By Writing Excuses | July 7, 2009 - 9:59 am - Posted in Plot, Structure, Writing Prompt

What are dramatic breaks? We open this episode with Howard very genuinely playing Doctor Watson to Brandon’s Holmes, which is amusing because as it turns out, Howard uses dramatic breaks every day. Simply put they are the points in the narrative, typically at the end of a chapter, where we cut to another scene. Sometimes we are shifting perspective, sometimes we are advancing the clock, and sometimes we’re merely pausing to take a breath.

What are we looking for in a dramatic break? How do we identify the right place to cut away from one group of characters and focus on others? How do we avoid doing it the same way every time?

And so we discuss those stopping points and the starting points that follow them. We cover the flow of time and the flow of story. We talk about delivering satisfying installments. We even hang from a cliff or two.

Meanwhile…

This episode of Writing Excuses is brought to you by XDM: X-Treme Dungeon Mastery by Tracy & Curtis Hickman, illustrated by Howard Tayler. Autograph editions are now on pre-order!

Writing Prompt: Write a story in which Howard hates elephants and dramatically breaks one.

By Writing Excuses | February 14, 2010 - 6:39 pm - Posted in Guest, Horror, Humor, Live, Pacing, Structure

This episode was recorded live at Life, The Universe, & Everything 28, The BYU Symposium on Science Fiction and Fantasy, and features, among other things, our largest audience ever.

Oh, and James Dashner, our friend and the author of The Maze Runner.

It also features what has to be our roughest start ever. We don’t get to actual content until around four minutes in. Seventeen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re pretending this was an object lesson. Also, we love picking on our friend James.

Pacing! What do we do so that people keep turning pages? Which useful tricks do we hate? Which subtle methods do we prefer? And most importantly, what does James Dashner do? We talk about reveals, punchlines, cliffhangers, chapter length, and the “Brandon Avalanche.” Also, we talk briefly about the look on my face, and the roof of James’ mouth.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Ender’s Game: Special 20th Anniversary Edition by Orson Scott Card

Writing Prompt: Someone opens a door, and finds a wet, seeping cardboard box on the doorstep.

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By Writing Excuses | March 28, 2010 - 7:00 pm - Posted in Characters, Fantasy, Genre, Sci-fi, Setting, Structure, World Building

“Dude, that’s totally epic.”

“Epic fail! Epic fail!”

These phrases have only passing relation to epic storytelling, and to epic fantasy. Brandon and Howard write epics, and we’re going to talk about how we do it. And Dan’s going to help, because even if his launching-this-week I Am Not a Serial Killer novel is not an epic, Dan knows his stuff.

(Also, epic win for Dan! His book launches this week!)

We talk about some of our favorite epic fantasy and epic science fiction series, and then discuss elements like scope, plotlines, and characters. We also address some of the common pitfalls new writers fall into when trying to write their first epic.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Uplift Trilogy: Brightness Reef, Infinity’s Shore, and Heaven’s Reach by David Brin

Writing Prompt: Google “Epic Win” (or just visit “Epic Win FTW“), take one of the images on the site, and then craft an epic story around that image.

Joke Not Told By Howard In The Podcast: If a new writer attempts to create an epic and falls flat on his or her face in the attempt, it is, in fact, Epic Fail.

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By Writing Excuses | July 11, 2010 - 8:28 pm - Posted in Characters, Dialog, Editing, Plot, Scenes, Structure

What do you do when, halfway through the book you’re writing, you realize it needs to be completely rebuilt? More importantly, how do you figure this out in the first place? This podcast came about as a result of a question from a listener, but the question was specific to “what if you find out it’s too derivative?” As it turns out, that’s just one of the many problems you can discover midway through a novel.

We spend the first half of the cast discussing how each of us identify the showstopping problems that require us to overhaul our works.

We then talk about the process of fixing things that might, at first glance, appear to be completely unfixable. Sometimes we shift pieces of paper around, sometimes we push blocks of text around in our word processors, and sometimes we have to do something really significant, like adding an entirely new character or point-of-view.

