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Writing Excuses 8.12: Project In Depth – Deus Ex Nauseum

Writing Excuses 8.12: Project In Depth – Deus Ex Nauseum


Key points: be careful about obsessing over the form. Make sure you have a reason to do this story. Make a list of things you want to do! If one story isn't working, is boring, consider interlacing two stories and see what happens. Sometimes you want to break or bend the rules, sometimes you just want to play to your strengths and use the formula.

[Mary] Season Eight, Episode 12.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Project In Depth, Deus Ex Nauseum.
[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'm on the spot.

[Brandon] That's right. So, we did a series earlier in the year of projects in-depth where we took one of each of our stories, and the other three podcasters interviewed the person whose story was in the hot seat about why they'd done it, how they'd done it, the story behind it, looking at it from writerly eyes. Trying to help you all see how we put together stories. We did it with longer works last time. We're picking shorter works for each of us this time.
[Howard] Yeah. We figured that it wasn't fair to you to make you read 300,000... 800,000 pages worth of stuff in order to understand the cast, so this batch of projects in-depth is going to be shorter. I also didn't think it was fair that everybody else got to share stories with you that were in print, and mine was only available on the web. So this time, we're picking a story of mine that's actually only available in print. Deus Ex Nauseum is the bonus story at the end of the print version of Schlock Mercenary, Emperor Pius Dei.
[Brandon] Now, you have several interesting stories about how this bonus story came to be. Let's start with the blood, sweat, and tears.
[Howard] The blood, sweat, and tears. In Emperor Pius Dei, one of the characters discovers that he is brain damaged and brilliant. It's an important plot point in one of the little arcs in the main book. I thought it would be fun to take him after his head has healed and turn him into kind of a Sherlock Holmes in a tropical paradise and tell a story there. That seemed like a fun bonus story to tell. The bonus stories at the back of the Schlock Mercenary books are anywhere from 6 to 16 pages long, in comic pages. That just seemed like fun to me. So I sat down and began scripting a science fiction Sherlock Holmes story. I was about three quarters of the way through it and realized that besides being kind of difficult to write a good mystery, it was boring. Not nearly enough stuff was exploding.

[Brandon] Okay. What about it was boring? You can do exciting without things exploding. So...
[Howard] I know you can do exciting without stuff exploding.
[Brandon] You can.
[Howard] I...
[Dan] You, specifically, can. You have before.
[Howard] I... In this case, I was not. Part of the problem was that I was sick. I was... I wrestled with pneumonia that whole winter. The other part of the problem is that I was so obsessed with the form that I was working within, that I wasn't playing to my strengths, which are comic dialogue, character interaction. I was obsessing over clues and puzzles which... I mean, I can write clues and puzzles, but it's not where I'm strong, and I was physically ill. I was having a really hard time with it. One of the guiding principles of good comics came to me, and that is that there has to be a reason for this story to have been illustrated. You don't... I mean, there... You can tell a comic book story that you could also tell in prose. There's nothing wrong with that. But if you're going to take the time to print a book that has big, colorful pictures in it, there has to be interesting pictures. The story I had told so far didn't have any interesting pictures in it. So I pulled back and thought, "Well, we need aliens, we need explosions, we need... What can I do?" I made a list of the things that I wanted to draw.
[Mary] So one of them was a green koala?
[Howard] Ish? Yeah.

