All posts by Howard Tayler

Writing Excuses 10.17: Q&A on Beginnings

We’ve talked about beginnings this month. Now we’ll answer some of your questions on the matter. Here are the questions:

  • What are there differences between the beginnings in different forms?
  • How do you begin in media res when you’re not writing action?
  • What’s the biggest mistake that can be made when plotting the beginning?
  • I see a lot of big-name author beginnings that aren’t all that strong. Why should I spend time making my beginning awesome?
  • How do you balance the need to have something happening right away against the need to have the reader know something about the characters?
  • In creating a character, where do you start in the development process, and what do you begin revealing first?

 

Play

Take the world-building you’ve done, write your beginning, and then secretly write down your “gee-whiz.” Now run that beginning past some alpha readers, and have them attempt to identify the “gee-whiz.” Compare their answers with your own.

The Shepherdess of Sienna: A Novel of Renaissance Tuscany, by Linda Lafferty, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal

Writing Excuses 10.16: What Do I Do With All This Blank Space?

The first page is often the very hardest one to write. In this episode we talk about how to fill the space on the first few pages of your story, because those are the pages where you have to convince the reader to keep going, and the very first page is often the only chance you have to get the reader’s attention at all.

The good news is that the first words the reader reads are not going to be the first words that you write. You can find the story’s voice before you pour that voice into the those first pages.

Play

Write your first thirteen lines, and see how much you can fit into that space—character attitude, point-of-view, mood, genre, conflict, setting, and more.

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helen Wecker, narrated by George Guidall.

Writing Excuses 10.15: Worldbuilding Wilderness with Wes Chu

Wes Chu, author and adventurer, recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, and has some things to say about all the wilderness trekking that our characters do in the books we write, and how we often forget to say anything about sleeping on inclines, altitude sickness, or packing toilet paper.

The salient point: we need to remember that our characters are experiencing these wilderness treks, and they have interesting opinions about them.

Play

Wes has a tough writing exercise for us: take something that you’ve already written, swap the personalities of your protagonist and antagonist, and re-write a scene from the story.

The Rebirths of Tao, by Wesley Chu, isn’t available yet on Audible, but the first book in the trilogy, The Lives of Tao is.

Writing Excuses 10.14: How Much of the Beginning Needs to Come First?

April is all about beginnings, at least as far as Season 10’s syllabus is concerned. So let’s start!

The cool stuff you plan to put in your story will need other stuff to set it up, and that setting up means that other stuff needs to come first. But how far down does that rabbit hole go?

In this episode we talk about how you can determine which elements of your story should come first. We also define (finally!) the term “promises” in the way we use it when we say “promises made to the reader,” and then we talk about how to figure out what promises we’re making.

Play

Homework: Start writing your story! Write 500 words, focusing on just one of the promises you’ve identified for your story. Then stop, and start writing another 500 words with a different promise. Aaaand then do it a third time.

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu, narrated by Luke Daniels

The “Out of Excuses” Seminar and Retreat Scholarship Recipient is…

The applications have been reviewed, re-reviewed, sorted, parsed, and very meticulously evaluated, and the time has come to announce the recipient of the 2014 scholarship for the Out of Excuses seminar and retreat.

Congratulations, Julie Rodriguez!

Julie has been notified by email and has accepted. We’re all looking forward to having her join us at this September’s event.

Thank you, applicants, for your interest. We’re honored (and perhaps a wee bit intimidated) to have so many high-quality writing samples to review. Speaking of which, we’re very grateful to the scholarship selection panel at the Carl Brandon society (Wesley Chu, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, John Lawson, and K. Tempest Bradford) for their help with the review and administration of the scholarship.

And thank you, all of you who have expressed interest in the Out of Excuses event itself. We recognize that the demand is currently far in excess of what the retreat facility can accommodate. We don’t have anything to announce on that front, be we are up to our elbows in the investigation of possible alternatives.

Venue options notwithstanding, we’ll definitely be holding seminars and retreats in the future.

A Midweek Writing Exercise: “Statement of Problem”

Howard here. Let me cut straight to the exercise:

Describe the problems you currently have with the Writing Excuses website, but do so without describing solutions to those problems. 

and then…

Describe things that work the best for you, or things that you enjoy the most at the Writing Excuses site, but do so without simply naming the feature.

We’re giving writingexcuses.com a redesign, an overhaul, and we need use-cases. From you!

In the world of web design (and in the larger world of software design, and the even larger world of product design) the engineering team will do the wrong thing when presented with a long list of instructions from end-users. What they need is a concise list of instructions from an architect, who has looked at the various use-cases in their correct contexts.

Here is one way you might respond to this exercise without having paid attention to the instructions:

“Use a bigger font, and make the buttons bigger, too.”

Okay, but will a bigger font actually solve the problem? Let’s reword this and see.

“I can’t read the site when I’m using my phone, and when I try to click on links or buttons I usually miss.”

Oh-ho! Now we know that what this user actually needs is a version of the site that comes up for mobile devices, and which is optimized for use there. (Note: yes, we know this! And we also hate when mobile sites don’t provide the full feature set. Both of these things are already in our requirements list. And we also know that even for laptop/tablet/PC/Mac users, the existing font is often too small.)

More examples:

I like the tag cloud.

Well, okay. Producer Jordo hates tag clouds, and I don’t like tagging things when I write episodes up, but we’ll go ahead and leave that alone, I guess.

I find episodes using the tag cloud, and sometimes I find super-helpful episodes that I didn’t expect would help.

