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Writing Excuses 7.46: Project in Depth The Emperor's Soul

Writing Excuses 7.46: Project in Depth The Emperor's Soul


Key Points: The idea for this story started with seeing the "stamps" (or chops) on art in Taiwan, which sparked the idea of doing a stamp-based magic system. Next came a character -- a con artist! So forgery was a natural, and provided motivation. The plot was a thought, which could be summed up in a one-sentence challenge, what if the con artist had to do a forgery of someone's soul? Mix in the concept that "everything has a soul." Don't forget the limitations on your magic system! Consider alternate endings, in particular, in terms of the main characters. Kill your darlings! Be careful of novelist indulgences, such as switching viewpoints and promoting sequels.

[Mary] Season Seven, Episode 46.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Project in Depth, the Emperor's Soul.
[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] Apparently I can't say the name of my own book.
[Mary] Because you're quaking in fear.

[Brandon] That's right, quaking in fear. If you missed the one we did with Howard, we are doing project in depth again, like we did recently with works we were working on, but now we are all taking shorter works. So we are going to do The Emperor's Soul which is my novella which I wrote on the flight home from Taiwan in February 2012.
[Mary] And this is just a reminder, that these are going to be spoilerific.
[Brandon] Very.
[Mary] So if you don't like spoilers, go ahead, put us on pause.
[Brandon] Yep. Download the story... You can buy it online for a couple bucks or buy the hardcover or I guess it's trade paper... Buy the hardcopy from Tachyon.

[Howard] Okay. So. What was the... Brandon, the core inspiration for this? I mean, I hate asking people what their ideas were...
[Brandon] Right. No, this one you can specifically point to. I I sometimes like, on long flights, to write a short story, or a novella, which is a short story for me. I had visited Taiwan, and I was really feeling in the mood. So I asked them to take me around a few places. We went to visit a... The museum... The National Museum, which is a lot of old Chinese relics. They have the stamps on all the art there. We call them... In Korean, we call them dojangs, they call them injongs I believe. You also hear them called chops. Whatever. They're the things you use to identify yourself. It's your signature, so to speak. They're all over the art. There was all this cool discussion about them that I won't go into now because we only have 15 minutes.
[Howard] Right.
[Brandon] But the stamps, I thought... I want to do a stamp-based magic.
[Mary] You do come up with the coolest magic system. When I read this, I thought, "I... I hate you just a little bit."
[Howard] Hating him just a little bit isn't right. Hating him just a little bit more with each new magic system... That's acceptable.

[Mary] Well, one thing that I noticed when we got a little bit farther into the novel is that there is a point where Shai is fixing one of the stamps, and she carves something and she says that it looks a little bit like Mae Pon or Mai Pon where she's from. Which reminded me of Elantris.
[Brandon] Yes. That's a word from Elantris. As I was developing this magic system, it felt... I was going... I wanted to take it the direction of programmerish sort of stuff. Meaning programming a magic in magic, which is what the magic systems on all of Elantris are. So I actually took this and set this on Sel which is the Elantris world and built the culture. I already had a very Asian culture that I had built into that world, of which pieces you can see in the original book Elantris. I said, "Okay, I've got a cool magic system, it fits in this world. I'm going to set it on this other continent, and start building that culture."
[Dan] Cool.
[Mary] Yeah.
[Brandon] So that's there as an Easter egg. It's actually something that could potentially hold the novella back. It could help maybe the Elantris fans pick it up, but I don't want people to... I'm not promoting this as "In the same world as Elantris" because none of the same characters show up.
[Mary] Right.
[Brandon] There's like references...
[Howard] None of the same magic shows up.
[Brandon] Yeah. There's references here and there. There is actually one Aon in the book, written, it's the foreigner symbol for I believe punishment. I think Rao or no Reo is [garbled]
[Dan] Yeah. I actually recognized Rao at the end of it. I thought that was kind of funny.
[Brandon] Yeah. It's kind of a flipping the bird. Shai uses it at the end. But... Yeah.
[Mary] Nice.

