Writing Excuses 9.54: Capstone to Season Nine
Key Points: Learn to be flexible about your workspace, and think about how it is arranged. Be aware of your schedule, and your process. Change takes time! When you give up something, you will grieve about it. Experiment with pacing, how you end chapters, scenes, and use cliffhangers. Learn what kind of work and projects you can do in different situations. Learn to say “Yes, I can” and “No.” Think about why you are writing, and what external achievement or criticism means to you.
Watch for format changes in Season 10!
[Mary] Season nine, episode 54.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Capstone to Season Nine.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And I’m slightly smarter than I was one year ago today.
[Brandon] We have done…
[Howard] That must be so nice. Wow.
[Brandon] We’ve done seasons… Er, episodes like this before where we talk about what we’ve learned. It makes for a very good podcast to end the season with. It’s the end of the year, it’s the end of the season, and we want to talk about major events in our writing lives. We’re actually going to start with Howard because he had a very physical change to his process.
[Howard] Yeah, I did. The driving forces were twofold. One, my eyes have changed, and I had to get some bifocals. That changed where I was able to put my drawing tools, because if I kept them down by my side, if I looked down for them, I got nauseous. That is not a great way to keep working throughout the day, with flashes of nausea.
[Brandon] I know of some performance artists that that might be perfect for.
[Howard] Yeah. Yeah. That’s not the medium I choose to work in. I like black and white.
[Mary] [inaudible] pasta, that’s the answer to that.
[Howard] The second thing is that Dragon’s Keep, where I do my penciling and thinking, had a remodel. When they remodeled, I had to draw at home for a while. I’d been having this issue with the glasses. Within two weeks, I realized I just have to be drawing at home. Moved out of Dragon’s Keep, where I have been making the comic for eight years. This was really significant for me. Boy, the first thing I learned is that by being flexible about my workspace and deciding to move things around… Being ergonomic about where I put stuff, where does it really make sense to put the tools, maybe choose the right tool at the right time. I stopped just using the circle template to make a straight line. I would actually use the parallel ruler which… It made for better art. I know it sounds weird, but the extra effort required to grab the right tool stopped being extra effort. But the… So that’s something the reader might actually see. The thing that was most notable for me though is I’m working out of my house. So my schedule changed. Dragon’s Keep would open the door at 11. So I would schedule my day around making sure that by 11, I have things to draw. Now, I schedule my day around when I am ready to start drawing, I need to have things to draw. Sometimes I would draw at 9 o’clock at night, and sometimes I would roll right out of bed and start drawing, first thing in the morning. That flexibility has also helped.
[Brandon] That has helped you.
[Howard] Oh, yeah. It has helped a lot. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there are huge challenges, like the fact that my kitchen is 21 steps away from my drawing table. But it’s super helpful in that… When I was at Dragon’s Keep, while I could play music, obviously I could wear headphones, in my office, I can crank the music up so loud that I cannot tell what is happening elsewhere in the house. My office just thunders with orchestral stuff and I like that.
[Brandon] That’s great.
[Howard] The… Oh, here’s another one that’s really significant. When I… Part of my process is that I will script in Microsoft Word, laying it out, the panel borders and the dialogue bubbles, where the dialogue goes. Then I would drive across town to do the drawing. Sometimes I’d realize, “Oh, this dialogue bubble’s really not in the right place. The panel composition’s going to be a little of.” Then I would have to decide, do I want to get it done today or do I want to get it done perfectly? Usually, the decision was I want to get it done today. Now I kick my chair across the office, open up Microsoft Word, scoot the dialogue bubble, reprint the script, and I get it done right. I have reprinted literally 10 times as many scripts once the penciling process has started as I did for the first 14 years of the comic.
[Dan] So having both parts of your office in the same room, you can get it done right and you can get it done today.
[Howard] And I can get it done today. I’m not kidding. The… I used to be able to count on one hand the number of times where I had touched a pencil to a strip and then decided, “Nope, this isn’t going to work. I gotta go fix it.”
