Writing Excuses Episode 18: Q&A at Conduit

While at CONduit, we recorded three episodes of Writing Excuses in front of an audience, and this is the first of those. In this episode we have Dan Willis join us as we take questions from the crowd. The four of us discuss voicing characters, naming things, writing Act II, and how you set about finishing your book.

Oh, and for all of you who have complained that fifteen minutes is not long enough… we ran clear out to 17:30 on this one. Enjoy!

Liner notes:

You can find Dan Willis’ website here: http://www.dansrealm.com/Dans_Realm/Home/Home.html

Orson Scott Card’s Essays on naming:

http://www.hatrack.com/writingclass/lessons/2003-03-05-1.shtml and http://www.hatrack.com/writingclass/lessons/2003-03-05-2.shtml

And this week, Writing Excuses is sponsored by The Well of Ascension: Book Two of Mistborn Mass Market Paperback by Brandon Sanderson.


41 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episode 18: Q&A at Conduit”

  1. Along the lines of character voice:

    Brandon mentioned that certain types of characters will notice certain things. One thing I try to keep in mind when I’m writing is a character’s profession. No matter your profession, it colors what you notice. I work as a lifeguard right now. More so than your average person, I notice rules at different facilities (pool and otherwise), different types of whistles (human and otherwise), water currents, water smells, chemical smells, cleaning procedures, blood, and injuries. They stand out to me. And I’m only a lifeguard in the summer. A full-time carpenter notices wooden structures, a sculptor notices textures and forms, etc. A profession changes how you see the world, and it will determine how your characters see theirs.

  2. For character voices, I have a cheap trick — sometimes I’ll cast a real-life actor/actress for my character. For example, I might use Tom Cruise for one character and Anthony Hopkins for another. Both actors have distinct styles and tend to play the same personality-type over and over again, so when I try imagining them reciting lines that are out-of-character, it just doesn’t feel right.

    Conyngham: Good tip, thanks.

  3. I’m going to raise one objection: one of you three (you know who you are!) suggested as an exercise of writing a screenplay to improve dialogue. It was said in that offhanded way that implies that screenplays are just talking. Being a screenwriter first and foremost I wish to correct this viewpoint.

    Though screenplays tend to be Spartan in their content, leaving much for later realization in the actual production process, dialogue tends to be sparse as well. If a screenplay would be all dialogue then it would be no different that reading a book that is all talk! Boring and tedious. There is an ‘-ism’ in screenwriting that I like to maintain in my work: show me, don’t tell me. You don’t need to talk me to death to prove that you are the villain, just do something dastardly.

    If you are trying to find your character’s voice, how would that person walk? How do they interact with their environment? What are their thought processes? Does the man take the candy from the child and pop it into his own mouth, laughing maniacally? Or does he hug the child at a political rally? A person’s speech will follow these same paths.

    Now I’m sure whomever (I think it was one of the dead tree guys) let slip the impression that screenplays are just chit-chat did not in fact intend to offend the script writing demographic. I know you are all an open-minded and inclusive bunch. I did not take it personally. I will now go cry myself to sleep…

  4. Thanks for this week’s writing excuses and the links to OSC – the questions asked are actually the ones I wanted answered for my current project.

    @Conyngham: while I noticed how professions shape one’s perceptions in everyday life, I never thought about using that in stories. great idea!

  5. I’ve heard it said that if you’re walking through downtown Los Angeles and you shout “Hey, I loved your screenplay!” about a third of the people within earshot will look at you hopefully… before realizing they’ve been had.

  6. Hey guys, just so you know I’m not in that much of a hurry and you’re smarter than you think. Since the latest was a Q & A, here’s a question from me.

    Once you quit your day job and start working from home, how do you avoid losing touch with the ‘human struggle’? I would think that after a while a writer could be hampered by not getting out into the public and seeing what ordinary folks go through on a day-to-day basis. There would then be the danger of creating struggles in your books that rely more and more on other novels you’ve read or, worse, on your own imaginations. Both of these would lead you further and further away from what ‘ordinary’ people deal with each day. You could lose the ability to identify with your readers’ lives.



