Writing

Querying for Your First Agent #amquerying

I realized something the other day. I've been "querying" for my first novel, Passages and Passengers, for over a year. I quoted the word, because I realized that in that period of time, I haven't treated querying like the job it is. I haven't given it the attention to detail I have with my editing and my writing. I haven't busted my ass making sure that I am sending out queries every week to play the game of large numbers.

So, over the 4th of July, I started in earnest. I decided it was time to do this, and to do it right. 

This post is aimed at anyone who, like me, is trying to get an agent for the first time. I am, obviously, no expert in this, as I don't yet have an agent. So instead of telling you "how" to do it, I'm going to share a variety of resources and tools I've been using. Hopefully it will be helpful. 

Before You Start

  1. Have a finished book. Finished meaning fully written. Edited (more than once). Ready to publish right this second. Note that your "fully finished" status will likely change periodically. I have gone across, then back, then forward across this line a few times based on feedback I've received over the last year.
  2. Have a couple of synopsis written for the book. Often I find agents looking for a "brief" (which I take to mean a few paragraphs) or a couple of page synopsis. I would suggest doing these ahead of time. Disclaimer: I am not great at writing these, so I don't have a great recommendation here other than "do this." 

Step 1

I would suggest doing a bit of research on the querying process. For me, this was listening to people I respect on podcasts (like Writing Excuses and I Should be Writing) talk about the process. This also lead to a new podcast for me, Shipping and Handling (which is hosted by two agents). 

A few selected episodes to look at are:

  1. http://www.shippingandhandlingpodcast.com/post/131173981747/episode-22-queries
  2. http://www.writingexcuses.com/2011/07/03/writing-excuses-6-5-query-letters/
  3. http://murverse.com/isbw-348-stop-kicking-your-own-ass-jen-udden-interview/
  4. http://murverse.com/isbw-276-rapid-fire-the-great-agent-query/
  5. http://murverse.com/isbw-275-rapid-fire-the-great-agent-hunt/

I'm sure there are others that are worth listening to, but these are a few that jumped out at me!

Step 2

Develop a strategy for locating agents you want to query to. For me this is a blend of three things:

  1. Make sure the agent is accepting queries AND that they are interested in the genres I am querying (Adult Fantasy and Young Adult Urban Fantasy)
  2. Do some background research on http://absolutewrite.com/ to make sure that the writing community at large doesn't have anything overly negative to say about the agent and their agency.
  3. Consider what would make you personally interested / disinterested in approaching the agent. For me, this always involves a web presence (meaning if the agent has a crappy website or no website at all, I probably won't query them) and also their background and the types of books they are personally interested in. This has been difficult for me to hit on the head but I am still trying to figure it out!

Step 3

Resources for finding agents are plentiful. Sites I have found to be particularly useful are:

  1. http://agentquery.com (totally free)
  2. https://querytracker.net (both free and premium not free)
  3. http://www.writersmarket.com (not free)

I would also look into social media "pitching" contests, as many of these give you more direct access to agents. Several I can personally recommend are:

1. #PitMad - Sponsored by Brenda Drake - http://www.brenda-drake.com/pitmad/
2. #SFFPit - Sponsored by Dan Kobolt - http://dankoboldt.com/sffpit/

There are countless others. I've personally had better luck with #PitMad that #SFFPit, but both are reputable and well supported in the industry. Brenda Drake has a number of other contests throughout the year that are well worth looking at on her site well.

Final Thoughts

As you work through the agents, a few final things I try to keep in mind:

  1. Don't rush so much that you make mistakes. Every now and again I find a typo in a query letter, and I kick myself. It's embarrassing. 
  2. Keep track of the agencies that you are actively querying. MANY agencies have policies for simultaneous submission to their agents that doesn't favor you doing it. I do this via a spreadsheet in which I track which agency, the specific agent, the work, and the last date queried. I also track how I came across this agent, just in case I stumble across them again by accident.
  3. Pay close attention to ALL of the submission requirements. Many agencies do not allow attachments. Many of them ask for very specific writing sample lengths (three chapters vs. 5 pages vs. 50 pages).

The POV Cop Out

I love writing in 3rd person limited. It's my go to POV. The vast majority of the books I enjoy reading are in 3rd person limited. It feels just right to me. Generally, 1st is too narrow a POV. Omniscient is too broad. 

