Questions and Answers:
1. How do you mentally prepare to write? Do something physical while thinking. Reading what I wrote last. Music or a walk.
2. How do you write stories that are important? Don't worry about the important thing. Pick a character story that illuminates the important thing. Show characters struggling with questions. Use humor to slide past defense mechanisms. Use positive messages.
3. What is the difference between magical realism and outright fantasy? Magical realism is the metaphor made manifest. Fantasy lives in a fantasy world, whereas magical realism lives in this world plus a metaphor beyond.
4. Recommendations or techniques for beta reading? Ask the author what they want. What bores, confuses, or is unbelievable. Flag problems.
5. Can you do several novellas and short stories in a serialized way using the same settings and characters? Yes. Many examples.
6. Why do publishers ask for cross-genre books, but publish mostly straight genre books? Many cross-genre books become a genre of their own. Publishers can't afford to experiment all the time. Time lag of publishing.
7. Picture books and chapter books? See SCBWI.
8. How can you give a good reading out loud in front of people? Table for a podcast.
9. How do you write when you are sick? Slowly.
10. What have you learned from reading literary fiction that has informed your genre writing? Poetry of language. Ambiguity is okay. The scope of problems does not always have to be big, the fate of the world is not always in peril.
11. Kitten punk.
[Mary] Season eight, episode 17.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. Micro-casting!
[Howard] 900 seconds 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 just did 15 times 60. I hope I got it right.
[Brandon] How do you mentally prepare to write?
[Mary] I find that doing something physical while I'm thinking about the story is very helpful. Like washing the dishes, going for a walk, and actively thinking about the story, knowing that when I walk back in, I'm going to sit down and write. That is successful for me, and I often forget to do that. I'm like, "Why can't I write?"
[Dan] I find that reading what I wrote yesterday or last week or whenever the last time I wrote totally gets me in the mood to write more. Nothing makes me want to write more than writing. Which is weird, but there you go.
[Howard] I like Mary, I usually do something else. Because I'm so often writing in short snippets, by the time I've written 500 words, that's a week's worth of comics. What I try to do is have a deadline, like a deadline for all the writing to be done so that I can start drawing. So I'll start with a do the dishes, go to the gym, whatever activity with the understanding that once I get back, okay, now I only have 90 minutes. I've got to crank out a week's worth of strips so that I can start drawing. So, a deadline.
[Brandon] All right. I turn on music, and if I'm trying to get in the mood and it's not happening, I go on a walk or I go work out.
[Brandon] How do you write stories that are important? I mean that have a purpose beyond entertainment without being heavy-handed?
[Mary] I just had to deal with this, actually, in a novel, and got some really good advice from David Anthony Durham, which was to not worry about the big important thing. To pick a character story and tell that character story, but pick a character story that would allow me to illuminate the big important idea, but not try to tell the story about the big important idea. So, for instance, I have a novel which is dealing with racism in the South and the idea of passing. But rather than tell a story about passing, I am telling a story about two people who are very much in love.
[Brandon] Right. I think this is a great way to approach it. I've said this before, heavy-handed is where you give answers to questions. Being important and meaningful is showing characters struggling with questions. I think that you can approach to having some answers as long as it's the characters discovering them. But asking the questions is where you want to start.
[Howard] I can to be, like any humorist, insidious and subtle. The character story, the plot, are not the big issue. The big issue gets bundled up into a joke in three panels, and I craft the joke in such a way that some of the people who are laughing don't even realize that they are laughing at the absurd position that they have held their whole lives. It is one of the things that humor does. It lowers your defense mechanism against new ideas. Us... We humorists, we're sneaky bastards.
[Dan] I saw recently a really, really interesting documentary about Paul Simon's album Graceland, which is all of South American music. It's his stuff combined with this... I mean South African music. A lot of people consider that album and its success to have a big part in the eventual overthrow of apartheid. I mean, not... Because... It was not a message album. It was not a we-need-to-stop-this album. It was hey, look, these people are awesome. Listen to their music. Look at them as people in a way you never have before. That incredibly positive message, rather than coming across telling you something or changing the way you think, it just kind of... People naturally did that anyway, because it was so fun to listen to.
[Howard] I seem to recall that the music analysis of that album, when you listen to it in order, is an ascending sequence of key signatures from beginning to end. It is an ascent in terms of tone.
[Brandon] All right. Magic realism versus outright fantasy. What's the difference? How do you approach them differently?
[Mary] The definition that I have heard for magical realism which I find most useful is that it is the metaphor made manifest. In other words, like fantasy... Things are fantastic because you are in a fantasy world. In magical realism, you are in this world, but there is some aspect of the world that is a metaphor. For instance, in the movie Like Water for Chocolate, one of the characters is very unhappy and is crying all the time. Those tears... Instead of just saying, "She's unhappy and she's crying all the time," they manifest the metaphor for tears into this cake batter which then makes everyone weep. It becomes larger than life, it becomes fantastic. But it is still a metaphor of the original thing. It just manifested in a fantastic [garbled] way.
