15.02: Writing Between the Lines

Your Hosts: Brandon, Victoria, Dan, and Howard

Victoria Schwab, who also writes as V.E. Schwab, joins us this year, and in this episode she helps us cover that deep concept of “theme,” and how we as authors can state our themes without coming straight out and stating them—writing our themes “between the lines.”

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson


Take something you’ve completed, but which is still in draft form. Write down three possible themes. Then compare this against what your alpha/beta readers tell you what they think your themes are.

A Darker Shade of Magic, by V. E. Schwab

WXR 2020: Scholarships!

It’s that time again: it’s a new year, and that means a new Writing Excuses Workshop and Retreat! This year we’ll start with some classes and events in Houston on September 25, and then we’ll hop on a cruise ship and head to Cozumel, Georgetown, and Falmouth. You’ll arrive back in Houston again on October 4, filled with more writing expertise than can be safely contained within a human mind. You can find all the other info, including our incredible guest list, here.

This year, as always, we are offering scholarships: four to start, but we’re leaving the exact number open-ended as donations continue to roll in. One scholarship is sponsored by the hosts of Writing Excuses, one by our amazing patrons on Patreon, and two (or more!) by our incredibly awesome alumni. They’ve been on the retreat (sometimes more than once), they love it, and they want to share it with as many people as possible.

As always, our scholarships come in two categories: two Out of Excuses Scholarships, awarded to those in financial need, and two Carl Brandon Society Scholarships, awarded to writers of color. Both categories have introduced us to some incredible writers in the past, and we can’t wait to see who we get to meet this year. Share this post with everyone you know, read the rules carefully, and apply!

Information and Entry Rules
Each scholarship offers full tuition, $500 of travel expenses, a bed in a double occupancy room on the ship, and hotel expenses in Houston for one night both pre- and post-cruise. Because the food on the cruise is free, this covers essentially all your expenses for the week, though depending on the flights you arrange, you might need to cover some of the travel yourself. You may apply to either scholarship, but only to one of them (even if you qualify for both).

These scholarships are very popular, and get a lot of applicants, so please read the instructions carefully and follow them exactly; incomplete applications will be disqualified.

To apply, please prepare the following scholarship package as a Word document, and send it to [email protected] with the subject line: “Scholarship Application: [name of scholarship].” Please copy and paste the cover sheet to the main body of the email, and also include it as the first page in the package.

You application must include:

  • This cover sheet, filled out completely:
    Name: [name]
    Email: [email]
    Phone Number: [number]
    Scholarship: [“Carl Brandon Society” or “Out of Excuses”]
    I confirm that my scholarship is complete, including: a personal essay, three letters of recommendation, and a writing sample.
    Personal Essay word count (between 450-700 words): [insert word count here]
    Letter of Recommendation 1: [Name of recommender]
    Letter of Recommendation 2: [Name of recommender]
    Letter of Recommendation 3: [Name of recommender]
    Writing Sample total word count (1-3 pieces, limited to 10,000 total words): [insert word count here]
  • A single attachment, saved as [Name of Scholarship Your Name]. We will accept the following three file formats:
    * .DOC
    * .DOCX
    * .RTF
    Out of Excuses Scholarship Jane Doe.doc
    Carl Brandon Scholarship John Doe.doc

The attachment should contain all of the following, in the following order:

  1. The Cover Sheet, again, as described above. Yes, we want it twice.
  2. A Personal Essay: A 450-700 word personal essay explaining why you are a good candidate for the scholarship. What makes you unique? What can you bring to our group that no one else can? Keep in mind that even as we focus on “need,” the panel will also be reviewing your writing in terms of “merit.”
  3. Letters of Recommendation: Three brief letters of recommendation (no more than 300 words each) from people who are not your relatives: friends, bosses, people from your writing group, anyone who can tell us exactly how awesome you are. Please note that we would like all three letters to be included in the scholarship package, and not to be emailed individually; we’ve had too many letters go astray, and we want to give you the chance to personally make sure every aspect of your scholarship package is complete before submitting it. If you have a concern with this, please contact Dawn at [email protected].
  4. Writing Samples: A brief example of your writing, consisting of 1-3 separate pieces and totaling no more than 10,000 words. These can be short stories or novel excerpts. Don’t feel obligated to fill the word count: if you can wow us in less, more power to you.

Again: make sure to send everything in one email or your application will be disqualified!

Please review your application several times, or have a friend or family member review it for you, because we will reject applications on technicalities, just like an editor or publisher would. We would much prefer to read your awesome writing and give you a scholarship.

