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Tag: Peter Orullian

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 15

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.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9. Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14

The panel “Conquering Writer’s Block” was presented by Eldon Thompson. Remarks were also made by J.A. Pitts, Deby Fredericks, and Peter Orullian. (AQ is an audience question.)

ET: George R. R. Martin puts writers as either gardeners or architects. Most writers, about 99%, are gardeners. Most writer’s block is due to lack of preparation, insufficient plotting, unruly characters, vague setting, or an unclear theme. Insufficient plotting comes down to insufficient outlining. You should do whatever works for you. On the macro level, you need the major moments. Most people know their beginning but not so much the midpoint. I would recommend looking at story structure books. Why? Because you need to know what the maximum impacts are at certain parts in the story. You need to reverse engineer it. Pick major moments and use them as manageable chunks. Then set the obstacles.

ET: In Hollywood, there’s more structure. You need to advance the plot every ten minutes. However, you don’t need to be married to your outline. You can sketch it out. There are people who refuse to outline–like Tami Hoag who writes thriller mysteries. She says that it’s not fun to write if she already knows who did it. But you don’t want to trick the reader so you need to plan out how to misdirect and plant clues. To prevent boredom, you need to build conflict in every scene. If you know the big strokes, you can then focus on the details.

ET: Can you avoid unruly characters? I don’t think so. Terry Brooks viewed characters as trying out for roles. If the character doesn’t fit the role, then you either rewrite the role, kick the character out and stick to the role, or try to force the character into the role. If you’re tugged into a different direction, trust your instinct. You need to know your character well. Who they are. What they want. Where, when, why. These are things you know in the back of your head. Elizabeth George says it’s pathological behavior. You need to know how they will respond if the character doesn’t get what they want. You need conflict in every scene, even if it is subtle. If you can’t find the conflict, stage it differently.

ET: For vague setting, it is the easiest to skimp. Setting sets the tone. If there are arctic waters, it might be murder mystery. You might set a horror story in a remote camp. Science fiction and fantasy settings are critical whether they’re real or imagined. Avoid dinner scenes. Static scenes are not as dramatic. Phone calls are easy in reality but they’re not as exciting. In Star Wars, you had light saber fight scenes in strange settings like lava. The opening in Empire Strikes Back was an ice world. If you use geography, setting can dictate plot points and conflict. One example is in fantasy where you have different questing groups that need to meet at a particular place and time. You need challenges for your characters–swimming, freezing, falling, etc.–don’t make it easy on them.

ET: If you have problems with theme, did you lose track of the emotional core of the story? Did you even have one in the first place? Revisit the premise often. Figure out how you want to express it. The character objective is not the same as the author objective. For fiction, don’t preach. Relay the viewpoint. Listen to the subconscious because it will tell you where to go. If something feels wrong, it is because it is. You need patience if there are no deadlines. Stop, look at things at different angles. Look at all the facets. If it’s hard to see it in a linear fashion, turn it over and over. You can also use the avoidance technique–do something else first to free your mind.

JAP: Sometimes if you have writer’s block, you may need to fix your life first. I had a friend with writer’s block, but it was because he had dying relatives. For others, it was cancer treatments. Don’t beat yourself up about your writing when it’s actually depression. Take to someone about your other problems. But there are others who just make excuses, so you better know what your problem is.

ET: Some write for therapy.

AQ: I have writer’s block because I’m afraid of writing dialogue.

AQ: To learn how to write dialogue, you could talk to a reporter. Notice how people gesture while their talking and their facial expressions.

ET: Dialogue is king in Hollywood. Look at other people talking. How the character feels about things will inform the dialogue. Know your character beyond what is superficial. Don’t do too much description.

DF: You need a good balance. Sometimes you can turn description into dialogue. It will improve with the characters.

AQ: Know the goal and motivation.

ET: Let the story tell itself so it won’t be so hard.

AQ: It’s okay to pause in your writing. There are online tips.

ET: What if you’re afraid to stop? Clear writing comes with clear thinking. Scenes come alive better with dialogue but scenes can be too long if there’s too much dialogue. Skip the chit chat.

AQ: What if you have a deadline?

ET: With a deadline, you have less choice. You need to plow through and maybe stay up at night to get it done. I was once at a writing workshop where I had to write a story about a colosseum which was due the next day. But I got stage fright at 2 AM and I ended up staying up all night working on the story. However, when I turned it in, people really liked it. Otherwise, I would have taken my time with it. Writing is hard, so you may be looking for an excuse. You need to force yourself to finish and plunge through. Don’t wander.