[Howard] Tears in the batter was also an important plot point in Shaolin Soccer.
[Mary] Yes. Yes, in fact it was.
[Dan] One of the things that I love about South American magic realism specifically, and this is obviously not across the board, but I love stories such as A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings which present something fantastical and remove ironically the sense of wonder from it. It's about an angel. But it's not a majestic angel, it's not a wondrous angel, it's just a very old man with enormous wings and he lives out in the backyard with the chickens. That's just a way that that culture approaches magic that makes it feel very real without feeling fantastical. Then, of course, by the end that sense of wonder comes back, but... That's what I love about it.
[Brandon] All right. So do you have any recommendations or techniques for doing a beta read for an author? This is someone apparently who is reading... Maybe might not be an author themselves, might be, but they are reading someone else's work and how can you be a better beta reader?
[Dan] Well, what I...
[Howard] Beta read as opposed to alpha read. That's an important distinction.
[Dan] What I tell my beta readers is the form of this story is already the way I like it. I've done the first draft, I've done my major revisions. I'm not going to be going through and cutting out characters, I'm not going to be doing any massive reordering of scenes or plots. At this point, I don't want you to tell me that stuff. Tell me other stuff.
[Brandon] I'm going to disagree a little bit right there. The beta readers for the Return of the Jedi convinced Lucas to let the Millennium Falcon not blow up. That level of... The beta read... The whole point of beta readers for me is to read it as a reader, not a writer. Alpha readers are writers who read it, beta...
[Mary] Oh, no. Not for me.
[Brandon] Well, writers, editors. My alphas are my editor, my agent, and my writing group.
[Mary] Oh, yeah.
[Dan] What we're seeing is that all of us use beta readers differently.
[Mary] We might want to actually table this and do one on alpha and beta readers and how to use them.
[Brandon] I think we've done like two episodes on that, but...
[Mary] Well, let me... Because the way I use alpha readers is I have alpha readers... For me, how for readers are people who are reading it raw. I have people who are reading two chapters behind where I'm writing, and I just want to know how the story is playing. That's all I want to know.
[Howard] Those are your alpha readers?
[Mary] Those are my alpha readers. After I've done that, because I have been making shifts, I will go ahead and give it to beta readers who get it all in one chunk, and I want... Again, mostly, how the story is playing to make sure that I haven't messed anything up. That's before I send it to my editors and agents. They don't get it until I've run it through two passes. But with each of those, I think what I'm telling them is... I use the wise reader idea, that I want to know things that bore them, things that confuse them, and things that they don't understand. No, wait. Bore them, confuse them, and things that they don't believe. Also, things that they think are cool so that I don't accidentally fix them. Mostly, I want them to flag where they run into problems, but I don't want them to tell me how to fix them.
[Howard] One of my favorite things to do as a beta reader... And the relationship I have with the authors for whom I beta read, I will offer in some cases fixes, but the sorts of fixes I'm offering are places where I'll say, "Oo, this scene. This was really, really cool and I like what's happening, but your wording needs to punch this up."
[Mary] Yeah, I wouldn't let you read my stuff.
[Howard] Yup. And that's...
[Brandon] See... Yeah. Again, the definition for me... Alphas are people who are industry insiders. Betas are... Give me the public's view. I want to know just what a common reader has to say about this. I'm looking for reader reaction, like a test group. My beta readers are my focus group.
[Mary] Yeah. For me, it's... I definitely do not... I don't want my industry insiders to read it until after...
[Brandon] After the focus group.
[Howard] So the answer... The answer to this question...
[Brandon] So you use the focus group first, and the industry insiders second.
[Mary] So the answer...
[Howard] The answer to this question is wow...
[Brandon] Find out from the person what they want.
[Howard] Find out from your author.
[Brandon] All right.
[Mary] Actually, let me... In the liner notes, I have... One of my alpha readers did a really good blog post on alpha reading.
[Brandon] All right. This one's going to be kind of an obvious answer for us. But the fact that people are asking it, let's just go ahead with it. Would it be possible to do several stories, novellas and short stories, in a serialized way where the settings and some characters are the same?
[Mary] Yes. Absolutely.
[Brandon] Yeah. In fact, I actually... It's a pretty obvious one to us, but it's been done enough that you can... I suggest you pick up something like Foundation, which is done that way.
[Howard] Orson Scott Card's Folk of the Fringe.
[Mary] Martian Chronicles.
[Brandon] Yeah, Martian Chronicles is another great... Or any kind of shared world anthologies that are out there where people are kind of doing this together.
[Mary] Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century. These are all individual things.
[Brandon] All right. Here's a question. I don't know what our answer to this one is. Why do publishers say they want cross-genre books, but continue to publish mostly straight genre books?
[Dan] I think you're just not reading the right books. I don't know.
[Mary] I think...
[Dan] I see actually a lot of cross-genre stuff. Not that anything's leaping to mind, obviously, because now that I'm called upon to name them, I can't.
