Writing Excuses: Q and A

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episodes 18 ‘Q&A session’. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

 Question: How do you create distinct voices for characters so they don’t all sound the same?

  • The voice/perspective of the character should be a product of their environment, upbringing, occupation, experience etc. How they perceive the world and what they see will be different to other characters. E.g. a receptionist might see a ‘tool’ on the cabinet, while a mechanic will see the same tool and know it’s exact name, approximate value, function, limitations and capabilities.
  • They will be interested in or ask questions that reflect their viewpoints or knowledge.
  • Try to get across who they are without explicitly telling the reader.

When I think about portraying a character’s voice I automatically think of Sian from the Wheel of Time series (Robert Jordan). Sian is one of most powerful elected figureheads in an important faction in the story world. But before she was that, she was a girl from a fishing village. Most of her jokes, curses and insights are all flavoured with salt… which is my eloquent way of saying that they come from her background and speak to her past.

  • Dan Willis (guest podcaster) writes the backstory of the characters; this helps get their voice. This helps you break away from unicharacter conglomerates.
  • Brandon Sanderson uses a practice technique of trying to write a scene with only dialogue and tries to differentiate the characters using that. (No narration, no dialogue tags).
  • When you know the characters you know what they will say and how they will say it. Know your characters really well.
  • The words they use will be different. E.g. a scholar is going to use bigger words etc. (bit of an old trick… can be a weak method).

One way that I approached this was to write a series of ‘biographer’s interviews’ with the characters. In this fictional piece I asked the characters about their background and how they felt about other characters. I used this to tease out their personalities and viewpoints, and understand the dynamics between the characters. The interviewee was not always forthcoming with answers, which revealed which kind of topics they would be touchy about in-story. (Full disclosure: I began to do this for The Rebel Queen but never completed it because I had already written most of the story before I started the interviews. It helped and is a useful technique I will use again… only earlier next time).

  • Sometimes you may realise that your characters are speaking in another character’s voice. You need to fix that by changing the lines, or having the other character speak them.

I am trying to get in the habit of having another window open on the computer, or using sticky notes to remind me who I am writing. If my scene is from a certain character’s point of view then I try to remind myself how they are currently feeling about other characters/plot developments and what they are trying to achieve.

Undoubtedly this is something that takes time to get good at.

Question: What do you do when you’re having a hard time finishing the story?

  • A lot of people have a hard time finishing the story. They get 3/4 of the way through and then think ‘this is horrible’. (Neil Gaiman shares a story where his agent tells him that Neil has complained about every book he has ever written and to “Get back to work and finish it.”

Oh boy, do I know that feeling. I go back and read my own post on Overcoming Writer’s Block and try and work through it. (Next time I write something from scratch I am going to track my own motivation… I think it will be informative).

  • If you’re a discovery writer you won’t know your ending and you’ll probably have to throw out a few endings.
  • Make yourself excited about what you’re writing now (and don’t get distracted by the other ideas). Remind yourself why your current book is cool.
  • Outlining can help.

Question: What to do when you’re bogged down in the middle (i.e. act 2 in a 3-act format)

  • Act 2 often begins with the character solving the problem from act 1, and then discovers a plot twist which makes things worse or a redirection of problem.
  • Often when you are bogged down the characters are too close to solving the problem. Or things haven’t got unexpectedly worse for them yet.
  • If you’re having trouble in the middle it may be there’s not enough going to keep you interested. When you’re bored your readers are going to be bored. What conflicts can you add?
  • Try-fail cycles: Fail the first 2 times. Act 2 is a good place for the first fail cycle. Make it a plausible/solid solution that fails – not a throwaway (pretend that this is the climax to the story and surprise the reader when it fails).

For better or for worse, I’ve kind of turned this on its head in The Rebel Queen. The protagonist isn’t actually the one who is pushing the story along, it’s the actions of the antagonist. The antagonist is like the rapids that are trying to crush the protagonist who is riding in the small boat. So the try-fail cycle is actually referring to the actions of the antagonist. We’ll see how it turns out.

  • Three disaster structure: First disaster between first and second act, second disaster in the dead-centre of the second act, third disaster at the start of the third act. (Metaphorically blow something up right in the middle of the second act).
  • Don’t be too formulaic. They are general frameworks to be used, not patterns to be followed with religious-like fervour.

