By Writing Excuses | August 10, 2008 - 8:46 pm - Posted in Ideas, Season 1, World Building, Writing Prompt

The Writing Excuses team sits down to talk about religion as a world-building device: your characters probably believe in something, so what is it? How does it affect their lives? How does it change their thoughts and motivations (and swear words)? And when you’re developing a fake religion, how do you avoid religious bias and keep from offending people? Is it best to develop something completely new, or make a few changes to a real Earth religion?

Writing Prompt: Develop a religion where people worship something that no one would ever worship in our world. And it can't be silly.

In this, the last of our WorldCon 66 episodes, Brandon, Dan, and Howard interview Name of the Wind author Patrick Rothfuss. We discuss exposition, and how not to bore people as you move them through the learning curve. We start by covering some “don’ts”  - including the essay, the police-artist sketch, and the thesis statement.

And then we work into the “do’s” – show-don’t-tell, focus on character, and don’t write stuff the readers don’t care about.

   This week’s Writing Excuses is brought to you by Schlock Mercenary: The Teraport Wars  by Howard Tayler

By Writing Excuses | October 6, 2008 - 8:43 am - Posted in Characters, Season 1, Style, World Building

Everyone says you can’t teach style–each writer just has to figure it out on his or her own.  Well, we here at Writing Excuses have never met an ultimatum we didn’t immediately challenge, so today we take it head on. Can you teach style? Can you learn tone? What makes each writer’s voice unique?

Writing Prompt: Take a scene and write it as Dan would write it, then write it as Brandon would write it, and then write it as Howard would write it.

By Writing Excuses | January 25, 2009 - 8:50 pm - Posted in Characters, World Building, Writing Prompt

The Writing Excuses crew returns to world-building, this time to discuss the creation of non-human races. Why do genre-fiction writers use aliens and monsters, short folk, tusked folk, or any other variation on “people” who aren’t human? Can new writers successfully recycle the classic Tolkien races and use dwarves, elves, orcs, goblins, and trolls? If not, how can new races best be created?

How can races be made “three-dimensional?” What are the common pitfalls? How much religion, culture, and physiology do you have time to create? Why are the rabidly violent fans of the Klingon race going to come after Howard with a cheap, plastic bat’leth? (Answer: Because they have no honor.)

Writing Prompt: Create a believable Alien and write something from his/her perspective.

By Writing Excuses | February 8, 2009 - 10:51 pm - Posted in Government, Setting, Theme, World Building

Let’s get back to world-building, and dig into a tough one: government. In this case we’re talking about government as part of the backdrop, rather than political intrigue as part of the plot. Are you going to create a monarchy, a democracy, or perhaps some crazy, experimental sort of rigidly constitutional representative republic? City-states? Confederations? Empires? What’s it going to be, and (more importantly) why?

Oh, and how do you do it right?

Writing Prompt:  Create a government by starting with “Colon Cleansers,” and then taking two steps back to create something unique.

Tracy Hickman joins us again at “Life, The Universe, and Everything,” and in this episode we let Brandon ask him random questions while Dan and Howard chime in with comments that hopefully don’t detract from the discussion.

During the interview Tracy mentions his latest project, XDM: Extreme Dungeon Mastery, but he doesn’t mention the very latest news about it. That news is that Tracy and Curtis Hickman (the authors) have contracted with Howard Tayler to illustrate and publish it. So that bit about Tracy doing it in his basement? It’s no longer accurate.

This week’s Writing Excuses is brought to you by I Am Not A Serial Killer by our very own Dan Wells. The book is only available in the UK, but you can get now from http://www.bookdepository.co.uk which has free shipping to anywhere in the world.

Writing Prompt: Give us Winnie the Pooh’s big death scene. On a destroyer in the South Pacific.

By Writing Excuses | June 1, 2009 - 8:33 am - Posted in Setting, World Building, Writing Prompt

Welcome to Season 3 of Writing Excuses! With eighteen hours and fourteen months of podcasting history behind us, it seems appropriate for us to talk about history, and how to write it.

We talk about the iceberg principle — 90% of the history stuff you write never gets seen by the reader, it’s just there to support the 10% that they do see, the “tip of the iceberg” — and why for some writers it’s just not the right ratio. We also discuss Worldbuilder’s Disease — none of the writing you’re doing is prose for the novel — and how to avoid it while still knuckling down and doing the work.

And then (after a shiny commercial break) we knuckle down and talk about writing history, making it interesting, finding conflict, and avoiding oversimplified causality (“monocausationalism.”)

Writing Prompt: Write an encyclopedia article about a war that has 5 distinct causes. Identify and justify each of them.

Howard here… I’ve learned that it’s a really bad idea to run out for a bio-break between podcasts. When I returned to the packed panel room I could tell that everyone’s attitude towards me was subtly different. It wasn’t until we started recording that I realized Brandon had turned our Q&A panel into a “Stump Howard” panel. Our good friend Eric James Stone joined us for the fun.

As silly themes go, this one works well. So well, in fact, that we went six minutes into overtime. The questions were all good, and yes, according to the rules (of which I was not apprised, I should add in my defense) I got stumped one time. It was the question about making aliens seem alien. Go figure.

Writing Prompt: Start with a device that vaporises water, ala Batman Begins, and turn it into a believable superweapon which is not being used to destroy the world.

Howard here, folks. On behalf of the entire Writing Excuses team I’d like to apologize in advance for that which you are about to receive.