One of the best features of this particular ‘cast is the bit in the second half where Howard and Dan grill Brandon about his process for Towers of Midnight. Wheel of Time fans won’t find any spoilers, but they’ll certainly gain some insight.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Warded Man, by Peter V. Brett, which Howard loves because of the “stand-up-and-cheer” moments of heroism throughout the book.

Writing Prompt: Take something you’ve already written, grab a throwaway concept in that story, and rewrite that scene or chapter so the throwaway bit is now the major focus.

Moment of Extreme Hubris: “I give lessons.” Listen for it.

That Episode on Stealing for Fun and Profit: Right here.

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By Writing Excuses | July 18, 2010 - 7:21 pm - Posted in Conflicts, Ideas, Plot, Structure

When Oscar Hammerstein wrote “Let’s start at the very beginning // A very good place to start” he was talking about teaching children to sing, not writing a novel. Sometimes the beginning is the very worst place to start, so in this ‘cast the Writing Excuses crew starts at the end.

Dan leads with a reminder that we should all watch his five-part lecture on story structure, and then hits a couple of the high points in his process. Brandon points out that he and Dan both start in the same way, even though Dan usually discovery-writes his way to the selected ending, and Brandon typically outlines towards it in advance of putting chapters down. Unsurprisingly, Howard starts in the same place.

So what are the problems with working backwards? How do we prevent those things from happening? What are some great things about working backwards? How can we ensure that those happen every time?

That’s the first half of the ‘cast. The second half is a right treat, as you get to listen to Brandon, Dan, and Howard attempt to brainstorm a great ending from which they can work backwards to a beginning. Producer Jordo provides a pair of headlines as prompts, including programmable matter, Harley Davidson motorcycles, and a thrown puppy.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Furies of Calderon: Codex Alera Book 1, by Jim Butcher — a book that Brandon tells us was written when somebody dared Jim Butcher to build epic fantasy around Pokémon.

Writing Prompt: What’s the character arc for our mathematical analyst biker dude? Yes, you’ll have to listen to the ‘cast in order to figure this prompt out.

Sound Effect of the Week: George Jetson’s Harley

Weekly Feature You Won’t See Every Week: Sound Effect of the Week.

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By Writing Excuses | November 21, 2010 - 7:46 pm - Posted in Characters, Conflicts, Guest, Plot, POV, Structure

How do you write the second book? Zombie John Brown joins us for a discussion of that second novel.

(Note: As of this writing, John Brown remains NOT DEAD. Not UNDEAD, mind you. NOT DEAD. John D. Brown, author, is alive and well, and his nose is healing up quite nicely.)

We’ve got three possible approaches to take. The first is “your second unpublished novel.” The second is “your second published book.” The third is “the second book in a series.” All three of these are worth discussing, so of course we give the second one a wide miss.

We start with that second unpublished novel. This is the book where you move past the momentary validation of finishing the first novel, and sit down at the keyboard again. The lessons learned during the first novel are applied quickly. We talk about some of those lessons, and how they applied to each of us.

We then talk about the second book in a series. We look at what works well in sequels, in second acts, and subsequent installments in an ongoing series. We talk about the dangers of sequel-itis, especially as Hollywood suffers from it, and how we can avoid falling into these traps.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Good Guy, by Dean Koontz, narrated by Richard Ferrone

Writing Prompt: The growth on your nose… is it an alien, is it occult, or are you going to tell a love story?

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By Writing Excuses | June 26, 2011 - 6:00 pm - Posted in Business, Career, Humor, Lifestyle, Plot, Q&A, Structure, Submitting

Microcasting! It’s our high-speed Q&A! Here are the Q’s, listen to the ‘cast for the A’s.

  • Is it still safe to go the commercial publishing route?
  • How do you find the balance when writing serious stories with silliness in them?
  • What are the alternatives to three-act structure?
  • Do you ever lose your drive, and what re-inspires you when you do?
  • How does your writing life affect your non-writing life?
  • What was the defining moment in your life where you decided to become a writer?
  • How effective are book trailers?

