Proof Reading

There's something wrong with my brain, and I'm fairly certain that you might have the same problem I do. When I write something, say, an email, or a story, I have a super hard time proofing that thing in the medium in which I wrote it. So, if I wrote it in Word or Scrivener, then catching minor mistakes is a real issue for me. I can use the original medium to find plot problems, blatently obvious, big picture problems, etc. But when it comes to using the wrong verb tense, or a very nearly correct (but still incorrect) word (e.g. "She spent all of her live vs. She spent all of her life) I really do have a difficult time. These are the sort of annoying problems that don't always jump off the page to you (the author) but will absolutely jump out to the reader. This can be really bad if the reader is someone you're trying to get to buy/publish the book.

Considering I'm in the midst of a major revision of my novel, I've had to do some fancy footwork to come up with alternatives to staring at a computer screen and not finding things. What follows are a couple of methods I've tried (and the ones I particularly like) to help with this problem!

I use Dropbox to facilitate each of the items below (well, other than #1 and I think you'll see why in a moment). Basically I export whatever I need and then upload it to Dropbox. Then from there I can import it onto my phone / tablet / whatever.

1. Print It Ok let's get the boring one out of the way first. This isn't terribly practical for a novel, given the length. I don't really use this method much anymore, but when I was doing a lot of short fiction I ALWAYS printed my stories out to proof them. I found infinitely more issues this way than I did reading on the computer.

2. eBook It This is my current favorite method. I do a ton of reading on my tablet using both Overdrive and Kindle. Scrivener has a super nifty 'compile' feature that lets you export your book into .epub (generic eBook, works with Overdrive) and a .mobi (Kindle eBook format). So, right now as I'm proofing my book, it's got the same black background and white text that I prefer, the chapters are all linked up in the table of contents, I can adjust size, orientation, etc. just like I could in a real eBook... because my book is now a real eBook. It's just an unpublished one.

If you're interested in knowing more about the compile feature, keep reading. I'll talk a bit more about it at the end of the post.

3. Listen to It I LOVE Audio Books and Podcasts. I listen to something 4+ days a week. Reading the book aloud doesn't help me all that much, oddly. However, listening to someone else read it does. There is a free app for mobile phones called Go Read for Android (I'm sure there is something similar for Apple). Go Read takes an .epub file (see item #2) and uses a text to speech algorithm to read the .epub back to you.

I'm not going to lie... this one is painful to experience. The mechanical computer voice is pretty terrible, mispronounces words, and does some very strange things (e.g. when I have a scene break and put eight asterisks in between paragraphs to signify that, the narrator literally says asterisks asterisks asterisks asterisks asterisks asterisks asterisks asterisks). Still, despite this, it REALLY helps me to hear problems when I hear the book read back.

I spent a lot of time last weekend traveling home from Europe and I was all ready to spend a good chunk of the plane ride proofing the book. I was using #2, and had my ebook all queued up and ready to go. Then, I realized the next problem: proofing in another medium, while helpful, makes it much harder to fix problems.

At first, I was just using my tablet to read and my phone to note issues. I didn't have my computer handy. Then, I realized that pecking out words and sentence fragments AND notes on how to fix them into a smartphone (on an airplane) was just stupid. So I gave up and decided to wait until I could have the tablet in front of me and the laptop handy. The workflow then is to find a problem in the ebook on the tablet and then fix it on the laptop right then.

This is something I've struggled with for ever. I'm a pretty reasonable editor when I'm looking at other peoples' material. When I am reading my own work though, I miss a lot of fairly blatant mistakes. They are often simple mistakes, but I still miss them and it's embarrassing. I really do believe (and hope) that by approaching the proof in this way will make it better.


The only reason I wanted to write on this in a bit more detail is that it is not immediately obvious on how to do an export from Scrivener into Kindle. I found a couple of posts, but they didn't quite beat me over the head in the way I wanted.

In the Windows version of Scrivener, the .mobi compile option in the compile file formats drop down is your approach for Kindle. When you select this, Scrivener will ask you to locate 'KindleGen' on your computer for you. This is a free app from Amazon that will create the necessary Kindle (.mobi) file for you. I tried for quite some time to figure out how to link up Scrivener and KindleGen. Well, you actually have to start the compile process and select the .mobi file extension BEFORE Scrivener will give you the opportunity to locate KindleGen.

The other tricky thing about the Kindle is that you have to 'email' the book to yourself. So, for me, when I export from Dropbox on my tablet, I select 'send to kindle' and a few minutes later it shows up imported and downloaded from my cloud account. Pretty nifty.

The .epub files open directly in Overdrive (and Go Read) but they are not at all compatible with the Kindle app. So, if you want to use .epub then you should plan on using a different reader. Personally, I find the Kindle reader to be superior to Overdrive, but you have some options.

A Change in Perspective

There is an age old adage in fiction writing: Write What You Know. I tend to agree with this line of thinking. I tried for years, somewhat unsuccessfully, to write a book that was sort of a spy thriller. You know what? I haven't read a lot of that genre. As soon as I started working on a sci-fi / fantasy novel (which I have read a lot of) I found the work much more compelling. Terrific. I am now writing what I know. That's all well and good, but there's a problem. How do you know what you don't know? And, how do you represent that in your writing? Even worse, what happens if you actively try to write something new and exciting, and you write it just like what you know, when really, it shouldn't be?

I've spent the last week in Vienna, Austria. This isn't my first trip to Europe, and it's my third trip to a German speaking country. I love it here. The people are genuinely some of the friendliest people I've ever interacted with. Yes, I think they even surpass Midwest hospitality.

Spending any time out and about in Europe should immediately help you notice that they don't do everything the same way as we do in the US. I mention this, because of one very important point: If you are writing sci-fi and/or fantasy, and you haven't had a chance to really see or interact with other culture, you may very well write your fantastic world to be just like your home town.

