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Writing Excuses 6.17: Writing Assistants

Writing Excuses 6.17: Writing Assistants


Key Points: Writing assistants do lots of things. Their purpose is to let the writer focus on writing, while they do everything else. Writers often over-commit and need someone to help them say "No." Writers sometimes need someone to tell them "Stay focused" but it's hard, because those awesome ideas are really exciting. Reading a book for revisions for the umpteenth time really is boring. Research grounds books, even in the fantasy genre.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Six, Episode WorldCon Four, Writing Assistants.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Brandon] Because you're in a hurry. And we're not that smart. I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Peter] And I'm Peter, Brandon's assistant.
[Brandon] And this is Valerie, Patrick Rothfuss's assistant.
[Valerie] Hi.
[Brandon] I should have given you an intro, Peter. I'm sorry.

[Brandon] Peter pitched this episode. He thought it might be interesting to talk to some behind-the-scenes... Get some behind-the-scenes things. I don't know, he may be wanting to just dry... Air some dirty laundry about me or something like this. I don't know. But we are going to go ahead and do a podcast about writing assistants. Valerie, we'll start with you. Tell us what you do for Pat Rothfuss.
[Valerie] well, Pat has asked me to actually write up a job description, and I haven't, because it's really long and it's going to take forever. It's going to be an entire day, just to sit down and think, "What do I do?" I do research, I run his store, I run his charity. I run all of his errands. I get his coffee, which I have been doing... That's my main job, here at this convention. But I do a lot of research for his book.
[Brandon] Okay. A lot of research? Okay.
[Valerie] Lots of research. I do a little bit of proofreading and editing on the book. I coordinate a lot of the behind-the-scene's stuff in his life.
[Brandon] Okay. Peter? What do you do for me? Don't be embarrassing, I'm sitting right next to you. I've got like a water bottle I can hit you with.
[Peter] Well, my job title is Personal Editorial Assistant and extra brain.
[Brandon] Yes.
[Peter] My title at the company is...
[Brandon] I think you're...
[Peter] Vice president and knave.
[Brandon] Knave.
[Peter] Or Jack... Jack of all trades.
[Brandon] See, the thing we have going at my company is, we had to sign the paperwork to start a company, and it's a dual partnership, Emily and I. I filled in my title as president. Then I sent it over to her. She wrote in Queen as hers. So when I gave Peter the vice president title, he wanted a title from Emily, too. He picked knave which... The Jack.
[Valerie] Pat has minions. I am kind of the head, but he has other minions who come in. You will see one of them wandering around, and she actually wrote down Pat's minion on her nametag so everyone knows.
[Brandon] Now, Peter, what kind of things do you do?
[Peter] I do whatever Brandon tells me to do.
[Brandon] A lot of times that consists of making sure I don't do stupid things.
[Peter] One of the things I do as Personal Editorial Assistant is when the copyedit comes back from the copy editor, usually the author is the person who accepts or rejects the changes that the copy editor has made. But at that point, Brandon is usually writing something else.
[Brandon] Yup. I can't help it.
[Peter] So he gives it to me instead. He trusts me to know what he would have said. I usually do, I think.

