Writing Excuses 9.38: Q&A At Westercon
Questions and Answers:
Q) As a writer, do you do reviews of books?
A) I only review books I like.
Q) How do you compartmentalize your writing to separate daily life and writing?
A) You don’t. Set boundaries, communicate that this is work and this is play, and help each other recognize when it is necessary to be responsible. Work space or at least a marker can help (writing, goofing off, other work). Involve your family!
Q) How can I make unique, frightening creatures?
A) Scary monsters make us lose control, and look familiar but aren’t. It isn’t about the monster, it’s about the character’s reaction to the monster.
Q) How do we make professional contacts at cons?
A) Look for common ground. Ask, “What’s your geekery?” Engage editors and agents about what they are working on. Be yourself.
Q) Is there a yield to ideas, to lightning striking? How many words do you get from an idea?
A) Not the idea, so much as the number of characters, scenic locations, and plot threads. Some ideas you can hang a story on, others are just flavoring for a story. Ideas are usually good for a book or story, while characters are good for a series. Look at the balance of familiar and strange, and think about the strange attractor. Write what you are passionate about, and what you think is awesome.
Q) When you ave lots of inexperienced writers, how can a writing group help each other learn craft without prescriptive writing?
A) Process. Break different techniques apart. Start by learning to identify problems, then learn to identify the cause of the problem, and finally, look for fixes. Talk about how you are going to fix things! Just because you aren’t handing out prescriptions, doesn’t mean you can’t think about them. Compare your fixes to what the author does.
Q) How does knowing that the audience doesn’t remember what you tell them, only what you make them feel, shape your voice as you write?
A) Can-of-Worms. If all that readers get is a feeling, that’s success. I want people to be hopeful. But there are readers who remember every little bit.
[Mary] Season nine, episode 38.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A At Westercon.
[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 have guest star, Peter Orullian again. Thank you, Peter.
[Brandon] We are just going to let people throw questions at us, and we’re going to hope that they work.
[Audience] As a person who is pursuing publication, how do you handle giving star rate reviews or written reviews to books that you read on Goodreads or such, or do you even do it at all anymore?
[Brandon] Good question.
[Dan] I will give very good reviews to books that I like, and no reviews whatsoever to the books that I hate.
[Howard] I have the same rule. I will review books that I love. I don’t talk about books that I don’t love.
[Brandon] I actually have a little disclaimer in mind that says, “Brandon reviews books that he likes. If you see a review here, it’s going to be a four or a five-star review because I’m only reviewing the ones I enjoyed.”
[Mary] The exception for me is that I will do a full thing of nonfiction because I feel like I can be much more objective about this book is factually correct and this book is [garbled]
[Brandon] Part of the reason we’re all acting this way is that these are our friends and this is our community. People don’t look to us… We’re not critics first. They don’t look to us for crit… They’ll look to us for a good book to read. So if they’re coming to us, they want something good to read. So it’s fine for us to only promote the things that we think are good to read.
[Howard] I will pan the crap out of a movie. But that’s because I don’t know any filmmakers. That’s why they will never be a Schlock Mercenary movie.
[Dan] Frankly, I don’t even finish books I don’t like, so I couldn’t review them.
[Audience] My question actually came from my wife. When I write, I get very obsessive about it. It’s all I think about, all I talk about, eat, sleep, is what I’m writing. So my wife wanted me to ask, how do you compartmentalize that? How do you work on your writing and keep it when you’re writing? When you’re with your loved ones and your family, how to separate your work from your daily life?
[Mary] May I speak directly to your wife? He can’t.
[Mary] It’s part of the way the brain works. Unfortunately, once the story grabs you, it grabs you. So what you have to recognize is that there are times when that vacant expression is going to go across the face as he’s suddenly figured out the plot problem. Embrace that that is part of why you love him, is that that’s how his brain works. As far as compartmentalizing, also recognizing that he does need to set boundaries. If those boundaries are clearly communicated to the family, it becomes much easier for the family to recognize when work is happening and when play is happening.