You know how sometimes one of those crazy thoughts seems like a good idea, and the more you talk about it the better the idea seems, and so then you actually do it and are left looking back at it with a mixture of awe and horror? This episode is like that.

Brandon thought it would be funny to have  a discussion about dialects in which Dan and I actually do dialects. So we did.

We’re all very sorry. In the spirit of eponymy, I shall now write an excuse: “It was late, and we were so tired that we thought this would be funny.”

Mary is back! We still had a Mary Robinette Kowal episode from WorldCon 67, and now you have it too! We take questions from the audience, and then answer them. Here are the questions:

  • What do you do if your characters revolt and start to take over the story?
  • When you became a writer what most surprised you with its difficulty?
  • How do you build the history for the worlds your books are set in?

Three huge questions, TWELVE answers. Enjoy!

Oh… and your writing prompt: write about The Predestined Monkey.

By Writing Excuses | December 6, 2009 - 8:28 pm - Posted in World Building

Is there a disconnect? Brandon specifically introduces the episode as “World-building political correctness,” but the title here says “World-Building Gender Roles.” And then Brandon goes on to blame Howard for picking the title. There is, in fact, a disconnect. Oh the mirth! Howard was imagining a slightly wider scope for the ‘cast, but Brandon focused the crew on just one aspect.

And that’s probably best. After all, this is only fifteen minutes long (okay, 17 minutes and 10 seconds) and as has been said before, we’re not that smart.

How does a 21st-century author go about world-building fantasy universe gender roles while writing for a 21st-century audience? How does the problem change if the setting is the far-flung future? And of more immediate interest, is it possible for three men to discuss this without a) putting their feet in their mouths while b) simultaneously stepping on landmines?

Have a listen. We’re going to wait waaay over here and hope the internet can’t find us.

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 | April 11, 2010 - 5:45 pm - Posted in Ideas, World Building

Our last brainstorming ‘cast was so well-received we decided to do another one. This time we grabbed articles from a New Scientist article called “13 More Things We Don’t Understand.”

Dark flow, hybrid life, the bloop, the lithium problem, the nocebo effect, and  noise from the edge of the universe all lead us to interesting places and other universes, and we get visits from dishonest serial killers, the Space Goat, and Cthulhu.

If any of these ideas strike your fancy and you manage to successfully sell a novel, congratulations! We don’t want a cut, but a mention in your acknowledgements page would be nice.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Noble House, by James Clavell

Writing Prompt: Start with the noise from the edge of the universe” article and brainstorm a good story.

Thing to Not Do, Lest We Were Not Clear Enough There At The End: Do not actually commit nor advocate the commission of suicide no matter how depressing your discovery about the nature of the universe may be.

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By Writing Excuses | May 9, 2010 - 5:58 pm - Posted in Artwork, Genre, Ideas, Plot, Setting, World Building

We here at Writing Excuses have talked about the Anxiety of Influence before, we’ve discussed genre-blending, and we’ve talked about where ideas come from. Now we’re going to blend all of those in one ‘cast as we talk about stealing stuff without plagiarizing.

You can call it “borrowing” if you want to, but as Howard Tayler once said, “good artists borrow, great artists steal.” (Note: It’s possible that Pablo Picasso also said this.) We offer examples from books, film, music, and the visual arts — done right, done wrong, and done award-winningly well. If you’re coming up short on ideas, this is the ‘cast for you. It’s probably a good ‘cast even if you’re NOT coming up short on ideas.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, narrated by Neil Himself, which is a great example of stealing (from Kipling in this case) and getting away with it (and getting a Hugo Award in this case.)

Writing Prompt: Hit the button labeled “click here to be randomly teraported into the archives” at Schlock Mercenary (it’s under the calendar navigation to the right of the comic), read three or four strips, and steal from them to create something new.

Funny Song That Would Have Been Funnier If We’d Mentioned Baloo The Zombear: “Brain Necessities.”

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By Writing Excuses | May 30, 2010 - 9:26 pm - Posted in Fantasy, Genre, Government, Live, magic, Setting, World Building

Coming to you “live” from CONduit, Writing Excuses is pleased to welcome fantasy superstar L.E. Modesitt (plus a slightly different Howard, by which we mean that Howard was out of town and replaced by Dan’s brother Rob).

Our topic for this episode is “practicality,” which is another way of saying “fantasy and science fiction may be unrealistic, but they should still be plausible within your definition of reality.” In other words, if you have an army of 1000 armored knights, you’d better have an economy and political system capable of producing and supporting them.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Imager by L.E. Modesitt, Jr., about a mage so powerful anything he thinks can become reality.

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By Writing Excuses | August 1, 2010 - 6:14 pm - Posted in Sci-fi, Setting, World Building

Let’s build THE FUTURE! [cue dramatic music]

The Writing Excuses crew explores another angle on the massively multifaceted gem of a topic known as “worldbuilding.” We’ve touched on governments, religions, and magic systems in the past. This time we’re looking at a more exclusively science-fictional aspect of worldbuilding: extrapolating a future setting from what we know about the present.

We start with Howard explaining why and how he went about it all wrong, and then managed to salvage it in spite of that. We move on to strategies for doing this sort of future prediction, and how to employ them in concert to worldbuild underneath your next novel. Strategies include “worst-case scenario,” “best-case scenario,” “the human factor,” and “what’s cool?”

