Reference Desk #13 — Writing Excuses

I have a system for listening to podcasts. First, I hear about a podcast that sounds interesting. Then I subscribe to it on my phone. Then, for weeks, sometimes months, I occasionally look at the icon in my podcasts. Once the podcast is nicely aged, I might decide to try listening to it. Either that or I get irritated with the number of things I’m subscribed to, and I delete it.

I’m glad I didn’t delete the Writing Excuses podcast. I finally got around to listening a week or two back, and now I’m listening to it pretty much every day during my lunchtime walks. It’s my new favorite writing podcast.

There are four regular hosts in the episodes I’ve listened to thus far: Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells. Each episode typically includes several or all of the regular hosts, along with one or more guests.

The resulting discussions feel a bit like writing conference round-tables with a rotating selection of professional authors. This is a speculative-fiction heavy podcast, with all of the regular hosts and many of the guests working in the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror genres. However, they also bring a diverse set of writing backgrounds, with work ranging across short stories, novels, web comics, traditional comics, audio books/plays, and RPGs, along with the specialties brought in by the guests.

What’s in an Episode?

  • Each episode is about 15 minutes. Occasionally it runs long when the hosts get excited about a topic. This relatively short length makes it easy to listen to an episode in a spare moment here or there.
  • The hosts and guests discuss a single topic. Sometimes it’s stand-alone, sometimes it’s part of an over-arching series that may stretch across as many as ten episodes. Recent multi-episode topics include poetry, writing for video games, and business considerations.
  • Each episode also includes a reading recommendation (or rarely some other media), and a little homework assignment related to the topic.

History

The pod has been around for a long time. It’s been running since 2008 and is currently in season 16. If you’re starting on it now, like I am, that’s a backlog of hundreds of episodes. Unless I really binge, that’ll take me ages to work my way through. As an added bonus, it means that when I’m looking for info on some random writing topic (like serialization or alternate history), there’s probably already an episode covering it.

(I did notice an oddity: on Apple Podcasts, there is a separate listing for seasons 1-6, and another for seasons 7-10. Seasons 11-14 and most of 15f are completely absent. However, all of the episodes seem to be available from the official podcast website.)

Links

The official website (with all episodes, transcripts, and additional stuff) is https://writingexcuses.com/.

There is also a discussion forum for the podcast on Brandon Sanderson’s website: https://www.17thshard.com/forum/forum/34-writing-excuses/.

16.38: Deep Dive into Character Writing Excuses

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, C.L. Polk, Charlotte Forfieh, and Mary Robinette Kowal Our fourth M.I.C.E. Quotient episode explores the “Character” element, and how these angsty, navel-gazing voyages of self-examination can serve either as complete stories or as elements in other stories. Also, we talk about how to do this in ways that don’t result in readers complaining about … Continue reading 16.38: Deep Dive into Character →
  1. 16.38: Deep Dive into Character
  2. 16.37: Deep Dive Into “Inquiry”
  3. 16.36: Deep Dive into “Milieu”
  4. 16.35: What is the M.I.C.E. Quotient?
  5. 16.34: Novels Are Layer Cakes

The Scrivener Podcast — A Follow-Up

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about Scrivener’s new podcast, Write Now with Scrivener. I think it’s hard to judge most media based on the first episode, but I gave it a bit of a mixed review. The first half, focused on the author interview and writing process was interesting. The second half, focused on how the author used Scrivener, was a little too infomercial for my tastes.

The next episode of the podcast dropped, so I decided to briefly revisit it here. The guest author for episode two is Dan Moren, science fiction author. I have to say, this one hooked me more than episode one, so I’m glad I kept an open mind.

