(Q) How do you keep the whole story in your head when it's a 1000 pages long? (A) Outlines. You only keep a piece in your head. You fill in the rest as you go. "Practicing and gaining skill as a writer through practice..."
(Q) What steps do you use when creating a character? Are they part of the story and created by the story? (A) Yes! Starting with an idea, ask who can be hurt most? Then work backwards -- why, how does that affect things? Jot down ideas and discard the first three. Practice!
(Q) When do you put in the details? How many passes are spent on details? (A) Outliners often do really fast first drafts, with roughly half the details. Then about the third draft is a strong polishing draft with lots of details. Details affect pacing, and it's easier to see when you have a complete draft.
(Q) How do you patch plot holes? (A) Back up and lay the groundwork.
(Q) How do you come up with names? (A) look at the period. Avoid the same first letter and similar syllables. Think about the language and culture, where do their names come from? Use The Ever-Changing Book of Names.
(Q) Do you have one writing skill that you want to be much better at? (A) Subtlety. Multiple viewpoints, subplots, more complicated stories. Prose. Experimental narrative structures. Sitting down and writing every day.
(Q) What's your take on writing groups? (A) I love them. Not all groups are created equal. Be careful and don't be afraid to quit.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Six, Episode Nine, Microcasting.
[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] All right. Let's get to it. We have some more Twitter questions, so we're just going to dive in and hope that we surface. All right. Randy Tayler... That name sounds familiar... How do you hold the whole story in your head when it's a 1000 pages long?
[Dan] [chuckling] By being smarter than you are, Randy Tayler!
[Mary] This is what outlines are for.
[Howard] Apparently my brother is not as smart as me. Yeah, you don't hold the whole thing in your head. You hold... At any given time, when I'm working on a story, I will hold one entire piece of the story in my head. Like one character's arc. But the moment I start writing another character, I have to go back to the outline and make sure that I've got those pieces there. I mean, I have notes.
[Dan] Speaking as the resident discovery writer, my favorite thing about writing is that I can't hold it all in my head. I know what some of the cool scenes are going to be, and I know overall what the plot's going to be because I do outline, but then I fill in the rest of the details as I go, and I'm always pleasantly surprised to see what is in my book that I didn't know was going to be there.
[Brandon] This is why practicing and gaining skill as a writer through practice is more important in many ways than preparing for years and years and writing the perfect book.
[Mary] That may be the most valuable thing you hear all day... Or at least in the next 15 minutes.
[Brandon] Okay. Mary, we've answered this one a lot, so I'm going to throw this one at you. It may be too big, but try and give us just a few tips on it. What steps do you use when creating a character, or are they part of the story and created by the story?
[Mary] Both. I look at the story... It depends on where I'm starting. But we'll say that I'm starting from a geewhiz idea, which is... Cats can fly. I look at who can be hurt most by flying cats.
[Brandon] Anyone underneath them.
[Dan] Man, you thought bird droppings were a problem?
[Mary] Oh, my goodness. Cats. Flying over your head with five sharp ends. But look at who can be hurt most...
[Mary] And then I start looking at... So that would be, in this case, Howard, because he has no hair. Then I start working backwards. It's like, "Well, why does he have no hair? Who are his parents? How does that no hair affect him?" So once I kind of figure out... Like, loosely, the character class of person. Then I start figuring out their details based on what will support the story most. One of the other things that I also do is that I'll jot down a couple of different ideas and generally discard the first three because someone else has already come up with those.
[Brandon] Right. Okay. I like that, it's a great answer. It is kind of what we've talked about before, but with your own take on it. Really, we do a lot of both. You come up with a character, and then the story changes the character, and then the character changes the story. It's just a process. Once again, learn how to write, practice writing, and you will start to see how this works.
[Dan] We were also pleased that your answer involved making fun of Howard. That's why you fit in so well.