  7. Just a few days ago I realized that my narrative style doesn’t vary as much from character to character as it should. I sat down and started listing different elements of each character’s personality and background that will give them a unique perspective, and started thinking about how I could implement those elements in my writing.

    Then today I turned on the podcast during my morning commute, and your very first topic addresses this problem. Now, guys, be honest – have you planted your spies among our muses?

    @ Mike Oxley: Maybe someone who’s actually gotten to the point of quitting their day job can offer some better input here, but I don’t think working from home has to mean sequestering yourself and never getting out into the world. Even the most introverted people go a little stir-crazy if they’re isolated for too long. I often take my work out of the house and find another place to write, provided it’s not a place where I’ll be more distracted than productive. If nothing else, though, you’ll always be connected to the world through the network of your family and friends. They’re “ordinary” people with struggles. Even if you find yourself not getting out much, hearing about their day-to-day lives can give you a sense of what’s going on in the world outside of your writing.

  8. Just a follow-up on my comment about professions:

    If you want to see this done well, look at the first few books of the Wheel of Time series. Perrin, a blacksmith’s apprentice, *always* uses analogies that relate to the forge. Later on in the series he undergoes a paradigm shift, and starts to use other sorts of analogies that suit that paradigm, but even that is useful and illustrative. The paradigm shift is shown through Perrin’s language.

    Of course, the books are pretty big, so if that’s the *only* reason you’re reading them, you probably could find a shorter example. ^_^

  9. I have to say this is one of the most immediately useful podcasts (for me) you guys have done so far! Great work!

  10. Hey guys, love the podcast, and I’m finding some of it really interesting.

    My worst habit is that I finish the first chapter, and I’m happy with it, but then I can’t seem to move onto what happens next. So I know how I want to start, but not how I want to carry on. To date, I think I’ve done this with about… 3 projects?

    Is there any way you could do a podcast on how to get over the hurdle of starting Chapter 2?

    Hayley :)

  11. Hmm. Narrative voice. Well, half as a reader and half as a writer, here goes…

    I tend to shy away from writing accents and stuff. Dialect is fine, but I find it mostly works when it’s not a main character doing it, otherwise it can get annoying in a hurry. And if you’re going to do the dialect thing, then you had better be prepared to do it well. Otherwise it looks halfhearted at best.

    Diction is part of it. Not just how the character speaks (as pointed out, just having “smart” characters use big words is a little old) but if the narrative style reflects that. I almost always write in third person limited, and one of the criticisms that’s been offered me is that young village boy probably shouldn’t speak the same way, either in dialogue or just plain prose, as slightly-older sophisticated girl who was raised a noble. Not necessarily something that you need to worry about in a first draft – I certainly don’t plan to, other than to keep it in the back of my mind and maybe make the rewrite pains a little easier – but for fine-tuning.

    Somewhat related – I’ve noticed in some cases characters have little catch phrases that they repeat, or say similar things, at different points throughout a book. Joe Abercrombie’s got a good example of this in his First Law Trilogy. Several of his characters have phrases like this, but the one that springs to mind is the one for Inquisitor Glokta. I don’t remember the exact wording, but it was something along the lines of “Tap, walk, pain. That was the rhythm of his walking” (only cooler). Only shows up twice I think, but I found it quite effective.

    What people notice is a good one, and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with profession. Age, physical ability, stuff like that all factors in.

    As for names – I’m horrible at naming things. I don’t really have one tried and true method. Sometimes it’s easy, most of the time it’s not. Sometimes I’ll start with a letter and just make up sounds until I find something that seems to fit, sometimes I’ll go looking through old mythology and stuff and rip names from there… Though it’s honestly not something I spend a great deal of time on.

  12. On voices,
    My Dad writes using Voice-to-text. When doing so, he changes the way he talks to get different Personalities across. I haven’t tried it but he swears by it, so maybe it could help.

    On Middle and Endings,
    I have a long drive to work and a lot of time to think. Unfortunately, it’s not recommended to write and drive at the same time. So I got a voice recorder and dictate my ideas, using this horribly necessary activity, I also get work done. Which then allows me to get fresh new thoughts into my current project and keep me excited enough to sit down and work at home. It also lets me keep notes on future projects.