I’ll be clear up-front that this episode is just better tailored to my personal tastes. I’m a reader and writer of sci-fi, and I’m honestly more interested in the perspective of a relative up-and-comer. Dan Moren has a couple of books out in his science fiction series, and seems to be doing well, but he’s open about the fact that his fiction writing income isn’t paying the rent, let alone buying Lamborghinis or a 40-acre ranch. Peter Robinson, the episode one guest, was nice enough, but he was working in police procedural style mysteries, has dozens of books, and seems to be much more at the “rich guy” end of the spectrum.

Regardless of my tastes, I thought this episode had much better conversation too. Some of that may be the host getting a little more practice. Some may be that these two have a bit of a history together. I’m guessing most of it is down to the fact that Dan Moren hosts half a dozen podcasts, and is pretty comfortable in this environment. The “how do you use Scrivener” section of the podcast felt much more natural this time around, although there was still one moment I noticed where the host was a little too energetic giving Scrivener tips and I could feel the sponsorship miasma creeping in.

After this second episode, I’m on board. A once-per-month, half-hour podcast is easy to commit to, and the content is pretty good. I’ll keep listening.

I’ll put the second episode below, and if you’re interested in sci-fi authors who are open about finances, agent/editor interaction, and the nitty-gritty of publishing, you should check out Dan Moren’s blog.

Episode 4: Annik Lafarge, Author of Chasing Chopin Write Now with Scrivener

After a career in publishing, from being a publicist to senior editor, Annik Lafarge is now a consultant and advisor to authors. Her latest book is Chasing Chopin: A Musical Journey Across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutions. Annik talks about how important it is for authors to help market their books. "I honestly don't think I could have written this book without without Scrivener." Show notes: Annik Lafarge (https://anniklafarge.com) Chasing Chopin (https://whychopin.com/about-chasing-chopin/) David Bellos: The Novel of the Century, The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables (https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/181/181795/the-novel-of-the-century/9780241954478.html) Michael Gorra, Portrait of a Novel, Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (https://wwnorton.com/books/Portrait-of-a-Novel/) Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic, Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/82976/confederates-in-the-attic-by-tony-horwitz/) Scott Huler, Defining the Wind, The Beaufort Scale and How a 19th-Century Admiral Turned Science Into Poetry (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/84279/defining-the-wind-by-scott-huler/) Catherine Raven, Fox & I (https://www.spiegelandgrau.com/065447811953/projects) Maggie O'Farrell, Hamnet (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/612385/hamnet-by-maggie-ofarrell/) Learn more about Scrivener (https://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener/overview), and check out the ebook Take Control of Scrivener (https://www.literatureandlatte.com/store). If you like the podcast, please follow it in Apple Podcasts (https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/write-now-with-scrivener/id1568550068) or your favorite podcast app. Leave a rating or review, and tell your friends. And check out past episodes of Write Now with Scrivener (https://podcast.scrivenerapp.com).
  1. Episode 4: Annik Lafarge, Author of Chasing Chopin
  2. Episode 3: J.T. Ellison, Thriller Author, TV Show Host, and Publisher
  3. Dan Moren, Science Fiction Author, Journalist, and Podcaster
  4. Episode 1: Peter Robinson, Author of the Alan Banks Crime Fiction Series

Reference Desk #9 — Write Now with Scrivener

I’ve made no secret that Scrivener is my tool of choice for writing novels. Now — like everyone else in the pandemic — they’ve announced a podcast. It’s called “Write Now with Scrivener,” and it’s scheduled to come out monthly. Thus far, there’s only one episode.

Like any series, I don’t think the inaugural episode is enough to judge a podcast, but I decided to check it out and see what it has to offer.

The Interview

The host is Kirk McElhern, author of “Take Control of Scrivener,” which is certainly on brand. He’s not somebody I’m familiar with, so I had no expectations. McElhern seems to have prepped well for the interview, and had solid knowledge of his subject, but I didn’t feel like he asked any particularly surprising questions or drew out any great insights.

Part of it, perhaps, is that the interviewee for this episode is Peter Robinson. He’s the author of the Alan Banks series. With more than thirty published novels, he’s clearly a successful author, but I don’t read a lot of detective mysteries, and I’m not familiar with his work. So again I came in with no expectations.

