It’s a podcast topic so nice we recorded it twice! But seriously, there are so many of these sayings, we just had to extend it into a two-parter. Heck, we could probably have done a third episode, but that would be a little much. Listen as we talk about the best ways to save your darlings, when you shouldn’t write what you don’t know, and how all of our friends are the meanest beta readers ever.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Innes. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreant Podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Opening Theme Plays]
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Chris and with me is-
Chris: [melodramatically] And in this podcast, I’m going to kill my darlings. You’ll see that both of you have a trapdoor beneath your feet, and all I have to do is pull this lever and my fellow podcast hosts will be gone.
Oren: Uh oh.
Wes: It’s fine. I was wasting the listener’s time anyway.[Chris laughs]
Oren: Is there someone we can solve this with the Prisoner’s Dilemma? If we refused to play do we win? How does this work?
Wes: Regardless you’ve added conflict to the scene so good job.
Chris: But that will make me a better writer, right? If I just kill both of you.
Oren: Yeah, absolutely.
Chris: This time we’re talking about Common Writing Sayings, part 2, because we went way over last time and we had a lot more to talk about.
Wes: So many more. Should we talk about that phrase: you’re supposed to ‘Kill Your Darlings.’
Oren: Everything you love must be killed.
Chris: Yeah, let’s talk about it. Most writing sayings have to be applied selectively right? There’s very few things that apply across the board and definitely not this one. At the same time, I do think this one is super useful, and really handy for writers to have heard around, because it basically brings up the notion that in order to make a good story you might have to make sacrifices.
Wes: It’s so much more accessible and it says so much more than what I went after from the Elements of Style quote from last week. Just Kill Your Darlings. There’s still that subjectivity, but it’s really getting at, ‘Hey, we know you’re really attached to this, but is this really the best use of that?’ It almost invites reflection, and I think that’s a solid aspect of the saying.
Oren: As someone who absolutely hates to kill their darlings, Chris has had to be my editor. I’m the worst. I’m so bad at this and I hate it, but it’s still really useful to at least remember. Because when I’m an editor I run into a lot of authors who don’t understand that they are going to have to make changes and they aren’t going to be able to keep everything they like. When you don’t understand that, your first editing consultation just derails you. It is really discouraging and can put you off of writing entirely. You can save yourself some of that anguish if you at least know it’s coming and you’ve accepted it intellectually if not emotionally.
Chris: When there’s so much tendency for writers to come up with other sayings to protect themselves from criticism and not have big changes, having some cultural wisdom about having to make those changes and make the sacrifices that you didn’t want to make in order to make your work better is just a really nice thing to have. It’s a positive part of the culture.
Oren: I was just wondering if we could talk about your awesome corollary to this phrase which I love which is ‘Center Your Darlings’.
Chris: Yeah. My saying ‘Center Your Darlings’ basically says center your drawings because it’s how you save your darlings. If you center them you’re less likely to have to kill them. This is to try to get writers to understand what it is that they care about in their story and make sure it’s actually integral to the story instead of superfluous. Usually what happens with the ‘kill your darlings’ is there is something in the story that just doesn’t belong and is not load-bearing, as we were saying before, but the reason why it’s been kept in is because the writer loves it so much.
They’ve been avoiding cutting it version after version. This happens a lot. The ‘kill your darlings’ phrase is finally a recognition that yes you love it, but yes, it has to go. Whereas ‘center your darlings’ is a method of making sure that doesn’t happen and it has to start early. It has to start with the conception of the story, at the beginning. Although you know, sometimes if the story is close enough, you can center your darling- Certainly in editing we do our best to get writers to center their darlings, but basically that means that okay, whatever that thing that you loved so much, that’s what your story should be about. It should be at the center of your story because you love it. Because you’re going to be more excited to write about it and that’s going to come across. Because then you won’t have to kill it.
Oren: To use a non-writing saying, we have definitely found that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure because certainly there are writers out there who can just revise and revise and whatever and be okay, but the writers that we work with tend to have a limited amount of revision budget for a story, after which point they’ll get tired of it and walk away. There’s nothing wrong with that, just to be clear. Trunking a story is not a shameful thing; everyone does it. But you can decrease your chances of needing to if you plan things better from the start. That way you will have to make fewer changes and you are less likely to use up your internal revision budget. Now, everyone has a different revision budget. Some people can just revise forever and there’s me and I can revise maybe once or twice and then I start crying. So you got to be careful there. [All laugh]
Chris: Basically, that’s what center your darlings means. It means take the things that you love and put them at the center of your story, make them integral to the story. If they are essential to the story, no one will ask you to cut them because you can’t, they are the story. And of course the way that you accomplish that gets kind of mechanical and I don’t think we have time to tell the technicalities of that, but that’s the basic principle.