So, now I'm writing a first person POV novel, and I'm finding myself in an interesting situation: for the first time in a very long time, I can't just change POV to show off something cool that I want to share.

For example, one of my principals, but not the POV character, just left with a secondary character. They are going to have a conversation about something that the POV character experienced. They are going to talk about the POV character. There is no way for my POV character to overhear this conversation. Selfishly, I want to know what happens in this conversation (and of course, I will, because I'm making it up). But, there's also a part of me that wants to share what is going to happen with that conversation with the reader.

Certainly I can recap later, but that's not the point. I am SO used to being able to go </endchapter> and then jump to another headspace in another character to cover something going on there. I don't get to do that with this book. I think that's good for me, but it's a real pain in the ass, that's for sure.

So far, I have to say that 1st person is both much much easier and infinitely more difficult to write. I have exactly one plot line to juggle right now. This is compared to the seven I have in my other novel. One is much easier. But, I also have to be much more strategic about where this character goes, because if I want to have something 'on screen' I have to include my POV there. I can't send three characters in three directions and still see everything they are doing. 

Interestingly, in many ways, I think writing the super complex, multiple POV book helped me prepare for this one. I'm excited to see where things wind up.

WorldCon RoundUp

I’m a little late in writing this, but better late than never! I attended the 73rd WorldCon in Spokane, WA a couple of weeks ago and it was one of the best experiences of my writing career (so far). This post will cover the trip, some of the people I met, the panels I attended, the books I had signed, the readings I heard, and last but not least, photos of some of the experiences! I’ll also be doing a series of posts in the coming weeks to describe my path to WorldCon, which will hopefully help you if you’re considering attending your first WorldCon as a writer! I am avoiding politics in this post, as it is about my experiences specifically, and I don't feel that I have enough to bring to the political field that were the Hugo awards and other goings on. However, if you are interested in that topic, Wired has a great summary of everything that happened there.

WorldCon was at the Spokane Convention Center right downtown in Spokane, WA. Thankfully it’s only a two hour drive for me so getting there was easy. Unfortunately there are a lot of wild fires burning in the state right now and things were quite smokey on the way in.

Wednesday I mostly focused on getting into the hotel, registering for the con, and attending my first panel!

The panel I attended was all about contracts. I am now sure, more than ever, that I don't want to be a lawyer. (Glad we covered that). The panel focused on how, as an author, you want to make sure that the contract is in your best interest where of course, the publisher is writing the contract to be in theirs. Some really handy info from the author Mike Resnick and literary agent Joshua Bilmes.

The rest of the day Wednesday was mostly getting settled in, exploring the dealers' room, etc. I also attended several parties Wednesday night including First Night and the location bid parties for the contenders in the 2017 WorldCon bid. I have to say, while there was free booze, the parties were tough to attend on my own.

Oh, and Wednesday/Thursday also looked like the world was going to end in Spokane.

That's the sun btw, not the moon, and that is an unfiltered look at the sky. The smoke was terrible.

Thursday was a day full of panels. I got a lot out of the day, attending a self publishing panel, a live Ditch Diggers recording (if you aren't listening to Ditch Diggers, you should be!), a panel on writing diverse characters in SFF, and a reading from Brandon Sanderson from the 3rd Stormlight archive book! Thursday night also saw a drinks with authors event, at which I won an ARC (advanced reading copy) of Paul Cornel's new novela, Witches of Lychford,  from TOR.com. I also got a chance to meet chat with Dan Wells and Brandon Sanderson for a few minutes. Again, this was a tough thing to go to on my own. I recognized a LOT of my favorite authors here, but the authors weren't really chatting it up with the crowd, and it was tough to get into conversations. I left fairly quickly.

Friday was an amazing day. I had a chance to pitch my novel to an agent and editor at sponsored pitching sessions. This was a fairly large, nervous part of the con for me, but both of these conversations went very well! I also had a chance to see Writing Excuses recorded live on Friday...


...and in fact they recorded three episodes with Gail Carriger, Kevin J. Anderson, and Charlie N. Holmberg. Super cool to see how they put these together! Mur Lafferty also organized an I Should be Writing meetup on Friday, so I got to meet her and Matt Wallace. And, bonus, Matt read from his upcoming novela Envy of Angels which sounded amazing. I've already pre-ordered it over at Amazon and you should too!

 

Friday also saw the chance for me to play Magic the Gathering with Brandon Sanderson! I was terrible. But I got to play MTG (a win), against Brandon Sanderson (a super win), he signed a card for me, AND I got to go hang out at the bar with some new friends I met at the con.  All in all, an excellent day.