[Brandon] I have two questions for you about this. First off, how long did it take you to adjust? Were you… Right, first day? Bam! Okay. So…
[Howard] It took me about a month. And… Well, part of the delay is that I caught the flu in that time period.
[Howard] So I spent… Well, but the flu made a nice reset.
[Howard] Because I was sick on the couch for a week, and by the time I was done with that, I was ready to just… I would work anywhere.
[Dan] You cleansed your habits and your bowels at the same time.
[Howard] It was a different flu, but yes.
[Brandon] I’ve found that a major shakeup in my life like this… There are several weeks of kind of lost or partially inactive work time. And the flu kind of helps with the reset, but I also find that during this time, when something like that’s happened to me, I look for excuses to keep me from writing, because I am in such a befuddled state.
[Mary] I find that I do both, but sometimes… And it depends on whether I am expecting and anticipating the change. If it’s a disruption that I’m not anticipating, then I will sometimes use that as an excuse to not work. Whereas if it’s a change that I’m anticipating, sometimes I find that I’m actually more productive after it, because I’m like, “Ah, now I have everything I need.” Most of the time, the change is not actually that significant. Sometimes it will help me identify things that I am procrastinating on.
[Howard] The piece that I’ve left out… I realize that I’m running a little long here. The piece that I’ve left out is that there was a grieving process.
[Mary] I would bet.
[Howard] I was… Dragon’s Keep provided me with watercoolering. I could get up, I could go talk to people, I was downtown, I got outside, and I missed that. I mean, I missed that and I was sad. I had to work around the fact that I was sad for having lost a thing.
[Brandon] I think we will go long on this podcast, so it’s okay. I do have one other question for you. It feels like this all with very well for you, where certain things you mentioned raised red flags that could have been dangerous. For instance, being able to reprint off at any time, I can see that for some cartoonists or writers being… The constraint that I can’t print this off again forces me to work with what I have rather than rewriting endlessly and spending a lot more time or things like this. Like the constraint of I have to be ready by 11 and things like this.
[Howard] No, your…
[Brandon] Could that have gone very wrong?
[Howard] It could have gone very wrong. The nice thing is I have 14 years of practice, of forcing myself to work with what I’ve got. So being able to slide across and fine tune… I… The habit is I’m going to bang this out today. I’m going to get this piece of work done. “Da Vinci’s” stays with me forever. “Art is never finished, it’s only abandoned.” I am willing to abandon something after a certain point and put it up on the Internet and call it finished.
[Mary] So, the other thing I’m curious about is you talked about how Dragon’s Keep had provided you with watercoolering. Are you building that in in any other ways now that you don’t have that extra location?
[Howard] I’m not. I mean, unless you count Twitter? Or… I mean, we have to count Sandra, because I love being at home with Sandra, and she and I have spent a lot more time together talking about fun things. But it’s… It is not the same as interacting with random strangers, which excites a different portion of the brain.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s do Mary’s.
[Mary] Well, my big thing… The big thing that I’ve been struggling with for a while is pacing where I… I don’t mean walking in circles, but I mean… I… The way a plot unfolds for the reader as we’re going along. So that it’s all happening at the right time. This is the year that I feel like I finally figured that out. It was a combination of working on two different books, one was Valor and Vanity, which was a heist novel. So I was using it… A set structure for that. Since I wanted it to be very fast and very page turning, coming to a better understanding of exactly when to end chapters and when to not yet have a cliffhanger, so that I could give the readers a little bit of a resting point while at the same time encouraging them to not set the book down. Because that was one of the things that I was struggling with, my instincts… And I think this was partly coming from working with short fiction, is that I would often tie chapters up very neatly like the end of a short story. Which makes the end of the chapter very satisfying, but it also gives you a good place to set it down.
[Brandon] Right. Right. So you need to have threads that are continuing, but a breather at the same time.
[Brandon] That is a skill to learn. What… Was there anything special that taught it to you, or was it just working on these projects and beating your head against them long enough?