Question: Trouble naming the characters

  • Sources: spam emails, phone book, anagram inanimate object
  • Language flavour from an atlas: Find a country and then look at common baby names, place names. That helps you find patterns of sounds and makes them consistent across your story world.
  • Don’t agonise over it too much, just get on with it.
  • Mentions an essay by Orson Scott Card

I normally have an ethnic idea in my head and then use google to find names with meanings which reflect the identities of the characters. Other times I just plain make up names that sound cool in my head.

I don’t allow the names of non-major characters bother me much. I have to find something for them to be called as I’m writing it, but I’ve also done plenty of ‘Find and Replace All’ when I decide that a name needs to be changed partway through the writing process.

A Short Break

Given that to deny it would be lying, I’ll admit that November and December haven’t been great months of productive writing.

Some of my preoccupation has been excusable – this time of year is heavy with obligations and events that cannot be hidden from. There is also some organization which I had no choice but to prioritise. Add to that some procrastination: a little computer gaming and a reading spurt – about five books in 2 months (which is very unusual for this year). Recently I’ve also started programming again. (Which is probably not a good thing for my writing, but I’m not yet willing to admit it to myself aloud. Consequently any errors in this post are because I didn’t read it aloud).

Looking at my schedule between now and early January it’s unlikely that I’ll find much writing time in there.  Not if I still want to be a good husband, brother, son, uncle and functioning employee…

So I’ve decided not to stress about it and just let the next few weeks happen. Any writing I do get done will then be a bonus and a cause for celebration, instead of a constant feeling of dread that it’s not happening.

I wonder why it is I can easily procrastinate away a day (with some guilt), but any attempt to take that same amount of time ‘off’ in a planned and proactive-way makes me feel even more guilty?

Technique: Magic Systems

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episodes 14 and 15. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

Brandon Sanderson acknowledges that these are the rules that he uses. I won’t write too much on them because you can follow the links and read the essays if you want.

Sanderson’s First Law: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

You have to explain the magic to the reader before you can solve problems with it or it feels to the reader like you are cheating.

They mention that in Lord of the Rings Gandalf doesn’t do very much with his magic. When he does use magic to fight the Balrog, it ends up killing him. (Though he does come back, bigger and stronger… so an argument could be made that dying was actually beneficial for him. I don’t remember it being particularly surprising for him either, though it’s years since I read it).

They mention the excellent logic puzzle where the Witch King “who cannot be killed by any man” is killed by a woman. It is a surprising, yet (in hindsight) inevitable plot development.

  • If you have a rule-based magic system, then the heroes can solve problems with magic by being clever. (It’s his cleverness that solves the problem more than his magic ability).
  • You gain reader immersion and understanding.

Sanderson’s Second Law: Limitations > Powers

Limitations enable tension and conflict within the story.

Magic shouldn’t be “free”; there should be some kind of cost/consequence in order to create conflict.

  • Frodo can wear the One Ring, but it instantly starts to weigh him down, and twist him; also drawing Sauron’s attention to him.
  • Don’t make it too quantifiable or it will feel like a video game.
  • Engage the feelings or emotions of the character. That type of cost gives you a lot of latitude.
  • Try and come up with a unique cost.

One (cool) possible limitation they mention is that using magic could age those that you love.

Sanderson’s Third Law: Put more effort into how the magic effects things than what the magic can do (my paraphrasing).

They mention Dune as an exemplar: the magic system is tied into everything in the world: religion, economy, military, politics. It is fantastic in some novels where the full implications aren’t seen until subsequent books. The actions and events in Dune influence the very culture in the following novels.

  • The world around your magic system must continue to make sense. e.g. if you there is common telekinesis then there would be no manual labor jobs.

Final thought:

Work out how to break/exploit the world using magic to find the problems in your design.


Technique: Submitting to an Editor

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episodes 12 and 13. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

Amateur Mistakes

  • Fail to read and follow the submission guidelines.
  • Submit to an editor/agent that handles a different genre (including sub-genres)
  • Say ‘my family loves it’. They are not objective; their opinion does not count when it comes to your writing.
  • Use fancy paper, perfume the page, use fancy or coloured fonts.
  • Flip pages to try and determine where an editor ‘read to’.
  • Start your cover letter with a rhetorical question.
  • Send an author photo or do your own cover art.
  • Call an editor/agent if you don’t have a previous relationship with them asking about your manuscript. They get so many they probably don’t have a clue offhand. After a few months send a polite email.
  • Complain if your manuscript is rejected.

