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Writing Excuses 8.45: GenCon Q&A with Wesley Chu

Writing Excuses 8.45: GenCon Q&A with Wesley Chu


Key points:
Q. How do you write first-person POV from another or different gender?
A. The same way you write anyone who is not you -- what is important to them, what do they want, how does their past affect how they view things. Do your homework. Practice writing the other. Know the stereotypes. Pay attention to what's different and interesting.
Q. Do you have a set schedule for writing time?
A. I'm a night writer. Writing dates and productivity through peer pressure. Set deadlines. Find time, and write when you can.
Q. How do you expand scenes without adding characters?
A. Beware padding. Add complications, locations, subplots, but make sure they move the plot forward. Replace telling with showing -- unpack and get specific.
Q.How can prose be used to convey emotion without overtly stating feelings?
A. Use your point of view character. How do they look at something and interact with it? Clues to emotional state. Imply emotions. Deny yourself thought verbs.

[Mary] Episode 45.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, GenCon Q&A with Wesley Chu.
[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Mary] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Wesley] And I'm Wesley.
[Brandon] And I'm going to be leaving. I have an appointment very soon, so Wesley will be playing the part of Brandon for part of this podcast.
[Wesley] Hi, guys.
[Brandon] We really appreciate him sticking around. We will be doing a Q&A with the audience. They have handed us these little pieces of paper, and I am just going to read the first one.

[Brandon] How do you write first-person POV from another or different gender?
[Mary] Well, you basically... Just the same way you write it from your own gender, but the things that you should be aware of are the same things that you're thinking about any time that you're writing someone who is not you. What are the things that are important to that person? What are the things that they want? What are the things that... How has their past affected the way they view things? So one of the places that... One of the very few places that it's wildly different is in what they find attractive. So if you don't know the answer to any of these questions, you do your homework. You talk to someone who is not the same gender that you are, you read books written by people of that gender, it's just homework.
[Brandon] You practice... Every time you're writing a character, you're writing slightly the other. The quote unquote the other. As a writer, your job is to learn to write the other. You can't have books populated only with yourself. Now each character will have some of you. Really, asking the question how do I write from some other gender... Number one, we've done podcasts on this so you can go listen to it. But number two, it's really subsumed by this idea of learning to write the other. Realizing that every person is individual and every person is going to defy gender stereotypes in some way. So you just need to write that person as who they are. Where you get into trouble is if you're writing a bunch of characters of the other gender consistently wrong. They can't all have broken that same stereotype in the same way. That's where you run into trouble. But any one character, you won't run into that much trouble as long as you are writing them as someone real.
[Wesley] My wife has this like model for me whenever I write female characters. She goes, "What wouldn't Aaron Sorkin do?"
[Wesley] If he's... I don't know if any of you know Aaron Sorkin's writing. He's a brilliant guy, but he tends to write females in a very two-dimensional way. He actually will cater to the worst tropes that a guy thinks a woman would be. So if you're writing a different gender, I would say definitely they're individuals. All the things that stereotypes are of women, keep that in mind and don't do them.
[Brandon] Yeah. It does help to learn the stereotypes.
[Howard] I'm doing... I'm writing a first-person, present-tense piece right now in which our protagonist is a member... A female captain in charge of a SWAT team that uses magical equipment. In writing about her as the other, I realized that the ways in which she is different from me are captain, SWAT team, magical, and last on the list is female. The things that are different that are going to be interesting to my readers are those first three. So I just... I made sure that up front my characters... My readers know that she's female and then my female beta readers will tell me, "Oh, you know what, this didn't read right for me."
[Brandon] But do listen to the podcasts we've done on this because we've had some excellent guests who've been able to talk about this gender identity and writing the other in really interesting ways. I'm going to excuse myself right now. Everyone have fun with more questions, and I will see you for our next recording session.
[Mary] Excellent.