That's not going to be very exciting, is it?

So, write what you know, but don't make what you're writing too much like what you know. That gets to be a little challenging.

Here are a few things that stand out (without touching on obvious language, currency, brand, etc. differences):

  • In the US if you order a beverage, it is almost always brought to you in a cup/glass. You typically get free refills of this beverage (and in fact, are likely irritated if you do not). In Europe, all beverages tend to come in individual bottles. You pay for each additional bottle. So, if you want five glasses of soda or water with lunch, you might well ring up a beverage total that exceeds your food total.
  • In the US at my job, the custodian is male. He takes care to ensure that any people in either the men's or women's restroom have exited before he closes the facility and THEN he begins to clean, empty trash, etc. The Europe on multiple occasions I have seen / experienced custodial staff of the opposite sex entering a restroom and working on it, even while it is occupied.
  • In the US (and, also in Paris) I've found that while using public transportation (e.g. subways) that you have to go through a turn style each time you want to ride the train. You have to validate a ticket to ensure that you have paid the proper ticket price. In Vienna there are no turn styles. Like New York, if you buy a weekly pass, you get a single ticket, but you don't have to do anything with it other than carry it. Even in a relatively large city, there is trust that people will pay for a ticket prior to boarding a train, and there is little enforcement.
  • In the US, few buildings are more than a few decades old. That McDonalds you are driving through has likely always been a McDonalds. In European cities, that is hardly the case. The Starbucks you're in could very well be in a building that is a hundred or more years old. Just look at the architecture, the statues carved into the outside of the building. Is everything like that here? Not at all, but in the downtown areas it is likely this way.
  • In the US, when you walk up to someone you know they are going to speak English. You also know they probably don't speak any other language. When you walk up to talk to someone in a European city, there's a reasonable chance to speak English. This is in spite of the fact that you are in a French, or German, or other primary language country. Even more, at events (like the Opera we attended) many of the ushers actually great you with the question Deutsche or English?

I could go on for pages like this.

Think about the setting you are trying to write. Think about the world building you want to do. Then stop and think about how people are actually going to exist in that world. Does everyone really speak the same language? Why would some people speak the same language, and others not? Why would buildings get reused in some places, and get torn down and rebuilt in others?

The take away is that if you haven't had a chance to travel, particularly abroad, you should be very careful as you build your worlds. You should do research on how people communicate, how people act, how people interact in other parts of the world. This will only make your writing stronger, and only make it more believable that you are writing a fantasy world, and not Anywhere USA.

I recently read Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal (@maryrobinette), which is a historical fantasy. This goes a step above creating a magical world, as it is set in a particular historical time and place, and in fact, based in a setting popularized by another author.

Researching a place doesn't necessarily mean you have to go to that place, but it does mean that you need to consider how you want your setting to work. As long as you're conscious of the fact that your default will be to just write what you know, you've already made the first step in the right direction.

Some Thoughts from January 2015

January was an interesting month. On a happy note, I completed my second half marathon at Walt Disneyland in Anaheim. It was a Star Wars themed run. How cool is that? So my knee hurt so badly for a week and a half afterwards that I thought I needed a new one. So I thought I broke my foot for the first three days. It was totally awesome. Less awesome and on a much sadder note, my grandmother passed away in January. Then, ten days later, my wife's grandmother passed away. That awesome half marathon experience was sandwiched in between those two, terrible events. A lot of travel, a lot of painful, tiring emotions, and not a lot of great writing happened in the second half of January. However, some interesting things did crop up and I thought I'd share what I can.

I finally read the Wool Omnibus by Hugh Howley. My good friend Ben Dalton (@bendalton) recommended it to me probably five years ago and I finally got around to reading it. [Minor Spoilers ahead]. I have to say, I didn't love it. I totally understand why it's a runaway hit and why it's doing so well. It's very well written. But, I don't love how the characters pass through the story. Specifically, by the time we get to what I would consider to be the main protagonist I had almost lost all interest in the book, due to what happened to the first two characters I read about. I definitely learned some things about structure and ending sections to really draw the reader in with cliffhangers. I can't say I enjoyed it beyond that though. Bummer.

This is, by the way, something of a trend for me.  I have a really hard time with stories that aren't character driven. I love stories that follow a group of characters and really focus on them. Sure, the world building is cool. But I have a really hard time staying with a series of books when they are constantly jumping around and not sticking with the same cast of characters. I love Terry Brooks' work, but it's my one main complaint about the Shannara series. Each part of the series is just a few short books and then we jump decades (or centuries) to learn about another generation of the family and their adventures.

While I was home with my family, we spent some time talking about old objects in my grandmother's house. One thing that I've always been fascinated with is an old pocket watch. Every visit I've made to that house, as long as I can remember visiting that house, the watch has been hanging in a small glass bell shaped container inside my grandmother's china cabinet. For only the second, maybe the third, time in my life I got to really look at and hold that watch. It's much older than I thought it was. Like, two or three generations older than I thought it was. Not only is that incredibly cool, but it got me thinking about a new idea for a series of books. I'm sure this will be on the back burner for quite a while, but I wanted to share this because even in that emotional and grief filled time, I still managed to think a bit about writing and ended up coming up with, what I think, is a super cool way to pay a small tribute to my grandparents and some of the memories I have from my childhood visits with them.

I mentioned briefly in my post about Distinction in the Darkness  that the visit to my grandmother some time back helped inspire the story. The grandmother that died was this grandmother. Even though she wasn't actually the character in that story, and even thought it's not really a story about her, the story was very much inspired by experiences I had with her and interactions I had with her after she moved into her nursing home.

