Questions and Answers
Q: Can I have a rule-based magic system and another more mystical magic system in the same story at the same time?
Q: I would love a podcast or at least a microcast on pre-writing methods. What are your pre-writing methods? What do you do to pre-write?
A: Can of Worms (postponed for later).
Q: What's the first thing you do once the first draft is done? Anything specific you look for?
A: Celebrate. Give it some time. Make the big fixes that I have been holding off on. Let the editor know.
Q: When approaching real world issues such as racism, war, etc., how do you avoid becoming too preachy?
A: Make it about the characters, not the topic. Show don't tell.
Q: What is the best piece of advice you can give somebody who has never written but wants to start?
A: Listen to Writing Excuses. Read a lot in your genre. Write. Don't expect perfection.
Q: Does it help you to experiment with your narrative styles, like second person, script format, epistolary, etc.? Have any of you done this?
A: Yes. It can reshape the way you look at tools you already use. Good practice.
Q: Least favorite tropes or clichés?
A: Bullies. Proving a female character is strong by defeating rapists or overcoming having been raped. The spaceship blows up at the end. Love triangles.
Q: Should you fully edit your first few practice books or just stuff them away as first drafts knowing they suck?
A: It depends. Learn to write first drafts before worrying about learning how to write second drafts. If you want to practice editing, do some editing.
Q: How do you know if you're writing too quickly?
A: Don't stress about this until you have written for a while. Do beware of skipping.
Q: How do you tell the difference between a weakness in your craft and a style of story that your brain wants to tell?
A: Writing groups. Practice. Decide what your goals for the story are. Are the effects ones that you want the story to have?
[Mary] Season Nine, Episode 18.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, micro-casting.
[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] And I'm Howard.
[Brandon] And we're taking questions off of Twitter. So, Thomas Bergstrom asks, "Can I have a rule-based magic system and another more mystical magic system in the same story at the same time?"
[Mary] Yes. Absolutely.
[Howard] Sure. Brandon will write that for you. Oh, wait, you want one that you're writing.
[Mary] Part of the reason you can totally do that is because humans are pattern forming creatures, so even if it is an entirely mystical system that no one really understands how it will work, there will be a group of people who will attempt to apply rules to it.
[Mary] So you can totally do this.
[Brandon] You can. Plus that adds a nice contrast between the two magics... You can... I've read plenty of books where it's like, "This is our science. We understand this. This other thing makes no sense," and it's therefore either evil or it is more religious or whatever reason and you get this nice contrast between them. You can totally do this.
[Mary] Let me give you a real world example of this. Waiting for the bus. You know while you're waiting for the bus that if you walk away from the bus stop, the bus will come. That is a rule that has nothing to do with how the world actually works.
[Brandon] Right. Awesome.
[Brandon] Okay. So. Next question comes from Mike Kern. "I would love a podcast or at least a microcast on pre-writing methods. What are your pre-writing methods? What do you do to pre-write?"
[Mary] I would like an entire podcast on this.
[Brandon] Okay. We will...
[Dan] Can of worms that.
[Brandon] Can of worms that. Good job, Mike.
[Dan] Good job.
[Brandon] Scott Hill asks, "What's the first thing you do once the first draft is done? Anything specific you look for?"
[Mary] My first thing when a first draft...
[Howard] Go out to Shakey's?
[Dan] Yeah. It has nothing to do with writing.
[Mary] I was going to like I pour a glass of scotch, single malt. I'm the only one in the room who will do that.
[Dan] You can drink mine.
[Mary] Thanks. But...
[Dan] Honestly, writing wise, first thing I do after the celebratory whatever I do is give it some time. Work on another project and then come back to it.
[Brandon] See, I don't, after first draft, because during first draft I am... I don't ever rarely go back and fix things. I just add new things and whatnot. I want to get that draft into alpha readers' hands as soon as possible because my deadlines are pretty tight. So I will do a second draft almost immediately, where I fix the big things, the continuity errors I've added in and then I have it ready to send off and I can write something else.
[Mary] I'm pretty much the same way. I go back and fix all of the things that I know are broken, that I have been holding off on fixing.