[Howard] Okay. I've got the next question, and I'm very interested in hearing Wesley's answer to this. Wesley, do you have a set schedule for writing time?
[Wesley] I work at home. So I have a day job where I get to work at home. Every morning by around 8 o'clock, I open up my writing... I use scrivener, I started on scrivener. I probably get my first word on paper or on scrivener at about 3 PM. Certain people have different writing schedules. For me, I'm a night writer, so I actually start getting work done about 9 o'clock, 9 PM and I work until 3 AM. That's kind of like my golden period for writing.
[Howard] Actually, as you're standing in for Brandon, that's exactly how Brandon does it.
[Mary] Brandon, perfect.
[Wesley] [stage whisper] I got it from him.
[Mary] Is that the secret? Darn it.
[Wesley] When I grow up, I want to be Mr. Sanderson.
[Mary] It's actually funny because Wes and I will meet in Chicago sometimes for writing dates. It's basically one of us will be like, "I have to get out of the apartment. Will you come out and play with me?" It's really an excuse to go hang out at a coffee shop and work, but we do get... We get a lot of work done.
[Wesley] We get good work done.
[Mary] The productivity through peer pressure is astonishing.
[Howard] One of my favorite bits of set writing schedule is when my friend Mary invites me to a Google hangout writing date. We all turn on our cameras and turn off our microphones and start writing. We write for 45 minutes and then shoot the breeze for 15. We have to turn the microphones back on for that part. It's fascinating because, yeah, that writing through peer pressure is very helpful. The other... The piece of my schedule that is set that has worked for me brilliantly for years is that I do all my drawing at Dragon's Keep, out in a public place. I've got a drawing table in the corner of the comics shop. But I can't draw until I've written what I'm going to be drawing on. So Dragon's Keep opens at 11 AM. I set that as my deadline. Once Dragon's Keep is open, man, I'm burning daylight. How come I don't have any words on the paper yet? So I try to be up at 8 AM cranking out scripts so that when 11 AM comes, I can be drawing on them.
[Mary] Yeah. One of the problems... I'll just say this while you're looking for the next question. One of the problems I run into is that... And this I've seen happen to other writers as well, is that conventions will throw your schedule out of whack, so you start to go on what I call random time. One of the things that I think a writer who's planning on doing this long term needs to learn is how to find writing time within a larger schedule.
[Howard] Absolutely. In that regard, on my way to this trip, I knew I'm getting on an airplane, I really have to send a chapter to my beta readers. How much work can I get done on the plane? How much work can I get... You know what? Let's find out. So I flipped open a laptop, banged out 1700 words, got myself through the toughest, stickiest part of the story. It's first-person science fiction horror. The gal... The lady sitting next to me was a little mortified at the words that were coming out on the page, but I got it done. It's that principle of found time. It's... You write when you can write sometimes.

[Howard] Okay. What if you are the opposite of Brandon and have issues with wordcount being low? How do you expand scenes without adding more characters?
[Mary] Without adding more characters?
[Howard] Without adding more characters.
[Wesley] There goes your formula.
[Howard] And we've kicked away Mary's crutches.
[Mary] Well, you know, it's... The tricky thing is that there are a lot of ways you can add words and most of them will result in it just... The novel just feeling bloated.
[Howard] Yeah, you're padding.
[Mary] You're padding. The ways that you can pad are things like just adding more description. It's not just a large fin, it's a giant, very big, large fin. That kind of thing is padding.
[Howard] Lots of words ending in ly.
[Mary] Your readers will recognize it as such. When you want something to be longer, what you're looking for are basically more complications, more... And that can be the complication of going to another location, that can be more conflicts, but you just... You have to have more things that are moving the plot forward. If you're having problems with it being very short, it might be that the story that you're trying to tell is... That's the length it wants to be.
[Howard] It's a short story.
[Mary] It's a short story. So you do need to look therefore at adding other characters and locations and more complicated plots... Subplots.
[Howard] Subplots. Wesley?
[Wesley] I'm more... I don't really have that problem. I tend to write big boys. Not big boys like Brandon, but I tend to write a little on the longer side. Over the years, it was more important for me... I learned that my writing crutch was fight scenes, where if I don't know what's going on, I throw in a fight scene. Over the years, I realized that it's always better to strip down than to pad. So I don't really have a good answer for that one.
[Howard] I think that... It really depends on why the story is too short. If, as Mary has said, it's just a simple enough story, linear enough that it's going to be done in 6000 words, then well, don't try and turn it into a 15 or a 20 or a 40 or a 120 or whatever. However, if you are already cheating by saying so-and-so was sad and you are telling us that a thing happened... You can tell us that a thing happened very, very quickly. My outlining... I've got a new outlining system. My outlining system is a 10-year-old boy is telling you about the movie he just saw stream-of-consciousness. That is my new outlining system. Okay, so this one thing happened and then this happens and oh, I almost forgot to tell you in this one scene he does this and you've got to remember that this is happening and then oh it was so awesome... Literally, that's how I am writing through this outline and I realized, "Wow, I just outlined a 30,000 word novella in 500 words." It's the 10-year-old boy version. Don't publish that.
[Howard] Okay. That is tell, don't show. If you look at your prose and find the places where you are telling, it is... You can pad... Pad's the wrong word...
[Mary] I call it unpacking.
[Howard] Yeah, you are going to unpack it, you are going to decompress it by...
[Mary] Getting specific. Basically, instead of he was sad, how does that sadness express itself? What is it that is uniquely sad about that? Is it... What's the physicality? How does his voice sound? What is his body doing? How do other people react to that sadness? Is it visible? So unpack it. But again, you have to make sure that the detail that you're putting in is serving the story. Should we pause?

