From The Writers' Room Featuring Bookburners

Brian Francis Slattery on writing Bookburners S02, Ep03: “Mistakes Were Made”

Turning the old cliché on its head: vicious politics and high stakes.

At the end of our weekend-long story summit for Season 2 of Bookburners, I had my writing assignments in hand and—oddly for me—already had a good sense of what most of the episodes would be like. I don’t know if it’s like this for everyone who writes fiction, but for the episodes I had later in the season, I could already hear them, see them, catch glimpses of scenes, like fuzzy memories.

But not this episode.

Before I say how, let me take a quick step back. In developing Season 1, we created a very wide world of magic for the Society to operate in. It didn’t make sense to explore it very much then; it was just backdrop, and it helped us orient ourselves as we got further into putting Season 1 together.

The story we’d come up for Season 2, however, dived into it a lot deeper. So this episode—which was always going to take place at an academic conference that happened to be about magic—was supposed to be the first dip of the Society’s toes into that water. It was, in part, setup. And it was hard for me, at first, to visualize setup.

I signed up to write “Mistakes Were Made,” though, because, of the lot of us, I’d been to the most academic conferences. Not conventions, but conferences. You know, like the annual conference for the American Political Science Association, or the similar annual meeting for anthropologists, or—as happened once a few years ago—a couple-day conference of military and academic experts convening to see what America’s next big war might look like. I’d been to all these and more, thanks to a fascinating job I had for a couple of years, working for a social-science research foundation focusing on violence. But I’m digressing.

I really loved the idea of setting something at an academic conference even if I couldn’t quite see what it would look, smell, or sound like right away. I imagine most people imagine academic conferences to be, well, a little boring if you’re not an academic. A lot of people presenting papers. A lot of meals and networking. That sort of thing. And by and large, that’s true; it’s a big meeting for specialists, by specialists, after all. But I’d also seen enough stuff at academic conferences—verbal food fights, insulted and insulting questions, and super-awkward pairings, where people were put on panels together who shouldn’t have been on panels together—to see that there was drama to be made, even apart from the old cliché about academia that the politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low.

Those politics, I knew, could be enough to drive the episode’s plot, even though the stakes in “Mistakes Were Made” were higher.

We on the Bookburners team have all gotten to be very good at outlining our episodes; we have to be, as it’s an essential part of making sure that the story hangs together from episode to episode as much as possible. But even as fleshed out as these outlines have gotten, the surprising pleasures of writing this episode for me lay in realizing how little I had to stray from the truth, from actual experiences I’d had at academic conferences, to make “Mistakes Were Made” work. The harried and overburdened staff. The presenter who realizes slowly, during the presentation, that his work isn’t even all that interesting to his peers and possibly himself. The resolute eccentric who does amazing work but has deep-sixed his own career because he couldn’t care less about his discipline’s politics. I’d already met them all.

So I apologize in advance to any of the multitudes of academics I’ve met who may read this and take offense. None is intended. It was all done ultimately with love.

Well, except for a few of you. You probably know who you are.

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