13.4: Protagonists Who Aren’t Sympathetic

Your Hosts: Brandon, Valynne, Dan, and Howard

This week we’re joined by Valynne Maetani, who’ll be one of our hosts all year. We’re discussing protagonists who, per writer intent, do not engender audience sympathy.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.


Write a likable character, but write them in such a way that the reader does not want them to succeed.

13.3: What Writers Get Wrong, with Aliette de Bodard

Your Hosts: Dan, Mary, Aliette, and Howard

This year’s third-week episodes will all follow a common theme: “what writers get wrong.” Each of these episodes will feature an expert guest who will help us understand what writers get wrong about something in which they have expertise.

Aliette de Bodard will be co-hosting several of these week-three episodes, but this week her role is “subject matter expert.” She has several fields of expertise, and among the hats she expertly wears which writers often fail to correctly describe is a hat labeled “motherhood” (note: not an actual hat.) 

Credits: This episode was recorded at WXR 2017 in the Baltic Sea by Bert Grimm, and mastered on dry land by Alex Jackson 


List the subject matter experts in your life. Make checks next to their names this year as you speak with them about their expertise (it’s like a to-do list.)

The House of Shattered Wings (Book 1 of Dominion of The Fallen), by Aliette de Bodard

Applications Are Open for the 2018 Writing Excuses Retreat Scholarship

The sixth annual Writing Excuses Workshop and Retreat makes a triumphant return to the Caribbean Sea! We begin in Houston, TX, on September 22; we’ll visit Roatan, Belize City, and Cozumel; and then we’ll end up back in Houston again on September 30. You can find all the other info, including our incredible guest list, here.

We are also delighted to report that we are offering more scholarships in 2018 than ever before: five! One of these is sponsored by the hosts of Writing Excuses, one by our amazing patrons on Patreon, and three (3) by our incredibly awesome alumni. They’ve been on the retreat (sometimes more than once), they love it, and they want to share it with as many people as possible.

As always, our scholarships come in two categories: three Out of Excuses Scholarships, awarded to those in financial need, and two Carl Brandon Society Scholarships, awarded to writers of color. Both categories have introduced us to some incredible writers in the past, and we can’t wait to see who we get to meet this year. Share this post with everyone you know, read the rules carefully, and apply!

Information and Entry Rules
Each scholarship offers full tuition, $500 of travel expenses, a bed in a double occupancy room on the ship, and hotel expenses in Houston for one night both pre- and post-cruise. Because the food on the cruise is free, this covers essentially all your expenses for the week, though depending on the flights you arrange, you might need to cover some of the travel yourself. You may apply to either scholarship, but only to one of them (even if you qualify for both).

These scholarships are very popular, and get a lot of applicants, so please read the instructions carefully and follow them exactly; incomplete applications will be disqualified.

To apply, please prepare the following scholarship package as a Word document, and send it to writingexcusesscholarship@gmail.com with the subject line: “Scholarship Application: [name of scholarship].” Please copy and paste the cover sheet to the main body of the email, and also include it as the first page in the package.

1) This cover sheet, filled out completely:
Name: [name]
Email: [email]
Phone Number: [number]
Scholarship: [“Carl Brandon Society” or “Out of Excuses”]
I confirm that my scholarship is complete, including: a personal essay, three letters of recommendation, and a writing sample.
Personal Essay word count (between 450-700 words): [insert word count here]
Letter of Recommendation 1: [Name of recommender]
Letter of Recommendation 2: [Name of recommender]
Letter of Recommendation 3: [Name of recommender]
Writing Sample total word count (1-3 pieces, limited to 10,000 total words): [insert word count here]

2) A single attachment, saved as [Name of Scholarship Your Name]
We will accept the following three file formats.
* .DOC
* .RTF
Out of Excuses Scholarship Jane Doe.doc
Carl Brandon Scholarship Jane Doe.doc
The attachment should contain all of the following, in the following order:
1. The Cover Sheet, again, as described above. Yes, we want it twice.
2. A Personal Essay: A 450-700 word personal essay explaining why you are a good candidate for the scholarship. What makes you unique? What can you bring to our group that no one else can? Keep in mind that even as we focus on “need,” the panel will also be reviewing your writing in terms of “merit.”
3. Letters of Recommendation: Three brief letters of recommendation (no more than 300 words each) from people who are not your relatives: friends, bosses, people from your writing group, anyone who can tell us exactly how awesome you are. Please note that we would like all three letters to be included in the scholarship package, and not to be emailed individually; we’ve had too many letters go astray, and we want to give you the chance to personally make sure every aspect of your scholarship package is complete before submitting it. If you have a concern with this, please contact Dawn at danwellsassistant@gmail.com.
4. Writing Samples: A brief example of your writing, consisting of 1-3 separate pieces and totaling no more than 10,000 words. These can be short stories or novel excerpts. Don’t feel obligated to fill the word count: if you can wow us in less, more power to you.

