Writing Excuses 4.22: Q&A with L.E. Modesitt, Jr

Recorded live at CONduit with the inestimably valuable help of our friends at Dungeon Crawlers Radio, here’s an episode full of the randomness that is “questions from the audience.” These include:

  • What do people get wrong when they write military science-fiction?
  • How do you develop action sequences?
  • What makes a good foil character?
  • How do you schedule your time as a writer?
  • How do you write good, true-to-character dialog for each of your characters?

Our podcasters for this episode were Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, L.E. Modessit Jr., and Robison Wells.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Haze by L.E. Modessit, Jr.

Writing Prompt: Why does she NOT sound like the guy she’s interested in?

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29 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 4.22: Q&A with L.E. Modesitt, Jr”

  1. Talking about the military, one thing that popped into mind is that as a general rule, almost no one inside a vehicle (land transport, ship or aircraft) uses the word “fire: for any reason. Why? Because it has a very specific meaning, that is, whatever your on or in is on fire, not as we would like to think off firing something at the enemy. It’s sort of the same thing yelling FIRE in a crowded theater. That’s why pilots say, “Fox 1” when shooting a missile (or the equivalent code for that weapon system), tank commanders will order gunner to fire by saying “SHOOT!” etc.

    Artillery men, who usually do their job in the open (even if it’s a self-propelled piece) can yell FIRE! all they want, because they are not in a confined space, per say.

    Also, getting the acronyms right is important. Military personnel want to convey the most information in the shortest and most accurate form possible. It’s the same reason why someone would say “Tango” and not the letter T, which over the radio or in the noise of battle (and corresponding rush of adrenaline) could sound like a D or a C.

    Just my $0.02.

  2. What Modessit said about the length of actions scenes is completely true. It’s actually a bit of a pet peeve of mine.

    RA Salvatore, for example, writes these really long, detailed battle scenes. And they’re not just long because of the descriptions; the battles he writes go on for an awfully long time. They’re a ton of fun to read, but I don’t care HOW good you are; fighting hand to hand (or sword to sword, or whatever) just doesn’t last that long.

    I’m a hobby boxer, and we spar fairly often. It’s one of the most physically and mentally exhausting things that I’ve ever done. Notice that a lot of professional fights happen in three minute rounds. Trust me, there’s a reason for that. It’ll be the longest three minutes of your life. At least until they call you up for round 2. ;)

  3. Speaking of military language, “repeat” also has a very specific meaning — it’s what to tell the artillery when you want them to shoot again. So nobody trained in military radio procedure will use the word “repeat” in any other context. If you want someone to say something again, you tell them “say again”, and the person repeating (ahem) himself will use “I say again”, not “I repeat”.

    I don’t think I’ve seen error in books, but it does crop up in movies.

  4. Excellent podcast, and lots of useful information.

    Raethe: I always found a fair bit of Salvatore’s fight sequences to be fairly short as compared to some others. He describes every single move intricately, but many of the battles are exchanges of maybe a dozen strikes and counterstrikes, which is a reasonable amount for highly talented swordsmen.

    Robert Jordan, on the other hand, used to fill up an entire page or more with cryptically named sword forms which could be a shift in stance, a change in position, a single thrust or slash, or any combination thereof. I seem to recall Rand’s battle with a Seanchan swordmaster near the end of The Great Hunt being particularly long, and at this point, Rand had been wielding a sword for…6 months, including the little time warp issue with his use of the interdimensional transport stones? (As I recall, Eye of the World started in the beginning of spring, and they commented that when they reached the peninsula that the leaves were starting to turn color, and it was disastrous because of how long the “instantaneous” transport method had actually taken)

    Besides, you have to admit that anything based in the Forgotten Realms is going to be somewhat unrealistic no matter how good the author is. I’m not saying the setting is inherently bad, but anything that bordered on realism in that setting would feel out of place, in my opinion.

  5. Talking about the military terms I think its good to be realistic, but its alot more satisfying when building up tension to say Fire! instead of fox 1. Lol its just more dramatic. And fight scene lenghts. Yeah i kind of agree about that. In a book called Empire In Black and Gold their’s this warrior who is literally going through the majority of the castle and meeting alot of enemies. He dosn’t really get tired. But i must admit he had a preturnatural advantage so yeah.
    Oh and i think the fight scene at the end of the great hunt only lasted a minute. They were moving very quickly and robert jordan was describing rands feelings at the time. I could be wrong. But its still one of my most favourite scenes in the series.

  6. I like the point that fight/action scenes are generally brief in reality (although in some stories they go on and on and…). I find most enjoyment in the build up and aftermath of an action scene rather than the scene itself (though I do like that too).