[Howard] That was good. Pointer. Going for the bald is actually one of the first three ideas that you should discard. Go for the pants! That's a running gag.
[Dan] Oh, burn.
[Brandon] No, pants is now number two. You've got to discard those.
[Howard] Pants is the running gag, though. You're allowed to go back to the well.
[Mary] You're right. Flying cats are not going to interact with pants. It's just... Over your head?
[Dan] Well, you know, Howard is old. He does wear his pants up pretty high.
[Mary] He wears pants?
[Brandon] Question. This one's for outliners, so I'm just going to tackle it. As an outliner, when do you put in the detail? How many passes do you spend filling in or removing detail? I am an outliner, and like many outliners... Not all, but many, I do really fast first drafts. Which isn't necessarily intuitive to people. People would assume that the people who are discovery writing go through very quickly. There are some who do. But I've found a lot of discovery writers spend a lot of time exploring, and looking at this and looking at that, and trying out different things, and then rewinding. I sit down and I write and I barrel through a story, first draft, according to my outline. For me, I usually leave out... Oh, half the detail that needs to be put in. I really do a polishing draft... I need a strong polishing draft. My third draft is usually what that is . That is to get the line-by-line details, the show versus tells, the making sure I've got good descriptive detail, and all the little things I spend a lot of time on. It was one of the reasons why it took me so long to get published, is because I wasn't doing that in my early books.
[Mary] I'm similar in that I wait to do a lot of the detail until later. I'm also an outliner. But one of the reasons I wait on the detail until later... I mean, I'll put in some, but part of the reason is because it affects pacing so much.
[Brandon] Right. It does.
[Mary] I find that I have a better idea of where I need to drop in detail and when, if I wait and can see the whole picture.
[Howard] We had an outlining session at my writing group where we were going through the first two acts of the current Schlock story, Force Multiplication. Went through the first two acts to determine what we're going to do next, and... Sorry. I just realized that Dan is trying to use my iPad keyboard, and it won't work because it's Dvorak and you will just be completely lost.
[Brandon] Oh, that would be awesome.
[Howard] That would be awesome to watch.
[Mary] That would be fun to watch.
[Brandon] There's a writing prompt for us.
[Howard] Okay. Actually, the writing prompt that I thought was intercontinental ballistic hairball.
But... Coming back to what I was saying about this, which is running a little longer now already... Is that people were... As we were outlining things and looking at the callbacks in the things that we needed to have happen, somebody asked, "Howard, are you comfortable with this level of detail, as we're getting into the action sequences because it's all pretty complicated?" Sandra kind of butted in and said, "You know what? It's just fine. I've seen how his outlines go. Right up until the point that he writes the script, the outline just says action, action, action, action for five days. Because we don't know what's going to happen until we start writing those details. All the framing pieces are there, but the detail isn't there until I start writing it.
[Mary] Now there are some times when... Sorry, this is going long... But some times...
[Brandon] No, it's fine.
[Mary] There are some times when in my outline, I will have a sketch of a miniature scene that includes the dialogue. Other times I will have the something-bad-happens-here-advance-this-c
[Brandon] All right. Let's move on to the book of the week. Howard?
[Howard] Book of the week is by our good friend, Larry Correia, who is up for a Campbell...
[Brandon] Yes. Against someone else...
[Dan] Vote for him if you really have to, but don't feel obligated.
[Howard] Well, you know, as we've talked about this before, Larry knows an awful lot about firearms and is a big, dangerous man, but you know how to hide a body.
[Dan] I... Yes. I've written three books about the little creepy guy that takes down the big one. So...
[Howard] Now that we're done frightening you with this year's Campbell nominees, which also includes Saladin Ahmed and... Who else? Mary, quick?
[Dan] Lev Grossman and Lauren Beukes.
[Howard] Okay. Fantastic field. But Larry's book, Hard Magic, Book One of the Grimnoire Chronicles, is an urban fantasy set in the 20s... Set in the roaring 20s. Awesome stuff. Go to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, kick off a 14 day free trial membership, and get yourself a book.