Again: make sure to send everything in one email or your application will be disqualified!

Please review your application several times, or have a friend or family member review it for you, because we will reject applications on technicalities, just like an editor or publisher would. We would much prefer to read your awesome writing and give you a scholarship.

The application period for both scholarships opens on January 16, 2018, at 9am EST, and closes at midnight EST, March 12. We will contact the winners in April, and announce them officially the morning of April 17. That gives the winners just over five months of notice before the retreat.
If you have any questions regarding the scholarship, email Dawn at danwellsassistant@gmail.com.

Q: What do The Letters of Recommendation need?
A: Think of this like a college entry application letter. Have your recommenders tell us why you are the best candidate for this scholarship. They can point out what they think might be relevant to the decision that the committee would otherwise not know. The letters help us round out the picture for each candidate.

Q: Are the scholarships open to anyone?
A: Provided you meet the basic qualifications, yes. We welcome writers from any country anywhere in the world, though remember that a) the classes will be taught in English, and b) the scholarships only cover $500 of travel, so anything beyond that you need to cover yourself.

Q: But what if I’m already published?
A: Apply anyway. The only requirements are writing talent, financial need, and, for the Carl Brandon scholarships, being a person of color. The way this industry works, it’s entirely possible to be published and talented and still poor and unsuccessful (spoiler warning). But the things you learn and the contacts you make on our retreat can still help in that situation, and we’re not going to disqualify anyone just because their first break wasn’t a smashing success.

Q: That doesn’t sound fair to the rest of us.
A: Don’t sell yourself short–we believe in you! You’re competing against all of these people in the real world anyway, every time you submit a book or story for publication, and this is no different. Your writing has to be the very best it can be no matter what you’re trying to do with it. But we’re confident that you are up to the challenge, so do your best and knock our socks off.

Q: Ah, but what if I know one of you personally? That’s GOT to disqualify me, right?
A: Not at all, though it does change the way we read and rank the applications. As soon as one of our panelists realizes that they know an applicant in real life, they pull themselves off of that application and send it back to us. We strip that application of identifying info and send it out to new panelists, completely blind, to get their unbiased judgment. The final decisions are made by people who do not know who the applicants are. We take this seriously, and strive to keep the process as fair and balanced as possible.

Q: Okay, so remind me of the basic qualifications again.
A: The Out of Excuses scholarships are for writers in financial need: if you can’t afford the scholarship on your own, you qualify. The Carl Brandon Society scholarships are for writers of color: if you’re a person of color who writes, you qualify.

Q: What about kids? Can I win the scholarship as a teenager?
A: Teens are welcome on the cruise and in the classes, but will need to be accompanied by an adult (who will have to pay their own way, as the scholarship only covers you). If you have questions, please contact Dawn at danwellsassistant@gmail.com.

Q: How can I contribute to next year’s scholarship fund?
A: The easiest way is through our Patreon. We have a pledge level specifically designed for scholarship donations.

Q: If I apply to the scholarship and don’t get picked, will there still be time to buy a ticket?
A: We discourage this for two reasons: first of all, no, there might not be time to buy a ticket. Some years (such as 2017) we sell out incredibly quickly, and people who wait often end up out of luck. We always try to get more rooms on the ship, but it’s not always possible. Second of all, if you can afford to just buy a ticket, go ahead and just buy the ticket, so we can give the scholarship to someone who can’t. That said, we recognize that there’s a difference between “I can afford this no problem” and “I can afford this but it will be a very painful sacrifice.” If you’re among the latter, you are welcome to try for the scholarship first and buy a ticket later if you don’t get picked; we will not look down on you at all, and we’ll do everything we can to make the retreat worth it.

Writing Excuses Retreat 2018

2018 will be our sixth Writing Excuses Retreat:

Join us for a cruise in the Caribbean, September 22-30th 2018!

Liberty of the Seas Cruise Ship

Registration is now open!