AQ: Do you have a minimum word count you do each day?

ET: Yes. If I don’t hit a certain word count, I don’t get to go to the gym.

AQ: What type of word count do you use?

ET: Around 1,600 to 2,000. More if there’s action. It depends on the writer.

AQ: You might have a fear for writing, but you can force through with a word count goal.

ET: Writing is like exercise.

AQ: Would you promote brainstorming?

ET: In groups? I don’t do one. A writer’s group is like the blind meeting the blind. A certain amount of fear is necessary, otherwise you think everything is perfect. You need to figure out how to do it better. If you lock yourself into a corner, you can’t cheat. It’s like playing chess against yourself.

AQ: I do mindmapping software. I work on one character at a time and see how they say it.

DF: Just put something down even if it sounds lame. Then you have something to work with.

AQ: Do you revise? I get rid of the delete and backspace key. You need to give yourself permission to write the “shitty first draft”. Daniel Abraham learned to silence his inner critic with the word count. And I do it at 3 AM when the inner editor is asleep.

ET: I also write at night and then look it over in the morning to eventually polish it later.

PO: You need to practice. You need to get it inside you so you already have the rules internalized. This will help you be completely out of the critical brain.

ET: You need to internalize the structure. Practice. Read it over and over or watch movies. You should not think about that while you’re writing.

PO: It’s okay to be arrogant while you’re writing, but have someone look it over. Get out of your own way. It’s part of your craft. Don’t just show up.

ET: You need to learn the fundamentals.

PO: There’s a lot of romanticism about talent. Most writers work at it so the journeyman metaphor is more apt.

AQ: Some say you need to write ten thousand pages of crap first.

ET: Or a million.

AQ: You need to be in the mindset that you’re crushing the character.

PO: You can’t wait for it. Some stop writing while they’re hot.

ET: It’s building up the writing session. You stop in the middle of a scene so it’s easy to start later.

AQ: Or stop in the middle of sentences. If you’re OCD, you’ll have to finish it. But it can backfire if you can’t remember what you were going to say.

ET: If you have to write it down to remember it, then it’s not worth it to write it.

PO: When I had deadlines, I would fall asleep while writing and end up typing my dreams.

AQ: There was a painter who got blocks. But he just painted anyway, thinking that he would throw it away. But it eventually turned out to be a good idea.

ET: It’s like the free flowing exercise.

PO: Words are not sacrosanct.

ET: Not even the ten commandments. The first ones got destroyed in the Bible. We all get writer’s block, but it will be easier to get through it if you know the ending.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 16 which is on publishing options.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 13

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.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9. Part 10, Part 11, Part 12

The program notes for the panel “From the Villain’s POV” stated: “There’s a reason writers stick to good guys: writing from the point of view of a villain is hard. Join us for a discussion of how to write from the bad guy’s perspective, and how to create and maintain empathy for your monster even when they are doing horrible things.” The panelists were M.J. Engh, Deby Fredericks, George R. R. Martin, and Peter Orullian. (AQ is an audience question.)

GRRM: I don’t believe in villains.

PO: A villain isn’t a villain in his own mind. So is it really the villain’s point of view or not?

DF: I don’t believe that villains don’t know that they are the villains. They want what they want and they’ll try to justify it.

MJE: I agree with George. People do bad things to each other. You can understand why they do evil things, but you don’t have to forgive them.

GRRM: Some call the villain the hero from the other side. Like the Greeks and Trojans. You lose sight of it during a war. You tend to demonize the other side. That’s where knights in shining armor came in. However, knights were far from glamorous. They may have taken oaths to protect the innocent and so forth but actually they murdered and did a lot of other horrible things. Drama arises from the tension between high ideals and corrupt ideals. The knights believed their own press. They thought they were the good ones. Villainous acts doesn’t make the villain.

PO: Villains know what they’re doing is wrong.

DF: I work in an elementary school where the kids are constantly jockeying for position. They know that what they’ve done is wrong. But it’s status. Someone of higher status will believe that striking someone does not matter because he will choose the perk of status.

MJE: They’re sure that others won’t see it as wrong because they did it, but if others do it, those others would be wrong.

DF: At the end of the year, there’s a lot of equipment damage on the playground with balls on the roof and so forth. The last remaining good ball is a precious resource. We have to explain to the older kids to be kind. Although some teams spontaneously include the younger kids.

