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Writing Excuses 7.21: Project in Depth -- Force Multiplication

Writing Excuses 7.21: Project in Depth -- Force Multiplication


Key Points: Why are you telling this story? How do you pick the characters? How do your characters solve problems? How do you choose the setting? How do you name things? How do you balance exploring characters and plot? How do you make it interesting? How does this hurt people? Who gets hurt? Why? How do they respond?

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Seven, Episode 21, Project in Depth -- Force Multiplication.
[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 on the spot. [Laughter -- Mary Muwahaha!]

[Brandon] So this is the first of these we're doing. We're going to see how it goes. We want to take one project done by a member of the Writing Excuses' team and grill the author of that project in depth about how they conceived it, how it went, just dig into a lot of the details. This is going to be different for us as a podcast. Instead of us all conversing, it's really going to be more like an interview. We're going to start with Howard with...
[Dan] We want to warn everyone, this is going to be spoiler-rific.
[Howard] Well, you've been warned already, because we...
[Mary] But if you've come in midseason...
[Howard] Yes. Exactly.
[Mary] Pause. Go read the work. Then come back.

[Brandon] That's right. So. Force Multiplication. Howard, what started you on doing this cycle of the Schlock Mercenary storyline?
[Dan] Well, give us a really quick overview of this storyline first.
[Howard] Okay. Yeah. Let me start there. The previous book, the cast gets back together with Petey, the AI at the galactic core. They are no longer resource strapped. All their equipment is broken, but things are being repaired. We have reached a nice stopping point between... Well, between books, and more importantly, between trilogy sized multi-arc things.
[Brandon] Yeah. Story arcs.
[Howard] So I really imagine this as the beginning of the third Schlock Mercenary box set, and as the beginning of what is probably the last box set before I wrap up big plots with the dark matter entities in Andromeda. So I was looking at this as a starting point for that, and I wanted to start small. I wanted to introduce some characters, and explore some characters who don't get a lot of coverage, and I had to make sure that Schlock was in the story a lot.
[Brandon] Why?
[Howard] Because he's fun, and he's interesting, and he's the namesake of the strip, and I get criticized by fans when... During the previous, during Massively Parallel, Schlock was featured prominently in one of the storylines, and in none of the others. So two thirds or more of the book didn't have Schlock in it, and everybody was complaining. I thought, well...
[Brandon] Right. Schlock is your Wolverine.
[Howard] He's my spider -- Wolverine -- man -- America. [Laughter]

[Brandon] Okay. So what specifically groundwork... That tells us where we are going, but what made you want to tell this story with those characters? How did you pick the characters? Let's say that. How did you pick the characters?
[Howard] Okay. This is one of Howard's shameful secrets. I picked the characters because I felt like I had not been doing a good job representing the female cast members, and I had not challenged myself enough as an author writing women's points of view. So I thought I am not going to put any of my male leads... I'm not going to put Tagon in, I'm not going to put Kevin in. Schlock, ostensibly, uses male pronouns, but he's an alien. Legs is female and everybody forgets that. So I put Schlock and Legs and... Taylor uses a male pronoun, but he's a robot. But there were no human males in the cast that set off. It was Bunny, it was Para Ventura, it was Kathryn. Then there was Shep's mom featured in there importantly. When we ran into our big antagonist... We had a couple of male antagonists, but the most competent of the antagonists was Major Murtaugh of Sanctum Adroit who was female.
[Mary] Did you wind up bringing them in later in the story line?
[Howard] Yeah. Men came in, men came in later because I felt like if everybody who gets introduced was important to the story is female, I'm tipping my hand a little as to what it is I'm challenging myself with. It just wouldn't feel natural. But...
[Mary] I asked because that's one thing that I see people do sometimes, is that they overcompensate. It sounds like you caught yourself doing that.
[Howard] Yeah. Oh, no, I knew... The justification for their travel was that they were going to visit Shep, who is male. So I knew Shep was going to come into the story, but I also knew that when I introduced him, I could not put him in a position to save the day. I did put... I forgot his name. Tino? I think it was Tino. I put Tino in a position to save the day, who was a random grunt that they sort of drafted for the last run. But it didn't feel like that was... That didn't... It didn't feel wrong. It flowed from the story right. I was very happy. Especially since all of the female characters had done really, really important things in terms of moving the story forward.

