Writing Excuses: retrofitting structure

Writing Excuses is one of the only podcasts I listen to. I like to explain it to my friends thusly: “THEY JUST KEPT TALKING AND I WANTED THEM TO GET TO THE POINT.” My friends usually roll their eyes.

Most podcasts are about an hour long and make me want to tear out my hair. One, two, or occasionally three people will ramble on about some subject or another for the whole duration. It makes me want to eat hearts. I become Baba Yaga in the wood. I whirl about and grab the reins of my chicken hut and ride into the sunset.

Honestly, I hate podcasts. If I want to be talked at by people, I’ll go to work at my dayjob. Otherwise I’m just as happy to read a book. I guarantee I can read faster than you talk.

That said, I love Writing Excuses. What’s interesting about this podcast is that it is a) exclusively focused on writing and writing techniques, b) really short, which makes me happy, and c) is in a conversational format that allows for insight. All of the participants (regularly, the podcast includes Dan Wells, Mary Robinette-Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, and Howard Johnson) come from diverse parts of the writing world. They have experience teaching the craft, but very different opinions about some parts of it. It’s not two people in an echo chamber, nor is it a boring interview. It’s a group of people having healthy conversation (albeit probably somewhat rehearsed) about what techniques they use to make their writing good.

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Gushing is now over, I swear.

Recently, I was listening to an episode from Season 12 entitled “Retrofitting Structure into a First Draft.” I always have a hard time with determining where a first draft begins and a zero draft or second draft ends. The finals are easy to clarify, mostly, but for the purposes of this podcast I think it’s healthy to disregard the “First Draft” moniker. Instead, the conversation is about retrofitting structure of your draft when you know something is broken.

Case in point: a few years ago now (wow, how time flies) I finished what I affectionately call The Zombie Book at a time when many were saying that the zombie genre was dead. Putting aside whether or not a genre can die, this book was my favorite thing. I loved it deeply. Nothing I have written since has filled me with quite as much joy, actually, at least of the maniacal kind. The main character is a rather unstable middle-aged woman who could easily be a supervillain but somehow finds herself helping out with a ragtag band of people saving the world from an apocalypse that’s sort of their fault. It was lots of fun to write, and I still hold out hopes that it will find a home in a publishing house somewhere. I hear zombies and their ilk are making a comeback. A resurrection, even.

Bad humor aside, I loved this book. I hated the ending. It felt like a good ending in that it set up some things for a sequel. It brought some of the various plots I had been playing with to a solid close and opened up some new ones. Sequel material, in other words. Perfect. But it didn’t jive. It didn’t quite feel right.

Listening to this episode of Writing Excuses helped me to figure out exactly why that was. I didn’t quite keep my promises to my readers. There was a tonal shift.

In any case, I’m very excited to perform the activity in this podcast and fix that problem. Hopefully listening to this episode will give you some insight as well.

Impostor syndrome

Recently I listened to an episode of Writing Excuses entitled Impostor Syndrome, with Alyssa Wong. I love Writing Excuses, and I listened to this particular episode at a time in my life when I was feeling that impostor syndrome very strongly. We all have days like that, when we come face to face with our inadequacies and can’t see anything else, when we make those flaws larger than life. I was incredibly grateful to this podcast, and I encourage you to listen to it. But there was definitely something missing for me.

Writing Excuses is made up of a bunch of excellent and famous writers. There’s Brandon Sanderson, perhaps best known for finishing The Wheel of Time series. Mary Robinette Kowal is a phenomenal writer who has won multiple awards and been published in many collections. I strongly recommend her short stories especially, but she is also an excellent novelist. I may have mentioned Ghost Talkers a few posts back. That was her. Howard Tayler has been on the Hugo ballot, and Dan Wells has a multi-book series in the John Cleaver books. They are all well beyond where I am as a writer. This podcast was in fact about that. They were discussing having “made it” but never quite feeling that you have any legitimacy.

I have not made it. This is not an example of impostor syndrome, actually. This is a bare fact. I am making it. I am in the process of climbing. That is something I can be comfortable with. There are no awards that recognize me, there are no even mediocre book deals. There has been no moment of relief on this mountain, and so there can be no sense that I do not deserve that relief. That is what the podcast was referring to: the sense that you do not deserve the relief of recognition of your effort. That you do not deserve the praise, the acclaim. This requires having praise and acclaim.

However, the feeling comes from the same place. The feeling of being an impostor flares up when I think that I will never make it. That my work will never find its audience and that this hard grind, this endless, impossible climb, will never have a moment of relief. It is the same feeling, but different.

My S.O. told me recently that it was utterly irrational to feel bad about not being successful in a field which requires so much input from other people. You cannot control readers. You cannot control agents or editors or advertisers or the people they advertise to. Each little thing you throw out is lost in a sea of media. We are inundated every day with such a massive amount of information. When you become a creator of content, you add to that sea. The additions never cease, and each year they pile on one another. All of which is to say that your voice will be lost. It takes years and years for an author to break through to the top of that pile, and many of them sink down again. You should not be embarrassed or think yourself less than for not welling immediately to the top. That is just silly.

That is what I wanted to hear from the podcast, and happily I had him to tell me that instead. Sounds grim? It is. But for me, it is a comforting bit of grim.

One of the important points that was made in the podcast was the importance of knowing why you continue to create. If you create for acclaim, you will fail. That is something that I have been wrestling with and something that I have had stated to me multiple times recently. If your focus is on selling books, you are doomed to failure. You will never sell enough books to assuage that hunger. But if your focus is on telling a story, and telling a good one – telling a story for a story’s sake – that will never leave you.

So, in light of that, I leave you with this inspiring video. I can only find the link on Facebook, so you’ll have to click through. Enjoy.