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: 1421: The Year China Discovered America, by Gavin Menzies, narrated by Simon Vance

Writing Prompt: Give us a story in which writers are using actual fantastic creatures in the process of writing fantasy — ink from unicorn horns, elf-skin parchment, etc.

Promised Liner Note Links: Dan’s 7-point Story Structure,

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By Writing Excuses | October 16, 2011 - 6:11 pm - Posted in Characters, Conflicts, Guest, Plot, Scenes, Structure

Lou Anders joins Dan, Howard, and Mary for a discussion of endings. We begin by talking about how important it is to “stick your landing” at the end of the book, and then recap the Hollywood Formula to point out how endings work there. We get examples from Mary’s upcoming novel Glamour in Glass, Dan’s upcoming novel Partials, Howard’s work-in-progress short story, and Lou Anders’ award-worthy, dot-matrix printer.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Blood of Ambrose, by James Enge, narrated by Jay Snyder

Writing Prompt: Using the first fifteen minutes of your least favorite recent movie as a starting point, write a story with a powerful ending.

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By Writing Excuses | November 27, 2011 - 6:42 pm - Posted in Mystery, Plot, POV, Structure

Let’s talk mystery! Specifically, how do you plot a good mystery? We’re not focusing on the mystery genre but many of these principles will apply there. For fantasy and science-fiction work this usually means creating plots or sub-plots in which the main experience for the reader is one of discovery or revelation, rather than anticipation.

Tools we discuss include the presentation of clues, unreliable character (and narrator) viewpoints, and how to offer the reader multiple plausible explanations prior to the big reveal. Howard talks about the plotting of the next Schlock Mercenary book, Random Access Memorabilia, and Dan tells us a little about his next book, Partials. Both titles have a mystery and a reveal, while neither is a whodunit.

Special Audible Sponsor: Neil Gaiman has teamed up with Audible and the Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX), personally selecting several of his favorite books and producing them with some of his favorite narrators. Check out “Neil Gaiman Presents” at Audible for a list of titles and the reasons why Neil selected these books.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Snuff, by Terry Pratchett, narrated by Stephen Briggs.

Writing Prompt: Write your way backwards into a puzzle-box mystery. The answer is that someone’s soul is in the box — now reverse-engineer the plot so that the presence of a soul in the box is surprising yet inevitable.

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By Writing Excuses | December 18, 2011 - 10:49 pm - Posted in Characters, Conflicts, Demonstration, Structure

Let’s talk about character foils, and how to use them. We begin with a definition of character foils, expertly read by Mary. Then we talk about some archetypes, like the straight-man and the funny-guy, the hero and the sidekick, and offer some examples.

And then it’s nuts-and-bolts time: we talk about how and why to do this. Howard offers the example of Reverend Theo and Kevyn in the Schlock Mercenary books. Mary explains how she used a foil to strengthen her short story “For Want of a Nail,” (which went on to win a Hugo award.) Brandon tells us how adding a foil character was critical to The Way of Kings. Finally, Dan reveals to us (spoiler alert!) how John Cleaver and Mr. Crowley are foils for one another in I Am Not a Serial Killer.

 

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Late Eclipses: an October Daye Novel, by Seanan McGuire, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Writing Prompt: Generate a list of five character pairs. Pick the most interesting of the set, and write about them.

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By Writing Excuses | March 25, 2012 - 5:00 pm - Posted in Characters, Plot, Sci-fi, Season 7, Setting, Structure

It’s a “Howard is clueless” episode! One of us, we won’t name any names, didn’t take enough English classes to know the basic conflict archetypes — Man vs. Man, Man vs. Self, and Man vs. Nature. In this episode we focus on that third one.

One example of Man vs. Nature is Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey. Another is Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. In both of these cases, while Man vs  Nature is the main plot, Man vs. Man sub-plots keep the story moving.

We talk about the strengths of this type of story, some of the pitfalls to avoid, lots of examples of the archetype, and then we focus on what you can do to tell this sort of story well.

New Word of the Week: “Stereotropical” – a mashup of “stereotypical” and “trope.” Use it when your meaning can’t possibly be confused with “tropical islands in stereo.”