Oren: I’ll link the article where you talk about it. Very helpful.
Chris: Yeah and I have another article coming out that will talk about that more too actually.
Oren: And I asked you to talk about that because as we all know, you know that, and ‘you should write what you know.’
Wes: Good segue.
Oren: Boom done!
Wes: This one’s dangerous, isn’t it? ‘Write what you know.’
Chris: It is.
Oren: Very dangerous. Okay, so there are two ways that ‘write what you know’ can be taken very badly. One of them I think is a little more common than the other. In one extreme, ‘write what you know’ could be interpreted as literally what you personally know and have experienced. Therefore, if you want to write about a forest you need to go camp in the woods for five days. If you want to write about Alaska you have to go live in Alaska. Stuff like that. That would of course completely discount basically all Spec Fic because magic is not real and unless you’re an astronaut you don’t know what it’s like to go to space. [Chris laughs]
Oren: With that kind of extreme it’s obviously too limiting. I don’t actually know anyone who thinks of it that way. But in theory, it’s not impossible. The other extreme that I found, which is more dangerous, is taking the idea that you can use what you know to write things you don’t know – which is true – and going with it to the other extreme of ‘oh, well, that means I can write anything.’ That’s also not true. This is getting into appropriation and erasure, because there are frankly some stories that you probably shouldn’t write and a big part of the reason why you shouldn’t is because you’re going to have a hard time communicating those experiences correctly and the stakes for getting them wrong are very high. If I mess up the physics of a hypothetical antimatter warp drive, it’s not a big deal. Nobody cares. It might annoy some people who know that stuff but it’s not going to cause harm in the real world.
But misrepresenting how transphobia affects someone definitely could; that could actually hurt someone. That’s a reason not to right outside of your experiences to a certain degree. And then there’s also simply the question of market space, especially with traditional authors. How many stories about a particular marginalized group are they going to take? If a privileged author writes that story then a marginalized author isn’t going to be able to and won’t be able to actually benefit from their cultural history.That’s the other extreme that ‘write what you know’ can be used for, and I’ve seen it used this way where someone’s just like, ‘Oh, well, obviously I can as a white person write the seminal book of Racism in America because I will use my experiences to imagine what it’s like to be a black person targeted by racism.’ Okay maybe in like a completely hypothetical experiment like hypothetical not real situation, a thought experiment, but once you actually put it down on paper, you’re going to have trouble. I generally think you probably shouldn’t because a.) it could be harmful and b.) frankly, you could get yelled at and I don’t want to get yelled at on the internet. I just don’t like it. I try to avoid that.
Chris: [laughing] What are you talking about? You try to avoid getting yelled at on the internet. I’ve seen what you’ve written on the internet.
Oren: Yeah, but like for bad reasons, okay. I don’t mind it if people yell at me when they’re wrong. But like if people yell at me because I did something wrong. I don’t like it.
Chris: It’s almost as if what actually would be bothering you would be the fact that you did something wrong and you don’t want to do things that are bad.
Oren: Yes. Yes. That is true.[Wes laughs]
Chris: That’s it. I think the problem with this phrase, the ‘write what you know,’ is that instead of encouraging people to dig into the knowledge base that they have it seems like it’s taken as a mandate on what people should and shouldn’t write. I do think there’s a lot of value in using the knowledge and enthusiasm that you have in your stories. If you happen to, for instance, know about a certain branch of science either because you’re a professional in that branch of science or you’re just an enthusiast, then writing stories that involve that science will give your work more depth and detail. I think that’s that’s valuable, but thinking about it as something that is, you know, this is only what you can and can’t write as opposed to encouraging people to look at what they know and they have, the assets they have as a person, and using that in their writing, is really the problem there.
