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Writing Excuses 8.50: Q & A with Mercedes Lackey

Writing Excuses 8.50: Q & A with Mercedes Lackey


Key points:
Q: You are one of the authors who has remained relevant, done new things, and maintained a dominant position in the genre. How did you do that?
A: I don't want to get bored doing one thing. Also, I keep young friends.
Q: How do you create a title for a project?
A: It occurs to me when I am outlining. It reflects the theme. Another approach is to type in the theme in a quote database, look at the quotes, and pick three words in a quote. Finally, ask people about possible titles and your elevator pitch.
Q: Some books are mostly first-person, with parts in third person limited. What do you think about this?
A: That's a really lazy writer. I am militant about maintaining viewpoint.
Q: When starting an online serial story, should I figure out marketing or advertising first or launch and establish content first?
A: Always develop your product first. As a writer, what are you passionate about? What do you love? What do you want to write? Your marketing is your passion. The tools probably will change.
Q: When, where, and how to end chapters.
A: I like to end chapters at the close of the scene. How long can you hold the audience's interest? Give your audience a break.
Q: Epic fantasy uses a lot of narrated language, navelgazing and contemplation. How do you know if you're overdoing it?
A: If it looks like a tour of the Enterprise at the beginning of the series, you're overdoing. Ask readers! Read it out loud.
Q: How do you balance your writing time? How much should you write?
A: Write at least four pages a day, about an hour. Learn to meet deadlines, and to do work that you don't want to do. Balance your day job and your writing career. Consider a cascading series of rewards -- do your homework, write, then do other things.
Q: What don't you like about being an author? What can go wrong?
A: My own professional jealousy. I have to recognize that I already have the best job in the world. Having to write when I don't have an idea, and it's not exciting. Just use craft.
Q: How do you train alpha and beta readers?
A: Start with people who read what you want to write. Then make sure they know they need to be specific and honest.
Q: What's your opinion on accents and dialects?
A: I write accents on occasion for a specific character who needs to stand out.

[Mary] Season eight, episode 50.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q & A with Mercedes Lackey at GenCon.
[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.
[Brandon] And we...
[Mercedes] And I'm Mercedes!
[Brandon] We are extremely happy to welcome one of the greatest writers of science fiction fantasy in the world, Mercedes Lackey. Thank you so much.
[Howard] Oh, the [garbled – face?] that she's making.
[Mercedes] What world...
[Mercedes] What world are you living in? I want to be there.
[Howard] When I first met Mercedes Lackey, we were on a panel together and I hadn't looked at who else was on the panel. She introduced herself to the audience, and I went, "Ooh, you're Mercedes Lackey?" She said, "Oh, yeah." Then I introduced myself and she said, "Ooh, you're Howard Tayler?" I was like, "Oh, my gosh." We had this mutual fan boy-fan girl moment, and then Ben Bova, who was sitting out in the audience, said, "You two stop it."
[Mercedes] And then he said, "Get a room!"

[Brandon] We're going to go to questions from the audience, but first, I actually have a question for Mercedes myself. You are one of the authors who has through... Science fiction and fantasy has changed a lot over the last 20 years, and you are one of the authors who has managed to remain relevant, to be doing new things in every one of these evolutions of the fantasy and science fiction genre, and have maintained kind of one of these dominant positions in the genre. How have you done that? Is this intentional? Do you think about it? How have you made a career of not just doing one thing, but many things?
[Mercedes] That's because I don't want to get bored doing one thing. Also, I try and keep friends that are awful lot younger than I am. I'm 63. I need friends that are somewhere around 20 so I stay relevant.

[Brandon] Excellent. You've done a very good job at it. Let's go ahead. First question from the audience is how do you go about creating a title for a project?
[Mercedes] Well, in my case, it's usually something that occurs to me when I'm in the process of outlining. Something... It will have to reflect the theme in some way or other. The latest book that will be out in October, Bastion, is both named for the fact that the main character is a bastion, he is a figure of strength even though he doesn't think he is, and because the place that they are in is called the Bastion.
[Brandon] Okay. Excellent.
[Mary] I also get them kind of... I have two methods of titling. One is the one that I like, which is that I just get the title in my head as I'm writing, coming up with the idea of the story.
[Howard] I love doing it that way.
[Mary] Yeah. I have no idea how that works. If I could make it happen every time, I would. The other form is where I don't have a title and I don't have a title and I don't have a title. Then I use a trick that Richard or Rick [Boze?] taught me which is you go to a quote database, Shakespeare, like Bartleby's quotes. You type in the major theme of your book. Then you look at all the quotes that come up, and you pick three words out of one of the quotes. For want of a nail, kiss me twice.
[Brandon] Okay. Interesting. That's...
[Mary] Or, if that's not working, then you start googling the theme. But you basically look for something that resonates with the book. If that is completely failing, the thing that I have... If nothing is clicking for you, the thing that I have done as a last resort is write down a list of 10 titles and go to people and say, "I'm going to tell you my elevator pitch. Which one of these looks like that?" Then after I get it narrowed down to three, I go to a different set of people and I say, "Tell me what these books are about?" The one that is closest to my elevator pitch is the title that I pick.

