Friday, December 31, 2010

2011 Goals and Resolutions

2011 Goals and Resolutions

2011_goalsYep, it’s that time again to give myself ample opportunity to look back in one year’s time and beat myself up for completely missing my goals. So, in the spirit of knowing that I’ll most likely fail, I present my 2011 Goals and Resolutions.

To clarify a couple things: Goals are what I’m committing to. Resolutions is what I’m going to strive for. And note, by the time I publish this post, these may have gone out the window. I reserve the right to change them at any time.



  • Read 25 novels
  • Read 6 writing books
  • Publish 52 blog posts (I’ve written 100+ the last couple years so…)
  • Blogfests: Host one, participate in 12
  • Plan a 2nd draft of Dead Air.
  • Plan a revision of Dawn’s Rise
    The last two aren’t goals because I’m seriously questioning the marketability of these vs the amount of effort needed to fix them. But if I need a couple week “break” I might consider working on them
  • Keep participating in critique groups


  • Lose 20 lbs & stick with exercise plan, tendonitis willing
  • Watch way less TV
  • Take a family vacation
  • Keep on top of bills
  • Get the truck serviced
  • Avoid time-wasting distractions (like iPhone apps)


Writing Goals (To be completed by EOY)

  1. Publish Steam Palace (or exhaust all means).
    By “publish” I mean at least have someone express interest (have an offer).
  2. Acquire a literary agent.
    #1 is not necessarily contingent on this one.
  3. Complete the first draft of at least one of these:
    • The Immortals
      (I have 80K words already but I got stuck…need to outline whole novel and restart)
    • Girl World
      (I might write this as a script instead of a novel)
    • Steam Palace 2
      (I have the basic concept, need an outline)
  4. Completely new NaNoWriMo novel (unless contracted for paying work)
    This is in addition to goal #3 so my overall goal is 2 first drafts in 2011, one before and one during NaNo.
  5. Participate in 3 writing conferences and/or
    Participate in 3 writing workshops
  6. Create an “author web site” for myself

Writing Skill Goals

  • Deeper characters and POV
  • Faster revisions
  • Better villains (higher stakes, increased conflict)
  • More emotional content, more connection with the characters
  • Improve my critique skills (make people anticipate instead of dread my feedback)
  • “Stay Away From Toxic Relationships.” Oh wait…those make the best character conflicts. Nevermind.

There, is that enough? Pretty much all I really want to accomplish is Goal #1. Everything else would be nice but if I don’t publish Steam Palace (or have a lit agent I feel confident with) then I’m really going to have to reevaluate. And that’s not going to wait ‘til next December.

Monday, December 27, 2010

2010: My Year In Review

2010: My Year In Review

goodbye-2010-hello-2011There is one aspect of every job I’ve ever had that I hate the most: reviews. Whether once a year, twice a year, quarterly, weekly, heck—some places had daily “stand-up” meetings—they all had one thing in common: they were opportunities for me to see how poorly I was doing; a chance for me to browbeat myself into submission; and ultimately, of course, to be the avenue for my exit from those companies. Let me explain:




So why am I giving myself an annual review and posting it for the world to see? Why give myself an honest assessment of my successes and failures? I have no fucking clue. But here it goes.

Last years goals:


I want to know that this whole “writing career” thing is progressing…What I really want is to feel some measure of success by the End of the Year.
Before I answer this, let’s look at how I did vs. my other stated goals.

Resolutions (for reference, not for evaluation)

  1. Be a better father and husband. Spend more “quality time” with the family.
  2. Eat healthy and exercise. Get back to the gym and the pool.
  3. Stay focused on my writing and not get too distracted by blogging.
  4. Increase the amount of critiques I do.
  5. Clear all the clutter out of the house.
  6. Try to avoid disasters.

Goals (to be graded)

  1. Lose weight.
    RESULT: FAIL Actually gained ~5lbs this year
  2. Complete the current Steam Palace revision by April 1
    RESULT: MISS Completed Revision 2 on 6/22.
  3. Attract an agent and/or publisher for Steam Palace.
    RESULT: FAIL Made some contacts but have not actually queried.
  4. Get back into running (tendonitis permitting).
    RESULT: N/A, tendonitis as bad as ever :(
  5. Write a new book for NaNoWriMo.
    RESULT: SUCCESS Wrote Dead Air for NaNo. 55K words.
  6. Complete a draft of The Immortals.
    RESULT: FAIL Did nothing more than polish an excerpt for a blogfest.
  7. Go to at least one writer’s conference.
    RESULT: MISS Planned for Jan 20, 2011.
  8. Go to at least one convention where I can push my novel.
    RESULT: FAIL I kinda talked it up at
    Steamcon though.
  9. Take a vacation at some point.
    RESULT: FAIL Took a day off here and there.

Wow, that was humbling. I got almost nothing “done” except NaNoWriMo. Of course back then I had no idea that Steam Palace revisions would take all year. However, I do have a few achievements to note that were not on my official “goal” sheet:

  • 107 blog posts in 2010 with 2 more planned (including this one)
  • Stuck with exercise plan
  • Completed 3rd revision and am on 4th revision of Steam Palace
  • Created new story concept called “Girl World”
  • Created concept for Steam Palace 2
  • Did clean out a lot of the clutter mentioned in Resolutions
  • Participated in ~35 blogfests and hosted one
  • Wrote ~7 Flash Fiction pieces
  • Hosted Eastside Writers Meetup Group for most of the year
  • Actively participated in 4 in-person critique groups overall
  • Avoided disasters (so far knock knock)

And now to address the “Main Goal” mentioned above.

To be honest, I think I’ve progressed in a huge way. I am so much more in touch with story structure, characters, conflict, goals, emotions, scene structure, style, POV, critique, everything. It’s become much easier to recognize good writing and knowing where the writing is weak. That’s what drove me crazy about NaNoWriMo this year…the knowledge that I was writing crap. But as far as Steam Palace, I do feel like I’m on the verge of publication…or at least a lot of polite rejections. So while I don’t feel like I have “succeeded”, I do feel like I’ve done everything I’m supposed to be doing. I have a solid, well-written manuscript that will be done by Jan. 20, 2011 come hell or high water (or any number of disasters).

