My Reflections on Writing Excuses 13.03 – What Writers Get Wrong

More new hosts!

This week’s episode introduced a new type of episode for the podcast and I’m anxiously awaiting its return next month. The What Writers Get Wrong series is exactly the kind of leveling up material that I’ve been needing and didn’t ever know it.

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The concept for the series is to use these episodes as individual looks at the ways that writers fail – perhaps with writing the other or common traps that people fall into.

The approach is to use the podcast as a way of SHOWING rather than telling about craft and if it goes anything like this first venture, it will be great.

I’m loving the new host, Aliette de Bodard. I really enjoyed how quickly she seemed to fall into place with the existing crew. I think this series will be one of the most useful to me going forward.

While the exact topic of motherhood and pregnancy is not one that is currently needed for the stuff I’m writing, it did get me thinking about where I could make some changes to my research process.

Factual vs Subjective Subjects

One of the big changes I will need to make in my approach to research and beta readers is coming to a better grasp of subjective topics.

Some things that bug my in my reading are when writers get things that are factually provable wrong.

Giving external safeties to guns that don’t have them. Using the wrong type of engine on a get-away car. Having a setting of tall, rickety structures in an area of the US with 70mph straightline winds (regularly) and tornados. One or two target readers who are even reasonably familiar with the weapon/car/area would have fixed these problems. in stories that I’ve read.

But with something like the topic of the podcast, there are a multitude of ways to screw that up.

One of the items I remember from Brandon’s YouTube series on worldbuilding was the concept of the iceberg – that you have to do enough worldbuilding to show the top of the iceberg that you can convince your readers that there’s so much more under the surface – even if you haven’t actually thought of those things that are beneath the surface. Because as writers we can’t always spend the time (years – decades) creating things that intense.

With these kinds of subjective experiences, I think you’d have to do the same. You need to show enough clear, concrete details that your readers believe you’ve looked at all of it.

And as a writer I need to be cogniscent of where my personal experience with a topic won’t suffice. I have at least some experience pregnancy and motherhood as I’m married and we’ve had kids. But there is NO WAY I would try to write pregnancy and motherhood based on my VERY LIMITED experience as an outside observer. It’s just not something I would be competent to write at this time, and I know it.

And there are myriad topics that are the same way. Being willing to acknowledge that I don’t know is where that first step starts. Feedback from readers can clue you in if you’re getting enough of it.

So what things have you seen as readers that you had to just sit back and laugh because the writer got them so wrong?

Share below.

Current State Report and Writing Excuses 13.02

Things are going to be a little different this week. Between the holiday, some bad sleep, more stress at work, and bad timing, I haven’t gotten all the writing work done I wanted to. I have gotten the book work done I needed to, but not the blogging. So, you get one this week. Maybe two if I’m able to finish up some stuff.

Current State

I’m 25% complete with the current revision of my novel Betrayed. That is the part of writing that has been going well. I also got back a response from a beta reader which pumped up my enthusiasm a lot. So, I’m quite hopeful that the book will be in the right shape for querying agents when I’m all through with it this round.

Once I get to 50%, I’ll start really working on the pre-writing for my next novel. Which means between now and then, I need to do some research on pets and AIs. Fun stuff.

In physical tool updates, I ADORE my new keyboard. I’ll be trying to get some questions addressed that folks have asked, so please be patient. But my hand pain is completely gone, and I’ve been pushing pretty hard the last few days. So, it was expensive, but so far, worth it.

Last, today marks the start of a new habit forming session which I’m doing with my youth at church and with my writing group. My young men wanted to learn about how habits work and so last night was a chance to explore habits, and the result was me realizing that my recent writing approach has been killing my sleep pattern. I needed to make a change.

So the new goal is sleep early, up early, with my writing spread throughout the day, rather than all writing done in a rush at night. Day 1 feels pretty good so far.

My Reflections on Writing Excuses 13.02 – Writing Active Characters

This week, the hosts looked at writing active characters and first reaction out of the box for me: “Holy cow! New Chicago team!”

Yes, it looks like the crew changed up this season. I’m sure if I followed the podcasters on anything more than just the podcast I would have seen this coming, but it was surprising to me. It makes a lot of sense. What a great way to keep things fresh. It’s too bad in one regard, because I really liked the old Chicago crew. Looking forward to getting to know the new folks!

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So, perhaps it’s because I’m in the middle of revisions rather than drafting, but this doesn’t feel quite as useful to me at the moment. For a passive character, Brandon gave the example of having someone who always stands around and watches important events rather than being in them.

Current project – not an issue.