The application period for both scholarships opens on January 17, 2020, at 9am EST, and closes at midnight PST, March 14. We will contact the winners in April, and announce them officially the morning of April 13. That gives applicants three months to get their packets ready, it gives us one month to review them, and it gives the winners just under five months of notice before the retreat.

If you have any questions regarding the scholarship, email Dawn at [email protected].


Q: What do the Letters of Recommendation need?
A: Think of this like a college entry application letter. Have your recommenders tell us why you are the best candidate for this scholarship. They can point out what they think might be relevant to the decision that the committee would otherwise not know. The letters help us round out the picture for each candidate.

Q: Do I need famous people or industry professionals to recommend me?
A: Absolutely not. The status or prestige of the recommenders is not really a factor; they can be international bestsellers or they can be college roommates.

Q: Do you have any specific formatting requirements?
A: Other than what’s listed above, no. You can use whatever type face or point size that you like, as long as it looks professional and is easy to read. No glitter, weird colors, blinking text, etc.

Q: Are the scholarships open to anyone?
A: Provided you meet the basic qualifications, yes. We welcome writers from any country anywhere in the world, though remember that a) the classes will be taught in English, and b) the scholarships only cover $500 of travel, so anything beyond that you will need to cover yourself.

Q: But what if I’m already published?
A: Apply anyway. The way this industry works, it’s entirely possible to be published and talented and still poor and unsuccessful (spoiler warning). But the things you learn and the contacts you make on our retreat can still help in that situation, and we’re not going to disqualify anyone just because their first break wasn’t a smashing success.

Q: That doesn’t sound fair to the rest of us.
A: You’re competing against all of these people in the real world anyway, every time you submit a book or story for publication, and this is no different. Your writing has to be the very best it can be no matter what you’re trying to do with it. But we’re confident that you are up to the challenge, so do your best and knock our socks off. We believe in you!

Q: Ah, but what if I know one of you personally? That’s GOT to disqualify me, right?
A: Not at all, though it does change the way we read and rank the applications. As soon as one of our judges realizes that they know an applicant in real life, they pull themselves off of that application and send it back to us. We strip that application of identifying info and send it out to new judges, completely blind, to get their unbiased opinion. The final decisions are made by people who do not know who the applicants are. We take this seriously, and strive to keep the process as fair and balanced as possible.

Q: Okay, so remind me of the basic qualifications again.
A: The Out of Excuses scholarships are for writers in financial need: if you can’t afford the scholarship on your own, you qualify. The Carl Brandon Society scholarships are for writers of color: if you’re a person of color who writes, you qualify.

Q: What about kids? Can I win the scholarship as a teenager?
A: Teens are welcome on the cruise and in the classes, but will need to be accompanied by an adult (who will have to pay their own way, as the scholarship only covers one person). If you have questions, please contact Dawn at [email protected].

Q: The description of the scholarship says it comes with a “double occupancy room.” What does that mean?
A: Double occupancy means you’ll have a roommate. If you know someone else on the retreat, you can let us know and we can probably put you together, but otherwise the assignments are made at random, and you will make a new best friend.

Q: How can I contribute to the scholarship fund?
A: The easiest way is through our Patreon. We have a pledge level specifically designed for scholarship donations, and of course you are always allowed to pledge more than the recommended minimum.

Q: If I apply to the scholarship and don’t get picked, will there still be time to buy a ticket?
A: We discourage this for two reasons: first of all, no, there might not be time to buy a ticket. Some years (such as 2017) we sell out incredibly quickly, and people who wait often end up out of luck. We always try to get more rooms on the ship, but it’s not always possible. Second of all, if you can afford to just buy a ticket, go ahead and buy a ticket, so we can give the scholarship to someone who can’t. That said, we recognize that there’s a difference between “I can afford this no problem” and “I can afford this but it will be a very painful sacrifice.” If you’re among the latter, you are welcome to try for the scholarship first and buy a ticket later if you don’t get picked; we will not look down on you at all, and we’ll do everything we can to make the retreat worth it.

Q: I sent in my application, but I’m not sure it arrived and/or I got an automated response saying it was too late and/or something else happened and I want to be sure we’re cool. What do I do?
A: Email Dawn at [email protected]. She can look through the inbox and tell you for sure whether your application arrived safely.

Q: I have a question not covered in this FAQ.
A: Email Dawn at [email protected]. If you post the question online (whether here or on Facebook or on Patreon or wherever), there is no guarantee that we will see and answer it quickly.


15.01: Evolution of a Career

Your Hosts: Dan, Dongwon, Mary Robinette, and Howard

Season 15 is going to be a bit broader than the previous seasons have, at least in the abstract. We’re going to focus on your questions. In this episode we tackle the topic that dominates our collection of these questions: CAREER.

