1. How do you deal with bad reviews?
2. How can you apply the laws of magic to science in science fiction?
3. How can you keep tension high without exhausting the reader?
4. What do you do when you've made your manuscript as good as you know how, and you don't know how to fix anything to make it better?
5. How do you create suspension of disbelief in your readers?
6. How do you deal with annoying fans?
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Seven, Episode 30, Micro-Casting!
[Brandon] Yes, again.
[Howard] Well, okay. 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 messing around with the intro.
[Brandon] Yes, as normal.
[Brandon] How do you deal with bad reviews? Question number one. Howard?
[Howard] I cry, and cry and cry. Then I post a link to it and let my fans trash them.
[Dan] The passive-aggressive strategy.
[Howard] Okay. Negative reviews, good reviews. If I get a review that says interesting things about my work... There's a lot of people out there reviewing webcomics. I've got a Google alert set up so that I can see any time I'm showing up in the news. News -- that was air quoted, the word news. Yeah, I'll link to it. If it's a good review, fantastic. If it's a bad review, well, they didn't like it. I have to come to grips with the fact that my work is not going to be universally loved, because no work is universally loved. My fans will... They will bolster me. They will make me happy.
[Brandon] One star reviews of works that I love helps me a lot to realize that. I've said it before. Going and reading the one star reviews of Pratchett and saying, "Heathen! Heathen."
[Mary] Yes. I use that trick as well. I look at reviews... The good reviews are from people who got my book and understood what I was going for. They are my target audience. So, that's fantastic. Negative reviews are from people who are not my target audience. They are not the person I was writing for. So if I want to widen my audience, then I need to look at the reasons that the book did not appeal to them. But otherwise, all that negative review is saying is that this book did not work for that reviewer, and that reviewer is not my target audience.
[Brandon] Well, that's excellent. I mean, I actually, I read a review recently up one of my works that complained it wasn't gritty enough for fantasy. Looking at it in that light, well, I'm not writing the gritty fantasy. This is... You don't read my books because you want George R Martin. You read George R Martin or Joe Abercrombie because of that. I'm shooting for a different audience.
[Howard] Let me come back to that real quick, Mary. You are confident enough in your own work that when a negative review comes up, it's because it wasn't part of your target audience. I think the most... The hardest reviews for us to consume are the ones where somebody who very clearly seems to be in our target audience is complaining about things that we then realize we did wrong in the book.
[Mary] But that is a useful thing.
[Howard] Oh, that's... Yeah, that's incredibly... That's an incredibly useful negative review. For... Dear listener, if you get one of those, suck it up and learn what there is to learn from it.
[Mary] I think that... I mean, I come from a theater background, and having a director say things to you kind of hardens you a lot to the whole review thing. But you do have to, when you look at reviews, know what book it was that you were trying to write, and recognize that you cannot please everybody all the time. Honestly, if you are not a person who can handle these things, and you have to recognize this about yourself, if you're someone who's going to dwell on this, don't read them. I have learned that I am not allowed to read the GoodReader reviews that are below four stars. I'm fine with that. But there was also a negative review that I had recently that was hilarious. I thought it was... Clearly, she wanted a different book, but she had read the book that I had written. She was... Definitely, it wasn't that she didn't get it, it was just not what she wanted. She was very funny about it. I loved it.
[Dan] I will say that I do not read any reviews at all, good or bad. Occasionally, if somebody says on Twitter, "I love this book so much, here's a link to my review of it" I'll think, "Well, maybe this would be something worth linking to" so I'll read it. But for the most part, no, I don't even care. So.
[Brandon] [laughter] Okay. There you go. Lots of different opinions on that one.
[Brandon] How can you apply all of the things we've talked about for magic systems to science in science fiction instead? Are there takeaways there? They ask. Specifically, they're talking about my laws of magic, but I think that it goes larger than that.
[Howard] They've taken the cart that we put back in front of the horse...
[Mary] No, no, no, no. This is...
[Howard] But that was how we arrived at the rules for magic, was treating magic...
[Brandon] Yes, like science.
[Howard] Like the cause-and-effect science fiction that's... Hello, recursion.
[Mary] But for those who have not listened to that particular podcast...
[Howard] Oh, okay.
[Mary] Like, for instance, me, since I was not on the podcast.
[Dan] You haven't listened to all of our backlist?
[Mary] Oddly, no. Sometimes you guys are dull.
[Howard] Oh, man. Well, see that's a...
[Dan] Mary, I don't listen to bad reviews, so I don't know what you just said.
[Howard] That's a negative review that's not from my target audience.
[Mary] Yeah. That was actually just said for comedy. I [garbled -- find you amusing?] all the time.
[Dan] Does anyone have an answer to the question?
[Mary] Yes. Yes. Basically, you can take the laws of magic, particularly the ones looking at the way they affect society, and apply it directly to the science. So if you... Whatever the geewhiz factor is that you've created, you need to look at how it's going to affect people, how it can be misused, and basically how it can be black marketed.