So if I was my own boss (which I am), I’d give myself an overall passing grade. I think this coming year will be the real test, when I put myself on the line and submit my story. More details about 2011 in my next post.

So aside from missing most of my goals (which I expect anyways since I know that my plan is flexible to take advantage of opportunities/adjust to setbacks) I think I‘m doing well.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Revision: Sharpening Characters

Revision: Sharpening Characters

sharpen charOn my never-ending quest to revise Steam Palace, I’ve come across a particular set of feedback across most reviewers:

  1. I don’t care (enough) about your character(s)
  2. I don’t understand your character(s)

So lately I’ve been researching the issue. It seems like it comes down to two separate problems:

  1. Overall, I’m not showing my characters’ goals and motivations clearly, and/or readers don’t relate.
  2. In specific scenes, not providing insight into my characters’ mindset.

So how do I address these issues? The first thing is to make my character’s motivations and goals not only clearer, but much stronger. As I write, I always have a sense of what each character is after. A lot of us want to start with “ordinary” characters who are facing somewhat “ordinary” problems. The problem come when we send these characters on an adventure. Why? What stops them from just going back home? Why do they continue to press through even when things get tough or even impossible? Why don’t they fold like a house of cards?

The fact is that they are anything but ordinary. Characters are driven. They are the people we see in real life and say, “man, I wish I could be that guy.” “Isn’t she awesome?” Or, alternately, “I wish someone would run over that dude.” Characters are Heroes, they are larger-than-life. They are extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

So how does this apply to character revision? Should I give my character laser eyes and shoot him into space? No. But there are a couple things to consider.

  1. What are the Stakes? Are they big enough? What happens if your character loses?
  2. Can you increase the stakes? Make them more personal? What would your character die for? Is this the most important thing the character has ever wanted ever?
  3. Are your characters’ goals well-defined? Do they know what they want? Do you? Is what they want worth dying over?
  4. Can the reader relate to the character’s needs? Are they good, solid goals?
  5. Does the character have a life outside of the story that the reader can relate to?
  6. Do other characters care about your character? Does your character care about the other characters? Let’s feel the love.

Note that this applies both to Heroes and Villains, except for #6 where you should replace ‘care about’ with ‘hate’.

Now this doesn’t address of connecting with characters on a page-by-page basis. Here are some things I’m going to work through:

  1. Keep the characters’ goals and opposition up-front on every page. Think of a kid trying to get to a bowl of candy. They have eyes for nothing else. You character wants something in every situation, and struggles to achieve that goal. It’s either the candy or a diaper-wetting tantrum (or however your character handles setbacks). And remember, the goal is never, “learn the backstory.”
  2. Filter the scene through the POV character. If there’s nothing evocative about something in the scene, don’t mention it. React. Emote. Why does ever single word on each page matter?
  3. Dialogue is better than monologue. Especially if two or more characters are speaking at cross-purposes. Express inner dialogue when you can, but don’t overdo it.

How do you get your readers to connect with your characters?

PS. On the image above, let me suggest an edit. The balloon should read, “A conflicted Disney Princess on every page.” Then they won’t just teach reading comprehension, but maybe writing skills as well.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Father Figure

The Father Figure

father figureI’ve noticed a thematic element in most of the fiction I write—the absence of a “Father Figure.” Now this doesn’t reflect my life…my mom and dad stayed together and he lived to a ripe old age of 75. So why write stories with a missing father figure? In fact, even in my stories where there is a father, there is no mother. So I’m left with 2 cases: single-parent or orphaned characters. Is there something of literary value in writing characters with fractured families?

I think maybe there’s an inherent conflict. There’s a sense of loss, of deep pain, of something missing in their lives. These characters are incomplete. There’s a need to reconnect, to rebuild their broken families by bringing new people into their lives. Another thing is that without exception, every single one of these characters is single (only two are even dating someone at the start of the story) and have no children (that they know about).

So this brings up a couple issues. Is this good literary fodder to explore or am I just stuck in a rut? Is there something about the Father Figure that I struggle with or avoid? Is this a character type I should explore more? Just for fun I dumped out most of my Main Characters with their parent and home status. While I’m at it I dumped out the number of siblings. Not many bros in there…I can relate to that (2 sisters). Hmm…also just noticed that when they have siblings, the Main Character is the youngest. I was a middle child. (Technically Viola is a few minutes younger than Sophia but that doesn’t count).

So that leaves me a few interesting possibilities to explore in future works:

  • Main Characters who are married and/or parents
  • Main Characters with younger siblings
  • Main Characters with both parents alive and well

Main Characters without fathers

Dawn Anami, Dawn’s Rise
Father died one week after her birth, identity hidden from her.
No father figure growing up
Mother died ~10 years ago, now an orphan living with aunt.
0 siblings

Sophia Stratton, Steam Palace
Father died 7 years ago
Mother is dying.
Lives with sister.
2 sisters, brother died in childhood before her birth

Jake, The Immortals
Father died before birth, identity unknown.
No father figure growing up
Story starts with mother’s death, now an orphan.
Potentially 1 brother he’s never met

Archie Magnuson, Dead Air
Father died  6 years ago
Mother ill, he is her live-in caretaker.
Casually dating a girl.
1 sister

Grett Hawk, Girl World
Biological parents unknown
No father figure growing up
Childhood foster mother died ~10 years ago, now has another.
Lives in a fraternal group home
15 “foster” sisters, no known blood siblings

Main Characters with Fathers

Alex Ross, 30 Days
Father still alive and kicking.
Mother not mentioned, out of picture.
Lives with girlfriend.
1 brother

Mary of Archa, Wild Mary’s Way
Father alive and kicking
Mother died ~12 years earlier
Leaves home at start of story.
0 siblings

So you can see I’ve left a trail of death and mayhem in constructing these characters. Note that tons of my supporting characters have fathers, brothers, sisters, children, etc, so this is really just about the main character.

What kind of family structures do you find yourself writing?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Writing Query Letters

Writing Query Letters

Bar-complaint_001Apparently there’s some kind of “tradition” floating about the publishing industry called the “Query Letter”. The Query Letter is a concise one-page description of your work and about you. It can include elements such as a teaser, a short paragraph about the book, and an author’s credits. I’m not going to pretend I know diddly squat about writing them here. All I know is that they’re a stepping stone, the first step to publication. It must entice a potential agent just enough to get them to read a synopsis or even the whole book.