Oren: I’m sorry to take up so much time but can I just make a clarification because the thing I said earlier can be misunderstood very easily? Just to be clear, I am not at all advocating that as a privileged person you can’t or shouldn’t write marginalized characters. It’s the opposite. I’m saying that when you write marginalized characters, you should probably not focus on their marginalization as a character trait. That’s what I’m saying. And I know because any time I talk about this there’s always someone who’s like, ‘You don’t want us to write marginalize characters,’ and it is exactly the opposite.
Chris: There’s a difference between having a trans character in your story and writing a story about transphobia.
Oren: Yes, that is exactly the case.
Chris: Wes, do you have another one?
Wes: Sure. How about this one guys? ‘Write a likable main character.’ Right- protagonist Your protagonist should be likable, write that protagonist. [He stumbles over the words] That’s what I’m saying.[All laugh]
Chris: This one is fun just because all the arguments about this, when we get right down to it, are all about the definition of likeable.
Wes: Yep. That’s why I brought it up. [laughs]
Chris: At Mythcreants we like to say that we use a storyteller’s definition of likeable which is different than the colloquial or common term of the word likable. The storyteller’s definition of likable is that if the reader enjoys following that protagonist and reading about that protagonist, then the protagonist is likeable.
Oren: The reason why I at least use that definition is that that’s how I say it when I’m thinking about a character. When I look at a character and say ‘I like that character,’ I don’t mean it in terms of I would want to be friends with that character in real life. That’s an incredibly narrow definition that I actually don’t think anyone uses, except when they want to defend a character that they like and other people don’t. I’ve never heard anyone use that use it like that except in that very specific fan rage defensive situation.
Wes: I think that point, Oren, applies to villains very well. In Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight,’ I really like the Joker in that. I’m not gonna hang out with that guy. I don’t want to be him.
Oren: When I say I don’t like Kylo Ren but I do like Darth Vader it’s not because I want Darth Vader to be my friend and I don’t want Kylo Ren to be my friend. I just don’t find- I don’t like Kylo Ren. It’s just the simplest way to say it. There are very complicated reasons why but when it comes down to it, I don’t like him. The rules for likeability are different for heroes and villains. I would not like Darth Vader if he was a hero. If I was supposed to be like, ‘Yeah, Darth Vader you go blow up Alderaan.’ I’d be like, ‘No, I don’t like this guy.’ But he’s an antagonist, so he has a different set of rules.
Chris: One thing that might be causing some of this dissension where we have a bunch of people coming out and being like, [in a presumptuous voice] ‘your character doesn’t actually need to be likable. People keep saying that but it’s wrong because sometimes we like reading about characters that you wouldn’t want to be friends with real life.’ And we’re like, ‘Um, well that’s not what the definition of likable is.’ I think that a lot of advice that comes to making the character- a protagonist to be likeable is also something [advice] that would make them likable in real life as a friend. So I think maybe that makes it easier to confuse what the definition is. Things like building sympathy for the character and making the character selfless, people definitely like people in person who are selfless more and want to be their friends. I mean, that’s a thing. That can kind of confuse the issue and I will say that doing that kind of likeability building for a character where they’re selfless, for instance, is easier than doing the other kinds like building a lot of novelty for the character who’s a jerk, but it’s so entertaining that you like following the character anyway. That’s harder. When we’re trying to give people advice on how to make their character likeable, a lot of times we do focus on those bread-and-butter things that would also make somebody want to be that character’s friend, but that’s not really what the definition of likable is and there are ways to make a character likable that don’t match that.
Oren: It should also be pointed out that a lot of this comes down to double standards. I said earlier that I don’t know anyone who actually uses likable to mean ‘I want to be their friend’ but the moment I said that I remembered an article about double standards in the way female characters are judged. The person who wrote the article had a quote from some literary critic who was critiquing a book by a woman about women as, ‘these characters aren’t likeable. I wouldn’t want to be their friend.’ And I was like, ‘Okay. Well, I guess one person actually does use it that way. It’s that guy. We found him.’ [All laugh]
Oren: It’s definitely true that women and other marginalized characters are judged more harshly and to be less likeable for things that a white man could get away with. That is an inescapable fact. It is, however, getting better and the leeway that privileged characters get I do think is shrinking. Even if it wasn’t, we can only hope that it will eventually and you should write your characters hoping for the day when they are not given extra slack because of their privileged status.