As I move into February, I'm about 30% through my next revision pass on the book. I think that the updates are really making an improvement, and the feedback I've been getting on the early chapters is favorable. I still struggle with an unlikable character, and today I pushed her first PoV chapter back even farther into the second half of the book. I feel this is going to need some attention at some point, but I'm already juggling more things in this revision than I really want to be, so it may have to wait. Or, she may just stay unlikeable in this first book. If all goes well, I'll have plenty of opportunity to make you like her later.

Finally, I'm starting to focus in on some less creative and more functional writing. Brainstorming and outlining continues for book 2, although I've slowed a lot on that until this next revision is finished. I've also started working on elevator pitch materials, as well as planning for a full synopsis of the book. I'm 99% sure I'll be attending WorldCon in Spokane in August later this year, and I want to make sure I have this material ready to go. Do I think I'll need it at the con? Unlikely. Do I want to make sure I have it if I do need it? Absolutely.

Tools of the Trade: Scrivener

I talked about things I did to change my habits of writing in a previous post. One of the biggest problems I had as a new writer was that I wanted to constantly edit what I had written before, essentially trapping myself in a constant loop of write / edit / write over and over and over again. I learned the hard way that editing while writing is hard to do. One of the things that helped me move past that habit was a program called Scrivener. Scrivener is a lot of things. It's an outlining tool. It's a word processor. Describing it in these ways doesn't really do it justice. What it is is hands down the best writing tool I've ever used.

Scrivener allows you to break up your chapters, scenes, or however else you delineate your work into separate files. Now, before you tell me that you can do that with any word processor, yes yes, you can. What Scrivener does that these others don't do is allow you to then compile all of your separate items back into a single document again with a click of a button. Bet yours can't do that!

As you create the outline for your novel, you can add in descriptions. You can add in tags. You can organize before you even start writing (and you can compile out the outline too, by the way). Then, as you begin writing, you can track the status of each individual section. For me, it's chapters. I can assign a word goal for each chapter, so I have an idea of how close I am to my target for that specific chapter s I write.

I can flag each chapter based on its individual status, to be done, draft, revised draft, etc.

I can even check the overall target for the novel based on the individual target goals of each chapter.

If you know me, you know I love new, cool toys. So yes, Scrivener is a new cool toy for me. I'm sorry. However, I've been using it for over a year now and I really do believe it's the best way to go. The thing is, I have seen a marked improvement in my writing since I started using Scrivener. I think a lot of that improvement is the sort of organic improvement one would expect from someone who is writing more frequently. I do attribute at least two very specific things to the application however:

1. I'm actually outlining: I used to hate to outline. The fact that I had to keep yet ANOTHER document in sync with my actual book was a real pain and a major deterrent for me. Now the outline actually makes the writing easier, since it goes into the Scrivener project.

2. I'm not 'accidentally' reading other stuff anymore. I can't read anything else. When I click on a chapter, I can only see that chapter. This isn't one giant word doc with a hundred thousand words in it. It's a single chapter with a few thousand. I find that I'm much more focused (at least, within the context of my writing... the Internet is still a problem).

There are certainly things I don't much care for.

Transitioning into Scrivener was... not easy. I blame this more on Word than I do Scrivener, but still. I had to do a LOT of reformatting. They DO have a free trial of Scrivener, but if you have an existing novel, by the time you transition everything in... well... it's not something you necessarily want to abandon.

Scrivener doesn't have a grammar check at all, and its spellcheck is certainly inferior to Word's. That's just fine. The other improvements are WELL worth these areas where it lacks.

There is a bit steeper of a learning curve here than there is with Word. It's a much more complicated application. The benefits are worth the time, but you will have to put in some time to learn about it.

All in all, I highly recommend it. The application is only $40, and like I said earlier, there is a free trial so you can tinker.  What have you go to lose?

Alpha and Beta Testing

I've had a flurry of activity these past few weeks on the book, which has been exciting because I've mostly taken December off from writing. I'm a firm believer in not writing in a vacuum, which I've spoken about in previous posts. To that extent, I've had different groups of alpha and beta readers working through my novel. The results have been quite exciting.

My strategy here is fairly simple:

Alpha Readers are folks that are getting very rough, very early work. In this case, I've redrafted my second and third chapters to address prior concerns. The changes aren't significant, for example, I shifted chapter two about ten minutes in time. So, instead of seeing something 'just after the action' we are instead seeing it 'just before, and into.'

In hindsight, it's easy to look at that and go, hey dummy, you should have just shown and not told. Yes. You're right. However, chapter 2 used to be chapter 1, and saddling the user with all of the necessary back story to make that action sensible was a big chunk to bite off in the first two paragraphs of the book. So, it started in the middle of a chase, instead of setting up a fight.

Now that there is a chapter 1 that precedes this chapter, it's not that hard to show the action that caused the characters to run in the first place.

Beta Readers are folks that are getting much more polished, even completed versions of the book. I had two people that were willing to take the time and read through the novel in its entirety. Discussion ranged from 20 minutes to 2 hours on the resulting notes. While an overview and high level, these sorts of comments help me identify parts of the book that work, don't work, questions, concerns, etc.

When working with my alpha readers, it's a different sort of experience. I want to do a deep dive on a very small segment of the book and really understand what is working and what isn't. In this case, I even wanted to get into the weeds of 'is this newest revision working' before I make changes across the entire book to support it.

When working with the beta readers, it's more about what I've already done (than wht I'm planning on doing). It's amazing the sort of invaluable feedback you can get here!  I know I don't always convey everything spot on the first time, but I'm constantly surprised at what I do land, and what I do miss on.

I know that my book is going to be better because of these conversations, and after a long wait, I'm ready to dive in and do a solid revision of the book to try and start knocking items off of the todo list.