[Dan] Larry's book... I just have to plug this just a little more. His books are so fun. Just fun, start to finish. You can tell he's just laughing his head off as he writes them. With the freedom to throw in every cool idea he can think of.
[Brandon] You self published writers... He was self published. Did it all himself. He's a person if you find him at a con, you can talk to him about the gritty details of self-publishing.
[Howard] And then was offered a contract and took it.
[Brandon] And jumped.
[Dan] And took it happily.
[Brandon] You can ask him why.
[Brandon] So. All right. Here's a tough one. How do you patch plot holes? Does anyone want to tackle this?
[Dan] How do you patch plot holes? Wow!
[Mary] Usually, I have to back up. Because I've had this happen.
[Brandon] You can retcon.
[Dan] No. You just have to patch them later on.
[Mary] Yeah. But usually when there's a plot hole, it's because I have not laid the groundwork earlier. So I'll just go back and put the gun on the mantle. It depends on the type of plot hole, but most of the time, it's just fixing the groundwork in an earlier scene.
[Brandon] Yeah. That's... Though I will say, plot holes can force you to be creative. Because there are times where you realize there's a plot hole that is fundamental to the structure of the book that you're building. You have to go back and say, "Wow. How can I have this situation with this other situation that is the core of the book, and neither of these are ones I want to cut? Can I make this... Rearrange this in a new way that works really well?" They can be some of the best things.
[Dan] I really think that a lot of the things we love about books come from authors who have been stuck in that position and have been forced to come up with a cool solution to it.
[Howard] That's actually part of why I think people like Schlock Mercenary, is that I start writing and find plot holes immediately. I can't go back and fix it. I have to justify it in a way that feels natural.
[Brandon] It's not really a squid!
[Mary] One of the most famous examples of this is Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy. According to the annotated script, Douglas Adams was convinced that they were going to be canceled, and so he threw them out of an airlock so he would have a big finish. And then they weren't.
[Brandon] Really? Wow!
[Mary] He had to invent the Infinite Improbability Drive in order to keep the series going.
[Dan] That is awesome. Depending on at which point you catch the plot hole, it really can inform what you are doing. If it's an already finished manuscript that you are your writing group for somebody says, "Uh-oh, what about this?" Then it's... You're a little more constrained, and it's going to take a lot of extra work. Whereas if you're halfway through, or you're in the outline stage and at that point you realize you have a hole, you can patch it in a completely different way.
[Brandon] All right. Cap Shafer asks, and this is a question we've answered before, so I'll toss it at you, Mary. How do you come up with names? People ask this... It's got to be one of the most frequent questions that we get, how do you come up with your names in your books? People seem to really dislike this. How do you do it?
[Mary] Knowing that I write historicals a lot... One of the things that I do is I look at the period. If... For instance, I'm working in 1907 now, my character is 24, so I look at the popular names in 1880. Then I come up with a database and usually try to make sure that none of my characters have the same first letter. But a lot of times it is... It's a "ooh, that sounds good" and "it feels good in my mouth."
[Brandon] Howard, have you ever answered this one? How do you come up with a name? You've got a lot of wacky names.
[Howard] Yeah. If they're... I'm taking more care than I used to. Often, I would just look around my desk for a thing, and mix up... Jumble the letters.
[Dan] Then came the evil robot paperclipatron.
[Howard] As I'm saying, I take a little more care than I used to. Jevee Ceeta was named after the fact that the first thing that I saw was my old JVC stereo. So that's what I named her. But now I will look at... Well, the first thing I do is the consonant check. They can't begin with the same letter, I want to avoid too many similar syllables. When I'm naming aliens, I've started looking at what is it that those aliens are interested in. They have a language, they have a culture, where the names come from? Then I draw parallels into English. Now I can't think of any examples of that. It's fun. I love naming things. I love coming up with new character names.