  13. @ Raethe, regarding diction: Bulls-eye. Diction is a big part of it. Take Dracula, for example. Bram Stoker does not write Van Helsing’s accent, but every reader I’ve asked can hear it when they read because of the words he uses, as well as his word order and his not-quite-English phraseology.

    Beyond accents, a quick study of usage can be bucket-loads of help. When you know some of the basics, you can use markers for both uneducated and educated people. I don’t like to use my stuff as an example, but in one of my books I have a chart where I map out comparative usage formality (it’s a crutch until I can get a handle on each character’s dialogue). It goes from the uneducated fletcher (who uses double negatives, “ain’t,” and lots of colloquialisms, among other things), to a pompous high-up minstrel (who follows every rule I know, regardless of how ridiculous and inflated it sounds, because I want him to sound ridiculous and inflated). All other characters fall somewhere on the spectrum, depending on which markers I assign to them. Some gain or lose markers in certain situations, like when they’re upset or off balance, depending on their life story.

    And no, professions aren’t the end of the discussion on what a person notices. It can be just as telling when a person in a certain profession fails to notice anything that applies to that profession. There are many things outside profession that have as much and more influence on worldview. It’s just one of many aids to get a writer thinking like a character, a crutch until you find your feet.

  14. You should see my writing folder. To date, I must have over a hundred beginnings—and that’s no joke. I’ve been writing for about two years. After a while, the failures stacked up.

    My problem is a combination of editorial disease—the need to be perfect—and lack of foresight. After I dwindle down the last few sentences of Chapter One, I have nowhere to go. And if I look back at what I’ve written for direction, I find the path unworthy of pursuit.

    So I start over. And unsurprisingly, the process repeats. It’s an endless cycle of worthless prologues and first chapters that will never see the light of day—or, in this case, the comfortable darkness of a hardback binding.

    As you can see, I’m well aware of my shortcomings. What I don’t know is how to deal with them. I’ve come to a point in every story where I simply can’t continue—I don’t know what happens next.

    I have no struggles with productivity. I write thousands of words each day, if not in fiction then in conversations such as this one here. What I can’t do is put that talent to use. To put it simply, I can’t develop plotlines.

  15. @Steve: I had similar problems, and fought the plotline beast for a good while. It wasn’t until I read Card’s Characters and Viewpoints that I realized why: I didn’t know what my characters wanted. This has been addressed on Writing Excuses, but perhaps not explicitly for plotting. Overly simplistic view: protagonist wants A, other characters and things stand in his/her way. How to get A? protagonist has flaws and, as Writing Excuses pointed out, the flaws become conflict points: villain exploits protags flaws. The “three disasters” formula is a good example.

    Basically I needed to know what my characters wanted, I needed conflict and pain in the process, and I needed to let them suffer and struggle to win the day. After understanding my characters better, plots began to flow, and story arcs happened.

    Mind you, this was for short stories. I’m working on novel level arcs now, but the same concepts are working there too.

    Hope that might help.

  16. lol some of these comments really surprise me because of how much they reflect the stuff i’ve learned in my English Rhetoric Class, especially for character analysis. One of the first things you do is exactly what was written above: My character wants ___, is willing to do ___, and ___stands in his/her way.

  17. @ steve

    I totally agree with you. When you start chapter 1 or the prologue, you think: oh yeah, ive got this brilliant idea! lets get it on paper.

    but then, think: well wheres it going now?

    So yeah, you basically put my problem into something articulate.

  18. My problem isn’t fleshing out my characters or voice distinction so much (in fact I often scare myself when I realise I’m arguing with one of my characters in my head), it’s that I can’t seem to find a way to balance dialog with action. I write something, then look over it and it seems too chatty. The problem is, I can’t think of a way to rewrite it and have the same things happen without all the dialog. Any suggestions?