[Dan] So, aside from forcing yourself to write some female perspectives, how did having a non-male cast change the story you are telling or affect the story that you were telling?
[Howard] Well, the first thing that I did is... Most of my male characters will solve problems by punching somebody or blowing things up. So I looked at the women and said, "All right. I want these to be people... Not because they're female, but because of their backgrounds." Para Ventura is a roboticist. She's not going to solve problems by blowing things up. She's going to solve problems by reprogramming things. The doctor is a former exotic dancer and a doctor. She's not going to solve things by blowing things up. She's going to solve things by administering appropriate medical attention or maybe drugging somebody or maybe doing a little dance.
[Dan] Getting a little Uhura thrown in there.
[Mary] I was like, "Surely she uses that."
[Howard] Yeah. She does use it. We use it off panel because the exotic dance you imagine is far better than the one I can draw. Then, Kathryn is ex-UNS intelligence analyst. She's not going to solve problems by blowing things up. She's going to solve problems by being smarter than the other guy, and by putting the chess pieces in place such that other people are blowing things up that I need blown up and we can just scoot through untouched. Or at least, that was the approach in my head. When the story started unfolding, at some point everybody's carrying guns.
[Brandon] It's Schlock Mercenary. Things have to blow up. Some people have to get shot.
[Howard] Exactly.
[Mary] I was going to say...

[Brandon] My next question for you is... We get a lot of questions about this, so... Dig into how you chose the setting for this story and how you named the things that you needed to name, specifically in this story.
[Howard] Okay. I had great fun with the setting. The first thing that I needed to do is I needed to get these people away from reinforcements. Because I wanted to tell a story with an ensemble cast that was a small ensemble. In order for them to shine, they can call for help and have somebody sweep in and save the day. But it needed to be an environment where they could get into big trouble. So I envisioned... A company town is kind of the role model I looked at. We have orbital mining taking place, and we have a company town built out of enormous shipping containers, city sized shipping containers that have all been stitched together and built into a town. Built into a city, this city has the population of modern-day Manhattan, I'm sure. We're not going to be in anything more than a tiny borough of it. But once I had decided on that, I thought, "Well, what's going on here that's interesting?" What's going on that's interesting is... And this is why we have these spoiler warnings ahead of the episode... We have... The UNS has decided to deliberately leak medical technology to these folks in such a way that it's crippled, because they want to see what happens with this technology in an impoverished environment. They want to see how it affects the economy. This is the worst sort of government social engineering we can imagine, where they say, "Hey, let's take the ability to give everybody fantastic healthcare and let's see what happens if we force them to just get a little of it and they have to pay too much for it. What does that do?"
[Brandon] When did you decide that was what your plot was?
[Howard] At the very beginning.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Howard] At the very beginning, I knew that was happening. Then when... But of course I couldn't reveal that as the first reveal of the villains. The reveal of that was much later. What the reader sees is that there's drugs being disseminated, and we've never seen this particular brand name before, and what does it do, and... Schlock, why are you licking that bottle? Stop that. You don't know where that's been. Yeah, it tastes kind of funny.

[Brandon] All right. Book of the week this week. I'm going to pause and do the book of the week. Which is appropriate because it is also a funny story much like Howard's. You like that segue?
[Howard] You flatter me.
[Mary] [hard to hear -- that's advice, that's not praise?]
[Dan] Nice.
[Howard] That was a good seg, and I'll take what I can get.
[Brandon] I finally read Going Postal by Terry Pratchett. As some of you may know, since I've mentioned it before, I'm playing catch up on Pratchett. I discovered him maybe five or six years ago, and have been reading him voraciously ever since. Going Postal is one of the best books I've ever read. It's certainly in the top of the Pratchett books I've ever read. It has a very strong character, it is hilarious, and it is a standalone. It's about what happens when a con man is given charge of the post office in a large city, told to reinvigorate it, and told that if he doesn't, he is going to end up getting executed. So, Going Postal by Terry Pratchett. How can they get a copy?
[Howard] Oh. If you will carefully type into the URL field of your browser You like how I said that instead of head on out to?
[Mary] I was like, "You're stalling so we don't get back to more questions."
[Howard] Exactly. So you need to be using the Internet for this...
[Dan] First you type a W, then another W, and then... A third W.
[Howard] A third W. You can leave off the HTTP:.
[Brandon] Don't worry, it won't use your quota. You get...
[Howard] You can leave off the http: at the beginning if you like.
[Brandon] Okay. Let's move on.
[Howard] /excuse. You can kick off a free trial membership and that comes with a free audio book download and you can do Terry Pratchett's Going Postal or any other of the fantastic titles at audible.

