My Novel: Spin City

Good evening! Tonight it’s time for part two of my three part series in which I talk about the most important stories I’ve written so far.  We’ll be going over Spin City in this part, sticking close to the same format I used last night.  I’m hoping I provide some valuable insight into my creative process.  I don’t want to just gush over my own work, but I’m sure there’ll be a little bit of that, too.

Here is a list of the things I’ll talk about regarding Spin City:

  • What It’s About
  • The Inspiration
  • The Writing Process

Before I get going, I want to say something quick about titles.  I’m not attached to any of them.  The Repossessed Ghost and Spin City are both temporary names as far as I’m concerned.  When going the traditional publication route, it’s important to not grow too attached to things that are best left to the marketing department.


What It’s About

Spin City is about a down-on-his-luck private investigator named Arthur that works and lives in a spinning city on The Moon.  The case starts off simple enough.  He’s hired to take pictures for a man wanting to know if his wife is having an affair.  It turns into a murder investigation when that same client turns up dead in his own apartment.  As Arthur and his partner are drawn deeper into the inner workings of the city, from robot dog fights to glamorous night clubs, Arthur realizes that he must get to the bottom of the case before the place he calls home is taken over by a psychotic criminal.


What is it REALLY About

This is a more serious story about a desperate man struggling with alcoholism.  While the character of a drunk private eye is kind of a cliche, this story deals with alcoholism in a much more realistic way.  The question of why Arthur drinks is important as well as how his drinking impacts his business and his relationships.

Within the story are themes pertaining to immigration and personal responsibility.  I’m not sure what more I can say about this story in regards to theme without giving away some spoilers.  I will say that while I like Arthur in this story very much, a side character named Victoria is probably my favorite.


The Inspiration

I’ve already talked a little bit about the inspiration for this story earlier this month.  The very first time I wrote about the character named Arthur Kane, I’d just come home from visiting my friend Douglas.  He’d written a story about a detective and I decided to try writing a similar story of my own.

After my Dad died, I sat down and started a novel length story which I called The Arthur Kane stories.  Spin City is the grown up re-imagining of that novel.  As you might imagine, it’s very different from the original work.  While the names remained the same, the characters grew deeper and more realistic.  The plot is radically different though I kept a couple of significant events.  I tried to keep the good ideas from the original story and lift them up with stronger writing and a more intentional noir feel.


The Writing Process

When I wrote The Repossessed Ghost, I went up to the edge of the unknown and jotted down what I could glimpse just ahead.  Most of that story involved discovery writing and I didn’t have a clue how it was going to end until I got about halfway through the first draft.  Since I rewrote that ending in the 3rd draft, you could say I didn’t know how that story would until a few years after I started.

With Spin City, I couldn’t leave things up to chance.  I wanted to create a complicated mystery with crime elements.  To do that and have it make sense, I needed to work backwards.  First I figured out who the antagonists were.  I determined their motivations and their available resources, which told me what kind of crimes they could try to get away with.  Then I worked backwards chronologically.  For person X to accomplish crime Y, they needed to get the aid of Person Z.  That sort of thing.

Once I worked back far enough, I had a fairly comprehensive map of everything the bad guys accomplished.  That gave me ideas for how Arthur could find clues and be a disruption in some of the antagonist’s plans.  At that point, I started doing some loose outlining from the beginning and going forward.

This sounds way fancier and more complicated than it really is.  While I created an outline that went from the beginning to the end, it was not a very complete outline.  I left plenty unplanned.  Also, the exact details of the end were a little bit fuzzy.  I left plenty for me to discover along the way.

Like with The Repossessed Ghost, a couple of characters I expected to have much smaller parts wound up gaining more prominence in the story after I realized how much I liked writing them.  I knew that Arthur and his partner were going to need to bring in a specialist.  I assumed it was going to be a hacker named Victor.  She turned out to be a wet-wired net-head named Victoria, and I think she may be one of the best characters I’ve ever written.

The overall process still involved a lot of discovery writing even though I stuck with the outlined structure.  I wound up changing the outline in minor ways a few times when I realized that what I’d planned wasn’t as cool as some ideas I had along the way.  I made adjustments to the outline, rechecked the reverse chronological map to make sure everything still made sense, then kept going.

I wound up changing the ending quite a bit just before I got there.  Without going into spoilers, I thought I was going to end with a bigger action sequence.  While there is still quite a bit of action, the whole story is much more psychological than physical, so the ending shifted to follow suit.  I’m currently very satisfied with the ending.