Liner Notes: It hasn’t actually been 15 years. It’s been 12. Writing Excuses launched in February of 2008, and the first five seasons were not full-year seasons. 

Credits: This episode was recorded by Bert Grimm, and mastered by Alex Jackson


Whose career do you wish you could have? Research them, examine how they’ve done it, and then ask if that’s still what you want.

Follies, by Stephen Sondheim

14.52: Game Mastering and Collaborative Storytelling, with Natasha Ence

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard, with special guest Natasha Ence

Natasha Ence is a professional game master.

(Yes, you read that correctly.)

She joins us to discuss collaborative storytelling, and how the principles of game mastering for role-players can be applied to creating a fulfilling, engaging story.

Credits: This episode was recorded live at LTUE by Dan Thompson, and was mastered by Alex Jackson.


Write about a role-playing game experience that has gone badly. Really, really badly…

Tales of the Table, the Patreon where Natasha Ence creates RPG setting materials you can use

14.51: A Farewell to Worldbuilding

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard

We’ve spent all year focusing on worldbuilding, and it’s time to move on.


In this episode we try to cover some points we may have missed, we talk about what we’ve learned, and discuss some of our favorite recent examples of worldbuilding.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson


No homework!

Sakura: Intellectual Property, by Zachary Hill, with Patrick Tracy and Paul Genesse

14.50: Write What You… No.

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Margaret, and Howard

We’ve all heard the adage “write what you know,” and in this episode we set out to un-misinterpret it. The phrase is fraught, and perhaps the most perilous bit is that it can be used an excuse to not write. Here at Writing Excuses we’re pretty committed to approaching things in ways that let us do MORE writing, so this topic is a great place for us to leave you out of excuses.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson


Take a thing you’re familiar with, and make it a superpower

Armistice: Amberlough Dossier, Book 2, by Lara Elena Donnelly, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal

14.49: Customs and Mores

Your Hosts: Brandon, Dan, Howard, and Mahtab

In this episode we discuss how our customs and mores govern our own real-world interactions, and how our understanding of these interactions can be applied to our worldbuilding.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.


Take a cultural quirk or more that is weird and/or annoying to you. Extrapolate that into an entire culture, a full society of interconnected mores which make sense, and with which you’d be extremely uncomfortable.

The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge, narrated by Charlotte Wright

Announcing: Writing Excuses Workshop & Retreat 2020!

Join fellow writers for a cruise in the Caribbean, September 25 – October 04, 2020!

Registration for WXR20 is now open!

What is this thing?

The Writing Excuses Workshop and Retreat is a magical mix of writing classes, workshops, and time for your own writing, all wrapped in a Caribbean vacation. Most importantly, you join a community of like-minded writers who are excited to talk about craft. Plus, you get writing views like this.

Our adventure begins on land…

We gather on land for two days in Galveston, TX for key orientation and registration activities as well as initial classes and writing sit-ins. You’ll have the chance to meet staff, instructors, and each other prior to boarding the cruise ship together for a week in the Caribbean.

We embark together for the journey at sea

In addition to beautiful days at sea, our cruise will stop at the following ports with opportunities for excursions: Cozumel in Mexico, Georgetown in Grand Cayman, and Falmouth in Jamaica.

There will be advanced classes each day, taught by our amazing guest instructors, as well as a live recording of the Hugo-award winning Writing Excuses podcast with the hosts of the show. During the recording, you get an opportunity to be a part of the show and ask your questions. Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells will be joined by Mahtab Narisiman, Margaret Dunlap, Nilah Magruder, Erin Roberts, with special guests Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz.

You mentioned excursions?

Yes! We work to organize a few “official” Writing Excuses shore excursions in each port and give you the opportunity to register for them in advance of our sail date. Going on one of these Writing Excuses excursions means you’ll be with other Writing Excuses writers, family, and possibly instructors. They are completely optional and you are welcome to purchase excursions through Royal Caribbean if one of those is more interesting for you. Just know that other excursions will be open to other passengers on our cruise ship.

How does pricing work?

Prices include the workshops, your hotel on land, your cabin at sea, meals at sea, taxes, gratuites… Basically, this works out to about $255 per day for all the things.

The tickets are listed for Double Occupancy, which means you’ll have a roommate at land and at sea. If you choose your own roommate, awesome! There will be a place to indicate this when you register. If you don’t have a roommate, no worries. We’ll coordinate to place you with another writer from our group. Or you can choose to upgrade to a private cabin during the registration process.