[Howard] Sandra and I have this… Can she raise her hand? Who’s the person… There she is. Okay. Sandra and I have this same issue where we’ll be talking about a thing in the kitchen and suddenly I will go silent as that… I suddenly realize, “Oh, that’s that thing.” Sandra will do one of two things. She will either stop talking because the moneymaker is running, or she will actually reach out and tell me, “Honey, I need you here right now because I need help with the kids and these things have to be made to happen.” That’s the point at which I have to not get pissed and maybe write something down on an index card and then go be responsible.
[Peter] You also can’t take it as you’re not a priority or the top priority. I have this conversation with my wife all the time, and I have little ones. They absolutely are the loves of my life. In fact, much of the reason I do the fiction is hopefully to support them. I would do it anyway, of course. But it doesn’t change the priority… Your priority in his life, or it shouldn’t. The thing my wife will also do, she’ll say this, “Hey, I need you here now.” I try really hard to be present when we’re actually having a conversation. If I get that story, and I need to go somewhere else in my mind, I’ll say, “Hey, I got this thing.” Then she understands. But if I just go vacant, don’t say anything… I know when it’s coming, so I just alert her. “Hey… Goodbye.”
[Howard] Dan, were you going to…?
[Dan] I was just going to add, as you compartmentalize things like time, it can help, but not every family can do it this way… It can help to compartmentalize your space as well. If you’ve got an office or a desk or a work area, and say, “While I am here, I am thinking about work.” Then it helps your family and it helps you as a writer to say, “Once I step away from this space, I’m dad or I’m husband or I’m whoever else.” That helps me a lot.
[Howard] I’m going to the bathroom.
[Mary] If you don’t have a space, get some sort of marker that you can put on your desk that is like when the…
[Howard] At our writing retreat. Those were brilliant.
[Mary] Yeah. We have signs. Actually, we’ll put it in the liner notes. We have signs that you can print out and put on your desk. Writing, goofing off, and other work. So the family knows what headspace you’re in.
[Peter] My kids now know… They know the vacant expression, so then they’ll start… I just bring them in. I’ll ask them, “What would you do?” I asked my son the other day, and he says, “Well, put cheeseburgers in.” So you can involve them in the process sometimes.
[Mary] Did you?
[Peter] No, because it was like this weird medieval thing. I’ve gotta figure out another name for cheeseburgers.
[Dan] Medieval cheeseburger.
[Howard] Hot sandwich?
[Mary] They don’t have sandwich yet. Okay, we’re getting…
[Howard] Hot beef in bread.
[Audience] So coming from a horror writing background, I just kind of wanted to get some tips relative to creating unique frightening creatures. Especially with Dan and Brandon, I’ve seen some pretty scary ones, so…
[Howard] So, how do you create frightening unique creatures?
[Dan] Coming up with your own monsters because you don’t want to just use a vampire, a mummy or whatever. The two things that I like to think about are first of all does… The reason the monster is scary will probably have something to do with a loss of control. That is one thing that will terrify more adults than anything else, is I am no longer in control of my life or my brain or my body or whatever it is. When we lose control, that’s when we get scared. The other one is how similar is that monster to a human? Because something that looks familiar but isn’t or looks familiar but is suddenly revealed to be incredibly unfamiliar, that can be scary. That’s why zombies are scary in large part, is because they look like us but they’re very much not us.
[Brandon] In the books that I’m doing, which are generally epic fantasy, I’m looking for what do people tell stories about by the fire to scare one another. I use the lore to build up the fright more than the creature itself. Looking toward history and our own culture and what we do, we get more scared by stories of things than the actual monsters.