[Mary] A lot of it was the… Working on the projects. Because as I said, I had… I was working within a set structure, but then the next book, Of Noble Family, is not… Is the opposite of heist in some ways. I wanted to keep the energy level going, so… One of the things that was… I was looking at, when I was doing that, was that I actually experimented on moving where my chapter endings were as I was running it through some beta readers and looking at their response.
[Brandon] Wow. So some actual empirical evidence somehow? Some testing…
[Brandon] And experimenting. That’s really cool.
[Mary] It was really interesting. What I found was that I had… That there were things that I could do, two mechanical things that I could do to the end of a chapter to make the… To contain… To continue a forward motion. One was that I could end the scene slightly early and then continue it in the next scene. But the other one that was often… That I think had higher stakes, or that I would use in higher stakes situations, was that I would begin the next scene at the end of that chapter.
[Brandon] Okay. Yeah. That’s what we’ve said before on the podcast. Instead of opening the door and saying, “Oh, my goodness, I can’t believe that’s behind there,” and then cutting, you open the door, show them what’s behind there, and intrigue them with how that’s going to change the situation and then stop the chapter.
[Mary] Yes. That is exactly what I was doing. It was really helpful. Now I’m able to go back and apply that sort of thing to short fiction as well, because even though with short fiction, a lot of times it’s easy to maintain tension because you don’t ever have a scene break. But knowing what they’re doing, it’s like, “Okay. So this is how I can use a scene break to keep that same sort of forward motion going.” And also realizing that I could do a whole bunch of short scene breaks, essentially have the training montage from film.
[Brandon] Right. I think I’ve written a short story without a scene break.
[Mary] Is that the 4,000 word one?
[Brandon] Yes. That’s the one.
[Mary] I’m proud of you.
[Howard] Me, too. I mean, the skill that you’re talking about is made up of so many little things. The positioning of the scene breaks, the positioning of the chapter breaks, the scene sequel format where you’re deciding what to say in this scene prior to breaking…
[Mary] That was… I’m glad you actually just said scene sequel format, because that was one of the other things. When I structured Of Noble Family, I went through and I did my usual outlining process. I did not allot enough time for the sequel.
[Howard] For processing what’s happened?
[Mary] Exactly. In Shades of Milk and Honey, they would go… No one would want to dance with Jane, and I can deal with that in a paragraph. With Of Noble Family, which I have joked about as being Regency grimdark, there are bigger things going on and it took more processing time. So the book actually wound up being twice as long, but my readers, none of them noticed that it was twice as long.
[Brandon] That’s a really great accomplishment.
[Mary] I was very proud of myself.
[Dan] Well done.
[Brandon] Let’s stop and have Dan do our book of the week.
[Dan] Okay. Book of the week. One of the coolest books I’ve read this year was actually a nonfiction called Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson. The audiobook’s read by Alison Larkin. This is… Basically it is an incredibly engaging and readable history about the history of cooking utensils. The history of why did humans at some point decide they were going to take a big bucket of water and put it near their very precious fire? Why are our spoons shaped the way they are? Why do some cultures use forks and other cultures use chopsticks? All of these things. It is one of the most fascinating world building resources that I have ever come across because of the detail it goes into on so many different aspects of how our culture and our climate and our cooking utensils are all interrelated.
[Brandon] That’s awesome.
[Dan] Just a really great book.
[Howard] Did it make you hungry?
[Dan] It made me hungry. Really, what it made me want to do is write a fantasy novel.
[Howard] Okay, that actually sounds perfect for our listeners. Audiblepodcast.com/excuse. You can start a trial membership and pick up a copy of Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson read by Alison Larkin for free. Then you too will be inspired to go eat and write a fantasy novel.
[Brandon] So, speaking of fantasy novels…
[Brandon] We’re going to talk about me next.
