17.13: Structuring Around a Thing

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, Peng Shepherd, and Howard Tayler

Our exploration of sub- and micro-structures continues with guest host Peng Shepherd. This week we’re talking about how a story can be structured around a “thing.” The simplest explanatory example would be structuring around a map, which is where we start the episode… kind of like how The Lord of the Rings starts in The Shire.

This episode does not end with even one of us climbing a volcano.

Liner Notes: 

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson


Is there a “thing” in your project that could function as a natural structure?

The Flanders Panel, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

17.12: Structuring a Story Within a Story

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, Peng Shepherd, and Howard Tayler

One common structure—both macro and micro—is the “story within a story,” or “framing story” structure, and yet somehow we’ve never really explored it on Writing Excuses. Guest host Peng Shepherd is here to help us set things right.

Liner Notes: Here are some examples of story-within-a-story structure…

  • Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
  • Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
  • Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons
  • Neverending Story, by Michael Ende
  • One Thousand and One Nights
  • Sun the Moon and the Stars, by Stephen Brust
  • Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson


Take or create an artifact within your current WIP, whether it’s a letter, a diary entry, an in-world almanac or spellbook, etc., and flesh it out for a chapter. See what it adds to your worldbuilding or plot.

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

WXR 2022 Scholarships!

UPDATE: The application deadline was April 17, 2022. Applications for scholarships for the 2022 Writing Excuses Workshops and Retreats are now closed.

We do offer scholarships every year!

The Writing Excuses Retreat is back! And this year we have TWO of them:

  • June 27-July 2, in Capitol Reef National Park, focused on fiction related to space: astronomy, space travel, space exploration, and more. This site has a Gold Star rating from the International Dark Sky Association, so the stargazing is incredible. The instructors will be Dan Wells and Mary Robinette Kowal joined by Astronaut Cady Coleman. Attendance is capped at 30 students. Click here to find all the details and registration information for Capitol Reef.
  • September 11-18, on the cruise ship Liberty of the Seas, for the perfect blend of writing classes, critique groups, live recordings, and Caribbean vacation. This voyage sails out of Houston, and will visit Cozumel, Costa Maya, Roatan, and Belize City. The instructors will be Brandon Sanderson, Margaret Dunlap, Howard Tayler, Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, and Dan Wells. Click here to find all the details and registration information for the Caribbean Cruise.

This year, as always, we are offering scholarships: two for Capitol Reef and four for the cruise. Half of the scholarships for each event will be Out of Excuses Scholarships, awarded to those in financial need, and half will be Carl Brandon Society Scholarships, awarded to writers of color. Both categories have introduced us to some incredible writers in the past, and we can’t wait to see who we get to meet this year. Share this post with everyone you know, read the rules carefully, and apply!

Information and Entry Rules

Each scholarship offers full tuition, $500 of travel expenses, a bed in a shared room, and hotel expenses in the destination city for one night before the event. Because the food on each retreat is free, this covers essentially all your expenses for the week, though depending on the flights you arrange, you might need to cover some of the travel yourself.

You may apply to either the Out of Excuses OR the Carl Brandon scholarship, but not to both—even if you qualify for both. Indicate your preference for Capitol Reef OR the cruise OR let us know that you would be interested in attending either ONE of those events. We will assign each winner to one of the retreats.

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

To apply, please click here to fill out this Google Form and be ready to upload the related files for your scholarship application. You will need to upload 2 files:

  1. One PDF file saved as “[Name of Scholarship]-[Your Name]-essay” including the following:
    • Personal Essay, word count (between 450-700 words): A 450-700 word personal essay explaining why you are a good candidate for the scholarship. What makes you unique? What can you bring to our group that no one else can? Keep in mind that even as we focus on “need,” the panel will also be reviewing your writing in terms of “merit.”
    • Letters of Recommendation: Three brief letters of recommendation (no more than 300 words each) from people who are not your relatives: friends, bosses, people from your writing group, anyone who can tell us exactly how awesome you are.
  2. One Writing Sample saved as “[Name of Scholarship]-[Your Name]-writing-sample”, total word count (1-3 pieces, limited to 5,000 total words): A brief example of your writing, consisting of 1-3 separate pieces and totaling no more than 5,000 words. These can be short stories or novel excerpts. Don’t feel obligated to fill the word count: if you can wow us in less, more power to you.