But like lipstick on a pig, not every agent will love your query, no matter how well-written the query (or the book) is. It’s just something to get you into the door, to distinguish you from the 100 other queries that agent has received that day. (It’s not a job I’d envy). The ironic thing is that the best authors may not write the best queries, and vice-versa. Yes, I keep telling myself that. Actually a bad query just sucks.

Here’s the only real piece of advice I have. I think queries should represent the book. Put the most heartfelt part of your story into the query and go with it. Let your self show. Oh, and try to avoid grammatical and spelling errors.

So what do you do when you think you’re ready to query? Here are 3 sites I recommend posting your query on for feedback:

Agent Query Connect
Query Tracker Forums
The Public Query Slushpile

With that said, here’s the latest query for Steam Palace. Comments encouraged.

December 6, 2010

Agent Name
City, State, Zip

Dear Ms. Super-Duper Agent,

After meeting your Evil Twin, you might just wonder which one you are.

In a world swimming in mechohorses and dirigible aivies, where the former New England colonies created a British-style monarchy, a newborn twin is stolen. Sophia is raised in a noble house and provided every advantage, while her unknown twin Viola suffers crippling poverty. A score and three years later when they first meet, Sophia is destitute; her family name and lands a victim of an unfortunate dispute with the King. Meanwhile, to Sophia’s horror, her doppelgänger Viola lives a rich, vile life off the profits of sin.

To restore her family name and ‘save’ her newfound sister from an ignominious fate, Sophia enters Viola’s dark world of the Steam Palace, a floating den of iniquity built upon a derelict barge. When Sophia’s rebuff of the Duke—Viola’s secret lover—leads to an imminent invasion the monarchy, Sophia wonders which is truly the ‘Evil’ twin. She must unite with wretched Viola to protect their families before their steam-powered enemy exterminates their hated race…Americans.

STEAM PALACE, a Steampunk Adventure, is complete at 120,000 words. I have completed a Creative Writing certificate course at the University of Washington, completed Holly Lisle’s “How To Revise Your Novel” online course, and I co-host a local critique group.

Thank you for your consideration.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Every New Beginning…

…Comes From Some Other Beginning’s End

Seneca the Younger
Semisonic, “Closing Time”

GWT_logo_final_clr_hiresNaNoWriMo is over. Let me say a couple more things to add to Monday’s analysis. I really don’t think I’m good at writing Mystery. Furthermore, I don’t think I’ll be writing mystery again. And this is why:
In my last post, I wrote this observation:

  • Falling in love with my characters. I have a tendency to fall in love with certain types of characters (mostly female) and then they start to take over the story because I just want to write about them and give them larger roles than they probably deserve.

Then this thought struck me. Why not just write a story with all female characters? Then I could not worry about it.


Within an hour, I have an entire world, characters, settings, conflicts, everything. It just avalanched out of control. Imagine an isolated planet far in the backwater of the galaxy. The original settlers had a small problem…a faulty Y chromosome cause most infants to be born girls. For countless generations, they’ve formed a highly structured matriarchal society with wars and walled cities. Now zoom in on one city, a high school, a girl, someone immersed in their world’s struggle for survival as males grow scarcer every generation. (Okay, yeah, it would be kewl to be a dude in this scenario, but I’m not trying to write a mantasy here).

One day, our heroine meets a boy her age…practically the only boy her age in her entire city of ~100K…and things explode from there.

I wanted a short story. But my ideas are never small. I don’t know where this idea is going. Right now I’m working on a “journal” concept, that my Heroine is writing assignments for a school writing project, therefore she’s “required” to include backstory in her journal (see I how squeeze that in?).  I’m hoping a few of those could be stand-alone stories. I’m feeling about ten times more energy about this story than I ever felt about the mystery. While it was a nice break to write a contemporary story, I need to stop kidding myself. I’m a science fiction writer, I always have been, and I always will be.

I am going to try to write this with YA in mind. She’s 16 in earth years, and has serious concerns about her life. She’s been slotted to be a warrior, but has never tasted combat. She’s not into the dating scene, but new emotions will surface once she meets the boy. So it’s a coming-of-age in an insane world full of cutthroat bitches and man-hungry hostiles who will stop at nothing to steal your city’s man supply. (It’s really not a mantasy, I swear! The men are treated like prized pigs.).

Oh, and one last thing. My heroine has a cloudy past. The beginning of this mystery (hey, Mystery!) will be revealed one day in science class when she discovers that she’s neither XX nor a feminized XY with a faulty SRY gene. She’s OO. WTF?

I call this concept, “Girl World.”

But I have this small teensy tiny problem. Remember good old Steam Palace? That 120K word tome set in an alternate New England where Sophia Stratton has to defend her country from the mad Reichland Emperor? Well, in a fit of insanity, I signed up for the Writer’s Digest Conference in NYC January 20-22. That includes an agent session where I can pitch my book to tons of agents. Do you know what that means?

Steam Palace and my query letter must be completely finished and in manuscript format by January 20. Holy shit. What about Girl World? What about Christmas? I am really in the deep doo-doo now.

So from NaNoWriMo’s end comes a new beginning, but I haven’t even finished my last new beginning. I better get paid for all this. Fortunately airfare is dirt-cheap ($220 round-trip SEA-NYC) and I found a coupon code for the convention so I paid even less than the early-bird rate.

So wish me luck, I’m going to need it.

Monday, November 29, 2010

NaNoWriMo Post-Mortem

NaNoWriMo Post-Mortem

nanowrimo qualityFor this year’s NaNoWriMo, I decided to go a different route. Instead of continuing Steam Palace, I decided to use a concept that I had been toying with for years. I wanted to focus on the story of this brilliant detective who’s completely incapacitated, but it turned into something more akin to my first couple NaNo stories, the 30 Days series. More action than mystery, more plot than characters.

First, the facts:
Final Title:
Dead Air: An Archie Magnuson Mystery
56,937 words, my lowest output in 4 NaNo’s, but still a “winner.”
Actual days writing: 25
2,200 words/day, compared to something like 3,200 words/day last year
47 “Scenes”

My goal was lower this year. I was aiming for 60K, so I timed my book accordingly. My 80K first draft last year swelled to 120K by the time I finished 3 revisions. So using the same math, my 56K book may wind up around 84K, not a bad size.