[Brandon] Now, this podcast can go... This is going to be an interesting one, because most of you listening are not going to want to hire an assistant right now. So... But I do want to kind of talk about what an assistant does, and kind of put this bug in your ear. The reason I want to do this is because I... I didn't have a Peter for many years when I was doing this. A personal assistant is a big expense. I mean, this is... Peter is the company's single largest expense. I was actually at Kevin Anderson's house. He was talking about... He was telling me, "You need to hire an assistant." I said I can't afford to hire an assistant. It would take like half the money I make. He's like, "Hire an assistant. You'll be so surprised at the... If you're paying an assistant, how much more time you have and how much more work you can do. It will be worth every single penny of it." He persuaded me to do this. So partially the reason I wanted to hold this podcast is all you aspiring writers out there. Don't be like me. Don't assume that you have to do it all yourself. The sooner you can actually start once you start having success... Farm out a few of the things you don't absolutely have to be doing, the easier your life is going to be. I think that's just absolutely vital. Dan, you just hired an assistant. Tell us why and what you feel about it? Having done it.
[Dan] Well, yeah. I just hired an assistant a couple of weeks ago. I guess it'll be a couple of months ago by the time this airs. Her name is Ginella and she's absolutely awesome and she basically is my extra brain. The reason that finally prompted me to hire her was I decided I wanted to put out an e-book. A book that we've been shopping around, haven't been able to sell, a very quirky niche book. So it took me about two weeks to get it properly formatted and to do all the research that it requires to figure out where to get it up online and all these things. Then I was done, and I put it up, and it looks great. It's available now. It's called A Night of Blacker Darkness.
[Brandon] Hint, hint.
[Dan] Hint, hint. But I looked back at those two weeks and I thought, "That's two weeks that I haven't been able to write anything new. Screw this. I'm just going to go hire a personal assistant at this point." It's something I'd been considering for a while. I talked it over with my wife. Like Brandon, we have a joint partnership company with my wife. What we realized is that if she, through her work, allows me to write one extra book per year, she has more than paid for herself. That assistant is worth its weight in gold. It's been fantastic. I've only had her for a week and a half now and already, I've gotten a week and a half of extra writing done that I wasn't going to be able to do because of all the WorldCon preparation I had to do. Now, she did all that and I was able to write. It's been wonderful.
[Valerie] That is...
[Brandon] Go ahead.
[Valerie] That is partly how I think of my job is, I focus everything around what am I doing to make sure that Pat has the time to do the things that are really important. How much can I take away from him that's just these minute little details that he then has the time to go and be writing instead of running this errand or looking something up?
[Brandon] Okay.
[Peter] A lot of people have told Brandon that he should invent a process to clone himself so that he can write more. The assistant is the next best thing. My sole purpose is to get Brandon more time to write. To do the other stuff that's not writing so that he can write.

[Brandon] I'm kind of hoping that this may... This could go really embarrassing or it could just go nowhere. I'm kind of hoping that you two can give an insight to the writing process externally of two fairly successful writers in the genre that most people listening are wanting to break into. So I'm hoping you guys can give us something that I can't because I'm too close to it. So my first question to you is, have you noticed anything that stops the writers you work with? That keeps them unable to write? Have you noticed anything that just externally, just keeps them from writing?
[Peter] Brandon gets a lot of interview requests. If he sat down and typed up all the answers himself... If he always... If he accepted every phone call that someone wanted to interview him. I mean, that would be a lot less time that he was writing. So for a lot of the interviews that we do, we set aside like an hour every other week or so where I take the interview questions that we've been given and I go and I ask him the questions and I record the answers on my phone. Then I go type them up later. I clean up what he says, because Brandon has a lot of circumlocutions when he's talking.
[Brandon] Imagine that. I also... I speak more quickly than I write, if you can believe it, having listened to me. It's much easier for me to just have someone bring all the questions, fire them at me real fast, and I tend to... I tend to spend less time self editing and going back through and getting the question just perfect. I could spend hours on just one question. But this way, it's out, it's done, and yes, it's not going to be the most perfect thing in the world, but... It's just a question. It's just an interview.
[Valerie] This is going to sound really corny, but Pat really cares about stuff. I mean, he cares about his fan mail, he cares about all his e-mails, and every single word of the book. So he can get very hung up on one thing and doing... Getting that one line right. Sometimes I can break in and be like, "Hum, can I take something over? Can we move on? Can we go somewhere else? Can we come back?" He does read all of his fan mail. Sometimes I can say, "He, can I summarize this? Can I tell you how cool this person is without you reading their whole letter?" Which he actually doesn't like doing, but he will occasionally hand them over so that I can help them out, so that he can move through the fan mail a little faster.

[Brandon] What, if anything, surprised you when you started working for the author? Like, things you hadn't known about the process, things you hadn't realized about the business, what things that were eye-opening to you? Anything at all? This is kind of a tough thing that I'm asking you. Why don't we actually do the book of the week while you think about that question? Because, Valerie, you were going to actually pitch a book for us?
[Valerie] Yes. I just finished Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It was fantastic. It was like a pleasure trip through every little bit of geeky gamer D&D books, movies, everything you can think of, mostly from the 80s, but just a treasure trove of little Easter eggs of all those things that we love all wrapped up in this beautiful story... Well, not beautiful, but very entertaining, very engaging. Pat blurbed it, too, which is why I read it. It was like, "Oh, this will be work." It ended up being totally fun. Also, Wil Wheaton is actually narrating it.
[Brandon] Oh, he's doing the voice.
[Valerie] He's doing the voice, so...
[Brandon] Well, you can go to, and you can download a copy of this. Start a 14 day free trial. Support the podcast and also get a free book. Audible is really the best way to get audio books. It is much cheaper. We've got details on our website about the deal and things like that. So, anyway,