[Howard] Yeah, the horror that I did for Privateer Press, I focused entirely upon the reader, the reader’s experiences as they’re watching the protagonist. Their experience is “No, don’t do that… Oh, no, don’t do that… Oh, no. If you do that then you’ve… Oh, no…” It wasn’t about the monster at all. The other or that I’ve done, the science fiction monsters. I’ll just go with straight up sci-fi, because I put them in a setting where, as Dan has said, they’ve lost control, it doesn’t really matter what the beastie looks like.
[Mary] The thing I would say is that it actually doesn’t matter what the monster looks like. It is your main character’s reaction to the monster.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Dan, you are going to promote this for us.
[Dan] Yes. The book of the week is Spellcaster by Claudia Gray. It’s a fantastic YA paranormal romance, which is not the kind of thing you would expect me to promote to you, but Claudia’s work is really good. Spellcaster is about witches, using this really, really fascinating magic system where kind of the components used to cast the spells our memories. So the kind of life you have led and the experiences you have had change the flavor of your magic, and change the way that you cast it in very particular ways that connect directly into the plot and into the main villain. It’s a really wonderful book, and I recommend it very highly.
[Howard] Audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Start a 30-day free trial membership, and… What was it called? Witches?
[Howard] Spellcaster! Sorry.
[Dan] By Claudia Gray.
[Howard] Go get it.
[Brandon] Okay. Next question.
[Audience] What should we, as prospective authors, be doing, especially at this con and future cons, to be making professional contacts, especially with editors and agents?
[Mary] First of all, thank you for phrasing that as a very [garbled] question.
[Howard]’s Brilliant question. Brilliantly succinct. I don’t want to slam everybody else’s question, but…
[Brandon] Really [inaudible]
[Mary] He started with a question word. So, one thing… Not helpful for people here, for people in the listening audience… Come to my Schmoozing 101 panel today. But one of the things to recognize is that everybody is here because they love the same thing, science fiction and fantasy. So when you’re talking to someone, talk about the things you have in common. Don’t try to come up with let me talk business to you. Because they are as much a fan as they are anything else. So when you approach someone, find a common ground. Find out what their particular geekdom is. In fact, that’s a… That is a very good opening question. “What’s your geekery?”
[Brandon] I would say that engaging them, particularly editors and agents, if you can find them… Number one, you want to find them. Look through the program book. Any con you go to come they’re going to put these people on panels if they can get away with it. Some people try to stealth it. A lot of the agents will. But they’ll put them on panels. You can start looking at the guest list. Go to their panels so that you can identify them and listen to them. Then, if you get a chance to meet them, which often there are lots of parties at these sorts of cons. That’s part of why people come to them, is to mingle. The agents and editors are here on business, most of the time. Engage them about what they’re working on. Not…
[Dan] When Brandon and I met Moshe, who is our editor at Tor, we’d been trying to contact people all weekend at World Fantasy. We kept asking the blunt, dumb questions you’re not supposed to ask. By the time we got to Moshe, we just said, “What are you working on right now?” He talked to us about Bigfoot for an hour, and then accepted both of our manuscript things to read, so it was awesome.
[Howard] So the take-home there is that if you find an editor, go up to them and say, “You like Bigfoot?”
[Brandon] But get that program book, find the people. Ask around and say, “Hey, are there any editors or agents you know that are attending?” Be making contacts also with other, as you say, prospective writers so that you have a network and contacts with people who go to cons.
[Peter] The thing I would add to this is just really… This sounds so cliché, but be yourself. You can smell when someone’s on the prowl. They’re trying to grind an ax, they’re trying to make contacts, be a mover and shaker. Usually the best conversations I’ve had were when I was just sitting in a con suite, and a conversation about something got started. We just had a conversation, and I ended up, after it was all over, with someone’s email address. A great writer like Brandon, or an editor or an agent. If you do that enough, over time, your own… Call them friends, don’t call them contacts. Right? This sounds corny, but…
[Howard] Well, that’s… Telling a story here on Peter. We did an episode a few weeks ago or maybe it’s an episode that’s coming where we talked about your editorial relationship and how it had kind of gone south. I remember at the convention, in the con suite, you sitting down with a bunch of us, guys that you’d met at a convention, asking us for advice. That’s why you build these relationships, is so that you gotta…
[Mary] One thing I do want to say, one danger that may come from calling people friends. Do not mistake friendly for friend. Just because you have had a conversation with someone that was pleasant, does not mean that they are your new friend.
