We’re past the middle of the Season 10 Master Class, but we’re still in the middle of our month on middles. Perhaps some spectacular failures will help us all enjoy the middle a bit more as we write our way past it.

(Filed under: “I see what you did there.”)

(Filed also under: “spectacular failure.”)

Character failure is a big part of making the middle of a story work. We talk about why, and we provide some tips about how to make this work well for you.

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Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Edge of the World: Terra Incognita, Book 1, by Kevin J. Anderson, narrated by Scott Brick

Writing Prompt: "Yes, but/no, and..." Think of the smartest thing your character can do. Now have them fail with either "yes, but" (they technically succeed, but something else has gone wrong) or "no, and" (they fail, and the failure deepens the mess.)

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By Howard Tayler | May 10, 2015 - 4:00 pm - Posted in Season 10, Theory and Technique

What’s the difference between intrigue, suspense, and mystery? We answer this (it comes down to reader knowledge vs character knowledge), and then talk about what makes intrigue useful as a tool for any story, and how to use it without falling back on idiot character plots, or simply withholding information from the reader.

Intrigue is also its own genre, with spy stories and political intrigue stories fitting into this space. We talk a bit about how those stories work, and how they’re built.

Upcoming Homework: We’ll be doing a Project-In-Depth on Mary’s new book, Of Noble Family, in two weeks (episode 10.21, airing on May 24th.) To get the most out of that episode without having anything spoiled, pick up a copy now and start reading!

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Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: A Spy in the House: The Agency 1, by Y.S. Lee, narrated by Justine Eyre

Writing Prompt: Write dialog in which each of the speakers has a different subtext and motive. Without explicitly stating those, try and make them clear to the reader.

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By Howard Tayler | April 19, 2015 - 4:00 pm - Posted in Season 10, Theory and Technique

The first page is often the very hardest one to write. In this episode we talk about how to fill the space on the first few pages of your story, because those are the pages where you have to convince the reader to keep going, and the very first page is often the only chance you have to get the reader’s attention at all.

The good news is that the first words the reader reads are not going to be the first words that you write. You can find the story’s voice before you pour that voice into the those first pages.

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Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Golem and the Jinni, by Helen Wecker, narrated by George Guidall.

Writing Prompt: Write your first thirteen lines, and see how much you can fit into that space—character attitude, point-of-view, mood, genre, conflict, setting, and more.

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If you haven’t yet read “Parallel Perspectives,” from Schlock Mercenary: Massively Parallel, we have a PDF for you to download and read before you start listening to this episode. It’s a 33mb file in a public DropBox folder.

Parallel Perspectives PDF for Writing Excuses listeners

Got the file? Done reading? Okay, let’s go…

This week is a Project in Depth episode focusing on a 13-page graphic story (“comic book”) found at the end of Schlock Mercenary: Massively Parallel, and our focus this week will be story structure. It’s fun, because the process of structuring a bonus story begins much differently than most projects, and the structure was laid in support of a four-creator collaboration.

The creators? Howard Tayler, Brenda Hickey, Travis Walton, and Keliana Tayler.

(If you’d like your own hard-copy of Schlock Mercenary: Massively Parallel, you can get it from Amazon.com or directly from the publisher.)

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Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle,  by Christopher Healy, narrated by Bronson Pinchot

Writing Prompt: Next month we're going to talk Beginnings: decide on the promises you want to make to your readers in your story. Then outline according to those promises.

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By Writing Excuses | March 8, 2015 - 4:00 pm - Posted in Demonstration, Guest, Q&A, Season 10, Theory and Technique

Wesley Chu joins us for a literal shake-up of our structure for one episode. We had loads of fun with this one.

The I Ching is a collection of poems which you consult with numbered sticks. You ask a question, shake a random stick from the cup, and the corresponding poem holds your answer. In writing The Man in the High Castle, Phillip K. Dick used the I Ching to make plot decisions at crucial points. We decided to turn that, and our format, on its head, so we used the I Ching to ask us questions.  Understanding exactly what the I Ching was asking was at least as much fun as answering the questions we inferred.

Here are the I Ching’s questions.

  • Although he reached a great position, Wise Liu did not care for earthly things. He brewed instead the pills of heaven, forging immortality in his earthly crucible.
  • Marriage is a blessed union indeed, when done in accordance with Yin and Yang. The dragon and the phoenix coil together, uniting in a sweet dream of love.
  • All names in Heaven are unique, and even earthly things cannot be the same. Your future is set within the book of fate, which never confuses praise and blame.
  • Emperor Ming slew his one true love, but a shaman took pity, and eased his heart with dreams of roaming upon the moon, his beloved mistress forever at his side.
  • Two scholars went to the capitol for examinations. One passed, and stayed. One failed and returned, carrying a letter from his friend. He fell ill, but eventually, thank Heaven, came home.

 

Important Cultural Note: The I Ching is far more complex than we’ve been able to describe in this podcast, and is worthy of a lot more attention than we were able to present to you in this ‘cast.

Want more Wes Chu? Wes didn’t say a whole lot in this episode, possibly because he was exhausted from the grilling we gave him earlier. This episode was recorded directly it AFTER recording a guest episode with him that will be airing in coming weeks.

Audio Notes: Many of you have complained about the audio quality of the show, especially in the last few months. We went to significant additional effort and expense to make this latest set of sessions sound better. If you like the changes, please let us know.

 

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Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Man in the High Castle, by Phillip K. Dick, which was available on Audible when we recorded this episode, but which is NOT available as of this write-up.

