1. Do you have any embarrassing pet projects you created before you were professional, and what do you do with them, and how do you regard them?
Mary: my first novel based on my D&D character with winged space aliens that transform to look just like people. I have carved two stories out of it.
Dan: the first time I wrote a book, I thought it was very original, but it was actually just a game-based fanfiction.
Howard: I have lost track of what file format they were saved in, so I can't read them.
Brandon: my first was a D&D fanfic, with elves and dwarves living on a flying rock in the sky.
2. How do you tell if your idea is too big for the story you're writing and what do you do?
If it covers more than one letter in the MICE quotient, it's probably too big. Look at number of characters, scenic locations, and plot events. Keep it focused, and avoid adding cultural baggage.
3. How do you avoid being discouraged?
You don't avoid being discouraged. You do avoid not getting any work done. Look carefully at the roots of it. Teach yourself to work even when you don't want to, and to figure out why you don't want to.
4. How do you handle multiple magic systems in a book?
Start by asking why are you putting multiple magic systems in a book. Usually, one really good magic system is enough for a novel. If you are going to have multiple ones, make them connected. The more magic systems you have, the less each one should do. Your story should be about characters first, plot second, and use magic systems to enhance the story.
[Mary] Season Seven, Episode 52.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. Today, we are micro-casting.
[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] First question. Do you have any embarrassing pet projects you created before you were professional, and what do you do with them, and how do you regard them?
[Mary] [chuckle] I have my very first novel, which is based on my D&D character and involves winged space aliens that can transform to look just like people. The plot is somewhere between the A-Team and Battle Star Galactica.
[Mary] That is...
[Dan] I totally want to read that, Mary.
[Mary] [laughter] You think you do. That is firmly in the trunk. However, I did carve two short stories out of it.
[Mary] And sold both of them.
[Brandon] Okay. Well, there you go.
[Mary] Yeah. One of them is Bound Man, and the other is Portrait of Ari. You can find both of those on my website.
[Dan] Cool. I wrote a lot of game-based fanfiction when I was a kid, which I'm not embarrassed by. The first time I tried to write a book, though, and thought I was original, but it turned out it was actually still just a game-based fanfiction...
[Brandon] [laugh] I remember that book.
[Dan] That I'm embarrassed by.
[Brandon] That had some cool stuff in it.
[Dan] It had some pretty cool stuff, but...
[Brandon] The funny thing about that one, I think I've mentioned on the podcast before, reading it in Dan's first writing group, I was like, "This is awesome. This magic system is amazingly cool." Turns out, it's the Warhammer 40K magic system.
[Dan] Yeah, just stolen, whole cloth.
[Brandon] I just thought it was brilliant. I thought Dan was brilliant for years.
[Dan] I thought I was brilliant, too. That's the embarrassing part.
[Howard] Yes. Yes, I have embarrassing projects. Most of them, I've been careful to not keep track of what file format they were saved in, so I just can't read them anymore.
[Brandon] My first was actually a D&D fanfic also. It was about elves and dwarves...
[Brandon] Living on a flying rock in the sky.
[Mary] Oh, the flying rock in the sky.
[Brandon] The flying rock in the sky. It's like a big flying island thing. But it was set in the Dragonlance world. It was using the Dragonlance subspecies of elves. They were oppressing the dwarves, who mined the flying sky rock. I'm not sure how long they could keep doing that.
[Mary] I was going to say...
[Brandon] Until the flying sky rock no longer flew.
[Brandon] But that was what it was about.
[Mary] That's not going to end well.
[Brandon] Well, the flying sky rock did blow up at the end.
[Mary] Although, actually... Okay. I was going to say...
[Brandon] Dwarf terrorists. That's true.
[Mary] You know, it would actually be an interesting story about people mining a flying sky rock and the consumption of natural resources.
[Brandon] Yeah. These early stories of mine, the interesting thing I can learn from them, looking back at that, and another story that was not very good that I submitted out... That's the one that MZB wrote on the manuscript "Show, don't tell" and sent it back to me. A lot of them were what you see from very young writers, the... There is no story, it's like an experience or something? It's like tragedy. Tragedy strikes is kind of the story. Like my flying sky rock story, it involved, like, you know, the elves are like, "Wow, something's going wrong" and the dwarves are like "We're going to blow this place up." Then they do. There's not like conflict, or...
[Brandon] Another one was like this old man, like walking back to... He's now a wizard, and he's walking back to where his apprentice... A dragon killed his master, and it all takes place in flashbacks while he's walking along. Then he gets there, and the dragon kills him or he kills the dragon, I can't remember. But it's all told in these very tell-y flashbacks, and there's like not really any story. It's like, you know...
[Brandon] There's not a conflict. It's I'm going to kill my master's killer. Okay, I've done it.
[Mary] Yeah. I have one that I wrote in high school, so I feel like I was actually old enough to know better, but it was a first person, present tense, stream of consciousness...
[Brandon] O-hoo. You were reading some James Joyce.
[Dan] I don't want to read that one, Mary.
