1. What are your thoughts on prologues? They can help, but they can also be a crutch. Good for epics, groundwork, setting.
2. Tips for using drawings to establish setting. Cheat! Implication and suggestion.
3. How do you name your characters? 1) Raid the spam box. 2) The Ever-Changing Book of Names. 3) behindthename.com and other online name sites
4. If you were doing it now, would you self-publish? Brandon: No. Big epic fantasies do better with mainstream. Mary: No. Too much overhead. Dan: No, prefer publisher.
5. How do you make sure powerful character isn't too strong? Weakness. Stakes outside powerful area.
6. How do you avoid too much foreshadowing? Write the book, and fix it in post.
7. How do you trim your fiction? Look for redundancy. Apply "In late, out early" to trim the start and end of scenes and chapters.
8. What about flashbacks? They can be useful. Make sure they are triggered by something the character is experiencing. Avoid flashbacks that kill forward motion.
"If you can make it work, it will work. Don't worry about rules telling you what you can and can't do." Dan
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Seven, Episode 22, 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] I'm Howard.
[Brandon] And we're going to go to questions from Facebook. So. First question is. Like to hear our thoughts on prologues. And possibly epilogues as well. When do we use them, and when not to?
[Dan] Man. I've heard a guy on a panel at a conference say that if a book has a prologue, he doesn't even read it. I thought, "Well, that's a stupid thing to do." I love prologues. I use them, I read them, I think they're very cool.
[Brandon] A prologue can do some things for you. It can also be a crutch. The things it can do for you is it allows you to cheat a little bit. You can deviate from whatever your format of your book is going to be. If it's a first-person, it gives you an easy I'm going to do a third person. Or vice versa. If you're going to be setting in a certain time. In an epic fantasy, you can show another time period without... It gives a clue to the reader, "Hey, this is probably not what the whole thing is going to be like." So I can use this as part of the story without getting too attached to what's going on here.
[Dan] Prologues are very useful, if you are writing something that is epic or something that you need to lay a a lot of groundwork for. Star Wars is the story of Luke Skywalker. It starts with a prologue of a space battle.
[Mary] It is also useful if you are setting something in the real world where the protagonist doesn't know about the secret world.
[Brandon] Oh, yes.
[Mary] Because it allows you to show the secret world so that the audience knows that this is coming, and they don't think, "This is going to be..."
[Dan] Again, The Matrix. Story of Neo, but it starts with a prologue of magical people beating each other up.
[Brandon] Yup. Those are... Just the way it can be a crutch is if you feel you absolutely have to use one every time, which you don't have to.
[Howard] I... The prologues that I hate are the ones in the movies where the first 5 minutes of movie is this is the world we are living in, and these are the things that have gone before, and this is the secret whatever. When you get to the story... When I get to the story, I realize these pieces could have been communicated through the narrative just fine, and it would have been a voyage of discovery for us, and it would've been a lot more fun. I think that if your prologue is there to help establish the feel of epicness or whatever, then it's probably required. But if your prologue is there because there's these cool story pieces that you want to give? Tell you what, save those cool story pieces and let the characters give them to us, because I think that way they'll mean more.
[Dan] Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring movie treads that line very carefully. I think you could make an argument for it going either way.
[Brandon, Howard] Yep Yep.
[Mary] James Bond always actually opens with a prologue.
[Brandon] An action sequence. Because they know they're not going to necessarily be able to do the action sequence right off. So a prologue action sequence to remind you James Bond is full of action and people dying and fun.
[Dan] Then we get to spend 40 minutes putting pieces in place before we get to the next one.
[Brandon] All right. The next one's actually a question for Howard. Someone would like some tips on using visual... Or using drawings to get across setting. Specifically for you.
[Howard] Oh. Drawing to get across setting. Understand that I, as a cartoonist, I cheat a lot. In which...
[Brandon] They want to know how you cheat, I think. I think they want to be able to do it themselves.