State of Things in 2015

2014 was an exciting year for me and I made some major progress on things that are very important to me. I thought I'd give you a general status update now that we're into 2015 on things like the book, what I read, and what I did last year.

Submissions / Publishing

I submitted my first short story to a literary contest before I was in high school. If memory serves, it was to something that Glimmertrain was offering.

That first submission was arduous, mostly because I had to bundle everything up in a big manila envelope and ship it off to an address that I'd found in the Writer's Market. Of course the story didn't get published. I wasn't terribly surprised.

The thing that does surprise me a bit is that I didn't submit anything at all after that until June of 2013. There was at least a ten year gap there. Granted I didn't do a ton of writing in high school, but I did an awful lot in college. I'm not sure why I didn't try to publish anything that I was doing in creative writing, but I didn't.

Regardless, I submitted eight times in 2014 and have been incredibly fortunate in the reception that Distinction in the Darkness has been receiving. The other stories that I have submitted are still going through review processes and I hope to have good news to share there someday soon.

I always get asked when you can read more of my work. That's an excellent question I wish I had a better answer to. Something I didn't know until I started down this path was that posting stories online anywhere (even here on my own blog) is often considered to be 'first publication' and a lot of places that publish fiction don't like not having first publication rights. So, I don't put things that I'm working on online until they have been accepted. Hopefully I'll have some other things to share in 2015 though. It's a challenge for me, do I work on publishing stories, or do I work on the book?

The Book

I spent all of 2014 rewriting my book. I finished a full draft in 2013, and decided that while I was pleased with the direction the plot was going, I wasn't pleased with the writing. Rather than trying to spot fix the entire manuscript, I rewrote it. I honestly believe this was the correct decision at the time and I don't regret it. I also don't think I'd ever do this again. I'm a better and more experienced writer now than I was when I first started the novel, and I think that when I start working on book 2, I'll be better equipped to avoid the total rewrite scenario.

I have several amazing people who have taken time in 2014 to read the book, and their feedback has been invaluable. I'll talk more about this process of alpha/beta reading in a future post.

2015 is hopefully the year I submit the novel. I have a road map of changes I need to make to the novel first though. Primarily, I need to do additional cleanup of language. I have threads that should run through the entire book, but don't. I have repetitive action scenes. I have a conclusive, but perhaps somewhat under emphasized ending. These are all very fixable problems and that's what I'm working on now. This will be time consuming, but hopefully not a year's worth of writing.

FavoriteFive of 2014

Finally, I'd like to start a tradition of talking about some of my favorite things, specifically things I read, in 2014. Not all of these books were published in 2014, but I did read them last year.

1. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline [Science Fiction] Ready Player One may very well one of my favorite books of all time. I finished it in just a handful of hours, and likely would have finished it in a single sitting if I had been able to. It's a brilliant story of gaming, particularly nostalgic video games from the 1980's, and how those games fit into a massively multiplayer online virtual reality that has replaced in the Internet in our not so distant future. Oh, and there's a multi-billion dollar race to find the easter eggs hidden in the game by it's creator. Brilliant writing and a ton of fun.

2. The Martian by Andy Weir [Science Fiction] Cast Away meets Lost in Space. More or less. I loved this book. Mark, our astronaut protagonist, gets stranded on Mars after his crew presumes him dead. The Martian is his story of the following months alone on the planet and how he attempts to survive the harsh Martian landscape.

3. Skin Game by Jim Butcher [Urban Fantasy] The Dresden Files continues to be one of my absolute favorite series of books, and is one of my favorite suggested entry points into the fantasy/urban fantasy genre for new readers. I'll talk about this more in a series I have planned for 2015 called Fantasy 101.

Skin Game is the newest entry, and in my opinion one of the best Dresden books to date. In this novel, Harry Dresden must pull off an Ocean's Eleven-esque heist. Except instead of knocking over a Vegas casino, he has to rob an underworld vault that belongs to a god.

4. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn [Mystery/Thriller] I don't read a ton of mysteries, but I read enough to know this isn't your typical one. The brilliant thing about Gone Girl is that the mystery is solved early enough in the book that you then get to experience the fallout of what actually happened. This is another one that I couldn't put down. I'll warn you that if you've seen the movie (or want to see the movie) you should consider which experience you prefer (book or film) because your experience may vary. I found that David Fincher's adaptation was so perfect that the movie was almost not enjoyable after reading the book only a few days earlier.

5. Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty [Urban Fantasy] I listen to Mur talk weekly on her podcast I Should be Writing. Shambling Guide was the first of her writing I've read, and I loved it. It was one of the few books I chose to take on vacation with me last year and I absolutely devoured it. It's a very enjoyable urban fantasy novel with some interesting world components and a great story.

Zoe, an out of work editor, finally manages to get a job for a travel books company in New York. Except that the travel books aren't exactly for... humans.

Other notable examples include Partials by Dan Wells, Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson, and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

I really appreciate all of the support from this year, and I'm very excited for 2015. Happy New Year!

Award Winning

More good news for Distinction in the Darkness! I received word this evening that the story was selected as one of Bewildering Stories Mariner Award winners for 2014.

The Mariner Awards are named for one of the first successful interplanetary missions. Distinction in the Darkness is one of 40 titles listed — out of 304 for the year — that the Review Board has rated most highly in 2014. They have earned Bewildering Stories’ most signal honor.

I've been selected as one of 25 authors to receive this honor. I'm hugely thankful to the press for selecting me and my work. I can't imagine a better way to end 2014.

