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Writing Excuses 8.22: Pre-Writing with E. J. Patten

Writing Excuses 8.22: Pre-Writing with E. J. Patten


Key points: For characters, ask "Who are they? What do they want?" Focus on the goals and evolve the plot from that. Concept includes milieu, plot, and character. X does Y at Z. Try writing monologues from the point of view of the characters to find out who they are and what their voice sounds like. Or simply chapters to explore the character. Ask yourself who your character is, who can be hurt, and what do they want. Then ask why questions. Try asking "Who are they, what do they want, how are they going to get it, and what stops them from getting what they want." Do your character work, random bits, and then lay it onto the three act structure. Use normal world, inciting incident, and first act turning point. 

[Mary] Season eight, episode 26.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Pre-Writing with E. J. Patten.
[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] This is E. J., also known as Eric, Patten. Hello, Eric.
[Eric] Hello. Thank you.
[Brandon] Thank you for being willing to be on the podcast. Tell us, briefly, about what you write.
[Eric] I write middle grade fiction, sort of like the Percy Jackson, Harry Potter stuff. My first book came out last September. It's called Return to Exile. The second book comes out... Soon. It's called The Legend Thief. It's part of The Hunter Chronicle series.

[Brandon] Excellent. You said you do a lot of pre-writing. We're going to talk about pre-writing. What do you mean by pre-writing?
[Eric] I do a lot of development. I actually have an undergraduate degree in film. That's kind of the background I come from. I do a lot of sort of different activities to kind of get my brain going. I start with sort of concept and move through character. I do a lot of character work and ask several questions. Who are they, what do they want? Really focus on the goals and sort of evolving the plot from that. That's kind of the... That's kind of what I mean in a nutshell.

[Brandon] Okay. Let's talk about concept. What do you mean by concept?
[Eric] Concept... I think a simple concept includes sort of a milieu statement, a plot statement, a character statement, right? An X does Y at Z.
[Brandon] Okay. Where do you get those?
[Eric] Simplest plot stuff. I sort of made a lot of it up. The terms and stuff...
[Brandon] No, no, no. Where you get your hooks? Where do you get your...
[Eric] Oh, like the concept stuff? Okay. I... I thought you meant the process stuff, and I was like, "Oh, no." No, I kind of just... There are different sources. I mean I kind of like pay attention to things around me and kind of draw from the environment and where things come from. But mainly, it's by just sort of reading, and I sort of like get these sparks, and then I try and translate that into a concept.

[Dan] Walk us through a little bit of the process with Return to Exile, which I've read and really enjoyed. It's kind of a Monster Hunter kind of a thing. Tell us where some of those ideas came from, and how you put them together into a story.
[Eric] All right. Have you guys read H.P. Lovecraft?
[Brandon] Yup.
[Mary] Yes.
[Dan] Absolutely.
[Eric] I'm assuming that you're like in on the Lovecraft stuff. The basic concept of this is sort of Cthulhu for kids. Right? I wanted to create something that was sort of original and novel. I started with the basic monsters. I started with vampires and werewolves and dragons. Then I said, "I don't want to do that. Like everybody is doing that." I said, "I want to do something else." I actually looked at doing a Lovecraftian book. Then I said, "I don't want to use his mythology, either." So I came up with my own mythology, and evolved it within the course of the book. So I'm referencing stories that don't really exist, like The Evil Echo of Solomon Rose, and the Shadow Wargs of Whimple. Then I'm creating these creatures that are from these stories that actually inhabit this world. There's this group called the Hunters of Legend that sort of track these creatures down. So I drew from existing works like H.P. Lovecraft, like Tolkien, I tried to create this complex history and backstory. I sort of used those as springboards to get into these other things. Then I just tried to figure out how I could make it different, and how I could make it original, and then things sort of just snowball from there. I got into the concepts by just trying to kind of encapsulate what I'm doing. Sort of like an after-the-fact thing.

