Free Online SF+F Writing Course

In the best news ever for people learning to write science fiction and fantasy, the Writing Excuses podcast have decided that this year they’re going to run the show as a writing course.

Regular readers of this blog, along with anyone I’ve talked writing with for more than five minutes, will know that I’m a huge fan of Writing Excuses. It’s a brilliant show in which professional genre writers Mary Robinette Kowal*, Brandon Sanderson**, Howard Tayler and Dan Wells*** dish out weekly writing advice. This week they started season ten of the show, which will be a carefully structured year long course with themed lessons, writing exercises and Q&A at the end of each topic. If you’re not already listening to the show, and you want to hear some high quality writing advice, this is a great place to start.

Go forth, my happy writing minions, and listen to the wisdom. And if you do, then let me know – maybe we can share our work on the exercises.


* See my previous posts on her Glamourist Histories.

** Yes, the Wheel of Time guy.

*** I use his seven point story structure for everything.

Reading The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

I enjoyed reading The Final Empire, the first of Brandon Sanderson‘s Mistborn books.. It’s not in my list of all-time greatest reads, but it’s a fun tale well told, and I got to the end despite its epic length. This comes as a relief, given how much I like Sanderson’s writing advice – I’d have had a lot of re-learning to do if one of my favourite writing guides turned out to be a shmuck.

Final Empire

A world builder’s book

This is clearly the work of someone who loves world building. That has a lot of advantages. The background and mechanisms of the world are elaborately and consistently worked out. As you learn about the society and magic nothing feels out of the blue or incongruous – it all makes sense. There was slightly more direct explanation than I needed, characters explaining to each other how everything worked, but that was included as smoothly as it can be, and was always important to the development of the plot.

Not really a heist story

Sanderson has said that he intended this to be a heist story. I can see that intention in the book – the protagonists spend the book planning a caper/revolution, but I think this story was actually something else.

The heist stories I’m used to are films. They’re lean and snappy, rattling along without giving you time to consider their logic. There might be lots of set-up but its never padded out, and characterisation mostly comes through action.

Epic fantasy is in many ways the opposite of that. It takes time to explore its world and characters, to expand upon details and create a sense of wonder, to pause and let you consider how things work. That’s no better or worse than a heist story, it’s just different.

This is definitely epic fantasy, and so while it contains many elements of a heist story, it never feels like one. It’s a quest full of criminals.

Hint of cheese

The story has its inter-personal cliches, and the big twists didn’t surprise me. This isn’t to say that they were wildly telegraphed, just what you’d expect given the story, characters and set-up. I found them satisfying but not novel. After seeing them coming for so long, I would have preferred to be wrong in a way that made sense, but at least it wasn’t some terrible ‘gotcha!’ twist.

Lessons learned

So, what have I learned from this book as a writer?

Firstly, think through the implications of your world. Sanderson does a fantastic job of this, and it’s what has me interested to read the next book. It means that the characters, plot and setting fit seamlessly and satisfyingly together.

Be careful about modern idioms. The characters talk in an informal way that doesn’t try to create something antiquated and olde worlde, which was mostly great. But just occasionally – literally three times in 643 pages – there were phrases that felt too modern, and that jolted me out of the scene. That was a real shame, but so easy to do. I wonder how far that’s a matter of the writing and how far it’s a matter of my personal perspective, but it’s still a useful lesson.

You can get away with a lot with likeable characters. Seriously, I would never have got through this thing if the characters hadn’t been both likeable and quite interesting. I’d have liked to see more edge from some of them, and more depth in others, but in the end I wanted to spend more time with them, and that’s a good thing.

Final thought

Up until now I’ve kept it spoiler free. So unless you’ve read the book, or don’t intend to, now’s the time to stop.

So, the final twist in Kelsier’s plan – I couldn’t help but see that as a commentary on religion. I mean, here’s a man of magical power letting himself be put to death to inspire others to a greater good. But when you read it, did you feel that it cast a cynical or an optimistic light on religion? Was it saying ‘hey, look how a messiah can inspire people’, or was it saying ‘hey, this guy just manipulated people into building his cult’? I’m pretty sure Sanderson intended it as optimistic – he’s a Mormon, so not likely to be too cynical about religion – but did it feel that way to you?

And on that note, I shall get back to work. Then maybe some more reading – I have two more Mistborn novels waiting on the shelf. In the meantime I’d be interested to hear what others think of the book – leave your comments below.

Does good writing advice come with good books?

I’ve finally started reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books. I’ve been listening to his advice on Writing Excuses for years, so it made sense to read his books, to see how that advice pans out.

Plus my brother is reading them, and it’ll give us something other than Game of Thrones to talk about. (According to our nearest and dearest, we discuss GoT too much. To which I say, how can you have too much awesome?)

OK, maybe it was too much for Sean Bean
OK, maybe it was too much for Sean Bean

So far I’m enjoying the first Mistborn book. This is good, as I don’t like to give up on books part way through, and this one’s over six hundred pages long. But the whole situation raised an awkward question – do you have to enjoy someone’s writing to think that their writing advice is good?

There are two sides to this. On the one hand, doing something well is a different skill from analysing and explaining it well. On the other hand, given that there are many different approaches to writing, shouldn’t you be using ones that shape the literature you enjoy?

I remain ambivalent on the subject. For me, pretty much any writing advice is worth thinking about, and in many cases trying at least once. I don’t want to be the next Elmore Leonard, but there’s some good advice in his ten rules. Same for most writers, I’m sure.

So what do you think? Does your favourite advice come from your favourite authors? How do you pick the best advice? Leave your advice on this below.