Where is it Now?

I’ve submitted two queries.  One was a request for full that came out of the New York Writer’s Digest Pitchslam.  The other was to a prominent agent I’ve met several times at WorldCon.  The agent turned down the query without seeing the manuscript.  I haven’t heard from the one via Pitchslam yet.  It’ll be another month before I ping them.

I quit my writer’s group before submitting Spin City to them.  I don’t have a lot of people I can send it to that will provide a critique.  Most of my friends on Twitter are busy reading other things.  I finished this thing that I think I should be proud of, but I need fresh eyes and reader reactions to see where I can improve it.

Michael Gallowglas heard me lamenting my lack of critique partners and he volunteered to read it.  This is a big deal because he’s developed a significant critical eye on his quest to acquire is MFA.  Also, neither of us have critiqued each other before.  It’s kind of scary, but I trust our friendship to be able to handle this however it goes.  I’m sure Michael will tell me some stuff I don’t want to hear.  I’ll tense up for a moment, take a few moments to process, then try to see what he sees.  I’m sure it’ll be fine.

And just so you don’t get the wrong idea, it’s not exactly a first draft.  I did a lightning fast edit of the entire thing, reading it out loud to Melissa in order to find the most egregious errors.  I don’t like to share first draft stories with people anymore.  The current state of Spin City is that it is more than a first draft, not quite a second.  It’s also the rework of something I previously wrote.  I’m note sure how that affects the draft version math.

When Michael agreed to read it, he talked about printing it.  I printed it for him.  The damn this is 100,000 words and the chapters are short.  I knew it was going to take a lot of paper.  When I printed it for him, I had a copy printed for Melissa.  To give a literal answer to the question of where it is, Spin City is in two places.  One copy is with Michael, and one is buried under some of Melissa’s clothes in our room.


My Novel: The Repossessed Ghost

Hello friends, and welcome to the first in a three part series where I talk about stories I have written.  These will be a little bit self-indulgent, but maybe I’m hoping that some of what I’ve gone through with each of these stories is helpful to other writers.

Here is a list of the things I’ll talk about regarding this novel:

  • What It’s About
  • The Inspiration
  • The Writing Process


What It’s About

The Repossessed Ghost is about a young repo man named Mel that discovers he’s psychic when he finds a ghost named Kate in the back of a car.  When he becomes a suspect in her murder, Mel gives up the life he’s known in New Orleans and goes to Sacramento, Kate’s home town.  There, he becomes entangled in a much larger supernatural community.  He must learn to use his powers, figure out who he can trust, and solve Kate’s murder in order to stop the one that killed her from killing again and unleashing an unspeakable evil on the world.


What is it REALLY About

I’m glad you asked, imposing type font.

While it’s a fun adventure set in a modern world, it’s really about a young man taking the last few steps into adulthood and learning to take responsibility and ownership of problems rather than just get by.  It’s also about a young woman that literally loses everything and thinks she’s powerless.  It’s not until she exercises her own agency that she truly finds her own strength.

The story is fun and light with plenty of humor and an interesting take on how some of the fantastical elements work in Mel’s world.  Also woven through the story is a theme regarding power demanding sacrifice.  There are a few other things in the story that I think are better discovered than explained.


The Inspiration

Many years ago, Michael, Robin, Jason, and I were players in a game run by David Mullin.  The underlying system was Champions, but that didn’t really matter.  It didn’t last that long.  Just long enough for me to really fall in love with my character, Mel Walker.

That first version of Mel was a bit older than the one I wound up writing about.  When playing him, I spoke with an outrageous Southern accent.  He was a little bit creepy in the way he used his powers, but he had a heart of gold.

Imagine an immature man with psychic powers and low impulse control.  On the surface, that was Mel.  What made me really like him was that he had quite a bit more beneath the surface, and I was quite interested in exploring his depth.

Long after the game petered out, Mel stayed in my imagination.  For years, I wanted to write a story featuring him.  In 2013 for NaNoWriMo, I finally decided to give him a shot.  I’d been listening to The Dresden Files on audiobook for months leading up to November, and I was really interested in writing something light and fun.  So began what was initially called “The Mel Walker Story.”


The Writing Process

Up to this point, I eschewed outlining.  I didn’t want to spoil the story for myself.  I always saw the writing process as sitting in front of the keyboard and reading the words into existence.  That’s how writing felt going all the way back to when I started in my early teens.