[Dan] Okay. We've done a lot of brainstorming podcasts recently where we would take an idea and then try to come up with a really killer ending for it. Which has been very hard for us, especially with your ideas, because we couldn't find a really good one. This story has a really fantastic ending. I would like to know how you went from stamp-based magic and came up with that ending.
[Brandon] Right. The ending, of course, is a lot of mine were, was developed beforehand. I was sitting and playing with the idea of a stamp-based magic. I knew I needed a story. One of the other things I've been playing with... Oh, someone did, in a story or a show I saw, and I can't remember what it is... Had done a really good con artist lately. I'm like, "I love con artists." This is what happens to me. I love con artists. I haven't been able to do a real con artist, a really good one, since Kelsior. I wanted to do another con artist. That immediately said I also want to do them as female, because I had already done Kelsior as a great con artist, male. So I already knew immediately my character is going to be, female. I knew that my magic, my stamp magic, which I'd been working on was kind of a rewriting of the past, it could be used for forgery. So I started delving into the nature of forgery. What it is to be a liar versus telling the truth. Why would a master forger who could create wonderful art create forgeries instead? What's the driving force? That gave me my motivation for my character. My plot came out as just one of those thoughts. It's great when you can have a story where you can describe it in one sentence. Those I really get excited by. The... What's cool about it. This one... In working in that, I thought what if she had to do a forgery of someone's soul? That was a great concept. It's something I can say, "Hey, master forger has to forge someone's soul. Has to do a forgery, has to copy someone's soul and stick it into an empty body, and it has to act just like the person." Can... Could a forger do that? Very exciting to me, plot wise. Also, I could describe the story very easily. So once I did that, I knew I had my ending. My ending being this master forgery, whether it works or not. Although interestingly in this book, we... Readers ask a lot about theme to us. I think that this story's a great one to talk about that for, because the themes came to be as much or more important than the characters, or the themes to the characters. The theme of what is the nature of beauty, what is the nature of a forgery, what is... All of these sorts of things. It became a very poetic story, almost accidentally. Which is how things... I feel themes should happen. They come out as the story progresses. There is some poetical symmetry... Poetical? Poetic symmetry in this story. With... When I started delving into Gaotona and what his character was and things like that... How that would work with the relationship with her.

[Mary] One of the things that I was very interested in, speaking of themes and souls and... Was the idea that the narrative that talks about something gives it its own soul. Like... When Shai was talking about the table. We don't think of a table as all of the separate components, we think of it as its thing. That it then begins to think of itself as a table.
[Brandon] Right. This is based on all kinds of things. We're delving into the Cosmere sort of stuff, my underlying theory of existence in my novels, which is based on a mashup between Platonic forms and Asian style "everything has a soul." So I felt that the Asian themes of "everything has a soul" would be very useful here. Having... I served an LDS mission in Korea. I lived in Korea for those years and got very much exposed to some of these Eastern forms of thought regarding these sorts of things, which I find very fascinating.
[Howard] One of the things that was really effective is that in order to convey the message that everything has a soul, you have a dominantly positioned character who absolutely does not believe that.
[Brandon] Right.
[Howard] That is mystical crap. That is not how the real world works. Tell me what you're really doing. In the conversations between Shai and...
[Brandon] Gaotona.
[Howard] His name begins with a G. What?
[Brandon] Gaotona.
[Howard] Gaotona.
[Brandon] I think I went with Gaotona rather than Gaotoma.
[Dan] Yeah, it's with an N. I actually did pronounce his name right as I was reading it. But not Shy.
[Brandon] Yeah, not Shy. Persian. No, not Persian. Yeah, Persian. I think the names are all Persian.
[Dan] Ah, cool.
[Brandon] For them. But...
[Howard] I'm just saying that worked well to me because as the reader, we're in Shai's perspective the whole time, so we believe what she believes. But we believe it more effectively when she defends it against someone who doesn't believe it. Does that make sense?

