Writing Excuses 9.18: Microcasting

Microcasting! A Q&A by any other name. Here are the questions we fielded:

  • Can I have a rule-based magic system and a mystical system in the same universe?
  • What are your pre-writing methods? (Can of worms — it’s going to get its own episode)
  • What’s the first thing you do once the first draft is done?
  • When approaching real-world issues, how do you avoid being preachy?
  • What’s the best advice you can offer to someone who’s just starting to write?
  • Does it help you to experiment with weird narrative styles?
  • What are your least favorite tropes?
  • Should you fully edit your first few “practice” books?
  • How do you know if you’re writing too quickly?
  • How do you tell the difference between a weakness in your craft, and a story that requires stylistic rule-breaking?


In other news, Writing Excuses Season 8 has been nominated for the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Related Work. We’re thrilled to appear on the ballot, and are excited to be in such good company there.


Paranormal fantasy: We’ve had enough of vampire and werewolf romances. Give us a protagonist who falls in love with a shoggoth.

The Martian, by Andy Weir, narrated by R.C. Bray

22 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 9.18: Microcasting”

  1. Nice Microcasting episode. Already waiting for the pre-writing methods episode in a near future.

    About the tropes subject, I want to recomend the following website:

    Name says “tv”, but dont get fooled, all the tropes listed there are also used all kind of creative fiction (literature, comics, tv, movies… you name it)

    For example: Dan’s love triangle:

    Knowing what has been done, we can improve on it. Enjoy. :)

  2. I had a question answered on Writing Excuses! *dances* Oh, how weird to have a podcast start talking to me…

    And when Howard said that the first thing he does when the first draft is done is to send it to his *editor*? “LUXURY!” I shouted. :)

  3. Although I am still reading it, Brian McClellan’s “Promise of Blood” seems to have a rule-based magic system and a mystical system co-existing, if there is want of an example. I am thinking, specifically, of his Powder Mages being rule-based and Privileged being mystical.

    I think Howard might have more to say on avoiding being preachy with real-world issues: after all, satire is constantly addressing reach world issues. I think in one of the old ‘casts (alas, can’t recall with one) he said that he takes a topic that he wants to talk about (say, the trials of passing through airport security) and takes two steps away from it (thus turning airport security procedures into health insurance procedures).

  4. I’m not an author, I’m a gamer with aspirations of becoming a developer. I’ve found the podcast incredibly insightful, or at very least entertaining. As well as the can of worms in this episode, I liked the part about not being preachy (a concern in my own stories) and would like to hear more, but I do have a backlog of WE I’m working through so maybe I’ve missed that episode. I also might like to see an episode on the cliches you don’t like. While a fairly minor point of the episode, that’s what I want to comment on.

    First, while it doesn’t apply to love triangles pre say, I’m a guy who hates romance sub plots in pretty much anything. Games have avoided it for the most part, but it still happens. Basically, my main issue is that I don’t care about if they get together or not, and the scenes stop the story while they play out the same tired drivel over and over again. At some point you know that the love interest is going to be grabbed by the villain, or try (and fail) to put the breaks on the adventure. What’s frustrating though is in the rare times it does work it’s extremely powerful.

    Second, 2 of you (as in, the WE crew) expressed distaste with rape as a plot element, and in the opinions episode, said that women get backlash/hate far worse than men. I disagree on both counts, but that’s not really important. What is important is the reason for these opinions. Specifically, are Brandon and Mary on board with the whole social justice warrior/radical feminism cause? As said, I disagree with the points raised specifically, and the general points of those groups, but your opinion is your opinion. My concern is that, if previous SJW activism (particularly in gaming) is anything to go by, could creep in and ruin the show, specifically turning the show into a SJW potshot podcast with Howard and Dan occasionally trying to talk about writing. I hope not.

    This comes back to the whole cliches thing. Aside from the general interest in cliches, how to avoid them, if to avoid them, why you don’t like these specific ones, etc. It would also be interesting to hear why you consider rape as a plot point a problem, when murder, war, etc didn’t get as strong a reaction from the panel. Again, it’s a criticism I’ve heard before, but when the question of “why” is raised, it comes back to “rape culture” this, “male gaze” that, “trivialization” whatever. It would be interesting to hear a reason without the social justice rhetoric for once.