[Brandon] But mine is actually not about the writing. Mine’s a little bit more along the lines of what Howard was talking… It’s not my position of writing, more my position of myself. I have done a lot of traveling in the last two years. With the end of The Wheel of Time and the starting of two new series of my own and things like this, there have been a lot of publisher demands and there’s been a lot of fandom demands. I have had to learn how to get interrupted, and I’m still in the process of figuring this out. Learning which projects I can work on on the road and identifying times when I have to work on the road and planning the projects to go with them. Dan actually did that for the Writing Excuses retreat. You came to the Writing Excuses retreat with a specific…
[Dan] Yeah. Last year at the retreat, I got very little work done despite having a relatively large amount of time. What I learned is that this is an environment in which some projects work much better than others. So this year, I came prepared rather with… Rather than a manuscript to work on, I brought a manuscript to copyedit and then the play that I am trying to edit.
[Brandon] See, last year I came to the Writing Excuses retreat with a manuscript, but I had a really tight deadline and had a lot of momentum on this manuscript, and the writing on it worked really well. When I went to the writing retreat this year, I came with a manuscript that I was in a trouble spot. There was something I was really working on, figuring out how to fix, and I kept… It was just beating my head against the wall on it. If I’d had a couple of uninterrupted days, staring at this project, I would have been able to get over that hump. As it was, with all of the interruptions going on, I wasn’t able to. I just kept going back to my outline or going back to revision, rather than getting past this point that I felt I really should have gotten past.
[Howard] That is an important realization. I’ve figured out some of the same things myself. If I’m stuck, often what I want to do is get up from my desk and walk around and walk it off. If I’m in a house where there are other people who want to talk to me, I don’t get to walk it off. I’ve walked into the middle of something else. It was totally counterproductive.
[Brandon] That’s one of the things that I do. I worry about the people who are… Were sleeping underneath me at the retreat, because the floor creaked in my room and I did a lot of that, get up and walk around. I couldn’t walk around the entire house which I would normally do because there were people everywhere.
[Brandon] It made me self-conscious about that. Usually I turn on my music and I go. So… But that was just one little piece of this. Another little piece is learning to say no more often.
[Brandon] It’s very hard to say no. You spend the early part of your career, and many of our listeners are probably thinking I’d love to be invited as guest of honor at conventions. It’s a real honor. It’s awesome to go to conventions. I’d love to have my publisher demanding that I go to this comic con or doing a feature panel at BEA or something like that. It’s a delightful problem to have on one hand, but on the other hand, there is so much of this that the constant interruptions made last year in particular a really slow year for me.
[Howard] There are contrasting lessons. It’s… There’s learning to say no and there’s also, early on, learning to say, “Yes. I can do that.”
[Dan] And work around it.
[Howard] And tackling it because you need to learn how to do that. Making that transition from “yes, I can do that” to “I can do that, but I won’t…”
[Mary] Yeah. I was having this conversation with John Scalzi because I have been struggling with a similar thing. He said that part of the problem is that when you set boundaries for yourself, you are setting them based on where your popularity was in not anticipating where it is going. So frequently the boundary that you set doesn’t then work. It doesn’t scale for where you’re going forward.
[Brandon] Or you set your boundary based on what you did. Like we’ve done this before. We’re like we want to do one event a month. We’ll schedule our one event a month, and we weren’t planning into it the publisher coming and saying, “We need you to do this thing.” Or I got called by the History Channel and asked to appear on one of their programs. That’s the sort of opportunity that doesn’t happen very often…
[Brandon] To writers at all. Where it’s like, “Oh, I should really go be on the History Channel, if only so I can hold my hands in the right shape and say Dragons when the alien [garbled]”
[Brandon] But being able to do these things impacts your ability to write. So really what you have to do is plan fewer than you really want to do because other ones will pop up.
[Dan] I’m not quite as far along in career popularity as you. This was the year I started to get a ton of school visit requests. So this is the year I finally broke down and started charging a fee for that. Which I’ve never done before, because it’s a school and I want to help them out. But if I’m going to lose that writing time, I have to…
[Howard] Side note on school visits. Charging…
[Howard] There he is again. Sorry. Interruption.
