1. Why is the first Mistborn book about rebelling against the establishment, while the 2nd and 3rd are about protecting the establishment?
2. Why does Kelsier shrug a lot?
3. How do you know when to stop or expand a chapter?
4. How do you make your prose more transparent, and still convey everything?
5. Whose on first? I don't know. Third base!
6. How do you decide who and what to cut?
7. How do you quit cramming ideas into a story?
8. How do you make revisions or additions in a collaboration and preserve the voice?
9. What's the best way to tackle a long backstory?
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Seven, Episode 26, Q&A at UVU, Number 2.
[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 have three microphones.
[Laughter] [Yes, he does.]
[Howard] Hey, let's get our first question.
[Howard] No, just talk into them. Start. Go.
[Brandon] [inaudible] go for it.
[Question] My question's for Brandon. I just recently finished reading the Mistborn trilogy. I haven't read the fourth one yet. Anyway, something I noticed about them is that... That's the first Mistborn book, all is about rebelling against the establishment, whereas the second and third were about protecting the establishment.
[Brandon] That's a question... I actually as these go, and maybe this will be interesting to writers, I, in concept, designed the second book first for the trilogy, because it's always harder to build something up than to destroy something. When I was designing the series, I realized I didn't want to tell... The first book was right, that was a good place to go. It was a good, single volume, compelling story. Yet I always like to do reversals when I can. This one is a reversal of myself. I intentionally did that, where I said, "Okay. Book one is about undermining the establishment, but that's actually kind of easy. It's easy to be the rebel who destroys something. Building something up and actually maintaining it and sticking to ideals is far harder. I designed the series that way intentionally.
[Question] One other thing. I also noticed in the first book, Kelsier shrugs a lot.
[Question] Like [inaudible -- all the time?]
[Brandon] This is something that people will notice for writers. You, as writers, you will all start to have tells. Tells about your writing. It's natural. You will start to use certain words. You'll fall into using them more and more commonly. They will actually shift through your writing career. It is good to be aware of these. Do you guys... Have you guys noticed tells of your own?
[Mary] Yeah. I particularly found one I started having to replace words in Glamour in Glass, when I was looking for period words. I had people blinking just like... Apparently they all had stuff in their eyes.
[Brandon] Right. I use that one a little bit too much myself.
[Dan] Yeah. Mine was nodding. I had a copy editor finally say, "Listen, Dan! Your people nod so much, I think that they have tardive dyskinesia." So in Hollow City, which comes out in July, I gave a character tardive dyskinesia.
[Brandon] Here's a quick gimmick for you guys that I've started using. You keep a list of these, and I always lose my list, so don't do that. But you keep a list of your tells, and then you can actually do it... Set up a thing in Microsoft Word where you just actually search for and highlight those words. Then when you're doing your revision, or you're reading through, you can see how often you use these certain words. Highlight each of them in a different color. If you look at a page and there's four of them, you're like, "Okay. I need to cut those." You can kind of ration yourself on certain of your tells.
[Question] How do you know when to stop or expand a chapter, like the subject?
[Dan] Very good question.
[Mary] That's a good question. And we all back away from it...
[Dan] Okay. No. Okay. When I started writing the Serial Killer books, is when I first started writing full-time. It was because I was unemployed. It was not because I was able to quit, it was because I got fired. But I was... I worked for eight hours a day. I would get up every morning and say, "Okay. Here's what I'm going to write today." Then I would write it. That would be my chapter. You can go back through Serial Killer and look at this. All the chapters are exactly the same length, because that's how much I could write in eight hours. It ended up being very stilted and awkward, because I was writing to a timeframe, rather than to what the story required. What I have done since then is given myself scenes. So I will write a scene, and then it will be done. I'm making those chapters, for the most part. I'll combine some occasionally if they're very short and ridiculous. But just going for a scene, then the chapters are all different sizes. That doesn't directly answer your question, but it answers half of it.
