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Tag: Jim Butcher

Notes from MisCon 27, Part 12

(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Writing Yourself Into (and Out of) Corners
Panel members: M.H. Bonham, Jim Butcher, John Goff, Dave Gross
Panel description: In this panel we’ll talk about to write your character into a corner (literally, figuratively, emotionally), and how to get them back out again.

JB: What happens when you write into a corner? How do you write into a corner and what does it mean?

DG: I wrote about a character I didn’t create (like Spiderman). The character was not revealed yet. But I had to write it in a short period of time. Others who owned the character changed the character’s motivation and told me I had to revise it by Thursday. The conflict still paid off with the different character, but there were shifting relationships.

MHB: Throw everything and the kitchen sink at the character. Sometimes you have to take a break and work on something else. I get ideas when driving. Don’t use the God card too much–only once in a great while. Think out a solution.

JB: At the beginning of writing Grave Peril, there was no mystery or bad guy, so I needed to throw out those chapters. If I’m in a corner, there’s no clear path and I don’t know what to write next. During a deadline, getting a character into a corner is easy.

JG: I write mostly game related material, so there’s mostly action. I wrote about a vampire and a gunslinger and I found myself in that situation frequently.

JB: How do you get out of it?

JG: I killed him. But the gunslinger was also undead. I don’t like blood, so I go as far as I can go and twist it.

JB: I don’t think there are corners. I think they’re for something awesome to happen. Think laterally. Look for a solution that is not two-dimensional, outside the box.

MHB: By thinking outside the box, ask what is the worst thing that could happen. Delaying the problem could make it worse.

DG: You could avoid getting into corners by outlining. Outliners are like the idiots that drive too slowly and pantsers are like the maniacs who drive too fast. You need to balance between the two.

JB: There’s great strength with solid structure. Have a good idea before you start writing. For example, if you’re driving to California, you need to know which highways to take.

Q: Have you ever come up with an idea where the solution to the problem is a McGuffin that comes out of nowhere?

JG: Yes.

JB: It’s cheating.

MHB: I used to be a pantser but now I outline. If something goes off, I write WTFIDK in the manuscript to indicate where other things go.

DG: I’m an outliner. 90% of my writing is licensed work. They want to know what you want to do. There was one author who had an 80k outline for a 100k manuscript. I try to have tight outlines. I try to get it down to 5k but usually it’s around 15k. A good editor once said that you have to lay the pipe down early.

Q: How horrible is it to insert flashbacks with characters and themes?

JB: If it’s right there, that’s obvious. Lay the groundwork for it.

JG: I like to use flashbacks more for character development. I try to avoid using flashbacks as the solution.

MHB: I use flashbacks as character development or to reveal a piece of the puzzle.

DG: I use them as action beginning the chapter and use them as explanation, but I only use them at the right time.

Q: Do you find yourself coming up with a clever solution first and then writing the character into a corner or is it more common to write into a corner and then bang your head against the wall trying to come up with a solution?

MHB: I used to come up with the trouble first, but now with outlining, I know where I’m heading.

JB: The danger you run into as a writer is that craft can overcome the character. If it doesn’t make sense, you need to let it go if it doesn’t go with the story. The outline helps you get to those places without too much fuss.

DG: I started reading many authors. I’m a film fan and I learned from Buffy. You can pen the story sooner than the audience expects as long as you have something bigger later.

Q: Have you come up with a cool solution that you have to make up a problem for?

JB: Sometimes, depending on the story. But it can be hard. You need to predict how characters will react, what the response will be, and what the emotions are. Does it make psychological sense?

MHB: I agree. You need to consider the emotion of the character. One author had a love interest in a space opera. She wrote a sex scene and afterwards the characters acted differently because there was too much emotion. So she had to cut the scene.

DG: I mostly approach it like a mystery. Think who gets killed and why. Determine the mechanical resolution and how to obfuscate or delay the answer.

JG: Yes. I’m like an outlining pantser with a highway map especially for character motivation. I once had a poker playing character I needed to kill off. So the character died in a cyclone of cards.

Q: Do you ever realize halfway through a book that you need to redo the outline? Or do you just continue?