    That’s why I don’t watch too many movies anymore. They don’t really “do” short action scenes. And if they can’t afford to do a long action scene, they’ll cut it up and interleave other action so that particular scene feels longer than they could even film.

    I also like the points made about military insubordination. In my job (very non-military) management wouldn’t put up with the level of insubordination I see in so many military stories (especially military sci-fi). I can only imagine what the military would do to someone as insubordinate as the characters in some of those stories.

  7. We probably could have gotten Lee to talk for an hour about everything that writers usually get wrong, when writing military. I’m just glad Brandon gave me a chance to get up to the mic for the second CONduit in a row.

    My own thoughts…

    1) All militaries are beauracracies. It’s been my experience that the beauracratic stupidity of the military — as an organization — is ever-present and awesomely annoying. I think a lot of writers either skim over or leave out this aspect when constructing their alternate or future militaries. It’s certainly tempting to “fix” this in my own fiction, because it drives me nuts in my own career, but this limits realism.

    2) I mentioned at the LTUE panel on the military that one of the things writers need to do is not forget the “long tail” of any military operation. You don’t just drop combat troops into an area and turn them loose. Those combat troops are at the “tip” of a lengthy spear, the shaft of which is composed of logistics, medical personal, transportation, food and water people, etc, etc. And especially in an irregular fighting environment — like Afghanistan — the shaft can find itself in the fight just as easily as the blade.

    3) Rank is one of the most often confused aspects of the military. People mix traditional naval rank with traditional land-force rank, jump characters from enlisted to officer at the drop of a hat, and otherwise misunderstand how rank works in actual day-to-day operation. Most important thing to know — about modern U.S. military structure — is that all rank above Private/Seaman/Airman has formalized schooling attached to it, as well as a points competition system. People who don’t complete the schools and can’t accrue the points, don’t get promoted. Even battlefield promotion must be backed up with a character attending some kind of school.

  8. Because I didn’t want to suck up a lot of space here at the WE blog, I did up my own blog on one particular item that too many writers get wrong too often: rank. (click here for the article!) In a nutshell: pay attention to rank, how it works in your fiction, what its for, and in particular how rank works in the real world, and how it has worked historically. I can’t tell you how many times my suspension of disbelief has been terminated, because it’s become clear to me that a writer doing a military-esq story or scenario, doesn’t understand rank.

  9. The action scenes in my books don’t involve large armies charging each other in ranks. Most of my combat is one on one. I think that in a fight between just two people, you should be allowed to make it a little longer, because there are no commanding officers or other infrastructure to command a retreat or regroup. And if the two people are fighting to the death, then both are going to be very cautious, only attacking when an opening reveals itself and not letting themselves get caught off guard. This makes for a much longer fight sequence, with a lot less action happening at any given time, but still taking much longer overall.

  10. Great Podcast. I resonated with Lee’s comments a lot.

    As a former infantryman from the Iraq War myself, I can see what he’s saying, especially with regards to discipline. I think too many people want to write a character who is both Han Solo and Luke Skywalker at the same time. It doesn’t work, and in my opinion, Han Solo was really only believable because the Rebellion was supposedly in such dire straits that it ceased to be a political organization and became a purely military one. Too many officers would’ve been jealous/resentful of a character like Han Solo.

    As for action sequences, what shocked me as a grunt on the ground is how undramatic combat was. It wasn’t necessarily brief. It may have lasted as long as ten or so minutes, and in terms of any sort of scene in a novel, that’s quite a long time. But it was staggeringly undramatic, just like the rest of real life. There’s no rising and falling action. There’s just a few minutes at a time of “hey, everything might be ok” punctuated by moments of sheer confusion that transform the battlefield. Most authors are content if they can evoke the emotion of combat, to say nothing of the physical particulars.

    That said, not everyone is going for realism, and not everyone is writing modern infantry combat or dogfighting. Sometimes physical conflict is simply the pinnacle in drama when you raise the stakes over and over. In that case, you can skip because you promised drama with your work, not action.

    Other times, you might want to describe what used to happen in combat, in the Roman Legion or in fantasy or something. In hand to hand combat, I can see physical fatigue and weariness of the mind becoming much more concrete issues. Especially when you throw in suits of armor and swords that are more or less blunt, meant for their crushing power alone. Most European-style Fantasy is going to fit here. But still, I imagine when ranks of swordsmen hold or retreat, it’s mostly an issue of mental resolve, and just how much utter hell each side is willing to put up with before breaking ranks seldom would lead to battles that last more than an hour or so. But we can only imagine, and so each individual’s imagination is as good as anyone else’s.