[Brandon] All of my rules for writing magic systems are actually plotting rules. They are disguised as magic system rules. The first one is explain your magic before you save the day with it. Well, guess what. That works for any plot device, specifically science fiction. Let us know he has this trinket that can do this scientific thing. Let us know he has a knowledge of science before it becomes important.
[Mary] Let us know how it can break.
[Brandon] Yeah. Exactly. All of these things, they're... We talk about this, but let's get it across one more time. A lot of the things we talk about, setting wise, are the dressing. There are core... They're important dressing, they're fantastic dressing. But the core writing principles can be applied to a lot of different genres if you break 'em down to their elements. The second law of magic that I have is limitations are more interesting than powers. That goes for characters. What the character can't do is often more interesting than what they can do. Specifically, the whys of why they can't do it. So, just back up a few steps, and look at what the effect on the plot is.
[Howard] The lesson I'd take is from an essay Larry Niven wrote about why Known Space was broken. He wrote a story called Neutron Star in which he needed an indestructible hull in order to tell a certain kind of story. So he introduced General Products and the indestructible hull sold by the puppeteers. He introduced stasis fields in a different book. Then he talked about these two technologies, if they ever got used, if they ever got actually exploited the way technology gets exploited, would have completely changed the face of the universe he built. It's not just building hulls out of these things. It's building buildings. It's building... Building anything. Weapons materials. So take those sorts of thoughts. If you've created some funky widget to do thing A in position B, walk over to position D and see if you can make thing Z out of it. How does that change things?
[Brandon] Dan, they want to hear marshmallows again.
[Dan] These marshmallows are delicious. Mwh-wh-wh.
[Brandon] Moving on. We're going to go to our book of the week. The book of the week this week is Howl's Moving Castle. I'm not sure if we've promo'ed this before or not, but it's one of my favorites of fantasy. I think it will give you a good view into what has become really big in children's and YA publishing, the fairytale retelling or the fractured fairytale. Diana Wynne Jones was doing some of these things before they got popular and hot. Before we had the Rapunzel that's being done now, which was so good, we had Diana Wynne Jones looking at some of these tropes, and creating kind of her own fairytales from them. They aren't... You can't see them from any given fairytale. Howl's Moving Castle. Delightful. If you've seen the film... The film doesn't really do it justice, although I love Miyazaki. Go ahead and read the book.
[Howard] Okay. Head over to audiblepodcast.com/excuse. You can start a 14 day free trial membership and download a copy of Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.
[Dan] Read by Jenny Sterlin.
[Brandon] The next person would like to hear our thoughts on keeping tension high without exhausting the reader. Sometimes it seems books have so much terrible stuff happening to the hero that I get emotionally exhausted and stop caring. An excellently astute question.
[Howard] Scene-sequel format. We've talked about it before. Have a scene in which things happen. Have a sequel, another chapter, in which they are able to react and process the things that are happening.
[Dan] Fantastic example of this. In Star Trek: the Next Generation, there's the big famous double episode cliffhanger, where Picard becomes a Borg. That was incredibly tense. Then the following episode was Picard has to deal with this. They did an entire episode where he goes home to his farm and hangs out with his dad and his brother and just tries to work through it emotionally.
[Howard] That was the fistfight in the grapes episode, wasn't it?
[Brandon] We've referenced that one before.
[Dan] A very good, very character driven, very quiet episode.
[Brandon] All right. Next question is also a very good one. Say you've made your manuscript as good as it can be. You get feedback on it, but because you've already revised it as much as you know how to, you don't know how to fix anything to make it better. What do you do?
[Mary] I sometimes just put the thing in the drawer. Because I recognize that I need more distance, and I also need to be a better writer. If I start working on other things, that I can hone those skills, and then come back to it when I have a better skill set. I don't do this every time, but I have had projects where I've just needed to step away from them.
[Howard] Yeah. Sometimes the book that is as good as you can make it, is not as good as you wanted it to be. When I say sometimes, I think I mean always. I don't know of a project that I've touched that was as good as I wanted it to be... It was as good as I could make it. I always try and make it as good as I can make it. But sometimes you just have to own up to the fact that art is never done, you're just done with it.
[Brandon] Okay. Next question's kind of a big one, which is suspension of disbelief. Any tips on helping create that suspension of disbelief in your readers as they go along. I'll go ahead and head this one off by saying suspension of disbelief... I view it much the same way I view melodrama. Meaning any scene of powerful emotions taken away from the buildup to it is going to read like melodrama. If you pick the climactic moment of any of my books, or most books, and just read them alone, you're going to be like, "Oh, there's emotions all over the place. This is awful." Because you're not there, invested with the characters. So I try to start with slow investment in the characters, get you attached to them before I start laying on to much emotion from that character specifically. I'm not talking about emotion provoked in the reader. I'm not talking about... You can start off with a scene that just really tugs at the heartstrings, and that's fine. But I'm talking about that character just having lots of different emotion going on.
