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.
If we take creative structures to their extreme we end up with templates. There’s a certain snobbery around these, whether intended or not, that implies that using them isn’t really doing the craft, that it is somehow going to limit your creativity. To that I say nonsense.
There are all sorts of writing templates out there. Worksheets for setting design. Story structures. Character archetypes. They’re all short-cuts for creating part of your story, that give you a framework to hang the details on, and a reminder of what the important details are.
I’ve been using templates a lot recently, especially Dan Wells’s seven point story structure and Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s books on structure and characterisation. Once I’ve got an initial kernel of a story, these help me flesh it out in compelling ways. I’m building on the boundaries others have provided, creating something new within those structures, something that’s my own. And my stories have been better for it.
This doesn’t mean that I’m bound to those templates, or that I’m going to keep using them forever. They provide me with a way to practice the fundamentals, to go over building blocks of good writing until they come to me on instinct.
If I was learning to play folk music I wouldn’t start with my own composition. I’d play All Around My Hat until everyone around me was sick of that song. Then I’d learn the next tune, and the next, each time learning a bit more about how to play folk, until eventually I was ready to write the ultimate tribute to the victims of the Peterloo Massacre.
Using templates in writing is the same thing. It’s playing others’ songs so that you can write your own.
These templates provide boundaries, and that can provide inspiration. They’re not a restriction to which you must rigidly adhere, but a guide you can use until you feel confident to create those structures for yourself. Or that you can stick to forever if they work for you.
No story springs fresh out of nowhere, every one builds on foundations that others have laid. Fresh sparks of genius don’t fly unbidden from Neil Gaiman’s forhead, unrelated to everything that has come before. Instead he takes mythology and superhero comic tropes to create Sandman, or riffs on The Jungle Book for The Graveyard Book. If using others’ structures is good enough for him, then it’s certainly good enough for me.
What templates have you found useful? Do you, like me, sometimes feel that traitorous niggling in your guts that these are cheating? Have you seen them used well or badly in something you’ve read? Then leave a comment – there’s a template for it below.