We learn that Robinson eschews outlines (can we please stop using the word “pantser” for this?) when starting a new book, but builds an outline as he goes to keep himself organized. As someone who outlines, I always find this a little bit amazing. Even more amazing to me is that he doesn’t know the ending. I’ve only ever dabbled in mystery, but it seems difficult to know where you’re going in the genre without an idea of the ending. It goes to show that writers can have very different processes to achieve similar results.

The Obligatory Bit About Scrivener

The final few minutes of the podcast was reserved to discuss how Robinson uses Scrivener. This was the bit I had concerns about. On the one hand, perhaps I would get a couple of useful tips. On the other hand, perhaps it’s just very thinly veiled advertising by the patrons of the podcast.

Robinson dutifully explained that he writes scene by scene, in fairly small chunks, and that Scrivener makes it easy to rearrange those scenes with drag-and-drop, or pull things out and save them for later. He also uses snapshots before changing a scene to compare the different versions afterward.

Having used Scrivener for a few years, I didn’t really get anything new out of this, and unfortunately it felt a little bit like advertising. However, if you’re new to Scrivener, these are the kinds of simple, straightforward features that make the product good for writing novels, and they’re useful to know about.

The Verdict?

As I said before, I’ll withhold judgement until I’ve heard a couple episodes. Overall, I found the chat with Peter Robinson interesting, even if I’m not a reader of his books. I hope that they’re able to get authors from various genres for future episodes.

I’m honestly a bit worried about the “how do you use Scrivener” bit. As much as I like the product, it feels a little too advertisey. I suspect that most writers are going to  talk about the same handful of main features: the ones at the core of what makes Scrivener good. What might be able to make this segment shine is an author who really utilizes some of the more hidden features.

Episode 4: Annik Lafarge, Author of Chasing Chopin Write Now with Scrivener

After a career in publishing, from being a publicist to senior editor, Annik Lafarge is now a consultant and advisor to authors. Her latest book is Chasing Chopin: A Musical Journey Across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutions. Annik talks about how important it is for authors to help market their books. "I honestly don't think I could have written this book without without Scrivener." Show notes: Annik Lafarge (https://anniklafarge.com) Chasing Chopin (https://whychopin.com/about-chasing-chopin/) David Bellos: The Novel of the Century, The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables (https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/181/181795/the-novel-of-the-century/9780241954478.html) Michael Gorra, Portrait of a Novel, Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (https://wwnorton.com/books/Portrait-of-a-Novel/) Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic, Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/82976/confederates-in-the-attic-by-tony-horwitz/) Scott Huler, Defining the Wind, The Beaufort Scale and How a 19th-Century Admiral Turned Science Into Poetry (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/84279/defining-the-wind-by-scott-huler/) Catherine Raven, Fox & I (https://www.spiegelandgrau.com/065447811953/projects) Maggie O'Farrell, Hamnet (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/612385/hamnet-by-maggie-ofarrell/) Learn more about Scrivener (https://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener/overview), and check out the ebook Take Control of Scrivener (https://www.literatureandlatte.com/store). If you like the podcast, please follow it in Apple Podcasts (https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/write-now-with-scrivener/id1568550068) or your favorite podcast app. Leave a rating or review, and tell your friends. And check out past episodes of Write Now with Scrivener (https://podcast.scrivenerapp.com).
  1. Episode 4: Annik Lafarge, Author of Chasing Chopin
  2. Episode 3: J.T. Ellison, Thriller Author, TV Show Host, and Publisher
  3. Dan Moren, Science Fiction Author, Journalist, and Podcaster
  4. Episode 1: Peter Robinson, Author of the Alan Banks Crime Fiction Series

Reference Desk #8 — Working it Out

There’s a rare thing that happens sometimes in great comedies. The writers insert an episode, a scene, or even a few lines of dialogue that create a dramatic, emotional impact. A little island of seriousness among the jokes.