[Howard] It sounds to me like you've got all kinds of world building of mythos happening upfront. Do you do that before you know what shape the story itself is going to take? Before you have any idea what the plot hook is?
[Eric] I mean, I sort of get that initial concept. What's the idea, what's it going to be? Then I start looking at the world. Then... Now my original process I created sort of this light hearted adventure for my first draft. I managed to get an agent with that. Stephen Malk of Writers House is who's repping me. Then I worked with him, and I came up with kind of a new way to write it, to do the development process. It went from this lighthearted adventure to sort of this deep epic sort of darker story. The way I did that is I completely changed the way that I wrote it. So the... You guys are all looking at me. You guys won't see them looking at me, but they're looking at me.
[Brandon] We're all staring at you.
[Mary] We're listening.
[Brandon] We're like, "Cthulhu with kids?"
[Eric] They're like, "Is he going to get to a point soon?"
[Mary] No, no. I was...
[Brandon] This guy is dangerous. Cthulhu...
[Mary] We're all spellbound.
[Dan] No, we're all thinking we wish we'd thought of Cthulhu with kids earlier.
[Brandon] You too can be driven mad by the elder gods.
[Howard] Is that Cthulhu spelled with a K?
[Eric] Yes.
[Brandon] I think Cthulhu is... Cthulhu is public domain.
[Howard] Oh, I know. I'm just saying that Kthulhu for kids with 2 K's, that's...
[Brandon] Oh, yeah. The Kthulhu Kids Klub. Yeah.
[Dan] Written with crayon.
[Howard] Wow, there's three K's. Let's not go there.
[Eric] This is dangerous here. This is moving completely out of middle grade into a different area.

[Brandon] Mary, you were going to say something. I cut you off.
[Mary] I was going to... I think I was going to say that this is very interesting. When he was protesting that we were all looking at him. One of the things that I was curious about when you were talking about concepts is that they sounded very much like what other people describe as elevator pitches. Are they closely related, or do you...
[Eric] Yeah. I mean it's sort of like I try and get it down to a really simple statement. I try and take all of these different ideas and get it at that high concept level, if I was going to pitch somebody, this is kind of what I would like to say. I didn't do that initially. Initially, I just sort of came up with this idea about kids that get their powers through their Halloween costumes. It evolved into this story that is completely different and has nothing to do with that.
[Brandon] Wait. That's been abandoned. That story?
[Eric] Yeah. Everyone's like...
[Dan] There is our writing prompt. For the end.
[Brandon] There's our writing prompt. That's our writing prompt for today. End. You're probably going to write that story some time, though, aren't you?
[Eric] I don't know. I sort of like transitioned out of it, and now I'd have this like thing about going back and doing it again. I don't know if I'll ever return to it.
[Brandon] Kids who get their powers from their Halloween costumes.
[Eric] And save Halloween. Yeah, it's cool.

[Dan] You did a lot... Talked a little about world building, talked a little bit about plot. At what point do the characters come into this process?
[Eric] That was actually the big aha! moment for me, is when I transitioned from this lighthearted adventure to this more epic story. It came in by focusing on the characters first. I actually went back and rewrote the story. I kept the first paragraph. That's it between the first draft and the second draft. I ditched everything but the first paragraph. It was because I went back and looked at the characters. I started with the characters this time, rather than looking at the world or the plot or anything else. I tried to make them as interesting as possible. It was really the main mentor figure, Phineas T. Pimiscule, that kind of launched that for me. He kind of just... He got the ball rolling on the character side. He's this quirky eccentric guy, he's lived for hundreds of years, he wears a monocle and a frock coat. He's kind of weird.

[Brandon] All right. Let's go ahead and do our book of the week. Which is going to be your book. There is not an audible... There's not an audiobook of this, so we can't actually promo it on audible, but they can find it in all bookstores, I presume.
[Eric] Yes, it's available everywhere.
[Brandon] Title is?
[Eric] Return to Exile, The Hunter Chronicles, Snare One. The Hunter Chronicles is the series.
[Howard] Just to educate our listeners, what's the pitch?
[Eric] The high-level concept... It's about kids that use weapons made out of garbage to hunt creatures.
[Brandon] Weapons made out of garbage?
[Eric] Weapons made out of garbage. They make their own weapons to hunt these creatures down. These are things like shadow wargs and wargarous and all sorts of new and kind of cool stuff.
[Howard] To hunt mythical creatures...
[Eric] Mythical creatures.
[Howard] Not bunnies and lizards and roaches.
[Eric] No, although... Are you going to write that story, because that's kind of... We use garbage to hunt rabbits. I like that.
[Dan] That's what John Cleaver did as a child, so...
[Mary] [inaudible – long, short thing?]
[Eric] Yeah, and tortured them horribly.

[Brandon] All right. Let's expand this out to other kinds of pre-writing things. Does anyone in the podcast, you, Eric, or anyone else, use any kinds of methods or tricks or exercises to get things flowing early on?
[Dan] I've talked about this a little bit before, but one of my favorite tricks is to write monologues from the point of view of my characters. This was integral to getting John Cleaver right, but I've done it for other stuff as well. Scenes that are not any part of the outline, just let the characters talk for five or six pages so that I can get a good sense of who they are and what their voice sounds like.