[Dan] My question for you... This story... I love this bonus story, but frankly, it is incredibly weird. It has such a wacky, wacky narrative structure to it, which I find delightful, but I want to know where that came from. Basically, for those who haven't read it out in the audience, this is a series of deus ex machinas where the kind of fleet mind, super godlike being, Petey, steps in and saves all of these stories. So we're seeing the last five minutes of story after story after story.
[Brandon] But it's interwoven with a personal story about one character. So it's really two narratives, Petey's narrative, which is like a half-dozen deus ex machinas, and then... Is it John? Is that his...
[Howard] Yeah.
[Brandon] John's narrative, where he is trying to... This is the character you wanted to have do a Sherlock Holmes [parody]. So he's still in it.
[Dan] So where did that structure come from?
[Howard] I realized that the whole theme of Emperor Pius Dei, and it's not a theme that I am proud of because I think I was heavy-handed with it, is the nature of agency and the role of God in a universe in which agency is important. As overall themes for the book go, eh, I wasn't really happy with the way it played out, and a lot of people complained that any time Petey was in a story, it just ended up being deus ex machina. I got a little angry and I said, "You want deus ex machina? Let me show you what deus ex machina looks like!" I had Petey save the day again and again and again and again and again. As I was playing with this, I thought, "Well, what if... I mean, if agency is really important, then I have to have a situation in which he would be too late." He would be almost in time to save the day, but someone else pulls it off. From Petey's standpoint, someone else has been the deus ex machina. As him... As a protagonist, look at Petey as the protagonist of this story, John Der Trihs is a deus ex machina.
[Dan] This is a humanas ex machina saving God's butt.
[Howard] Exactly. Yet there are several deus ex stories in there. Those stories aren't important, we just get the ends of them. Those were where I got to... It's like the James Bond story, where we don't care what the adventure is at the beginning of his movie, we just know that he's going to jump in an airline and craps going to blow up, and he flies away and gets the girl, and then a new adventure begins. So yeah, it's a weird pacing structure. The other thing that this let me do is salvage the Sherlock Holmes bits that were actually interesting. The pieces of dialogue, the plot turns...
[Brandon] Looking at it myself, I would say it became a bit more James Bond and a bit less Sherlock Holmes.
[Howard] Oh, yeah.
[Brandon] That works much more to your style.
[Howard] Yes, it does.
[Brandon] So...
[Mary] Look, exploding things! Exploding mattresses! One of the...
[Dan] One... Oh, go ahead, Mary.

[Mary] Well, one of the things that I felt when I was reading it, and I could be wrong, but I felt like I could still see the regular weekly structure.
[Howard] Yes. Yes you can.
[Mary] Even though you did not write it to go...
[Howard] Yes, that is correct. That is an artifact of my writing process. It's difficult for me to break out of. Sometimes when I write these bonus stories, I'm in a hurry. With this one, I tried to write a Sherlock Holmes story that was actually going to bend some of those rules. I was sick, I was late, and I was behind deadline. I thought, "Eh, you know what, we just got to play to my strengths. Sunday comics are big splashy things where Petey saves the day. Daily comics are dialogue and adventure. All right, there's my formula. Go." This is a thing that I knew how to do, and I needed to do it under deadline. There is no reason to not be proud of hitting a deadline and making money.
[Mary] Oh, no. I'm not criticizing.
[Howard] So I'm going to stop apologizing for it, because I love the way the story came out.
[Brandon] The story turned out very well.

[Brandon] Let's stop for book of the week, though. Mary, will you book of the week us? It's a short story collection of which you are part?
[Mary] Oh, that's right. I was like, "What did we say?" This is The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, edited by John Joseph Adams. It's got stories by authors like... Well, I'm in it, but Neil Gaiman, Robert J. Sawyer, Michael Moorcock, and...
[Brandon] Aw, those hacks.
[Mary] Yes. But the thing that is particularly fun about this is that John has mixed Sherlock Holmes stories that are straight and Sherlock Holmes stories that are supernatural. He does not identify which is which. So when you're going along, there is that question of is the solution to this going to be...
[Brandon] Supernatural or not.
[Dan] Very cool.
[Brandon] That is cool.
[Mary] it's a really cool short story collection.
[Howard] So go on out to You can start a 30 day free trial membership and download... What was the name of the collection, again?
[Mary] The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
[Howard] The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes for free. If you are looking for just straight up Sherlock Holmes, there is also Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, dramatized obviously by Arthur Conan Doyle and narrated by Basil Rathbone. You can pick that one up for 30% off, if you kick off a free trial. So... Back to grilling me.

[Mary] So what thing are you most proud of with this sucker?
[Howard] Honestly, it is the mirroring, the reversal, the twisting of the deus ex machina concept. Every last one of Petey's adventures, you are getting an ending that hasn't been foreshadowed. Until you get to the third one, and you realize, "Well, this has happened before. Therefore..." Repetition is a foreshadowing in and of itself. Then the very end is...
[Brandon] Breaking the formula.
[Howard] Well, it breaks the formula, but it's also not a deus ex machina because in... If... Let me rewind just a little bit. One of my rules about deus ex machina is that if this has been in some way foreshadowed, even if God himself comes down and saves the day, if you foreshadowed that that's happening, it's not deus ex machina. It can be satisfying. In the very first of Petey's adventures, and I need to grab the page... I can't find it... It's actually on page 160, Petey says to another one of the fleetmind nodes, "Are you wishing me luck?" The other node says, "No. Just be a good protagonist and don't wait around for somebody else's ex machina to drop you some deus." That's exactly what happens at the end of the book. Somebody else saves his bacon. So even though it is, it isn't, and I was very pleased with that.
[Mary] Did you know that when you wrote that line, or is that something you had to go back and...
[Howard] Oh, yeah. No, when I wrote that line I thought, "Yup. I have to rig this so that John saves the day, and Petey was too late." Then I had to character...
[Brandon] But it's actually satisfying for Petey to be too late, because we've seen him work so hard. It's like... It's the same sort of thing, Indiana Jones works very hard and still fails. Petey has saved countless millions. He's too late for this one, where we've been following the people, where we have a deep emotional investment. So the payoff works very, very well. Though I will say, one thing I noticed. There's a parody smack dab in the middle of this.
[Howard] There is a parody in this.

