Questions and Answers
Q: What writing rule do you break the most?
A: Show, don't tell. Don't use flashbacks. Don't start sentences with and or but. Establish your setting in each scene. Turn off your internal editor.
Q: When you review and edit, do you print out your novel and mark it up, or do you just work from the document directly?
A: Print. I used to, now I don't. All digital.
Q: How long between finishing a novel and starting the editing process for you?
Q: What is the number one issue that you have to overcome every day to put words to paper?
A: Inertia. I can't think today, I haz teh dum.
Q: How do you deal with the fear of writing the other and screwing it up?
A: Fear is a gift that will help you do the right homework and research, pay attention to the right things, and move forward cautiously. Fear is a sign that you haven't done enough research. Respect the character, don't rely on stereotypes.
Q: When giving a book as a gift, how do you decide the right book to give?
A: Look at what the person usually reads, then figure out something that will hit those same buttons, but a little off to the side. Look at their Amazon wish list.
Q: Any advice for those looking to build a grand universal story for their fantasy book?
A: We don't understand the question.
Q: Is there a place you go that inspires you to write or that helps you think?
A: Denny's or other restaurants that are open late. Someplace that does not have Wi-Fi.
Q: Do you ever have a hard time letting go of characters, because you have to kill them or because you've reached the end of the book or story?
A: Yes. No, because I've been planning it for a long time. Bittersweet.
Q: When is description too sparse and when does it turn purple?
A: There is no formula. It depends. "You can't be Gene Wolfe for one paragraph." Keep your style consistent. Be careful where you add flourishes.
[Mary] Season nine, episode 12.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, micro-casting.
[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 the part of Dan this week will be played by the Houston Mission Control Launch Countdown Announcer as he or she realizes they really need to go to the bathroom.
[Crackle] All right, Systems, we have a... [Cough. Choke.] I'll be right back...
[Brandon] Okay. Micro-casting. You did a pretty good job with that. What writing rules do you break the most?
[Howard] Forgetting to say that Eric James Stone has joined us for another episode.
[Brandon] Oh. Hi, Eric. How're you doing?
[Brandon] Hey, Eric is joining us again.
[Mary] We're just so used to it now that we should maybe make him start saying his name with us.
[Brandon] He should start saying Eric. On the last episode that you're going to do with us, you can do Eric. Okay.
[Mary] Behind the scenes at Writing Excuses.
[Brandon] What writing rule do you break the most? Guys?
[Mary] Foreshadowing. No. What writing rule do I break the most?
[Brandon] I'll throw this at Brandon...
[Mary] Show, don't tell.
[Brandon] Okay. Show, don't tell.
[Mary] Because I have never been a big fan of that rule. I think it's overstated. So I will tell stuff. Straight up.
[Brandon] I have been breaking a lot lately the don't use flashbacks [inaudible] sequences in the Stormlight Archives. Each book has a 10 chapter flashback sequence interspersed in the book. That's a pretty big rule to break so flagrantly. But I also do start sentences with and or but all the time.
[Howard] So do I.
[Brandon] But that's one of those dumb rules, it's not a real rule.
[Mary] Oh, yeah. And I completely agree with you.
[Eric] One that I break a lot is that you need to establish your setting in each scene. I have scenes where I pretty much don't describe where it's going on and people call it white room syndrome or whatever, but to me a lot of the time the setting isn't really all that important, what's important is what the characters are saying to each other.
[Howard] This is a neat question that we could almost do a whole podcast on, because there's two kinds of answers. There are what are the rules that you break that you then go back and fix? Okay? Because I do white... I white room a lot because dialogue is what I love, and then I have to go back and un-white room it.
[Brandon] I over-exposite in first draft a lot.
[Howard] But then you go back and fix it.
[Mary] I under-exposite and go back and fix it.
[Howard] The rule that I break, and we can argue at length though we won't about whether or not this is a good rule, is turn off your internal editor. My internal editor is dialed up to 10 almost all the time while I am writing, and it slows me way down because I am wordsmithing every sentence as it goes on to the page. That's...
[Eric] Same with me.
[Mary] Yeah. We've got a whole episode on that, which is the internal heckler versus...
[Howard] The heckler versus the editor.
[Mary] So people can go back and look at that.
[Howard] It's not my internal editor, it's my internal copy editor.
[Brandon] When you review and edit, do you print out your novel and mark it up, or do you just work from the document directly?
[Howard] Print. Print, print, print. I always print.
[Mary] I used to, and now I don't anymore.
[Eric] I print it out when I go to my writing group so that I can take notes on it and mark stuff up. So I have a marked up version of the manuscript.
[Howard] Marked up, red pen, full of stickies.
[Brandon] I have never printed out a copy of anything of my own for my own use.
[Mary] Well, that's because you would kill entire forests.
[Brandon] Yes, I could.
[Brandon] But I used to print them up for beta readers back... But I don't even do that anymore [inaudible]
[Howard] Back when Utah had four National Forests.
[Brandon] Yes, that's right. No, I hate working from paper in any form. I hate it when editors would send me paper, and I forced them to all go digital. When I take notes from my writing group, I take notes in the document with track changes while I'm listening to the writing group. I stay away from anything printed. So, very different methods, everybody.