Stand out as little as possible in everything but your story.Let the text speak for itself.

  • Write epic tomes for your first book. (A new fantasy author should be writing about 100k-120k words).

Professional Behaviour

  • Be very careful of simultaneous submissions; if they don’t explicitly say you can, assume you can’t. Note this is sending the entire manuscript; sending sample chapters is OK.
  • Always be polite.
  • Keep a record of what you’ve already submitted to whom, when and any feedback they provide.
  • Send a thank you note when you get rejected.
  • Research: know which editors work with which genres/books. Pay attention to what is happening in the industry (e.g. Publishers Lunch). Know who has just moved jobs or might be on the look out for new talent. Find out what interests them. Listen to their panels, blogs etc.

You must know the rules before you’re allowed to break them.

  • Remember that editors are overworked and underpaid, and they do it out of love. Be nice!

Final Advice

An author’s voice for a character is really important. A good voice evokes the character and the setting. An editor can help fix the plot, they can’t teach voice. Focus on creating that voice and write characters.

Technique: The Business of Writing

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episode 11. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

In episode 11 the podcast talks about the important question of what changes do you have to make when you decide to become a professional?

Work hard, the norm.

Realise that you are self-employed and you need to be self-motivated.

You are both an employee and an employer.

The podcasts discusses many of the same things I excerpted from Fiona McIntosh’s book in the blog post Get Serious about Writing.

(Note that this self-deprivation of recreation isn’t permanent or total. Give yourself reasonable rewards… but don’t over-indulge).

Make a writing schedule and do everything within your power to stick to it.

Work multiple jobs, the norm.

Not only do you need to become adept at the skills of writing, but also get skilled at being a business manager. e.g. be aware of the competition, the editors, publishers, understand contracts etc.

You are in a business, learn the business.

The businessman sometimes must override the artist. The artist might want to give signatures away for free, but the businessman understands that it is taking time away from writing; and so compensation must be had.

Dan Wells admits that (to his own detriment) his internal artist quite often overrode his internal businessman; which resulted in his earlier books being genre-less and wildly un-sellable.

I sense there be danger in this particular shadow. Perhaps in time I will take a closer look at this, because I don’t think I have yet. Fool, be I.

Work productively, the norm.

You can’t just not work. You have to work.

Some times the muses won’t be singing and the story won’t flow.

Here the podcast provides alternative approaches with how to deal with this problem.

One way is to queue up your different types of work so that you can always be productive, even if you’re working on non-core writing activities. (For example, researching, editing, blogging…)

Brandon says that he just forces himself to write, even if it means he ends up throwing most of it out later.

I’m not sure yet which of these two approaches works best for me. Part of me struggles to switch between different writing tasks, but the worker in me balks at the idea of not writing when I should be… Good lessons to be learned, and bad lessons to be unlearned, me thinks.

The Science Fiction genre

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episode 8 and 9. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

Why we write/read science fiction

  • Philip K Dick said “Science fiction and fantasy is about writing and experiencing new things.” Science fiction is conceivably possible, fantasy is conceivable impossible
  • Because it is optimistic – telling tables about the wonders of the future, or telling cautionary tales.
  • Science fiction originated as a ‘meant to instruct’ story-telling, but is now more reflective.

These quotes (from BrainyQuote) also speak to ‘why’ science fiction.