 

Nothing terribly exciting happened Saturday and Sunday. I spent most of those days perusing the dealer room and meeting authors, having books singed, and attending panels. I also had a chance to chat about my work with a number of authors and people in the publishing industry. It was less about pitching, and more about getting to know people. I got to watch the Hugo awards with a great bunch of people (including Matt Wallace). THEN on Sunday, I got to listen to Mur Lafferty read from three of her upcoming projects, all of which sound super cool. In fact, I got to meet LOTS of people that were there selling their books.

Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology
By Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler

All in all, I think WorldCon was worth every cent and the time I spent there. I am not sure I will go again as a non-professional writer. Not unless it's once again in a city that is within driving distance. The cost of attending + flight + hotel + vacation seems prohibitive for me to go without a real purpose. However, given the location and the experiences I had, I loved it.

I met a TON of authors in person, including:

Brandon Sanderson Howard Taylor Dan Wells Charlie N. Holmberg Gail Carriger Mur Lafferty Matt Wallace Kameron Hurley Wesley Chu

That's not counting all of the amazing northwest talent I met from the Oregon/Washington/Idaho/Alaska area.

I came back so energized and excited that I cannot wait to experience another con in the future. I'm hoping to hit GenCon in Indiana next summer (thanks to family being there and combining trips). So, hopefully more coming on that in the spring. I'm hoping that Mary Robinette Kowal in particular will be out and about at some point as well, so I can get the last signature on my Writing Excuses Anthology, Shadows Beneath.

OH. Right. And I officially started writing book 2. That was pretty fun as well.

A Good Place to Wind Up

I swore up and down when I started writing Passages and Passenges that I wouldn't make the same mistakes that I did when I was working on my first, failed novel. I've talked about this several times, most recently in my post Changing the Habit #5. I was fairly certain therefore that I would start, and just go with it. I was totally wrong.

Finding the beginning of my book took almost a year of writing the book. I still think that's totally nuts. There's a lot of pressure to get the beginning right. Right?

At first, I planned on starting with major action. So, chapter 1 opened ... explosively. Then, I realized that the cinematic, explosion filled approach was totally out of character (not in a POV that made any damn sense) for the way I was writing the novel. Scratch that.

Then, I moved the time frame forward about ten minutes and started after the explosions were done. I let my character deal with the aftermath, literally crawling his way out of the mess I had just made. While an interesting way to start the book, I realized that as a fantasy series, starting with a sci/fi element was really misleading to the reader. As cool as the first chapter was, again, it wasn't consistent. Scratch that one too.

I don't know exactly when I decided to start with the fantasy element of the book, but things started going much MUCH more smoothly at that point. But. My beta readers were concerned that starting the middle of the action didn't give me any chance to really explain the world, to explain the rules of the magic system I was using, or to setup anything. They were right, too. Scratch THAT as well.

Somewhere in the middle of my big rewrite that I did last year (I totally rewrote the book from page one after finishing a very rough draft) I wrote a chapter. I think it was chapter 21 originally. This chapter was one of a series of flashbacks, I believe it was the third such. I got very positive feedback on the chapter, and in fact, was strongly urged to move it up top. Instead of a flashback, make the action start there.

Where I am now, is that "21st" chapter is my first. What was the first chapter, the really action packed, fantasy scene, actually now happens about a quarter of the way into the second chapter. Even though my novel no longer starts with explosions and in the middle of nutso action, I do give the reader a much more grounded approach to the world and let them get to know and care about the characters a bit before I put them in mortal danger.

I know how much I stressed out about finding that great beginning for the book. After about two and a half years of working on the book, multiple failed attempts, I accidentally wrote a great beginning. Awesome!

I was listening to Writing Excuses recently and they happened to be talking about beginnings. Dan Wells made a really excellent point, that the beginning you write early on probably isn't going to be the beginning that actually makes it through all of your editing and rewrites anyway. So, there's no reason to stress about writing that perfect beginning when you start.

I can totally relate to that.

More, I recently suggested to a friend that if she's having trouble getting out of the beginning, just skip it. Start a chapter down the road a bit. We all know something is going to happen before that chapter, but often, it's actually easier to write the "real" beginning of the book after you understand your characters and your plot better than you ever will when you start writing on line one. Especially if it's your first book.