[Brandon] I have a variety of different types of scenes that I use. I don't think in chapters, I think in scenes. That's a better way to approach it. Some people make each scene a chapter. Sometimes you'll have chapters that are two and three scenes. But it's kind of what Mary said during our last Q&A, the beginning, middle, and end. I actually really more think about this than the paragraphs, is having a beginning, middle, and end for a scene. That doesn't mean each scene should follow the same archetype. Sometimes your beginning, middle, and end is you want to cut at the really dramatic moment. That's your end. It's the hook scene. Sometimes your scene is actually we introduce a conflict early in the scene, we struggle with it, we deal with it, something goes wrong, we eventually figure out that little conflict, that conversation between people, you work it out, and then you exit the scene. Or sometimes it is, you begin, you struggle with it, and you don't solve it. You exit the scene more frustrated than when you began. Those are each scene dynamics. You kind of start to learn these different types of scenes and where they go.
[Mary] What we're really talking about here is pacing, because when you end a scene when they have resolved everything, that is a moment when you are giving your reader a rest. What you're looking for when you need to, like, break in the middle of the scene so that that tension is still there, is when you want the reader to keep going. But there are times when you need to give the reader a rest. That pacing that you're looking at, has more to do with the reader experience than the experience of the characters.
[Howard] I'm a fan of scene-sequel format, in which a scene, using that terminology, a scene is where something happens, it's very active, characters are doing things. The sequel is where people are reacting to what has happened, talking about it, preparing for the next scene. If you just do scene-sequel, scene-sequel, scene-sequel throughout the book, it becomes very, very stilted. But if you recognize that some chapters are for talking about what happened and what we're going to do next, and other chapters are for blowing crap up, it's... You sort of naturally fall into a pacing that is about chapter length. Because you, as a writer are, I think, going to be able to naturally arrive at, "Oh, it's done, it's time for them to talk about it."
[Question] I was just wondering how you make your prose more transparent, and still have them convey everything you want to say without using very many words?
[Howard] I drop it into a different layer in Photoshop and notch it back to about 50%.
[Dan] Okay. Next question. [Pause] For me, it all comes down to the character. If I'm confident that everything being said, even by the narrator if it's third person, is coming through the lens of that character, and is the kind of words that character would say, and the kind of thoughts that character would think, then I know it's going to sound right. If it sounds like somebody else, then it's going to get in the way of the story.
[Brandon] Okay. I think that was a very good response.
[Dan] Well, thank you very much.
[Howard] I have no idea what the question even meant, so...
[Brandon] Let's do our book of the week.
[Dan] Okay, I've got a book of the week.
[Mary] Thank heavens.
[Dan] Okay. It is my book, Partials. Which is actually by the time this airs, it will have been out for a while. But we haven't yet done it as a book of the week. It is my new series. It is science fiction post-apocalypse, 11 years after the world ends in a horrible plague. These genetically engineered artificial people have kind of destroyed humanity. This girl, named Kira, tries to help rebuild civilization. So, Partials. Howard, how can they get a copy of that?
[Howard] Head on out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse. You can kick off a 14 day free trial membership, download a copy of Partials by... I was going to say by John Cleaver. That's your [garbled] name, though.
[Dan] You know, John Cleaver should write a book, though, huh?
[Howard] He should. He totally should. By Dan Wells. Who's the narrator?
[Dan] I don't know yet. I will by then, but I don't know, now.
[Howard] I don't know plays first.
[Brandon] Let's do our next question.
[Mary] No, whose on first?
[Howard] You're right. I don't know is on third.
[Question] Okay. So while editing, I cut three characters and 30,000 words. I'd like to know how you guys decide who and what to cut?
[Dan] Well done.
[Howard] Give it up, give it up.
[Mary] If I realized that I have two characters that are serving exactly the same function in a book, then I try to roll them into one character.
[Dan] I had to do that, actually, in Partials. It was very sad, because I had two characters I loved. I killed one of them, and gave the other one the first one's name because it was better.