But overall, I’m just not satisfied. I think I know some of the main issues that I fought against this year: Note that most of this stuff I was aware of while I was writing, but I just turned off that damned inner editor and went with it.

  • Not enough time spent planning/plotting. By the time I hit Act IV (of five), I was really lost. Usually this is the most fun part of the book to write, but for me it was a death march. I just plodded forward, forcing events instead of letting them happen.
  • Not taking it seriously. Last year I knew I was writing a novel to publish. This year I was “experimenting” with a new genre. I don’t really think I loved writing Mystery. It’s a lot of work, a lot of detail, and pantsing this kind of thing just doesn’t work. I think I can make this work, but not under these constraints.
  • Falling in love with my characters. I have a tendency to fall in love with certain types of characters (mostly female) and then they start to take over the story because I just want to write about them and give them larger roles than they probably deserve.
  • Lack of Villainy. This problem plagues me. My villains just aren’t bad enough. Yeah he’s a bastard but he doesn’t really do that much bad stuff. I want to create someone the reader wants to throttle, not just be annoyed with.
  • Distractions. Going to a 3-day con in the middle of NaNo was a bad idea (for NaNo…made a few industry contacts for Steam Palace, might post about it). Also, you know what really sucks? Getting sick. I picked up some kind of crud at the con and I’ve been sick ever since. It’s incredibly hard to write when you just want to go back to bed.
  • Why? That’s really basic. I never really answered this. Why did anyone do anything they did aside from me wanting them to? What were their motivations? Backstories? And why should the reader care about any of it?
  • Telling. Well, I’d been in full edit mode for a year, so switching back is hard. It took almost 3 days to just drop the editorial voice inside my head and just write. The problem with this is that so much crap comes out that it’s almost not worth it. Out of all the issues listed above, this is the one that really kills me. This is why if I do a revision, it will be a complete rewrite, just like I did with Steam Palace. Not a single line will remain. And it will take me longer than 25 days.

I’m not sure going forward that NaNoWriMo is the best way to draft a novel. Especially this year when I couldn’t devote as much time as I’d like to plotting and even writing it. But I guess so far I’ve only highlighted the negatives, so here are some positive things:

  • I won! ‘Nuff said. Gimme my damn badge!
  • I have a full draft of a new novel in a new genre.
  • I took a risk. I’m not sure it will pay off in this case, but it’s something.
  • Many good characters/potentially good characters.
  • A couple interesting plot twists
  • Potentially compelling conflicts.
  • Lots of series potential. It only takes one book to sell a series.

So I guess I’m giving myself a mixed grade this year. So what will I do from here? Probably shelve it. I could also do a quick 1-2 week edit and throw it up on some sites to get feedback. But right now I really need to work on selling Steam Palace. I also have a few deadlines for conference submissions.

I hope everyone had a good NaNoWriMo, see you next year!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

My NaNoWriMo Cover

My NaNoWriMo Cover

Part of the fun of NaNoWriMo is imagining what your cover would like like. Heck, what’s the title of your story? I’ve gone through a few variations so far such as “The Bed Detective” and “Big Woman Detective”. There’s a phrase that keeps coming up in my story. “Dead Air.” I ran it through Lulu’s Title Scorer and it earned a whopping 77% likelihood of being a best-seller. (Steam Palace ranked like 33%. D’ooh!).

After today I’m taking a brief hiatus from NaNo to participate in SteamCon. I really hope I have a couple minutes of downtime to write maybe a couple hundred words here and there, but I’m not planning on it. I’m at 39K today and I’ll be well over 40K by lunch. Then on Monday it’s the race to the finish, my goal being 60-65K.

Now, without further ado, let me present the cover of my NaNoWriMo 2010 book Dead Air:


I’m hoping that looks a bit ominous and not serene. I played with the image to wash out the colors even more and make it really drab. The image had absolutely nothing to do with the story but it’s more about the mood.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

NaNoWriMo Halfway Report

NaNoWriMo Halfway Report

nanowrimo fireWell, so far, so good. I’m sitting here at the halfway point of with 32K words, my target being ~60K words. Unfortunately, my four “days off” are coming soon. I’m going to be at Steamcon Fri, Sat, and Sunday this week, and next week I traditionally take T-day off (but make up for it on Black Friday in an all-day writing spree). My pace is well under last year, especially considering that my wife wrecked her car last November and I lost a lot of time due to that…and I still finished 5 days early. This year my target is lower, and I’ve been working on a couple other things.

So storywise, it’s interesting. I’m writing a completely contemporary mystery, no Sci-Fi, no secret agents, just everyday people. Okay, there’s a mad scientist. D’ohh! Well, I never worked a good mad scientist into Steam Palace, so I guess some of that rubbed off. But still, it’s not science fiction, I promise.

I’ve stuck fairly well to the storyline. There have been a few characters that I created who I’ve never used, and a few that are creeping out of nowhere to take prominent roles. The plot has more holes than a gun range target, and it’s not all that close to what I started with, but I kind of expected that.

Here’s the thing to remember as you draft. Don’t let your plot run the story. Characters should always drive it. Emotion. Fear. Anger. Love. Week 2 is always the hardest week, because once you’ve introduced the characters and the world, then what? I had in mind a scene where my detective and the damsel in distress are in a car and the car flies off the road into a lake where they almost die. That was my goal. But that was plot. I had to know why they were in that car, why no one else was in it, and where they were going.  (I had a couple of near-drowning scenes in the first draft of Steam Palace that didn’t make it into the second…again when I have ideas I’m determined to use them).

So with that scene in mind, I started creating complications. Intrigue. Questions. Characters who acted unexpectedly. Relationships develop. When I finally hit that critical scene, now the whole rest of the story is unfolding. I now a vision of the final climactic scene, the “reveal” as it were. That scene will be the driving force for the next 2 weeks. That’s the make-or-break part of the book. That’s when my hero will be tested and he’ll know once and for all who his true friends are, and whether he has what it takes to be a true detective.

The other thing was that whenever I got stuck, I just think of another scene to write, something where two characters interact in some way.  I don’t know how, but it just sort of works. This is why you have to just rely on your characters. Give them strong goals and motivations, and let them do their own thing, even if it takes your story somewhere else. That’s the beauty of NaNoWriMo, you never know what you’re going to get.