[Brandon] Okay. Eric, have you ever done anything like this?
[Eric] Yeah, I do that quite a bit. I'll just write a couple of sequences or chapters in somebody's voice, just to get sort of a sense of who they are. I do that is part of the character work before I get into sort of the plot development, three act structure stuff, and all that kind of fun development stuff.
[Howard] I will regularly, for the comic... It doesn't really qualify as pre-writing, because I end up using it, but I'm writing it before I know where things are going. I need to find out if this character knows how to deliver a joke. So I'll write a few strips, noodling around and exploring a concept and a character. If they're keepers... If the scripts themselves work, I'll go ahead and draw pictures on them and put them on the web. It's... I mean, I free write. I discovery write my way into all kinds of messes that I then have to outline my way out of. When I'm writing prose, I'll start with POV, voice, tense, experiment a little bit, write a page and just see how I like it. But I don't put those on the Internet.
[Brandon] Most of my pre-writing from this sense takes the form of writing a few chapters that I know I probably won't end up using. They're not monologues like Dan's, because they're usually in third person, which is how I prefer generally to write. But they are a chapter that I just know isn't going to end up in the book. I do end up cutting them almost all the time. But it's like I have to get the ball rolling some. Otherwise, I don't actually do any of the sort of free write on this exercise or things like that. I will sometimes go and say, "I'm going to write a short story and see where it goes." To just kind of keep myself fresh. That's a different thing for me.

[Mary] What I'll do sometimes is that I will... Once I come up with the concept that I'll... It's not exactly free writing, I kind of free associate but in written form, where I take... Try to figure out who my character is, who can be hurt by it, and then start asking why questions. Like why did they get here? Who are they related to, and what do they want? Sometimes I'll toss out several iterations of what do they want to figure out which one I can really drive. But it's... It is written in a way that makes no sense to anyone but me.
[Brandon] Go ahead, Eric.
[Eric] That's actually... I do that a lot. I have four questions that drive almost my entire story. It's who are they, what do they want, how are they going to get it, and what's stopping them from getting what they want. What's getting in their way? I'm looking at the conflict, I get milieu, I get plot out of that. I get motivation, drivers. I ask that for my protagonists, and then I move and ask it for the antagonists. I sort of flip between the characters, and then I kind of map the relationships between them. I use a lot of like Excel spreadsheets and that sort of thing.
[Brandon] Really? Wow.
[Eric] Laid out out into a...
[Mary] I would love to see that some time.
[Brandon] You actually outline in spreadsheet?
[Eric] I outline in spreadsheets. I have tons of spreadsheets with lots of information.
[Brandon] Are you sure you're not an accountant, rather than a screenwriter?
[Eric] I have an MBA. I don't like to admit that.
[Brandon] Oh, there we go.
[Eric] It sort of got me more structured in thinking.
[Dan] I do most of my outlining in Excel as well.
[Brandon] Do you? How'd I not know this?
[Dan] I do not have an MBA. Sorry. But if I've got multiple plot threads going, I'll totally do them in Excel, just because then I get easy columns that I can work with.
[Brandon] Interesting. All right.
[Howard] Larry Correia is an accountant, and is featured in a G.I. Joe comic book as the G.I. Joe accountant whose name is Spreadsheet.
[Brandon] Really? [Laughter]
[Dan] Yep.
[Howard] It's true.
[Dan] Larry Correia is a G.I. Joe. The artist ask him for a photo, so it's even modeled on him, basically.
[Brandon] That's so awesome.
[Dan] That accountant, Spreadsheet.
[Eric] That's funny.
[Brandon] I want to be a G.I. Joe.
[Mary] It's funny. The different markers that there are for someday I'll be a real writer when... I didn't know that was one of them that I wanted.
[Dan] And now it is. We'll all be disappointed.
[Howard] I'm now reminded of that line from the Disney movie Hercules, where Hercules is talking to his father Zeus and says, "I'm an action figure."