When this is done correctly, the knife twist from lighthearted laughs to pathos can be every bit as impactful as a similar scene within a drama, where the entire show may have been building up to it.

Fans of Futurama will know what I mean if I mention Fry’s dog, Seymour. Fans of Scrubs will remember Ben Sullivan. And fans of Adventure Time might just get a little choked up when they hear “Everything Stays.”

Birbigs

I’ve been a fan of Mike Birbiglia for a while, and I think it’s mostly because he lives on that edge between humor and pathos. He considers himself a stand-up comedian, but his on- and off-Broadway shows often feel like half dramatic one-man-show, half stand-up special. They revolve around events as serious as sleep-walking through a second-story window or being T-boned in a hit-and-run car accident.

Working it Out” is Birbiglia’s podcast. As you might expect from a comedian’s podcast, there are plenty of popular comedian guests, from John Mulaney and Hannah Gadsby to Jimmy Kimmel and Frank Oz. But rather than being a simple excuse to joke with friends and acquaintances, Mike makes it something halfway between an interview show and a critique circle. It turns out he is deeply studious when it comes to the craft of telling jokes, and the craft of storytelling.

The through-line of the 40 episodes that have been released so far is the new show that Birbiglia is developing. It started with the title “The YMCA Pool,” but he now calls it “The Old Man and the Pool.” It’s a comedy show about getting older and coming to grips with your own mortality.

In the first episode, Mike tries out some of the material he’s working on with his friend and “This American Life” luminary, Ira Glass. Ira gives him advice that involves significant rewriting, and he accepts it graciously. By episode 25, when Ira returns, Mike has done his rewrite. They run through it again, and discuss it in depth. Mike jokingly asks, after half a year of revisions, how close his story is to being worthy of “This American Life.” And Ira deadpans, “halfway there.”

The Vulnerability of Revision

What makes Birbiglia’s comedy work so well, and the knife-twist that makes it hit so hard, is his vulnerability on stage. The podcast is different from a stage show, of course, but it still works because he’s willing to be vulnerable in front of an audience.

It’s clear that Mike doesn’t shy away from the hard work of revision. Guests bring their work in progress, and he brings his, and they hash it out, every episode. Some of the guests are clearly less into the workshopping aspect than others, but Birbiglia’s enthusiasm shows through.

If you’ve read any of my writing development journals, you can probably see why this appeals to me. There’s something raw and awkward about a rough draft. It’s hard enough to be confident about work that’s polished to a mirror shine, and it can outright hurt to reveal the grotesque early versions of the art we’re passionately trying to create, in the midst of its creation. But it’s immensely reassuring to be reminded that it’s like that for everyone! Art doesn’t spring fully formed from our minds, like Athena from the head of Zeus. It has to be shaped and reshaped. Bits added on, and bits sanded off. The slow, steady grind of progress.

Of course, it helps to have a few jokes to lighten the mood, even if they are jokes about death.

54. Phoebe Robinson: Is She a Writer? Oh Yes, She Is Mike Birbiglia's Working It Out

The last time Phoebe Robinson and Mike hung out, they were waiting to be picked up by an Uber on the side of a highway after their tour bus broke down. In this episode, they discuss Phoebe’s third book, "Please Don't Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes,” the eternal question "to prenup or not to prenup," and why Mike was qualified to be a token white guy on Phoebe's "Sooo Many White Guys" podcast. https://www.girlswritenow.org/
  1. 54. Phoebe Robinson: Is She a Writer? Oh Yes, She Is
  2. Natasha Lyonne: No F**kin’ Around
  3. 53. Pete Holmes Returns: Paperback Pete and His Soft Body
  4. 52. Randall Park: His Superpower is Turtle Figurines
  5. 51. Jim Gaffigan: We Met in 1997 at a Pizzeria