Writing Prompt: Competing fiercely to become Spring's queen, the garden flowers blossomed to their full beauty. Who will win the golden crown of glory? Among them all, only the peony stands out.

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By Writing Excuses | March 1, 2015 - 9:05 pm - Posted in Season 10, Theory and Technique

This month’s syllabus topic is story structure, and we’ll be starting with the part we start with. And that part usually isn’t the beginning — that’s where the story starts for the reader. We’re going to talk about where the story starts for you. It’s the answer to questions like “where is my story coming from?”, “What kind of a story is this?”, or  “What questions does it seek to raise, and subsequently answer for the readers?”

Structurally, it may help to revisit our discussion of the M.I.C.E. quotient. Knowing that your story is primarily a milieu story, as opposed to a character story, is a pretty big thing to know before you start writing.

Of course, if you’re not outlining, this whole discussion may seem irrelevant to you, but ultimately if you discovery-write your way into a good story, you’ll have answered these questions during that process. Knowing that this is a thing you do will likely help you do it better.

The Sherlock Episode Howard referenced was “The Sign of Three”

Homework For an upcoming “Project in Depth” — you may wish to acquire a copy of Schlock Mercenary: Massively Parallel, because we’ll be digging into the bonus story, “Parallel Perspectives,” which plays with POV in some ways that required significant re-writing during the collaboration process.

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Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Ancillary Justice, by Anne Leckie, narrated by Celeste Ciulla. This book has won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Clarke award, and is a great listen. (note: In the 'cast, Mary says that this book was narrated by Adjoa Andoh, who actually narrated Ancillary Sword.)  

Writing Prompt: Take a favorite piece of of media (but not something YOU created,) and reverse engineer an outline from it.

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By Writing Excuses | February 22, 2015 - 4:00 pm - Posted in Q&A, Season 10, Theory and Technique

It’s time for a Q&A on characters! The questions for this episode were provided by the attendees at the 2014 Out of Excuses Workshop and Retreat:

  • How do you have a character grow in power and/or expertise without needing to ridiculously overpower the villains?
  • How do you give a flawed character a growth arc without changing what originally made that character likable?
  • When you have a 1st person POV, how do you convey the emotional complexity of the non-POV characters?
  • How do you create an interesting an engaging story with a main character who is not the protagonist or hero of the story?
  • Is there an easy way to tell when the plot is driving the character instead of the other way around?
  • How do you write a character with egregiously offensive views without you, as the author, appearing to espouse or condone those views?
  • How do you write a character who has a belief that is different from your own?
  • What are some tips for writing a sympathetic antagonist?

 

Liner Note: The Tumbler to which Mary referred is Diversity Cross-Check.

Note: We offered to take questions on Story Structure during March, but we’ll be recording that episode two days from right now. Send us your story structure questions now! Do not delay! If you tweet them to @WritingExcuses they’ll pile up in a space where we can quickly find them.

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Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Furies of Calderon, by Jim Butcher, narrated by Kate Reading.

Writing Prompt: Sketch out the events before and after your dead-drop scene from last week and three weeks ago.

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By Writing Excuses | February 15, 2015 - 8:18 pm - Posted in Season 10, Theory and Technique

Our character-focused month continues with an exploration of the challenges involved in building a cast for your story. Whether you’re building a large or small cast, you need to know why you’re putting these people in the book, whether they’re main characters, secondary characters, or spear-carriers, and what purpose each of them actually serves in your story.

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Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Splendour Falls, by Susanna Kearsley, narrated by Barbara Rosenblat

Writing Prompt: Pick one of the dead-drop characters from the exercise two weeks ago, and turn them into a secondary character. Now take one of the characters with whom they interacted, and write the same scene again, but from this new character's POV.

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By Writing Excuses | February 1, 2015 - 10:11 pm - Posted in Season 10, Theory and Technique

Characters are the focus of the Writing Excuses Master Class during February, and we lead off with an exploration of a common problem: the main character is often the least interesting person in the story. And of course, in the process of exploring the problem, we look at the sorts of things you can do in order to solve them. It something each of the hosts has struggled with, and we talk about the solutions we’ve arrived at (insomuch as we’ve managed to solve the problem.)

Sidebar: In Season 9 we talked about character attributes using a slider metaphor. If you want to catch up on that, here are links to Episode 9.1 (the three-prong model), Episode 9.25(sympathy), Episode 9.26 (competence), and Episode 9.32 (proactivity.)

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Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, narrated by Simon Slater

Writing Prompt: Take three different characters and walk them through a scene. Convey their emotional states, their jobs, and their hobbies without directly stating any of those. The scene in question: walking through a marketplace, and they need to do a dead-drop.

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By Writing Excuses | January 11, 2015 - 8:01 pm - Posted in Demonstration, Season 10, Theory and Technique

Writing Excuses Season 10, the podcasted master-class, continues with this exploration of that critical second step: what do do once you’ve got an idea that has story-legs.

(Note: When we say “two weeks ago” over and over, that’s just bad math. You haven’t missed an episode.)

We talk about our various approaches to this, many of which center around finding the person or people who are most affected by the thing our idea conjures into their world, but that’s really only the very beginning of it.

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Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Shipstar, by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven, narrated by Zach Villa

Writing Prompt: Using last week's five story ideas (or five new ones):

  • Take two of them and combine them into one story.
  • Take one and change the genre underneath it.
  • Take one and change the ages and genders of everybody you had in mind for it
  • Take the last one and have a character make the opposite choice.

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