As always, writing is more important than hitting the nail on the head with every word. The act of writing five or six crappy chapters, early on, is much better than iterating over the first chapter again and again, trying to find that perfect beginning.

The Slow Pitch

I did #PitMad a few weeks ago. If you don't know what that is, that's ok. I didn't either until very recently. Basically, #PitMad is your day to pitch a completed book to a captive audience of fellow authors, agents, and publishers who are actively looking for new work to share and publish. Pretty cool, huh?

Twitter pitching contests are becoming more and more popular. I opted not to participate in #SFF (science fiction / fantasy) on June 18th, but I did do #PitMad on June 4th. My cousin, Ashey Warren, participated in the event earlier in the year and she reflected on it as well on her blog.

The concept is simple (and wonderfully outlined on Brenda Drake's website here). You get to tweet up to a couple of times an hour for 12 hours. The contest starts at 8am EDT, which is super early on the west coast, so plan accordingly. I took the day off, although you can totally use something like Tweet Deck to schedule your tweets. I didn't do it this way, more on that in a bit.

You need to construct at least 12 (if not more) tweets that contain 140 character minus whatever hashtags you use to identify your work. So, for my novel, I had #PitMad, #A (for adult), and #SFF (for science fiction/fantasy). That left me roughly 125 characters to play with. Otherwise, your tweets can really be about anything that will hook someone's interest on your novel.


Agents / publishers who are interested favorite your tweets and invite you to query them. This is the good part.

Let's start by saying that I have minimal experience querying on a novel. I do however have several years of experience querying for short fiction. Doing a query is a necessary evil that is a slow, slow process. With a novel, that process can easily stretch for months for each person you query, and even then there is no guarantee that you will hear anything back at all, let alone useful (or positive) feedback.

With something like #PitMad, you DO have a captive audience. You DO have people who are reading the pitches on your book, and if they indicate interest, there's a reasonable chance they are already interested in what you have to say. Does that mean they will snap up your book? Not at all. Does that mean you have a reasonably good chance (if someone favorites a tweet) that you will get an agent to actually read your work? Absolutely.

Now, on to the part about why I took the day off of work and actually sat around manually sending tweets. I was fortunate enough to have some interest in my book. Assuming an agent favorites hundreds of tweets (and yes, many do), I didn't want to be at the bottom of that stack. I wanted to be ready. So, going into the day, not only did I have all of my tweets ready to go, I ALSO had a query letter ready, a couple of different length synopses, and several different cuts of my book (different agents want different sample lengths). This meant that when I did manage to land a favorite, I was able to put together a query in less than an hour of the time the tweet was favorited.

I have no idea if that made a difference. I really don't. But, it makes me feel professional, and I think it IS professional, so it's totally worth it if you can take the time. Plus, I was able to craft slightly different tweets based on what I saw on the hastag, and I think that improved my outlook some. I was also able to retweet or other authors that had pitches that sounded interesting to me.

Which, brings us to the last nice thing about #PitMad. Even though you can only tweet twice an hour, retweets help get the word out. You certainly don't want to ask your follows to spam the hashtag, but having some extra retweets of your tweets during the day will only get you more attention.

A big thank you goes out to everyone who helped me on the 4th with some retweets. I really do appreciate it.

I'm planning on doing #PitMad again in the future, and in fact will likely continue doing it until I have sold a book. I think it's a brilliant way of approaching the publication of a book, and major thanks to Brenda Drake for organizing it.

Amazon Hates Crossroads of Twilight

A friend of mine is currently reading the Wheel of Time for the first time. He loves it. That's good. However, because he's buying all of the books as Kindle books from Amazon, he's getting access to the reviews of the books as he buys them, which is a fascinating scenario.

Often if I'm 10 books into a series, I'm reading along as the author is writing the books. I'm totally invested. I'm sitting around on the edge of my seat waiting for months (or years) at a time, waiting for the next book to come out. I would never consider buying, say, the next Dresden book based on the review.

My friend isn't doing this. He's invested. Still, when he went to buy Crossroads of Twilight, he noticed with some alarm that the book only has 2 stars. This is quite out of the ordinary for a Wheel of Time book, most of them are 4+ (a couple are 3-3.5) but 2? That's the sort of review you'd expect for a really terrible book.

That I suppose begs the question... is it terrible?