[Howard] Okay. If I'm looking to create a large room, I raise the horizon line, and I use thinner lines. If I'm looking to create a small room, there may be no horizon, and you can see the outlines of window frames or control panels setting on walls. But if I want to communicate sci-fi versus fantasy... I'm not doing fantasy, but if I were trying to do fantasy, then wall patterns would be full of stone work and wood paneling. I wouldn't do fine detail on the wood panel, but one little vertical squiggle that suggests a knothole is enough to say, "Okay, this wall's made of wood." Whereas using the French curve to throw a couple of lines, a couple of parallel swoopy curvy lines, says, "Oh, that's not something that you could build medievally, this is something that's on a space station." So I use those sorts of things a lot. Now if you look at... If you look at what storyboard artists will often do for movies... Start looking for signature elements that communicate not just that this setting is fantasy or sci-fi, but that this setting has its own flavor. That's... I could spend 20 minutes just talking about that, so I won't.
[Brandon] All right. We'll need to get another cartoonist on and have you guys fire back and forth at each other one of these times.
[Howard] We'll argue so much.
[Brandon] All right. Next one is... We always get questions about how we name our characters. We've been trying to give some help on that. But... Does the podcasters... Do any of you have a simple trick to just throw out for this person who wants help naming things?
[Mary] I have three.
[Mary] Your spam box has fantastic names in it. You can raid the spam box. The next one is the ever-changing book of names, which is a piece of software that you can download. [See http://ebon.pyorre.net/] You can create your own naming structure, the way... Brandon created one for... The...
[Everyone] Way of Kings.
[Mary] My brain was offering me The Name of Kings. I'm like, "Well, that's not right." But the ever-changing book of names. You can set up a naming pattern structure, and it will kick out names for you, based on that structure. It will also give you names that, for instance, sound Icelandic but aren't actually Icelandic. Which allows you to create specific names for different geographic areas. Behindthename.com, which is a name database. [See http://www.behindthename.com/] It allows you to search for names based on meaning, gender, where they are based in the world. It's a fantastic resource.
[Howard] I look for baby names... Baby name sites online, look for the definitions of names, and use that as a starting point. Sometimes it's because the name, the meaning of the name is one that I believe the parents would have been familiar with and would have chosen on purpose. Sometimes I'm making a subtle statement about this character's role... Or about the opposite of this character's role. Sometimes I'm just making sure that it doesn't fit awkwardly. So...
[Dan] I've been doing a lot of genealogical indexing lately. There's a couple of big websites where you can do that, like ancestry.com and familysearch dot whatever that is. [See http://www.ancestry.com/ and https://familysearch.org/] That has been really a great source of names.
[Brandon] Okay. You guys no longer have excuses for not having names, because those are all excellent suggestions.
[Dan] We don't want to hear this question again, audience.
[Howard] Well, we can hear it from new listeners, at which point we will tell them to go back to episode number...
[Brandon] Seven... 20...
[Dan] Seven dot 21. Right?
[Mary] How self-referential we are! So the new listeners have just come back to listen to us telling them to come back... It's very circular right now. Next question!
[Brandon] Next question is, if you had to do it over again, if you were doing it right now, would you self publish? Brandon, Dan, and Mary... Howard already self publishes. I would not, personally. The reason I would not is I am doing big epic fantasies, and currently, in the market, the big epic fantasy I believe is much better off with a mainstream publisher in New York. For shelf space, and for just the amount of editing and work that needs to go into these, and the amount of marketing, I wouldn't do it. Maybe that will change in five years, but I certainly think my publisher has done very well by me. Even my latest books still sell 50% in the bookstores. Getting that 50% in the bookstores is a pretty big deal.
[Mary] I also would not. Understand that having come from art major background, and working as an art director, I actually have all of the skill set to self publish, and I have avoided it like the plague. Not because I think it's bad. But because I am much happier to have people give me money, and then to have them do the work than for me to have to do all that work myself. I'm... It eats my brain to do it. It eats my story brain.
[Dan] I did self publish a book last summer. Comparing the two experiences, how much work I put into it versus what I got out of it, I am very happy that I have a publisher I can go through. That may change as time goes on, but as of right now, self-publishing has not been a fraction of how successful my regular publishing has been.
[Brandon] All right. So, next question. If your character has a great deal of power, their ADHD, an angel, or something else, high-powered figure, mage with a lot of power, what do you do to make sure that they are not too perfect or that they can't solve problems just too easily?