If you a concern or question, please contact Dawn at danwellsassistant@gmail.com.

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

Because we are starting later in the year than usual, our schedule is by necessity highly accelerated. The application period for both scholarships opens TODAY, and closes at midnight PST, April 17. We will contact the winners on May 9 and announce them officially on May 10. That gives applicants one month to get their packets ready, it gives us three weeks to review them, and it gives the winners just under two months of notice before the first of the two retreats.

If you have any questions regarding the scholarship, please email Dawn at danwellsassistant@gmail.com.

Scholarship FAQ:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: The description of the scholarship says it comes with a “shared occupancy room.” What does that mean?
A: On the cruise, you’ll have a roommate; in Capitol Reef, you might share a room with four or five other people. If you know someone else on the retreat, you can let us know and we can probably put you together, but otherwise the assignments are made at random, and you will make a new best friend.

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

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

Q: I submitted my application, but I’m not sure it arrived and/or something else happened and I want to be sure we’re cool. What do I do?
A: We strongly recommend submitting your application with plenty of time before the deadline to avoid technical issues and instances Murphy’s Law. A confirmation email would have been sent to the email you provided upon submitting your application form. If you still have doubts, email Dawn at danwellsassistant@gmail.com. She can check and tell you for sure whether your application arrived safely.

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

WXR 2022 Writing Workshops and Retreats

Join fellow writers as Writing Excuses hosts two amazing writing workshops and retreats in 2022!

Capitol Reef, UT – June 27 to July 2

Go off the grid with WXR instructors Mary Robinette Kowal and Dan Wells, joined by Astronaut Cady Coleman, for a writing retreat focused on astronomy and space exploration at the Capitol Reef Field Station in Utah, which has a Gold rating from the International Dark Sky Association. Make the most of this, the darkest week of the month, to draw inspiration from nightly stargazing and learn from workshops focused on astronomy, space exploration, science communication, and how to portray those topics in fiction.

Click here to register for Capitol Reef!

Caribbean Cruise – September 11 to 18

Cruise with WXR core hosts Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells, plus Margaret Dunlap and DongWon Song on the Liberty of the Seas, casting off from Galveston Texas with stops in Costa Maya, Roatán, Belize, and Cozumel for the perfect combination of relaxation, learning, and writing.

Join us in seminars designed for working writers who are interested in leveling up their skill set, critique groups, unlocking sessions, reading practice, and opportunities to discuss all aspects of writing as a career with multiple career pros.

It’s a cruise ship. On the ocean. With great food, fun ship board activities, adventurous excursions – and writerly minds to keep you company.

Click here to register for Caribbean Cruise!

Have questions? Please click here to check out our FAQ.

If you still have questions, you can email the WXR Team at writingexcusesevents@gmail.com.

We hope you’ll join us for one or both of these great events to spend writing time with fellow writers, the Writing Excuses team, and some truly wonderful guest instructors!

17.11: Structuring with Multiple Timelines

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, Peng Shepherd, and Howard Tayler

Guest host Peng Shepherd continues to lead our exploration of sub- and micro-structures by taking us into the scaffolding of in media res, flashbacks, and other tools for structuring a story by telling it out of chronological order. We also cover how to do this without breaking the flow of the story.

Liner Notes: The “trousers of time” book Howard referenced was Jingo, by Terry Pratchett.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson


Consider what adding a second timeline to your current WIP would enhance about the story. Which characters’ motivations might be better illuminated, or which plot points or mysteries might be able to be given additional depth?

The Cartographers, by Peng Shepherd

17.10: Structuring with Multiple POVs

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, Peng Shepherd, and Howard Tayler

In our second micro-structure episode, Peng Shepherd leads us into an exploration of the ways in which the use of multiple point-of-view characters can create a framework within the larger framework of the story.

Liner Notes: In one example we contrasted the single POV Killing Floor, by Lee Childs with its multiple-POV TV adaptation in season 1 of Reacher.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson


Write a scene in your current WIP from another character’s POV and see what changes,  like how the tone of the scene shifts, or what new emotions or information are revealed.

Meet Me In Another Life, by Catriona Silvey