[Mary] I also have a really great tool called The Ever-Changing Book of Names. Which is software that you can download on your computer. It's a name generator. It was created for gaming. But the thing that is beautiful about it is that you can plug-in your own list of names, and it will generate stuff. You can also... If you say... Let's say that I want something that feels vaguely Icelandic, there's a database of Icelandic names. It will combine the names based on... The syllables based on the conventions of names in that culture, and it will come up with something that sounds Icelandic, but isn't actually.
[Brandon] Oh, that's cool.
[Mary] Which is fantastic for secondary world stuff.
[Brandon] That's great.
[Howard] What was that called again?
[Mary] Ever-Changing Book of Names.
[Brandon] Ever-Changing Book of Names... There is your tool, right there. All you people who are asking this, go get that.
[Dan] We'll try to link that in the liner notes.
[Howard] Never going to get asked that question again.
[Brandon] All right. Here's a fantastic one that's going to be a little harder for us. Do you guys have one writing skill that you want to be much better at? Let's each pick one, if we can do it. I can start because I've been able to prepare by looking at these. Right now, the thing I think I would like to be better at is subtlety. I look at the great masters of writing in the genre and see that they are able to do... Just be fantastically subtle. Robert Jordan, with his foreshadowing is incredibly subtle. Some writers with their emotion are just very, very subtle. I sometimes worry that I'm throwing bricks at people with a lot of my writing. So I'd like to learn to be more subtle.
[Dan] I'll jump in next. One thing that I met deeply trying to develop in myself is the ability to write multiple viewpoints and larger stories. I've been... I got my start with these very short first-person thrillers, very straightforward plots. I'm working on trying to write books that have three or four subplots, more complicated stories than I have written before. So that's what I'm working on right now.
[Howard] I want to learn to write prose. Honestly. Writing comics is so dang easy, because I get to draw pictures instead of the descriptions. The few times I've sat down to write descriptions and have realized, "Wow. So I've got this picture... I've got the whole room in my head. How much of it do I really want to give the reader? How much... What words am I going to use to describe this particular texture of brick and is it really important? Well, somebody's head is going to get dashed against it, so it might be, but... I don't want to give you guys the end of the story."
[Brandon] Mary, do you have anything? This is kind of putting you on the spot, so if you want to pass, we can pass.
[Mary] Now, there are two things. One is that I think that my narrative structures are fairly conventional, and I would love to be able to write things that were more experimentally structured. The other one that I am actively working on is actually sitting down and writing every day, is consistency about writing. Which is, I think, a skill that is kind of the foundation of everything else. I am such a procrastinator.
[Brandon] Okay. Why don't we do one more? I've actually got another one for you, Mary, if you're okay? I'm going to toss you writing groups. We've talked... We get an entire podcast on writing groups and another one on alpha readers and beta readers. So, the person is asking us... In our archive, you can look for writing groups. But Mary, quickly, what's your take on writing groups?
[Mary] I love them. Not all writing groups are created equal. I think you have to be careful about the group that you sign up with, that you know what you want out of it, and that you are actually getting, and to be not afraid to quit if it's not serving your needs. I'm in two writing groups. One is in person, and the other used to be in person, but I skype in. I think they're fantastic.
[Brandon] Okay. Let's go ahead and take us out there. We had two writing prompts. One was ridiculously silly...
[Howard] Intercontinental Ballistic Hairball.
[Brandon] I was going to say Dan has to save the world... Or someone has to save the world using a keyboard that is in the wrong format. Somehow the letters got completely arranged randomly, and go from there with rearranged random letters.
[Dan] Someone has to save the world from an Intercontinental Ballistic Hairball using the wrong computer layout.
[Brandon] Oh, boy.
[Dan] Either the wrong operating system.
[Mary] Oh, yeah.
[Brandon] I'm sorry. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.