MHB: I just continue and return back to where I need to go. Sometimes I need to change and don’t reoutline unless it’s really messy otherwise.

JB: I do change the outline and seek an alternate route, a new way to get there.

Q: For that route, do you go with the vanilla option or the science fiction/fantasy option? Like Indiana Jones shooting the swordsman?

JB: That was Spielberg in a corner. He couldn’t film a sword fight scene so he decided just to shoot him. When writing fantasy, using fantasy is usually more fun getting out of a corner. Use what’s close at hand. Consider the creator versus the character getting out of the corner.

DG: Go back to who the character is. If the character thinks that he is human but he isn’t, maybe that’s how he survives the situation.

MHB: I once had a sword with a personality. When all the magic was taken away, we can still use the sword. Come up with a solution which is a way around. Or go in the opposite direction.

JG: I don’t want to use a supernatural solution if it’s not a supernatural story. Ask, what can the character do?

Q: Is it more beneficial to get the character out of a corner instead of making the corner collapse and having the cavalry come in to rescue the character?

DG: The character must have earned the rescue, otherwise it’s a deus ex machina.

MHB: Only have the cavalry come in to clean up the mess.

JB: You can have the cavalry show up but only under specific circumstances. Don’t have them show up in the middle of the story. Instead, they should show up at the end of the book.

JG: You should also establish earlier that the cavalry even exists. You can use it to get conflict. And remember that you’re writing the book about the character and not the cavalry.

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Notes from MisCon 27, Part 8

(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Snarking Up Your Characters
Panel members: Carol Berg, Jim Butcher, Jane Fancher, Diana Pharaoh Francis
Panel description: Who would Malcolm Reynolds, Harry Dresden, and Tyrion Lannister be without their snark? Join us to learn what it means to be snarky, how to add snark to your characters, and how to write perfect one-liners.

Q: Should we define snark before we talk about it?

DPF: No.

JB: Snark at the core is irreverent humor and observation. It’s a deflection.

JF: The deflection is a facade between them and the world.

JB: If it’s insightful, then it’s wit.

CB: When I think of something irreverent, I think teenage boys. It indicates a deep insecurity in the character although they don’t necessarily know it. They think they’re witty, but it’s a comment on themselves.

DPF: When we tend to filter, it’s tact. Snark strips away the tact.

JF: With a touch of humor.

DPF: When you can’t say anything deep about emotional things, snarky interaction may be used. It gives you a feel that there’s something under the surface. It helps form bonds without opening up emotionally.

JF: It could be used to stop an argument.

CB: It can be used as a relief valve.

Q: In dark situations, do you use gallows humor? What is the line for too much snark?

JF: The line is different for different readers. Some think there’s too much snark and some not enough. You need balance.

CB: Any one note character can drive people crazy. You can’t define a character by snark (or any one characteristic). It’s unreal.

JB: And becomes unfun.

DPF: I’m irritated with too much snark in tense situations, like life or death situations.

JF: You have to prove that there’s more to the character than just snark.

JB: Too much snark lowers its value and undermines the drama. For example, in Jurassic Park 3, everyone becomes snarky.

Q: It seems like more male characters are snarky. Is that inherent?

JF: No.

DPF: There are lots of good female snarky characters.

JF: Some examples: Ivanova from Babylon 5, Buffy, the Bitch Queens.

DPF: With snark, there’s a fine line between mean (which makes a character unlikeable) and funny.

JF: You’re not going to please everybody. Some people never like snark.

Q: Is it a requirement to have snark in urban fantasy as compared to science fiction?

JF: I have snarky characters in my science fiction story. Buffy was the original character in urban fantasy who became popular. That set the tone.

CB: I write fantasy, but I have snarky characters to spice it up. Snark prods the serious hero.

JF: Otherwise it’s just grim.

CB: It brings humor.

DPF: I had a character who couldn’t use his hands but needed to go to the bathroom. However, everyone around him doesn’t like him. This had potential for snark and humor.

JF: It’s the embarrassment factor. Snark helps you get over it.

DPF: It helps diffuse embarrassment.

JF: Hopefully there’s at least some characters to lighten up the mood.