  11. @Brad R. Torgersen –

    Comments from an Army PFC’s wife: I’m fairly certain that in the Army at least, you can get above Private without needing any points/extra schools. A Specialist is above Private First Class but beneath a Staff Sergeant, which, correct me if I’m wrong, is the first rank you need points for (or whatever sergeant an E5 is). You probably just mistyped, though, because in your blog post you say anything above an E4 pay grade requires the extra schools and the points, and Specialist is E4.

  12. When writing dialogue, I picture the characters having a conversation and write it down without any dialogue attributions.

    If I can come back later and I know who said what, I know I have the voices right.

  13. Great comments, Justice! I think it helps writers enormously to hear that kind of first-hand perspective on what the infantry combat experience is really like, versus movie folklore.

    Conyngham, regarding enlisted grades, points and schools: pay grades E-1 through E-4 — PV1, PV2, PFC and SPC — do not require any points. You simply need required time in service (TIS) and time in grade (TIG) along with your commander’s sign-off on a zone list, or an individualized DA Form 4187. The rank of Corporal is also E-4 but is considered the first step on the NCO ladder, and is generally reserved for infantry or direct-combat slots in line units. A soldier who is a Corporal and is re-assigned to a non-line unit can and often is directed to pin Specialist instead of CPL, though pay is not affected. Points and schools come into play once a soldier wants to get above E-4.

    Generally, it’s advised that Army soldiers attend Warrior Leader Course (used to be called Primary Leadership Development Course, or PLDC) prior to making SGT — which is E-5 — though a soldier can make SGT without it; they’re just stuck at SGT until they’ve completed WLC, as the Army frowns on Sergeants going a long time without attending the school. A SGT might even get kicked back down to SPC if (s)he goes too long without attending, though this is rare.

    You get points for doing WLC and other schools, points for awards and medals, points for how well you do on rifle qualification, points for how well you do on the Army Physical Fitness Test — called APFT for short — and administrative points based on how much your commander values you in your unit. There are also points for skill badges and qualifications, like Air Assault (helicopter badge w/ wings) or the much-coveted Combat Infantry Badge — CIB. All of these points get rolled into a promotion packet which goes before a board — in Active Component, the soldier too stands before the board — at which time final points are assigned.

    At the end of the day, if the soldier has enough total points to make the cut-off, (s)he will be placed on the promotion list for the next highest grade above E-4. Point scales and requirements are different from Reserve/Guard and Active Component, and fluctuate based on manning requirements and MOS (job specialty) for Active.

    Sorry, that’s a very pedantic and wordy explanation. I wanted to make sure everyone reading this understands how it works. Feel free to ping me with any more questions. If I don’t have the answer, I can certainly get it!

    –Chief T.

  14. Rashkavar: I think most of Salvatore’s battles did take up more pages than they did time, but I seem to recall a couple of Drizzt-Entreri battles in the later books that ran pretty long time-wise too. I could be mistaken; I haven’t read the books in quite a while. I’m sure there are worse offenders, too–names are just escaping me right now.

    Awesome–Brad’s now the go-to guy for military matters. Thanks, Chief! ;)

  15. I usually tend to give writers a lot of leeway when it comes to rank. Mostly because the military ranking system in the US itself is archaic, bearing only a distant resemblance to the societal structure it’s based on.

    There used to be a marked distinction, in ethos, culture and circumstance, between noble and common. Hence, officer and enlisted. Other societal roots include concepts like distinguishing those nobles who have a “divine right” versus those appointed by the King, and the closest thing I can think of in our bureaucracy that matches this is civilian-side DoD and executive branch personnel v. commissioned military officers. Boring stuff, I know.

    In speculative fiction, and even modern-setting fiction, rank is going to seem like a very hollow thing without the societal structure to back it up. Too much focus on the former, and it will drone on. On the other hand, focusing on the latter in itself often puts the former into place.

  16. Raethe, I have to admit the Drizzt-Entreri battles were a little excessive…but they kinda had to be. Both characters were set up as being obscenely good with their chosen set of weapons – making the scenes between them short would be breaking that promise, at least to the majority of readers who don’t realize that in a hand-to-hand battle between opponents of similar skill level it’s not who’s better that day, or who has a slight edge, but who’s better over the few minutes (at most) of the fight. And, given that it’s a Forgotten Realms book, discarding realism in favor of fulfilling a long-since established promise to one’s readers is certainly forgivable (and it’s probably even forgivable in a more strictly realistic setting, too).

  17. One thing a military friend tells me that writers always get wrong is that, in fiction, in a large operation, nothing ever breaks down. With something huge involving equipment, something is going to break and need repairs. And with something huge involving many people, someone’s going to mess up, particularly if communication from above isn’t clear. Neither incident need to be big, though the consequences could be.