MJE: That’s why grown-ups teach morality. What about hard-wired morality?

GRRM: Something happens when they grow up. They do some monstrous acts without thinking it’s wrong. Like during war or 9/11. Did they lose the ability to tell right from wrong? History is worse than my own books, making them look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Gordon Dickson planned a series of nine novels–three science fiction, three historical, and three contemporary–with the theme of the moral evolution of humankind. However, he never got to write them.

DF: Adults fudge the truth, thinking that the kids can’t handle the truth. But in George’s books, he doesn’t shrink back from what the characters will do to get to the throne. Be honest in what you’re sharing and don’t fudge.

PO: There’s moral relativism and there’s what M.J. said in the “Psychology of Evil” panel. That morality is hard-wired. That there’s a universal morality. It’s like how the settlers or the Native Americans viewed manifest destiny. So what morality should we subscribe to?

DF: Empathy needs to be taught. If the leader goes around killing and raping, others will do what the leader does. If the leader is restrained, then the troops are merciful.

MJE: There’s evidence for hard-wired morality. In some recent studies of babies of about six months or so, they have a sense of fairness. They share equally. They attach labels of good and bad, sharing and greedy. It’s an innate sense of fairness. But that’s also subject to cultural influences. So does the end justify the means? People may think that in some situations it does because humans have a tendency to think like this.

GRRM: Gordon Dickson said that we have a tendency to identify with larger groups. In moral evolution, it looks like we’re going in the right direction if we take the broad view. For the Cro-Magnons, life was like Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short. It was centered on the family. Then there were the Greek city states. And then the Roman Empire. But even they didn’t include everyone. They still thought there were barbarians outside of the empire. The US is a country of immigrants like a melting pot or salad bowl. I like to think of myself as Terran. I have morality without nationalism in A Song of Ice and Fire. Primarily, the characters identified with their house. In the Hundred Years’ War, it was the Capetians and the Plantagenets, not France and Britain. It’s still happening today. Villainy is not a member of the group. So broaden the group to evolve morality.

PO: As writers, we used to have just a protagonist point of view, like Dudley Do-Right. Now we have multiple points of view so we can sympathize with the other side. But do we still write that or do it with an edge for one side that we cheer for? Or are there equally heroes and villains?

MJE: Not all characters are equal or there would be no story. You can empathize but the reader or writer doesn’t have to approve. How do you make characters good and bad so not to tempt the reader to identify with the wrong character to cheer for?

PO: Is everyone behind the same guy in Game of Thrones?

The audience laughs.

GRRM: We watch who orders which house T-shirts. And we had orders for all of the houses so there’s a mixed response. It’s a fallacy that history is a tale of good and bad guys. However, moral relativism isn’t true. Everyone is not equally bad. You can’t place equal blame. Look at each individual case with objectivity. I was raised as a Catholic but don’t practice anymore. But I find myself still rooting for the Catholics in history. There’s an innate tendency to root for your team.

DF: There’s an interaction between the writer and the reader. We guess the story that you want to read. If there’s a misstep of character, the readers will get angry. Thomas Covenant committed crimes that the readers didn’t like. So there’s a balance between expectation and how the writer tells the story. George challenges the reader to be flexible to see the other viewpoint.

PO: You need to show failings, how people are. When I finally realized that my dad was not perfect, it was crushing. You can show that good characters fail, but you still root for them.

GRRM: If you read my blog, you know I’m a football fan. So there’s the juxtaposition of the rational and the emotional. I know there are good and bad guys on every team and that they’re just doing their job. But I have emotional reactions to particular teams. You can create villains in your own mind.

MJE: I recommend my own book In the Name of Heaven. There are no good guys as groups. Everyone persecutes each other because all of them thought they were doing right. Morality hasn’t caught up with Zeno’s stoic ideal. It’s natural for humans to identify to their own.

AQ: What about privilege within the same group?

MJE: You’ll have more opportunity to do villainous things. Anyone in authority will tempt revolution and abuse.

PO: There’s the saying “absolute power will corrupt absolutely.”

AQ: Doesn’t everyone have their own personal journey?

GRRM: Yes. Every character will have a journey. Their choices are the milestones. Will they leave people to die or steal their food? It’s a question of choices and personal agendas.

AQ: You have a vast array of characters. Do you find that some characters are more difficult to write their point of view?