[Brandon] I usually depend on my alpha and beta readers to tell me where characters need to be cut, because usually I'm not that great at it. That's not necessarily true. I'm good at cutting... Figuring it out first quarter, if a character's going wrong and cutting them out. But by the time the book is done, I'm going to need reader response to kind of fish for how people are feeling about certain characters and if certain characters are weak to them and things like that. That's what I'll use as my guide to whether I should cut them out. Howard, you can't do that. Luxury. [Garbled]
[Howard] No, when I discover that I need to cut a character out of the story, there is a death.
[Mary] He uses scissors.
[Howard] There is a rather immediate death.
[Brandon] All right. Next question?
[Mary] I was going to say scissors and whiteout, but...
[Question] I have been writing. I keep having like all these ideas that come, so that it's getting to the point where I'm trying to cram too many in. How do you cut yourself off from getting ideas for a story?
[Dan] Okay. This is what I do. Because as a writer, you're always coming up with ideas. There's always more than you can use. So I keep either a notebook... I used to have a notebook, now I have a Word file, that is my ideas' drawer. Every time I think of something new and awesome, I will write it down there. Then, even if I know I will never actually go back to it, I tell myself that I can. Then I don't feel obligated to use it in this book right now.
[Howard] I think this is why so many of the great American novelists were actually alcoholics.
[Howard] No, kill some brain cells. Sorry, I just need to...
[Mary] That sense of "ooo, I could do this" and "ooo, I could do this." When it's happening to me in a short story, that's usually a signal to me that I may be looking at a novel. But in short stories, I'm like, "Nope." I can have one or two.
[Brandon] I write 400,000 words books. I just put it all in.
[Howard] So you can just Sanderson your way out there to the end.
[Brandon] A more useful [garbled] it's actually good you're having this problem, because I've noticed that with new writers, they tend to err on not having enough ideas. But there are some who just have too many. The kind of kitchen sink writers. In the case, most of the time, I've noticed with new writers, it's because they haven't really decided what their story should be yet. If they decide what their story should be, and focus it in... You may need to focus on a couple [garbled -- major?] characters, decide what's really important for those characters, decide what your solid core plot is, and then add a few other things in, but save the rest for another story.
[Howard] The other thing to keep in mind if you're... This often happens with discovery writers. You're discovery writing your way through the story, and you found something that's cooler than what you started with. On your editorial pass, you may end up pruning the earlier idea and keeping the later ones, because the later ones, especially when you're writing endings... The last idea you had for an ending is probably better than the first one you had.
[Brandon] All right. [Evan] question?
[Question] All right. My husband and I are collaborating. The form we collaborate in usually means that he writes a plot, he writes some of the story, I come in on a revision run and fix what he's written and then add in the parts that I'm expected to add in. What I struggle with is how to make my revisions or my additions in his voice.
[Question] Okay? So I hesitate sometimes in changing what he has, even if I don't agree with it because I'm worried that I'm messing with it.
[Mary] The dirty secret is that most of the time, you can tell, but readers can't.
[Question] My brother can tell. Okay. But he knows us well.
[Mary] But, yes, he knows. One thing that I do, and Dan actually taught me this trick...
[Brandon] He's not completely baffled about what it might be.
[Howard] It involves a bandsaw.
[Mary] Is that now I read through what I had previously written before I start writing.
[Dan] Oh, yeah.
[Mary] Because that reminds me of what voice is. One thing that you could try doing is not just to reread, but to actually rekey what he has written.
[Question] I do read it out loud, which has helped.
[Mary] Yeah. But rekeying and reading it out loud kind of does a little bit of brain mapping, which is helpful.
[Howard] The other thing that you can do... The other of Mary's tricks that you could use, is to build a dictionary. The Kevin Evans' dictionary of words, and do search and replaces...
[Mary] [garbled... That's right?]
[Howard] Of course, all of your words are going to end up being steam or coal or rivet, but...
[Brandon] For those of you that don't benefit, the Evans are luminaries of fandom. We've known them for many years. So it's nice of you to ask the question.
[Question] Red dwarf, okay. It's not...
[Dan] Now one way around that problem, if you want to avoid it completely. This might not work for your particular collaboration. Larry Correia wrote a collaboration called Dead Six with his friend Mike Kupari. The way they did it was there were two point of view characters, they each wrote one of them, and alternated chapters. So they never had the voice problem.