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey, narrated by Dick Hill

Writing Prompt: "Jack Black stranded alone on an alien planet." Your challenge? Make us like the main character and want him to live...

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There are a lot of things that Our Very Own Brandon Sanderson can get away with. In The Way of Kings, he gets away with not just one, but TWO prologues. In this ‘cast Mary, Dan, and Howard get to grill Brandon about his opening epic, The Way of Kings.

This is the second entry in our “Project in Depth” series in which three of the cast members gang up on the fourth and ask them all about one of their books.

We get answers about the prelude/prologue decision, the extremism of the setting, and lots of information about why this book needed three different major character POVs. Brandon talks in detail about some of the character problems he encountered with Dalinar in the early drafts of the book. If anything, this part of the discussion points up the importance of a good re-write.

Finally, Brandon talks about his naming conventions.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Stranger in a Strange Land (unabridged), by Robert A. Heinlein, narrated by Christopher Hurt

Writing Prompt: Take a character of yours, and split that character into a character and a foil.

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By Writing Excuses | June 24, 2012 - 6:23 pm - Posted in Live, Pacing, Q&A, Season 7, Structure, Theme, Voice

Recorded live at Utah Valley University, here’s another Q&A episode from the LTUE Symposium!

The questions:

  • What was Brandon’s plan with Mistborn and the themes regarding establishment?
  • Why does Kelsier shrug so much? (This leads into a fun discussion of “tells.”)
  • How do you know when to stop a chapter? What about expanding it?
  • How do you make your prose more transparent?
  • How do you decide who and what to cut?
  • What do you do to filter out the extraneous ideas that come while you’re writing?
  • What can collaborators do in order to create a single “voice” for the book?
  • What’s the best way to tackle a long back-story?
Want answers? You’ll just have to listen…

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Partials, by Dan Wells, narrated by Julia Whelan

Writing Prompt: From Earl K. Hill, our cameraman: tell a whole story from the view of the sidekick.

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By Writing Excuses | November 18, 2012 - 7:19 pm - Posted in Characters, Conflicts, Season 7, Structure

What are the things that matter to your characters? What things matter to your readers? After we get the obligatory ambiguity out of the way, we settle into talking about the “stakes” and the escalation thereof.

As authors, we want our readers to feel that something is at risk, and that action on the part of the protagonist is important. It might only be important to the protagonist, but whether the world is at stake, or just one person’s reputation, the reader needs to believe that this matters.

In many outlining techniques (three-act structure, seven-point story structure, Hollywood formula) the writer is told to “raise the stakes” at certain points. So, not only must we put things at risk, we must find ways to either increase the amount of risk, or increase the character response to the risk already present.

We talk about the sorts of things that can be treated as “stakes” in the stories we tell, and how we can go about raising those stakes.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Control Point: Shadow Ops, by Myke Cole, narrated by Corey Jackson

Writing Prompt: Raise the stakes without resorting to risks to reputation, livelihood, or mental health. Or explosions. Don't use those, either.

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By Writing Excuses | January 13, 2013 - 4:00 pm - Posted in Characters, Conflicts, Education, Fantasy, Ideas, Outlining, Plot, Prose, Season 8, Setting, Structure

Beowulf didn’t kill Grendel on a day trip, Luke didn’t overthrow Emperor Palpatine in just one season, and here at Writing Excuses, we didn’t get around to properly discussing the Hero’s Journey until we were well into the second decade of this century.

Sorry about that.

The Campbellian Monomyth, as defined in Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, is a system of comparative mythology that, for better or for worse, gets used a lot by writers. We talk about some of our favorite examples, and immediately begin arguing over terms. Hopefully this is delightful to you, and educational for everyone. Especially since the monomyth is not a checklist, and it should not be taken that way.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: At the time we recorded this, Hero With a Thousand Faces was available on Audible. It's not anymore. So... go find something else educational?

Writing Prompt: Take Goldilocks and the Three Bears, apply the Campbellian Monomyth, and give us a short story.