Wes: I read a really good write-up last year sometime, but it was about ‘The Good Place’ about how Eleanor Shellstrop that character is endearing and yet incredibly selfish and how that was a first for a leading woman, for a main character to actually have a woman be so selfish yet likeable. Whereas that particular flaw had been reserved for men and then when it got applied to women historically they would be portrayed as jealous or shrewish. You know, all the negative things that get piled on that and so that was yet another reason why people should watch ‘The Good Place.’ Come on, these things we’re talking about are happening and guess what, they made for great TV. Surprise!
Chris: ‘The Good Place’ is about the philosophy of ethics and philosophy and so it’s a really smart show that way. It really brings in a lot of values and consciousness about what is good and bad in the current day to that discussion about ethics, which is really cool. They have a diverse set of characters. They make a few mistakes. I could go without the short jokes. I don’t think we should be making jokes about men being short. I don’t think that’s okay, but a very good show.
Oren: Although it is worth pointing out that it is easier for TV and film to get away with unlikable characters. Or I should say not unlikable because by definition they are likeable, but to get away with characters with more negative traits because they have these things called actors and actors are very beautiful and very charismatic and they can make you like a character even when that character is absolutely heinous. And if you read about that character, it would just be out. Just get out. I’m not only talking about Snape here.
Wes: Yeah, I was like ‘Alan Rickman. Alan Rickman.’
Oren: I am talking about Snape a lot. That’s a thing that I definitely noticed that authors who learn from TV and film have that problem where they’re like, ‘But I imagine my character being played by a really charismatic actor, why won’t everyone else?’ and the answer is no.
Chris: I mean it goes back to the the email communication problem, where one of the reasons why email is such a difficult medium for communication is because people have to read into your tone when you’re writing back and forth. Well, if you’re writing dialogue on the page, the reader has to decide what tone the character is saying those things with and if it looks unpleasant, they’re going to assume usually a mean tone right whereas an actor can say something that technically would sound kind of mean but in a way where they’re actually poking fun at themselves, or they’re being playful or something like that, I think when it comes right down to it.
Oren: Okay, so I’ve got one more now. Since we were talking about actors who are professionals, now we’re getting into beta readers who are amateurs, so that’s my segue. Deal with it.[Chris and Wes laugh]
Oren: I see this saying a lot which is, ‘Don’t use your friends and family for feedback,’ or beta reading as the case may be. What they would recommend is that you have to go to the mean streets of the internet because your friends and family will be too nice and they won’t tell you what you need to hear. So I have some beef with this saying.
Chris: Somebody has way nicer friends and family than I do-
Oren: I don’t know if it’s just because I have mean friends, but that’s not a problem. My friends are very mean to my writing.
Wes: But I think- just a quick observation, and this is a larger frustration that I have, so please excuse me. That type of advice is rooted in this idea – and I think it’s grossly pervasive – that you always need to find someone or something that has no bias to evaluate you. I’m just like, Get over it; bias is everywhere.’ It’s unavoidable. You know, yeah, maybe your friends are biased to want to say nice things or maybe your friends want to tear you up but they’re biased in that they want to tear you up in a good way. I mean, it’s just silly. Yeah go find a string- go find a stranger to validate it. Like, come on.
Oren: That is actually really important to why I think the saying doesn’t make sense is because everyone has biases and at least when they are people you know, you can better account for their biases, whereas if you go and meet strangers on the internet, it’s like the wild west out there. You don’t know. You don’t know what you’re going to get or why they’re saying it or who they are. It’s very difficult to tell if the reason they didn’t like something is just because they don’t like that kind of thing or because it’s a genuine problem. Then of course, there’s the fact that if they’re strangers on the Internet, it’s very hard to train them to give you the feedback that you need because- This is another problem people have is they assume that beta reading is basically free developmental editing and they think beta readers are supposed to tell you what to do to fix your story.
Beta readers don’t know. Why would you trust beta readers to tell you what to do with your story? They don’t have any special expertise and if they do you should be paying them. Beta readers are there to give you their reactions and then you as the writer have to know what to do with them. Don’t get me wrong, that’s hard but it’s much easier to get your friends and family who you know and can you can actually talk to to be like, ‘Yes, please don’t suggest changes. I actually don’t need that. What I need is you for you to tell me how you felt.’ Because that doesn’t require any expertise, that just needs you to be honest with me. Don’t get me wrong. I do also have some friends and family who are very nice and are not critical and I certainly wouldn’t depend on them for my entire beta reading. I wouldn’t give it to them and be like, ‘Alright. Well, they said they said they loved it so I can go home.’ But they can still be useful because I know that their bias is to be nice, but I can still look at the things they liked and be like, ‘Okay, well, that might have- you know, that’s a reason to keep that.’ But I know they’re not going to tell me things they don’t like which is why I need other readers who will tell me those things.
