Writing Excuses 10.4: Q&A on Ideas

At the Out of Excuses Workshop and Retreat we premiered the Season 10 concept, and we invited our attendees to give us the questions we need this month. (They’ll also be the ones providing our questions for February, but we’ll cast our net wide for questions in March.)

  • Ideas are hard! Is it ever acceptable for inexperienced writers to write derivative works?
  • How do you keep from being discouraged when something similar to your idea comes out?
  • How do you know when your idea is a novel, vs. when it’s a short story?
  • Should you only write for themed anthologies if you already have an idea ready in that theme?
  • How can you practice description when your idea is set someplace completely unfamiliar to you?
  • When should you abandon an idea you love?

Liner Notes: We talked about novel-length vs short-story-length ideas in Season 6, Episode 10 when we covered the M.I.C.E. quotient, and again in Season 8, Episode 20, when Mary talked about short story structure. Also, the anthology into which Howard was drafted on the basis of a spur-of-the-moment idea is Shared Nightmaresand his story is called “U.I.”


Take one of the ideas you’re excited about, and then audition five different characters for the lead role in that story. Make sure they’re all different from each other.

City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett, narrated by Alma Cuervo

23 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.4: Q&A on Ideas”

  1. I already loved Writing Excuses before, and now there’s this Master Class thing going on and I love it all the more! Is there a place where students are getting together to share their homework and just talk writing? If so, I’d absolutely love to join!

  2. Regarding derivative works: I wrote a derivative work of a public domain character. Want Santa? King Arthur? Beowulf or Mother Goose? Take ’em. They belong to all of us now and they offer familiar, beloved content to spin off from, as a starting point. My derivative work took me farther than I could reasonably hope–JABberwocky is representing it and publication looms. (Thanks to a lot of advice and moral support from Writing Excuses. I never felt alone.)

    I really like the master class format. I’ll confess that I’m not participating (I’ve got projects in process that need my attention and did not want to start a new one). Even so, even as a Writing Excuses fan who is not getting the full benefit of the new method and who has lost his beloved old fave, I love the new show. It just seems like an incredible service to the community of budding writers.

    One of you guys who is participating needs to get your project published. That would be the ultimate endorsement. Come on! Push, push, push!

  3. Sorry, this is going to be long, but these are things I struggle with. And I welcome comments by anyone.
    To expand on the question about description, I’d like to know how you go about researching a setting you know little to nothing about in order to figure out how to describe it. What kind of resources do you go to, especially if you can’t go there yourself?
    For instance: If someone has never been out of a city (and can’t do on site research) and needs to write about a forest – or vice versa – how would they get concise info on what kind of flora and fauna would be there and what landscape features should be in that area?
    And what if it’s a fantasy world? How do you go about keeping your setting believable and not putting features into the landscape that wouldn’t be in that kind of climate or that features that wouldn’t naturally be in the same area? How do you figure out what kind of landscape features you want in the first place? And how do you do this for a short story that you don’t want to spend too much time on, but still need a good amount of information to make it believable.

    And another related question: How do you come up with the layout of fantasy cities and villages? How do you figure out what kind of buildings should be there and where they should be logically placed? How do you figure out interior building layout if you know nothing about how buildings are designed? Are there good resources on the web for this kind of thing?
    I have always admired writers like OSC who make maps for fun, but that is something I am very bad at.

  4. Mary’s tag line says this is season ten, episode three. It matters not a bit in terms of the wonderful content, but I don’t know if it’s important for your housekeeping issues.

  5. Since the handy-dandy author’s idea book was mentioned, I was a little curious: does anyone else occasionally find ideas that, upon reviewing, you wonder what possessed you to write them down in the first place? Not because they are weird, or potentially incriminating, but because they are so mundane that you have no clue what got you interested in them in the first place?

    Anywho, existential crises aside, great podcast, and I eagerly await future month’s Q&A’s!

  6. @J T
    Not only do I do that, but I also write down exciting new takes on existing ideas that on reflection aren’t really that different than the original idea.
    Both of these usually come down to my not having expressed well enough on paper what I had in my head at the time, then forgetting later what was actually exciting about it.

  7. @J T For clarity, by “exciting new takes on existing ideas” I mean my own pre-existing ideas.

    And I usually write down a few sentences with words that, at the time, evoke the excitement I have for the idea [I try to get them down quickly as I have a horrible memory], then they lose their meaning by the time I come back to them and lay there like dead fish. If I spend a little more time on them, I usually cement the exciting spark into place. It works for me to be a overly clear about the idea as possible, even if I am restating the same thing from slightly different angles; I have looked back at old ideas and the second or third way I put something will have much more resonance than the first way I stated it. Sometimes the excitement of an idea has more dimensions to it than you think and you should try to capture them all rather than writing down just the surface one that evokes excitement at the time.

  8. @Howard
    Is it possible to make it so we can edit what we have posted? That way we can correct mistakes or expand on thoughts without making a new comment every time.

  9. @Derth,

    For learning to describe a setting I’ve never experienced, I usually rely on Google maps and street view to start out; once I’ve found a specific area where I want to set a scene or which I want to mimic in a secondary world, I do searches on that specific place and look for anything I can find on it, from wikipedia pages to blog posts to forum conversations. If I can’t find the specifics I’m looking for, then I just make them up and assume that if they’re not significant enough to have made it to the searchable portions of the internet, then I won’t be bothering too many people if I get it wrong.