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Empire of the East, by Fred Saberhagen

Writing Prompt: “were-cuttlefish,” courtesy of Dan Wells.

Courtesy of Howard Tayler: those popping noises made by (we assume) the were-cuttlefish.

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By Writing Excuses | November 28, 2010 - 7:12 pm - Posted in Artwork, Guest, Scenes, World Building

Scott Westerfeld joins Brandon and Howard for a discussion of the visual components of novels. His novel Leviathan is set in an alternate history 1914, and is designed to look like a book from 1914, complete with illustrations. Keith Thompson designed the art to look like period art, and it adds a significant dimension to the book.

Brandon talks about how he employed these same principles in The Way of Kings, which has in-world maps and in-world illustrations throughout its thousand pages. And of course Howard points how these things apply in the illustration-dependent Schlock Mercenary.

We move into a discussion of how the illustrations affect both the publication process and the storytelling, and how things like deck-plans and engineering diagrams feed back into the story.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld, narrated by Alan Cumming

Writing Prompt: Draw the floor plan of the house or building you’re in. Knock out a wall, and write an action scene involving that.

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By Writing Excuses | January 23, 2011 - 7:00 pm - Posted in Alternate History, Fantasy, general, Genre, Guest, World Building

Mary Robinette Kowal and Eric Flint join Howard and Dan for a discussion of writing Alternate History. Eric divides the sub-genre into two categories for us. Dan adds a third category for us later. Summing up:

  1. Our history, but with a key change occurring (the “branching point.”)
  2. Our history, but with a time-traveler going back and changing something (aka “duck, Mister President!”)
  3. Our history, but with magic (usually with said magic being the key change at our branching point)

Mary’s first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, grew out of a love for Jane Austen’s work and a love for the fantasy genre. Eric’s alternate histories (including the wildly popular 1632 series) grow out of the fact that he enjoyed history enough to obtain a Master’s degree in it. Write what you know, and write what you’re passionate about.

During the second half of the ‘cast Eric and Mary give us advice on how to go about writing alternate history. We talk about research, about when to sweat the details and when not to, and about some of the biggest challenges Mary and Eric faced during these projects.

At 22 minutes and 39 seconds it’s clear that we ran a little long on this one.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week (Two-for-One): Crown of Slaves and Torch of Freedom, both by Eric Flint and David Weber. These books fit in Weber’s Honor Harrington universe, but don’t require you to have read all the Honor Harrington books.

Writing Prompt: Pick a major event in history that you love, and make it come out differently.

Session Notes: We recorded seven guest episodes while at the Superstars Writing Seminar in Salt Lake City. This is the first of these. Brandon was absent for the first three sessions, but joined us for the last four.

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By Writing Excuses | February 6, 2011 - 9:00 pm - Posted in Characters, Fantasy, Humor, Sci-fi, Setting, World Building

Mary Robinette Kowal and Dave Wolverton again join Dan and Howard, and this time we’re talking about holidays in fantasy and science-fiction. This ‘cast was recorded at Superstars Writing Seminars, and  Moses Siregar III of Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing captured us on video as we recorded.

What sorts of things result in holidays? Historically we see them at the solstices and the equinoxes, planting and harvest, and commemorations of important events. We talk about all of these, and how to work them into your own writing without sounding like you’re just filing the serial numbers off of Christmas, Halloween, and Mardi Gras.

So of course we also talk about how to do this wrong.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: METAtropolis: Cascadia, by Jay Lake, Mary Robinette Kowal, Elizabeth Bear, Ken Scholes, Karl Schroeder, and Tobias Buckell, and narrated by Rene Auberjonois, Kate Mulgrew, Wil Wheaton, Gates McFadden, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, and Jay Lake.

Writing Prompt: Make up a holiday that isn’t based on anything you’ve seen.

Exclamation Howard Thought He’d Never Use: Bone Puppet Day!

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By Writing Excuses | April 24, 2011 - 3:42 pm - Posted in Characters, Genre, Setting, World Building

Let’s talk about bibles. Specifically, story bibles. What are they, why do we use them, why might we NOT use them, and what tools are working for us?

Howard again plugs wikidpad, which he converted Brandon to, and which Dan Wells just couldn’t bring himself to love. Dan uses several different Open Office files. The important thing, though, is that when we need to store information about the book in someplace besides the book itself, we write it down in our story bibles.

Dan talks about his new project, how important the story bible was for that, and what sorts of things absolutely have to go in there. Howard talks about the sorts of Schlock-tech that often end up

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Freakonomics, by Steven D. Leavitt and Stephen J. Dubner, narrated by Stephen J. Dubner.

Writing Prompt: Someone is a were-animal. Pick an animal that hasn’t been done. Were-banana-slug, perhaps?

9:40 through 10:10: Yes, we went kind of quiet there. Somebody kicked a cable, maybe?

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Okay, let’s have some fun. Not that we weren’t having fun for the previous 150+ episodes, mind you. But this is extra-fun.

Brandon, Dan, and Howard take the urban fantasy writing prompt about big-box stores and decide to brainstorm a story out of it. When we begin this ‘cast all we have is the prompt.

Then we brainstorm, plowing through setting, character, conflict, and story.

By the end of the ‘cast we’re ready to make a pitch to an editor and sell the book.