[Mary] Well, that's because... I think one of the things that happens is that a lot of times something starts off as cross-genre, like paranormal romance, and then people like it so much that it becomes its own thing.
[Dan] It becomes mainstream, and we don't consider it cross-genre anymore.
[Howard] Let me rephrase the question. Why do publishers want X but what I see from publishers is so often just Y? The answer is because publishers are really looking for ways to experiment and do new things, but they can't afford to experiment all the time. So a lot of what they ship is stuff that they know sells.
[Dan] Well, a lot of what gets picked up and publicized is just familiar.
[Mary] The other thing is the time delay. I mean, publishers can say I want this, but it's going to be at least two years before you see that thing on the shelf.
[Brandon] Okay. Here's a question that I'll just go ahead and answer. The question is picture books and books for beginning readers. They would like us to do a podcast on this, obviously, they posted this thing. The trick is since none of us have done that, we are not a good authority for you on picture books and what we call chapter books. The coo... Speaking as authorities would be wrong for us. Now there might be a time when we can get a guest on that we can interview about it. We will try to watch out for that for you. But I'm not... We have a specific expertise and we should stick to it.
[Dan] I asked my agent that question and said, "We get asked about this all the time, and I don't know what to tell them. Where can I send people?" She said SCBWI is the go to source for learning about that branch of the publishing industry.
[Mary] What does that stand for?
[Dan] I don't remember. SCBWI.
[Mary] Oh, Society of Children's Books...
[Howard] Writers and Illustrators. Okay.
[Dan] Very good.
[Brandon] This is going to be a good one, I think, for us to do an entire podcast on, but I want to ask you, Mary. They say, "How to give a good reading out loud in front of people." You have a fantastic presentation for that. Could we do an entire podcast on that, do you think?
[Mary] Very easily.
[Howard] Okay. Next question.
[Mary] It's going to be a lot of me talking, though.
[Brandon] Okay. How do you write when you are sick? Does your physical health matter when writing?
[Mary] Yes. I write very slowly when I'm sick. There are occasions when I find that I'm actually more focused because I have to work so hard at it that it's... I don't have room for all of the things that are normally distracting me. But...
[Howard] I definitely write differently. Sometimes I write badly. I find that when I'm physically sick, it is really hard to draw, because that is a much more physically involving activity. So often when I am sick, all I do is write. The sort of writing I do never has wordsmithing in it, it's just outline, throw ideas on the page, and hope that tomorrow smart Howard is back and can turn these into some scripts he can draw.
[Dan] Depending on what kind of illness it is, I just write slowly. If it's a cold, which is like the thing I hate more than anything else in the world, I just don't write at all. Because it makes me too miserable.
[Brandon] What is the primary thing you have learned from reading literary fiction that has informed your genre writing? I love that question. I would say, for me, what literary fiction excels at is a sense of poetry to the language. Learning to hear language... Writing in my head as I read it out loud or speak it, really helps [cement?] the idea of poetry in language. Now I'm not usually shooting for that. I'm usually shooting for what we've talked about as window pane prose. But there is a majesty to really well written literary fic of that style that's pretty cool.
[Mary] I think the other thing for me is that it reminds me that ambiguity is okay.
[Brandon] Yeah. Literary fiction is very good at ambiguity and endings that are not endings in the classical sense, in the traditional sense. It can really help you break tropes. The problem is literary fiction has become its own trope. So it's very different from what we do. A lot of them have their own tropes that they're not breaking out of anymore. Which is something that the literary fiction crowd talks about as a complaint.
[Dan] The thing that literary fiction always reminds me of is the scope of problems does not have to be big. Genre fiction, we have a tendency toward the fate of the world is in peril. Literary fiction doesn't. You can have an entire book about my wife doesn't love me anymore. That can fill 500 pages. That is acceptable in that market.
[Howard] We focus a lot on what is a cool story that hasn't been told yet. Literary fiction often is what is a cool tool I can use for telling this story that's been told...
[Mary] How can I make you see this story in a different way?
[Howard] How can I make you see this story in a different way? How can I...
[Brandon] Okay. Well. I'm looking through the questions, looking for one that would be a good writing prompt.
[Mary] I know which one you're going for!
[Brandon] Go ahead, Mary.
[Mary] Is it the nuclear kitten?
[Brandon] Yeah. Well, I saw kitten punk. Is that it?
[Mary] Oh, kitten punk. Yes.
[Brandon] Kitten punk. I saw that, and thought okay!
[Howard] Kitten punk?
[Brandon] Kitten punk. Your writing prompt is kitten punk. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses...
[Howard] You're not going to give me anything besides kitten punk?
[Mary] Do you need more?
[Brandon] Of course not.
[Dan] Well, steam punk is a world powered by steam, so kitten punk naturally is a world where you shovel kittens into the boiler, to make the airships go.
[Brandon] Oh, I'm sorry. Now go write.