dan] I don’t want to create a special edition version or anything.
[Mary] See, coming from theater, it’s like you’re always adapting and changing as you learn how the audience… How the art plays to the audience.
[Brandon] I just think the danger is what happened with Lucas revising his films over and over.
[Mary] Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. No, I agree with that. It’s not something that I’m going to do every time there’s a new edition of it. But when my editor said, “Is there anything you want to change?” I was like, “Well, yes, there is.”
[Howard] I’m going to take a completely different tack, because on the one hand, I will never go back and rewrite and redraw the early stuff, because that way lies madness. At one point, I thought I might. But if I had it, if knowing what I know now, with the story as it’s shaped now, if I had the ability to go back, what would I change? I would take the first 30 months of Schlock Mercenary and write them so that I’m correctly foreshadowing of these characters are, who these characters become, what this universe becomes. Because right now, the first 30 months are gag strips that are foreshadowing the fact that this might become a longer form story.
[Brandon] Matthew asks, “I am a law student and I’m looking to improve my proofreading and copyediting. Do you have any advice on doing this?”
[Mary] I’ve actually worked a little bit as a proofreader. One of the things is finding ways to force yourself to slow down. Because you’ll skim…
[Brandon] Do you do the thing where you’ll read backwards? You take a sentence…
[Mary] Sometimes. The biggest thing that I do is I use a piece of paper that I’ve put over the text so that I cannot skim ahead.
[Brandon] Oh… That’s clever.
[Mary] So that I can only see one sentence at a time. I put a pen on each word as I go through. So that I have to look at each word individually.
[Howard] Mary, you mentioned reading it out loud.
[Mary] I do read…
[Howard] I had been through four proofing passes of a 20,000 word story. I’d been resisting reading it out loud because 20,000 words. Then I read it out loud and found dozens of things that the other passes had missed.
[Dan] The trick that I learned back when I worked as a proofer was to read it backwards word for word. Then you’re not getting any grammar stuff, but you’re going to catch so many more spelling and punctuation errors.
[Brandon] All right. Brandon asks, “I’ve read that if you truly want to be a writer, you need to spend at least an hour a day writing. It doesn’t matter what you write as long as you write it. How much time do you typically spend per day writing?”
[Dan] Not enough.
[Brandon] I would say that this that you’ve heard, Brandon, is not necessarily true. Now I’m not speaking from personal experience, because I’m a day by day writer. It was best for me to take a block of time, but an hour a day would not have been enough for me. I would rather have had four hours in one block every four days than an hour each day. Because I need about four hours for it to really work for me.
[Howard] I would argue that it doesn’t matter what you’re writing absolutely doesn’t work for me anymore because I can kill an hour writing…
[Brandon] A blog post? Yeah.
[Howard] Emails and blog posts and outlines… Even outlines. That does not fulfill the writerly obligation to improve my craft the way writing prose at 800 words an hour might.
[Mary] What we’re all talking about here is basically this is a way of rewiring and remapping your brain. People are going to have different thresholds for that. It’s like any other piece of thing… Any other piece of thing. That’s very specific. The analogy that I use is you took math in high school. I used to be… I used to know how fractions worked. Really, doing fractions now without a calculator? I’m kind of hopeless. It’s not that I don’t know how to do it… Or didn’t know how to do it at one point. It’s that that’s a piece of wiring that I let atrophy. Some people can go for a long time without writing and it doesn’t atrophy too much. But it atrophies.
[Brandon] I do know, I want to make a mention of bin… I do know binge writers. These are people who have to write their book in three months, and then not write for like three or four months. My friend Janci, we’ve had her on the podcast, is one of these. Eric Flint is one of these. This is… So you have to learn your style.
[Howard] John Ringo is one of these. New York Times bestseller and that’s the way he works.
[Brandon] So. Let’s stop for our book of the week. Mary, you have our book of the week, which you narrated.
[Mary] I just finished narrating Attack the Geek by Michael R. Underwood. This is… This is actually a side quest to his Ree Reyes series. It’s wonderful. The magic system is called geekomancy. Basically you harness the collective power of geekdom through the love of different physical objects and you release the magic either by tearing a Magic card, literally from Magic: the Gathering for you can have some things that have nostalgia batteries.