[Mercedes] My favorite story on that is someone that used to write Harlequin category romances. You would never get to pick your own title for them. I never got to pick my own title for them when I was doing the Harlequin Lunas.
[Mary] I'd be happy if someone else picked my titles.
[Mercedes] So she just wrote it for whatever she was going to pay for with the check. So she would write My New Couch...
[Mercedes] My Summer Vacation...
[Mercedes] My Fall Wardrobe.
[Mercedes] They would then put whatever title they were putting on it.
[Howard] Comes out as Abs of Handsome or...
[Mercedes] Something like that.
[Brandon] Abs of Handsome?
[Mary] I had that... I did something like that that backfired on me kind of which is that I had a story that I couldn't title. I was... My working title was Brain in a Jar. I was like, "Okay. That's not going to work as an actual title." So I just translated it into Esperanto. Figuring well, they're going to retitle it for me.
[Brandon] They left it.
[Mary] They left it. So periodically I get people going, "Why is this called Brain in a Jar in Esperanto?" I'm like, "Why do you know Esperanto?" [Cerbo en bokalo]

[Brandon] All right. We're going to move on. Next question is I've read a few books where most of the story was in first person but parts involving the villain or other characters were written in third person limited. This seems like cheating to me. What do you think?
[Mercedes] I think it's a really, really lazy writer. I do very tightly viewpointed books. It's either going to be third person intensely personal or very rarely third person omniscient. Even more rarely, first-person. I am militant about making sure I stay that way. When I do that with my collaborators, I very carefully go through the damn book, every little bit. If I can't tell what person it's in, I change it.

[Brandon] Okay. All right. Howard, one directly for you. When getting ready to start an online serial story, should I figure out marketing or advertising first or should I just launch and just start establishing content?
[Howard] Oh, for heaven's sake. I can think of no circumstance on the planet in which you should plan your outbound marketing prior to developing your product. Okay? I'm saying that across all products. Inbound marketing, maybe. But as a writer, inbound marketing is one of two things. Inbound marketing is either what is it that the market is looking for right now, and we've talked about why that's rarely a good idea. The more important piece of inbound marketing is what is my very, very first audience most interested in partaking of. That very, very first audience is you. That is what am I passionate about writing? So your marketing campaign begins with what do I love, what do I want to write? When you're done with that... You can tell I have an opinion here... When you're done with that...
[Howard] The marketing campaign that goes out, the message that you're sending to this demographic, it's really your passion for this project. The tools you use, whether they're Facebook or Social Media 3.0 or whatever, those tools are probably going to have changed by the time you've finished the project, so don't plan that first.
[Mary] Among other things, let me just give you three words as a cautionary tale of why not to think about marketing first. Jar Jar Binks.
[Mercedes] If you are thinking about marketing as a writer, you're on the wrong side of the table.

[Brandon] Excellent. All right. Mercedes. When, where, and how to end chapters. A person named Frank would like advice on how to do this.
[Mercedes] I like to end chapters where you've got the close of a scene. Now, the length of that chapter is going to depend entirely on two things. One, the people you're writing it for. You write shorter chapters for YA than you do for adult audience. Two, how long you think you can hold that audience's interest in that chapter. If you think you can go for a 40 page chapter, by all means, do it. If Terry... I don't know if you're aware of this, Terry Pratchett does not write chapters.
[Brandon] No chapters.
[Mercedes] Which...
[Brandon] Except in his young adult books, where they forced him to do it.
[Mercedes] Where they forced him.
[Brandon] He was mad about it, I hear.
[Mercedes] I have to say, I try and time my chapters not only for the close of a scene, but for how long my poor audience has sat there without being able to take a pee break.
[Mary] Thank you.