[Mary] Kryptonite. Make sure that they have a weakness that they have to guard, whether it's a personal weakness, whether it's something that they care about, or whether it's something that will diminish their power.
[Howard] Put the stakes outside the realm in which they're powerful. Superman can't be hurt, but Lois Lane can be, and Superman can't be everywhere.
[Brandon] Here's the thing... The question I would ask you is, "Why are you making your character so powerful?" Now, granted, if you want to tell a story about a deity, that's great. But that story seed that made you want to do that should have had some sort of conflict in it inherently. If there wasn't, you don't have a story. I don't know why you're driving to tell this story specifically about that. Go read the essay I wrote on how limitations are so much more interesting than the powers themselves. Think about why you're making your character so powerful. [See http://brandonsanderson.com/article/100/Sandersons-Second-Law]
[Howard] The Greeks told wonderful stories about deities. Most of them involved deities fighting with other deities. They had conflicts up at their level.
[Dan] Now, I think Howard's point is great. Put the stakes outside their realm of competence. One of the... My favorite superhero is a Marvel superhero called the Sentry. Who is basically defined as the most powerful superhero there is. He can do anything, but he's also completely crippled by a host of mental illnesses. So, he can do anything, if he's lucid enough to do it right.
[Brandon] Okay. We need to stop for our book of the week. Our book of the week this week is going to be given to us by Mary.
[Mary] The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. This is a mystery. There are no supernatural elements in this at all. But what I love about these books is that the main character is Flavia de Luce. She is an 11-year-old genius with chemistry, and her specialty are poisons. It's set in the early 1950s in England, right after the war. She solves mysteries. I love these books so much I can't even... I eat them like candy.
[Howard] Except they're poisonous.
[Mary] Except they're poisonous. She does not actually poison peop... Well, she doesn't do much poisoning. [Laughter] There is no fatal poisoning.
[Dan] Spoiler warning.
[Mary] But she does... Well, no, there is fatal poisoning. But anyway, the point being, she doesn't kill people, she solves murders.
[Howard] Okay. Well, head on out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Kick off a 14 day free trial membership and have a listen to...
[Mary] The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. I'm also going to mention, just as a motivational thing, this was his first book, and he was 70 years old when he published it.
[Brandon] There you go.
[Dan] So never give up, sweet listeners.
[Brandon] All right. So. Next question is, how do you avoid doing too much foreshadowing?
[Dan] Man. Is that a problem people have?
[Howard] Now, when you say too much foreshadowing, you mean like heavy-handed foreshadowing?
[Brandon] I think he's meaning heavy-handed foreshadowing.
[Howard] Dun-dun-dun... DUN!
[Brandon] Or your reader gets it too early. My answer to this one is pretty easy. Go ahead and write the book and don't worry too much. Foreshadowing's the easiest thing to fix in post. The easiest. Give it to a reader. Ask them, "Write down when you figure out the mystery of this." They write it down, you see where they got it. You do that with a couple of people. You'll see where people are getting it. You can adjust your foreshadowing to match.
[Mary] I also... The way I write is that I have people reading along as I go. Every couple of chapters, I ask them what they think is going to happen next. If they have guessed too soon, I adjust.
[Dan] Now, I do want to point out to people, foreshadowing is one of those things that you should fix in post, but that can be very hard. I mean, emotionally hard for you to do. The Hollow City is a good example, my book that's coming out in July. The first read through that, a lot of the secrets were painfully obvious. The writing group actually didn't like a lot of the book, because of how obvious those secrets were. You just have to accept that that's going to happen, and then have another wave of readers you can try the fixed version on.
[Brandon] Yup. It's one of those things that's just tough with writing groups, because you keep thinking in your head, "But it's gonna work. I promise. I just have to get it down first." Yeah.
[Brandon] All right. So, any tips on trimming your fiction? They said, looking right at me, so I'll go ahead and talk first to give the rest of you time to think. I don't know why you're asking me, because I obviously trim the worst. Though people do know that I generally cut about 15 to 20% of my novels. I do that because I look for redundancy. We naturally talk... You hear it anytime someone's speaking. We naturally write with redundancy. We say the same thing twice. I look for that, and I cut out half of it.