Spouses and significant others or family members who would like to come along but are not writers are welcome with a discounted rate. Children get an even greater discounted rate. Imaginary friends get to come along FREE.

Each year, we have a number of scholarships available. The application process will be announced in January here on Writing Excuses.com.

I have a registration question.

The best way to contact us for WXR20 questions is to send an email to [email protected]

Tell me more about what to expect?

The tagline on the podcast is “Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.” The workshop allows us to take more than fifteen minutes and really dig into topics. In addition to the core Writing Excuses cast, each year we bring guest instructors who really are that smart. We choosing instructors who bring different perspectives and a font of knowledge to share in classes and breakout sessions. Most importantly, we select for instructors who are warm and generous as people.

To be honest, folks who’ve joined us in the past are eager to gather again for the single biggest benefit of WXR: the lasting connections we make with each other.

But since you asked, there IS more:

  • Breakout sessions: Participants will also be able to sign up for a limited number of additional breakout sessions or one-on-one sessions with individual instructors. There is no additional charge for these, but because of the size of the event we may not be able to accommodate everyone with their first choice.

These breakout sessions include:

6-member novel critique groups: Members will submit excerpts up to 3000 words for critique by the group as well as one of the podcasters. (Please note that this means you are committing to critique the stories of the other group members.)

6-member short story critique groups: Members will submit short stories up to 3000 words for critique by the group as well as one of the podcasters. (Please note that this means you are committing to critique the stories of the other group members.)

One-on-one Q&As: This is a 25-minute one-on-one session with one of the instructor, and you decide how that time will be spent. We can critique the first five pages of a manuscript, practice making a pitch, drill down on a worldbuilding conundrum, answer specific questions, or offer general advice.

“Office Hours”: Each morning, instructors are available for individual drop-in sessions to cover those questions that come up mid-cruise.

  • Family Classes: There are classes specifically for family members to gain insight the writer in their family and more. Plus, family members are invited to choose 3 writing classes to attend with the writers in their family. We’ve found that this is a great way to build a common language for writers and family members, which can be incredibly helpful.
  • Two nights on land: Two nights (and the associated days) on land, at the hotel in Texas, allows us to gather everyone for important orientation activities as well as initial classes and write-ins. There will be the option to tour NASA with Mary Robinette, begin the quest for pirate coins with Dan Wells, and other secret surprises we’ve got in the works. Mwa hahahaha!
  • Costume (Cosplay) Themed events: There are multiple opportunities for “cosplay” through the course of the cruise. We generally choose one of the formal nights on the cruise and have a private cocktail hour before dinner with a costume contest and awards given by the instructors, then we walk together through the Promenade to dinner and enjoy dinner in our costumes. Last year, we introduced a cosplay karaoke night and it was one of the highlights of the cruise – Mary Robinette singing “Rubber Ducky” as a torch singer is absolutely must-see. Costumes are completely optional and you can still come to these events if you prefer to just appreciate what others have put together.

The theme for 2020 is: Hindsight

  • There’s going to be more: We’ve got new stuff in the works and there’ll be announcements in the near future.

That’s a lot of people-ing. I don’t do well in big groups of people. Will I survive this?

It may come as a surprise, but on a cruise of writers, most of our group are also introverts. Some of us are better at presenting as extroverts than others, but we know where you’re coming from and we feel your pain. We’ve also structured the cruise to create downtime and make it easy to meet people in smaller, more manageable groups.There’s lots of quiet areas all over the ship for those in need of some time and space when it all gets too much. This is why it’s called the Writing Excuses Writing Workshop and Retreat. We also have a Discord where we can get to know each other before the cruise – it really helps to have some familiar faces when we all show up.

Will I really have time to write with all this going on?

We provide time, absolutely, but it’s up to you how you use it. In years past, we’ve had attendees write more than 40,000 words while with us. We celebrate together for words written and provide prompts each day for those interested to encourage and inspire. There’s also board game nights, dancing, karaoke, and impromptu combat demos to tempt us all. Some of our writers gather in places on the ship or seek out an out-of-the-way nook to write by themselves. Whatever you choose to do with your free time, your time is yours.

What level of writing expertise should I have prior to attending?

“Level of expertise” is far less important than your desire to learn and improve. The schedule and classes are structured to be accessible and useful for writers with a passion for learning. We’ve found that presenting focused content that’s challenging and rewarding is more useful for writers than 101 material, regardless of where they are on their career track. But we also have “office hours” which are drop in one-on-one sessions available almost every morning of the cruise for those questions that pop up during the course of the week.

I’m in. Where do I register again?

Now that you’ve had the overview, full details are available on the registration page, or you can email us at [email protected]

Come join us on board!