Key Points: Beware performance anxiety, torn between giving people what they want and the desire to avoid doing the same thing again and again. Watch for the pigeonhole! Look for ways to give them the things that make them happy while also doing something new. Figure out what appeals to audiences and give them that, plus what you want to do. Figure out why readers say, "I love this." Try writing yourself into a new voice. Experiment! Short fiction can be your laboratory. To kickstart something new, consume media, especially short fiction collections. Or mix-and-match character stereotypes and problems. Or do thumbnail sketches of story ideas. Review your notebook of ideas!
[Mary] Season Seven, Episode 34.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. This week's episode, how to start the next one.
[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] We're going to be talking about once you've finished a project, how do you transition to the next one? This is not a podcast focused on publishing, but your mental mindset of getting out of one world and into a new one. This was actually pretty easy for me as a multi-… As a one drafter who loves to hop projects, I was always looking forward to the next project, and I still am. So I've never had to worry about this, but it seems to be a big issue for some of our readers. Dan, have you had to deal with this? You're more of a multi-drafter, you seem to get really into one thing. How did you jump out of John Cleaver and into the next thing?
[Dan] It was… Well, part of the problem for me there is because I did have a book contract for John Cleaver, and so I was… And I knew people like John Cleaver a lot. So I was very concerned about writing something that didn't have him in it. So Partials and then now Hollow City, they don't have John in them. It took me a long time to figure out, well, what kind of character can I write about that is different from John and yet still likable? For some reason, that was a big hurdle for me. As if John were the only good character ever written by anyone.
[Dan] Which is obviously not true, but an author in that space is kind of thinking, "I want to give people what they want, but I don't want to give them the same thing I already did. I don't want to look like I can only do one thing."
[Brandon] Oh, I've certainly felt that quite a bit. That sort of performance anxiety after something goes really well… Mary, you're nodding your head again.
[Mary] Oh, yeah, I'm also having that. With Shades of Milk and Honey, I had tried to write Jane Austen with magic. Then having done that trick, I was not interested in doing that trick anymore, and wanted to take those same characters, born in the Jane Austen drawing room setting and send them off someplace else. Terrified that people were going to read Glamour in Glass, which is not Jane Austen with magic, and be… But is the sequel, and be disappointed.
[Brandon] So how did you approach… Did you specifically say, "All right, I need something else for this book. On this first book, I sort of have this concept that you could describe in one sentence." Did you say, "I need a concept for the second one?"
[Mary] No. The second one is actually the only one that I never came up with a good elevator pitch for, because I sold it as part of a two book deal and didn't think I needed one. Little did I know. So what I did with that one was I looked at where the emotional state of my character was at the end of the first book, and then thought about… What her life was like and I thought about, "Okay, what are things that can go wrong from here? What are things that can… What insecurities is she still going to have? What new ones would she have developed, because this is a new situation?"
[Brandon] Right. So you used what you told me once as the "no, and" or the "yes, but" methodology. I don't know if we've talked about that, but that's kind of plotting a story by saying, "Okay, what's the problem? This is what they attempt. This is how they get out of this emotional state or whatever. Does it work?" Then you say, "Yes, but…" And then something else happens or you say, "No, and…" And then it gets worse.
[Mary] Yep. So I did a certain amount of that, and then I also… I mean, with mine, because I'm writing historical fantasy, I also look at the giant timeline. I'm like, "Oo, what do we have here? Oo, Napoleon! That'll work."
[Brandon] The thing I struggled most with in this kind of topic for me was, I had written the Mistborn trilogy, which each have sort of a twist on being a modern fantasy or a postmodern, if you want to use that term, which gets me in trouble when I use it, but it's self-aware a little bit. There's a… In each of the books, it is taking one fantasy trope and intentionally turning it on its head. When it came time to write the Stormlight Archive, which I intend to be my next big, major project, I spent probably 18 months saying, "Okay. What part of fantasy can I now take and twist on its head? It really drove me in a spiral. I've talked about this on the podcast before, where I'm like, "I can't think of anything else I'm excited about turning on its head." To the point that… I got to the state where I'm like, "That's not what I should be doing with every book. Every book should not be a postmodern fantasy book. I should be looking at trying to create great fantasy works rather than being… Taking something and twisting it." This was actually mentally very difficult for me to get around because by then I was kind of well known as hey, this trilogy twists fantasy on its head. It makes fu... Not really fun, but it makes use of all the heroic archetype tropes that you know and things like this. What's he going to do next to twist the fantasy genre?
[Mary] I think this is one of the reasons that a lot of times, particularly in our genre, science fiction and fantasy, people tend to get pigeonholed. That audiences want more of the same. The trick is trying to figure out a way to give them the things that make them happy will also doing something new. Allow me to use an analogy from puppetry. There is this saying in puppetry, in theater in general, that you need to do known titles for the first 5 to 10 years. Things that people recognize, like Pinocchio, Snow Queen. But you don't want to do the same old show that everyone else has done. So when we did Pinocchio, what we did was we sat down and we looked at the elements of it that audiences needed to have to be happy that they had seen Pinocchio when they came out. So we… It's like the fox and the cat, we need the great shark, his nose needs to grow, at minimum… And looked at how we could give those. So one of the things that I looked at when I was doing… When I'm looking at which stories, which novels to tackle next, are what are the things that appear to be appealing to my audience? My audience is…
[Brandon] Right. Okay. This gets back to this concept that we've tried to talk to you about, which is, readers and… Alpha readers and beta readers, they can often identify, "Oh, I love this." Your job as an author is to figure out why. What are you doing?