[Dan] I tend to fix those as I write. Which we don't recommend new writers do, but that's just how I do it.
[Mary] Yeah. Some of those I will fix as I go, but like in the books that I was just doing, where I had to cut three characters... That was one of those things... I was like... I made a note to myself and just dropped them for the latter two thirds of the book or a third of the book, but then as soon as I was finished, I went back and pulled them out.
[Howard] I send an email to my editor and ask him... Well, I tell him, "Hey, draft is done. No, you can't have it yet because it's not ready. What's the deadline again?" Then the ball is officially out of my court until he replies. So I try and send them that late on Friday night.
[Laughter] Then I have a whole weekend to do other things, like make comics.
[Brandon] All right. This one may be too big. But let's just see what you say. Link Law asks, "When approaching real world issues such as racism, war, etc., how do you avoid becoming too preachy?"
[Dan] Oh, that's a good question.
[Mary] That is...
[Brandon] I'll start on this to give you guys some time to think. Because I had a bit of a lead on it.
[Mary] Go ahead, but I feel like we just did a podcast on that.
[Brandon] We did talk about some of these things. I would say if you are making this about the characters and not the topic... In other words, if the characters are passionate about it and you are doing it in-world with the characters, you're going to naturally avoid some of that preachiness. If you also have multiple people discussing... I mean, these are big issues. If you have different people, on different sides even, talking about it, and particularly if you can make sympathetic people who are talking about this issue in interesting, sympathetic ways, you can approach it without being preachy. You also have to be aware though of your modern readers' sensibilities.
[Mary] This is also one of those places where the show, don't tell comes in. That if the story is... If the major plot conflicts are not about whatever this issue is. Like war. If the major plot conflicts are not about war, but about trying to get from point A to point B, and you show all of the issues of war as collateral impact on the characters, but none of them are talking about "War is bad..."
[Brandon] Right, right.
[Mary] It's really when those...
[Brandon] It's a "this war needs to happen because of this" and another one is like "This war needs to happen because of this." Different people who have a similar slant but different reasons also will help a lot.
[Dan] Even if your main plot is about the issue, as long as you are showing rather than telling... If your primary treatment of a difficult issue comes down to people arguing about it in a room, it's going to sound preachy because it is.
[Brandon] All right. Ben Griffith asks, and I've got an answer for this one primed, "What is the best piece of advice you can give somebody who has never written but wants to start?" Listen to Writing Excuses!
[Mary] Read a lot of the stuff in the genre you want to write.
[Howard] Okay. You know what? Listen to Writing Excuses, and then follow Brandon's instructions explicitly, but only for the stuff that he gives in the very last 10 seconds of the show.
[Mary] And only on the odd-numbered shows. Because the even-numbered shows, he's always way off base.
[Howard] I'm talking about the part where he says, "Now go write."
[Mary] Oh, that one.
[Howard] You know what? Follow that advice.
[Dan] And do not expect perfection. Give yourself a chance to just screw around.
[Mary] Yeah, this is...
[Dan] I love in Ender's Game where they... The kids in the Battle School don't really take off as strategists until they give themselves freedom to fail.
[Mary] Yeah. This is the... I use the violin analogy. You do not expect someone to pick up a violin and be good right out of the gate. Expecting that as a writer is equally foolish. It takes time to learn your instrument and time to wire your brain. The biggest thing is to practice and have quality input.
[Brandon] All right. An interesting one. Brian McGee asks, "Does it help you to experiment with your narrative styles, like second person, script format, epistolary, etc.? Have any of you done this?"
[Mary] Yeah, I do. Actually, I like to shake things up and just try kind of random stuff sometimes. Because often it won't... Like writing second person, I haven't had a story yet where I've felt like it's necessary, but it has taught me some things about how other forms work and when to pick those. So a lot of times, trying something would just sort of reshape the way you look at the tools you're already more comfortable using.