[Brandon] How long in between finishing a novel and starting the editing process for you?
[Mary] It's pretty immediate.
[Brandon] Immediate for me now. I didn't [used to?] like it that way. I'd like to have more time, but it has to be. Immediate.
[Mary] It also depends on how you're defining the editing process. Because I'll do... Because I do a lot of back-and-forth as I'm writing. So when I finish, my first draft is fairly clean. I will do some tidying to it. Then I will send it to my editor. Then I have several months before I touch it again.
[Brandon] Okay. Yeah. You guys? You don't have to weigh in on each one if you don't want to. Okay. Let's go to this one.
[Brandon] What is the number one issue that you have to overcome every day in order to put words to paper?
[Howard] I can't think today, I haz teh dum.
[Brandon] Inertia. Inertia's the right answer. I just have to sit down and start doing it and stopped checking my email, stop... I just have to get going. Once I get going, I'm good.
[Brandon] All right. How do you deal with the fear of writing the other and screwing it up? Now, I will preface this one by saying we've done several podcasts on this topic. Hopefully, we can find them and stick them in the liner notes for you. You say it in a way that sounds like you've listened to these podcasts and you're really worried about messing it up.
[Howard] You know what, I'm going to draw a metaphor from a book by Gavin de Becker called The Gift of Fear, in which he talks about fear as a gift, it saves your life. He talks about how. It's a book about personal safety. I would say that if you are afraid of getting something wrong, that is a fear that will lead you to doing the right homework, doing the right research, paying attention to things, and then moving ahead in a way that is cautious and appropriate. I would not seek to... I will only... If the fear is stopping you from writing, then it's probably a huge problem. But if it's just you're afraid you've gotten it wrong, pay attention to that fear. Don't...
[Mary] I'm... As someone who's doing a lot of that right now, let me be very specific. The fear of getting it wrong comes from not knowing how you can screw up, which is a sign that you haven't done enough research. When you've done your homework, you will know the different ways that you can screw up. If you don't know what those ways are, you don't know the different areas that you can misstep, the different tropes for whatever area you are dealing with that is not like you. Whatever it is, read fiction that is by people who are whatever other you are looking at, whether it is a disability, whether it's a gender, whether it's a nationality or race. Read fiction by those people.
[Eric] Read the nonfiction.
[Howard] And the nonfiction.
[Mary] And nonfiction.
[Howard] Nonfiction essays by those people.
[Mary] And read nonfiction by those people. Read as much as you possibly can, and you will know where the pitfalls are. The more you know, the less terrified you will be. Then understand that you're still going to make mistakes. Part of your processes going to be finding people that can reliably help you understand where those mistakes are. But you have to do the homework first.
[Eric] Yeah. I think one of the biggest things is make sure that you are showing respect to whatever other it is that you are writing about, rather than just relying on stereotypes. Make the character real. Respect that.
[Brandon] Book of the week this week is... Mary is going to promo for us. It's called Between Two Thorns.
[Mary] Yes. Between Two Thorns is by Emma Newman, and it is also narrated by Emma Newman. She is a really... She's a wonderful author and she's a really wonderful narrator, as well. It is basically alongside our world, there is a parallel world of Faerie. That... It's in the nether. It's in this kind of middle region between our world and Faerie, and that there's this whole society and social circles and the people there lived for very, very long times. When you're in there, you don't age. So children are sent to school outside.
[Brandon] Okay. That's clever.
[Mary] Yeah. It's just... The world building is really smart. There's lots of pretty dresses, that you know I'm a sucker for. So you've got social intrigue, you've got political intrigue, there's action, there's adventure, and there's magic. It's also set in...
[Howard] And pretty dresses.
[Mary] And pretty dresses. And beautifully narrated. May I also say, beautifully, beautifully narrated. Highly recommended.
[Howard] audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Start a 30-day free trial membership, help support your favorite writing podcast, which is Writing Excuses... Yay! And get a copy of Between Two Thorns for free.
[Brandon] All right. So. When giving a book as a gift, how do you decide the right book to give? I like this one because it's very different from the others.
[Mary] Yeah. I will look at what the person usually likes to read, and then I try to figure out something that will hit those same buttons, but be a little off to the side.
[Brandon] Excellent. That's basically what I do.
[Eric] I look at their Amazon wish list...
[Mary] And just pick one from that. That also works for me.
[Brandon] I usually pick something that's by one of my friends that I think that my other friend should [be familiar with?].
[Mary] Yeah. Sometimes I will admit that my answer is, "Oh, look at this giant pile of books that I purchased because I like this person."
[Howard] I'd pull one of the Schlock Mercenary titles out of inventory and wrap it up and...
[Brandon] No, the answer is almost always take a Terry Pratchett book. Perhaps it's not great for everyone, but just almost everyone.
[Brandon] All right. Any advice for those looking to build a grand universal story for their fantasy book?
[Howard] Well, when you say a grand universal story...
[Brandon] I don't know, it just says... That's what he wrote.
[Mary] Grand, universal story?
[Brandon] Grand, universal story.
