If you’re serious about writing, you’ve probably come across the Writing Excuses podcast in your research. It’s hosted by bestselling authors Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler and Mary Robinette Kowal as the core team.
In weekly 15-minute episodes, these fabulous writers and their frequent guest authors offer their views on anything writing-related from antiheros to zombie tropes.
The podcast has a famous tagline: “15 minutes long – because you’re in a hurry and we’re not that smart.”
Well, I cry foul on that last part! These wordsmiths know their wordstuff. The number of episodes they’ve accumulated is testament to that fact: 12 seasons and counting.
[Actually, the first part of that tagline isn’t really true, either. Being in a hurry is relative. I can be severely strapped for time and I’ll still end up listening to two or three episodes of the WE podcast, because one just won’t cut it. I’d rather forego the hair-styling or the teeth-brushing or even the clean-clothes-finding than stick to only one episode.]
The podcast alone would help any frequent listener improve their writing. But the Writing Excuses team doesn’t stop there. They also offer a writing retreat and workshop every summer.
On a cruise ship. For a week.
Yes, I’ve gushed about this event before.
And now that I’ve been a part of it, expect more gushing. Because my hopes and expectations for this writing retreat weren’t just met. In many ways, they were surpassed.
My main expectation was that I’d improve as a writer. Mary Robinette Kowal calls it “leveling up” – the way you do in video games. It’s also the standard that the Writing Excuses team sets itself for these retreats: that the participants go home at least one level upped in their writing craft than they arrived with on the first day, for example:
- People struggling to finish their first book shall be provided the impulses they need to get to the end of that first draft.
- People who’ve finished that first draft shall go home with skills, ideas and plans for revisions.
- People who’ve revised their book to its best possible version shall be taught how to naivgate those treacherous Lands of Querying and Publishing.
There are many nuances of improvement in your writing. Different writers leveled up in different ways on this retreat, so I can only speak for myself. But here are the five ways in which I, personally, leveled up.
Level 1: Do your research
“There are two important things for a writer to get right in action scenes: guns and horses!”
That was Wesley Chu’s opening line for his workshop Deep Dive on Action. Yes he was being funny but he was also being very, very serious.
A lot of readers are very familiar with either guns or horses, or even both. According to Mr. Chu, they will eviscerate you as the author (by sending you emails ranging from explaining your error to abject outrage) if you get details on either of them wrong – which happens fairly often. I know little about guns, but I do know horses. I’ve rolled my eyes at their inaccurate portrayal in quite a number of stories.
That sentence alone served as a reminder for me that I still need to work on some things regarding weapons in my storyverse. I think it can also be seen as a reminder on a broader spectrum:
Getting things wrong as a writer diminishes the book because the reader who spots an inaccuracy is pulled out of the story. She becomes annoyed and less willing to suspend her disbelief in other parts of the story.
Don’t half-ass your research. Get your facts straight.
Level 2: Back to the roots
We writers are masters of procrastination. There are times when we’ll do anything but sit down to write, when actually writing seems to become this insurmountable wall in our minds. Those periods can span from a day or two to many months.
The longer they go, the more frustrated and disappointed we become with ourselves and our writing, and the harder it becomes to find back to it.
Even our bestselling instructors on the cruise admitted to having to overcome their procrastination habits on a regular basis. That made me feel better, but didn’t really solve the problem. It took the wonderful Emma Newman’s workshop Fear and Writing to peek behind the curtain of writer-procrastination and -paralysis:
The cause of procrastination is fear.
Fear of wounds from our past. Fear of failure. And, yes, even fear of success.
Fear itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a survival mechanism. But sometimes, especially in the heads of introverted, super-self-critical writers, fear tries too hard and gets in the way.
I realized that for me, my writing-paralysis comes from a type of fear of failure: fear of no pay-off.
I decided to become a published auhor what feels like eons ago; probably about ten years now. So far, I’ve gotten a few short stories out there. It often feels like I don’t really have anything to show for all the work I’ve done, all the time I’ve put in.
Writing is such a long-term game. More and more over those years, when I sit down to write and work on my books, one thought has popped up in my head.
What’s the point?
What’s the point of getting up early to write every day? What’s the point of writing, revising, rewriting, editing and rewriting again and again when nobody else reads it in the end, anyway?
But Emma Newman didn’t only help me discover my fear and reasons for procrastination. She also had tips on how to overcome them. And I found what works for me.