Book I just finished in November ? Might be an issue. So, not as useful at the moment, but it may be something I’ll need to address in future stories. I might have that tendency.

Overall, though, a good episode, though because of the new team who haven’t answered this question previously, the answers seemed at surface level. I hope they find their legs as the season goes and give good, meaty advice. Good enough for the very early writer, but I think they can all dig a bit deeper.

Something that didn’t get covered during the episode: my personal belief is that inactive characters are a warning sign/diagnosis criteria of plot problems. If your character isn’t interacting well with the events of the story, you might be telling the wrong story.

And I don’t necessarily mean redoing the story so your main character is at the center of events.

Maybe you have a seemingly passive character observing an action/adventure story, but rather than re-plot the action story, you need to be telling the coming of age story inside that adventure, of someone wistfully longing to be bigger or better than they are.

Or you have a relationship story where the a seemingly passive character can’t talk to the object of their affections. So maybe try telling the growth story inside of that problem.

In reality, this is just another variation on Mary’s favorite tool, the MICE quotient, with a story nested inside another story. It’s great because it allows you to have layers that might not come up in a straightforward tale. And it can let you keep what you’ve already worked and tweak it rather than starting over from scratch.

So, if you do find your characters being too passive, take a look at how to fix. It may be just a change of paradigm.

K, I think I’m going to call it there for the week.

I really enjoy the comments that I’ve been getting. Many thanks to those who have been reaching out. And with how busy the week has been, I’ll be responding to a couple of previous questions later this week, so hang in there.

Drop a line below and join in.

My Reflections on Writing Excuses 13.01 – Hero, Protagonist, Main Character

A new year, a new season of Writing Excuses. AndΒ this week’s episodeΒ got my soap box nerves tingling. Hero, protagonist, and main character – which is which and how to know which to use.

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What a great episode! And it hit on one of my personal pet peeves when it comes to craft books for fiction writing – a determination to fit all main characters into a particular label.

One of my preferred craft books on structure is John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, which I love for its many insights and approaches to developing the bones of a story. But I HATE his use of the label “hero” when talking about the the character of the story. Perhaps I should explain.

I don’t write stories about heroes, at least, that’s not how I think of them. I’m much more interested in the stories of everyday people thrust into extraordinary situations. Sometimes that lets a person’s heroic side show. And often, it doesn’t. So as Truby used the word “hero” to describe how the story theme gets built and all of the way that the structure ties back to desire and need and ghosts and all these things that tie into the character driving the story, I felt put off, like his words weren’t for my story.

Until I changed my brain to substitute protagonist every time he used hero. Then it all started to gel for me.

For the pod-casters, there is a difference between a hero, a protagonist, and a main character, and Mary described them as being in sets that overlap. Hearing it that way made me change my thinking on this a little bit. For them, the main character was the person through whose eyes we see the story unfold, the protagonist is the one making choices and actions that drive the story forward and changes through story, and the hero is the one that makes the heroic action or who we admire.Β  Sometimes those are all one character and sometimes they are three different characters and sometimes any mix in between.

And that’s where things really made sense for me. I’m currently working through a cut revision of my first novel and my main character is my protagonist, but he isn’t the hero. That role goes to another, and in my story, that ends up being a trope subversion, which I really like.Β  But being able to better separate the roles lets me see just how I can mix and match them to make very different kinds of stories.

 

My Reflections on Writing Excuses 12.53 – True Confessions

My podcast app didn’t download the episode from Christmas Eve, so I’ll have to play catch up on that one. However, while driving to attend a write-in with my writing group of amazing people, I was able to get caught up on this week’s episodeΒ and it was a humdinger. (I’ve been rewatching Psych on Amazon Prime, so my language may be stranger than normal).

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True Confessions was all about things that the hosts have attempted that they failed at, and not just old trunk novels from the starting days of writing, but more recent. For most of them, that was within the last year.

Listening to them postmortem their way through these failed project was inspiring and hilarious and made me feel in much closer company. These are all people whose works I have read and admired. And having just completed another novel where I pushed myself to do something I’ve never tried before (multiple POV), I can say that I also failed.

That story is a bit of a mess plot-wise and interest-wise (boring start and plodding), but as I have already mentioned in past posts, I learned a ton from writing it. That failure showed me what to fix the next time I work on a multiple POV story.

Learning to be okay failing at something is a challenge for me. I’ve been a perfectionist my whole life and frustration is my natural response when I don’t get something right within the first few iterations. I’m used to figuring stuff out quickly. But in the last decade or so, I’ve been getting better. Having a child who has a similar frustration response certainly helps make me more aware of it in myself as I try to remind and support him when he doesn’t get something right immediately.