The full details are available on the registration page, but here’s a quick overview:

  1. We will board in Galveston, TX, and spend a week at sea, stopping for excursions in Honduras, Belize, and Mexico. The event actually begins the day before we board, in a Houston hotel, where we’ll register and get to know each other.
  2. Prices are Double Occupancy, which means you’ll share your room with another person. If you bring your own roommate, awesome! If not, we’ll put you with another writer from our group. Spouses and significant others who want to come with you but are not writers will get a discounted rate. Children get a hugely discounted rate. Imaginary friends are FREE.
  3. If you’ve never done one of our cruises before, they’re a kind of magical mix of class time, writing time, and screwing-around-in-a-cool-place time. We don’t know how it works, but it does, and you’ll love it.
  4. We’ll have one or two classes a day, taught by our amazing guest instructors, as well as live Writing Excuses episodes with the hosts of the show. Brandon won’t be joining us this year, but we’ll be joined by Amal El-Mohtar, Piper Drake, Maurice Broaddus, Kathy Chung, K Tempest Bradford, Valynne E Maetani, and more. And of course you’ll still have Mary, Dan, and Howard.
  5. For each stop, we’ll pick three “official” Writing Excuses shore excursions and announce them this Spring. You can sign up with us for one of those and know that you’ll be with our same group of awesome writers and instructors. If you want to do an excursion that’s not one of our official picks, you can arrange it directly with the cruise.
  6. As before, we will have a number of scholarships available. This year that number is “5.” The application process will be announced on January 15th.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Q: I have a registration question. Should I leave a comment here?

A: The best way to contact us for WXR 2018 purposes is to use the “Contact Writing Excuses” link at the bottom of the Registration page. Scroll all the way down to “Contact the Organizer”. We’d have linked it directly here, but it’s an embedded thingy. You can also email questions to assist@maryrobinettekowal.com with the subject line “WXR: Registration Question”.

Q: Brandon’s not going to be there? Does he not love us anymore?

A: Brandon is already spending a few weeks this year on tour, and there was no way for him to do both. In future years, there might be other hosts who can’t make it. You’ll still get an amazing writing conference with a ton of amazing instructors and classes and experiences. Plus, as all of our alumni will tell you, the single biggest benefit of the cruise are the connections you make with the other attendees, and this promises to be one of the best years ever for that. And yes, Brandon loves you with all his heart.

Q: I’m an introvert who doesn’t do well in big groups of people. Will I survive an event like this?

A: One Of Us! One Of Us! Honestly, most of our attendees are introverts too, including all of the hosts and most of the guest instructors. Some of us are better at faking it than others, but we know where you’re coming from, and we feel your pain. We’ll make sure to have lots of quiet little hidey-holes all over the ship where you can go when it all gets too much. It’s not called a “retreat” for nothing.

Q: You keep saying it, but will I really have time to actually write while on this cruise?

A: You will definitely have time, but it’s up to you how to use it. We give prizes every year for the Most Words Written, and last year the winner had more than 40,000. We also have a proud history of boardgame nights, dancing, karaoke, and impromptu martial arts demonstrations. Whatever you want to do with your free time, you can probably do it at this event.

Q: What level of writing expertise should I have attained prior to attending?

A: “Level of expertise” is far less important than your desire to improve. The workshop is structured to be accessible and useful for new writers with a passion for learning, and to be challenging and rewarding for seasoned professionals looking for refinement, or additional perspectives. Different classes will be designed for different levels of experience.

Come join us!

13.2: Writing Active Characters

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Amal, and Maurice

This week we welcome Amal El-Mohtar and Maurice Broaddus to the Writing Excuses cast for a discussion of active characters. We cover characters who move stories forward, who make decisions that influence plot-critical events, and whose actions draw the reader into the book.

Liner Notes: you’ll be hearing from Amal and Maurice during the second week of each month of 2018. And if Maurice sounds familiar, he joined us at GenCon for episode 7.40 back in 2012.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Andrew Twiss, and mastered by Alex Jackson, and despite the fact that both  Andrew and Alex are very active characters we never give them any dialog.



Find a 1st-person poem, and write it in the 3rd person POV. Perhaps even rewrite it as a scene, or a story.

Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar (from the anthology Starlit Wood, and appearing here courtesy of Uncanny Magazine)

13.1: Hero, Protagonist, Main Character

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard

2018 is our Year of Character, and we kick it off with a quick exploration of the differences between heroes, protagonists, and main characters. Beginning with addressing the question “wait, aren’t they all the same person?” Because that’s the elephant in the room. Or maybe it’s three elephants. Or two. Sometimes there’s no elephant, and if you look carefully you can see an elephant-shaped hole, which is probably more like a negative number of elephants.

Liner Notes: We referenced The Hollywood Formula, which was introduced to us by Lou Anders in Episode 6.18. We also keep saying “protag” as a verb, which to us means “doing proactive protagonist things.” Howard may have made up this word, but its true provenance has been lost to the mists of anxiety of influence.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson. For audio quality purposes the studio contained zero elephants.



Tell a story with three characters—hero, protagonist, and main character. Tell it three times, once for each of those in which they are the POV character.

Emerald Circus, by Jane Yolen