    One final thing on the preaching point. Again, I’d love to hear a full episode on it and I do have a backlog so if this was answered there, I apologise, but what if the issue in question can’t be completed by show-don’t-tell? How do you show a debate on ethics, morality or whatever without having characters talking, arguing, etc.?

  5. Sabre, how long have you listened?

    I’ve been listening to this podcast for a very long time, and I haven’t found anything but writing at the heart of the podcast. I’m not concerned about it turning into SJW shenanigans because these are very mature, balanced people who occasionally touch on social issues.

    To that point, they’ve barely touched on these things, in the lightest of fashions, and in very appropriate ways. Don’t let the radicals claiming to be a part of the feminist movement blind your eye to the social issues that do exist. These things are still problems, as much as the radicals claiming to be feminists are problems, they’re on unhealthy ends of the spectrum.

    As for ethical debates, on of the largest problems in having characters speaking about it directly is that, instead of representing both sides as best as the author can, the author sets up a strawman for the protagonist to knock down. It’s silly, because no real arguments were addressed or defeated, it was just some cheap plastic framing to make the author’s perspective look good. As Howard has said, “you need to make THE BEST argument for the viewpoint opposing yours as you can”. Unless you can do that, or something approaching that, I think it’s best to either be subtle or steer clear.

  6. @Sabre – I doubt I can do much to address your first two concerns, but I do have a few thoughts on the show-don’t-tell question.

    “What if the issue in question can’t be completed by show-don’t-tell? How do you show a debate on ethics, morality or whatever without having characters talking, arguing, etc.?”

    When a story–regardless of format–is “telling”, the minimum amount of resources are being devoted to communicating the element being addressed. For example, a little boy might plant a tree, and it “grew undisturbed for four decades.” I’ve “told” you that 40 years have passed by.

    When “showing”, the story gives an increased weight to the element in question, and (with skill) other elements can ride on each other’s wings. For example, a little boy might plant a tree, and then follows a montage sequence of various kids running by, some construction in the background, a rising cityscape; all while showing the tree in progressive stages of growth. At last the now middle aged man with wings of grey in his hair stands looking up at the tree. With descriptions of all of these elements, I’ve “shown” the passage of decades. And several of those backdrops in the montage can be foreshadowing of the conflicts to come.

    Show-don’t-tell in avoiding preachy stories comes of addressing the issues in a broader and more thorough set of perspectives. If you want a literal debate on ethics as a center stage element of your story, then show the characters debating. Make all of the parties in the debate close to equally sympathetic, to avoid biasing the readers. Give the characters radically different takes on how to handle the problem. And beyond the debate, show the character’s actions consistent with their espoused arguments.

    The story becomes preachy when one perspective is presented as steamrolling all opposition, or lacking opposition entirely.

    And contrary to the easy assumption, show-don’t-tell has little to do with either sight or hearing. Dialogue is inherently “showy”, despite the connotation of characters telling each other. This point was made in one of the dialogue episodes with Mary–perhaps 6.11 or 8.31, if my memory serves?

  7. I’ve recently updated my hardware on my computer and as a result for my efforts all my saved writing files disappeared! Can you discuss how to handle this sitatuon and what to do to pick yourself back up and starts over?

  8. @Sabre: I’ll be blunt. When a male says “there are no problems in the way females are treated” I assume ignorance rather than malice.

    The problems do exist. If you’re afraid that we’re going to break the things you love by fixing those problems, I’d like to reassure you, unless one of the things you love is rape fiction.

    Regarding that in particular — I have a friend who is afraid, VERY afraid, of sharks. The shark storyline in Schlock Mercenary put him off my comic for years. Not much I can do about that, obviously. People are weird, and varied. I can’t please all of them.

    If, however, my audience included large numbers of people who had been attacked by sharks, I’d sit up and take notice.

    Whether or not you believe it, a large number of women have been victims of sexual predators. They have been forced, coerced, or otherwise pressed into physical relations to which they did not consent. An even larger number of women fear this. They actively FEAR this.