[Howard] So an overarching mega-plot or...
[Mary] No, I am going to guess that this is kind of like Everyman, that this is a story that will appeal to a wide range of people.
[Brandon] Oh. See, I was looking at it as a universe spanning story. But universal... I'll bet you're right. Universal for... Except grand, universal?
[Mary] Hm. We don't know the answer.
[Brandon] We don't understand your question.
[Howard] It's not Universal, it's the MGM brand... I got nothing.
[Brandon] Sorry, Martin, but...
[Mary] If I knew the answer to that, I would probably be a New York Times bestseller.
[Brandon] Is there a place you go that inspires you to write or that helps you think?
[Eric] When I was writing Unforgettable, the novel that I just sold to Baen, the publisher that can now be named...
[Eric] I actually wrote a lot of it at Denny's and various other restaurants that were open late, because I had set myself a goal to write a certain number of words per day and often it would be late in the night and I had not yet written my word goal, so I would go somewhere where I could get some food to eat and sit there with my computer and write.
[Howard] Okay. Thumbs-up or thumbs-down? Moons over My Hammy?
[Eric] I have never eaten it.
[Mary] Maybe a thumb sideways for neutral? For me, it's usually... Usually when I'm needing inspiration and I'm not writing, I will go to someplace that I do not have Wi-Fi.
[Brandon] Okay. Here's an interesting one. Adam asks do you ever have a hard time letting go of characters? Whether or not it's because you have to kill them off or because you've reached the end of your book or story?
[Howard] Yes. Oh, yes. So many times yes.
[Brandon] I'm actually going to say not as hard a time as people would think. For me, when a character dies, it's because I've been planning it usually for months if not years. So I've had plenty of time to get used to it. And beyond that, when I end a story, I have in my head what happens for years past that. I know it all already. So it's done for me. I feel no compulsion really to go back. Although I do sometimes when I finish a story because I've already done it in my head.
[Mary] I am not sure. I am about to send... I'm writing the last of the five books in the Glamorous Histories cycle. It's funny because I'm in this weird bittersweet area. I wrote the first book in 2006, and my career really started taking off in 2008, but the book didn't come out until 2010. The first book. So most of my career, I've had these books. I know that I want to do a finite number of them. I'm... It's like I like these characters, I have other stories that I could tell with them, but I also know that it's totally the right thing to do to have a finite set number.
[Howard] The case where I find myself most often missing a character is when... And this is going to sound just childish and nonprofessional... When I've sent that character off to another scene and they'd be super, super useful in this scene...
[Howard] Where I need them to deliver the punch line, but no, I can't have that character right now because I put them someplace else.
[Brandon] Callie asks when is it... When is description too sparse and at what point does it turn purple? How do you find a balance, especially for setting in action sequences?
[Howard] Okay, this is easy. What you do is you take everything that's not between quotes and you copy that out and put it into a text file. All right? Now... You know what, I can't keep going. I'm sorry. There is no formula.
[Eric] It depends on your genre, it depends on what length you're writing at... If you're writing short fiction or flash fiction, then you can get by with pretty much no description.
[Howard] Terry Bisson's They're Made of Meat is total white room and it's one of the great science fiction stories of all time.
[Brandon] But I do want to highlight this idea of how do you keep your prose from turning purple? Because this is something hard even for me as a professional writer, where I'll be writing along sometimes and notice I've gone purple for a paragraph, which is different from what other people may think is purple and things like that. It's kind of an individual thing.
[Mary] We should probably explain what purple prose is, for new listeners who might not be aware. This is prose that is overly ornamented and florid and calls attention to itself.
[Brandon] And maybe showing off too many of your big words and things like this. But purple prose is also... Has to be in context. I've shared the story with you guys many times where I wrote a really zinger of a paragraph in one of my... In my first book that I published. My editor wrote "You can't be Gene Wolfe for one paragraph or for one sentence, Brandon." What he was saying is if you... If your whole book is one style of prose, and you stop for a paragraph, then that becomes purple even if it in someone else's book would match the rest of the book. It was really eye-opening to me that I have to be very careful about where I add those flourishes and how I go into it. I will usually flourish a little bit more at the beginning of a chapter and flourish less and less as I go through the chapter. Just because by then people are paying attention hopefully to the story and characters.
[Howard] If you're using the words because the words themselves are evocative and what you are evoking fits the story, then you're probably okay. If you're using the words because that's a really cool word, and you're proud that you know the definition, you've definitely crossed the line.
[Brandon] Oh, you do that all the time, though. We were bragging to each other about places that we found you used awesome words.
[Howard] I build situations in which that is the evocative word.
[Eric] As a rule of thumb I have heard you shouldn't... Basically, should limit yourself to know more than three items of description about anything that you're describing unless it becomes really important to describe more about it. And don't use more than two adjectives in a row in describing something.
[Brandon] Let's do a... Let's do a writing prompt. Okay. Let's have... Howard, will you do a writing prompt?
[Howard] Certainly. Certainly. The word sesquipedalian means 18 inches long and there's really not a good place to use that word except when you're talking about really long words. Use the word sesquipedalian in a way that fits your story.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.