[Mary] No. No you don't. I actually tried to salvage that as just a writing exercise, and I'm like, "No. That's actually not salvageable." [Laughter]
[Howard] Yeah. We salvage this by smelting the electrons back down into completely new electrons that we use in a different doc file.
[Brandon] I do have one of my high school stories on my website. In the library section of my website, if you go to that, there is old short stories, you can read what I... The one I wrote in high school, just before I started writing stuff that wasn't terrible. So...
[Howard] So we've spent four and a half minutes on this.
[Mary] We could clearly keep talking about the...
[Brandon] Oh, people are curious about this one.
[Mary] The things that we wrote that are terrible. We could do a whole podcast on...
[Brandon] Things that we wrote that were...
[Brandon] Well, the things that we learned from it, also...
[Brandon] Could, I think, really be helpful for people.
[Howard] I'm just ready to go on to the next question before you guys press me for details. So...
[Brandon, Dan] [laughter]
[Mary] Well, speaking of... No.
[Brandon] How do you tell if your idea is too big for the story you're writing and what do you do?
[Howard] You know what, I'm going to pull the MICE quotient out. If your idea is one of the letters of the MICE quotient, it's a milieu idea, or it's an event idea or a character idea, then it is not inherently too big. If it is... If it encompasses more than one letter, it's an M and a C and an E, then it's probably too big for a short story. But you should be able to wrap a novel around it, no problem.
[Mary] Yeah. One of the things I will look at is the number of characters, scenic locations, and plot events. Which Howard is referencing, at least a little bit, with the MICE quotient. But the biggest thing that you run into, in terms of trying to keep things small, is characters and scenic locations. Mostly because the scenic locations means that you are, aside from just needing to develop wordage to establishing it, they also represent places that the story itself is moving. Not the characters, but that the plot is moving.
[Howard] Let me... To recant a little bit. One of the conditions under which I'd say that an idea is too big is if the implications of the idea... You want to make a single change... For instance, all people of African-American descent are immortal. You want to write an alternate history, starting in the 17th century, or the 16th century or something. With immortality like that, that is... I mean, the implications of that are huge. That is a massive research project in order to explore all the things that would unfold from that. That idea might be too big for you for now, but it's the sort of thing that once you're a better writer and a better researcher, it might be... I mean, if it fascinates you, then by all means, tackle it.
[Dan] Well, I think it's important to point out though that a story of any size can include an idea of any size. It just doesn't have to be fully about that.
[Dan] If your idea... If your story is about immortality in that way, then that's going to be a lot. But if it's about how that immortality affects one guy during this one job interview, you can tell that short story.
[Mary] I will say yes, but... With the specific example that Howard is giving, that there is so much cultural baggage that goes with that, that it is going to unbalance the story.
[Howard] Which is why I picked that.
[Howard] I picked something that was hugely...
[Mary] It's going to unbalance the story.
[Mary] No matter how tight the plot and the characters are, the rest of that is going to throw it completely out of whack. I... I...
[Brandon] I think Mary's got a good point. A way we could shrink this down to be a better short story thing is immortal man applies for a job interview that is specifically interesting for an immortal to apply. What... How does this work? Is it just an average job, and then like... But we have a pension, and how do we deal with a pension with somebody who's immortal? Or how do we deal with retirement or things like this? That sort of concept, if you've got something that... The Job Interview. It could be fun and interesting. It's when you start adding in the baggage that it starts getting longer and longer and longer.
[Brandon] All right. Next question is... We get questions about this all the time. How do you avoid being discouraged?
[Howard] I don't.
[Howard] I get discouraged all the time. What I avoid is not getting any work done when I'm discouraged.
[Howard] That mostly involves forcing myself to sit down and do the smallest possible piece that I know I can get done today. Yes, I'm discouraged, but I know I can write one script. I know I can ink this one thing I drew yesterday. Even though I hate the line art, I know I can do this much. Usually, for me, that's enough. Once I'm going through the motions, that's enough to get a full day's work out of me. Once I've started. But starting for me is usually the hard part.
[Mary] For me, I also... I mean, discouragement, just... It happens, sometimes. For me, I try and look at the roots of it. Because usually... If it is about the writing, it is specifically related to something that has gone wrong in the story that I have not yet identified. Because there have been stories... I just finished one that I just felt like I was beating my head against the wall. Finally figured out, it was like a three line change to insert the right motivation to get me past that. But it is... It's about teaching yourself to work even when you are not wanting to, and trying to figure out why you don't want to.
[Brandon] Right. I think this comes back to the idea of knowing yourself and your writing. If you know yourself real well, and you know what... Kind of how you tick, you've practiced enough, you get a feel for what type of discouragement this is. Is this discouragement because you're displeased with a certain project? Is this general blah, whatever's happening internally, I'm off, discouragement? Is this my home situation is just really bad? These will have different fixes.
[Brandon] I think from a fan perspective... Or not a fan, but an aspiring writer perspective, they're probably asking along the lines of "I'm getting discouraged for getting... About getting published."