Queuing Up

Black Friday for me isn't an awesome day. I have retail flashbacks, the horror of which you can only comprehend if you have worked retail, on Black Friday. (Fun fact, my first day of work, ever, was a Black Friday at Best Buy. Someone tell me why THAT was a good idea...) This year, about three days before Thanksgiving, I found out that best selling author Chuck Palahniuk was going to be at my local  Barnes and Noble. Don't know who that is? I'd tell you about fight club, if I wasn't supposed to talk about it. If that still doesn't ring a bell, he also wrote Choke, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, and Guts (a short storywhich has, at last report, caused some 60+ people to faint when hearing it read aloud.)  For the first time, ever, I decided to go out on Black Friday morning to stand in a line.

I've had the privilege to meet several of my favorite authors in person. Terry Brooks, Brandon Sanderson, and now Chuck Palahniuk. The bizarre thing about this meeting though (other than the Black Friday thing) was that it was actually here in my city. Usually I have to drive to find an author. I actually drove 4 hours and paid for a hotel to see Brandon Sanderson for the release for the final Wheel of Time book, a Memory of Light. But I digress.

The line at Barnes and Noble was actually shorter than I expected, believe it or not. The thing about the signing though, was that Chuck took his time with people. I'm a little embarrassed to say that I brought most (not all) of his books that I own. I expected to be told that he was signing his new book, Beautiful You, and a couple of older ones. Nope, he signed them all.

Even more cool, he actually personalized EVERY one of the books. So, I don't just have a hastily scribbled signature to show for my time, I have beautifully signed, to Mike, cover pages for Fight Club, Invisible Monsters, Diary, Choke, Haunted, Survivor, and Beautiful You.

As if this weren't enough, I also got some really cool photos of me in a headlock.

I love e-books as much as anyone. In fact, I almost have to read e-books as my wife often goes to sleep before I do and reading with a light on keeps her awake. Black screen, white text e-book? Not so much. I can use Overdrive (which, if you don't use Overdrive, I HIGHLY recommend) to check out books from my Library for free. Usually, I read (or listen to) the first couple of books in a series to see if I like them, then I buy the rest. There's a real problem though...

I can't stand in line for an author to sign my awesome e-book!

If you've never gone to a book signing before, I would urge you to consider it. David Edding and Robert Jordan are two of my most favorite authors. They are men I highly respect, and I always recommend their books to people new to the fantasy genre, or people looking to find new and exciting things to read. They are authors that I found early in life, some of the very first I read as a child in fact as I moved into the adult section of the bookstore. Unfortunately, both of these great authors are now dead, and I never went to a signing. I'll never have a chance to meet them, or hear them read their own work, or shake their hand.

Maybe this isn't a big deal for you (it is for me) but even if it's not, you should think about going out and meeting an author. There are many many worse things you can do with a couple hours of your time, and I promise you that sitting in a room full of people that are as passionate about an author's books as you are is a rewarding experience. Even if some of them are, perhaps, a bit more enthusiastic as you are. (Yes, I have seem some swords and very strange tattoos, but I've also met a lot of people that are super excited to meet their favorite author.) That's pretty cool.

Typically a signing is free. Typically you should plan to spend at least a couple of hours there, and all of the ones I've been to reward you for getting there early. Sometimes you can take pictures with the author, sometimes you can't. Sometimes they will personalize your book, sometimes they will sign multiple books. I find it to be good etiquette to buy the book they are touring for, as opposed to just  showing up and asking them to sign old work and take pictures. 

Distinction in the Darkness

Distinction started out as a workshop story almost eight years ago. Scary to think that. When I read it now, it hardly resembles the original composition. It's a great example of a simple concept that has changed so drastically over the years, changed for the better I think, as I've matured as a person and as a writer. Distinction in the Darkness was published today by Bewildering Stories, a weekly webzine (or “e-zine”) devoted to speculative and experimental writing, and ... If you haven't read it yet, I'd encourage you to hop over to their site and check it out before you finish reading this blog entry. You can read Distinction in the Darkness here. If you have read it, then keep reading after the jump to read some of the background on the story. Spoilers ahead!

Last Chance, Spoilers Incoming!


When I originally wrote Distinction, it was a very different sort of story. It was a total gimmick, and it didn't work at all. The main character spent much of the story in a coma, but he didn't realize he was in a coma. The story was an homage to Distant Voices, a Star Trek Deep Space Nine episode in which... Dr. Bashir is rendered unconscious by and alien and runs around in a coma (without realizing it). I tried to write interesting clues into the story, cluing the reader into what was going on. I really don't remember it working well. In fact, in retrospect, it was probably a disaster. The workshop concluded, and I promptly forgot about the story for years.

Last year, something like six and a half or seven years later,  while listening to my weekly dose of Pop Culture Happy Hour, the gang discussed unreliable narrators.  This got me thinking about some of the truly great stories that I have enjoyed over the years that featured unreliable narrators. Movies like American Psycho and Fallen, and books like the Catcher and the Rye and Fifth Business (although, I think my wife would disagree with me on this one). There's also the occasional episode of Star Trek, Dr. Who, The X-Files, etc. that is absolutely not what it appears thanks to an unreliable telling of the story.

I didn't feel like any of these works were gimmicky, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that they had some things in common. First of all, each of these are very well established in their universe. There's a lot of detail about the physical locations to help ground the characters and the unreliable narration. There's also a very compelling story that pulls the reader through the narrative.

This all came to a head some weeks later when I was preparing to travel home to visit family. My grandmother suffers from dementia, and the forthcoming visit was weighing on me. This got me thinking though. What might it be like to write from the perspective of someone with dementia? Even more, what might that character look like if they didn't realize that they had dementia?

This lead me to Alex. Alex's case is particularly tragic, as not only does he have dementia and not realize it, he experiences a lucid day that is ten years late. As his day unfolds and he gradually realizes what is happening, the light fades back into darkness, and he disappears back into the fog of dementia that so obscures his day-to-day life.