  19. @ Jake: Add beats. Put little bits of action in between the bits of dialogue. Have your characters doing something while talking, and write about that something in between exchanges. Sometimes it’s hard to hit a balance with beats (lots of people use too many, it sounds like you use too few), so you’ll have to fiddle with it until things click. If you can, get your hands on a copy of SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Renni Browne and Dave King. They have a chapter devoted to beats and do a much better job at explaining it than I do.

  20. I found the naming section hilarious… yet helpful. I think I am more like Brandon than the others (other than, you know, having published books) in that I did some pretty formulaic things for naming. It seems like rules and structure help me in my writing.

    A lot of my characters’ names came from existing places, though I did mix things up. Every once in a while I will see a word while reading and an altered version of that word will stick out to me in my head and I will add it to my list of “words that might make good names”.

    One of my inspirations was a list of the names of the nuclear power plants. Things like Oconee, Kewaunee, Vogtle, Catawba… as well as lots of towns with Native American names.

    One thing that was hard for me was that I wouldn’t allow myself to have any double consonants (ff, ss, etc). When I had a sound I wanted to put into a name it was often hard to find a way to write it so that people would actually pronounce it “correctly”.

  21. When it comes to voices, I find that writing is the only way to silence the ones yammering in my head. If I can get them out onto paper, they stop pestering me as much.

    Also, could you please let us know when you are going to do your next Q&A. I would love to get a chance to sit in on that. There have been a few ?s burning a hole in my little brainpan.

  22. Hey guys –

    Just wanted to introduce myself as a new audience member – I’ve jumped aboard the podcast train and I love it! Thanks for your advice. It’s very useful, especially for a young writer like me. I don’t remember who suggested it, but someone said writing screenplay can improve dialogue. I’ve really found that to be true – it helps the conversation bounce back and forth more naturally.

  23. *Sigh*

    Okay, if you guys are going to insist on writing scripts to learn how to write a book, then fine! Start by reading some first. See how screenwriters do it. Sit down with a favorite movie then locate the script for it and read along while playing the film. I would avoid transcripts, as these are not necessarily what the original writer(s) intended.

    Free script source:

    So go rent Glengarry Glen Ross or Reservoir Dogs, print off a copy of the script, and compare.

    Just remember, with scripts there are no long paragraphs of internal monologues or convenient cartoon thought bubbles. Unless you plan to have heavy voice-overs, all emotion and pathos must come from what is directly said or done.

  24. *laughs* What they said is that writing script helps improve DIALOGUE, which is not quite the same as writing a book methinks.

    Karl, a question for you (one that has nothing to do with this podcast, really, so bear with me a moment). I’m just kind of curious – you mentioned in an earlier post that it isn’t just dialogue which makes a screenplay, which is obviously fair enough: I take it you include stage directions and such in your writing, then?

    I do some script writing myself, but for stage, not for screen. In the world of live theatre, the rule seems to be that you can write whatever stage directions that you want, but whoever directs your play is probably going to ignore them entirely. Is that the same in the world of TV and movies, or what?

  25. Raethe:

    True enough, much of what is seen in a finished film is not specifically in the script. Nonetheless, a writer still needs to at least write ‘insert car chase here.’ This is partially why the rule of thumb of one page of screenplay equals one minute of film varies from scene to scene. A long section of exposition may take many pages on paper, but only a few short minutes to say, and yet the half page description of a car chase may last 10 minutes on film.

    I do have the slight advantage of being both the writer and director of my stories, so I tend to think in terms of the final product. Um… and I’m the art director, gaffer, editor, etc., etc.

    My point was more that dialogue isn’t everything. Unless you plan to write the sequel to My Diner With Andre, strike a balance between action and talk. Even Romeo shut up long enough to kiss Juliet, and then he went to stab someone.

    Oh, and since you’re probably the only person left reading this thread, do you think anyone notice that my previous two posts were written in the ‘voice’ of an effete, snobbish filmmaker? I even got Howard to crack a joke at my expense! Eh, probably not…

  26. Haha. Well, I certainly noticed, so I’d imagine they did to. Was going to make some crack about “such drama” and “no wonder he’s a screenwriter” (yanno, as if I’ve got room to talk) but didn’t, for some reason which I no longer remember.