Wait, you mean it works? Well, that changes things. I’m encouraged to keep tagging episodes as I create them, even though (confession time!) I don’t use the tag cloud myself, and I worry that it might not be useful. And hey, for some of you it might not be! That’s why this writing exercise is so important. One person’s solution or favorite feature may be another person’s problem, and unless we describe the problems and the functional use-cases, we won’t catch that.

Let’s do this one more time…

Don’t make the site all bloated and graphics-heavy! I hate sites that do that.

There’s no value assigned to “bloated” or “graphics-heavy.” Why do you hate sites like that? Are you offended by color? Is it a mobile phone issue? This totally ties our hands, because adding ANYTHING might be problematic here.

I like how quickly the site loads. Episodes take a while to stream, but the UI comes up fast.

This statement identifies load-time as the thing we need to not break. Taken in context of other problems and other successful use-cases, we can see exactly what we need to do.

This writing exercise is especially tricky the more you know about web site design and software design, because you probably already know the solution we’ll end up using. You want to save time and just jump ahead. If you’re passionate about the solution you’re offering, that’s yet another difficulty level. They stack! That means this is a great writing exercise for the engineers among you! It’s like “show, don’t tell,” only with more descriptions of eye-strain and less pre-formatted XML.

Producer Jordo and I interact with the site differently than you do, and Izzy and Tiffany (our development team) are even further disconnected. But if you give us the right information, we’ll give you a new, improved writingexcuses.com that will amaze you, and part of that amazement will be that we gave you good stuff without taking any of the old stuff away.

Unlike our writing prompts, this exercise goes into the comments. And we’ll actually read it! (No critiques, though.)

For your handy-dandy, below-the-fold reference, here is the exercise again:

Describe the problems you currently have with the existing Writing Excuses website, but do so without describing solutions to those problems. 

Describe things that work the best for you, or things that you enjoy the most at the Writing Excuses site, but do so without simply naming the feature.

The Out of Excuses Writing Retreat II: The Retreatening

*drum roll*

We are thrilled to announce Out of Excuses II: the second annual Writing Excuses Workshop and Retreat! Our event last year was a resounding success, so we’ve polished our microphones and carved out our schedules and we’re raring to go. And we want you to join us!

What is Out of Excuses?

One full week of classes, workshops, and open writing time, all with the (Hugo award-winning!) cast of Writing Excuses: Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells. We’ll teach you, we’ll talk to you, we’ll hang out, we’ll record live podcasts, we’ll even make you dinner. Imagine waking up to a character class with Mary Robinette; writing all afternoon and then getting advice from Brandon about the chapter you just wrote; eating a delicious dinner artfully grilled by Howard while you talk through your plot outline with Dan. That lucky writer could be you!

Mark your calendars for these two dates:

  • January 18th, 2014: Registration opens at 9:00 am EST
  • September 29 through October 5, 2014: Out of Excuses II

And now, the pertinent details…

Registration opens January 18, and will likely close on January 18th as well. Last year we sold out in 9 minutes, and this year we’re reducing the number of memberships from 30 to 24, so expect the retreat to fill up fast. Memberships will cost $750 per person plus housing (around $500 at the hotel around the corner; more if you want one of the rooms on campus, less if you can arrange your own housing somehow). You will need to arrange your own means of travel. Watch this space, and listen to the podcast, for more details on how to register.

Scholarship:  One of those 24 memberships will be reserved for a scholarship recipient. This will be based on merit, need, and diversity, and we expect the competition to be fierce. If you can afford the normal retreat price, please don’t wait and hope you’ll get the scholarship, because you won’t. The scholarship will pay for a membership, a slot in the hotel, and up to $500 for gas or airfare. We’ll provide more information before registration opens.

The 2014 Out of Excuses Writing Retreat runs from September 29 through October 5. There will be three days of writing classes and workshops, followed by three days of blissful writing time, capped off by a closing half-day filled with wonder and amazement. All meals will be provided, and every night you’ll have the chance to sit in as we record live episodes of the podcast. The retreat will be held in Tennessee, at the Kowal family estate, which is even more gorgeous and wonderful than you can imagine. Last year we watched Jaws, played a crocquet LARP, and chatted with a few surprise guests. What will we do this year? You’ll have to come and find out.

Attendees can fly into Chattanooga, or can fly into Atlanta and catch a shuttle to Chattanooga. Hopefully this provides you with enough information to determine your travel budget. Once you get to Chattanooga, we’ll handle getting you to the event.

Writing Excuses Retreat: Scholarship Deadline!

Last year we announced the first ever Writing Excuses Retreat, and an awesome scholarship to go along with it. We’ve never done an event like this before, but we feel pretty good about it, and we think it will be a big help to a lot of writers, and we don’t want that group to be limited by money. If you’re a good writer, eager to become better, but can’t quite afford a week-long conference, we want to give you our scholarship. But there’s only one week left.

The scholarship application deadline is January 15–just a few days away. If you were thinking about applying but never got around to it, there’s still time! If this is the first you’ve heard of it, jump in and go for it! The application process is involved, because we want to make sure this goes to the right person, but we really think it’s worth it. Read all the application info here (http://www.writingexcuses.com/2012/11/05/the-out-of-excuses-writing-retreat-and-the-thats-a-pretty-good-excuse-scholarship/), follow those instructions exactly*, and let’s make this happen.

Good luck!

(*Note: Seriously, follow the instructions exactly. We winnow applicants the way publishers winnow slush…)