[Brandon] All right. Let's get back to Howard. More questions for you about structuring your story.
[Mary] I am actually curious about names. Legs, in particular, catches my attention.
[Howard] I named Legs Legs as a specific feminist joke when she first joined the cast years and years ago. Her name is... Oh gosh... Leeleegolani, Leeleegolila, or something like that? [Leelagaleeni-lelenoleela see] it's a long alien name with lots of Ls and Gs in it. Commander Andreyasn says to her, "Do you mind if we just call you Legs?" We pull back and we realize that those are her most prominent features. She looks like an ostrich, only extended. She says, "That's not just because I'm a woman, is it?" It was a throwaway gag. Then I realized, "Well, okay. I've got this alien female in the cast who really doesn't... She doesn't trigger any of the this-looks-like-a-woman things."
[Brandon] Right. She looks more like a blue ostrich thing.
[Howard] I know. Most comic book artists, if the alien is a female, she'll have boobs and be shapely in some way. Legs does not do any of that. Eyelashes! I use eyelashes. That's the only indicator. So, yeah, that's where her name comes from.
[Dan] Doesn't have a bow on her head like Disney uses? [Laughter]
[Howard] Nope. What's fun about that character is that the legs... She runs faster than anybody else. She's fun to draw in that way. She doesn't have any forelimbs that are useful, but she has a prehensile tongue.
[Dan] Which is kind of sexist.
[Howard] Which is... Sadly, yeah. Glossolalia or whatever you call that. Anyway, she's a fun alien. She's almost as much fun as Schlock in many regards.
[Dan] She is. She's one of my favorite characters.
[Brandon] Yep. She's always opening doors with her legs and things. Yeah. But let's get back to the names. Names in this particular...
[Howard] Naming. Names in this particular book.
[Mary] Particularly the new characters that you introduce.

[Howard] Okay. Para Ventura's name came out of a shampoo bottle. I remember looking at the Spanish instructions on a shampoo bottle, and it said para usar. I thought para usar looks like a first name and last name. So for a long time, I thought I'm going to introduce this character, I'm going to call her Para Usar, which for somebody who does robotics and actual force multiplication through adding robots to the crew, "in order to use" seems like a great name. Then I thought, "That's a little too on the nose," so I swapped her last name out for Governor Ventura's.
[Brandon] Okay. All right. I will warn people, we're going to go a little long on each of these casts where we're interviewing because there's so much to dig into.
[Howard] That's fine.

[Brandon] We want to go in depth, so we're going to go ahead. I'm going to ask you this... Primarily you started this story in order to show some characters. In other words, you were trying to explore characters. So how did you balance that versus the plot, because Schlock Mercenary is by necessity a very fast-moving, plot-oriented story?
[Howard] I just made sure that every scene did double or triple duty. I made sure that the characters who were in conflict were shown being in conflict.
[Brandon] You did this consciously?
[Howard] Oh, yeah, I did this consciously. There's a dialogue happening in one place, and we see Para Ventura curled up in a ball in the corner because we've established in previous books she suffers from a little post-traumatic stress. I knew that part of her plot arcs in this book was overcoming post-traumatic stress. Not overcoming it by toughing up and saying, "All right. Now I'm going to pick up a gun and kill things." It's toughing it out by saying, "You know what? I need to function. So I'm going to function, and I'm going to reprogram stuff and save the day."