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The number one request we got when we asked you what you’d like us to talk about? Short story writing. Mary is our resident expert, and if she weren’t already a member of the cast, she’d our go-to expert for an interview. Convenient!

We begin by addressing the popular notion that writing short stories is a good way to practice for writing novels, and selling short stories is a way to break in and sell novels. We then return to the M.I.C.E. quotient (first addressed by us in 6.10) and discuss how the quotient (or model, or formula) helps you understand what to cut from the telling of a story to make it a short story.

Mary then walks us through her process for turning an idea into a story concept, and then distilling that concept into a short story. She also invites us to explore her 950-word short, “Evil Robot Monkey,” free of charge!

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Language of Moths, by Christopher Barzak, narrated by Paul Michael Garcia

Writing Prompt: Being "bi-textual" is a controversial lifestyle choice...

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By Writing Excuses | July 7, 2013 - 5:51 pm - Posted in Characters, Live Audience, Outlining, Pacing, Scenes, Season 8, Structure

What determines our chapter breaks? How do we handle POV shifts, scene-sequel balance, and other considerations when we’re carving our stories into chapters?

Dan starts with a discussion of the POV considerations in Fragments and in Ruins (from the Partials series,) and Brandon contrasts that with some of the epic fantasy methods. We argue the respective merits and pitfalls of rapid switching and large blocks, and then we talk about how the chapters take shape during our outlines and initial drafts.

Episode Trivia: This was the first episode we recorded at the Out of Excuses Workshop and Retreat, and was the first time in a year that the four of us had been together to record. So rusty!

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Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Promise of Blood, by Brian McClellan, narrated by Christian Rodska

Writing Prompt: Outline a two-character plot arc, and then break it into chapters. Experiment with big blocks and little blocks of POV in this chapter-chopped outline, and consider how this will affect the arc.

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By Writing Excuses | July 21, 2013 - 6:00 pm - Posted in Business, Discovery Writing, Outlining, Season 8, Structure

We recorded this episode in front of our live audience at the first-ever Out of Excuses Workshop and Retreat. Here are the questions (you’ll have to listen for the answers):

  • To Dan: How did you go about selling your first trilogy in Germany before selling it in the US
  • To Howard: did you consider doing a separate storyline on Sunday strips? Why or why not?
  • Have you transitioned between outlining and discovery writing?
  • To Brandon: Why is John Scalzi your evil nemesis?
  • To Dan and Howard (and Mary): When you had full-time work, what did you do to “reset” when you came home from work, especially since your job used the same parts of your brain that writing does?

A Humble Suggestion for the Name of John Scalzi’s Next Band: Neil Gaiman’s Eagle Balls

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Human Division, by John Scalzi, narrated by William Dufris. (We were told that Wil Wheaton would be narrating this, but according to Audible the narrator is William Dufris.)

Writing Prompt: Someone is doing a puppetry move so extreme they end up hospitalized.

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Recorded live at GenCon Indy, Sam Logan of Sam & Fuzzy joins Brandon, Mary, and Howard to talk about long-form storytelling. Sam’s webcomic has been running for eleven years now, and has evolved over time into something of an epic.

Sam talks to us about how he got started, and how the strip morphed from its gag-a-day origins into what it is today (is this similar to what happened with Howard and Schlock Mercenary? Maaaaaybe.) He also talks about his planning process, and the manner in which he structures the smaller stories to fit inside the larger ones.

If you’re looking for a good starting point for Sam and Fuzzy, Sam says that point is right here.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Feed, by M. T. Anderson, narrated by David Aaron Baker

Writing Prompt: Go for a walk. Think about what you're writing while you walk. Don't do that Facebook or Twitter thing while you walk. Just walk, and think.

This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by Audible.

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Audible Free Trial Details

Get an audiobook of your choice, free, with a 30-day trial. After the trial, your paid membership will begin at $14.95 per month. With your membership, you will receive one credit every month, good for any audiobook on Audible.

Cancel anytime, effective the next monthly billing cycle. Cancel before your trial ends and you will not be charged. Check out the full terms and policies that apply to Audible membership.