You’re over the hump, and it’s all downhill from here!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

To Climb the NaNoWriMo Mountain

To Climb the NaNoWriMo Mountain

ToTheTop3Okay. I know a lot of you are heads-down in the midst of NaNoWriMo. Others have decided to pass. Either way is fine with me. Apparently, it’s not fine with everyone.

Laura Miller, senior “writer” at (yeah, I meant the quotes), who admittedly “as someone who doesn’t write novels” has this to say among other things:

…far more money can be made out of people who want to write novels than out of people who want to read them.

…why not direct more attention, more pep talks, more nonprofit booster groups, more benefit galas and more huzzahs to readers? [emphasis mine]

But even if every one of these 30-day novelists prudently slipped his or her manuscript into a drawer, all the time, energy and resources that go into the enterprise strike me as misplaced.

(read it all here)

Okay, first point…writers are poor. They aren’t the world’s greatest demographic. I’m pretty sure writers don’t target other writers for their books. (just critique ;)

Second point…you mean like book tours, speaking engagements, posters in supermarkets, which all generally cost more than the book takes in? Okay, quick fact check. I did a local search on for local writing clubs. It found 43. Now for local reading clubs. 126. Look! 3 times as many results! Hey, let’s check Google. Writing Club: 46M. Book Club: 199M. Also…Google has a whole frickin’ app called “Books.” Where’s the Google writing app? (Oh yeah, Docs…but it’s blank until you write something).

Lastly…“misplaced”?? WTF? Why do anything then? Why plant a garden if it dies in the fall? Why finish a jigsaw puzzle if you just break it up and put it back? Why have kids if they just grow up and have their own families? Why breathe in if you’re going to breathe it out again?

People like Laura Miller don’t “get it.” They don’t have the spark of creativity, so they can’t appreciate it in others. Why build crap? Why write 50,000+ words that you will just throw away? What if Picasso stopped after his first crappy painting? What if Mozart stopped after his first off-key note? Yeah, are all 170,000 participants in NaNoWriMo the next Mark Twain? No. But…yes. They are. They are the seeds of something greater, that when cultivated may grow into a story for the ages. Sure, maybe you wrote 50,000 words of crap, and tossed it away, deleted the file, whatever. But you are not the same person you were before. You’ve changed. You’ve learned. The next 50,000 will be better. The next 50,000 better still.

A couple years ago I spent all my free time training for a summit climb of Mount Rainier. Every weekend was a massive hike. Every day another workout. For 8 months. And then, when all was said and done, I didn’t make it all the way to the top due to altitude sickness. Was all that time wasted? Was the money I spent on gear and training and the expedition misplaced? What do I have to show for it? Well…I have nothing. BUT. I climbed to 11,000 feet. That’s 11,000 feet more than most people have ever climbed. Will my NaNoWriMo novels ever be published? Or will they fall short? Am I just wasting my time, pretending that I am something I’m not? Are we all just wasting our time?

Here’s the thing. No one writes because they are forced to. People write because they’re driven to write, to say the things that no one else can. Here’s one last thing Laura Miller said, and it’s something you should all think about:

Frankly, there are already more than enough novels out there

Maybe. But there’s a problem. You see, there’s one book missing. One book that really connects with you on a personal level, one book that changes things, one book that tells the perfect story.

Yours. And you’re the only one who can write it.

Now get writing!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Caprica, Good Riddance

Caprica, Good Riddance

WTF JUST HAPPENED??For once, I’m not disappointed when SyFy cancels a series before its time. Caprica is now thankfully put out of my misery. But let this be a lesson to all the writers out there as an exemplary example of how NOT to write. Let me demonstrate many of the missteps that defined Caprica’s demise.

  1. Broken Promises
    I don’t know if I got this impression from promos or from early episodes, but I was promised to learn the origin of the
    Cylons. That’s literally all I cared about. I wanted to see early Cylons,”By-your-command” and all that. Cylons. Not weird religions and terrorists. Not corporate politics. Not marital difficulties. CYLONS. Where the fuck were the Cylons??
    When you make your readers a promise, in other words, you set an expectation, you form a “contract” with the reader/viewer. The same thing happened in
    Battlestar Galactica. “They have a plan.” What plan?? We never found out. Compare with “I’ll be back.”
  2. Lousy/Non-existent Setting, Bad World Building
    Umm….why does Caprica look exactly like Earth? Everything except the alphabet is identical. Are sets really that expensive? When they went into a CG world it was much better, but overall, there was absolutely nothing interesting or intriguing about the setting. Not only that, but none of the tech really made any sense. It was inconsistent and self-contradictory, some hi-tech, some ridiculously low-tech. I had a hard time suspending disbelief.
  3. Flat Characters
    I didn’t get it. Girls as monotheistic terrorists? Really? Why? I didn’t get any of it. The girl-turned-pre-Cylon Zoe sorta sat around and did nothing…and still does very little. You’re a goddamn Cylon, start wrecking shit! Yeah, it took Anakin 3 damn movies to turn in Darth Vader, but Anakin was driven. Zoe is just boring as hell. It’s like a bunch of talentless gamers wrote this thing after an all-night WoW battle. Really? She’s the mother of all Cylons? REEALLLY????
  4. Random Subplots
    I literally have no idea what they were trying to achieve in Caprica. I thought it was about Cylons, but there’s terrorists, businessmen, Taurons (rhymes with morons), and really no one I cared about. Yeah, the subplots had some drama, but so what? They didn’t matter. All that mattered was that the Cylons will destroy their world. Cyyylllonnss. Ass-kicking terminators.
  5. Relativism
    Stories are allegorical. Caprica wasn’t. The sad thing is that I could see them trying. Terrorism. The internet. Virtual reality. Let’s just mix these all up and see what happens. I really love it during cooking shows when the contestants pull ingredients out of the hat and make a dish. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes horrible. To me, Caprica illustrates the latter, a random assortment of good ideas that produce disgusting slop.

I hope this illustrates how a perfectly conceived piece of creativity can turn into utter crap. When working on NaNoWriMo or whatever your next project is, keep this lesson in mind. It’s perfectly fine (and expected) to have any and all of these issues during your first draft, so don’t sweat it. Just don’t let them get into production/print.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

See my Red Dress Guest Post!