For The Mel Walker Story, I did something a little bit different.  I outlined fractions of the story at a time.  I didn’t spend a lot of time on the outlines.  Most of the time it was just me writing down a few thoughts on what I thought was going to happen next.  It was like creeping up to the edge of the unknown and shining a flashlight into the darkness.  Whatever I saw up ahead, I jotted down.  That was the extent of my outline.

When I started writing, I thought I knew where the story was going up to the point when Mel would leave New Orleans.  I knew the ghost (a nameless character at the start) would be the one pulling Mel out of his comfort zone and forcing him to become a hero.  I thought Mel would leave her behind and get on with his life within the first Act.  Helping her out of a bad situation would be his first taste of the supernatural life, and he’d go off in search of more.

After I started writing Kate, I knew that I wanted her to have a larger part in the story.  I still wasn’t sure how large a part, but I really loved the dynamic between Mel and Kate.  I felt a strong bond forming between these two characters and I was enjoying their dialog.

I had plotted out that Mel would go to the police and things would go badly for him.  Kate surprised me by saying, “Or, you could make an anonymous phone call.”

All of this that I’m describing is at the beginning of the book.  I’m not going to spoil anything and talk about any of the major twists and turns that happen along the way.  I’ll just say that writing the book often involved me plotting a little bit ahead and thinking I know exactly what’s going to happen, only to have Mel or Kate surprise me at the last minute.  I had a lot of fun writing them because they’re voices were very strong and clear to me.

I wrote the first 50,000 words in November of 2013.  I wrote another 11,000 between December and the end of January.  At 61,000 words, I reached the end, and I shared it with my writer’s group at the time.

That first draft was way too short and the writing wasn’t all that great.  Too much passive voice.  Too many basic mistakes.  I polished up the first couple of chapters and sent them to a Writer’s Workshop at Convolution the next year, and got some overwhelmingly positive feedback.  I made some friends during that convention, and one of the professionals, Jennifer Carson, continued to pester and provide encouragement to getting the next draft done.  It took me well over a year, but I finished the 2nd draft and sent it on to Jennifer.

Jennifer, my new writer’s group, and my wife both had fantastic feedback.  Some of it wasn’t easy to hear.  For example, my ending didn’t work.  I’d had doubts about the ending in the first draft and I hadn’t changed it that much in the second.  So I had to go back into the think tank on that.  Other advice involved bringing some characters out more that seemed to fade in the middle of the story, and fulfilling promises that I made to the reader but never resolved in a satisfying way.

I finished my third draft.  I fixed the ending.  I’d listened to all the advice and critiques, and after four years, had something I felt ready to submit for publication.  It’s now a novel coming in at just under 80,000 words.


Where Is it Now?

I sent it to someone about a year ago and received a rejection.  Then I let it sit in a drawer for a while.  I pitched it during the New York Writer’s Digest Pitchslam, and one person asked for the full, another person asked for the first 50 pages.  Just this weekend, I sent off those queries.

I think it’s a good story.  It’s fun.  I hope it sells but I’m not holding my breath and I’m not waiting around for it.  It’s not that I don’t believe in the story.  One of the problems is that it’s Urban Fantasy.  I’ve been hearing too many agents that I trust state that Urban Fantasy isn’t getting picked up by traditional publishing right now.  The Independents have cornered that market.

As I see opportunities, I’ll send queries.  I’m not giving up on it.  At the same time, I’m not interested in working on it until the change requests are from a professional editor.  I’m also not interested in publishing it on my own because that’s not a business I want to start right now.

So Mel… I raise a glass to you.  I hope you find a good home.  I have other stories I’d love to tell with you, but I’m not going to write those stories unless there’s a readership out there waiting for you.


Identifying as a Writer

When people ask me what I do, I almost always say, “Full time programmer, part time writer.” Sometimes I add, “Looking to reverse those.” Whether or not I add the sassy secondary part, I always identify myself as a writer.

Why do I do this?  What does it mean, and how does it affect me and the people I’m interacting with?


Why Tell People

I tell people I’m a writer because I’m proud of it.  I want to talk about the stories I’ve written and by telling people that I’m writer, the next question from them is usually predictable.  It’s either, “What do you write?” which is a question I like.  Or it’s “Are you published?” or “Where can I get your books?” I’m not particularly happy with either of these questions.

I tell people I’m a writer because that’s what I want to be doing.  The more I tell other people, the more I reinforce to myself that yes, that is what I am, and no, I’m not an impostor.  I’ve written two novels!  And just tonight, I finished a novelette!  And I’ve got short stories, too!  And a blog!  And flash fiction!