When I first read the Wheel of Time, I hated this book. I read book 9. Big things happen. Then, book 10 comes along and hardly anything happened. Then I had to wait two years (because, Robert Jordan was incredibly ill at this point) since it took him a long time to write Knife of Dreams. Knife of Dreams was undoubtedly a better book. But despite hating Crossroads... I don't think it's a bad book.

This is encouraging for me. Robert Jordan is an incredibly talented and famous author. He has a really terrible review for a book in the middle of his series. He has more books after this. He would have written many more books had he continued living. It's a good reminder that not every book is well received, and not every bad review is because a book is bad.

And, sometimes bad reviews are pretty hilarious.

701 of 764 people found the following review helpful

By Ian Marquis on May 14, 2005

Format: Mass Market Paperback

Phone Rep: "Hello, this is ****, representing Bigelow Tea and other fine beverages. How may I help you?"

Caller: "Well, see, I have this problem with my tea..."

P: "Which variety of tea are you having the problem with?"

C: "Bigelow Blueberry Blast."

P: "Alright...what seems to be the problem?"

C: "See, there was this one batch of tea I brewed for myself one morning. I brewed it into a gleaming silver pitcher with a matching silver ropework tray and a set of three silver cups, each with its own saucer that was engraved around the perimeter with tiny flowers. I had bought the set in Saldea. Oh, the Sea-folk porcelain is wonderful, but I'm prone to breaking it. Anyway, I poured myself a cup of tea. There were piping hot scones in a silver bowl on the tray next to the tray that held the tea. The basket was covered with a white embroidered cloth slashed with blue silk, much like my dress. Oh, the neckline is a bit too low-cut for some of my acquaintances, who prefer good stout woolens to that Arad Domai silk that clings to the body in such a way as to leave very little to the imagination. So, as I was eating a scone and drinking my cup of tea, the steam from each rising and intertwining together like dueling serpents, I noticed a peculiar taste in the tea: it was cool and refreshing, with a hint of mint. Of course, I thought nothing of it. Giving my earlobe a tug and my braid a pull, I remembered the idiocy of every one of my male friends, indeed every male I have ever come into contact with, or ever will for that matter. The lot of woolheads can never compete with the superior logic and rock-solid reasoning that every female in the known universe possesses. It's no wonder we all behave the same."

P: "Um...what was your problem with the tea?"

C: "Oh yes, I'm sorry. After I had consumed the tea, I placed the cup on the silver ropework tray and covered the gleaming silver basket of scones again with the white embroidered cloth slashed with bands of blue silk, much like my dress. I remembered the stout man in the streets of Tar Valon: a vendor of sausages he was. Though I know I will never see him again, I felt it necessary to familiarize myself with every aspect of his appearance and personal history. He was a short, stout man with black hair that was beginning to grey at the temples, slicked back on his head in the manner of warriors, though it was obvious he was not one. He wore brown shoes of stained leather that rustled softly against the dirt of the streets, kicking up clouds of dust that lingered in the air even after he had passed. His pants were of stiff wool, dyed green and patched in many places. He wore a leather jerkin over a soiled white peasant's shirt, the cuffs of his sleeves rolled up and out of his way. Around his neck was a silver chain with a medallion attached to it that bore the image of a bear. He spoke with a gruff voice..."

P: "The TEA, ma'am."

C: "Well you don't have to be rude about it. I was only filling you in on the relevant details."

P: "I don't have all day, ma'am."

C: "You do remind me of a lad I once knew, back when I used to frequent the palace in Camelyn..."

P: "Look, we'll send you a case of Blueberry tea, alright?"

C: "Oh...alright then, I suppose that will do nicely."

P: "Do you have any other problems?"

C: "Well, there is this one other problem I have, but it's not with your tea. The other day, I was pouring myself a goblet of spiced wine. Only the wine had grown cold after being left on the windowsill for whatever reason. So I siezed hold of saidar. It was pure rapture...like opening all of my petals to the sun, for I am a flower. It was like floating in a river that tore along with great speed: resist it and you would be consumed by it. So I accepted it and was consumed by the sweet joy. I sent a tiny thread of fire into the pitcher to warm the wine. Soon, steam rose from the pitcher of gold, sunlight rebounding on the inset gems. I removed the pitcher from the stark Cairheinien plinth of the finest marble and poured myself a glass. But the use of saidar had turned the spices bitter..."

*CLICK*

C: "Hello? Hello? Wool-headed sheep-herder..."