See my Red Dress Guest Post!

I have a guest post up on the red dress club!
Everything you need to know about NaNoWriMo!

Go check it out!

“the red dress club” is a site for women writers…which I am not but I kinda know the hostess a little bit (okay she’s my sister). But it’s an awesome site. Check it out!

Monday, October 25, 2010

NaNoWriMo ‘10 Starts in 1 Week!

NaNoWriMo ‘10 Starts in 1 Week!

creative-murder-demotivational-posterAnd I got nothing. Well, I do have something. But I don’t yet have a plot. I have a bunch of characters, I have a crime or two, I have a couple scene ideas. But beyond that…nothing. Last year at this time I was sitting around just trying to think of anything I was missing. This time around I’m grasping for straws.

Okay, enough of the weak metaphors. There’s no reason to panic. At heart I’m a pantser, so no big deal. Sure, I’ve never written a Mystery before. And now that I’m doing it, I’m finding it incredibly complicated. Clues, evidence, leads, motives, means, it all has to be non-obvious and obvious at the same time. Every line of the story has to be about the Mystery. But I have all these great ideas about scenes that have nothing to do with solving the crime(s). And not many about pursuing the bad guys.

I’ve been reading James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Mystery. It’s helpful and daunting at the same time. Frey is a proponent of a “Five Act” structure dealing with the phases of solving crimes. Here it is for those who are interested:

  1. Accepting the Mission. The Hero/Detective is made aware of the crime and thinks about working it.
  2. Tests up to Ordeal. The Hero/Detective starts investigating, finding allies and enemies, and eventually is faces with a Crisis.
  3. Solves the Crime. After passing the Ordeal, the Hero/Detective figures out “whodunit” and goes after them, trying to prove it.
  4. Trapping the Criminal. The Hero/Detective faces the Criminal and finds a way to expose and/or defeat him.
  5. Standard DĂ©nouement. The Hero/Detective lives happily ever after and the Criminal doesn’t.

Well, I kinda have a little bit of Acts I and II laid out. The rest is completely up in the air. I have ~6 days 12 hours to figure it out. Also, according to Frey, there this kind of “Act 0” which is the story of the villain, the crime, the victim, and everything that happens outside of the scope of the book. “The plot behind the plot” is what I think he calls it. What I have so far is 4 actual murders, 2 attempted murders, and some other crimes as well. Woot!

So, how is your NaNoWriMo planning going?

Monday, October 18, 2010

A New Writing Metaphor

A New Writing Metaphor

tiger miror Or maybe it’s an allegory. Anyways, I hear a lot about the peaks and valleys of a novel. Rising action, increasing the stakes, adding tension. Your Hero is climbing a mountain, and must struggle to reach the top, which is the pinnacle of his achievement.


Let me introduce another metaphor. To play along, hover your mouse over the links.

Your Hero starts out in a nice forest, constantly pursued by a hungry tiger, but the tiger is kind of old, been chasing him for a while. He’d like to not have that damn tiger around…think of what he could do without it always messing him up. He’s tried to chase it away, maybe even kill it, but it just keeps coming back, growling, eying him, stealing his food and eating his women.

So one day he’s out, trying to avoid the tiger, and he sees this beautiful meadow in the distance. It’s a wonderful meadow, full of flowers, little sparkling steams, and of course—not a tiger to be found. How wonderful it would be to live in such a place! But there are no roads, no paths that lead there that he can see…except through a dark, cloud-filled valley. He can’t get there. Oh well, another day, another tiger.

Later on, he meets an old man. They get to talking. The old man says, “yep, that’s a tiger alright. You sure you wanna get to that meadow over yonder?”

“Well, it’s quite tiger-free from what I can see.”

“So, what are you waiting for? But be careful, only the strongest survive the passage through the valley.”

“Is it worth it?”

“What is anything worth?”

Pissed off by the old man’s simple-formula riddles, the Hero decides to take a quick peek down into the valley. But this is no ordinary valley. You see, for every one step in, it takes ten steps to get back out. Think of place with down escalators only. Before he’s taken ten steps, the clouds close in, the sun disappears, and the top of the valley vanishes from view. Before him he sees many paths, behind him only murk.

After stumbling around for a while, the old man joins him.

“This place blows,” says the Hero. “I wanna go home.”

“Good luck. Old Mr. Tiger is sitting up there and he’s pissed that you left.”

“Fuck. Then what the hell do I do?”

“There are two paths you can go down, but in the long run, there's still time to change the road you're on.”

“Did you just quote Led Zeppelin at me??”

The old man sits on a rotten log. “Son, listen. You ain’t alone in this valley. We call this here valley, ‘The Valley of the Lost.’ Many people have come in here, escaping their own tigers. Find these people, learn from them. Some will be friends, some will be deepest enemies. But at the bottom of this valley, where it’s hot and fiery, you will face your greatest test of all. If you fail this test, you will wander this valley for all eternity, but if you pass, you will achieve whatever you desire.”

“I preferred the Led Zep to that. Fine.”

So your Hero explores the Valley, learning where there lies food and shelter, finding the company of friends and women, and mastering skills he never dreamed of. But each step drops him deeper and deeper, and the clouds fall like a shroud to block any thought of escape. Friends come and go, some stick for the long haul, others fall by the wayside. Finally he arrives at a steep precipice. Boiling wind and the scent of brimstone blast out from the crevice at the bottom.

With only his most trusted allies at his side, he climbs down the sheer rock face, hands and feet burning, each step full of peril. They make it, scarred, but still breathing.

A wispy figure approaches. “Who dares disturb my sleep?” A Dragon emerges from the smoke. “Why are you here?” With one snort he could cook them like blackened catfish.

“I’ve come to get to the meadow, where there are no tigers. Now give me my test!”

The Dragon swallows laughter. “Good one. You do know what the tiger and the meadow represent, right?”

Your Hero has no clue. “Uhh, shut up and fight. I’m tired of riddles and games. I am sick of frickin’ tigers, this stupid-ass valley, and I’m sick of you.”

The Dragon checks his nails. “Be still, my petulant one. I will grant you all you wish, but only after you perform a simple thing. It’s nothing, really. All you need to do is slay all your little friends you brought with you, and I shall set you free! Go on…start with that chubby one. Daddy’s hungry.”