I wrote distinction in one sitting on the plane somewhere over the Mid Western United States. It's certainly not my usual sort of story, as it's much more literary than scifi / fantasy, but I still enjoyed working on it and I'm so happy that it is available for you to read now.

What stories have you enjoyed that had an unreliable narrator? I find so often that this approach works best in small bites, in movies or on TV, but that doesn't mean it can't be effective in fiction too.

Special thanks to Jill, Erin, Ashley, Shane, Jen for taking time to read the story ahead of time, and to Bewlidering Stories for publishing it.

Changing the Habit

I talked a little bit in my Destiny post about how I had to change my habits before I really started making progress as a writer. I changed a lot of things, after years of trying, and failing, to write a novel. Obviously, I think there are more factors that contributed, but here are 5 things that I know made a significant impact on my writing.

1. Pick a Writing Place that isn't your Work Place My wife and I have a wonderful home, and I enjoy being at home. However, we don't have a spare room to use as a study or a den. The office that we have is a fine room, but I often work or play computer games in that room. One of the hardest things for me about trying to get into the right frame of mind for writing is flushing all of the other things that are cluttering up my brain. I spend almost all day on  computers, I play games on computers, and I also write on computers. This makes for a potentially distracting combination.

My solution early on was to go to a coffee shop, or to the library. Both of these places are just around the corner from my home and they have some very important things. First, they have free wifi (this can be a detriment certainly, but generally is quite useful). Second, I know I have things waiting for me to do other places, so going out creates a sense of urgency. I don't rush, but I also have real motivation to not waste time. And third, I don't usually sit at either of these places unless I'm writing.

By using these places as my 'writing place' and not anything else, I am one step closer to being in the right frame of mind, since I'm not cluttering up my brain with other things in the same area.

2. Get in the Right Frame of Mind to Write Before you Try to Write While I'm writing, I listen  to music. However, I also listen to music while I work, exercise, and just about everything else. So, the music itself isn't a vehicle to get me in the right frame of mind to write.

Eventually, I discovered writing podcasts. These had a surprising impact on me and my ability to focus in on writing. Not only did they get me thinking about the craft of writing, they really got me thinking about my own writing in a way that listening to audio books doesn't. I initially found Writing Excuses, which I still listen to weekly. In this podcast, authors Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Harold Tayler, and Mary Robinette Kowal talk about their own work, craft, and interview other authors. It's most excellent, and offers a great breakdown of slightly different genres, as each of the pod casters writes different types of books.

I expanded out from Writing Excuses to also include I should be Writing which is a slightly different format, but a similar concept. Mur Lafferty offers a wonderful, if slightly different perspective than Brandon Sanderson and co. She has a couple of books published and more self published, and I think offers a very valuable perspective as someone who has recently finished a MFA and is just starting to publish with an agent and publisher, vs. a group of well established authors who have been publishing professionally for years.

Most recently, I've started listening to Grammar Girl. While not explicitly a fiction writing podcast, Grammar Girl does offer a lot of great tips and ideas for writing. Mignon Fogarty approaches each concept in an approachable way, and the short format shows are easy to digest and listen to. While not a podcast I keep up with religiously, it's still an excellent addition to the list.

The thing I really find about podcasts is that they truly do get me thinking about my writing. If I listen to fiction, I focus on that fiction instead of my own.

3. Find someone Who is Enthusiastic about your Writing Of course, I should caveat this, with you need to be enthusiastic about your own writing. However, I found having some people around me who are interested in talking about what I'm working on, what I'm writing, etc. is invaluable. I haven't actively looked for a workshop, but having my cousin, Ashely Warren, who is also working on a novel has proven to be invaluable. Having good friends and other family, like my wife, my sister, and my friend Keith, who are all interested in reading what I write also really helps!

Some people are able to shut themselves and write in a vacuum. That's really difficult for me. So, having someone to bounce ideas off of, to get feedback from, and to help drive deadlines (workshop is next week, better get that next chapter done!) makes all the difference in the world.

4. Schedule Writing Time It's very easy to not write. Things come up. I work full time. I run. I have dogs. I play video games, and watch tv, and surf the internet. It's easy to think I don't have time to write.

So, to help combat this, I scheduled (to begin with) two nights a week that were my writing nights. After work and dinner was out of the way, I would pack up my computer and go to one of my writing locations and I would spend 2-3 hours (until they closed) working on my book.

This helped to make sure that I knew when I was writing, and it also set clear expectations that Tuesday and Thursday were writing nights, and not cleaning nights, or gaming nights, or go out with friend nights.

5. Stop Editing I got really good at writing the prologue and first 2-3 chapters of a book.  I probably wrote, and rewrote, and cleaned up, and rewrote the same material three dozen times over several years before I realized what I was doing. I never made progress in my book, because I was so worried about fixing my problems. So worried about making the next chapter perfectly line up with what I'd already written, that I'd be constantly shifting through what I had already written so it lined up.

I thought the problem was the subject matter. So, I decided to write my second book first, and change the plot to be more interesting. I focused on the plot, and not how I was writing it. I eventually got to the point where I scrapped my book and started a new concept, which I have made phenomenal progress on. I hope to return to that first book someday, but that day is not in the near future.

I did very little editing as I started writing my new series. I have since done editing passes on the book, but I didn't do them while I was writing.  I even proactively avoided changing things that came out of workshops, until I had mostly finished sections or drafts.

It made a huge difference. I finished the book.

I don't know that these things will help you, but they absolutely helped me. Regardless, just make sure you are writing!

Other Mediums

I love the Dresden Files. It is, hands down, one of my absolute favorite series of books. I used to really like the Dresden television show that Sci/Fi did. Then I read the books. In retrospect, I now have a very hard time enjoying the show. The super quirky Dresden with his hockey and drum stick magic wands was, an appealing quirky character. That isn’t the Dresden of the novels, a Dresden I have infinitely more love and respect for. I found a thing I really liked, and went looking for more material in the world and in this case, the new thing I went looking for actually ruined the entry point for me.