[Brandon] I would actually just say, change it however you want, change it to the best that you can. Then give it back to him, and let him do a pass to change anything that doesn't feel like his own voice. That's what I would do. Not make it a burden on you. I mean, you're collaborating. So you should do, change it how you feel it needs to be changed. Then if his voice is what you want the book to have, let him change it back. All right. We're going to have only time I think for this last question.
[Question] What's the best way to tackle a long backstory? I have something that needs to be in there, but it takes a long time to get to it, to get to the point of the backstory. How do you get through that?
[Mary] I can really go for a giant prologue.
[Howard] I'm not a fan of prologues.
[Mary] I'm totally kidding.
[Howard] I think a flashback scene while the character is looking in the mirror.
[Brandon] Oh, boy.
[Mary] No, wait. If you can do the flashback in the prologue, that's...
[Brandon] No, no, no, no. Just put the appendix first, and make it a big history textbook.
[Mary] There you go. And a glossary of characters. Sorry.
[Dan] In all seriousness. As much as people make fun of flashbacks, I've been reading through the Game of Thrones series, and he uses flashbacks like a madman. They are all over the place. He's one of the most respected writers in fantasy. So if you do them well, you can totally do a flashback.
[Brandon] I would say that in most cases, you may not need as much as you think you need. There's a form of art out there where people take a black piece of paper and they cut it into a shape... Oops. Mary's got a note.
[Mary] It's called a silhouette... Or in England, it's called a shade, as in Shades of Milk and Honey, as I plug my own book. Continue with your actual point.
[Brandon] I had a street guy do this in Paris once for me. He said, "Hey, you" and he held it up and it was me. It was completely me. It was only 1" x 1" maybe, 1.5" x 1.5"? It was awesome. Imagine your backstory like that. Hinting at the backstory without going into the details is usually going to be enough. Put in enough that it... The reader can feel that the characters are passionate about this, and it informs and involves who they are, but don't worry about getting us every little detail of it.
[Mary] Yeah. Let me give you an example. Who here knows who the King was before the Prince Regent became the King? One person. I'll give you a hint. The Prince Regent when he became King was King George the IVth. So before him was King George the IIIrd. Anyway, my point being I'm writing these historical things. I don't have to tell anyone any of this. Even though it's not like I can rely on people to know history. You just drop the things that are plot related. In my novel, it does not matter who was the King prior to this.
[Brandon] If it's really important to the character, you can put it in, but [garbled] to the other side.
[Howard] I think that the character's voice, when you're in that character's point of view, let that backstory flow through you and color every reaction that the character has to the world around them. Then for us the reader, this will be an adventure of discovery as we get to know this person through their eyes. Instead of reading their CV on their Facebook page.
[Mary] Do you know what your mother had for breakfast before she went to the hospital to have you? Oh, wow, one person actually nodded. That is freaky. But I mean, that's backstory. It's about that important.
[Brandon] Okay. I think it's about time to be done here. Does anyone have a writing prompt that they're eager to say, or shall I like force Earl our cameraman to do it.
[Dan] Yes, yes! Yes!
[Brandon] We have Earl K. Hill, who is my former roommate and good friend is filming us. Earl, do you have any writing prompts that you could force people to do?
[Earl] Writing prompt? Let's see.
[Mary] You'll have to go to the microphone now.
[Howard] Sorry. We're going to ask you to step away from your camera and up here to me and my three microphones.
[Brandon] He's going to throw things at me later.
[Mary] Turn around and face the camera. This is for posterity.
[Earl] Non-writer, Earl K. Hill. I do work as a programmer. I could give you a programming prompt. How about tell a whole story from the view of the sidekick without ever telling what the real guy is? There you go.
[Mary] Oh, nice. That's a great writing prompt.
[Brandon] That's a great one.
[Dan] That's actually a very good one. You make us all look stupid.
[Brandon] Well, Earl is very self-effacing, but I know he's got a lot of writing ideas. He's a screenwriter as well. All right. That is your writing prompt. You guys are out of excuses. Thanks for listening. Go write.