Q & A

Time to answer some writer-related questions because you have questions and I have answers. Usually.

@Ronsparks on Twitter asks:

When writing a novel do you plan the entire novel, scene-by-scene, before you write?

There’s this common wisdom that fiction writers come in two varieties: Plotters (those who plan everything out in advance) and Pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants). Like most truths about creating art, it’s more of a general observation, but I don’t usually plot far in advance when writing my stories. I prefer to start at the beginning and explore. Sometimes, I have a greater idea of what’s coming and sometimes I don’t. But it’s rare that I have even half of it plotted out in my head before starting, and even rarer that I’ll stick to that plot if I do.

That’s where editing comes in. Even the best plotter probably does plenty of editing in the end, and, really, that’s where the story finally comes together, where the little bits are tied up, others are discarded, and things just generally are rearranged to fit together.


@KarpenkoJen asks:

How essential is a “just stating the facts character” when surrounded by more emotionally driven characters?

The essential nature of any story elements depends entirely on the story being written. There’s no quota of how many or what type of characters a story needs. This also falls into the fallacy that characters are either Intellectual or Emotional, which I’ve never really believed. I don’t think of emotion and intellect as opposites, and so I don’t tend to view them as occupying a contrary spectrum.

Most of my stories don’t have excessively emotional characters. Most of my characters tend to be level-headed and capable. Even the characters in over their heads tend to deal with the situation as best they can. When we speak of emotional characters, we tend to mean characters who can’t process their emotions well or who are flighty or prone to whimsy. I think intellectual characters can have those very same problems.

But is it essential to have a Joe Friday hanging around just to balance things out? I don’t usually think so.


@FatCoyote2 asks:

Has your hometown ever provided fodder for your stories?

Hard to say. I don’t tend to write stories set in the real world, and when I do, I tend not to worry much about the specifics of that. I lot of my stories are set in vaguely-defined locations. Sure, Rockwood is somewhere in the American Southwest, but exactly where is never stated. (People usually assume Texas, but that’s only because I live here.) Monster takes place in a city, but that city is never named. And Empire City from The Automatic Detective could be just about anywhere.

About the biggest influence I’d say would be that I grew up in the desert, which is probably why Rockwood is in a desert.


Robert Bjork on Facebook asks:

Is anything happening with a film version of Gil’s All Fright Diner?


It’s not dead in the water yet though I can’t say much of anything else beyond that. Not because I’m being coy, but because Gil’s has been floating around Hollywood as a movie possibility for about nine years. So your guess is as good as mine. But it’s still out there.


Derek Lang asks:

Can we expect a sequel to The Automatic Detective or Too Many Curses?

Nothing in the works.


Sean Forbes asks:

How do you get to the end in writing a book? It’s just so hard!

It is. I’d love to give you some secret advice that makes it easier, but you just have to do it.

I know it’s not great advice or especially insightful, but that’s the trick. It’s not about figuring out a secret technique. It’s about sitting down and writing your damned book, even when it seems pointless or overwhelming. Nearly every book I write (even to this day) can sometimes feel like an endeavor in futility. There’s almost always that point when you’d rather do something else or when it looks like this’ll take forever. I’m genuinely surprised every time a book is finished, and I’ve finished plenty of books by this point.

So sit your ass in that chair and write. Write, even when you’re not sure what you should be writing. Write, knowing you might not be able to even use it. But write.

Also, it’s nice to take a moment to just reflect on what you’ve written so far. Even if it’s only ten or twenty pages, that’s proof that you can do it. Every novel is just ten or twenty pages stacked atop each other.

Then editing.

But you have to finish the book first. So finish.


Erika Vannerson asks:

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block and what do you do when this happens?

I haven’t ever suffered from writer’s block. I’ve suffered from I’d Rather Be Doing Something Else block, which I think most writers have. This is made even more difficult by this age of marvels when so many distractions are at hand.

The best way to get past it for me is to just set a modest goal. Don’t feel like writing? Then set a timer for thirty minutes and see what happens? Often, once that thirty minutes is up, I’m ready to write more. If not, at least I wrote for thirty minutes, which is better than zero minutes.

Sometimes, I have trouble writing because I can’t process the next scene (for whatever reason). I find a walk works best for that. Even a short one, with nothing else to distract me, can unclog the creative pipes. I find that I need it to be as distraction free as possible. No music. Nothing but me and the walk.

If necessary, I also talk about my story with someone who can at least feign interest. Usually my wife. Just talking aloud can help get the story moving again, and while it’s not always in a direction I want to go, it at least gets me thinking about it.

Above all, don’t be afraid to write badly. If I write twenty pages that end up going nowhere, then at least I know not to go that way. Sometimes, the stuff you don’t use is as important as the stuff you do.

But write. Write when you don’t feel like it if necessary. If you take writing seriously, then you have to treat it at least a little bit like a job. And we all have to do our jobs when we just aren’t that into it sometimes. That’s what separates the aspiring artist from the actual artist. It isn’t whether you’re published or how adored you are. It’s whether or not you can make yourself do it even when you’d rather be doing something else.


Ismael Jiminez aks:

Is it difficult to not include your personal life in your stories?

No, it actually isn’t. Because I am a boring person, and there’s really not much interesting about my life. But that’s not what you’re really asking.

You’re asking about the “Write what you know” rule, which says you should write from your own experiences, even if you aren’t necessarily that interested in doing that. While it’s a nice rule, it isn’t one I’m enamored of. If writers only write what they know, if artists only created what they were familiar with, would science fiction or fantasy as a genre even exist?

There’s no doubt our own experiences and outlooks color our fiction. I didn’t have a lot of friends as a kid, so my heroes tend to be loners. I tend to make jokes, so my heroes tend to have senses of humor. And I love robots and monsters, which tend to show up in my work. But these elements are style choices rather than me reliving particular moments or themes.

What’s important isn’t that you write what you know, but that you tap into those universal experiences we all share. We all get happy, sad, angry. We all have moments of triumph and tragedy. We all struggle with our bad habits while making our way through this thing called life. Once you see how universal it can be, it’s simply a matter of applying some imagination and time. I’ve never been a robot fighting for the fate of millions or an awkward vampire or a kobold housekeeper. But the underlying motivations and experiences of those characters (and most others) aren’t as alien as we tend to think so long as you take the time to put yourself in their position. Empathy helps a hell of a lot, and I’ve become a more empathic person simply through writing and reading stories about people that weren’t like me.

The other bit of pressure with the Write What You Know maxim is the assumption that writing something “you don’t know” is somehow dishonest or empty. And that’s bull. I wrote my first sex scene before ever having kissed anyone, and it’s a great scene, full of heart and emotion and tenderness. I’ve written riveting action scenes when I’ve only been in one fistfight my whole life, and it was a pathetic non-event.

You don’t need to “Know” something to know something. You just need to extrapolate, imagine, and care. And write it well, but that goes without saying.

So don’t feel pressure either way to include or exclude your own experiences. Write what you feel, what you want your audience to feel, and you’ll find it works a hell of a lot better than trying to shoehorn (or completely avoid) your own limited experiences into your stories.


Thanks for the questions, Action Force. Until next time…

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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One Comment

  1. Nathan (Wilson)
    Posted May 4, 2016 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    Thank you, those were very valuable answers.

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