This past weekend I got to play the Firefly board game. I have to say, I was impressed. It has a lot of elements that are a ton of fun. As with just about any game, there are elements that are also a bit out of balance. Overall though, it was a really enjoyable experience that felt like it had actually been crafted with the universe that had been created on the show in mind. You actually do fly around in a Firefly class ship (perhaps the Serenity, perhaps not) and do jobs, build your crew, tinker with your ship, avoid the Reavers, and there are definite times when you Aim to Misbehave. It is more or less what happened in every episode of the show. And it's awesome (if a bit long to play).

I mention this and found it blog-worthy because it really is genuinely rare that I found some additional piece of pop culture that I truly enjoy. Usually, in the case of Dresden, I find something I like better and ditch the original thing. Or, in the case of something like The Legend of the Seeker adaptation of Sword of Truth Series I just have a hard time getting into it altogether.

Digging a little deeper, I’ve found some generalities that seem to hold true for me. I typically enjoy movie adaptations of books more than television shows. Fight Club, for example, is so true to the book (in my opinion) that you almost don’t need to read the book. Dune, on the other hand, while a very good film, is a significantly different creature than the original work. Even the recent Hunger Games book to film adaptation was enjoyable, although I could do without the trend of shoveling as many movies down our throats as possible (thanks Harry Potter for setting that trend, despite being, on the whole, an excellent adaptation).

In the television world, I have a hard time finding book to tv adaptations I want to highlight. I mention this because in almost every case, I like either the book, or the television show (or neither), but not both. The Dexter series is truly excellent, but I had a hard time getting into Darkly Dreaming Dexter when I read it. I haven’t looked at the remainder of the series, but I understand that the books diverge significantly from the series of books. I’m not a Game of Thrones fan, but I do plan on watching the series eventually. I have tried to read the books multiple times and still haven’t been able to get into them. Obviously there are countless other examples here. I would be interested in hearing if you have any you like.

The world of games continues to fascinate me. The table top RPG world has opened to in the past to series like the Wheel of Time, and more recently the Dresden universe. The Flyfire board game was a great entry here. Even some video games have graced the shelves (the Wheel of Time PC game was not… awesome).

One thing I haven’t really seen much of yet is the video game to movie movement. Sure, Final Fantasy got a couple of films. Spirits Within wasn’t great, as I recall, but I still love Advent Children dearly (it’s Final Fantasy 7, come on what’s better than that?). Rumors of Halo, Mass Effect, and Grand Theft Auto movies continue to circulate. I actually went and saw the Need for Speed movie earlier in the year with my brother in law, and it as surprisingly not… terrible. I reserve judgment on these until there are more tangible examples. The Last of Us is supposedly forthcoming, and it’s probably the first horror more in over a decade that I will go see in the theater. I plan on talking a bit more about this particular example in a future post talking about long story arcs and how they can be affected in medium jumping. Watch for it!

The bottom line here is that a book isn’t always just a book. So often now a book is turned into one or more media. I just wish more of it was turned into good media. One thing that I think, fairly universally (but not entirely) is that deviation leads to failure. I think so many of the adaptations that I particularly love have in common the concept they are mostly true to the original work. (Yes, Dexter is an exception to this rule, and there are others as well). However, in general, I think it holds true. The series that set out in their own direction, almost riffing on the source characters or material, invariably seem to go down rabbit holes of plots or quirks that fans of the original work will dislike. There is, almost always, so much good source material in the original that inventing quirks for a character is wholly unnecessary.

I hope that the trend continues to follow the Game of Thrones model. Yes there's a lot of source material. Yes it's a lot for a new viewer to jump into. And yes, if you get past these things and stay mostly true to the book, you have a world that is massive and will grab the viewer and suck them in. You don't have to go and invent drama in good fiction. Honestly, if you do, it's not going to work so well. Take Dresden. Dresden has plenty of baggage and quirks. He doesn’t need a hockey stick to pull it off.


Destiny came out today, and if you aren’t a gamer that’s ok. Suffice to say, I’ve been waiting for this and I’m pretty excited. As I sit and play the game, it reminds me of doing similar things with Halo (Bungie’s previous franchise) in college. Something I’ve struggled with a lot over the majority of the last decade… wow that’s scary, it’s really been almost a decade since I got my bachelors… is transitioning from ‘college writing’ to ‘novel writing.’

For instance. In my creative writing workshops (and I took a TON of them in school), our assignments were to basically write two short stories in a semester. That accounts to a lot of reading and critiquing for others and not a lot of writing for yourself. Short stories were usually in the 20 page ballpark, somewhere to the tune of five thousand to ten thousand words. I didn’t spend a lot of time prepping for my stories. I would get an idea, I would write them, I would clean them up, and I would turn them in. I really enjoyed writing and I knew it was something I wanted to do. People generally liked my stories (when the professor wasn’t complaining about me writing genre fiction in a literary fiction class, whoops). However, looking back, I realize that I wasn’t really being prepared to be a writer.

I tried, unsuccessfully, to write a book for a lot of years. First, I had an idea for a book. Then, I realized I was being unsuccessful at writing that book, and that maybe I needed some distance from it. So, I tried writing what would have been the second book in the series by my original estimations. I did several early drafts of this novel, but again I found myself not being successful.

Looking back now, I had pretty much the perfect storm of failure stacking up against me.

I had no concept of where my story was going. I was so used to writing just off the cuff based on concepts that I wasn’t really thinking about my characters, wasn’t thinking about my plot. I am still very much a discovery writer, but I’ve learned that you can’t discover your way through an entire novel. You have to have some sort of framework.