[Mary] Yeah. I do the same thing. The other thing that I look at are the beginnings and endings of scenes and chapters, because a lot of times, the language there is stuff that I'm using to get myself into it. We've got the mantra, "In early, out late"... Sorry, "In late, out early." Good heavens. So I can mechanically make that happen later if I just go back and... Sometimes I would just go back and cut the first paragraph.
[Howard] I do that exact style of trimming while I am writing the dialogue. Usually, the first couple of panels of dialogue, I realize, "Ulp. That was just me getting into the voice of the character." Now I can prune that out and get to the meat of these four panels of material.
[Dan] Just cut every fourth word and then tell people you're doing Cormac McCarthy.
[Brandon] All right. Last question for this microcast. We have a lot of people asking about flashbacks, in kind of the same breath they're asking about prologues. Do we view flashbacks the same way as we view prologues? What do you think?
[Howard] I think if you can put a flashback in a prologue with a mirror scene...
[Brandon] Oh, mirror scene meaning the person describes themselves.
[Howard] Describing themselves as they're looking in a mirror. If you can sell that, you can write anything, but please don't try.
[Mary] Flashbacks can be very useful, but they're frequently overused, and it's often a way of writing lazily. Where I find flashbacks most effective is when they are triggered by something that the character is experiencing in that moment. Because we are all the time in real life thinking back about something that is going on. But you want to avoid having the flashback in the middle of the action scene. You want to avoid flashbacks where they are going to stop your forward motion. You want to avoid flashbacks that are not internally triggered by what's happening with the character.
[Dan] Yeah. I'm going to recommend that you read George RR Martin. I'm thinking specifically of the character of Jaime Lannister. He is a big warrior. The early stuff you get from him is very present, all in the now. Then he is injured. He kind of can't fight anymore, and from that point on, he starts dwelling on the past. You get a lot more flashbacks. So drawing out of the character that way makes them work.
[Howard] The other thing to keep in mind is that as you listen to this cast and you ask us a question... "Well, this is what I did." This is what I did. Flashbacks are one of the ways in which we communicate with each other. You're asking me a question, and I'll tell you about something I have done that perhaps solves that. So it's a very natural way to communicate. Now whether or not the whole POV of the book shifts into that time period, that just depends on... That's just execution on the information.
[Brandon] I will say though... I've used flashbacks a lot, particularly in The Way of Kings. I would suggest... I've tried various methods. I find that for me, break and have the flashback as a separate chapter works. My favorite way of doing flashbacks. Or, the way that... The Name of the Wind is all a big flashback. If it's powerful enough to need a flashback, then saying, "All right. Let me tell you the story..." Break. And we actually go into in scene telling the story inside of going on... I prefer much more than the in the middle of the chapter, you kind of voice into one, and then voice out of one. Doesn't work as well for me.
[Mary] I think it depends on how big the flashback is. If it is a whole giant long story, yes, I agree with you. If it's something like she remembered putting the kettle on that morning, and then you need to remind the reader that she had put the kettle on... That's still a flashback, but...
[Brandon] I suppose. I don't view that as a flashback in the same way. But yeah, I suppose it is.
[Mary] It is still a flashback. But... In my opinion, it is a flashback that is handled somewhat more gracefully in that it is motivated by action that is happening on the page.
[Dan] The ultimate rule for a flashback is the same as the ultimate rule for a prologue, which is, if you can make it work, it will work. Don't worry about rules telling you what you can and can't do.
[Brandon] Although I would suggest letting your readers get to know your character first before you spend a lot of time in flashback to who they were.
[Mary] The other thing... The other litmus test for me is cut the flashback, hand it to a beta reader, and see if they still understand the story. If they do, do not put the flashback back in.
[Brandon] Okay. We are out of time. And... Oh, man, I had a good writing prompt, too.
[Mary] Write a flashback.
[Brandon] I guess, write a flashback. Sure, we'll do the easy one.
[Dan] In a prologue, with the mirror scene.
[Brandon] With the mirror scene.
[Howard] Oh, gosh.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
[Howard] No, they have a very, very good excuse.
[Brandon] Yeah, I know. That was lame. I should've written it down. Oh, well.
[Howard] G'night, kids.