The hero looks at the chubby one, draws his sword, and cuts off the dragon’s head. For a split second, the clouds part, revealing the one path out of the valley.

So our weary band of the Lost whoop and holler and head back out of the valley and make it to the magical meadow they have sought…only to find themselves surrounded by tigers.

“WTF?” says your Hero.

The tiger that has stalked him all his life approaches and speaks for the first time. Behind him are all the tigers who have chased your Hero’s friends. “Well, well, well. So you made it back. And we are extra hungry. Now in your haste to jump into the Valley, you probably didn’t notice that you could have just walked around the long way and reached here anyways. Dumbass.”

“You woulda followed me,” says the hero sullenly.

“Duh.” He places a paw on the Hero’s shoulder and breaths stinking hot breath on his face. “Now I see you have a couple choices here. First, let me take you back home. You’ll be my bitch, of course, much worse than before, but you’re used to that. Second, you could go back down into the Valley, but I’d eventually find you there. Third—“

“Third,” interrupts the Hero, “me and my merry band can kick your furry ass. We beheaded the dragon, we found our way out, and you’re no match for us.”

The tiger laughs. “That is rich. But there is one thing you are forgetting. One small detail. Old man?”

The old man steps out from behind the tigers. He hands the Hero a hand mirror.

The Hero raises it. “Is this a special weapon? Should I smash them with it?”

“No, look in it.”

The Hero looks in it and sees a battle-scarred warrior. But behind the dirt and blood, there is something else.

He sees a tiger. He gasps. He looks at his fellows. All tigers. Well, the Chubby One is more of a pussycat but you get the idea.

“So,” says the Tiger, “do you understand all the symbolism now? Do you need me to explain in tiny, easy-to-grasp pieces?”

The Hero sighs. It is all clear now. “Yes. All this time, I’ve been running from myself. In the Valley, I learned to face my fears in a controlled environment. And now I’ve returned to finally overcome myself and fulfill my destiny.”

The tiger blinked. “Uhh…interesting, but no. We’ve chased you all your life because you have the potential to become strong, and we can’t have that. We paid the old man to lead you to the Valley of the Lost, because no one ever escapes. We are not your fears, we are the Rulers of the Meadow, and you are nothing, you never were, and you never will be. Now lay down your arms and surrender before we kill you.”

The Hero took one last long look in the mirror. “I am nothing like you. And we will defeat you, and free the world from your tyranny.” He takes the mirror and smashes it over the tiger’s head, and thereby begins the final battle.

So, my good fellows, what did we learn from this? The point I was trying to make was that stories move forward always. Every step leads your characters deeper into the Valley from which there is no turning back except once great tests are passed. Look at every scene, every page. Is your story getting deeper? Give your story a topology, and keep away from any flat areas. Good luck!

Friday, October 15, 2010

WriMo SchmiMo

WriMo SchmiMo

noahs-dilemma Okay, I’m sitting on the horns of a dilemma.

Remember about 6 weeks ago I made an announcement that I would write a sequel to Steam Palace for NaNoWriMo? Problem is that I have this other idea that’s been festering in my head for a long time. It’s a detective story. Not Steampunk, not Sci-Fi, future, past, or anything. Just a contemporary mainstream murder Mystery in a local setting. (Okay, there will be high-techy stuff in there…come on).  Have I ever written a mystery? No. Not even a short, not even a flash. Do I read a lot of mysteries? No. I do watch them on TV…does that count?

So why this story? Why am I considering this crazy idea? I’m not going to talk about the specifics of the concept here, at least not until after NaNo. Suffice it to say that it’s a mother-son sleuthing duo, told from the son’s POV. Here is my reasoning:

  1. Steam Palace 2 (SP2), from everything I’ve worked on so far, is extremely complicated. Sophia meets her eviler twin. That’s going to take some doing. Not only that, but I want to do it “right”, meaning that I want to focus more on quality during the first draft, and hopefully reduce the editing load. More organized, planned, thought-through, etc.
  2. I want to build some more writing “chops” before I start SP2. I feel I am still missing some core writing skills, mostly in the area of characterization and POV.
  3. Why write SP2 before SP1 is sold/contracted? Yes, it may be easier to sign a contract with at least a first draft of SP2 completed, but maybe I’m carting before horsing. I think it’s of minimal benefit.
  4. I am intrigued the idea of crafting a short novel, 60K or so, and self-publishing it. If there’s success then maybe I follow with a full-length version I can try to go to publishers with. Or it might help sell SP1.
  5. I might be good at writing mysteries. I don’t know. But I feel the need to take a “break” from F/SF for a month. And absolutely no one in my critique groups writes them…so maybe there’s a need. (Or I’m just misguided). Whether it’s a success or not, I think exploring the mystery genre and tropes may help me in other genres.
  6. I really love the concept. I think I have some unique characters. The problem I have is creating a compelling crime with clues etc. But that’s what the next 2 weeks are for. I’ve defined all the main character-character conflicts, so now it’s more about the nitty-gritty details. I want to keep it simple and the word count low.

So maybe those reasons are wonky. I have some great thoughts for SP2, but I don’t think I’ll be ready to draft it quite so soon, it needs a lot more thought. And after NaNo, I’m also going to turn my attention to another neglected project, The Immortals, and try to figure out what to do with it. Meanwhile I am still working on marketing SP1, more about that in an upcoming post.

So as of now I am strongly leaning towards the mystery concept. This should be fun.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Plots and Characters and Settings, Oh My!

Plots and Characters and Settings, Oh My!

wizard of oz scared So, you have some general ideas for characters. Heroes, Villains, Allies, Mentors, etc. You know where and when the story takes place. You have some idea about the general flow of the story. So what is the next step?

Two of the hardest pieces of the story to create are the beginning and the ending. Right after that comes “the saggy middle”. But I’m speaking more specifically about the very beginning and endings. 


One piece of advice I’ve heard is “start the story as late as possible.” This means start your story the moment your character’s life changes irrevocably. Avoid long life stories or explanations of who they are and how they got there. In Steam Palace, the story starts when Sophia loses her job and Thomas loses use of one leg (in separate incidents). But are life-changing events, but note that they are not “The Event” that sets them upon their journey of discovery. People are tempted to start their stories right off with the “Inciting Incident” or “The Call to Adventure.”  The thing is that you need to establish your character’s core problems and/or goals before you give them their mission. In Steam Palace, Sophia faces a crisis: she’s lost her job and can no longer support her family. Thomas can no longer earn his commission as Sky Captain and is discharged. Their Calls come later when they are presented opportunities.