Every time I would write a chapter, I would immediately go back and edit it. Then, when I wrote the second chapter, I would go back and edit the first and second. And so on with the third, and fourth. No matter who far I got into the book, I was constantly stalling all forward momentum by going back and trying to make the book align perfectly together. I’ve probably written the prologue for that book over a dozen times, and I’m not sure I ever got past the twelfth chapter of the book (that’s a major issue).

Finally, I didn’t write every day. Well, I still don’t. That’s something I’m working on. See, I’m writing this blog post today instead of revising my book. I would work on my book every couple of weeks. And, since I was constantly revising, I was only actually writing new material maybe once a month.

All of these things totally stalled my ‘next’ book project. It killed it for me, and I never made any progress. When I started working on my ‘third’ book project, the one I just finished my second complete draft of, I was very careful to make sure and write forward. I had specific writing days at first, to get into the habit. I will talk more about the habit of writing in a future post.

If I can reflect back on this experience of successfully finishing a book, I think it’s that I now know that my experience in college prepared me to write, but didn’t do a very good job of preparing me to be a writer.  I wish, in retrospect, that I would have approached those first two books I tried to write in the way I approached my third one. I feel that those failures weren’t completely wasted, because they’ve helped me to get where I am today. I know I still want to write those books, and I hope to someday in the future. They are, after all, related to the story I’m telling now. Maybe it makes sense that I wrote the one I did first and I'll get back to those others some other time. Maybe you could almost call it destiny.

I’ll be talking more in my next couple of posts about how I started to change my writing habits, and some of the tools I now use in my writing to help me stay organized and on track. And, let’s be honest, I love gadgets and fun apps and there’s nothing wrong with trying to make it fun along the way.

Death at a Fashion Show

It’s a rare treat that my wife and I get to tag along on one another’s business trips. In fact, if memory serves, this is only the second or third trip in five plus years that we’ve been able to accomplish it. She had a meeting in Las Vegas, and who can say no to Vegas? Unfortunately Vegas, particularly the Vegas strip, is not really what I would consider to be a ‘writer friendly’ zone. There’s music everywhere that is constantly interrupted by advertisements, it’s hot and bright outside, space is both expensive and limited, and there are thousands of people wandering around at all hours of the day. As I close in on completing the second draft of my first book, I really wanted to take the time to get out of the house, away from the distractions of normal life (e.g. my dogs), and spend some time working on the book during the day. The problem was finding the right place to do it.

Typically when we vacation in Vegas we stay more towards the center of the strip. It gives easy walking access to pretty much anything, and the hotels are more modernized than the north and south ends. This time we were down at the far end of the strip and the room we were in was obviously outdated. This doesn’t really bother me as a tagalong, but it did make writing a challenge. A dark room with limited light (electric or otherwise!) is not a great place to spend a few hours slogging through a chapter. When all else fails, and in this case it did, I resorted to finding a Starbucks. My closest options were inside the convention center (not a great idea since the yearly Vegas Star Trek convention was going on) and at a mall. The mall sounded just fine to me.

A hot fifteen minute walk later I realized my oversight. A mall in Vegas isn’t like a mall back home. They cram even more into these than usual, have significantly more foot traffic, and cater more to the tourist than the local. The mall had two Starbucks in it: the first had no interior seating at all, and the second had four bar stools looking out over the strip (all occupied) and a few small tables outside (also occupied, despite the 100 degree heat).

After some wandering and Googling, I found another coffee shop in the mall so I headed there. It turned out to be more of a coffee stand than shop, but they had tables. Finally I could make some progress. I should probably mention here that I heard more snippets of “My Heart Will Go On” during my three hours at that table than I have since high school, thanks to constantly running Celine Dion promos. Joy.

Without spoilers, some fairly heavy things happen towards the end of my book. In particular, someone close to a main character dies and it’s a fairly emotional scene. I, in my infinite wisdom, decided to work on this chapter during my time at the mall. I was moving along at a pretty good clip, and feeling good about the work I was doing. I was even tearing up a little bit as I wrote. About this time I noticed that there were a lot more people around me than there had been the last time I had looked up from the computer twenty minutes or so earlier.

A little background. This is the “Fashion Show” mall. I assumed this referred to the countless number of designer brands in the mall. Sure. It also refers to the floor that rises up out of the flat floor to transform into a runway and the hourly fashion shows that take place here. Guess where my coffee stand was located? Yep, about fifteen feet away from the end of this runway. Thank god I hadn’t decided to sit on one of the couches. I would have been in kicking distance of the runway then and I would have had three people trying to sit on top of me for the good seat.

Anyway, so I’m killing this character off, trying not to get too emotional about it, and I have models showing off their True Religion jeans with a crowd while the music blares loud enough to drown out my ear buds. Thankfully the show was fairly short. Unfortunately, I wasn’t done with the chapter when the next one rolled around an hour later. So, I got to experience this not once, but twice during the writing of the chapter. Note that despite only being an hour apart, the two ‘shows’ were completely identical.

Looking back, it was a surreal experience. For one, saying you were killing someone in a crowd of people isn’t something you can often get away with. For another, in retrospect, I probably should have gone to the Convention Center Starbucks. At least the Star Trek people would have been distracting me with more interesting costumes. I’m sure True Religion makes very nice jeans, but I just don’t care. Sorry.

I rarely get this emotional when I write, and of all the days for that to happen, I was surrounded by people. It was also one of the few chapters in the book that I’ve been able to actually crank through in a single sitting, thanks in large part to actually having a full day to do nothing but work on the book.

There’s a lot of fun to be had in Las Vegas, and I always enjoy vacationing there. I think that the next time though I need to do a bit more homework on a good writing spot.