[Brandon] All right. Let's do our book of the week. Misty, will you tell us about Bastion a little bit more?
[Mercedes] Bastion is the last of the Foundation Tril... Quadrology, it turned into... Is it quadrology or tetralogy? I think it ended up being five books. It's the last of the Mags books. It wraps up all the mystery about Mags's origin and it has a whole lot of great action scenes in it, I think. We have lots of fight scenes and we have... Intelligent fight scenes, where the overwhelmingly outnumbered people managed to break up the people that are coming at them into small groups.
[Brandon] Excellent.
[Mercedes] It was a lot of fun to write.
[Brandon] What's the first in that sequence?
[Mercedes] The first is Foundation.
[Brandon] Foundation. Yeah. So Howard, how can they get Foundation or Bastion?
[Howard] Well, head out to As of this writing, we don't know who has narrated Bastion by Mercedes Lackey.
[Mercedes] Not yet.
[Brandon] It should...
[Howard] But by the time this podcast airs, it'll be out there for you. Foundation as well. Start a 30 day free trial by going to that URL and you can pick up one of these books for free.

[Brandon] Excellent. So our next question is epic fantasy uses a lot of narrated language. How can you tell if you're overusing it? I'm going to assume this is kind of talking about the navelgazing or the talk that's just in the character's head as opposed to action, pacing, or dialogue. How can you tell?
[Mercedes] Well, Tolkien, I'm afraid, is very, very guilty of that. Tolkien was a professor. That sort of thing appealed to him. As much as I adored The Lord of the Rings, it is full of that sort of thing. My initial response to that is if it's beginning to look like the tour of the Enterprise that's given to the ensign at the beginning of the series, you're probably doing it wrong.
[Brandon] Yeah. This is one I think about a lot because writing the big epic fantasies I do, I like to spend time with the characters. I like to delve into these sort of character motivations and the brooding about what am I going to do, what am I not going to do. Yet the more I do it, the more I realize you can really bog your story down with this. I try to be more aware and careful. I'm not sure how to know if I'm doing too much other than to give it to readers. Often I rely personally on my agent. My agent will say look at this page, look at this page. These are places you probably want to trim down a paragraph of this here or there or maybe a page of this in this 10 page sequence or something like that. It is not something I worry about too much in my first write. I do tend to discovery write my characters. This is why I see a lot of it in my first drafts. Then in my second draft, a lot of that cut when I'll talk about doing a 10 to 15% cut, big chunks of that are this sort of what we call navelgazing, with the character thinking about themselves and their problems and their connection to the universe and yada yada. It can be fun for a while, but it can get really dull.
[Mary] Yeah. So you're looking for redundancies, and places that you can have things do double duty. One of the tricks that I use is I will read it out loud. If I am in a section and I go, "Boy, this is really going on a while," you go back and cut that sucker. You become more aware of it when you're reading it out loud because you can't skim ahead.

[Brandon] Yeah. All right. Next question. We have a writer who is a teenager, school-age. They want to know if you have any advice for them on balancing their writing time, how much they should write, when they should write, that sort of thing.
[Mercedes] I'd say they should write at least four pages a day.
[Brandon] Four pages a day. Okay.
[Mercedes] That's generally about the length of let's say an hour. Most people can do for pages in an hour. Certainly that's the length of two blog posts. So if you can do two blog posts, you can certainly do four pages of prose in a day.
[Brandon] Excellent. All right. Next question is actually a really interesting one.
[Mary] Oh, actually, can I go back to that? One thing that they don't tell you about high school is that high school is not so much about learning the specific things that you are in a class. It is about learning to meet deadlines, and about doing work that you don't want to do. A lot of your writing career will be about meeting deadlines and doing work that you don't want to do. So homework is your day job. What you are training yourself to do in high school is to balance your day job and your writing career. So make sure that you fulfill the requirements of your day job so that you can... Because metaphorically that's going to stand in for paying the rent when you get older. But make sure that you fill the requirements of your day job, and then also fulfill the requirements of your writing job, which means that your social life may give.
[Howard] What you may consider, and this won't work for everybody... You may consider a cascading series of rewards. You gotta do your homework before you get to write. You've gotta write before you get to play Xbox or go out or whatever. If you can make that work, honestly, if you can learn to do a cascading series of rewards and get the hard stuff done first, you're probably set for the next 75 years.
[Mary] it is something I wish I had learned much earlier.