[Dan] Hey, man.
[Mary] Good heavens.
[Howard] We have a possum in the rafters.
[Dan] There’s a possum in the ceiling of where we are recording right now and he’s patrolling.
[Mary] Just walking along a rafter.
[Howard] I think we’re just going to let you keep this in the episode, because awesome. Awesome possum.
[Mary] Yeah. Tiny little pink feet and a little delicate pink nose. Granted…
[Dan] Concealing vicious teeth.
[Mary] Concealing vicious teeth.
[Brandon] Angry vicious teeth. I’ve seen those things [garbled]
[Howard] In a dwelling place for humans.
[Howard] School visits.
[Mary] Possum visits.
[Howard] I got this from several authors local to us, Dan, who do a lot of school visits. What they found is that they always charge, even if it’s only 50 or $150, because once that transaction has taken place, the school will take you seriously and treat you way better.
[Brandon] Yes. I’ve heard that before. It depends on the situation. But I found that some of the ones I charge for tend to be better in general. No, I shouldn’t say so. In general,…
[Dan] They promote them better among the schools and things like that.
[Brandon] The ones that I charge for. But I’ve also done school visits where the publisher had set them up and I’ve made it very clear to them that I don’t do school visits. They make it very clear to the school, “He doesn’t do school visits. But we’ll do this one for you.” I’m being treated like a king at those.
[Dan] That’s kind of cool.
[Brandon] Those are all free.
[Mary] Yeah. This has reminded me of the days back when I was touring puppet shows to elementary schools. Sorry. Having some flashbacks.
[Brandon] All right. We do need to move on. This is a great topic. I do think it’s important to you listeners also, because you need to manage your writing time, because a lot of you are working day jobs or night jobs as I did. But your writing time is very precious, and a lot of you don’t have a lot of it, so deciding which con to go to or things like this, you can easily fill yourself with the things surrounding writing. Even if you’re just being on twitter, as opposed to writing.
[Mary] If I can say one last thing before we pass it over to Dan, which is that you need to learn what you can write while you’re traveling and do your best to train yourself to be able to write anywhere. There’s a… Nancy Kress tells a story of… Excuse me, Ellen Datlow tells a story of sitting in the audience with Neil Gaiman listening to something that was in translation. All of the parts that were in the other language that he couldn’t understand, he had a notebook and was writing. He said that he had to, he had to learn to write anywhere.
[Dan] The greatest I’ve ever seen is Lauren Oliver, who does young adult thrillers and science fiction. I’ve done two book tours with her, and in the plane, in the taxi, anytime we are not on stage doing something, she is writing her books on her Blackberry.
[Dan] It’s amazing. She’s written all her books on a little phone and that works for her.
[Brandon] This is where my novellas, a lot of them have come from, is me realizing I can write one of those on the road when I can’t write a mainline project.
[Mary] Eric Flint says that he writes his short fiction traveling and his long fiction at home.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s move on to Dan, what you learned in this year.
[Dan] I think what I learned this year, which seems like a pretty late in the career to be learning this, but… I learned that I am writing for me. I learned why I am writing.
[Dan] Hey! I remember a few years ago coming to the realization that this is what I love to do and even if I weren’t getting paid for it, I would be doing it. This is different than that. This is more of a… I do this because I love it, and I don’t need to be concerned about other people. This was a big year for me in a couple of different directions. The first time I hit the New York Times bestseller list. Yay, yay, yay.
[Brandon] Did they send you steaks?
[Dan] No. I can’t remember what I got. I got something cool.
[Brandon] [inaudible] okay.
[Dan] But it was awesome. Thank you, publisher. On the other hand, I got actually a fair amount of negative publicity. The Hugo nomination came under somewhat abnormal circumstances, and that came attached with a lot of publicity, a lot of surprisingly personal attacks from some people. What I noticed about both of those extremes was that neither of them really affected how or why I did my job. I’m doing this for me, I’m doing this because I love it, and if the rest of you like the books, then that’s great.