GRRM: Bran. It’s hard to write a young kid. How much does he understand what he sees? And I don’t write the three-year-old. How much do you remember when you’re three? I don’t think it’s difficult to do villainous characters. How difficult was it to write Arslan?

MJE: It was difficult. It took me eight years. It probably had something to do with exorcising my own demons. But once I got into it, I understood him but did not forgive. I was very disturbed when a reader showed me a first edition of the book that he had gotten from a used bookstore. There was a lot of underlining in the book where it was clear that the previous reader saw Arslan as the hero. So the writer needs to take responsibility.

AQ: How easy or difficult is it to generate a scary scene? Do you bring in a richly described villain?

GRRM: Fear doesn’t come from a scary villain. It comes from the fear that the hero won’t survive. The hero could be facing seventy-four orcs with a penknife and it might not be scary. The author needs to give cues and establish that nobody is safe.

* * *


(The Iron Throne from Game of Thrones)

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 14 which includes a panel on the revision process.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 12

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.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9. Part 10, Part 11

The subject of the panel “The Many Ways to Tell a Story” was: “Stories come in many shapes and sizes, from books to comics to games to television and movies. How is storytelling the same among these media, and how does it differ? What are the challenges unique to each? What makes a good book versus movie versus comic?” The panelists were Kenneth Hite, George R. R. Martin, Peter Orullian, and Eldon Thompson. (AQ is an audience question.)


(Left to right: George R. R. Martin, Peter Orullian, Eldon Thompson, Kenneth Hite)

GRRM: How do you like to tell your story?

PO: I like multiple viewpoints to tell the relationship the characters have between one another. A person who does single viewpoint well is Patrick Rothfuss. You have to ask yourself whose eyes you’re telling it through.

ET: There are certain similarities despite the format. There are pros and cons.

KH: I provide the format in gaming as the gamemaster. Some role playing games have an implied story while others are broader. They allow as many stories as possible to emerge organically. Night’s Black Agents is a spy thriller with less handholding. For other fantasy games there’s a different framework.

GRRM: The gaming aspect is interesting. Is the video game a new art form? There are various forms that existed to tell stories. Poems, plays, and TV weren’t considered legitimate forms for storytelling when they emerged, but now they’re accepted. Are the video games developing in this direction?

PO: I work at Xbox and we prepare them like a franchise. In Halo, the first element is the story. It’s before developing the game engines or pixels. Then you figure out how to use the game itself–like novelizations, webisodes, or developing a movie. Corporations now look at this to create something novel. In transmedia, the story experience is larger than the sum of its parts.

ET: Transmedia has different facets. King’s Dark Tower series is too big for traditional film. Gaming can still deliver a story to the audience. It’s where the reader tells his own story. The API can allow gamers to build it. What’s limited is time development, so you can bring the gamer into it.

PO: Like fanfic.

ET: You could make that argument.

KH: In the tabletop game, you start from scratch. You can use any story or any character. There’s no set way to determine it. There are two types of video games: some have one arc where you can do side quests. In other games, you can do almost anything. It’s like a sandbox. But it’s hard to say it’s the same type of narrative like Gilgamesh or Casablanca. Narrative is collaborative in gaming.

GRRM: Consider the new versions of Sherlock Holmes like the one on the BBC or Robert Downey Jr.’s version. But Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain. Real Sherlockians would reject these new versions. There are lots of entertainment forms including video games which continue to evolve. But can it ever evolve into art? Art is usually the product of a single person. Our culture lauds artists as great. An author is given credit for bringing a book to art. Are video games waiting for its Shakespeare or due to its form, it will never come to pass?

KH: Bioshock is rather primitive. But you can’t say that they can’t be art.

PO: I would argue that the Shakespeare of video games is already here. They spend millions in development. There are cut scenes. And you feel like you’re participating with the story. There are alternate endings.

KH: That’s not unknown in novels. Bram Stoker had different endings.

PO: Storytelling is not mutually exclusive. You can bring people to the story. Transmedia can bring color. I would say it’s a Renaissance in gaming happening now.

AQ: What about PC gaming?

PO: The cloud is making it all converge so you can do gaming on any platform. Everything primarily resides in the cloud. It’s called cloud sourcing.

AQ: As a musician, I find that there’s a parallel between jazz musicians and gaming in regards to collaboration.

GRRM: You have a collaboration in a band. But the audience is still passive. In gaming, you involve the audience. So maybe it’s like karaoke.