Okay, maybe not. But the book is totally ready for us to sit down and write. Or, better yet, for YOU to sit down and write.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Kitty and the Midnight Hour, by Carrie Vaughn, narrated by Marguerite Gavin

Writing Prompt: Take what we’ve done in this ‘cast and try to come up with a plot and an ending. Alternatively, take the list of competition films from the most recent Sundance Film Festival and pick six that are somehow part of a Fey plot.

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By Writing Excuses | May 8, 2011 - 7:37 pm - Posted in Fantasy, Setting, World Building

Saladin Ahmed, Nebula- and Campbell-award nominee joins Brandon and Howard at Penguicon 9.0 in Troy, Michigan for a discussion of setting — specifically, setting an epic fantasy in something besides the traditional, Western European middle ages.

We talk about the importance of familiarity, and how we balance that against more exotic elements. Saladin offers us some tools and tricks for doing this. One of these is the “Daily Life In” series of books, research tools for authors wanting to leverage ancient Rome, Egypt, or other places in the creation of their settings. Yes, you might want to go out and buy a book or two after we’re done.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: Inheritance Trilogy, Book 1, by N. K. Jemisin, narrated by Casaundra Freeman

Writing Prompt: Describe a food that is familiar to you from the point of view of a character who has never encountered it, nor anything like it.

Did You Hear Something Different? This episode marks the debut of our new digital mixer! We’re new to it, but so far it’s wonderful. Also, this is the third or fourth episode where Mary Robinette Kowal has voiced the sponsorship plug. Expect to hear a LOT more from her in Season Six…

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By Writing Excuses | July 10, 2011 - 5:56 pm - Posted in Genre, Ideas, Sci-fi, Setting, World Building

Cyberpunk: What is it? Why is it? We’ve mentioned it before, but we’ve never attempted to tackle it.

We begin with an attempt to define cyberpunk (the literary genre), which is typically near-future SF, anti-establishment, early dystopian fiction featuring connectivity, body modification, and culture shifts. We argue a bit over the finer points, which fits the topic perfectly.

We move on to discuss how you might set about writing cyberpunk, which is, as Dan points out, the SF genre we’re catching up to. We almost live in that world already. You’re going to need to do some research, reading up on the genre and looking closely at where current technology is taking us.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson, narrated by Jennifer Wiltsie.

Writing Prompt: A cyberpunk setting in which tattoos are the equivalent of implanted tech… and somebody has hacked your tattoo.

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Let’s talk about some ways in which your descriptions can do more than just describe. You’re not just trying to tell us what the room is like. You’re also setting the mood, telling us about the POV character, and establishing some of our progress through the story.

Howard (who rarely works in prose) offers some unexpected insight by talking about the way panels are composed in his comic. Mary offers even better insight by pulling the same principles through the domain of puppetry. Dan tells us how some of this is done by filmmakers. But yes, we finally do come back around to prose and how to accomplish these things with words.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Shades of Milk and Honey, written and narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal

Writing Prompt: Go someplace, use all five of your senses, and for thirty minutes write about the place you’re in. Not the people though. Just the place.

And Because It Needs To Be Google-able: “Mary Robinette Koala” — it might be more than just a pronunciation guide.

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Let’s talk commo! How does the ubiquity of communication tech affect your story? How far out of your own experience do you need to step in order to build a culture whose communications are believable?

We talk about the Great Wall of China, Napoleon’s visual semaphore, the Brin P2P Plan, and cell-phones in the X-files. Our goal? To get you to think about how the people in your stories communicate with each other, and how those communications can fail whether you’re writing fantasy or science-fiction.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson, narrated by Jonathan Davis.

Errata: The Ringworld is not 93 million miles in diameter. That was the approximate radius. Also, Howard got the circumference wrong. If only we’d had instant access to some sort of database, some network of computational resources while we were recording this episode…

Writing Prompt: Start with a fax machine, make it a 3d-printer/prototyper, and run from there…

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By Writing Excuses | September 18, 2011 - 6:42 pm - Posted in Characters, Fantasy, Gender, Sci-fi, World Building

Keffy Kehrli joins Brandon, Mary, and Howard in front of a live audience at WorldCon 69 in Reno. He’s a Writers of the Future winner, a few votes short of being a Campbell Award nominee, and a female-to-male transsexual.

Mary leads us into this discussion, starting with how gender roles and gender identity lie along a continuum, defying the convenient descriptors that people typically employ, and how this can inform our writing. Keffy offers valuable tips, talking about what gets done wrong, and how to write it correctly.

We also talk about how this can apply to world-building, especially in fantasy where extended gender identities usually are not a consideration.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch, narrated by Michael Page

Writing Prompt: Take something that you do, something unique to you (and perhaps to your gender), and hand it to somebody in your book who appears unqualified for that task. Then qualify them for it.

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By Writing Excuses | November 13, 2011 - 6:24 pm - Posted in Genre, Guest, Ideas, World Building

Andrew P. Mayer joins Howard, Mary, and Dan at Dragon*Con 2011. Andrew’s has one book out, The Falling Machine, and the second book in this “Society of Steam” series, Hearts of Smoke, comes out on November 22nd. Andrew describes them as “steampunk superhero” novels, which nicely takes us into our topic, which centers around taking a ridiculous, over-the-top concept and using it to create brilliant and realistic literature.