[Howard] I did Flight of the Runewright in first person, present tense. For some reason, that voice just felt right for that story. Then as I was halfway through, three quarters of the way through the story, there were things happening that couldn't have happened in any other form of narrative. Similarly, second person imperative. That was my original ending. "Write good ending," was a command to the author. If I hadn't written in that POV, I wouldn't have gotten around to the 200 words of third person limited that actually worked.
[Brandon] So a couple of years back, and I think I talked about it on the cast, I talked about doing dialogue only thing. No tags, no nothing, no narrative, just dialogue. I did an experiment on my blog where I just wrote one of these. Well, in Words of Radiance, there is a chapter that is dialogue only. Told from the point of view of someone who's going insane and is listening to everyone around him. He doesn't know any of them and he's in his own little world. It works beautifully. It's only like a page or two long. It's not something I could do for a long time, but having experimented with that allowed me to do this very cool scene in an actual published book.
[Mary] I actually also just had a dialogue only seen with a character eavesdropping.
[Brandon] Right, right. So these practices can be great for you.
[Brandon] "Least favorite tropes or clichés?" Jake Lingual asks. Is this too big for a micro cast?
[Dan] I think we could each give one really quick.
[Brandon] Okay. Yeah.
[Dan] I will say bullies. I realized that that's a real problem, but I hate reading YA books about bullies. Like in Harry Potter, the world is going to end, it doesn't matter if Draco Malfoy doesn't like you.
[Brandon] I would say mine's similar. My least favorite trope is where a female character is made... Is proven to be strong by beating off rapists or by being raped and then overcoming it.
[Mary] That was the one I was going to say.
[Brandon] I stole it.
[Mary] So I'm just going to ditto it.
[Brandon] Yeah. Howard?
[Howard] Yeah. A... The spaceship blows up at the end.
[Dan] The one that gets complained about a ton is love triangles. Which have their place, but I've talked to so many readers who just outright refuse to read entire series because "Oh. According to this review, there's a love triangle in it. Well, screw it, then."
[Mary] Actually, along those lines, which is why I write the books that I write, the idea that the only way to have a romantic couple that is already hooked up is for them to break up and get back together again. There's so many other ways to maintain romantic tension.
[Dan] There's more than one story to tell about two people in love with each other.
[Brandon] All right. Let's stop for our book of the week. Our book of the week this week is The Martian.
[Howard] I've got that. Yup. The Martian by Andy Weir. This was... You know what? I'm just going to go ahead and put this stake in the ground and let you guys argue over it in the comments. This is the best piece of hard science fiction I've ever read. And yes, I've read the classics. Andy Weir absolutely knocks this out of the park. The book is... The book opens in first person, journal entry. It is an astronaut who is stranded on Mars. His fellow astronauts... A sandstorm whipped in, he got hit by an antenna, suit was punctured, went over the dune, and they had to take off. They thought he was dead. They left. And he lived. Now he has all of their food, which is good for maybe six months, and the next mission to Mars isn't for about four years. So this is a story of... This is Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and I gotta tell ya, Andy did his homework. It is... You will learn things about hydrazine. You will learn chemistry, you will learn botany. Brilliant, brilliant book. Loved it, and the voice of the book, the voice of our main character is absolutely lovable and engaging, and you really want this guy to live. You really can't see any way where it can happen, and it just drags you from beginning to end. So...
[Brandon] Wow. That sounds awesome.
[Howard] The Martian... I loved it. I loved it. The Martian by Andy Weir, narrated by R. C. Bray, who does a really good job of capturing the voice of our main character.
[Brandon] Awesome. How can they get a copy?
[Howard] Oh. Audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a 30-day free trial membership and grab The Martian for free.
[Brandon] All right. So. Tom Hansen asks, "Should you fully edit your first few practice books or just stuff them away as first drafts knowing they suck?"
[Dan] I would say... Well, first of all, I'd say this is different for everybody.
[Dan] Forced to give an answer, I will say don't edit them. Learn how to write first drafts before you start worrying about learning how to write second drafts.
[Brandon] Okay. I felt that as a writer, the number one thing I needed to learn was editing. I had a pretty clean draft.
[Dan] But at what point did you decide that?
[Brandon] Only after I had written a bunch of books.
[Brandon] And I felt that not editing was holding me back. So...