[Brandon] Yeah. Let's go ahead and stop for the book of the week. I think we're just going to go ahead and use Caves of Steel which Howard suggested.
[Howard] Just go ahead and use Caves of Steel, one of my all-time favorite stories about AI, and one of my favorite murder mysteries of all time. Isaac Asimov's Caves of Steel in which Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw are teamed up to solve a crime in a world that does not like robots. But Daneel Olivaw is a robot who looks just like a person, and this is really a horrible, horrible thing. Classic of science fiction. One of the first novels... Maybe the first novel where we see the laws... No, I, Robot came before that, I think.
[Brandon] Yeah, but I, Robot is a short story collection together. This is a full novel. It's one of Asimov's early works that is a complete novel.
[Howard] First novels with the three laws of robotics in it. You can head out to, start a 30 day free trial membership, grab yourself a copy of Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov. Then for 30% off, you can grab any of the sequels. Robots of Dawn is the only one I can think of off the top of my head. But I read all of them and was just fascinated with them. Loved them.

[Brandon] All right.
[Mary] So one of the things that I also enjoyed with your magic system is the different facets that you were able to have. There are different specialties. So there's the forger. Then you've got the resealers. Then you've got the guy who does the blood magic with... But as I was thinking about it, and I have to say that I have read this twice, because I read it in the...
[Brandon] Yes. We should talk about the edits you suggested and why I edited them that way.
[Mary] But first, let me ask you about something that to me looks like an inconsistency.
[Brandon] Uh-oh.
[Mary] [laughter]
[Brandon] Uh-oh.
[Mary] That's Shai's glasses. She's a master forger, and resealers can fix things. Why is she nearsighted?
[Brandon] Yeah. I... In a lot of my magic systems, dealing with the Cosmere I work into healing as a... Healing you back to the form of yourself that you know yourself as, and the world knows yourself as. Which allows me to put some limitations on healing, to keep us from having all societies have perfect people with... Because that's a...
[Mary] Right.
[Brandon] Different type of story than I want to tell. So basically, healing, once you're wounded, can heal you back to where you were, but it can't fix something chronic like that. It's just a limitation I put on it.
[Mary] And yet, when she is using her five seals to change herself, she... Her...
[Brandon] She does. That one does not have bad eyesight, and she takes her glasses off. I actually thought about that as I built it. Why doesn't she? This is just my own reasoning, why I build my magic systems the way I do. She could build one that would fix her eyes. She would have to stamp herself with it every day, because it's a different stamp. That is basically the same as wearing glasses. You have a daily sort of chronic thing. In this magic system, you could have something that... Someone's got a chronically bad heart, you could get them one that they'd stamp themselves with every day that would keep their heart. You'd probably want to do that, if you had a chronically bad heart.
[Howard] And could afford a good forger.
[Brandon] And could afford a good forger.
[Howard] See, the thought I had...
[Brandon] But at the end of the day, glasses. I wear glasses. I could go get Lasix. I could afford it in a heartbeat, I know it's not that dangerous. I don't mind glasses. I always wear my glasses. The thought of you could go to this inconvenience to no longer wear glasses... I come back to, the glasses are less of an inconvenience to me. So I guess that's what it is.
[Howard] See, my... And this is the readerly interpretation here. The fact that she was at her potentially weakest and most vulnerable as a forger, I saw it as a programming issue. If you forge yourself in order to be a better forger, you run into recursion problems. The forgeries you produce are themselves tainted in some way.
[Brandon] Interesting.
[Howard] I know that wasn't part of the magic system, but I looked at it and said, "No. Of course. You want to be yourself when you create these things. Otherwise they're flawed."
[Mary] I also wondered if it was that she did not want to tell lies about herself when she was herself, but wasn't sure if that was...
[Brandon] Well, that's a great theme we can pretend that I decided to use...
[Mary] [laughter]
[Brandon] But that's not what I did.