Now, whenever I feel that urge to procrastinate, I remind myself why I started writing as soon as I could hold a pen: for the thrill of the story.
Not to publish. Not to make money. But to experience and forever hold on to the stories in my head through my writing.
I leveled up by rediscovering a way back to writing just for the fun of it.
Level 3: To be inspiring, you must first be inspired
No, Jasper Fforde’s workshop on The Last 5% was not about rewriting or editing. It was about how to infuse your story with sparkle, warmth, charm and humor – that magic pixie dust that elevates a story from good to great, that gives it an edge above other, perfectly well-crafted stories.
Jasper Fforde, whose books aren’t just infused with that magic pixie dust but practically drip with it, has many suggestions on how to attain that sparkle. At the base of them all lies this simple secret:
Readers find stories great that inspire them.
Stories that inspire them to laugh. Inspire them to think. Inspire them to better themselves. Inspire them in their own creative endeavors. Inspire them to view the world differently or understand it better. Inspire them to broaden their horizons.
But to be inspiring as an author, you must first be inspired.
In a twist of the universe’s dark humor, a writer’s life often isn’t inducive to inspiration. We tend to be introverted, solitary creatures who’d rather live vicariously through our own and other people’s fictional characters than experience life for ourselves.
I definitely have this tendency. That doesn’t mean I give into it. I’ve learned it’s actually a lot more fun to live first-hand, not just through others (though that can be fun, too).
And yet this workshop definitely struck a chord with me. It hammered home the experience I’ve made on the predicament of inspiration: It doesn’t strike in its full capacity if you don’t feed it.
Jasper Fforde had many suggestions on how to feed your inspiration. Feed it with your interests. Feed it with hobbies besides writing. Feed it by questioning everything. Feed it by practicing verbal dexterity, by playing pun tennis, by mucking around with words. By being playful, using and abusing your memory, and having fun with words and events and life.
Basically, by going on your own adventures, large and small.
And that’s what I’m about to do. I’ll be work-and-traveling the world, starting in November. I’ve been thinking about doing so ever since I went freelance a year ago, but I’ve been putting it off for many different reasons.
The cruise and Jasper Fforde’s workshop finally gave me the push I needed to embark on my own adventure – and thereby hopefully level up my writing.
Level 4: Self-publishing really is a thing these days
The pros and cons of self-publishing versus traditional publishing have been discussed for decades. For a long time, self-publishing was almost automatically equated to not putting the best version of your book on the market.
But the book-market – like others – is a self-regulating beast. Demand determines supply, and readers demand well-crafted stories. A reader who comes across a poorly crafted story most likely won’t buy a second book by the same author.
Many self-publishing authors understand this. They make their books the best they can be, and they do it without the help of agents and publishing-house editors. Good alpha- and beta-readers don’t have to be professionals in the industry.
I’m not saying traditional publishing is a bad thing or even that it’s outdated. I’m saying that self-publishing has become a viable option for writers – and their readers.
Many traditionally published authors have also recognized this fact. Quite a few publish in a hybrid mode of traditional and self. A couple of our WXR-instructors do so, and have found success with it.
And so do several of the WXR-participants. People were open about their self-published books or their plans of going that route. The stigma that self-publishing supposedly has couldn’t be felt on this cruise. At all.
In fact, all self-pubbers on the cruise were incredibly supportive of each other and we had many interesting and helpful conversations about for example the ins and outs of marketing your self-published books.
That open and positive mood in regard to self-publishing in this large group of serious and successful writers has given me reassurance to stop dithering and move forward with my own self-publishing plans for Nightmare City.
It also gave me the courage to offer one of my previously unpublished paranormal romance novels to readers in a free, chapter by chapter blog series. Check out Chapter 1 here and sign up for my newsletter to be informed of all the coming chapters.
Level 5: Expanding your writer tribe
Finding your tribe is a wonderulf thing – and it does wonders for your inspiration and motivation. Since I’ve blogged about this phenomenon before, I’ll let that post speak for itself.
The best thing about the WXR cruise was without a doubt getting to know so many wonderful, inspiring, diverse, supportive and interesting writers and people.
Thank you all, especially to the amazing team beind the Writing Excuses Retreat, for this amazing experience, and for making sure that all of us leveled up in our writing in so many ways, large and small.