KH: In role playing, you can draw a contrast with other art forms. It’s like a “jam session”. But can you call a jam session a composition? Is it just pure music or are you actually playing something? There are narrow stories in indie games.

GRRM: I’m nervous about collaborative things. Most great art are tragedies: The Great Gatsby, Romeo and Juliet, Casablanca, Citizen Kane. Part of us loves this stuff. But generally in a collaboration, you end up with a happy ending.

KH: When they staged King Lear, it ended up with a happy ending.

GRRM: If you give the audience a right to select the ending, then you may lose the tragic endings. That’s the danger.

ET: If you have no emotional attachment, there’s no reason to put in a happy ending. If everyone is telling the story then someone will ask, “why are you killing my character?” You lose the emotional power.

KH: The Odyssey has a happy ending.

GRRM: But only Odysseus had the happy ending. Everyone else didn’t.

AQ: What about Diablo? There are games that end happily or tragically or are ambiguous. Don’t you have to trust that they hire the right people to make the game? Isn’t there a different Shakespeare for everyone?

AQ: Halo seems like it has less of a story. They put out a new one, it seems, every month. Are there more commercial concerns that hinder storytelling?

PO: No. They have to think about a successful franchise. But they also think of the story. Of course, not all people will like the story just as not everyone has the same favorite novel.

KH: Like Merry Wives of Windsor.

AQ: Is there a plot to a video game if you have a controllable character?

PO: The video game is on rails, so you will get to the same endpoint no matter what you do.

GRRM: But what if you don’t want to shoot the bad guys?

KH: Then you bought the wrong video games.

GRRM: But I could negotiate with them…

PO: Have you read your own books? There are many video games from Bejeweled to games with an open world.

AQ: What about open source?

PO: There will be open source, but it’s like the Cliff Notes. Look at the construct, but never at the expense of the story.

KH: If you open up print, people will rip it off. One example was Dickens. His work was so popular during his lifetime, they wrote fanfic about it.

AQ: For adapting Game of Thrones to the screen, did they add scenes that you didn’t write? Did they need your approval?

GRRM: They didn’t need my approval. I think the extra scenes were fine as long as it added to the character, but I also dread it because it adds to the time it takes to tell the story.

AQ: How do you feel about new scenes when you haven’t finished the story?

GRRM: Well, we’ll find out down the road.

AQ: Is writing video games friendlier than Hollywood?

PO: There are some committees in video game development, but there’s someone who has the story bible and the shareholders. But it’s not as complicated as Hollywood.

ET: It’s more like TV than film. Less cooks in the kitchen.

GRRM: But isn’t there a problem with finding the Shakespeare of video games? That industry is very corporate. Is there a room for a visionary? Sid Meier is known for his games. But Halo has no byline. Is it all group think and committees?

PO: Single authors are emerging. Like the apps on the iPad. Draw Something had 55 million downloads in three weeks. Mobile gaming has the advantage of the size of its audience. Smaller game developers can be nimble. And bigger corporations are looking for small game developers. So gamers can now think about story and game design.

KH: There are other corporate cultures–like the Japanese and French–where people buy based on creator. It takes a while to get recognized. It was a while before Shakespeare got his name on his plays. For comic books, it wasn’t until Frank Miller and Alan Moore came on the scene in the 80s.

PO: But you need to distinguish it from names that are actually franchise names.

KH: Like Clint Eastwood or James Cameron.

PO: There’s opportunity for a person not part of a studio.

AQ: What about crowd funding?

PO: It’s like Kickstarter.

AQ: With all the new video games, what will happen to books?

GRRM: Books are not going anywhere. Platforms are changing but people still love reading.

PO: Video games may replace the table top games.

KH: There are people who only do World of Warcraft or watch Buffy because it fulfills all of their entertainment needs. But for most people, they like several different things.

GRRM: I began going to science fiction and fantasy cons in 1971 as a comics fan. But every year, those fans get older and there aren’t many kids. But it’s because they’re traditionally hostile to new media which keeps out the kids. And that makes me worried. But then I come to a convention like this where there are younger people. There’s Comic-Con but it’s not exactly the same. It has a wider, younger base. Publishers will find out that younger people will read. So people will do video games and books. And get gamers to read.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 13 which is a panel on writing villains.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 8

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.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7

On Sunday morning (5/27), I managed to get to the panel “Plotting Over the Course of a Series” a couple of minutes before it started. The panelists were J.A. Pitts, Peter Orullian, and George R. R. Martin. (AQ is an audience question.)