We discuss a number of concepts which seem, at least on the surface, to be completely ridiculous, and which have been turned into wonderful stories, books, and series of books. We also talk about how to pull this off, and what writing skills we need to bring to bear.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Mainspring, by Jay Lake, narrated by William Dufris

Writing Prompt: Give us a story about a character who discovers that there exists a pill to grant you the powers of a god.

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By Writing Excuses | December 4, 2011 - 4:54 pm - Posted in Demonstration, Fantasy, Setting, World Building, Writing Prompt

It’s the Writing Excuses Fantasy Setting Yard Sale!

In this experimental (at least for us) ‘cast, Brandon, Dan, Mary, and Howard build a couple of fantasy settings for you, and they’re free. Seriously. TAKE THEM.

We start our world-building with an unusual way for someone to obtain magical powers. We ended up with space-dust. We then head into what these powers do, and again we look for something unusual. We picked mutation. Then we start applying limitations: astrological, alchemical, and geological.

Our second pass (we’re giving away more than one of these!) began with cultural elements. We toy with how political power is granted, and end up with some neat linguistic bits, puerile humor, dance steps, ambidexterity, and a callback to the earlier puerility.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Alloy of Law: A Mistborn Novel, by Brandon Sanderson, narrated by Michael Kramer

Writing Prompt: This whole episode is one big writing prompt, and you need one because NaNoWriMo is over, but that’s no excuse to not write. You’re out of excuses, as we’ve told you on more than one occasion. Write!

Puerility: “Fart joke.”

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By Writing Excuses | January 8, 2012 - 10:13 pm - Posted in Season 7, World Building

Let’s build the plants and animals for your science fiction or fantasy book!

We begin with a discussion about naming, and about deciding how much evolutionary biology to put into creating cool beasties. We also talk about planning a food chain, building around water, and considering other resources (especially wood, for growing fantasy civilizations.)

Other considerations include migration patterns, life-cycles, and the possibility of turning the whole thing on its head.

We offer examples from Dune, Legacy of Heorot, Inherit the Stars, Ender’s Game, and other places. And if you’re looking for resources, check out Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge, narrated by Peter Larkin

Writing Prompt: Take a horrible, hard-to-domesticate animal, and then create a culture in which somebody has figured out how to domesticate these beasties.

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By Writing Excuses | March 11, 2012 - 6:43 pm - Posted in Business, Career, Editing, Genre, Plot, Q&A, Season 7, World Building

It’s again time for us to do a Q&A by any other name!

  • Is it better to include romance, horror, SF, or other genre elements to flesh out a story, or should the story stand alone?
  • Any tips for developing an idea without getting caught in Worldbuilder’s Disease?
  • Any NaNo WriMo tips? (yes.)
  • What did you to do build an audience before you got published and famous and stuff?
  • How do you create sub-plots without overshadowing the main plot?
  • What are the most important things you learned as writers during 2011?
  • How do you stay motivated (especially during editing) when it seems like everything you wrote is crap?

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Persuasion, by Jane Austen. Note that there are lots of available recordings. We recommend something unabridged, like the version linked here.

Writing Prompt: Listener Bill Housely provided this one—a lone woman who runs an orbital refueling post makes first contact when some aliens arrive in desperate need of fuel.

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We’re doing something new, and Howard gets to go first.

The plan is to take something one of us has completed, and which you’ve had ample time to read, and grill the creator about the project. Obviously there will be spoilers. Also, we’re going to run a bit long on these.

First up in our “Project In Depth” series: Howard’s most recent online volume of Schlock Mercenary, Force Multiplication. You can read it for free at the link above. It’s been nominated in the Best Graphic Story category for this year’s Hugo Awards, this entire episode features Howard on the spot answering questions about the project from Brandon, Dan, and Mary.

The biggest issue discussed is the female perspective. In Force Multiplication Howard challenged himself by casting all of the leads for the story as women, and it changed the storytelling process for him significantly.

He also talks about the setting — Haven Hive — and how he needed the setting to functionally isolate a small ensemble cast. He talks about naming a little, and finally talks about how he turned a sterile-sounding high-concept plot into an interesting story.

Next up on our Project In Depth series: The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson. You have been warned. We’ll also be doing Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamour in Glass and Dan Wells’ Hollow City. We’re NOT doing this back-to-back. You’ve got a little time.

Thing That Would Make Howard Sound Smarter: Remove every last “you know” from his dialog. (Note that this would not actually increase Howard’s IQ.)

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett, narrated by Stephen Briggs

Writing Prompt: Do this with your own work—have your friends interview you in depth about something you've finished, or something you're currently working on.

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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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It’s time for our fourth “Project in Depth” episode, and now Dan Wells is on the spot. The Hollow City is Dan’s latest book, and while it’s not a new John Cleaver book, it’s still a supernatural thriller with a tight psychological focus.

Spoilers galore, of course. If you haven’t read The Hollow City yet, go read it before listening to this episode.

Dan’s New Twitter Handle: Per Howard’s suggestion, @JohnCleaver has been retired in favor of @TheDanWells.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Sucks to be Me, by Kimberly Pauley, narrated by Nancy Wu

Writing Prompt: Go find an interesting mental illness (quick, before Dan takes all the good ones.) Now write from the sufferer's POV, but don't tell us what's actually wrong.

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By Writing Excuses | August 5, 2012 - 8:02 pm - Posted in Research, Sci-fi, Season 7, Setting, World Building

Eric James Stone, Nebula winner and “graduate” of NASA’s Launchpad workshop, joins us to talk about astronomy in our world-building.