[Brandon] Only one of them is a parody. Why is there a parody? What were you thinking? I thought it was funny.
[Howard] I watched the premiere of the new Battle Star Galactica and was amazed at this re-imagination of my childhood favorite. Then I watched the first two or three episodes and despised it because it was too dark. I thought, "You know what? Whatever they've done to Battle..."
[Dan] Which is why I loved it.
[Howard] Well, there are reasons to love dark things. I had none of those reasons going for me with this Battle Star. I wanted space opera, and what I got was space Les Miz or something.
[Mary] I am totally writing that.
[Dan] I just sneered while he said Les Miz, so we can't be friends anymore.
[Brandon] I'm going to write space Les Miz.
[Mary] How did that manifest with your...
[Howard] How did that manifest with me? I thought, "You know what? I want to do a reimagining of the Battle Star Galactica we are running from the fleet of robots and have it be silly." You know, the Shard Pope. We have our religious figure. We have the... What did I call them? Instead of Cylon...
[Dan] The Cyberrhoids.
[Howard] The Cyberrhoids.
[Dan] With an H in there to suggest hemorrhoids.
[Howard] With an H... Yup. I had fun with that, I wanted to make it silly. But what it let me do is draw a great big Battle Star Galactica-esque fleet. And it was...
[Dan] And drop in actually a lot of Matrix and Terminator jokes. In addition to all of the Galactica jokes.
[Brandon] Awesome.
[Howard] That was just me doing what I so rarely let myself do in the comic. That's poke fun at other sci-fi.
[Dan] Create parody. Now, listeners, if the Battle Star Galactica parody falls flat for you, you partly have me to blame. Because Howard wrote it, and then called me over, and said, "You're like the biggest fan of this show. Look at this and tell me if I did it right."
[Howard] Dan laughed out loud. He belly laughed. He laughed so hard he sat down. That was before the injury.
[Dan] That's why I broke my tailbone.
[Howard] This was long before the breaking of the...
[Dan] This is the secret history.

[Brandon] Howard, did you plot this out? Did you free write this? How much of each did you do?
[Howard] The outline for this began with a page count. Which is a horrible way for me to write bonus stories. Sandra's going to let up on me and not do that to me in the future because she sees how much it hurts. She told me, "This is the number of pages you need to fill with the bonus story." I said, "So the ending happens on this page, and it takes up this much space because it has to have a big picture. The beginning takes up this much space. Somewhere in the middle, I have to have some really big panels. Those are probably... Well, the ending is Petey and John. The beginning is Petey. The middle can be all Petey, can be all John, not sure yet." Then I started just with page numbers, just started roughly from nailing some circles and squares and writing little blurbs in them. I had the Sherlock Holmes plot line sitting in front of me. Literally, I just threw away like every other page and aligned them with the other notes I made to see if they fit. It was like 90% aligned. So from there, I started writing scripts.
[Dan] I am interested to know if the three little spots where Petey jumps in and saves the day in a story we've never seen before... Are any of those three stories going to appear in the future again in Schlock? Are we going to go back to the Cyberrhoids? Are we going to go back to the horse people that got married?
[Howard] I never throw anything away. But I don't have specific plans for any of those. The Cyberrhoid folk... Their tech is old tech, legacy stuff that won't fit well into the current mega-epic. The other folks are small stories. It would be fun to touch on. They may make cameos at later points in the story. We may visit their planet as part of a larger arc. But they're never going to swing back in as... I say never. In the next 5 to 7 years, I don't see them swinging back in, in a big way. But, like I said, I never throw anything away.
[Dan] Cool.

[Brandon] All right. So. Writing prompt. Howard, give us a writing prompt.
[Howard] Okay. I want you to try and do something similar to what I did. Take one story. Chuck every other page. Use that as framing material for another story.
[Brandon] Excellent. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
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