Diversity isn't a Four Letter Word

I decided as part of the scope and focus of the blog that I wouldn't use it to discuss political topics. So, today, instead of using recent events in Indiana as a launching point for this discussion, I will instead use this insanity from the director of the new Final Fantasy 15 video game. He says...

"Speaking honestly, an all-male party feels almost more approachable for players," Tabata told GameSpot in a recent interview. "Even the presence of one female in the group will change their behaviour, so that they'll act differently. So to give the most natural feeling, to make them feel sincere and honest, having them all the same gender made sense in that way."

I think we can safely assume that the new Final Fantasy isn't going to pass the Bechdel Test. That's pretty unfortunate, for a number of reasons.

  1. I really love Final Fantasy as a series of games. Granted, the past several (all numbered 13 coincidentally) have been moderately terrible, but I've always viewed them as really incredible story telling platforms. It's really disappointing that they are moving in this direction. The relationships between the party members always make for interesting tension and story development, particularly if there is a love story there. They are missing out on a huge opportunity here, if nothing else.
  2. This is a really unfortunate trend that continues pretty much everywhere even in the 21st century. You find it on TV, in Movies, in books, and in video games (not to mention in real life). Even the big, mega blockbusters are absolutely guilty of this. Marvel, for all its money and power, has no female lead cast anywhere, and it will still be several years before the Captain Marvel movie comes along. When the new Star Wars cast was announced initially, there was only one female cast member in the 'new' cast. Oh, and I think she might have been a princess. (Yes those are both Disney movie examples. Sorry) This has been improved upon recently by expanding the cast list.
  3. Finally, the entire point of a cast of characters is to change the behavior of your party. A story is successful IMHO because of the actions and reactions of the characters in it. I read stories almost exclusively for the character development. When the person responsible for implementing a story says he doesn't want his characters to react, I find that immensely troubling.

I recently talked about changing your perspective and why this is so critical as a writer. This applies to character as well as your setting and world building.

My novel has four primary POV characters in it. Three of those four are women. One of those three is African American. This is a stretch for me. I am neither female nor African American. I didn't do this to be able to punch my ticket and say "Yep, Diversity! Hooray!" I did it because I think these characters have something to add to the story. I think they have their own stories to tell, and because they are inherently different people than me, these aren't stories I know right off the bat. I get to grow with these characters and learn about their lives, about their challenges, and about their wants and desires. All of which are necessarily different than my own. I think that's awesome.

Because I have a gender diverse cast of characters, I get to experiment with tropes that are super over done in new and unique ways. I have a damsel in distress, except he's not a damsel. I have several super badass fighters that can absolutely throw down and hold their own without any help from anyone, and they are women. I think these things make my story stronger. I think these things make my story more honest. I think these things make me a better writer.

If you haven't tried writing outside your comfort zone, try it. Maybe you won't publish the first attempt, but seriously, try it. It's a great exercise. When you're writing your character back stories, really look at who you've got in the cast of characters. If it's a first person POV that might be tough to write from another gender. But that's ok. If you have a cast of several characters, ask yourself, what would happen if this one was a woman instead of a man? What if that one was gay, not straight? What if that one wasn't the same ethnicity as the other characters? You never know, it might make your story that much more interesting (and appealing) for yourself and your readers.

A Day in the Life

This is a topic that has interested me for years. While I am a writer, a published writer even, it isn't my full time job. I've found a couple of resources recently that have really been revealing and I thought I would share them.

Ditch Diggers is a podcast created and hosted by Mur Lafferty and Matt Wallace. I love Mur's work on I should be writing and her urban fantasy that I've read (Shambling Guide to New York City and Ghost Train to New Orleans). I don't know much about Matt's work, but I plan to look into it a bit.

There are only a handful of recordings so far, but Mur and Matt spend each episode talking about topics in and around the writing industry, and give a fairly blunt and open view of their careers as writers.

If you're looking for a 'how to write' or 'help me write' podcast, this ain't it. I would refer you to I should be writing and/or Writing Excuses for that. No, this is an honest look at what a couple of writers have experienced in their careers. This does have a content warning.  Check it out! 

Debut Author Lessons is a series of blog posts from Mary Robinette Kowal that she has written over the course of the last five years. She coves a wide range of topics that span a number of aspects of a new author's career, including travel, signing, contracts, agents, etc. It's an easy read and well worth the time. Check it out!

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.

Compiling

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!

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

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.