[Howard] That's what's so fascinating about the readerly versus the writerly stuff. I have a question about the ending. The ending... And again spoilerific, the ending is, I want to say, maximally happy. There's... We have good things coming out of this at all angles. Did you have endings in mind that were unhappier, that were more tragic, that you discarded?
[Brandon] Yeah, I toyed with the... With various things. None of them worked for the theme. Like I thought, "Well, maybe something should be wrong with the Emperor?" Then I thought, "No, that just undermines the whole story." So the Emperor has to come out all right. Shai? I could end it with Shai having created the Emperor and given her life. At the end of the day, to have her masterwork get created. I liked that better than the other option, but again, at the end of the day, I thought, "It's actually more powerful for her..." It becomes trite when everybody sacrifices their life for something like this. I thought that her sacrificing her life for her art was kind of trite. She had, through the story the way that I was writing it, and put the passion into it, that you felt that passion, and I didn't feel any need to add on to that. So at that point, why not just let her get away? So I did. The only other sad ending that could have happened would have been with Gaotona. Gaotona... We could have had something go wrong with him. But the more I wrote, the more I realized I wanted this ending to be his revelation of why she would burn a great piece of art, and let him then take the chance to burn a great piece of art in his eyes. To make this story a little bit about the idea that a good lie can in some ways change the world in really cool ways. The mixture of honesty and lying that she did kind of worked for him. And helped him. It's kind of this what is a lie and what is truth?
[Mary] And it's what we do with fiction.
[Brandon] Yeah. It's what we do with fiction.
[Howard] And that's our whole fake it till you make it podcast.
[Brandon] Yeah. A great piece of fiction inspires, even though it's not real.

[Mary] So this segues into one of the major structural changes that you made. Which is that when I first read this, you started in Shai's POV...
[Brandon] Yep. In prison. And she meets with the Court Fool, who is Hoid, the character who transcends between all of my books. Transcends? Passes between all of my books. It was a great insider, nudge, nudge, wink, wink scene with a sparring duel between Hoid and Shai. I wrote it that way, not necessarily for the nudge, nudge, wink, wink, but because I felt that for my readers, having him nod to her in respect, which he does, immediately builds her up as a really strong character. So by taking the great master of this sort of thing from my worlds and having her interact with him was going to be a great way to start her off. It was cool, it got me into the story, and then we wrote the story and it had no place in the rest of the story. Because it was this character who's dynamic and different and has this whole conversation between Shai and him, and then he vanishes and never re-appears. The story is actually about her relationship with Gaotona. It was just the wrong thing.
[Howard] It was a darling that needed to be killed.
[Brandon] Yes. It was a darling that... Meets the exact definition of this. Because it's my favorite character and all of these things. Mary read the story, and she came to me like almost like sorry and regretful because she knew this was going to be painful. She's like, "I really think you need to cut the prologue." I'm like, "But the prologue is ya, bu, bu, bu, bu!" She's like, "Yeah, but you could replace it with this." She pitched the opening Gaotona scene and said, "Look, your story's now is kind of about... It's a poetic story. It's got symmetry and things. You should begin and end with him. Also, his ending kind of feels to come out of nowhere because we haven't had many viewpoints from him, if any. So it lacks the power. If we'd started with him, then it foreshadows it." She was right. She was right.
[Dan] Doggone it.
[Brandon] Doggone it.
[Mary] I love you.

[Dan] I want to ask about another scene. Because there is... As the ending goes, and all of the kind of the fireworks go off one at a time, there is the big fight scene where she turns into the warrior. That, to me, felt like here's my cool story about art, I'm going to finish it in a minute, but hang on while I beat the crap out of some skeletons.
[Brandon] Yep.
[Dan] I mean, is that really what it was?
[Brandon] That's really what it was. That scene could go. That scene definitely could go. I felt, the reason for that scene is I'd put guns on the mantle and as I got there, I wanted to... Number one gun on the mantle was Shai changing form into one of her other shapes where she becomes a very different person. Gun on the mantle two was we've got these evil things that she needs to fight... Or that she needs to escape, she doesn't necessarily need to fight them. Those two guns together made me say, "You know what? I'm okay having a..." This scene is very different from the rest. But she changes into a different person, and I wanted it to feel almost like we stepped into another story for a little while, one about Shaizon instead, and then we step out of it when she takes off that cloak so to speak. I was okay with it, but it is... It is very different. It is the scene that you could argue for probably the most getting caught because of that. But yes, it's also, eh, let's go beat some stuff up.
[Dan] Yeah. I'm not saying it should be cut, but that it does stand out as a different character's story. Which is kind of very fitting.