JB: How do you get to the point of being comfortable writing snarky characters so that the reader understands it? I practiced a lot in conversation with my son.

CB: Or pretend to be a 14-year-old girl with her boyfriend.

DPF: Comedians are a great source for snark. They give truthful observations in a snarky way. It’s painful, but you know exactly what they mean.

JF: I practiced snark with my brothers and sisters.

CB: Get inside the head of your character. Snark may come naturally with a totally different character. Practice writing the situation.

JF: I don’t consciously write it. I know the character, the set up, and the tension.

Q: There are cultural differences in what is funny and what is dry wit. Is being snarky an American thing?

JF: It’s situational. It’s a euphemism for something else. You need to set up the scene.

Q: When characters come up against authority, can they diffuse it by being snarky or does that sometimes sets off a fuse?

JF: Snarky comments will trigger something. It depends on the situation.

Q: When people react to snark, is this cultural or can you go where no man dares to go? For instance, the fool can snark to the king, but no one else can.

JF: The function of the fool in court was to tell the truth. He was the original stand up comedian. He’s part of the Jungian archetypes. If it becomes too serious, look at the balance of types of characters. You need variety.

Q: In a situation where you have a noble character, how do you create snark?

JB: How can you create snark without that character? The noble character as the target is just as important. You need someone to be the straight guy. Otherwise there’s no contrast. Never underestimate the power of the straight guy. Humor can also come from reversals.

JF: When it finally comes, have a good zinger.

JB: Or a one liner at the end.

Q: Who are your favorite snarky characters?

JB: House

JF: What he said.

CB: Same.

DPF: The characters in Firefly.

JF: Spike in Buffy.

Q: Do you use snark or wit? How do you use it to push the plot?

DPF: I don’t care as long as it works.

JF: I don’t worry about the definitions.

DPF: Wit is sharp, insightful humor. It contrasts what they’re saying with what’s happening.

JB: I go for the cheap laughs.

JF: I try to make that work.

CB: Use it if there’s a purpose to it.

DPF: Suppose there’s a truth that has to be given but the character doesn’t want to listen. Then you can deliver it in a humorous way so that they can hear it and be more willing to hear it.

Q: Different people have different lines for differentiating snark and wit.

JF: Yes, but there’s a continuum. Oscar Wilde was witty by being snarky.

JB: So, what’s everyone’s advice for writing snark?

DPF: Let it all hang out.

CB: Think of the character first and who they are.

JF: When writing dialog, let the conversation flow. Then edit brilliantly.

JB: I think beginning writers hold too much in. Don’t do it. Push things over the top. Practice doing it.

JF: And don’t be afraid.

Notes from MisCon 27, Part 4

(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Private Eyes in Fiction and Real Life
Panel members: Carol Berg, Jim Butcher, John Goff, Peter Wacks
Panel description: How do you put a little mystery in your fantasy and science fiction? In addition to discussing the fictional side of private eyes, John Goff, a private detective for 12 years, will bring some realism to the table.

JB: What’s the difference between fictional and real PIs? In real life, it’s mind-numbingly boring. You’re sitting in a car for fourteen hours.

PW: I worked as a PI for one year and it was boring. I spent thirty hours a week calling people at bars. It was the most exciting when I worked undercover at a car dealership to catch a thief.

JG: I started as a PI sitting in the car watching people for worker’s injury comp. Then I started my own agency and we were busy mostly with civil investigations like car accidents. You can do other stuff if your agency specializes.

JB: I started research on PIs when I was already two books into my series. Before, I only did research with fictional PIs. Reading about PIs, you pick up certain characteristics: the fictional PI has no respect for anyone, he crosses anyone he needs to, he’s independent and defiant.

PW: My PI character doesn’t kill. His ideals go beyond independence.

CB: I grew up reading detective fiction. It’s how they look at the world through logic and solving puzzles. I write fantasy investigators where they have to be careful with what magic they have. A librarian was brought into my story because the character had a background in magic. I have to be careful with magical forensics.

JG: A fictional PI is resourceful, overconfident, and has a smart mouth. He does what you wish you could do.

JB: What kind of situations come up with investigators and what are the challenges?