We talk about tides, habitable zones, planetary orbits and axial tilts, stellar life-cycles, and other fun factors for authors to take into account. But obviously we can’t teach you everything you need to know about astronomy in 15 minutes, so we wrap with some handy resources for you to begin your continuing education:

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Helliconia Spring by Brian Aldiss, narrated by Christopher Slade

Writing Prompt: Your colonists are going to a world whose axial tilt is different from Earth's. How are the seasons different?

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By Writing Excuses | August 19, 2012 - 4:00 pm - Posted in Season 7, World Building

Let’s talk about how to start the next one — not the next book in a series, necessarily. Your next project might not leverage the worldbuilding or characters you used in your previous project. We discuss the challenges each of us have faced, and how we’ve cleared those hurdles.

If you’re having trouble letting go of your previous project, this ‘cast should help you, if only because you can see it’s something each of us had difficulty with as well. Of course, we also offer you some pointers and some tricks to make this transition easier.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Newsflesh trilogy by Mira Grant, wraps up with Blackout, and is a very satisfying example of a series that does something different with each book.

Writing Prompt: "The Hairy Housewife," because Brandon didn't hear Howard correctly the first time he said "harried."

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Fans of role-playing games should know the name Monte Cook well, because he’s been writing some of the highest-profile tomes in the field for two-and-a-half decades now. Monte joins us in front of a live audience at GenCon Indy 2012 to talk about writing games.

We start by talking about some of the differences between straight-up prose, and prose tooled for games. With role-playing games, this often boils down to the fact that it’s not the writer doing the storytelling — it’s the role-players. The writer’s job is to provide the gamers with the tools they need. Monte and the hosts cover the roles of world-building, character development, and plotting, and talk a little about the path you might consider if you’re looking to get published in this field.

If you’re ready to relinquish story control to your readers, if you are prepared to let them breathe life into the places, monsters, and characters you’ve created, this is the episode for you.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon, narrated by David Colacci

Writing Prompt: For some reason one character is put into the body of another character.

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By Writing Excuses | December 12, 2012 - 10:06 am - Posted in Demonstration, Plot, Season 7, Setting, World Building

We try. We really do. But sometimes, in our efforts to make sure we’ve got a large enough queue of episodes to keep you edutained and entercated, we get things out of order. Badly.

Our last two episodes (49 and 50) made reference to this one, which was recorded before they were, and many of you were confused. We were even confused! But enough about the behind-the-scenes recording process. On with the episode!

Mary pitches us three story sketches, and we pick one to brainstorm. This, by the way, is also how Mary works with her agent. After the pitches, we select the one that doesn’t have much of a story yet.

And then it’s a brainstorming session. If you’ve ever wondered where we (or anybody else) gets their ideas, and more importantly, how they refine them, this is a must-listen.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Broken Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin, narrated by Casaundra Freeman

Writing Prompt: In a setting in which magnetic fields are dramatically different between locations, give us a story about traveling between those locations.

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By Writing Excuses | December 26, 2012 - 1:28 pm - Posted in Alternate History, Season 7, Setting, World Building

Hey, guess what 2012 has fifty-three of? Mondays! So you’re getting a fifty-third episode of “Writing Excuses” this season. (You’re also going to be getting a fifty-fourth, because we stuck an extra in there a few weeks back.)

Hopefully this excuses (no pun intended) the fact that this episode is a full three days late. Merry Christmas!

Let’s talk about secret histories. A secret history is a subset of alternate history, in which historical events are given new explanations, typically fantastical ones, but in which the reader is invited to believe that this is the world we all currently live in.

We mention Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Tim Powers’ Last Call, and Jo Walton’s Among Others, and why secret history has the appeal it does, especially when it’s done well. And because you want to know how to do it well, we spend some time on that, as well as discussing some of the ethics of creating secret histories in the first place.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: A Short Stay in Hell, by Stephen L. Peck, narrated by Sergei Burbank

Writing Prompt: Take a popular piece of entertainment, grab a side-character, and give us their secret story.

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E.J. “Eric” Patten joins us for a discussion of pre-writing. His first book, Return to Exile, came out in 2011, and The Legend Thief released in March of 2013.

What is pre-writing? Eric walks us through his process for developing a story, beginning with the high-concept world-building inspired by the phrase “Cthulhu for kids.” He talks about the importance of getting the characters right, and how this process precedes plot development. Each of us handles this a little differently, and we talk about how that goes.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: E.J. Patten's books aren't available on Audible, but if you're looking for Cthulhu that isn't for kids, H.P. Lovecraft's classics "Call of Cthulhu" and "Reanimator" can be found in H.P. Lovecraft, Volume 2, narrated by Garrick Hogan.

Writing Prompt: Kids get magical powers from their Halloween costumes...

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By Mary Robinette Kowal | April 17, 2014 - 9:50 am - Posted in Career, Characters, Conventions, Education, Gender, Lifestyle, Race, Site News, World Building

WtO logo

If you wanted to register for the Out of Excuses Workshop and Retreat and didn’t get in, I’m hoping that you might be interested in the Writing the Other Workshop and Retreat.

It’s held at the same location, Mary Robinette Kowal’s parents’ house.

Mary will be joined by NY Times Best-selling author David Anthony Durham; Cynthia Ward and Nisi Shawl, the authors behind the book Writing the Other; and K. Tempest Bradford, author and activist.