JAP: There are many types of series. But how far out do you plan?

PO: When I first sold, it was a complete surprise. And they wanted outlines for books two and three by 48 hours. I’ve consulted pro writers who said that it didn’t matter what you put in the outlines. They’re guideposts. But I already knew the ending.

GRRM: When I first started A Song of Ice and Fire, I had two one-page outlines–which bears no resemblance to the books. The publishers like books in triads, groups of three. First you come up with an overplot. I did my Wildcard series with a New Mexico gaming group where we had a retreat for the writers to plot it out and hammer out the details. The act of writing creates a new story. Some of it is technique you can get from writers in Hollywood. You can write a television episode and get help from other writers. Some writers like to break a story. But I don’t like anyone else breaking my stories.

JAP: Tor asked me how many books I had planned. I told them I already planned three, so they bought three. I break my stories with my son who finds the piece that is missing in the story. You need multiple arches and character plotlines. You need to find anything that’s surprising.

PO: I use Excel for outlining. I have a row for characters and a column for what happens. But by the second book, I’m coloring outside the lines so I needed revision. For me, it’s more of a discovery process, which is part of the fun. For writers like Brandon Sanderson, they need more architecture.

GRRM: Not all writers are pure “architects” or “gardeners.” Do you have a green thumb? Then you’re more like a gardener–you plant the seed and let it grow. If you’re an architect, you have to plan out how many rooms and so on. Writing is both. But then again, architects really don’t do any building. They let a contractor do it. So if the architect makes the contractor do the work, what’s the writer equivalent?

JAP: James Patterson and Tom Clancy. They have other people write their books.

GRRM: That’s fraud! It’s like V.C. Andrews. She became even more popular after she died.

JAP: I ended up putting stuff meant for book 4 in book 3, so the title changed. I put in many plot points subconsciously. It’s like the gun on the mantlepiece. It’s organic. But I do like to outline to see what to do next in order to get to the end. Do you do a different arc for each character? What about secondary characters?

PO: I trust the process. Sometimes you drop a hook and don’t know why. But trust it. It will work out if you relax and go with the narrative.

GRRM: I don’t do plot arcs for all of my characters. Some are bit players–they end up dying or they’re there to just serve tea. But I certainly have arcs for major characters and major secondary characters. Sometimes I don’t know all the details from A-Z, but there’s also a lot of discovery. That’s the fun of writing.

JAP: One negative side is if you have interesting things happen, but then you can’t get back to what you originally planned. Do you end up changing your plans or do you prune back? Connie Willis listens to what her characters have to say, but then she tells the characters what will happen. Do you religiously stick to outlines?

PO: I color outside lines a lot. My editor tells me to pull out the gratuitous writing, so only a tenth of what is written is used. However, I don’t get too far to the point where I need to scrap the book. I write to please myself. But I also have a day job so I can write for myself.

GRRM: When people label something in a book as gratuitous, is it unnecessary to the main plot? I don’t think that anything is gratuitous. Plot is only one element and not the most important. Otherwise, we would just read the Cliff Notes. Create a book that’s immersive. Great books will make people feel like they lived it. Critics will call a lot of detail, sensory detail, gratuitous. But by describing, it makes scenes come alive. They also call sex scenes gratuitous. But the journey is the thing and the details in the journey. Richness of detail might not be in some other genres–like John Grisham. I like gratuitous scenes.

PO: One example of detail is the description of women’s clothing in Robert Jordan’s books. Other writers might have no plot but rich description.

JAP: Learn the rules so you know how to break them. If words don’t do two or three things, then cut them out. It’s like poetry. But you can’t be so sparse. You have to figure out what’s right for your writing. One example is the wedding feast scene in Dickens’ Great Expectations. Keep the reader engaged and don’t bore them.

GRRM: Different readers are bored by different things. I get bored by action movies–especially car chase scenes. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote a screenplay with twenty pages of just talking in a car because he thought people would be interested. Then again, I liked My Dinner with Andre. Write for yourself and hold tight to it. Write what you want to read and hopefully you’ll find an audience. Urban fantasy has the advantage of being in the modern day. You don’t need to describe McDonald’s because everyone knows what it is. But in epic fantasy, you need to describe the inn.