[Howard] I guess I’m lucky because… I think it was 12, 13 years ago, I realized Schlock Mercenary is the comic strip I want to read. So I’m writing it because that’s the story I want to tell. It really has been for me the whole time. Oh, the good fortune of having that be something that other people want to consume.
[Brandon] We had, at the Writing Excuses retreat, we had a number of questions from readers and listeners and writers which all boiled down to the same thing, this idea of how do you keep writing when it’s hard, or how do you keep writing when you get a bad review, or how do you keep writing when… And all of these things. The “How do you keep writing…” Questions all seem to come down to this answer to me. For me, it was… It happened the year before I got published, I had been writing for seven years and had sold nothing. It was the same realization, the realization of I write these books because I love them. If I am going to end up with a stack of them unpublished when I’m 70, all right then. There’s nothing wrong with that.
[Mary] Yeah. I think that that’s something that we don’t talk enough about. That it is okay to write just because you love it. That a lot of people will get pressured into pursuing publication. But there’s so many other art forms where we don’t expect that. That we don’t expect people to go professional.
[Brandon] We don’t expect our pianist that’s wonderful next-door to be playing for a symphony full-time.
[Mary] Right. My dad is this really accomplished amateur musician. He plays music because he loves it. He’s been paid a couple of times, but that’s not why he plays. He goes to… He’s multiple decades old.
[Brandon] I believe most of us are multiples of decades old.
[Mary] Yes. But…
[Howard] He’s multiple of decades old and sitting in the room.
[Mary] And sitting in the room. And he’s my dad and I don’t know for certain that he’s okay with me citing his actual age. Can I?
[Dan] He just laughed.
[Mary] He’s 75. 76. He just had his 76th birthday. But he actually goes to a music camp in the summer to work on making his fiddling better. I hear an improvement in him. But he’s not doing it for anyone other than himself.
[Brandon] This is really important. I think every author needs to learn this lesson at some point in life… Every artist needs to learn this lesson, because you’re going to have hard points no matter where it is in your career. You can be a New York Times bestseller like Dan who’s been writing professionally now for almost 10 years and still be learning this lesson. Now, we do need to talk about this more. We will hit on this idea some more I think in the coming year.
[Brandon] But I do want to give you some forewarning, listeners. We did an extra long episode to cap off our season this year. We are changing our format next year in some very fascinating, hopefully not too dramatic, yet still awesome ways.
[Howard] It’ll still be 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Much more so than this week.
[Dan] The changes next coming season 10 are subtle, but they’re very meaningful, and I think it’s going to add a lot of value to the podcast.
[Brandon] So make sure you come next week.
[Dan] Next week.
[Mary] I love how Brandon describes it as dramatic and Dan describes it as subtle.
[Brandon] You can have subtle drama.
[Howard] Can I say, “Awesome possum,” and kind of tie it together?
[Mary] Oh, there he is again. Actually.
[Brandon] The Writing Excuses mascot. The awesome possum.
[Dan] Don’t run away until we get a photo. Little possum.
[Howard] I don’t want a photo. He’s like right over my head.
[Brandon] Howard, would you give us our writing prompt?
[Howard] Sure. Okay.
[Dan] The Writing Excuses podcast is mauled by a possum.
[Howard] The writing prompt is actually not going to involve a possum.
[Dan] Write the eulogy.
[Howard] What did you accomplish or learn this year? And… This is more… I don’t want this to be a New Year’s resolution. What is it that you are hoping to learn about your writing, about your art, about your craft in the coming year? This comes complete with a little bit of homework. Write this down. What it is that you are hoping to learn. Then, at the end of the year, end of 2015, look back and see how you did. It’s a wonderful surprise.
[Brandon] Much like the possum.
[Hee hee hee]
[Brandon] This has been season nine. You are out of excuses. Now go write.