On Writing Excuses, some of the most common questions come in as variations of “How do you write someone who isn’t like you.” Many authors struggle to write beyond what they know and write the other. While we tackle this on the podcast, fifteen minutes is not enough time to delve into this tricky and nuanced skill. The Writing the Other Workshop and Retreat is designed with lessons and conversations, paired with a retreat, to give participants an opportunity to work on making their characters and worldbuilding deeper and more thoughtful. And David, Cynthia, Nisi, and Tempest really are that smart.

I hope the same urge that makes you listen to Writing Excuses will allow you to consider attending this retreat.

Eventbrite - Writing the Other Workshop and Retreat

By Writing Excuses | April 27, 2014 - 8:50 pm - Posted in Career, Dialog, Editing, Fantasy, magic, Season 9, World Building

Microcasting! A Q&A by any other name. Here are the questions we fielded:

  • Can I have a rule-based magic system and a mystical system in the same universe?
  • What are your pre-writing methods? (Can of worms — it’s going to get its own episode)
  • What’s the first thing you do once the first draft is done?
  • When approaching real-world issues, how do you avoid being preachy?
  • What’s the best advice you can offer to someone who’s just starting to write?
  • Does it help you to experiment with weird narrative styles?
  • What are your least favorite tropes?
  • Should you fully edit your first few “practice” books?
  • How do you know if you’re writing too quickly?
  • How do you tell the difference between a weakness in your craft, and a story that requires stylistic rule-breaking?

 

In other news, Writing Excuses Season 8 has been nominated for the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Related Work. We’re thrilled to appear on the ballot, and are excited to be in such good company there.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Martian, by Andy Weir, narrated by R.C. Bray

Writing Prompt: Paranormal fantasy: We've had enough of vampire and werewolf romances. Give us a protagonist who falls in love with a shoggoth.

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By Writing Excuses | May 18, 2014 - 7:26 pm - Posted in Season 9, World Building

Brandon has some rules about magic systems — rules he uses as guideposts for his own writing. In his own words, “I name them Sanderson’s Laws partially out of hubris…”

Sanderson’s third law states, in effect, that a thorough exploration of a single magical ability is better than the creation of lots of different abilities–going for depth rather than breadth. And to immediately break that rule, we explore the wider application of this rule in other arenas.

We talk about how we apply this principle–depth rather than breadth–in many aspects of our own work, and then we drill back down (*ahem*) on its application in the creation of magic systems.

 

 

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, narrated by Simon Prebble

Writing Prompt: A magic system in which digging holes somehowe generates magic, and the depth, breadth, and location determine what kind.

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By Writing Excuses | June 1, 2014 - 6:20 pm - Posted in Sci-fi, Season 9, World Building

Can you use a character with a limited viewpoint to introduce a reader to the fantastic elements of the world you’re building? Even if from that character’s point of view, those elements are not fantastic? In short, how do you get a fish to tell you about water?

This question came from a listener, and before we set about attempting to answer it, we need to establish that this is really difficult. It is one of the grand achievements of well-written genre fiction. There are lots of hacks we use to get around the problem, but what we try to do in this cast is answer the question without any of those tricks. Of course, we also want to cover the hacks, because we use them.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Extraordinary Zoology: Tales from the Monsternomicon, Vol. 1, by Howard Tayler, narrated by Scott Aiello

Writing Prompt: Come up with a really nifty, high-tech setting, and then present it using POV characters who have no idea how all these wonders work, and who take them for granted.

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By Writing Excuses | June 29, 2014 - 7:47 pm - Posted in Outlining, Research, Season 9, Site News, Voice, World Building

What’s pre-writing? Well, it’s a little bit like “pre-cooking,” in which something is cooked prior to being put in the final recipe, but in food terms it might also be like “cleaning the kitchen” or “grocery shopping.” Outlining is one kind of pre-writing, but so is the creation of that 5,000-word prologue you decide not to keep, but which informed the whole rest of your story.

We talk about the different things that each of us do prior to actually laying down lines of prose, and how our processes differ between projects, genres, and mediums.

Special Announcement: The first ever Writing Excuses anthology, SHADOWS BENEATH, is available now. This anthology features stories brainstormed and critiqued here on the podcast, and includes draft versions, related episode transcripts, and authorial commentaries as well. Let Brandon tell you more about it!

Our critiquing episodes will begin airing next week, so if you want to read ahead, now’s the time to pick up SHADOWS BENEATH. Oh, and if you order the hardcover, you get the ebook free of charge!

SHADOWS BENEATH launches this weekend at Westercon 67, where Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard are Guests of Honor alongside Cory Doctorow, Christopher Garcia, William Stout, and Bradley Voytek.

Loving That Cover Art? Us too! It’s the work of Julie Dillon, who is on the 2014 Hugo ballot for Best Artist. You can admire (and comment upon!) the unobstructed original here in her DeviantArt gallery.

Dave Farland’s Writing Workshops sponsored us for this episode! Both Brandon and Dan have studied under Dave, and we’re all happy to wholeheartedly recommend his workshops to you. If you can’t fly to his place, well, visit MyStoryDoctor.com and take the online course. The coupon code for your Writing Excuses discount is EXCUSES, but don’t think that means you actually HAVE any of those…

Writing Prompt: Sapient smells. Odors that think. Scents with their own hopes, dreams, and passions. Go.