    Makes sense; guess it’s better to have the directions there to be ignored than not have them at all. Heh. The first play I wrote I also directed, so I also have a tendency to go wild on the stage directions. Don’t know that I’ll have an opportunity to direct my own (or anyone else’s) play again, but since then I’ve never bothered to shake the mindset that “this is what it’ll look like on stage”.

    Oh, I concur. Dialogue certainly isn’t everything, it can go a long way towards characterization, I think – but then so can action.

  27. ” “, she said.
    ” “, he said.
    ,Jane said. ,John said.
    So-and-so exclaims!
    They asked quietly.
    These things get very repetitive. How can I mix it up. Specificly in a long set of dialog, with at least two people/voices, how can I keep this from getting dry and boring?

  28. Ahh, the dialogue tags. I get nailed for this one CONSTANTLY.

    Cut ’em. Your readers are smart people; it’s not hard to follow all the “he said/she said”, or tell who’s being sarcastic and who isn’t, or whatever. (Or so I’ve been told, time and time again. I don’t really practice what I’m preaching, at least not in the first draft stage. It’s one of those things that I try to be aware of while writing, but mostly I figure that’s what editing’s for.)

    Mostly when it comes to dialogue tags I try to be pretty ruthless about pruning them out, unless the dialogue either gets hard to follow or there’s an important action or change of tone of voice or something that happens during the conversation.

    Hope that helps.

  29. Yes, thank you. I had run into that problem last night and had to throw my pen down for a moment.

  30. Ben:

    Writer, heal thyself! Pick up thy pen and write!!

    Yes, technically only in the first couple of lines of the conversation should tags be used just to establish who is speaking, or if another speaker joins in. Otherwise, find creative tags that inform how the words are toned.

    “Bob, old bean,” Frank chimed, “how are you?”
    “Well…” muttered Bob.
    “Zounds! This can’t be good!!”
    “Perhaps it’s best you leave him be” sneered Jody.

    Never said ‘said’ once. Um… at least not ’til just then…

  31. Oh, I’ve get the bug now! I can’t/won’t stop, this new project has me way to keyed up. But ya’lls advice is good. I just have to keep in mind that this is the “first” draft.

  32. Let me step in here to temper this advice just a little bit. Don’t go overboard with zany dialogue attributions–a few of them can be good, but too many “shouteds” and “chimeds” and “crieds” can very quickly become too much and distract from the dialogue itself, which is what you’re trying to convey in the first place. “Said” is a great word because your mind edits it out as you read, so your readers will know who’s talking without really being aware of why they know. It blends into the background and lets the dialogue take center stage. If each of your attributions is something new and different, your readers will start to trip on them because they become more noticeable than they need to be.

  33. I think what Dan says here is certainly correct. “Said” is one of the most invisible attributions, but I believe there is also a middle ground between “said” and (e.g.) “enthused”. (asked, questioned, stated,…)

    Now, don’t get me wrong, I am no professional writer and I only speak for myself, so I am not claiming any authority here, but… to me it seems there is a certain “gray zone” between invisible attributions and attributions that jump at a reader. A realm of words that stand out, but don’t stand out enough to distract from the story. As Dan said, overusing fancy words might be a pretty bad idea, but I think too often prospective writers are told to avoid fancy attributives at any cost, which might not be such a good idea either.

    “Said” is the safest choice you get, but if a certain character really wants to chime, enthuse, murmur, or grumble, why not let them do it? If that is what they want to do, let them do it. Using it constantly might be a really bad idea, but I think once in a while you can get away with a fancy attribution – especially if it tells something about a certain character.

  34. Andreas:

    I tend to agree with everything thats been said. And in coming up with a solution; the guideline I’ve decided to use, are my coversations. In any given conversation, I’ve found, we generally only “speak” in one way. It’s only in certain situations do we really put attributions/inflections on the way we talk to each other. I would also like to thank everyone for their advice. It’s been hard to find GOOD constructive critisim. Lots of people have opinions but rarely is it done in a positive manner. Thank you once again.