I tell people I’m a writer because that’s the truth and I don’t want to hide it.


What It Means

When someone tells you that they’re a writer, they’re revealing to you that they are committed to a long form art style that probably won’t earn them nearly as much money or recognition as the time they’re investing.  I read Spin City to Melissa as a way of getting a super fast edit in before submitting it to people, and I managed to read all 100,000 words to her over the course of 3 evenings.  It took me about 7 months to write that draft, or about 30 years if you count the version of that story I started when I was 16.  That’s a huge time investment into something that almost no one has read.  Something that, statistically speaking, almost no one will read.

When someone tells you that they’re a writer, they’re telling you that they’re dedicated to a craft that isolates them a great deal of the time.  Even when I’m doing word sprints with other writers, the actual writing is solitary work.  Sure, there are some writers that are able to work in pairs and teams.  Most novelists are working along, though.  They might go to a write-in, socialize with other awkward word nerds, maybe tell some jokes or laugh at someone else’s.  But when it’s time to do the work, they’re alone even when they’re in a crowded room.

When someone tells you that they are a writer, they’re telling you that they spend a lot of time building things out of metaphors and imagination, and they do that either by meticulously planning out something that doesn’t exist yet, or they’re going into a trance-like state, awake and alive and daydreaming while their fingers twitch people and places into word form.  Scratch that.  All writers do the daydreaming thing.  The difference between a discovery writer and a heavy plotter is when they are lucid during the dream.


Ramifications of Identifying as a Writer

When I identify as a writer, I’m exposing myself to questions and criticism I don’t necessarily want.  I already mentioned a couple of questions I don’t want to answer at this stage of my career, mostly because those questions act as a spotlight, illuminating the part of my writer’s journey that isn’t complete.  The part I have the most anxiety over.  Yesterday, I started the post with the whole “Don’t quit your day job!” scene which I’ve experienced more often than I like.

Beyond those questions and pithy sayings, a number of people think that as a writer, I need their story ideas.  I do not.  I doubt any writer does.  We like to be inspired, but we don’t like to write other people’s stories.  No one needs to give me more work to do.  What I need is time to work on the ideas I already have.

When I identify myself as a writer to another writer, the result can be complicated.  Most of the time, it’s all good.  There is a mutual understanding of what the other person has gone through and will go through, so it’s like finding a tribesman.  We are writers, therefore, we can understand each other and be cool with one another.

Sometimes, however, a measuring contest is triggered.  From other writers I’ve received judgement on how long I’ve been writing, the kind of stories I write, the amount of accomplishments I’ve achieved in the time I’ve been writing, the number of queries I’ve submitted and number rejections I’ve received.  I’ve been judged over a slew of various subcategories such as marketing and social media presence.  Writers are people.  Some people are insecure assholes.  The worst is when I’M the insecure asshole.  I try not to judge or engage in the measuring contest.  But like I said, writers are people and I’m a writer.


Who Should Identify as a Writer

Anyone that writes is a writer.  It doesn’t matter if you write long form or short form.  It doesn’t matter if you write literary fiction, genre fiction, or non-fiction.  It doesn’t matter if you write by hand or if you use a word processor, or if you dictate into a recording device and transpose later.  It doesn’t matter if you’re published traditionally, independently, on Wattpad, or unpublished.  If you write, you’re a writer, and you have every right to identify yourself as such.

You also have the right to keep it secret.  Some people do and I don’t blame them for it.


I identify as a writer.  But you know what?  I would really rather be able to identify myself as an author.

I’m still working on that.


The Day Job

“Don’t quit your day job!” the jerk says as if imparting some kind of folksy wisdom that the artist would never figure out on their own.

The artist offers a weak laugh in response.  Maybe trades finger guns with the person offering the unsolicited employment advice.  Pew!  Pew!

If no one offers me that advice again, I’d be okay with it.  But if they did suggest I keep my current job and I ignored their words, what job is it that I’d be leaving?  And what would that be like?

I’m a programmer working in the solar industry.  I usually work a little bit more than 40 hours a week, a lot of those extra hours taking place at home.  It’s a good job, even if it keeps me busy, and it pays well.

I don’t want to get too much into the details of my job, other than to talk about the ways it impacts my writing.  This whole blog is about my writing journey and the lessons I’ve learned along the way.  I’m not going to go deep into inverter controls and communication protocols.  That’s not what you’re here for.