    Rape fiction, then, is a trigger. Some men get off on it, both on the thrill of the illicit abuse of power AND the thrill of putting the rapist down. But a large number of the women who read the book will have a completely different reaction, and it’s not a pleasant one. It’s not a ratcheting up of the tension. It’s more like finding a cockroach in your burrito.

    Addressing this is not “social justice” and I’m not a “social justice warrior.” I’m a writer who works really hard to see points of view other than his own. I’m a businessman who recognizes that the things I will buy are not the same as the things many of my readers will buy. I’m an artist who looks for ways to illustrate things that use perspectives not available to the camera, nor even to the natural eye. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that my personal experience is too small a data-set from which to extrapolate anything.

    No, Writing Excuses is not going to become an SJW platform, but you can expect us to address topics beyond what you’re familiar with, and to hold opinions that are broader than the rather narrow one you’ve expressed. You’ll probably find this offensive (most folks do find opposing opinions offensive — Can Of Worms), but you’ll be a better writer for having listened and learned.

  9. Hey Estela:

    I cannot speak toward picking it up and starting over, but here’s a few things you can do to help avoid it in the future.

    1: Use cloud storage

    Whether google drive, skydrive, or dropbox, all of these will have off-site backups of any files placed in their special folders. I use dropbox, which has extensive version histories, so if I decide I want an earlier version of a file I can roll back changes a few days.

    2: Back up your data before changing hardware.

    Windows 8.1 has a great backup system called File History. You’ll need an external drive to back up onto. Windows 7 has a decent backup system, and Mac has the excellent Time Machine backup system.

    3: If you changed your hard drive, your files might still be on the old hard drive.

    If you just swapped out hard drives, and have the old one, the data can still be on there. If you’re not familiar enough with computers to know, contact a repair place or a tech savvy friend or relative. But pay your tech savvy friend or relative, even if it’s just buying them a tub of icecream or a dinner. Their time and knowledge is valuable (obviously, that’s why you’re reaching out to them).

  10. Estela- Not a “picking yourself up” point, but a point about software and backups. There’s various sayings in computer field about backups. One I like is “any data you don’t have backed up is data you don’t mind losing.”. For writing, you can get a USB flash drive for a few £, it won’t be big, but even a 500mb or 1gb drive will hold many copies of your stories, and are quick and easy to use. Buy 2 or 3, and have one for monthly, one for weekly, or possibly even daily backups. It takes 30 seconds, and you won’t lose months of work.

    Various- Thanks for the advice. Any idea that can’t stand up to scrutiny likely isn’t one worth preaching imo, and that good opposition ultimately makes the idea being preached look stronger, assuming that there is a right answer, which often times isn’t the case.

    Sillyeye- I’ve been listening a while, I think about series 7 or so, not sure. I’ve listened to most of the early stuff though. It’s a great podcast, which is why I’m concerned that it might go down the road of certain sites have.

    As for the radical side giving feminism a bad name, I can believe that to a point. Unfortunately it’s those extremes who are loudest and the ones getting stuff censored through shame and bully tactics. Any legitimate issues are quickly buried under a wave of irrelevant bile. A recent example was a controversy over a character in one game wearing high heeled rocket shoes. MRAs are the same. Some good points on fathers rights buried under irrelevant whining.

    It’s a shame, because the idea of everybody getting a fair shake I think is an idea everyone can get behind, but it all gets lost in us vs them bickering.

    Howard- I’m disappointed you had to resort to insults. I’m not ignorant of the position, nor am I narrow minded (or at least, I don’t think I am. Introspection is often flawed so any new position I’d like to hear). This isn’t really the best place for such a debate, but if we do argue this, can we leave the hostilities at the door?

    Anyway, my point is that I don’t see how rape specifically is worse than any other character motivation or other bad subject matter. You mentioned sharks. Spiders are one of the most common phobias iirc, and there is even a mod to replace the giant spiders in Skyrim with bears for people who are afraid of spiders. However, we don’t have calls for mass culling of spiders from fiction. Another example is clowns. There are entire horror stories based on killer clowns, which again plays into common fears that might turn some away from a story.