PW: Politics is important. For example, in urban fantasy there are immortals and you have to deal with the related crimes.

JG: In the game book I wrote, I looked for real world investigations that could converge into the magical. If I’m stumped, I step back and ask what would I do? Or what would Batman do? Think outside the box.

CB: In fantasy, you have to invent forensic limits. But there are things that all PIs do. They all know who they need to interview.

PW: I never got cases that had the same solution.

JB: I read about something that I wanted to write about.

JG: I’ve worked over a thousand cases and I can’t think of an instance where the cases from two clients converged. I’ve got some cases where they came from the same client but they were domestic. I’ve investigated one thing that brought to light other things.

CB: I’m lucky to invent cases where there’s no one for hire but characters are brought on to investigate one track. But investigating one victim led them to look at other victims of the same type.

JB: PIs come out of pulp where there are deadlines. So who is your favorite detective? My favorite is Spencer because he’s irreverent. I read Robert Parker’s entire series before I start on a new Dresden Files book.

PW: The movie The Last Boy Scout.

CB: Sidney or any Dick Francis hero because they are amateurs.

JG: Batman and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. Nicholas Cage’s character in 8mm.

Q: How do you become a detective in the real world?

PW: It depends on the state. In some places, you need a mentor, an agency, and certification.

JG: It depends entirely on the state. In Virginia, you need to register with a test and work for a licensed agency. You need experience (same in Washington). Idaho has no requirements. It varies. You can take the test and run with it. In North Carolina, there’s an old boy’s network which requires a certain number of hours at an agency.

Q: How closely do PIs work with the police?

JG: PIs have a bad rap with the police because the defense uses PIs to build a case against them. On the other hand, the police also take credit for what the PIs have done.

Q: What kind of research is done with actual investigators?

JB: I knew someone who became a PI because he wanted to find missing kids but he ended up on cases with cheating spouses. Technical manuals are valuable although maybe they’re out of date now. Human nature doesn’t change.

Q: If a character reports a murder and starts asking questions–how willing is the character to get involved and how does the character get past it?

JW: They get past it because it’s the character’s job.

JB: The easiest way is to have a character whose basic nature is to ask questions and get involved.

CB: Make it an intellectual puzzle like Sherlock Holmes.

JG: If the character is a PI, it’s what they want to do anyway. If you like German chocolate cake, then you can’t keep away from it. No one makes you take the case. You choose the client.

Q: Who gets the money?

JG: Hopefully you’re not getting repeat business. It’s billed on an hourly rate. There’s a minimum where you get money up front. Or you have an established relationship like with an insurance company. But be careful with law firms, you get paid depending on whether they win the case.

Notes from MisCon 27, Part 2

(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Plot, Plot, Plot
Panel members: Carol Berg, Jim Butcher, J.A. Pitts, Patrick Swenson
Panel description: What is plot? How is it different from storyline? How do you keep your writing moving fast? Our experts will share what they know.

CB: What is the difference between plot and storyline? For example: “The king died and the queen died” is a storyline. “The king died because the queen died” is a plot.

JB: I buy that, but I don’t have a distinction because I just write a story. Everything happens for a reason.

JAP: Plot and theme go hand in hand. They have to work together for the story phase. Different things happen to different people.

PS: It’s wherever it takes me. Characters are reacting to push what they want. If there’s no plot, it’s just action. You need a character who wants something and can’t get it. At the end, the character gets it.

CB: You need a goal, motivation, and conflict. You can have a list of events but it’s not necessarily a plot if there’s no connective tissue. In action movie sequels, things just happen. In a plot, actions and events of a story happen because a person encounters a situation and they react. How do you decide what events happen in your plot?

JAP: I outline a lot. Then I check if the plot is covered. And then the continuity.

JB: I write what is fun to write about. The challenge is to bring those images in my brain to the story and how to get the awesome into the story.

CB: The connective tissue is the hard thing. We can think of cool things, but we have to figure out how to make it work logically. The plot is a road map–write with a destination in mind. How do you get them there? Ask why would he do that? What are the alternatives?

PS: I throw in a bunch of stuff and see if my detective character reacts to it.