The writer benefits to having my job is that it supports my writing life both financially and emotionally.  I have enough vacation time that I’m able to go to all the events I want to throughout the year.  I’m able to afford the plane tickets and the hotel room and all of the sundry costs that go with spending a week or a weekend at an event.  Even when the event is in New York.

In addition to the financial stability, the people at work understand that I’m a writer and they work with my schedule.  Earlier this year when I found out I could go to LTUE in the last minute, I called my boss and he not only gave me the green light, he encouraged me to go.  I have several coworkers that ask about my writing process and when they’ll get to see one of my books published.  Throughout November, people give me space during my lunch hour when I’m trying to write and keep my word count up.  I work in a very writer friendly environment.

One of the downsides of having my job as a writer is the work itself.  The programming eats up some of my creative energy and mental fortitude.  By the time I get home a lot of nights, I don’t have the willpower or drive to create fiction.  That can be really rough.

I like being a programmer.  Even if I managed to sell books well enough to sustain myself, I’d still want to be a programmer in some capacity.  Maybe I’d get back into Unity and develop a game or two.  Maybe I’d work on some web apps.  I’m not sure.  I’m always going to be a programmer of some variety.

If I did manage to quit the day job, I’d probably take on the same kind of schedule a lot of professional authors seem to adopt.  I’d write for 3 to 4 hours in the morning, then spend the afternoon attending the business side of writing.  I don’t think I’d have a problem working from home and maintaining productivity.  I work from home already, and those are my best work days.

Tying back to how I began this post, I would like to quit my day job.  Getting to do that would be a privilege.

So when someone tells me NOT to quit my day job, what they’re really saying is that I shouldn’t try and achieve one of my dreams yet.  That’s kind of a shitty thing to say to a person, isn’t it?


Maintaining Self-Care as a Writer

Yesterday I wrote about lessons learned from conventions.  I felt very comfortable covering that topic because of my level of experience and because I apply those lessons regularly.

Tonight is a different story.  Some of what I have to say about self-care is really only theoretical for me.  I think tonight’s subject was suggested to me because it’s something I personally need to work on.  Nevertheless, I have some things to say about self-care as a writer.  Whether or not I practice what I preach, this advice can help you.

Here are the main items:

  • Be Kind to Yourself
  • Set Reachable Goals
  • Have a Life
  • Seriously, Be Kind to Yourself


Be Kind to Yourself

For three nights in a row, I’ve mentioned perseverance.  You need to persevere, but getting to the other side of something difficult doesn’t mean you have to travel through a wood chipper to get there.  Forgive yourself your typos and passive voice and accept and celebrate the praise you receive.

If you’re a writer trying to put your stories in front of people, you’re going to face rejection.  The traditional publication route will offer direct rejection from agents, editors, and publishers.  Independently published writers will find rejection via poor book sales, or people walking past your table without making eye contact.  All writers are going to get one star reviews.  There will be be beta readers that don’t get what you were trying to say, critique partners that can’t get into your character’s head, and writer’s groups that fail to see the value of your contributions.

Be kind.  Forgive yourself.  Allow yourself to feel the pain, give yourself time to breathe and grow distant from the moment of rejection, then learn what you can learn from the incident so you can move on.  You’re a human and you’re a writer.  Sometimes those two conditions line up in such a way as to magnify the pain.


Set Reachable Goals

It might be tempting to say something like, “I’m going to work really hard and I’m going to be get this book published by the end of the year!”

The problem with this kind of goal is that there are too many factors outside of your control.  You can hope for a published-by date, but it’s not something you should measure yourself against.  Many fantastic writers have wonderful stories that they’ve worked very hard on, but they can’t get their work published because the market isn’t right for their story, or they’re having trouble getting it in front of the right people, or some similar story might have just been picked up or… you get the idea.  No one really knows how any of this works and they’re comfortable describing it as magic at conferences.  If you don’t have actual control over the outcome, it’s not something that you can use as a measurable, reachable goal.

Here are a few examples of achievable goals:

  • Write 1,500 words per day
  • Keep at least 2 queries submitted at all times
  • Write a blog post every day for the month of October
  • Finish a novelette before November 1st
  • Show up at the coffee shop every Wednesday and Sunday, ready to write

If you’ve been following me long, you might recognize that list as my personal goals.  The first one I only pay attention to through the month of November, and the second one I’ve never actually succeeded to meet.  But that whole list is achievable, measurable, and completely within my control.


