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4 Tips Worth Repeating from Writing Excuses, Season 7

Writing Excuses is a podcast run by four successful authors that’s unique because each episode is only fifteen minutes long. This constraint keeps the content focused. Leslie and I listen to them when we’re cleaning or working out, and if we find an especially good episode, we take notes. Here are four episodes focused on writing that I thought were worth sharing.

Episode 7.17: Guns and Fiction

Episode | Audio | Transcript

Books and other media often portray guns incorrectly. These inaccuracies may only stand out to gun enthusiasts, but knowing the constraints of how guns work will add realism, and potentially drama, to your story. Consider these details:

  • Where does the shell go? For instance, it could have a 20 foot arc and be incredibly hot.

  • Guns have recoil.

  • Guns are loud. It would be difficult to have a normal conversation during a gunfight.

  • Shooting often without ear protection can make you deaf.

  • Certain guns, especially older ones, will basically smoke in your face. You have to aim while being unable to see.

  • Not all guns have safeties. If your character has a specific gun and they use a safety, make sure that gun actually has one.

If you have guns in your book, consider getting a gun enthusiast to read over it.

The guest speaker, Larry Correia, said:

“It actually makes for good drama. Once you understand the limitations of firearms and how to write them in your sequences, you can make your sequences a lot more interesting and believable by putting in those little tidbits. It's not just for the gun nuts, it's not just for the guys like me in the audience, but everybody will appreciate that attention to detail.”

Episode 7.40: Writing the Other

Episode | Audio | Transcript

Not only was this the most entertaining episode I’ve heard yet, Maurice Broaddus also does a fantastic job of explaining common pitfalls of “writing the other.”

From the transcript:

Key points: Writing the other means writing people who are not like yourself. Beware the magical Negro, noble savage, and other tropes and stereotypes. Watch out for characters who are just plot devices. The best way to write the other is from personal experience and knowing people. And do your research! Do not assume that everyone is like you, and everyone has the same cultural background. When you write the other, otherness should be part of them, but not their focus. Try having two or more characters from the same culture, but very different. Go shopping with an open mind, and see what shakes loose.

Maurice also explains how he does research.

Part of how I research gangs is on YouTube. You would think it wouldn’t be helpful with gangs, but you’d be surprised how many gangs put like their initiations online, for Lord knows what reason. I get to draw from primary sources that way.

But then when I turn around and write a story set in ancient Africa, it’s like, “Well, where do I start?” Well, I’m going to go to museums. I’m going to find any local clubs or charters or associations from that group that I can. I’m going to go to their meetings, I’m going to talk to people as much as I can, because I want to draw… I want to get into relationship with as many different people as possible.

Brandon Sanderson had two big takeaways:

  • When you write the other, make the otherness part of them but not the focal point.

  • To avoid stereotypes, include at least two people from the same culture. One person often represents an entire culture in epic fantasy, and they may parody themselves. For instance, all dwarves are like Gimli. This is bad, boring writing. Have two different characters from the same culture. Then you focus on them as a character, not them as a race.

Episode 7.42: Contemporary YA Fiction

Episode | Audio | Transcript

Janci Patterson starts writing a book by writing the pitch first. Her example:

Ricki’s mom abandons her. She goes to live with her dad, who’s a bounty hunter. They’re on the road in his travel trailer and Ricki develops a crush on the guy that they’re chasing.

Janci discovered it was difficult to come up with a pitch after writing her first draft because there were inherent structural flaws in the story. A pitch-first approach keeps her focused on the story. Pitches contain conflict, which leads to good questions.

Another attribute of a good pitch is that it evokes lots of questions. Specific questions, like with Ricki, are how is she going to go after this guy, and how’s that going to affect her relationship with her father? So for my outline, I take all those questions and try to answer them. I try to bring them out in the beginning of the outline, and then answer them by the end, so that the issues I’ve brought up in the pitch are actually answered in the book, and it’s a satisfying experience for the reader.

If something in her outline is incompatible with the pitch then she weeds it out. Pitch-first approach makes it easier to find what actually belongs in the story.

The pitch is so distilled that other ideas she gets while outlining and writing haven’t caused her to modify her pitch, yet. If it’s a good idea that’s incompatible, she sets it aside for a later story.

I think this could work for certain types of stories, but I think many of my favorite books wouldn’t have been written if they had followed this approach. I’d like to try it with a future book and see how it goes.

Episode 7.10: Importance of Criticism

Episode | Audio | Transcript

Ever read something you really liked, but had no idea why you liked it? If you aren’t able to tease it apart by rereading it, retype it. This helps you approach it in a different way, and might demystify your attraction to that story.

Mary Kowal made an excellent point. She once did a production of the Wizard of Oz, acting as Toto. The group did a showing of the film on the big screen and some of the other cast members didn’t want to watch it, because they thought it would stifle their creativity. Mary realized studying Toto would actually help her portray the dog.

We are influenced every day by our experiences. Why not give the things you admire a better chance to influence you?

I remember watching Pixar’s Ratatouille and I was impressed by how well they captured rats’ movement. They studied rats, and did their best to mimic it.

Another thing I like to do is take a strong passage from a book you’ve read. Replace the words with content from your story, but try to keep the punctuation and rhythm of the original passage. I especially like to do this for key scenes that are similar to another book, when the other author nailed the right feelings. You can edit the passage later to make it more of your own.

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