[Brandon] I will chat for a few minutes... Talk for a few minutes about a concept while you guys think about this. I want you... Anything that surprised you. Also if you give any insight to the writing process, how the authors work, how Pat works, how I work, that you don't think people would actually realize happens. Either of those questions. Meanwhile I'm going to talk to the listeners and talk about the idea of not doing everything. This is really hard for writers, particularly new writers. Let's say that you just have your first short story come out. Or you've released your own book, self published it. Or things like this. You are starting... You're trying to do publicity for yourself. Peter mentioned the interviews. It's actually really easy to do interviews. You would think it's hard, but in the age of new media and the Internet, you can do interviews with people all over the place. You can go to blogs that get three hits... That have gotten three hits in the history of their blog other than Google crawlers, and do an interview there and the person would love to have you do an interview. You can do all of this stuff, but it's really easy to go overboard and say yes to too many things. Most authors I know have had trouble learning to say "no." I've had that trouble. Kevin Anderson, when I went to his house, one thing that amused me was he had written on a sheet of paper stuck on his desk right where he sits whenever you would look up and the words say "no." It just says "no" in big letters. I looked at that. Emily was like, "What is that?" I knew. I knew immediately what it was. It was to say no to things because you can't take on too many projects. She asked, and he gave the answer, and that was it exactly.

[Brandon] All right. Insights? Come on, assistants. We've got you. Give us the juicy details, except about me, so only do them about Pat.
[Valerie] Juicy details. Pat is all...
[Peter] Valerie, tell your story. Tell the story that you told me that you've...
[Valerie] That has nothing to do with writing, though.
[Brandon] It's interesting.
[Peter] But it's something...
[Valerie] It's a Pat story that Pat listeners will love. I didn't want to tell this story, because it's been bubbling up inside me.
[Peter] If he had done it himself, he wouldn't have spent that time writing.
[Valerie] I am on the job, I have moved to Wisconsin. First time with Pat, first job he gives me is he tells me that he needs a specific pair of shoes. They are Ecco shoes, his size, black, leather, and they no longer are made anywhere. The line of shoes has been put out of production. So my first job, which was kind of like proving myself as the good assistant, was I called every major department store warehouse in North America and got all of this shoe for Pat. Got them delivered and got the discount prices. It took about a good five or six hours of calling people up and waiting and getting all of Pat's shoes.
[Brandon] Did you order multiple copies... pairs so that...
[Valerie] Oh, we have all the shoes. You won't be able to find his size shoe of this Ecco...
[Brandon] Oh, you have them all.
[Valerie] We have them all. We have a pile...
[Brandon] When you say all the shoes, you really mean all the shoes.
[Valerie] I mean all the shoes. We have a room and there's just like 50 pairs of shoes. So...
[Brandon] That's awesome. That's a writer for you, right there.
[Dan] That's the kind of crap you can do when you write The Name of the Wind.
[Brandon] I need 50 pairs of the same shoes. Okay.

[Valerie] But for inspiration, Pat makes stories out of everything. He'll be walking along and he'll see something and he'll want to just tell a story. I think that really keeps him going, is that he's always... He's telling a story wherever he goes, he's picking the words. He doesn't stop with the story process no matter what he's doing. If he's going to tell me something or even give me instructions, he'll phrase it in this form that really shows how he's thinking about words and language and how people are going to take it. So his job... And I'm making little air quotes... As an author and a writer isn't just his job, it's really the way he is. Always thinking and working. He's really putting that out in his life. I know, Peter, you said that Brandon never stops writing. Pat is always just telling stories, making stories, putting them together out of everything he sees.
[Peter] When I was... I mean, when I was in elementary school and junior high, I'm like, "Oh, I'm going to be a writer when I grow up." But I've had maybe like these four stories that I want to tell sometime. But Brandon... Part of my job is to convince him not to write something sometimes because if Brandon stopped right now and never had an idea the rest of his life, he would have things to write, because he already has all these ideas in his head that he knows he wants to write about. He's planning books that he's not going to write for 20 years. I mean... So that makes me feel lucky that when I was in college, I fell in love with editing, because I'm really good at that. Brandon has ideas and he's really good at putting those ideas together in interesting ways and making great books out of them. That's not something that is a talent of mine. That was something that I didn't understand the extent of before I started working for Brandon.
[Brandon] By the way, he's not good at convincing me not to do these ideas. If they're dumb ones, he'll tell me. Otherwise, he says, "Heh, that's awesome. I think you should totally do that." He said this to me last week. I'm like, "Peter!" I'm obviously telling him this awesome idea I had so he'll tell me, "Keep focused, Brandon. You need to write the Wheel of Time and you need to write Storm Light 2.." I'm telling him and he's like, "That's really good. You should write that." I'm like, "Aargh!"
[Peter] I meant eventually.
[Valerie] I have the same problem because everyone wants book 3, and I'm like, "Okay, we need to get book 3." Then Pat will start telling me this story idea he has, and I'm like, "Oh, we need to hear that. Please, can we work on that? I love it." I'm trying to do my job and like focus in on the big story, but there's a wealth of ideas out there that he just... I can't wait until they're put down. It's exciting.