Dealing with failure also has helped me work on my self-compassion. I recently read an article from Kristen Wong on the New York Times about self-compassion and how it can help with being confident.Β I am definitely one that needs to better learn good self talk; failure gives me a chance to see my weaknesses and acknowledge them within the context of my strengths. Yes, my story may have been a hodge-podge and not very good, but my story structure and plot-weave were so much better in this book than previously. And I tried something new that I also succeeded at – I balanced several story threads and gave them all appropriate weight and tied them together well. So, yes I failed to make something that I would publish (at least right now), but the bones of the story are correct.

So in the same spirit as the podcasters, please take my true confession to heart – you can and should fail frequently.

And as Howard Tayler’s Maxim #70 of 70 Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries states:

Β Failure is not an option – it is mandatory. The option is whether or not to let failure be the last thing you do.

My Reflections on Writing Excuses 12.51 – Constructed Languages

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Perhaps is because of how much I enjoy the whole crew, but when it’s just some of them doing the interviews, those are the episodes that I find be the least satisfying. And I don’t think this has anything to do with the hosts, but my own expectations.

This week’s episode is an interview/panel with Dirk Elszinga, an associate professor of linguistics, and focused on using constructed languages in fiction.

The biggest take away I had was that it is worthwhile to consider language background and usage if doing secondary world fiction (which most of mine is). Even down to how names behave. While I think this is something that I should consider, I’m not certain how far the rabbit hole I’d need to go – i.e. how much is anyone really going to care?

And this is probably where I would need to examine my own biases. Small tangent here – recently, I started re-reading a debut novel from a favorite author and noticed just how much my own critical eye has changed since I first read this book. I first read it just before I was starting to consider being an author and novelist. What I’ve noticed on this re-read is how much the author uses simile compared to now where he uses metaphor. And just how much more effective the later is.

As a reader only, that first pass didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story at all and the “limitation” of using similar vs. metaphor was lost on me. So I wonder how much of that really matters for the general populace.

This is similar to the discussion that is ongoing in the film space – critics have the things that they look for in movies, and in some very high profile cases recently, the critical opinion has diverted strongly from popular opinion.

I think constructed languages could very well fall into the same category of things – those in the know might really appreciate it while others may not care at all. So, how much effort should a writer expend? Brandon Sanderson has talked about this in his world-building lectureΒ and I think I’ll echo what he said – Do enough to make people think you’ve done it all, but don’t do it all. Pepper little things around your story and world-building that at least let people know you’ve considered something, but don’t solve all of it.

And that’s where I think constructed languages is going to go for me right now. Maybe that can be a place in the future for some more craft building.

 

My Reflections on Writing Excuses 12.50 – Form and Function

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(for the rating obsessed types out there – these are out of 5 stars)

This was a great episode, mostly for the content and the interplay with the Chicago hosts. I really like Wesley Chu and Mary Anne Mohanraj as additions to the hosting crew – Mary Anne especially. I love her insights and I get a lot from the perspective she brings from her experience outside of speculative fiction. Tangentially, it’s likely my humor metric above will track with Howard’s appearance on the episode – we’ll see.

This week’s episode is about how form can dictate function within the realm of writing. It covered everything from writing for audiobooks to long form writing using a quill and ink to Eric James Stone’s business card flash fiction (which is a TOTALLY awesome bit of self branding – yes, I have been watching vids about marketing; why do you ask?).

My first paid project as a writer (woot woot) was writing a series for a stage production of radio plays for local theater group Main Street Radio Players – which allowed the troupe to perform a live show without the need for elaborate costumes and sets. I did a four episode crime thriller.

I LOVED doing this project even though it was so incredibly hard. Everything in that story had to be reflected through dialogue and sound effects – and even then, the sound effects got cut. Trying to tell a story that way when all my previous experience had been to only pepper dialogue through out was most challenging. Getting mood, story tone, description, BLOCKING (for crying out loud), through just dialogue was such a powerful growth experience. In that case the form of medium dictated entirely HOW the story could be told.

I couldn’t rely upon tricks like exposing a character’s internal monologue or letting silent “glances” or “looks” convey beats. I did use a narrator, but limited it to episode introductions and scene transitions. It was a fabulous experience.

Back to reflections on the episode – the gist was to use these different forms as ways to experiment, to break out of ruts, and to break through blocks. While I could see doing a different “form” for a scene just to try something out, a lot of the growth from my experience came from doing a finished work.

Do I think every writer should try a complete work in a different format than their norm? No, absolutely not. But I think there may be many writers who will treat this idea as just one more writing “gimmick” and miss out on a beneficial experience.