[Brandon] All right. We talk a lot about the things that we like about writing. This person asked the question, I would love to discuss the parts of being an author that aren't great. Explicitly, the things not about writing, like hate mail or getting feedback that you hate or a bad review. Are there... They want to be prepared for the things that can go wrong. Have you ever gotten hate mail?
[Mercedes] I don't read it. I don't read it, I don't read reviews, I especially don't read Amazon reviews. The only people that are important to my prose are me and my editor. Now my editor is God. She may not know what to change, but she knows where things need to be changed.
[Brandon] Okay. Howard, the things that you hate about this, that maybe aren't immediately obvious?
[Howard] Okay, you know what. The thing that I despise the most, the very, very most, is when I find myself experiencing professional jealousy.
[Brandon] Oh, that's a good point.
[Howard] That makes me really, really miserable, and it's a death spiral. The way to break out of it is to recognize... I know this sounds silly because it should be obvious to all of you, I've got the best job in the world. I make comics. I draw funny pictures and tell jokes, and sometimes get to go to conventions and have four kids who love me and I get to spend lots of... Why on earth would I be jealous of the career that somebody else has? Sometimes, I just need to kick my own self in my own teeth and say, "Hey. You've got the best job in the world. Snap out of it. Quit with the professional jealousy and start making with the comics."
[Brandon] Awesome. Did you have one, Mary?
[Mary] Yeah. Actually, this happened to me pretty recently. Which is that I committed to submitting a story for a themed anthology and couldn't... It's one of the only times that I've hit something, I was like, "I don't have an idea for this." But it was not something that I could back out of. I had to write the story anyway. It's the first time that I've sat down and thought, "Okay, then. Now we just use craft." Because normally I have...
[Howard] [whistle]
[Brandon] You're not excited, but you just gotta do it.
[Mary] I just gotta... You just gotta buckle down and do it. That was the point where I was, "Okay, then. This really is my job."
[Howard] Wait a minute. So you hit the hard part, and there wasn't a fun part after it?
[Mary] No. It was...
[Howard] Oh, boy.
[Mary] It was hard all the way through. I was like, "This is why I have learned the tools. I will bring the tools out and I will use the tools." I came up with... The story that I wound up with is a story that I like and I'm proud of the work that I did. But it was work all the way through it.

[Brandon] Another question here. We're going to go a little long on this one, like we often do on the Q&A sessions. We've answered this one ourselves. I'm curious what Mercedes has to say about it. There's a person who wants advice on finding alpha and beta readers. They say they often yet not very helpful, vague information. I like this, I didn't like this. Is there a way this person... He can train his writing group a little bit better?
[Mercedes] Well, first of all, you need to find people who are already reading the kinds of things that you want to write. Because they'll be a little bit better at the criticism. Secondly, I think that you need to make them understand that they are not being your friend if they are not being specific. And if they're not being honest. When people ask me for a critique, I tell them I can be two things. I can be kind or I can be professional, I cannot be both. You want these people to understand they have to be professional, not kind.
[Brandon] All right. I'm going...
[Howard] There is no kind. There is only professional and unprofessional.

[Brandon] I'm going to do one last one. It's another one we've answered. I want to get your perspective on it. Writer says, "I have a character from the deep South. Is it distracting to write her accent as she speaks it?" So what's your opinion on dialects?
[Mary] [hiss] Sorry. That was the Southerner in me going, "Yes. Please do not write the accent." Ask Mercedes.
[Mercedes] I do write accents on occasion. Mostly, they are for a specific character that I really need to stand out from everybody else in a way that he would stand out to everyone in the book. I do know that it is sometimes distracting for people. I try and write the thing so that it's not as distracting as it could be. I definitely try not to write an accent that I don't know anything about.

[Brandon] All right. Well. Writing prompt. Anyone come up with one? I warned you ahead of time. But we're all... Howard's basically dead over there, for those who can't see him because you're listening to this.
[Mary] Poor Howard.
[Brandon] He didn't get much sleep last night. So, Misty. Writing prompt? Anything you want to send these aspiring writers to do? They can't write, they're blocked, whatever.
[Howard] It can even kind of be homework.
[Brandon] Yes.
[Mercedes] All right. Your homework for tonight, ladies and gentlemen, is to go down to the coffee shop, eavesdrop on some conversation, and go home and write the end of that conversation and the conclusion that the two people have come to.
[Brandon] Fantastic. That's a really good one. Thank you very much, Mercedes Lackey, for being on the podcast. Thank you GenCon.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.

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