[Dan] Okay. I have a question for you about your plot. Specifically, and this is going to sound rude, how you made it interesting? Because as you described the conflict to us in the beginning, it's this very kind of heady political thing with an evil government doing something with healthcare. That does not say guns and explosions. Yet by the time you actually read it, it's actually got a mad scientist, and all these big huge fat guys hanging in a laboratory...
[Brandon] I'd forgotten that image. Thank you, Dan.
[Dan] Yes. Fat guys covered with pustules...
[Brandon] Out of which they're milking...
[Dan] Now, tell me, how did you go about translating the very kind of dry NPR version of that story into the big exciting adventure?
[Howard] How do people get hurt? When you look at... Anything you look at. When you look at, "Oh, my gosh, we raised taxes." That's very sterile. How did that hurt people? Go find the story of somebody whose property tax went up to the point that they couldn't afford the property, and because of this other law, they got foreclosed on. They are now sitting in the front lawn with a teddy bear for the photographer for the news. That's the image of "Oh no, we raised property taxes." That principle applied all the way through. I'd think, "How does this hurt people? Who is getting hurt? Why are they getting hurt? How are they responding to getting hurt?" So, yeah, we have kidnappings taking place, because the way in which the drugs were crippled is that they couldn't be mechanically reproduced. They couldn't be reproduced by machines. So the doctor, who thinks he has stolen this stuff, has to use people to breed the drugs. So you've got a big fat men, and the pustule milking machine, and the...
[Brandon] Man, I had almost forgotten it again. [Laughter]
[Dan] Your memory is very poor.
[Mary] It's not an image that you can get out of your head.

[Dan] Okay. I have one more question, even though I know we're late here.
[Howard] Way out of time.
[Dan] I just want very quickly to talk about Major Murtaugh [see]. As often happens with really good antagonists, she becomes one of the most interesting characters in the story. How did you do that?
[Howard] In the original outline, when everything blows up and starts hitting the fan, the folks shooting at the good guys were all going to get wiped out. It was going to be an absolute bloodbath. Then as I looked at character motivations at my two-thirds mark to make sure everything was hanging together, I realized, "No, if the bad guys had full 100% loyal access to that kind of firepower, they wouldn't be in this mess to begin with." So Sanctum Adroit has to be lawmakers for hire, there has to be... They're paladins. Or ronin, I guess is another way to look at them. They are honorable mercenaries, but they are mercenary policemen. Once I reached that conclusion, I thought, "Okay. Major Murtaugh likes her people. She does not like the person she's working for. If she finds out that he's been breaking the law, she'll just arrest everybody." So starting from that point, I rewrote the ending and realized, "Oh, gosh, I need to find an ending where not nearly as many people die." Because I don't want my friends... My friends? My characters that I like running around killing police officers.

[Brandon] Okay. Well, hopefully that was useful to you all listening. We're going to do this next with my book, the Way of Kings, so be forewarned. It's just a little bit on the long side...
[Mary] Just a little.
[Brandon] So hopefully you've been reading it if you want to. Otherwise, you don't have to. We'll talk about it in a way that you can pick up on things. But we will go in depth into it, so spoilers will be forthcoming.

[Howard] If I can say one more thing, my process for this book... I mentioned the two-thirds mark. I get to the two-thirds mark, then my writing group and I do a reread of the first two-thirds and of the outline notes I have thereafter. We make lists of what are the promises made to the readers. What do we think the book... What would we feel like the book would be crippled if it didn't have in it? What do we expect to see? So I look at those expectations and then I defy them by writing something else entirely that fulfills these expectations in a new... It's a lot of fun. My writing group telling me, this would really surprise me if this was here. Really? That would surprise you, and that's what you picked? Okay, because I'm going to surprise you with something else entirely. That's one of my most fun writing group sessions. We do it now with every book. We get to the two-thirds mark, outline the promises made to the readers, and then write the ending. Of course, I do that because I don't have the luxury of rewriting endings and things.

[Mary] I do the same thing, actually, with my beta readers. Before you close this out, I actually have one question that I want to ask you guys too when it's your turn to visit the hot seat. What's the thing you're most proud of with this? Like, the thing that you're like, "I pulled that off!"
[Howard] Wow. Actually, I think the thing I'm most proud of is that I liked Major Murtaugh a lot. I really liked her.
[Dan] We're going to see her again, right?
[Howard] Oh, yes.
[Dan] Oh, good.

[Brandon] All right. Your writing prompt this week is actually to do this with your own work. Have your friends sit down and interview you about something you're working on and about your process. Hopefully you will become more conscious of how you approach your writing. Which is one of our big goals as Writing Excuses podcasters, is to get you to think about that. All right? So, this has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: characters, interesting, plot, problems, settings
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