[Dan] If you want to look at a fantastic example of some creators who did this very poorly, look at the Indiana Jones trilogy. The first one came out and it was Steven Spielberg and George Lucas playing with all of these tropes from the old serials they used to watch. The ones they picked for the first one are not the ones they picked for the second one. So Temple of Doom came out, and it was still let's play with old tropes, but it didn't have the Nazis in it, and it didn't have the fiery woman character in it that Marion was. It had all these things that, on retrospect, I actually think it's one of my favorites of the series, but it's not what people wanted after seeing the first one. So…
[Brandon] They started playing with some of the slash… Not slasher movie, but horror movie tropes, like the monster movie tropes and stuff.
[Dan] Yeah. Much darker stuff, a lot of monster movie stuff. So you see for the third movie, they went straight back to the first one and just down the line, all the same stuff that the first movie had, they put in the third one. Because that's what audiences wanted. They did it very well.
[Mary] But… I'm going to toss out the… So these are all ways to go on to the next project if it is in the same vein as the first project…
[Brandon] Yes. That's a good point. Let's actually stop there, do a book of the week, and then we're going to come back and we'll try and tackle that one.
[Howard] Well, yeah. Talking about books in the same vein. The Newsflesh trilogy by Mira Grant, it's all available now on audio, Feedback… No.
[Mary, Dan] Feed!
[Howard] Feed, Deadline, and Blackout, and they all have clever icons drawn in blood as part of the cover. It is post zombie apocalypse fiction. What she did in Feed was gripping and wonderful and powerful, and there were lots of cool big ideas in it. Deadline is a very different book that follows on very cleanly. I don't want to give any sorts of spoilers. But the things that Mira Grant did in order to write three very, very different books using the same set of characters in the same universe was brilliant. Well worth listening to. So you can head on out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse where you can start a free trial membership and download one of those three for free, the other one you'll have to pay for. They're Feed, Deadline, and Blackout by Mira Grant.
[Brandon] All right. So let's go back to what Mary was saying. Let's say you want to change drastically. Not something in the same vein, to capture the same emotion from the readers, but where you want to do something very different. Howard, you are a cartoonist. You have recently started writing fiction.
[Howard] Yeah. Poorly. In fact, we're going to do an episode on that. When I say writing poorly, it's not that the writing itself is bad, which is a separate problem that I also suffer from. No, it's that the writing process is very, very painful and very, very difficult because of the way in which I do it. But I'll can of worms that.
[Dan] He does it on a bed of nails.
[Brandon] It is strange to watch him do it. He pounds himself with a hammer.
[Mary] You guys couldn't see this, that the moment Brandon tossed that question to him, Howard started massaging his head in great pain.
[Brandon] Actually, before you get into this, I want to tell them something you told me. We were working out at the gym once, and I said, "Oh. So you're doing… You're going to do fiction. Of course you're going to do space opera comedy." You said, "No. I scratch that itch with comics. Why would I go and do the same thing in fiction form?"
[Howard] Why would I go and do that again? I've had people ask me for Schlock Mercenary novels. The thing that they point to is very successful Agatha Heterodyne novels from Phil and Kaja Foglio. Because the Girl Genius is a successful comic, but let's try it in prose. I'm not going to give you Schlock Mercenary prose first, and the reason why is that there are other things I want to tell. I've got a story that I'm working on right now that's… It's sort of a Cthulhu in space… It's science fiction horror. We may do an episode where we talk about that outline. But I'm focusing on that because it's so very different from what I've been doing. It's… I'm planning on writing it in first person, and I'm planning on not doing any… There's going to be humor, but the humor is all going to be wry and subtly horrible. You laugh because you have to laugh because the alternative is to just be miserable and insane.
[Brandon] I like what you said there. Actually changing the mode. Going to first person. In fact, when I did the Alcatraz books, which were intended to be very different from other things. I was writing Mistborn, I needed a breather, I needed to do something completely different, I changed and wrote in first person instead. It worked really well for me.
[Howard] Well, the other thing that I've done is the… I've got maybe a page of the story written already. I just pounded out some first-person stuff that was all about discovering this character's voice. I knew as I was writing it that I had to one, I had to let it be awful, and two, I had to write long enough that I could taste it. I'm probably going to throw all of those however many words away, maybe a thousand words. I'm probably going to throw all of these words away. But those allowed me to shake off the space opera comedy military sci-fi thing and develop a new voice. And as I was doing it, as I'm writing, there are turns of phrase, there are pieces of imagery that I really like, that I know when I sit down with the full outline, I'm going to want to explore in more depth.