So you want to start off by giving your characters some fairly insurmountable or intractable problems. Show them struggling. Then shine the light of hope on them.


Think of your story as a thesis paper. If the first chapters establish the premise, the final chapters “prove” the thesis. Every chapter in between is a supporting argument. The main premise of Steam Palace is “Despite our differences, we are actually quite alike.” Sophia meets Viola, her polar opposite, but through a series of adventures, they learn that they share far more than they are different, and they learn to respect their differences. The ending is the final proof.

Also think about those original problems and goals. How were they finally surmounted or achieved? Do your characters laugh about it? And what was the cost? Sophia finally has what she wanted…but the cost was steep, almost intolerable. Thomas is whole again, but he also faced great challenges that tested him to his limits.

Saggy Middles

Ah. I tricked you. This is actually the hardest part. How do your characters get from Beginning to Ending? What is their journey? How do they do it? I hinted at it, but let me spell out a few things.

  • Acquiring knowledge, skills, objects, allies, etc. Think of a video game where you have to achieve certain things to get to the next level. Perhaps half of your book will involve your Hero’s training. The rest is putting that training to use.
  • Successes and Setbacks. Every win comes at a cost. Very little cost at first, extreme costs by the end. Think of stairs where each step is larger than the last. The stakes keep growing, as does the cost of failure. Keep making things harder.
  • Fears. Your characters must conquer their fears…but first they must face them, again in increasing order of difficulty. First the fears may be simple. Leaving home, dealing with unfamiliar settings and people. Then the fears become more personal. But at some point, your character must face their worst fears. Death. Loss of loved ones. Cancer. The Extinction of Mankind.

So as you plan your story, start thinking about the journey. Think of all the crap you can put your character through. Test your thesis. Your Villains should hold a viewpoint that is in direct opposition. In Steam Palace, the Villains believe that people who are different are inferior and should be suppressed. The believe their way is the only way. They want to crush anyone who disagrees. This is why Sophia must challenge them.

I hope that helped. Now to figure out which story I’m actually going to write for NaNoWriMo

Friday, October 8, 2010

Novel Design: Plot Structure

Novel Design: Plot Structure

plot structure With just 23 days before NaNoWriMo, you should have a nice outline of your story drawn out.

Oops. I got nothing. In fact, I’m working on two completely separate story ideas right now. But plots are coming…I hope.

Anyways, despite the “No plot? No problem.” mantra of NaNoWriMo, constructing the barest outline of a plot can help you immensely.  A roadmap of your novel provides scope and direction for your writing. Having the final outcome in mind allows you to focus on the journey.

Here are some popular methods for plot construction:

Heroes Journey. I’ve written a crapload of posts on this, please read at your leisure. To sum up, Heroes Journey is a 12-step program to construct a novel, based on mythical storytelling. It is perfect for almost any story that involves drama and action, where your Hero transforms from Billy Bob Joe Everyday to Mr. Super Dude, solves a case, falls in love, learns a lesson, or fights the Underworld.


  • Based on thousands of years of storytelling tradition.
  • Defines character types and general obstacles Hero must face.
  • Almost every major motion picture is based on it.


  • It’s not actually a plot, it’s just a collection of somewhat optional elements in a rough but non-binding order
  • It is a little formulaic, makes everything sound like Star Wars or Avatar
  • Specific genres have specific requirements which it doesn’t address (so research your specific genre to find those requirements)

The Snowflake Method. A very intuitive method that involves creating broad strokes and then filling in the details as you go. For instance, start with a one-line description of each chapter. Then a paragraph. Then a page. For each character, do the same. For each setting, etc.


  • Gives an easy drill-down into your story
  • Allows you to work at any level of detail
  • “Pay as you go” writing. Makes the big details right so you don’t write sections that will be deleted.


  • Once again, it’s not a plot. It’s a method.
  • Commits you to the big picture
  • Sometimes the devil is in the small details. Sometimes my best insights into my characters have come from the things they let slip in conversations or small acts.

X-Act Structure. Now we’re talking. 3, 5, 7 act structures are all out there. Also, there are books like “20 Master Plots” that literally explain every possible plot. Let’s face it, there are really no new ideas out there, everything that can be done has been done. But this is good news. This means that the “winning” plots have been identified and are ripe for the taking.


  • Definitive framework to craft your story upon
  • Identifies high and low points such as setbacks, breakthroughs, and ordeals and where they go in your story
  • Proven structures that appeal to readers


  • They don’t help you figure out what your story is about, just how it flows.
  • It’s not a methodology, just a analysis.
  • NaNoWriMo is more about exploration than conformation. Crafting a story is hard work; sometimes it’s better to just write it, then worry about structure during editing.

So I hope that left you more confused than when you started reading this. Personally, I use parts of all three methods. I start with Heroes Journey, writing a few paragraphs about each aspect. Then, using the Snowflake Method, I fill in the details until I have a list of potential scenes. I use 3-Act Structure to define the turning points in the story. Then I write it.

Here’s the other problem I’ve found. Recently in my critique groups, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend for writers to throw everything in their stories, every piece of description and characters they can think of. I’ve been calling it “detail diarrhea.” During the course of plotting and planning your story, you may come up with 2-10 times the number of great ideas more than you can use in the story, and then when you actually sit down and write it, double those figures again. Ideas happen.

My final piece of advice is to plot small. Heading into NaNoWriMo, plan for a story somewhat smaller than what you’d like. Perhaps fewer subplots, a reduced cast, not as many settings. Recently, I came up with a list of everything Sophia must achieve in Steam Palace:

Sophia must find a way to rescue Viola, restore Thomas’ honor, convince Ghost to join their cause, locate the mythical Sea Key, and fight off her country’s invaders before war claims the remnants of a once-proud kingdom.

That’s even an edited-down list, and it’s TOO MUCH. If I had that in my original planning document, I’d probably freak out. Give your character ONE GOAL to achieve during the course of the story, otherwise you' may dig yourself a huge hole that 200,000 words won’t fill.

Good luck!