[Howard] You're talking about the urban mythological boiled frog. If you want to boil the frog, you put him in a pot of cold water, and you slowly bring up the heat. If you want to suspend disbelief, give us a situation where there is nothing to disbelieve. Then slowly introduce the elements to which we might challenge, but introduce them in such a way that they seem very believable. By the end of the book, you will have boiled us alive as we swallowed a camel.
[Brandon] This is a... Oh, Mary, go ahead.
[Mary] Well, I was going to say. The flipside of that is to signpost it and just do it in one go right up front. A classic example of this is the film about the little girl whose legs are actually a fish. It's called The Little Mermaid. They tell you right up front, "This is the thing you're going to have to suspend your disbelief about. We're going to ask you to believe this."
[Dan] Well, and...
[Howard] That's the boiled frog with concrete overshoes.
[Dan] The key to both of those scenarios is that the story gives you many, many other things that are very easy to believe, so that you have handholds and footholds. When that one thing is missing, you can still get by.
[Brandon] Also, this kind of plays into one of the things that I kind of do consciously, which I've talked about. Some books are written, and I have written some books this way, to be digested really in one sitting or a couple of sittings. These are the things where you just kind of pull someone through the story beginning to end. Yes, we have the breaks like we talked about before. But they're breaks that are interesting, lots of new questions and things. Then there are books like The Way of Kings where I consciously say, "You can put the book down now." Which most writers would say, "That is an awful thing, you never want to do this." I disagree. I think that you can create big arcs, particularly in a big epic story. People are going to have to put it down. Give them that moment to put it down. Because then I can start rebuilding emotion, I can start rebuilding suspension of disbelief, so that when I get to my powerful moment three or four or five chapters later, you're still with me. You've probably read that all in one sitting, because I gave you the point to put it down earlier, and you may have done that, or you kept on reading because you knew you had more time.
[Howard] As you were telling us this, I was remembering that when the Nintendo Wii first shipped with Wii sports, every fifteen minutes or so, in between games, a little screen would pop up with a picture of an open window and some sunshine, saying, "You might want to take a break! Why don't you go outside?" I thought that was hilarious.
[Dan] And it worked.
[Howard] It worked. Yeah.
[Brandon] All right. Last question for this cast is an interesting one, and I thought I would throw it at you. How do you deal with annoying fans?
[Mary] Oh, that's tricky.
[Brandon] The socially awkward type or...
[Dan] Very, very carefully.
[Mary] So, yeah... The thing is... First of all, you deal with them from a position of respect. Understanding that they are frequently annoying because they are excited. It's like the annoying puppy. But then you have to handle them in such a way that you do not encourage the annoying behavior, which is to not reward the annoying behavior. Again, much the way you handle on annoying puppy. It's difficult. Sometimes the other way is to have a wingman who will handle being the person who says "No" to them so that you don't have to be.
[Brandon] Or the "Oh, I'm so sorry, it's time to go. Mister Wells, will you please come with us, we need to get you to the next panel."
[Howard] At my booth, when I have help at my booth, there is an under-the-table hand sign which basically amounts to "Please come try and sell this person something." Okay? Because most people will walk away when a salesman says, "Hey, have you looked at our new line of mugs? This is awesome, you should check these out, these are so cool." If they don't walk away, they end up buying a mug, so I'm actually being paid.
[Mary] That's a nice trick. Yeah. I teach a workshop, Schmoozing 101, which I'll ask... It'll actually go in the liner notes, because I have the text online. But one of the things I talk about is that when someone else has already broken the social compact, it is okay at that point to lie to them. Which is the "I'm sorry, I have to go to the bathroom" or something like that. That's for the in person things. It's not something that I do lightly. Actually, very rarely do I ever have to employ that. But it is something to know that once someone else has already broken the rules...
[Howard] One of my rules of thumb, and I didn't realize I'd arrived at it until GenCon of 2011, is that everybody who comes up to my booth to see me, they may say things like, "Mister Taylor, you're my hero." "You're wonderful." Whatever. But in fact, they are the heroes of their own story, and I need to remember that. What is my role in their story? Well, my role is probably the midget on the mountain who's going to give them some good advice and then they're going to go off with their own story and do something heroic. When I cast myself that way, and realize, "The important thing about me in this story is that I need to play a passing part in it. What is it that this person needs right now in order to move on and be their own hero?" Sometimes asking myself that question, I'll realize that the question they're asking me is not the one they're verbalizing, it's something else entirely. I can't give concrete examples of what I've arrived at... Well, there is one case where somebody shared a manuscript with me. All she needed was for me to say, "It looks like you've put an awful lot of time into that. Congratulations." Validation, she was happy, she walked off and got on with revisions.
[Brandon] All right. I'm going to go ahead and give us a writing prompt. It's going to be the story of the writer and her alien fan who is just basically impossible to escape, because the alien's morphology or biology or whatever it is, whatever it is about them, makes it impossible for you to get away from them.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.