PO: James Patterson used “lobby” as a shorthand. But in a secondary world, get into sensory detail. Due diligence of imagination will be the view lens of what happens with the plot.

JAP: I don’t like to take shorthand. I don’t take my characters to Starbucks. I take them to some other coffee shop. Plotting is the skeleton. I mostly describe character.

AQ: If you write a phrase of dialogue or prose into the outline, does it make it into the story or is it more organic?

GRRM: Outlines are more functional than polished. More comes from the actual writing.

PO: James Patterson created a spare part of a novel, turned it in, and it worked. That became his formula. When Kevin J. Anderson builds a building, he needs a detailed plan. Brandon Sanderson writes many notes including narrative. But don’t be slavish to the outline.

AQ: You mentioned the gun on the mantlepiece, Chekhov’s law. How often do you realize you have forgotten to set up a plot point?

GRRM: Often, because I get distracted. It’s easily resolved in a novel by rewriting the novel. It’s tricky in a multi-part saga since the first couple of books are already published. Gene Wolfe, the author of The Book of the New Sun, was the editor of an engineering magazine so he wrote on weekends. He wrote four books in first draft and then revised all four at the same time. That’s the way to do it. But realistically, you either need a full-time job, be disciplined, win the lottery, or marry an understanding woman with a good job.

PO: If you’re still editing book one, you can still go back. But after it’s published–be thoughtful so you don’t paint yourself into a corner later.

JAP: Balance what’s right for your career.

AQ: It’s hard to know how much research to do. How much time do you set aside for ground work and outlining?

JAP: I take the same amount of time to do an outline as the first draft of a 90,000 word manuscript.

PO: I do a lot of thinking about world creation although not all of it. I do some creating as I go.

GRRM: I don’t do outlines.

AQ: Are you ever surprised by a minor plot twist?

GRRM: Yes. Sometimes it leads to the best stuff, a better idea. Sometimes it’s a dead end so I need to go back.

PO: I literally had a character turn left rather than right and it turned out the path was my favorite. Once I got most of the way through the book and decided to do something else. The revisions took a lot of work and were grueling, but it panned out.

JAP: Sometimes I do an outline and get bored. So I trash the outline and make a new one that’s better.

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Stay tuned for Part 9, which includes a panel on the psychology of going into space.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 2

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.

Previous post: Part 1

I attended the Friday opening ceremonies but was mostly puzzled. I think there were a lot of inside jokes that I simply did not get.


(Guests of Honor, left to right: George R. R. Martin, Kenneth Hite, Rob Carlos)

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Eventually, I made my way to the “Throne Room”, a.k.a. the hotel lobby where the con organizers had placed the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones, to see the evening panel “The Effect of Setting on Story.” The panelists were Peter Orullian, Joyce Reynolds-Ward, Eldon Thompson, and J.A. Pitts as the moderator. (AQ is an audience question.)

JP: How important is setting? In The Maltese Falcon, the setting is important because the city is used as a character.

PO: In Lord of the Flies the setting works metaphorically as the characters move toward the wild state. James Lee Burke uses lush southern settings, creating feelings of lushness and sweltering heat which works well with mystery and convoluted plot twists. It’s also instructive to look outside of genre.

JR: Setting can be a character and should be developed with the same level of thought. In John Steinbeck’s work, the setting influences the protagonists and story arc. There is one school of criticism, eco-criticism, where they look at setting in particular. Tolkien personified parts of the setting, such as Moria.

ET: Setting can set the tone of the story and the emotional resonance. The setting can create conflict where conflict is lacking. George Lucas does this in Empire Strikes Back where the characters struggle against a frozen world. You can create more drama with a dynamic setting.

JP: In modern and urban fantasy, the reader is hooked with the familiar before introduced to the fantastic. Is it harder or easier to do familiar or non-familiar settings?

PO: You can use shorthand in a familiar world. If you say “lobby”, everyone already knows what a lobby is. If you’re doing a secondary world, you need detail to ground you in the new world. Detail makes it seem concrete and gives flavor to the story.

JR: Doing a secondary world is easier because you’re making it up and no one will ding you on the mistakes.

ET: It depends on what you want to do. Get the details right if it’s in the real world. If you make it up, stay consistent or it will kick the reader out of the story.

JP: For example, get a calendar so you know the phases of the moon. Always have internal consistency and don’t change the rules in the middle unless you have a good explanation. Let the reader fill in the details. Can you overdo detail?