So, if you’ve done things like this before and didn’t find them useful, give a little more thought to doing something larger or more complete. That said, it’s not the kind of thing I think a writer should worry about. If you want to expand your craft and your flexibility – go for it.

Writing Excuses 12.49 – Nonlinear Stories – Reflection

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This week’s episode about nonlinear storytelling was intriguing thanks to the way the episode plays out (which is really more enjoyable for fans who are familiar with the the show), but then also in all the examples they used to talk about nonlinear approaches to storytelling.

I think nonlinear stories are by very nature different because so much of our memories and the way we tell stories in the moment mirror the linear fashion in which they happened. But I was impressed at the various examples they use during the show. The only one nonlinear story common enough to get its own category was the flashback, but the other examples were good in helping to flesh out the thought space of the episode.

I will say that for me, nonlinear stories have been a lot of fun. The ones I remember most are the ones where a story plays out multiple times, each from a different character’s view point. This has started to become a more common TV episode trope that I see being used more and more frequently. I wouldn’t be surprised if this gets it own name soon like flashback. Maybe it already has and I just don’t know about it.

The other exmaple that I don’t think got discussed was the flashforward. The one I am thinking of is the TV show Dollhouse. No spoilers, but there is a moment in the first season where we flashforward in the story to a future date. The technology used in the show has been abused making for a future that is very different than then original story. In that show, I think the flashforward actually did help to frame the story that the regular show better.

Finally reflections: I don’t know that I personally will be doing anything nonlinear above and beyond the occasional flashback, but it was a good topic to consider to get me thinking of ways to use a different tool.

2017 – Leveling Up

Now that I am nearing the end of NaNoWriMo again, I have been pondering on how I have been able to level up this year as a writer. Sort of a year-end review, a month or so early.

  • Found a local writing community that gets me and who I truly appreciate.
  • Purchased a domain name – personalized website, here I come!
  • Learned how to better write “scene by scene” so that I don’t so bogged down with figuring out transitions which further let me…
  • Learned how to move scenes around to improve flow and arc; not having all that transition baggage to carry helped me see scenes as more self contained.
  • Learned to write faster – I now am able to regularly achieve prose drafts of 1200 words per hour, which for me is blazing fast.
  • Achieve my largest day of writing ever – 3684 words in a day (which again, for me is huge).
  • Completed a second novel – rough draft only, but its a complete draft.
  • Written the most difficult book I’ve ever attempted.

It’s this last one that I feel has been the most interesting to reflect on. During this year listening to my favorite podcast Writing Excuses, something one of the presenters said struck me. He said that every time you finish a story, is should be the hardest thing you’ve ever done as a writer. That this was proof of continuing to level up.

And it’s true. I’ve found myself comparing that idea to my progression as a person, as an employee, as a spouse, as a parent – each year seems to get a little harder or more intense or more complicated. Each year there’s more to contend with, more stress, and just more…well, more. But like in writing progression, never in the same place and never exactly where you expect to find it.

For me, this book project was already going to be the “hardest” because I was trying to write a story with two POVs – everything I’ve attempted so far has been one, so trying to balance two character voices and all the threads that come with that has been a new and difficult experience. And I’ve found that it’s something I will be able to handle better in the future, a skill set I have, but can improve. But for the next story, it may not be that skill set, but another which will make that book the hardest ever.

So, for another NaNoWriMo done and another draft done – I say hurray! Now I’m off to the next one.

Writing Excuses 12.48 – Reflection

This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while now as a blogging idea.

I’ve wanted to do a “reactions” post for things I learn or view with regards to writing. Sometimes that will take the form of review or breakdown.

But I’ve also just wanted to do short reflections as well – less revised, more direct.

So, I’m going to try to do a reflection post every Monday after listening to the most recent Writing Excuses episode – mostly since that’s when I get to listen to them (commuting to and from work) and it’s an easy thing that will let me get my thoughts down. Not going to worry about summarizing the episode or even commenting on what was said, only insofar as how it made me feel and what it made me think. (I’ve already said more about this than intended, so here goes).


In contemplating a series and how to write them, I was heartened to hear all the presenters say to go find an agent AFTER finishing the first book in a series, which means I haven’t wasted all this time trying to get Betrayed in the best shape I can.

I like the interplay with the presenters about how to think about plotting or planning out a series. And about planning out a first book that is “complete” with series potential.

This episode, there wasn’t anything I found myself outright disagreeing with or thinking had been extensively covered elsewhere.

Also, I’m a fan of the new presenter setup with a “Provo Team” and a “Chicago Team”. The interplay is great and it’s nice getting new view points.