CB: Sometimes we know where it ends and cool things happen in between. But the problem is, now we get into character. You cannot divorce plot from character. How can you get a character to do something really bad? Plot flows out of character and how to make them do it.

JB: How do you get a character in trouble? You don’t want to control the reader’s destiny. You can tinker with the character’s past to get them to do it, but it’s clunky. It’s better if you design in beforehand. Then it can happen no other way. You can’t separate plot from character.

JAP: Know your character. How will the character react to the MacGuffin?

PS: I once saw a movie where they asked some authors what they would do if a character does something that they didn’t want them to do. They answered, “Change their past” or “Kill them.”

CB: Connie Willis once said that you are the creator of the characters; they are not real. You are in control. You have to do the hard work of making it work. Plot, designing the right character, learning what they would do. Have you ever plotted yourself into a hole?

JAP: I outline, but then I get off the outline because I come across something cool. If I get into a plot hole, I get angry, do something else, and then go back to the original outline.

JB: There are no dead ends, only opportunities. You overcome it for something awesome. Don’t automatically assume it’s a wall.

CB: In one of my stories, I had a boy who was kidnapped. But I had two other narrators in first person. So who can tell his story? Finally, I had to have the child tell the story–and it was some of the best writing I’ve done. It can be an opportunity. Or go back to your last decision point and see if you made the wrong choice.

PS: I go on a chapter by chapter basis with cliffhangers. I use it as an opportunity. Look at it in a different angle. Reposition the character.

CB: Is there a difference if you’re in the middle of a series or a new book?

JB: In a series, you must balance if a character is needed and how much they appear on stage. Consider which side character is relevant or is the best person to approach the story. Also consider if a new character is needed–don’t double up on what an established character can already do. In a new series, you can drop in characters all the time. In an old series–I have to consider that a new character will be put on the wiki and I end up not doing it because it’s too much work.

JAP: If an ensemble gets too big, some of the characters have to go away. Everything has to be unique enough that it’s not like something that you wrote before.

CB: I don’t necessarily plan out a series ahead of time. Each book is a story, but it’s also part of a larger escalating story. How can you raise the stakes without being repetitive?

Q: Some disasters happen in your [Jim Butcher’s] latest book. How do you know if it’s too disastrous?

JB: I check how late it is in the outline. But you can’t have too much disasters. New writers tend to hold back. You need to make it more disastrous. More disasters are always good.

Q: Aristotle said that character is plot. What’s your take on that?

PS: A character is in charge of his own destination. Escalate the trials and failures.

CB: One drives the other.

JAP: There are lots of things without plot but have just character and they are successful.

JB: Also keep in mind the context that Aristotle was in. In the ancient world writing was different then–it was more about value.

Q: As a character grows, do you alter the plot for the character or try to squeeze the character into the plot?

CB: Never squeeze the character into the plot. Characters rule. If you’re altering the character to fit the story, you’re mutilating the character.

JAP: It depends on what you’re doing. In a short story, it’s a closed room. You don’t have to show who they are. In a novel, you do.

JB: In an expanded story world, you give more room for the character to grow.

CB: People change in response to traumatic events. If they stay static, they’re not human. We know what stress does to people. Adjust the plot as you go along. Characters have to change.

Q: People say that there are only a set number of plots. Do you think there are archetypal plots?

CB: No, not while writing.

JB: Joseph Campbell did not write stories. He wrote about them. He didn’t know the process. I’m too busy doing my stuff to think about that. It’s all about people and how they react. It’s human nature.

JAP: You learn the rules so you can break them. It’s only in the back of my head, but not while writing. The real issue about the set number of plots is that it’s a teaching tool. People don’t know there are other stories and variations.

CB: There are stories that satisfy us. Campbell was looking at why they satisfy us. These stories seem real and go beyond the book.

PS: It’s not so much plot as how people react and how they solve their problems.

Q: Do you think death is necessary and central to the plot? I’ve read books where there’s usually a death of a character that we can relate to.

CB: I hope not.

JB: Not essential, but it works.

JAP: Killing a character is part of the toolkit. If you always use it, it becomes predictable. But it’s a powerful tool.