ET: Yes. Don’t bore the reader.

JR: You want enough detail to feel real but not to put the readers to sleep. For instance, you can add detail by being specific, like “redwood tree”, or slip in bits and pieces in the narrative. Don’t write whole paragraphs of detail.

PO: In Carrion Comfort, Dan Simmons set his story in the South, but he’s never been there. But he saw pictures and read about it. He researches by “immersion reading.” So you can fake it. One specific detail can go far to establish your credibility.

JR: If you’re not using specific words, you’re also using weasel words.

JP: What about other sensory settings? In Alyx Dellamonica’s Indigo Springs, time flows differently so setting changes. In other books, authors use smell.

ET: The visual sense is overused (except in film where it’s limited to the visual). Show the way someone walks. Smell is a sense that’s underutilized, so it will stand out. The best sensory writing comes from poetry which is used for maximum impact.

AQ: In radio drama, how is sound used as a setting?

JP: Sounds are incredibly important since there is no visual.

PO: You need texture, audio cues. Smell can be typical. Go into a bar and listen to how people talk and other sounds. How writers write dialogue is not how we speak. Don’t neglect the other senses but also don’t use all the senses at the same time.

JR: Touch is important, especially if you have a character who is working with his hands.

AQ: If something has a specific name in a secondary world but also has an ordinary name in the real world, how do you balance this with setting?

PO: You need balance. Words have different connotations. But it’s a writer’s choice.

ET: You have to have something to ground the reader first.

PO: You can contextualize. For example, Patrick Rothfuss includes invention with clarity.

ET: And in George Martin’s work, it’s twisted just enought that it doesn’t seem anachronistic.

AQ: Can you legally write about a business?

JP: If it’s generic, such as a character going into Starbucks to get coffee, it’s okay. But if you’re saying how bad it is, it’s libel.

AQ: What about real people?

JP: If the person is dead, like Abraham Lincoln, that’s okay. But if the person is alive, that can also be libel. If you’re worried about it, just change the name.

PO: If you’re worried about it, you should get books about copyright and libel. Writers don’t do enough thinking about setting as metaphor. For example, the hollow man living in a wasteland. Use the setting as a macrocosm of the theme. Writers used to do this more. Also what about topography–who or why do people live there?

JR: In one of my books, I have the “dry line” where trees physically separate countries.

JP: For anyone under thirty, they grew up on TV and became lazy with consumption. It’s too fast. You need to immerse yourself in books and take time to delve into detail.

JR: Steinbeck had working journals which were very descriptive. For instance, in his journal for East of Eden, he consciously uses outdoor settings for foreshadowing.

PO: In Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, the setting mirrors the darkness of the main character.

AQ: With all the detail, how do you keep the story moving?

JP: You need to keep a balance. You can get a lot of imagery with a few words. Use three sentences rather than several pages.

PO: Not all writers are good at everything. Your novel can still be good if you’re good at things other than detail.

AQ: Can people see the same setting in different ways?

ET: Setting is the crucible for things to happen. You need to build it to force the character to grow. An example is Frodo’s journey in Lord of the Rings.

JP: Setting enables you to show external turmoil to indicate internal turmoil. Sam (from LOTR) had a totally different view point.

PO: Characters show what’s happening internally by how they view things.

ET: This is not how the author sees things.

AQ: Why do some authors, such as Anne McCaffrey, have other worlds but only use the background in side stories?

JP: That’s doing your homework but not showing it in the main story. Another example is The Silmarillion.

PO: However, there are exceptions. There are some writers who are so good you don’t mind reading pages of detail. These are suggestions, not rules.

AQ: How do you put alternate languages in context?

JP: Just don’t bore me. No apostrophes. Don’t drag the reader out of the story. Alternate languages should be used effectively.

JR: One thing that drags me out of a fantasy story is when they use modern day names.

PO: For invented languages, you can create a few words. It’s not necessary to create an entire dictionary. Be thoughtful about it, especially if it has a specific meaning.

AQ: What about creating naming languages like Tolkien?

JP: Tolkien’s names came from Welsh and mythology.

ET: The key thing is consistency. If you use a name with a hard “C”, don’t just use a “K” in the next name.

JP: If you know someone who knows another language, have them check it.

AQ: In Firefly, they used Chinese. In LOTR, Germanic dialects were used for the dwarves.

PO: Consistency and balance is good.

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Stay tuned for Part 3, one of the Saturday morning sessions.