  • “Science fiction is trying to find alternative ways of looking at realities. Iain Banks
  • “Science fiction has a way of letting you talk about where we are in the world and letting you be a bit of a pop philosopher without being didactic.” Brit Marling
  • “A good writer should be able to write … fantasy or science fiction that imbued you with a sense of wonder…” Neil Gaiman

I found this to be a particularly important comment that I need to try and remember for the future (no pun intended):

  • “A short story reveals character through actions, a novel reveals action through who the character is.” Philip K Dick

Personally, I like to write science fiction and fantasy because of:

  • the freedom that it gives me to re-imagine social structures, norms and technology.
  • it is a blending of my rational mind and unconstrained imagination
  • ironically, it gives the ability to craft a more realistic story than the classic hero vs super villain story. In an alternate world super-human people (good or bad) can legitimately exist.
  • …and rightly or wrongly, it also means less research is required – it doesn’t have to be as precise as a Period writing

What does it take to write good science fiction

  • An understanding of the current sciences astronomy, biology, chemistry… You need to work out what is plausible. You can do this by reading the work of others, and then researching the aspects which grab your attention.
  • In order to get a unique plot, it is much more important to know what has already been written.
  • More than other genres, science fiction readers are looking more for new, exploration and discovery. (However there will always have new people to the genre and if you write for the young adult market you will know they are likely to have read less).
  • Books and authors they mention: Larry Niven (“Flight of the Horse” and “Neutron Star”), Isaac Asimov (everything, but especially the “Foundation” series), Robert A. Heinlein, H. G. Wells, Kim Stanley Robinson (“Mars” series)

Science fiction sub genres (episode 9)

Note that back in May I provided a summary of genres.

Space opera – travelog, world-to-world, station-to-station. It is the missing link between science fiction and fantasy. e.g. Star Wars. It has a compelling main character and fun comes before science.

Hard science fiction – where science is paramount. It has to be something plausible under current knowledge of science. You have to know your science. It is about inventing the future. e.g. Arthur C Clarke, Kim Stanley Robinson, Stephen Baxter, Larry Nevin.

Military science fiction – the realism of military lifestyle is very realistic. Has a focuses on weapons technology. Credibility as a military personnel is very important to you, otherwise you must consult. e.g. David Weber, David Drake, Elizabeth Moon, John Scalzi. Tom Clancy is a good source of military.

Cyber punk – near future dystopian. Extensive modification of the human form. Blurring the line between humanity and technology, trend projection, privatisation. e.g. William Gibson

Why is it important to know which genre you’re writing?

Because you need to be able to

  • categorise work,
  • to stay on task.
  • write what you’re passionate about.
  • identify what you’ve already written, what else is out there and talk about the sub genre so you know who else is writing in it.

Technique: Villains

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episode 7. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

I don’t know why, but the word villain creates a disconnect in my brain, and I always want to spell it incorrectly. Thankfully, in this situation, spell check is my hero.

  • A good villain is someone whose underlying motivations are understandable to the reader. (e.g. we don’t understand the motivation to conquer the world… but we do understand the motivation of being made to feel small, insignificant…)
  • A good villain is someone who can exploit a heroes weakness.
  • The villain makes things tougher for the characters that we like.
  • When designing a villain don’t make their motivations a cliché (refer to the Evil Overlord list).

I think that I have done this quite well in my novel Vengeance Will Come. The villains all have motivations that drive their agenda which in turn drives the plot. At least that’s what I tried to do.

  • There are two kinds of villains: an ‘every man’ villain and a ‘superman’ villain. (In Lord of the Rings, Sauron is an example of a superman villain – very, very powerful. Gollum is an every man villain).
  • Where you have a villain who is all-powerful evil:
    Pro: Can force the protagonists through a good journey (interesting conflict).
    Con: Usually not very interesting characters (we don’t get to know them well), and they lose the ability to have a personal connection and redemption arc.
  • A great example of this is given: Lord of the Rings; if Sauron wasn’t an all-powerful military force the fellowship wouldn’t have had to sneak in to Mordor, but could have arrived at the doorstep with an army.

So, why is it that we can identify with the villains?

  • Not every villain is a clear-cut villain. We can have normal people who make poor choices, and are thus cast into the villainous roles. Their motivations may even have been good, but misguided.
  • Competent villains can also be admired for their competency. Even if you don’t agree with someone, you have to respect it when they have achieved a goal.
  • The villain is the hero of his own story.
  • A hero is one who overcomes their internal problems, a villain is one who succumbs to them.

I’ve noticed in my own writing that it isn’t normally black-or-white, win-or-lose. The villain always achieves at least a measure of victory. No one ever gets exactly what they want…

  • Finally, they speak about anti-heroes: a hero with villainous behaviour (e.g. The Punisher, Dexter). They ‘get the job done’, but not in a way that would normally be considered praise-worthy.