This is the first of our DANGER SPOILERS AHEAD story critique episodes. The story, “Sixth of the Dusk,” is available as part of SHADOWS BENEATH, the Writing Excuses anthology, which includes the finished story (obviously) and the version we critiqued in this episode. SHADOWS BENEATH also includes the stories we’ll be critiquing for the rest of July’s episodes, and some other pretty cool stuff that you can read about here. Oh, and if you purchase the hardcover, we’ll send you the ebook at no additional charge.

Sure, you can totally listen to this episode without having done the reading. We cannot stop you! Howard looked around for a full hour, but there’s no “stop playback for people who have not done the homework” button anywhere here.

This is also the first half of a two-part episode. We spent about 40 minutes hammering on Brandon’s story, and that’s just too much Writing Excuses for one week. Oh, and we recorded this episode live at last year’s Out of Excuses Seminar and Retreat. You’ll hear our audience of awesome attendees responding to us.

We run this session like Brandon runs his critique group — we begin by talking about what we liked, so that the writer knows what not to accidentally remove during revisions. Then we drill down on the things we have problems with, and you know what? There were a bunch of those things! Like most writers, Brandon’s first drafts are imperfect things that have problems in them.

We also run this session in a way that we don’t actually suggest you run your critique groups, at least not until you’ve put a bunch of critique sessions under your belt.

That Thing Howard Said to Brandon Between Sessions has been lost to time. Or repressed memory. Sorry.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov, narrated by Scott Brick. (Note: This version of the audiobook has the Will Smith movie cover, but it's also the best-ranked version.)

Writing Prompt: A setting in which you can vote through time for things.

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HERE THERE BE SPOILERS! Also, merchandising!

This is the second of our story critique episodes. The story, “Sixth of the Dusk,” is available as part of SHADOWS BENEATH, the Writing Excuses anthology, which includes the finished story (obviously) and the version we critiqued in this episode. SHADOWS BENEATH also includes the stories we’ll be critiquing for the rest of July’s episodes, and some other pretty cool stuff that you can read about here. If you purchase the hardcover, we’ll send you the ebook at no additional charge.

Can you get a lot out of this episode without having done the reading? Yes! But we don’t know what those things will be. Can you get a lot out of this episode without having listened to Part 1? Probably, but here’s a link to it in case you have doubts.

Having covered the stuff we loved in Part 1, this episode is the big downer where we just focus on the problems we found. But hey, that’s how stories get to be better! We start with the big ones, and then work our way back up to the little things.

We recorded this episode live at last year’s Out of Excuses Seminar and Retreat. Our audience of awesome attendees can be heard cheering when we finally slay the [SPOILERS REDACTED] with our collected powers of [REDACTED AGAIN.]

 

 

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Even White Trash Zombies Get the Blues, by Diana Rowland, narrated by Allison McLemore

Writing Prompt: Have a man who plays the musical saw find more than one additional use for the saw during the story.

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SPOILER ALERT!

This is the third of our SHADOWS BENEATH story critique episodes. This episode’s story, “A Fire in the Heavens,” is available as part of the aforementioned Writing Excuses anthology, pictured there on the right, which includes the the draft we critiqued in this episode along with the final version.

We still have one more SHADOWS BENEATH critique episode, so it’s not too late to grab a copy for yourself. Oh, and if you purchase the hardcover, we’ll send you the ebook at no additional charge.

Mary runs this session like she runs her own critique groups using what’s often called the Milford method in which we each take two minutes to run through our thoughts on the story. We do that for the first half of the episode. During the second half Mary asks us questions, sometimes for clarification about what we said, and sometimes for suggestions.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Rip-Off! Written by: John Scalzi, Jack Campbell, Mike Resnick, Allen Steele, Lavie Tidhar, Nancy Kress, Gardner Dozois (editor) Narrated by: Wil Wheaton, Scott Brick, Christian Rummel, Jonathan Davis, Stefan Rudnicki, L. J. Ganser, Khristine Hvam

Writing Prompt: A brainstorming session spawns life somehow.

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By Writing Excuses | August 10, 2014 - 4:00 pm - Posted in Artwork, Editing, Q&A, Season 9, Setting, Submitting, World Building

Microcasting!

It’s our Q&A format, in which each answer is like its own, tiny little podcast, only without its own unique URL, intro, writing prompt, or any of the other trappings that would actually make it different from a Q&A session.

Right. So, it’s basically just a Q&A.

Listen to the podcast for the answers… Here are the questions:

  • Are there biases against non-English writers submitting manuscripts in English?
  • What is the most difficult thing Howard experienced when first creating Schlock Mercenary?
  • Are you ever too old to try to get published?
  • What are some pointers for keeping a milieu story focused on the setting?
  • No, you can’t have a sample of our DNA. None of you.
  • If you were to rewrite your early work, what would you change?
  • How do you improve your proofreading and copy editing?
  • How much time do you spend writing each day? Does it matter WHAT you write during that time?
  • Do you add foreshadowing in the editing stage, or are you just that good?
  • How do you improve your craft as a writer?
  • I don’t have time to ask a question, I’m washing my dog.
  • Do you have any writing exercises that you do regularly?

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Attack the Geek, by Michael R. Underwood, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal

Writing Prompt: Introduce a random element--dice, coin-tosses, the i ching--and write a story in which you (the writer) commit to letting the random element make the decisions.

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