[Brandon] But to put Peter on the spot… He’s very good at this. Talk to him sometime. Grab him. Because I remember when Peter was first breaking in, Peter would… You talk to someone and say, “Who is that Peter Orullian guy?” Every person said, “I don’t know, but he’s really nice.” Every single person I talked to. That was the impression that Peter left on people, was Peter is a really nice, earnest guy.
[Howard] That was the first show. The second show, “Who’s this Peter?” “Oh, he’s my friend.”
[Brandon] Yes. Exactly.
[Jerk] [laughter] [see how it works]
[Howard] We love you.
[Brandon] Next question.
[Audience] So, back to the earlier topic, about like getting the lightning striking. Okay? Is there a certain yield to the ideas you get, like a certain number of words? Depending, like an average yield, and like, how do you expand that?
[Mary] Yeah, basically. What you look at… This is my rule of thumb. You can’t really tell from the idea itself, but once you start looking at the idea and kind of figuring out how many plot threads, how many characters, and how many scenic locations you have, you can start to get an estimate. This is really… This is like really rough ballpark-y thing, but every character you have will add 500 to a 1000 words to your scene or story. Likewise, scenic locations. Then plot threads will double or triple those, because you have to hit the plot thread with multiple times for the characters, so…
[Brandon] I get an instinct for it… For me, personally, for this is an idea that you can hang an entire story on or this is an idea that will flavor another story in an interesting way. That… An idea that I give… That we both write on, you could hang the whole story on it and it could work. For me, it could only be a flavor. It’s just your own writing style. So you just learn by instinct what carries a story and what doesn’t.
[Dan] What I have learned, with my own writing for example, is if I come up with an idea first, then that is going to get me one book or one story. Whereas, if I come up with a character first, that’s going to get me a series or a much longer story because… Just because of the way that I work and the things that get me excited about writing.
[Howard] I can milk one idea for 14 years.
[Howard] Sentient looks like poop.
[Peter] So I love the quote, “Most new fantasy books fail because they’re either too much like Tolkien or not enough like Tolkien.” So when you’re building a new world, what rules do you follow and what rules do you break?
[Brandon] I follow Sanderson’s Zeroeth Law, “Err on the side of what’s awesome.”
[Brandon] I’m just going to say… You’re talking about epic fantasy. Everyone’s threshold there is different. What you’re really talking about is the blend of the familiar and the strange. Look up… Google the term “strange attractor.” Terry Russio wrote a great essay on this. But every genre and every reader within that genre is going to have a different desire for what’s new and what’s familiar. And it’s… The books are not feeling based on that, I really think. The books are failing based on how well the writer is able to sell it. If a writer can write a really fantastic idea that’s been done a 100 times before and do it really well, it can still sell and find an audience and people will love it.
[Howard] Pat Rothfuss danced through a minefield of tropes with Name of the Wind and it is a fantastic book.
[Brandon] So write what you’re passionate about. Decide what you think is awesome and write that. And yes, if it’s got a bunch of elves and dwarves, it’s going to be hard to get me to read it. But that’s not to say I won’t. And there are a group of people out there that just love that. So, write what’s in your heart.
[Dan] I remember when Elantris came out and there was this huge audience that grabbed it and said, “This is so unique and original and different from all the other fantasies.” Then there were the other fans, I remember specifically a China Mieville like message board that was like, “Elantris is so hackneyed and we’ve seen this stuff a 1000 times before.” Different audiences look for different things. You’re never going to be able to please all of them. So please yourself.