[Mary] I know, it’s painful. Or you can have some things like you can have nostalgia batteries essentially for light sabers where it’ll turn a plastic prop into an actual functioning light saber. Basically a collection of geeks are in a gaming shop and they get attacked.
[Brandon] That sounds awesome.
[Mary] There’s this horrible moment when someone asks to tear a unique.
[Howard] This is Brandon’s new favorite book. Audiblepodcast.com/excuse, pick up a copy of… Start a 30-day free trial membership and then pick up a copy of Attack the Geek by Michael R. Underwood, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal, and have Mary read to you an awesome story.
[Brandon] Now. Next question comes from Andy. He says, “Do you add foreshadowing in the editing stage or are you just that good to put the right subtle hints in as you go?”
[Mary] Oh, I’m just that good.
[Brandon] The answer is no, Andy. I would say that at least for me, getting the foreshadowing right is one of those things that I’m tweaking all the way up until the last draft. I’ve gotten pretty good at it, but you know what, I cannot do this one without beta readers. I can’t get that right without getting people to read my book and giving me a feeling for what they’re picking up. It feels to me like one of these things that you just have to have external input to get right.
[Dan] As the resident discovery writer, I have to say a lot of the time, the things that I find myself writing, I will decide in the moment, “Oh, this would be cool foreshadowing for this other thing. I’ll make sure to put that other thing in at the end.”
[Howard] I gotta say there have been times when I really am just that good…
[Howard] And I realize, “Oh. That one thing I was totally telegraphing? I was totally telegraphing this awesome moment I want to write.” More often no, what I’m doing is hanging a dozen of Chekhov’s guns on the wall, and then at the end of the story, picking three to fire and the rest of them were red herrings.
[Brandon] How… Brady asks… This is a great question. “How does one continuously improve one’s craft as a writer, beyond simply practicing, rather than stagnating?”
[Dan] Forcing yourself to try something you’ve never done before. Try a genre or a form you haven’t written. Try different lengths.
[Howard] Practice only makes perfect if you’re practicing things that you’re not good at. As a writer, identifying the things that you are not good is probably kind of tricky. But if you have a reader who let you know that your… When you write female characters, the dialogue feels off. Well, that’s a thing that you can now practice.
[Brandon] I would say that this is a very important one to me. Every book that I’ve released that is not one of the thick epic fantasies has been me getting done with one of those and saying, “I need to do something completely new,” and struggling to figure out a new type of story.
[Mary] Ditto to all of this.
[Brandon] Richard says, “I don’t have time to ask a question, I’m washing my dog.” Why are you on Facebook?
[Ruff! Heh, heh, heh. Ruff!]
[Dan] The dog is also on Facebook.
[Howard] Hey, hey, hey, you’re getting water in… Oh… Good night. This is my laptop.
[Dan] How long can we keep this going?
[Brandon] Oh, my goodness.
[Mary] It’s only 15 minutes long.
[Brandon] This Facebook app is annoying, by the way.
[Brandon] Do you have any writing exercises that you do consistently? Mary, they mentioned yours. The 30… The describe a room thing.
[Mary] I do the describe a room thing on a fairly regular basis, which is when I’m waiting for something, I’ll just sit down and describe the place that I’m in. The other one that I will do is that I will… I’ll sometimes… Sometimes I don’t even actually do all of the rewriting on it, but I will go through how a scene would play from the other character’s point of view. On a fairly regular basis.
[Brandon] Wow, that’s cool.
[Dan] Okay, I’ve got a cool one that I was actually planning to use for the writing prompt. Do we just want to do that now?
[Brandon] Yeah, do the writing prompt now.
[Dan] Okay. Philip K Dick, one of my very favorite authors, he wrote The Man in the High Castle using the I Ching as a randomizer. Every time he came to a major decision or a major plot turn, he would consult The Book of Changes to decide what would happen next. So I have found this to be so fun as a writing exercise. Introduce a random element, whether it’s dice or… I actually own a copy of the I Ching and the sticks and everything, flip a coin, and then write a story using that. Force yourself to follow whatever chance tells you to do.
[Brandon] That would be awesome. Because you brought that I Ching to one of our gaming sessions once and we had so much fun with that.
[Dan] It’s a delight to use.
[Brandon] Using that or Tarot or something like this to develop your story. Great idea. Well, this has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.