    The other side is the heroic motivation, and again, the same criticisms that people say about rape apply to other motivations. Violent crime, domestic violence, murder, war, and so on are all very bad things, things that people fear and worry about. Rape of anybody (you only mention women, but I’ll assume this was merely an oversight on your part) is a horrible thing, but I don’t see why it’s given special treatment. Is it cheap and often poorly used? Yes, but so are the others I mentioned. We don’t condemn it when Arnold Schwarzenegger guns down a dozen army guys, or Bourne wipes out half a dozen cops in a car chase without a care.

    As I said in my first post, I’d like to hear a good, proper reason why this is the case, instead of the usual rhetoric that, as SillyEye pointed out, often pollutes and drowns out the more rational points. Even if it’s as simple as “I don’t like this”. I don’t remember if you did a podcast on taboo subjects, I should go and have a listen if you did.

    One final point, this is getting off topic and is a nip pic though. I don’t like rape stories. There’s a guy who writes a famous series of books, I think it’s the Gor series, that advocate women as slaves. I wouldn’t read such a book unless it was to get an informed opinion on it. That said, I mention in this post games and censorship. I’m against censorship. Yet I run into the claim that if I object to the removal of blood, nazi iconography, teenagers talking about sex, nudity. or whatever else from a work, that I’m somehow a depraved sicko or pervert. I advocate freedom of speech and individual choice. If you choose to not include rape in your stories. More power to you. I guess I’m asking you to maybe consider what you are saying when you say
    “If you’re afraid that we’re going to break the things you love by fixing those problems, I’d like to reassure you, unless one of the things you love is rape fiction.”
    as this, to me anyway, reads like you are trying to shame those who don’t agree. Again, I’m going to assume good faith, but just saying, might be something to keep in mind.

  11. Estela: as for the starting over segment, it depends _entirely_ on how developed your writing collection is. If it’s a bunch of fragmentary ideas and half-completed outlines like mine is, starting from scratch is very easy. If you have a dozen trunk novels and a story bible for several different settings the way Brandon (presumably) does, it’s a catastrophe – I assume he has extensive notes on the Elantris world, Warbreaker world, Mistborn world, Stormlight Archive world, and every other fictional setting he’s worked with. As far as I know, the only thing that might actually be considered complete (as in the notes have little practical use as there are no more stories using that setting upcoming) is the Wheel of Time project.

    You’re probably somewhere in the middle.

    So, first off I’d follow SillyEye’s suggestion – if the upgrade included a new hard drive, check the old one and see what’s still on there. Odds are, your files are there.

    Secondly, there are some “undelete” programs out there for file recovery. If you’re using the same hard drive, you *might* be able to get one of these programs to pull the files out of thin air.
    (In technical terms, a hard drive consists of two parts – a list of files and where they are on disk, and the actual data of the file itself. If you can’t see the file under a normal view, that means it’s missing from that list of files. The data itself is listed as unused, empty space. Thing is, the more activity you have on your hard drive (specifically writing data to the drive), the higher the odds are of the computer using the part of the disk that has the data you want for something else – if it’s not on that file list, it doesn’t know there’s a reason to use that data for something else. An un-deletion program is designed to look through the entire data set of the computer and figure out where individual files are on the disk by looking at the disk itself, rather than the file table.) If you’re not that tech savvy, it’s probably best to get a friend’s help on the subject. That is, of course, assuming you don’t have anything deleted that’s compromising in some way – these programs let you scan lists of everything that’s ever been deleted, which might get a tad personal. (There are professionals for data recovery who you can pay for discretion, but the prices they charge are a bit extreme given that a demo version of whichever undelete program offers the most practical demo today can get you the same thing with a minimum of fuss.

    If those steps don’t work, you might have to accept the loss and move on. If you’ve got a bunch of small pieces, you might actually be able to draw things together from memory better than they were originally written. (Or possibly that’s just how I write – first drafts come fast and are largely horrible.) If you have a half written draft of a book (or more), then you’re just going to have to either start over or come up with a new project. You probably can’t restructure that much from nothing but memory, so just mourn your loss, relax, and start over. Harsh, but in the end, that’s all one can do.

