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Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells and Howard Taylor

Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells and Howard Taylor
Book Name: Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology
Author: Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells and Howard Taylor
Publisher(s): Dragonsteel Entertainment, LLC
Formatt: Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy Anthology / Short Stories / Writing Advice
Release Date: June 28, 2014

Shadows Beneath is both an anthology of short stories and a glimpse into the writing process, created by the Writing Excuses podcast team: Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells and Howard Taylor. Each author provides one story, as well as a selection of extra ‘behind the scenes’ material including early drafts, edits, and insight into specific changes or the thought process that went behind various elements of the stories. There are also transcripts of podcast episodes in which the stories were brainstormed and critiqued.

Imagine something like a DVD that contains the original piece, the director’s commentary, and some short extras that provide insight into how it was made. Readers who are interested in seeing how a story is tweaked into shape will enjoy this peek behind the scenes; writers and aspiring writers will find a lot of very useful information and insight into the writing process here, especially the critiques and workshopping.

The anthology begins with the stories themselves, and I would strongly recommend reading it in this order, as the extra material is more useful after reading the stories in question. Mary’s story opens the collection – “A Fire in the Heavens” is a moving fantasy story about a woman travelling across the ocean to the semi-mythical homeland of her people. On the tidally locked planet, this journey takes her into the moon’s light for the first time, but she is unprepared for how the people who live under its light will react to her. This is a lovely story with some beautiful imagery and interesting characters.

Next is “I.E. Demon” by Dan Wells, a much shorter story with a military paranormal element, concerning an Afghanistan field test of military technology that renders explosive devices harmless. This is a more light-hearted and fun story – I don’t read much military fantasy but I really enjoyed this and I liked the voice of the main character.

This is followed by Howard Taylor’s “An Honest Death” in which the CEO of a company invested in extending human life is visited by Death. The security team in charge of his safety must figure out whether this unexpected threat is really what it seems, and how to deal with it if so. Another shorter story, this has some great characterisation and interesting revelations.

Finally, there is Brandon Sanderson’s novella “Sixth of the Dusk”, set on the deadly island Patji where humans utilise birds that can mask their thoughts from mind-tracking predators. When a trapper sees a vision of the island’s destruction, he races to try to prevent the imminent disaster. This is longer and more slowly paced than the others but well worth the time and extra wordage – the worldbuilding is fascinating and there are some lovely twists leading to a great ending.

There is a nice variety of stories here, different in subject, style and tone. Perhaps this was to be expected given the writers involved, but it is a definite bonus of the anthology. Not only does it keep things interesting for the reader, but also has the added benefit of revealing the different pitfalls and problems that different kinds of stories can create. Each writer brings certain strengths to the collection and to the workshops, meaning that the combination of their approaches gives the reader a whole selection of tools to help them with their own writing, whatever its style or focus may be.

The anthology now tackles each story in turn. For Mary’s, a brainstorming session reveals that she began with the concept of sailing across an ocean and seeing the moon for the first time. This striking image seems to have set the tone for the piece, and immediately suggests elements of worldbuilding, but what Mary had to work at was finding a story to go with the concept. Seeing Mary’s first draft was particularly interesting for me, as it showed how important the development of character (and one in particular) was to the story – without it, it just didn’t shine the way the finished piece did.

Dan’s was written with a very specific audience in mind, which brought a completely different set of challenges with it. His revisions will also benefit writers who are looking for help in tightening their plots and keeping their pacing snappy. Both Howard’s and Brandon’s workshopping focuses on finding the right ending, and interestingly both of their fixes involve a more in depth look at the characterisation and goals of their main character in order to give character-level pay off as well as plot pay off. I found Brandon’s inclusion of his writing group notes particularly useful, as it provides insight into how he arrived at the most emotionally satisfying ending for the reader, as well as showing that he did not incorporate all advice and criticism into his final piece.

While I did find the edits interesting, I actually thought that the workshops in combination with the first drafts were the most revealing and useful of the additional information provided. These allowed us to see how problems were identified and fixed, and how other elements were either expanded on or abandoned in order to tighten a story or add more emotional depth. There is so much information here, and I think it really succeeds in what it sets out to do, opening up the process and revealing different ways to approach whatever new problems each stage of writing and editing may throw at the writer.

If there is a criticism of this anthology, I would say it’s that the stories are in such good shape to begin with! The brainstorming sessions often seem to plant the barest seeds of an idea, but then we are faced with a solid, finished draft, or one that simply lacks an ending. It would have been interesting to take a little look at the process between these stages – what made the writer choose to take this idea but abandon that one, or to tell their story from this point of view, or to go this way or that way with the setting, etc. A less experienced writer might take all the ideas that came up in the brainstorming session and cram them all into one first draft, but because these writers are all very experienced, they have a much better idea of what will work and what won’t before even beginning the first draft. There is also not much insight into structuring or plotting, or the creation of character.

This is something that could perhaps have been achieved with a separate essay or the inclusion of the authors’ preliminary notes, but on the other hand, this may be going a bit beyond the scope of the anthology. This isn’t really a writing anthology so much as an editing anthology, a different but absolutely vital stage.

In the introduction, Brandon presents the anthology as one of “Brandon Sanderson’s patented Crazy Ideas”, as a project that he hoped would bring something a little bit new and different to the wealth of writing advice out there. I think he and the other members of the Writing Excuses team have managed to do just that. This is a brilliant idea – advice is one thing, but seeing it for yourself and being able to dive into the stories in their raw form, to root around in the edits, is incredibly revealing. I would recommend it to writers, editors and anyone who is interested in finding out more about how a story is formed and wrangled into shape. And, if you haven’t come across it already, check out the highly entertaining and informative Writing Excuses podcast itself.


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