[Howard] Let's do a... Yeah, let's do a book of the week. Mary, do you have our book of the week this week?
[Mary] I do. It's a book that I narrated which is Chimes at Midnight by Seanan McGuire. This is book 7 in the October Daye series. The thing that I... And you can start with book 1, but Seanan's actually pretty good at letting you step in at any point. There is a very long arc to the novels, but each one can... The individual plot can stand alone. What I particularly enjoy about her's is the way that she has characters interact. These are some of my absolute favorite novels to narrate just because the dialogue in these is so good.
[Howard] Chimes at Midnight?
[Mary] Chimes at Midnight by Seanan McGuire.
[Howard] Chimes at Midnight by Seanan McGuire. Head out to You can start a 30-day free trial membership and pick that one up for free and maybe something else for half price. I don't know if they still have that deal running or not, but... Awesome.

[Howard] This question... This is... I love this question. So now I'm going to read it to you. How can prose be used to convey emotion without overtly stating characters feelings?
[Mary] Well... Who wants to jump in on that, because I'll just talk all night otherwise.
[Wesley] Why don't you start? I'll jump in.
[Mary] So we've talked about this in other podcasts. But basically, what you're doing is you're using your point of view. How your character looks at something and interacts with it will tell you a lot about how the character feels. The word choice that you use will also tell a lot about how a character feels. So if, for instance, I am describing a character who is... Who goes inside a cardboard box. The character... John goes into the cardboard box. That tells you nothing about the character's emotional state. John scrambled into the warm environment. That tells you a little bit more. John pressed back into the tight cardboard box, the sides pressed in around him. Each of the pieces of language that I'm using are giving you a clue into his emotional state. Some of it is also... Which I'm not doing in these examples, describing how it affects him physically. The rough cardboard scratched his skin gives you the sense that he doesn't like being in the cardboard box. The scent of the cardboard reminded him of his childhood... No, that's terrible. But you get the idea.
[Wesley] You could also have implied emotions. So let's say Jane is mad at John because she smelled smoke on his... Because he was smoking. So maybe you could write when John comes in from the balcony, Jane's body was stiff. She didn't get him a cup of coffee. What are all the small things that she could do as an action that could imply to the reader that, "Oh, she isn't happy with him?" So when you write a scene, you can do much more than Jane is mad. You can show how Jane is mad by all the small things that anyone would do to anyone else to show displeasure.
[Mary] Yeah. That's... That gets back to what we were talking about with the earlier question, is unpacking and specificity.
[Howard] Yeah. This is a case where you're going to learn by doing. I can't remember where the blog post was recently. Somebody, I think it might have been Jim Zub, pointed me at a blog post that said, "Look. For the next month, deny yourself the right... You revoke the right to use any verb that says knew...
[Wesley] Thought verbs.
[Howard] Yeah, thought verbs. You don't know, you don't realize, you're not surprised by... Remove all of these from your writing and try and convey the fact that a character knows things by their point of view. It's a... I tried it. It becomes fantastically difficult very, very quickly. That's a good sign that I need more practice at it. This is something that... I mean, it's a great... It's why I asked the question when I did. It's a fantastic thing that you need to learn, and it's going to take a long time to figure it out.
[Mary] Actually, that might actually be a good writing prompt for the week since we are...
[Howard] Okay. Yep. We're a little shy on time. This has been a series of podcasts recorded here at GenCon live. Noise from the audience?
[Howard] I had the audience make noise because they submitted these questions for which we should all be grateful.

[Howard] Now you have the writing prompt, which is deny yourself thought verbs and communicate thought awareness on the part of the character in other ways. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.
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