[Brandon] Right. I really like this because if we bring this topic back to its kind of core, the purpose of this is to help the listener who has finished a book and now wants to try something different, and is having trouble letting go of that first book, emotionally, trying to force you as listeners to try some new things. This was very useful to me early in my career when I sat down and said, "I want to write epic fantasy. But do I really? Is that what I'm really good at?" That's why wrote a comedy, I wrote several science fiction, I wrote several epic fantasies. Dan, you before have said you kept trying to write epic fantasy, and if you would have just tried horror earlier, you think you would have gotten further.
[Dan] Well, maybe. See, because of this topic that we're… This same principle. Had I tried horror earlier, I don't know if I would have hit the ground running…
[Brandon] Right, if you would have been as good.
[Dan] Having already written five other books in other genres, and really, all five were different genres, horror ended up being the one I liked the best, but I was also a much better writer by the time I got to it.
[Mary] This is one of the reasons that I am such a fan of short fiction, is that it allows you to play around a lot more with styles. One of the ways that I handle finishing one project and scratching the creative itch is… My novel length stuff is all historical fiction, historical fantasy. My short fiction is all over the map. In fact, most people who come… Discover me through short fiction think I'm a science fiction writer.
[Brandon] Well, I think that's pretty wise careerwise because you're still establishing yourself as a novelist, so you kind of want to say, "Here's what I'm doing" before you branch out. Then the short fiction… I have… This has been my short fiction year. I've written a number of short fiction pieces. I've just really enjoyed exploring that form because of how different you can be. But I would say to our listeners, for our last like three minutes, let's give them… I guess we only have two. Last two minutes, let's give them advice. Let's pretend they've finished one project, they need to move on to the next, and they want to try something completely different. What advice can we give them to help them do that?
[Dan] Go out and start consuming media. Watch movies, watch TV shows…
[Dan] Read books. Yeah, read nonfiction. Read stuff or watch stuff that you have never seen otherwise. Just fill your head with stuff. We talk about refilling the well, recharging your batteries. Recharge the hell out of your batteries between projects. You will find many more ideas that you had never had before.
[Howard] Yeah. If you're really scraping the bottom, make a list of five character stereotypes. The harried housewife, the knight…
[Brandon] The hairy housewife?
[Howard] Harried, thank you.
[Dan] We have a good writing prompt now, though.
[Howard] Now we do. The knight in shining armor, the slave… Whatever. Come up with some, and they can be tropes. Then come up with a list of problems that need to be solved. Romance or murder mystery or ticking time bomb or whatever. Then just roll dice. Pair 'em up.
[Brandon] Yeah. Or intentionally mismatch them.
[Howard] Intentionally mismatch 'em, roll dice, whatever. Then write a page on each of those pairings and just see what shakes loose. Because at some point when you're writing, and this is what I love about discovery writing, at some point, the words just start to flow and you discover you've locked into one of these voices in your subconscious that really wants to be heard and really has something fun to say.
[Brandon] I want to reinforce and go back to the short fiction concept, because when I've needed to refill the well and consume media, a short fiction collection works way better than a novel. I love novels, I write novels, but the fact that you can read in that length of time so many different authors with so many different visions approaching generally just completely different concepts will really help shake things up inside of you.
[Mary] Yeah. I'm much the same way, I often will go for short fiction when I'm looking to recharge. The other thing that I do is, which is where I thought Howard was going to go when he was talking about five ideas, is that I will start jotting down what I call thumbnail sketches of story ideas. So these are just like brief one paragraph synopses of… Teenage werewolf with the WAPA project discovers the monster hunter who killed her father. I am actually working on that one. But so I'll just start jotting down thumbnails. Then the one that makes me most go, "Oh, oh, oh. That's… That's… That's… Ah!" That's the one I start working on.
[Dan] One thing that we've talked about a lot on the topic of controlling your ideas, when you get new ones, don't abandon the project you're on, write it down in your notebook. When you're done with a project, that's the time to pull out that notebook and look through and see those cool ideas you had a few months ago. See which one excites you.
[Mary] You can also do a little bit of cross work as well. Like one thing that I found while I was working on Without a Summer, which is book 3, I was in the research phase for a book in a completely different universe, so I was reading those books. Although the research had nothing to do with the book that I was working on, it actually made that book richer, and allowed me to start thinking about plot…
[Brandon] Oh, okay. Yeah. Of the next one. Okay, I see what you're saying.
[Mary] It's the same thing Howard was talking about, mashing up two different ideas.
[Brandon] Well, we're out of time on this topic. But there's something that this really makes me want to do, this discussion right here, is have us all do a few thumbnail sketches, and then bring one to a podcast, and brainstorm together. We've done brainstorming where we do random things off, but I would like to have each of us bring a story seed and then try to build a story out of it, brainstorming with the group, but focusing the brainstorming.
[Howard] Did you just give us homework?
[Brandon] I might have given you homework.
[Howard] The thing that our listeners need to realize is that yeah, homework is awesome for you guys because you have a week between now and the next episode. We have six and a half minutes.
[Mary] Yeah. And that's only if we pause to make popcorn.
[Brandon] All right. Your writing prompt is the hairy housewife. This is Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.