[Brandon] Did you have another one, Peter?
[Peter] Well, I've always been told by authors that when you're doing revisions, by the time you've read the book the 12th time, you just hate it. I don't know, I never really believed that or... Until I did it myself.
[Brandon] Yeah. Yup.
[Valerie] I haven't read Wise Man's Fear for pleasure yet. I'm waiting. I'm really looking forward to enjoying it, but I've read it so many times. I've read line by line by line so many times.
[Brandon] Sometimes backwards. Did you do that? Peter does that.
[Peter] Yeah. When I'm doing... This is something that... It's a copy editing technique, that you read the book backwards. Paragraph by paragraph, or even sentence by sentence. So that you don't get caught up in the story, and you're only looking at the words. Because a lot of times when you're reading in the correct order, you see the words that are supposed to be there, not the words that are actually there. Brandon's biggest errors are not spelling mistakes or grammar errors, but there is a word that should be there that's missing... A very small word. Or there's an extra word there, that is there because of a revision error that... It used to be a good sentence, and Brandon made it a better sentence, but part of the original sentence is still there and should have been taken out and it wasn't. If you read the whole book backwards, you can focus on the very small details like that, and the mistakes can jump out at you better than if you were reading it in order.

[Brandon] All right. I think we're going to go-ahead... Oh, you've got one more. Go for it.
[Valerie] I have one more thing I just thought of that people might find really interesting. That is the amount of research that goes into Pat's books. This is a large part of what I do. Obviously, he's writing a fantasy series. He's making up the world. But he's not just pulling it out of thin air. If he has a concept in there, it is very, very grounded in the system of the world and what can actually work. I spend a lot of time researching things. Like for instance, the system of time in the books, you really don't notice... You don't hear that much about it, we don't describe it, we don't go into it, but I have written up whole reports on different time systems so that he could put together a full system on time in the world. We never even really see that in the books, but it is there. There is a very grounded basis of a system of time. That's something that I can do, is I can put together all of the pieces of research for him to read a report and say, "Okay. Now I can make... Help with my world building."
[Peter] That's another thing I do. I help keep the Storm Light wiki because Brandon did so much pre-writing on the Storm Light archive before he started writing Wheel of Time... Or not Wheel of Time, sorry, The Way of Kings. There's a lot of stuff in there that he actually changed his mind once he got to the book. So I have to go through and make sure that the stuff that's in the wiki actually matches what's in the book.
[Brandon] Yeah. We've got 200,000 words of world building that I'd say at least a quarter of it is now out the window. But, anyway.

[Brandon] All right. Peter. Writing prompt.
[Peter] Writing prompt. So this is a panel about the assistants who are not quite as interesting as the people that they work for. A kind of book that I enjoyed reading is the what I call the first person once removed book. The prototypical story is Sherlock Holmes. The narrator is Watson. But he's not the interesting character. The interesting character is Holmes. A writer who did this very well is Gordon Korman. A lot of his books are hilarious, but the narrator character is not the interesting one, it's their friend who is the interesting one. So, that's the writing prompt. Write a story where your narrator is not really the cool person.
[Brandon] The Dragonslayer's assistant.
[Peter] Yeah.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: focus, interviews, just say no, research, revisions, writing assistants

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