  35. Most people do use the same ‘voice’ in most situations, but everyone speaks differently. To pull an example from popular culture, look at the classic trio of Star Trek: Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. If you were to write about them, would you only have them “say” something, or would you feel compelled to use different attributive phrases for each character? Okay, I admit, with well-known characters like these you might actually get away with “said”, as your target audience would just know how these people speak. But attributions can (in my opinion) be a valuable shortcut to inform the reader about a character’s tone of voice without going into a lengthy description of it. Everyone has their own way of speaking, and “said” alone doesn’t tell anything about it.

    The real key seems to me not to overindulge in “zany attributions”, but not shy away from them either. One potential problem is that if you write thirty pages with only “said” and then have someone “grumble” or “tease”, that sudden change in attributive phrases will stand out even more than the words themselves warrant. The more you establish a pattern, the more your reader will notice it when you break said pattern.

    But perhaps I just feel very strongly about this because I’ve seen some rather ridiculous examples of writers sticking to only “said” in each and every situation. Just look at something like this (an example I just made up, but not far from what I actually read):

    “How was your day?” Bob said.

    It’s a question. Questions aren’t said they are asked!What’s wrong with ‘Bob asked’? Stuff like that makes me want to pull my hair out and bash my head against the nearest wall. I’ve seen too many aspiring writers who stick to advice as if it was a mantra that they never developed their own unique voices. That’s why I often argue in favor of breaking the “rules”.

  36. Yes, I see your point. A little commen sense goes a long way.

    As for rules like these, well, as an art I think we have the freedom to really make whatever changes we see fit. Granted, we work with a different canvas but for all that I think we have a tremendous amount of leeway. More so than someone who would be writing to the rules strait out of an English book.

    That said, I have never seen anything that says we have to do anything a certain way. David Eddings hardly ever used just “said”, and it sometimes worked (usually in the same book even) and at times it didn’t. Could be a question of style; and we all have to find our own.

  37. Having read Orson Scott Card’s rules for naming conventions, I cannot stress highly enough the need for PRONOUNCEABLE character names. If you are an aspiring writer, nothing says “amateur” to me as a reader like character names that are overly complicated or have funny punctuation mixed in with the letters. As a writer and world builder, it is fun to come up with new, exciting looking names and languages. I think a lot of young writers forget (or never learned) that spoken language came first and then came the writing system, so the reader has to be able to say out loud anything you write. I cannot pronounce an apostrophe.

    I think Howard gets away with it for some of his alien characters because those characters are seldom major characters, and also because comics are a mixture of art and words. Even when I say “Hey, there’s that H guy with the apostrophes!” he still remains a unique, recognizable character because of the art.

  38. Okay, I’m a little late to this party, but I’m combing through the archives and the practice of finding character names from the spam filter is the most exciting idea I’ve run across since edible paste. I write sci-fi and I have had the hardest time coming up with stock names for peripheral characters.

    I shall want for names no longer.


  39. I know I’m several years late, here, but I just found the podcast a couple weeks ago and now I’m going back and listening to th archives…

    On naming – the best way I have found to name characters is this site: http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/index.html It’s a list of the most popular baby names from any year after 1879. I select a date, choose “Top 1000 Names” then scroll down to the very bottom where the more “exotic” names will be and go through until I find one I like. It’s the best naming tool I’ve ever found. ^_^

  40. Okay, first off, the ad could have been a perfect place for humming.

    Second, I have multiple naming techniques.
    *Pick a word that has something to do with the character (A water elemental would have ‘water’, someone who enjoys random violence- ‘fight’…) then put it into Google Translate, find a couple cool-sounding foreign words, then merge them and mix the letters a little until it’s unrecognizable.
    *Wait until something comes to you.
    *If actually using real names, look through name meaning sites to find one that fits them… or is completely the opposite of what fits them.
    * Name generators, if I’m desperate.

    And as for the ‘said’ issue, if the words themselves aren’t enough to convey the emotion that has to be shown, use something other than said. And don’t make it fancy. Just put ‘grumbled’, don’t show off your vocabulary with ‘expostulated’. That won’t get you more readers, it will get dictionaries more readers.

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