    These are, of course, not confined to the military. ;-)

  18. Characters in fiction never go to the bathroom either, and while I can imagine plenty of opportunities for plot development there, I never finish a book thinking to myself how painful it must have been for them to hold it this whole time.

    So, does a military need maintenance/mess/medical/personnel/legal/laundry support? To be cost-effective and sustainable, yes. But try writing fiction where the primary conflict is a struggle to keep a military cost-effective and sustainable.

    My point is, realism is not the be-all, end-all. Good writing is.

  19. It might not be great fodder as a primary conflict, but the “support and beauracracy” aspect of the military can be wonderful fodder for secondary or tertiary conflict. One of my favorite war novels of all time, the pulitzer-nominated A Reckoning for Kings, spends a fair amount of time exploring how the protagonists navigate through and are forced to rely upon the “long tail” to accomplish their goals. This gives the novel a depth and richness that would not exist, if the focus were entirely on the bloodshed.

    One thing that bugs me about some military fic, is when the book is nothing but a strung-together series of artfully drawn and described battles. I’ve heard some critics of mil fic describe such books as “war porn” because they glory (too much?) in the moment of combat, with little attention paid to everything else that goes into being a soldier.

    I personally think the best mil fic — the stuff that survives over time — balances between combat/fighting and the secondary and tertiary conflicts that all soldiers face: their families, spouses, kids, separation, divorce, alcoholism and PTSD, the maddening beauracracy of the military, hassling with ancillary agencies like the VA, etc. It’s a “whole picture” approach to portraying the life and experiences of a soldier — be it fictional future, fictional present, or fictional past.

  20. I love Laurie’s comment, and that’s exactly true. Even mundane training ops never go quite as planned. Stuff breaks, orders get misinterpreted, maps are wrong, equipment doesn’t work to spec, people just plain f–k up, and while there is a temptation in mil fic to “fix” these things, especially for futuristic warfare where presumably technology and better protocol will solve so much of what goes wrong, for the sake of realism, all mil ops need an aspect of “whoops.” Sometimes, the “whoops” can dramatically changed events, adding further richness and detail to a story. Maybe the entire plot goes 90 degrees and you wind up in a whole new direction that you never expected when you started the tale? Seen that happen in real life more than once. Whoops.

  21. I’d forgotten about that strip!

    …If Howard’s using bathroom humour, that means it’s okay that I used it in my novel too, right?



  22. A good tip for writing interesting character dialog (or, rather, a method that works for me) is to first sketsch out the basic highlights of the conversation. Go through and figure out which bits of information you want to give your reader. Write your lines completely without character-voice, and then go through it once for each character, working on only their lines, according to how you feel they will speak and react.

    Once you have this done for all the characters reacting to the pure guts of your conversation, go thorugh again and figure out how they react to the other characters.

    It’s a bit of a long process when you first start out, but in the end, you get much more natural sounding conversations.

    My problem isn’t so much character speech as it is filling the rest of the page with the little descriptions and stuff between the lines of speech. Any advice there?

  23. Aiyel: I give you an odd tip. Do, or at least reada book on impro theatre. Keith Johnstones book “Improv” is the one I would recommend. Or Pick up Artist books, can strange enough be helpful too since they are really good at dissecting communication in a concrete way. (Not saying that they are right or scientific but as a quick and dirty tool for analysing stuff)

    The theatre is the right place to look for gestures, context etc that gives dialogue life and how i can be used.

    As soon as you get some theoretical background, impro theater or roleplaying groups are excellent places to pick up bodylanguage and sub context since it a bit simplified and extravageted in the context of fiction. Yet interactive.

  24. Yes, you will want to provide physical descriptions that associate with particular emotions. We all know what raised eyebrows, pursed lips, flushed cheeks and several other physical signs mean. Writers use these so much that some are even in danger of becoming cliche. But done well, it can really breathe life into a scene.

    Another piece of advice is to make sure that you know who your viewpoint character is and try to immerse the reader. A viewpoint character who feels embarrassment can be described as “her cheeks grew warm” rather than “her cheeks flushed red”, what you would feel if you had the emotion versus what you would see in another. This is one thing that writing can and should do that screen cannot – promt the reader to recall a type of emotion.

    And the last thing I’ll say about dialogue tags is that less is more. If the viewpoint character truly is angry, for example, then showing it or bringing it to the reader one time every half-dozen lines should be enough. The words themselves should be trusted to carry their portion of the emotion. All the rest of time you’ll want to omit dialogue tags unless doing so will create confusion, and even then, you’ll want to use either “said”, “asked” or something else similarly inconspicuous.

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