    As for the future, SillyEye’s suggestions are both excellent. I keep all of my critical documents on Dropbox, which keeps a copy of every version of the document over the past few months, and even lets you recover deleted files by restoring the old version from the website (and those old versions of deleted files don’t count against your space limit) The free account gives you 2GB to work with (which can be expanded up to 8GB if you help them with their word of mouth promotion (which isn’t what I’m doing here, since I’m not giving you my reference sign-up link)). (If you play minecraft, there’s also a way to make the game put saves in dropbox, letting you use the previous versions to recover from any experiments that go wrong.)

    Longer term, I keep an external hard drive with _everything_ I’d be upset about losing on it, including my music collection, etc.). Personally, I’ve never trusted Windows enough to let it handle my backups for me, but I find it easy enough to do manually. Aside from plugging it on about once a week if there’ve been noteworthy changes or additions to data I want to back up, that hard drive sits on the desk with no power and no connection of any kind to any other computer component, so it’s perfectly safe, short of physical failure of the drive itself or environmental hazards like fire. Technically, a perfect data backup includes 2 versions accessible on the computer/network locally, a local drive that is only connected while performing backups (which provides security against viruses) and an off-site backup (which hopefully also includes the 2 online versions and 1 offline version), which provides security against local incidents like fires and inclement weather. (Between an external hard drive and the dropbox version history, you can effectively do that for your most critical stuff for free. Just don’t save videos – that’ll eat through your 2 free gigabytes in a real hurry.

  12. @Sabre
    Perhaps I am one of the few who took Brandon and Mary’s comments in regards to this in a different way, but I completely disagree with your point on a basis of misunderstanding the point of the original comments. To remind anyone without having to go back to listen, the quote (as per transcript):

    [Brandon] I would say mine’s similar. My least favorite trope is where a female character is made… Is proven to be strong by beating off rapists or by being raped and then overcoming it.

    I found the focal point of this to be, “Is proven to be strong” part which I feel is extremely valid of a point. Too often in a lot of fiction, female characters are borderline useless as plot-solving devices, and are proven to be competent not by any ability to defeat villains or solve problems, but simply because they were able to protect themselves from being raped, or had the mental fortitude to overcome it. There is a difference between a scenario of possible rape occurring and it is how the character proves they are somewhat strong, to some soldier thinks he is about to rape Xena, Warrior Princess and runs into the quick conclusion that he made a very, very bad mistake. To me, this comment was all about the proving strength aspect, and that it is a sexist notion that the only way a woman can prove herself capable is by protecting her own chastity. If this is the case in someone’s book, then they need to look into the problem of having flat, boring characters who don’t add anything significant to a story.

  13. Didn’t Julie from monster hunter international fall “in love” with a shoggoth as a child…. Mr Trashbags I think it was.

  14. In response to Brandon’s disliked trope

    **Way of Kings SPOILER**

    Jasnah in the alley? Would you say that counts, or that you weren’t trying to show that she was strong so it was almost the inverse?

  15. Now I want to write a satirical short story where male characters are evaluating a female character is ready for this or that; they get to the bit of considering whether she’s “strong enough” for given challenge, but reject her because she hasn’t proved herself by fighting off a rapist.

  16. “The Martian” is one of the best hard science fiction books ever. If I were teaching a physics or other physical science class I would assign that book to all my students. IT IS SO AWESOME!

    Glad you guys promo’ed it.

  17. Total agreement about “The Martian”. One of the best BOTW choices ever. I devoured it in 2 days. There are a few jarring POV shifts in there, but overall it was a fantastic novel and I actually enjoyed science and math for once. Will wonders never cease?

    In related thoughts, thinking about all the awful “mission to Mars” movies that have been made, Hollywood is LAME if they miss making a blockbuster movie out of this novel. Then again, Hollywood is lame. Sigh.

  18. I’ve been reading the martian as well – my coworkers are obsessed with that book – and with good reason. It’s like Gravity, but with much better science. The rising and falling action is great too – every time the protag works out a perfect solution to all of his problems murphys law comes into play brilliantly. They are working on a film version I believe.

    Good shout out.

    About backups: 1. more backup systems are always better than less; 2. always TEST your backups – you don’t want your first attempt to retrieve your work from the backup to be when that’s the only copy you have. and 3. Most of the time, work done a second time is better than the first. The easy parts will be redone fairly quickly, while the hard parts will still stump you and give you another chance to fix the issue. But yeah, pretty heartbreaking to lose so much.

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