Chris: I mean nothing beats the fact that friends and family are willing to take the time to actually beta read in the way that you would like and give you the kind of feedback that you would like. They do things in a manner that shows that they actually want to give you something useful as opposed to somebody on the internet which just has no reason to invest at all in anything.
Chris: The one that I here fairly often is, ‘If you don’t like what you’re writing nobody else will’ so you need to like it.
Wes: [chuckles] I don’t know about that.
Chris: Yeah. I mean I’ve heard it a number of times. When I hear it, it’s in the context of, ‘Hey, I was writing something and I realized I really just didn’t like this scene that I was writing, and so if I don’t like it, nobody else is going to. Why would anybody else like it? I need to make sure that I like it.’ It’s one of those process advice things. That’s really where it’s intended. I do think that it’s potentially helpful in some situations, but also writers are all different. Like any process advice, it’s never going to apply all of the time. I do think that occasionally writers do need to be- it can be helpful to be pushed a little bit to make their writing better and I think that’s what it’s for. It’s for letting you stop, think about what you’re writing, and make changes to make it better when you would otherwise simply leave it be. When you can make improvements to go the extra little step, to make your writing better. The big problem I see with it is that sometimes writers just are in a place where they can’t like what they’re writing and it’s unfair to demand that they do.
Oren: Yeah, I guess that’s an odd one because for me- Everyone talks about how they’re their own worst critic and they hate everything they write and I’m always the opposite. I love every single word that I put down, unconditionally. And that’s one of the reasons why editing is so hard for me because I don’t want to change it. If I wanted to say something different, I would have written it that way the first time. This one for me is weird. What do you mean don’t like what you’re writing? How even do? Obviously everyone has different processes, right?
Chris: Yeah. I mean I will say for me when it’s come up, it’s when I’m working on a large story, and if you’re an outliner, you make a plan and then some scenes are there to be like connective tissue. They’re there because your story needs them, they’re not there because that was fun and enjoyable for you. Sometimes you can get to the point where you’re writing this and you’re just like, ‘ugh, I have to write it to get to the next scene but I’m not really into it.’
Oren: I admit when I first heard that I assumed that the purpose of that was to give writers a pass or justification to put down a story that they don’t like and to write something else. That’s what I assumed it was for, and I think that’s a perfectly legitimate thing to do in most cases especially if writing is not your profession. If you don’t depend on writing for your income, there’s a certain point at which I have to ask, if you don’t enjoy it, then what’s the point? That’s going to be- Different people are going to have different answers to that question. If you are a professional that might be different because now you have to put food on the table with this story and so you might not have the luxury of only writing things you like. But for someone who’s not a professional who is writing because they want to write, I don’t see any reason why you can’t just write the story that you enjoy writing more than the ones that you don’t. That just seems to be a reasonable way to keep your energy up.
Chris: I mean it applies not just to stories, but I think to individual scenes too. I think that my concern is sometimes writers get to a stage- I think it’s particularly a stage where they are learning and their eye has gotten better than their ability to actually follow that up and implement what they know is good. They’ve gotten better at being discerning but their skill has not caught up with their discernment. What happens sometimes is everything they write just looks bad to them.
Oren: Why would you personally attack the entire field of dev editing like that?[Chris and Wes laugh]
Chris: Anyway, in those cases, sometimes you just need to go through and finish the story and then come back or- Again, process, it can be different for everybody. There’s no one way to sit down and work on a story even though people have a lot of process advice and sometimes very opinionated process advice.
Oren: People get weirdly opinionated about process advice when it’s so subjective. Unlike storytelling rules, which are not subjective. Hot take. But speaking of ending, we are also out of time. I think we actually got through most of our sayings, although I saw Wes had a giant list of them.
Wes: We got through it. We got through a lot of them.
Oren: I think we’re good for now. So those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
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This has been the Mythcreant podcast, opening/closing theme ‘The Princess Who Saved Herself’ by Jonathan Coulton.
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