[Brandon] The other one that could be cut is... Mary, being the short story master that she is, and this is good for all of you here, pointed out that, "Why do we have a Frava viewpoint?" This is the woman. She... There's like a short...
[Mary] It still bothers me.
[Brandon] Frava viewpoint. Mary's like, "This is such a novelist thing. Why are you putting in this random viewpoint? You don't need this scene. Nothing needs to happen in this scene." I got back to it and said, "Yeah. But I like it." It's not ruining things like the other scene was. So I just left it.
[Dan] Now there's another very funny novelist indulgence in there towards the end. Where Shai is running off, and see, now you've got be pronouncing it the weird way. She's running off and she's saying, "Now I need to track down the guy who betrayed me," which is such a...
[Brandon] Novel thing.
[Dan] Watch for the next sequel kind of thing.
[Howard] Novelist Indulgence is the name of my next church.
[Brandon] Novelist Indulgence, that's the name of my next band. But yes, that's definitely an indulgence too. You can see... People ask us, "How do you write short stories?" a lot. I'm showing you things that I did wrong, or that perhaps are just... I mean, the fact that it's a novella allows me to tippytoe across that line a little bit. But there are things that Mary would not have done, for instance. Mary writes Hugo nominated short fiction, so perhaps one should listen to Mary.
[Mary] [laughter]
[Dan] But see... On the other hand, I have interacted with a lot of your fans, we share message boards and things like that. This is the... That sentence... That one like half sentence is the kind of thing that they just eat up.
[Mary] Oh, yeah.
[Dan] Because it suggests that there's more. And they always love the thought that there's more.

[Mary] Yeah. That sentence I didn't have a problem with. The Frava viewpoint, let me explain why for the listeners. Basically, every time you change your point, it costs a little bit in reader momentum because they have to recalibrate. Doing a viewpoint change so late in the story... Proportionally, this viewpoint takes up much more space than it would in a novel. So it's the recalibration that I look at, and like... Hum, you're going to... You risk losing people right now. Which is going to happen for everybody, and it's also one of those things that is not a certainty, but that's why I caution against having that scene. Also, and I can say this because I'm sitting in front of him and he can throw something at me... Also because I feel like it's a little bit lazy. Because it's much easier to show the things that you showed in that, which is that she's...
[Brandon] She gets her comeuppance and she's... Yeah.
[Mary] Yeah. It's much easier to show that from her point of view, much harder to show it from someone else's point of view. But I think you could have.
[Howard] I have to confess, I had a moment of despair. I read this as homework, for this episode of the cast. I needed... That's, I'm not saying that I only read it because you made me. But I got to the Frava viewpoint, and my brain said, "Hey, wait a minute. How long is this?"
[Mary] Which is...
[Howard] Because it felt like, "Oh, my gosh, this is not a novella, this is a novel. Brandon!" I loved it.
[Brandon] I cheated.
[Dan] You tricked us.
[Howard] I loved the story. But Mary's right, the cue that this sends to the reader is that this is big.

[Brandon] All right. Let's go ahead and stop. Does anyone have a writing prompt for us?
[Dan] I want you to come up with a magic system based on stamps that has nothing to do with forgery.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.

[Brandon] Hi, all. This is Brandon. Hope you enjoyed today's episode. I just wanted to give you a special reminder. Audible has my novella, Legion, up for free in audiobooks. So since they're a sponsor of the podcast, I thought I'd give an extra shout out to it. They actually have, if you go to, they have Legion up there. You... There's no trial, there's no strings attached. You just get it for free. So I hope you guys go give it a listen, if you haven't already. You can go to to download it and give it a try.
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