    For cities, I’d say you need to know the history of the city in order to determine what it will look like. I like to use Moscow and Saint Petersburg as examples for this. Moscow grew up from a small village into a huge city, with more and more people moving in en masse and building wherever there was space. Consequently, the city is a messy hodgepodge of random, often narrow streets and buildings. It’s chaotic and unpredictable. Saint Petersburg, on the other hand, was deliberately planned out and constructed under the orders of Czar Peter the Great. The original portions of the city are very orderly and scenic, with wide avenues and planned views. And the government continued to oversee new construction over the years, so even the newer, outer portions of the city tend to be more orderly and roomy than most areas of Moscow.

    Most cities will fall somewhere on a spectrum between those two extremes. Portions of the city might be planned out, while others will just grow chaotically. A less-than-considerate lord or government might clear out portions of the city to rebuild the city center or a palace district in the manner they want, or a massive fire could give the city rulers a chance to rebuild a once-chaotic city in a more orderly manner. A planned city might be surrounded by chaotic, unsupervised suburbs or slums (like Cairhien in the Wheel of Time).

    As for what buildings should be around and where they should be placed, you’ve got a lot of leeway there. Most cities simply expand wherever there is space, and people aren’t always as logical about where they build as you might think. Lots of buildings have collapsed because they were built on bad slopes and lots of businesses have gone out of business because they didn’t have a good location.

    Certain patterns will probably hold true–main thoroughfares will tend to be lined with businesses, and smaller business centers will pop up in the heart of suburbs and such that are too far from the main streets for convenience. Depending on the era you’re writing in, mills, foundries, tanneries, warehouses, and other such businesses will crop up along riverbanks (either because they need the flowing water to power their machinery or for the easy shipping along the river or both)(or to dump waste into the river). Smelly businesses such as tanneries, butchers, and dumps are often built a good distance away from the city, but then can end up inside the city after a decade or two of growth and expansion.

    But beyond those basic patterns, you can do just about whatever you want with a city. People aren’t always logical or intelligent in their constructions. The more people you have in one place, the more likely it is that some dunce will create a confusing or illogical or downright stupid mistake, and then people will just live with it. So don’t worry–odds are, you can’t make any bigger mistakes with your city than people have already made in real life.

  10. @Derth

    I recently finished a story that had a jungle as part of the setting, although I’ve never visited one, and there were a few things that helped me. One was visiting a local greenhouse which had exotic plants, and getting to see them up close and get a feel for the temperature, smell, bark texture, etc. (If you Google “conservatory” or “greenhouse” plus your area, you can probably find a few options.) Driving or bussing out to a nearby park and wandering in the woods is also helpful, even if it’s not the exact climate. So is finding Youtube videos of the area you’re emulating and paying attention to noises, wind level, how much people are sweating, etc.

    If you’re looking for city and village layouts, architecture, or most other research, never underestimate the power of a real live librarian. Google is fantastic if you know the right keywords to search for, but librarians can steer you to the right database or stack of books when you’re starting from zero knowledge. Once your general knowledge about the topic is higher, doing web research gets more effective. Kids’ books about medieval life, how buildings are built, etc. are also a good starting point for the same reason.

    As far as transferring it to fantasy or sci-fi, general research in climate, topography, etc. goes a long way. A good scientific background is incredibly useful for writing fantasy, as paradoxical as that sounds, and your research for one story will often help you on others. Once you start with a realistic setting, it’s easier to figure out how your chosen magic/technology would believably alter that landscape or culture.

    I hope this helps!

  11. @Chris Baxter

    Just took a peek at your site. It looks extremely useful. Can’t wait to dig in.

  12. Huh, interesting writing prompt… Very challenging with the idea I’ve started developing, but given said idea is currently rather…lacking of characters in general… definitely something I’ll be working on. Thanks for the idea, and I’m looking forward to the new stuff on character design.

  13. I have every single episode of Writing Excuses downloaded onto my computer. I’ve been away for a bit, letting episodes queue up, but now that I’m back, this Master Class thing sounds so awesome!

    I’m wondering for the Q&A sessions, what is the best way to have the team see my questions for a potential episode response?


  14. I’m already working on a novel and just found Writing Excuses. For the purpose of following the podcast, should I start fresh, or try to keep things inside the world I’m already working on?

  15. I found this prompt challenging too–I think partly because my head was full of too many other tangled up projects this week. I finally decided to follow another suggestion from this episode and swipe an idea from the public domain. And then, since I was having a hard time thinking up characters, I asked my husband and kids for suggestions.

    What I wound up with was the story of Little Red Riding Hood, re-imagined with the following characters in the lead role:

    Attila the Hun (suggested by my sweet, cherubic 12 year-old daughter)
    Lydia Bennet (from Pride and Prejudice)
    Captain Kirk (as played by William Shatner)
    Princess Leia
    and my personal favorite: a monkey with a grenade.

    (Yes, dinner conversation at my house tends to be rather…interesting.)

    You can read them here if you’re interested: http://www.amybeatty.com/blog/2015/1/28/writing-excuses-homework-episode-104

  16. I had an Idea for a Novel. I even gave it a title.
    I was about to start plotting it when I decided to check my Emails.

    Imagine my surprise and hysterical muteness when I saw, right there in Brandon’s list of “Future Works”:

    “The King’s Necromancer”.

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