[Audience] What can you do in critique groups pr writing groups to help each other learn the craft, if you’re avoiding prescriptive writing and you have lots of inexperienced writers, or are you just pooling your ignorance?
[Mary] I look at it as… That it’s a process. That you’re breaking different techniques apart, and that you’re… When you’re first going in, what you’re learning to do is identify. Like with a brand-new group, saying, “Well, okay, first I am going to learn to identify there is a problem here.” Then the next level, once I’ve learned to identify there is a problem here, then I will figure out this is how… The next thing I need to learn is can I identify what is causing the problem? Once you know what is causing a problem, frequently, the answer will present itself. That’s the third level of training. When you have a group of people who are all new, you are going to get a different level of critique, but that’s not a bad thing.
[Dan] I would add that having critiquers who are not experienced authors is not a problem at all. In fact, most of the writing groups that I’ve been in, we kind of make a conscious effort to have non-writers who don’t write at all in the group as well, because most of your writing group, even if they’re not experienced as writers, they are experienced readers. So they can identify those problems, and then you can help…
[Brandon] Let’s point out, you do want a few writers in your group.
[Brandon] But we mix it, and I’ve found that for instance, Peter Ahlstrom, my editorial assistant, is in our writing group and he often gives the best comments, because he’s a professional editor and he knows his stuff. You can find people like that. They don’t have to be professional editors. That will be great in your critique group.
[Howard] One thing that my group has done that I think answers this in terms of educating each other, without being prescriptive, is that after the feedback has come around, I might ask the group, “So, if this is the list of problems you had, what if, back two chapters ago, I introduced this person, just in a couple of sentences? Would that solve this problem?” Because what that does is that it lets people see into my head a little bit, how I’m doing it, and if everybody is doing that, you’ll learn a little bit more about how everybody’s writing and maybe the rising tides will lift more ships.
[Mary] Sorry. One thing that I’m going to add to that is that just because you aren’t handing out the prescription doesn’t mean you can’t think about it. So I do think about how I would fix somebody else’s story, and then if I read a later draft of it, I compare that… Their actual fix to what I would have done. That tells me a lot.
[Unidentified] time for one more question?
[Brandon] All right. We have one more question, then we’ll be done.
[Audience] How strongly do you believe that the audience won’t remember what you tell them, but it’s more of how it made them feel, and how does that shape your voice as you write?
[Mary] I firmly believe that they will forget things, because they do.
[Mary] All the time.
[Howard] That question’s good enough for a can-of-worms, but I’ll take a stab. When I say can of worms, we could do a whole episode just talking about that. For me, I don’t want them to forget. I put it in the story, I hope that they’ll remember it. I get burned all the time because…
[Mary] For me, it’s what function is the thing serving in this story? If it is a plot point issue, where mechanically, to understand what happens later in the story, you have to be able to remember this thing…
[Mary] So for those of you watching… Who are not watching the video feed, the entire ballroom just went dark.
[Dan] And when the lights came back on, three of us were dead.
[Brandon] I’m just going to say, for me on this, I want people to come out of my book saying, “That was awesome. That was incredible. That was amazing.” If that alone stays with them, I’ve succeeded.
[Peter] I would agree with that. Like, this sounds corny, too… So I’m the corny guy this time. But I want people to come out hopeful. I know that there are waves in fantasy that eschew that idea, but I very much want people to feel hopeful. I remember reading a whole bunch of James Lee Burke books. I have no idea what they were about, but I know the feeling that they gave me. I think a lot of readers are like… There’s also the guys who remember the combination to the safe in book 5… On page 5, though.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. I’m going to give our writing prompt that I prepared for another episode but Howard stole it. The writing prompt, and did a really cool one about Magic cards, which was way better. Your writing group… Writing prompt is to write about a support group for writers. Not a writing group, not a critique group, a support group for writers.
[Mary] Please develop that and tell me where to sign up.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.