[Mary] Yeah. My first book I edited and edited and edited. The second two I wrote and put in a drawer. The third was Shades of Milk and Honey. That one I edited.
[Howard] So it's almost a when the student is ready, the master will appear sort of thing. You're... You've got these drafts... If you look at these drafts and think you know what needs to be edited in order to make them work but you haven't done editing before, well, gosh, it's probably time to practice editing. But, if there's more stories you need to tell, if there's other stuff you gotta get out of your system and write, maybe that's what you need to do next.
[Brandon] Liam asks, "How do you know if you're writing too quickly?" I would say don't stress this one until you have written for a while. There are very rarely writers I've run into who skip over too much in their writing. I don't know if that's a matter of writing too quickly, but they're trying so hard to get to their ending, they're leaving out things like foreshadowing and the proper... Showing motivations for characters and things like that. But that's a bigger problem than writing too quickly.
[Mary] Yeah. I don't think that writing too quickly is an issue. I mean, I am a fast writer. One of the things that I will hear people say is that you cannot write well quickly. I disagree with that. But where I think the problem comes in is not how fast you write, but what happens when you get to the next stage. You might be submitting too quickly. But that is different from writing too quickly.
[Brandon] Okay. "How do you tell the difference..." This is a really good one... "Between a weakness in your craft and a story your brain just wants to tell, that is this style of story," meaning... I think I understand this. Like, I've written books where sometimes the story you want to tell is going to have issues. The best example I can give to kind of bring everyone up to speed on this is like the first Way of Kings book. Or the first Stormlight book, Way of Kings. I knew that the story I wanted to tell had lots of different viewpoints and it was going to have a steep learning curve and I didn't pull back from that in the early part of the book, which means that we have like five different viewpoints in our first six chapters. The biggest weakness of that book is that it has five different viewpoints in the first six chapters. If someone is going to put down the book, they're going to put it down there because they're lost and they're like, "I'm having nothing to grab onto." I knew fully well that this was the biggest weakness of the book. I also felt that it was a strength of the book in that it was indicating to the reader "this is the type of book you're getting." This is what the story is that I want to tell. I have other stories that you could read that don't do this. How do you tell the difference between those?
[Dan] Well, I had the same problem with Hollow City, in that it was a story about mental illness, it was about hallucinations and about not trusting your reality. I knew going into it that it was going to confuse readers. It took a lot of writing groups, basically, and a lot of alpha readers and a lot of readers I trusted and opinions I trusted to figure out where the line was. How far I could push you can't trust this book until it got to the point where the readers didn't want to trust the book.
[Brandon] I would say it is difficult to decide. Practice a lot and really decide what your goals for the story are. Sometimes you do want your reader confused. So readers saying I'm confused here is not an automatic fix. But I can't tell you, except on a case-by-case basis...
[Mary] Can I...
[Howard] Having good beta readers. Flight of the Runewright, which is my 12,000 word horror novella in first person present tense is a great example of this because when my readers went through it, they could tell "Oh, wow, this story is doing exactly what it needs to do. This is awesome. Does it have to be first-person, present tense?" We went back through it and realized, "Yep. It does." Then there were people online who read it and said, "Oh. First-person, present tense. Well, it's kind of a fun gimmick, but you shouldn't bother with it." You know what? That's what the story needed to be in order to work the way I wanted the story to work, and my writers' group identified that.
[Mary] Yeah. I'm going to say that one thing with beta readers is that if you go to them... A way to spot whether it is a failure with your craft or it is inherent to the type of story that you want to tell is to hand it to readers and ask them to just list their reader responses, not offer you fixes. But when you're looking at the symptoms that you're producing, whether or not those are the effects that you want the story to be having.
[Brandon] All right. Awesome. I think that's a really good response. We are going to end it here.
[Brandon] Howard... Dan has our writing prompt.
[Dan] Yes. Your writing prompt today is paranormal fantasy. Paranormal romance. But we've had enough vampires and werewolves. I want you to write a story where a girl falls in love with a shoggoth.
[Howard] We're going to need a bigger boat.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses. Now go write.