[Brandon] Eric, you mentioned three act format. Something you, I assume, learned in screenwriting classes?
[Eric] Yes.
[Brandon] You will go through before you start writing and outline it in three act?
[Eric] Yeah. I actually, I'll do all the character work stuff, and then I create just all these different sort of random bits. That's why I track it all in the spreadsheets and stuff. I try and figure out how I can sort of display these different activities between characters, these relationships, what do those things look like, and then I take and I lay it out into the three act structure. So I'm using like the normal world, inciting incident, and first act turning point, all of that sort of stuff, and just kind of work it out that way to help me get it a little bit more organized. I don't necessarily cling to that. The structure. I'm not that structured about it. At heart, I'm really kind of a discovery writer. I had to force myself to do this other stuff in order to get good at it and actually tell a good story.
[Brandon] Do you feel it helps?
[Eric] Yes. It helps a lot. I mean, it can be limiting because it's... Really it's a film thing, and it doesn't translate directly into writing books. So you kind of have to figure out how to use it and which parts are helpful. I really think kind of the first act piece is probably the best part to use in writing books. It's just figuring out there's a normal world, there's an inciting incident that kicks off the story, and there's a turning point that sets everything off in the story. I mean, even just knowing that helps tremendously, I think.

[Brandon] Do you do character dossiers?
[Eric] I actually did that in the business world. That was one of the things I did. But I don't do a lot for my... In writing. I don't like sit down and create and like roll characters or anything like that. I don't... I'm not sure that's what you were getting at, but...
[Brandon] No, no, no, no. Character dossiers a little... Some authors use them. I find them more used outside of published authors than inside among published authors. But some like to have a series of questions they ask about every character, that they fill out so that they know what the character's favorite food is or whatever is important to them. They can just flip through the pages. I tend to like to ask this question just to see if I can find people who are actually doing it. It does seem like something that would work, but I just don't see it being used.
[Mary] I keep a spreadsheet where I jot down, like when I discover something about my character, where I will add it to the sheet so I will remember that they like it, but I can to not actually want to get too deep in my characters sometimes, which is strange.
[Brandon] See, I would've thought Dan's characters are the ones we don't want to get too deep into.
[Mary] Yeah, I know.
[Brandon] Yours are actually quite pleasant.
[Mary] Thank you.
[Dan] Well, the problem of getting too deep into a character is that it can be very confining.
[Mary] Exactly.

[Dan] Like Mary was just saying, when I discover something new about my characters, that's what you're always doing as a writer is you write a scene and go, "Oh, I didn't realize that this dude liked Chinese food. I'll put that into the spreadsheet."
[Brandon] See, that is the discovery writer way of talking about it. It's all the same, but the writer... The outline writer, like I am, never says that. Says, "Huh. If they like Chinese food, it would make this point of the plot later on better. I'll add that in here."
[Mary] Yes. I do both.
[Brandon] It's just a matter of the way you talk about it. I never say, "Oh, I just discovered they like Chinese food." Discovery writers say stuff like that all the time.
[Dan] See, that doesn't make sense to me, and I have to ask you this question. They're sitting down to eat. It doesn't matter what they're eating. Do you still have that in your outline?
[Brandon] No. They're eating, and it doesn't matter...
[Dan] Or do you just make it out and say, "Oh, they're eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and he doesn't like it." Okay. You've just discovered he doesn't like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
[Brandon] No, I haven't, because that's not a discovery to me. A discovery is something wonderful that... This is just what I need to do for the character to get to the points that are cool.
[Eric] I sense a lot of tension here. Is this a...
[Howard] I don't like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and I think that's wonderful.
[Brandon] But see, we've already talked about the fact that Dan outlines more than I do. But I do think Dan's more of a discovery writer at heart, and I'm more of an outliner at heart. I'm always looking for the pieces that will make the gears turn better. That's what I'm searching for and trying to build the framework in a better way. I'm not getting excited that I've discovered things.
[Eric] Do you guys ever have like a discovery outline brawl off or anything like that?
[Dan] No, because as he just pointed out, I actually outline more than he does.
[Brandon] He outlines more.
[Dan] In spreadsheets, for crying out loud.
[Brandon] Yeah, he outlines more than I do.
[Eric] You're like the total man...
[Dan] And yet I'm more of a discovery writer then he is.
[Eric] The total author.
[Brandon] It's just mentality.
[Dan] There's such a bizarre spectrum of where you fall on that spectrum...
[Brandon] It's like a 4D rendering now in our heads. We're out of time here. I think we will go ahead and use that...
[Howard] My character dossiers are in a wiki. Online.
[Brandon] That's true. Yes. You get to look them up.
[Howard] That the fans contribute to so that I'm not responsible for tracking the information.
[Brandon] What is Tagon's favorite food? Well, if I've mentioned it, someone will say. No one mentioned it. Good, I can go ahead and say it.

[Dan] Writing prompt? Is... We're going to do the kids in Halloween costumes?
[Brandon] Yeah, Halloween costumes. We'll just do magical and/or scientific power armor or something, that the costumes do something cool, and the kids didn't know that they would. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.

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