[Mary] Oh! Yeah. You just kind of have to put the time in.
[Mary] I mean, that's unfortunately... You know Jay Lake, who won the Campbell award, has I don't know how many novels out right now, is often called the ubiquitous Jay Lake because his short stories are in so many different things, he's got... Well, several hundred short stories published... Wrote consistently and submitted consistently for 20 years before he finally sold something. So it's really just persistence.
[Brandon] I think maybe changing your perspective. What is your goal? Is your goal to get published? Well, that should be a secondary goal to becoming a better writer. If you can put your priorities in the correct places.
[Brandon] All right.
[Howard] Book of the week?
[Brandon] Let's do our book of the week. Our book of the week is Who Fears Death.
[Mary] By Nnedi Okorafor. This is a fascinating post-apocalyptic magical dystopian... It's coming of age... It kind of covers the gamut. It's a world in which... It's post-apocalyptic, so they have computers, but there is a functional working magic system. It's... The language in it is really beautiful and it challenges a lot of perceptions and raises some really interesting questions. This one should come with a warning because... A content warning because it does go into some pretty dark places, but they are questions that I think that are worth asking.
[Brandon] All right.
[Howard] audiblepodcast.com/excuse. You can start a 30 day free trial membership and get this book for free and another book for 30% off.
[Brandon] All right. Next question is, how do you handle multiple magic systems in a book?
[Dan] Why don't you field that one for us?
[Mary] And thank you for that.
[Brandon] That one seems targeted pretty much directly at me. The question you may want to ask, backing up, is why put multiple magic systems in a book?
[Mary] Yes, Brandon. Why would you do that?
[Brandon] I put multiple magic systems in my books because I had spent a lot of times writing standalones each one with one magic system. I had gotten so used to doing that, when I approached the Mistborn trilogy, I said I'm writing three books. I'm going to... I've already sold this trilogy. I want to have... I'm worried that playing with one magic system won't be enough for me. So I built into it three related magic systems that then, each book, I could add a focus on a magic system, which would allow me to play to my strengths in the trilogy. I've done a similar thing in The Way of Kings, in the Stormlight Archive. Usually, I would say you don't need it. If you've got a really good magic system, write one novel about it and deal with it that way. The other way to go about it is to make them connected. I like... I put the running theme of metal into Mistborn intentionally, to kind of give these three magic systems an inherent cohesion. The more magic systems you add, the less they should each do, in my opinion. Meaning there are more magic systems quote unquote in The Way of Kings, but the scope of each person's individual power is much smaller than what a Mistborn can do. So that when we go to that person, you can keep track of this is what this person does, they play with gravity and pressure. Okay. I remember that, I can focus on that, and keep... I want to keep it intentionally more narrow for each individual to... Because if we're going to have a dozen different characters doing a dozen different things, it turns more into something like X-Men. Which actually does a pretty good job of this, and this idea. You can remember what Nightcrawler's power is. It comes to the point where you're like are these each their own magic system or is it one umbrella magic system?
[Howard] See, if you... There's an easy analog for this in science fiction. If you are writing a book in which nanotechnology is very advanced and critically important, well, that's cool, there will be lots of neat nanotech things. That does not rule out the possibility of really cool genetic manipulation things...
[Howard] And really cool infosphere data manipulation things, and high-energy particle physics things. In fact, most good science fiction, if you... Far-flung science fiction, you will see the implications of multiple quote magic systems unquote.
[Howard] Science fiction authors do this all the time.
[Brandon] But remember in writing, you've got to keep your focus on... Usually, even in a novel, one of these things should be the focus of your novel. The rest can be touched upon, and then used in sequels. At the most, I would say, have two characters each with a different magical background get together and be like, "Mine is so weird." "No, mine is so..." Or "Yours is so weird." "No, yours is so weird." sort of thing. That can be a really interesting way to go about it. "This is magic!" "No, this is magic." But, the thing I keep coming back to with magic... To remind you is, your story should be about characters, to a lesser extent plot, and your magic, while vitally important to telling a good story, a good fantasy story, is nowhere near as important as having great characters. So ask yourself, why you're wanting these multiple magic systems. If it's just to add complexity, don't do that. Do it to enhance your story.
[Brandon] All right. We're going to go ahead and be done with this one. I want a writing prompt. I think I will go ahead and give it. In fact, I just talked about it. I'll let you do one magic system for one character, one magic system for another character. These are two individuals who get together and their different styles of magic clash with one another in very interesting ways. You decide how it is. Perhaps one is more scientific and one is more mystical, or one is... Stay away from generic fire and water. That's not what I'm looking for. I'm looking for them to rub each other in interesting ways, character wise. All right. You're out of excuses, now go write.
[Brandon] Hi, all. This is Brandon. I hope you enjoyed today's episode. I just wanted to give you a special reminder. Audible has my novella, Legion, up for free in audiobook. So since they're a sponsor of the podcast, I thought I'd give an extra shout out. They actually have, if you go to www.audible.com/sanderson, 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 audible.com/sanderson to download it and give it a try.