Have a Life

Writers shouldn’t just be writers.  They should be parents, coworkers, siblings, gamers, bowlers… the list goes on and on.  There is a world outside the word processor.  There is more to life than just drafting the next novel, or writing the next query, or pushing the next promotion.

Take care of yourself as a writer by going out and doing things that have nothing to do with writing.  Crochet.  Golf.  Ride a bike.  Start a garden.  Watch a movie.  Bake a cake.  Clean your garage.  Call a gardener to clean up that failed project you started in the back yard.  Go to the beach.  Swim in the lake.  Drink chocolate rum from a boot-shaped shot glass.

Tell your wife that you love her and that she’s pretty.

When you return to the writing, you’ll feel better and you’ll find fresh inspiration.  You have one life.  Make it a well-rounded one.  Not only will you feel better, your writing will improve.


Seriously, Be Kind to Yourself

This is so important that it has to be mentioned twice.  The critics outside the writer’s brain do not compare to the evil editor in the writer’s head, constantly nitpicking and finding fault.  That evil editor can be your friend, but they’re often a bully that needs to be put in their place.

As much good advice as I’ve laid out in this post, this is the one piece I struggle with the most.  I’m mean to myself when I should be nice.  I doubt myself when I should act with confidence.  I tear myself down in the face of success, and I have a hard time accepting compliments because I spend so much time internally berating myself for not being good enough.

I had a therapist give me some practical advice once.  He said when I’m at my worst, ripping myself apart, stop and talk to that voice in my head.  Have a conversation.  Ask him what’s up.

One day while I was driving to work, my inner editor was really working me over and I asked, “Why?”

To my surprise, I had an answer. “I want you to be the best, and I’m afraid.”

Fear is my biggest adversary.  I think it’s a problem for most writers.  It’s okay to be afraid.  Just don’t tear yourself apart over it.

Be kind to yourself, because you deserve it and you’re going to write something special.


Most Important Lessons Gained from Conventions

I’ve been to quite a few conventions now, so I feel I have quite a bit I can say on the subject of conventions in general.  There’s even been a couple of conventions where I’ve been a volunteer, giving me an interesting perspective on how that particular sausage is made.

Tonight I’m going to talk about some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.  I’m going to split this into two sections.

  • Attending: Lessons I’ve learned regarding attending a convention
  • Living: Lessons I’ve learned from conventions that I apply in my writing life



1. Pace Yourself

At the beginning of a convention, you get a schedule.  Sometimes it’s a little book, but most of the time these days it’s in an app on your phone.  It’s usually online via the convention’s web site.

If you try to do everything without giving yourself time to eat, breathe, and process, you’ll miss things that you don’t want to miss, and you won’t retain half the things you attend.

Pace yourself both during the day with the panels, and in the evening with the parties.  Be kind to yourself and to others, and don’t push beyond your limits.

2. Decide in Advance What You’re Going to Do

At the macro level, make some goals for this event you’re attending.  Are you looking to learn something?  Are you trying to meet an Agent?  Are you hoping to meet some writer or artist that you admire?  Decide on some goals in advance so you can get the most out of the convention.

With your goal in mind, look at the schedule.  I like to try and plan out my day the night before, but sometimes I’ll get up and figure out my plans over breakfast.

Don’t be afraid to change your plans.  You have to use your best judgement, but sometimes opportunities present themselves that are too rich to pass up.  Keep your goals in mind, but also keep your eyes open for these unexpected treasures.

3. Don’t Be Desperate

Whether you’re there to network, improve your craft, or rub elbows with your idols, desperation has a kind of social stink to it that acts as a natural repellent.  I’ve seen a lot of hungry writers get this predatory gleam in their eye.  It is not endearing.  Try to avoid it.

How do you avoid this? First, take a deep breath. Then put aside your story and live in the moment.  Focus on other things.  And when you find yourself talking to someone that might be interested in what you have to offer, try to listen more than you speak.  Ask questions.  Be a partner in the conversation rather than a bad actor hogging up the spotlight.

4. Stay at the Hotel

I learned this lesson the hard way.  When Westercon came to Sacramento, I had to attend.  From what I saw, it was a good convention!  However, I only attended half of it.  Since I went home every night, I had enough distance between myself and the con that I could easily talk myself out of the drive on one of the days when the schedule didn’t look stellar.

Since that Westercon, I try to stay at the hotel where the convention is taking place, or as close as I can get.  It forces me to come out of my shell and stay engaged.  Also, it frees me up to have a drink or two at the bar are the after parties because I don’t have as far to travel.

5. Attend Barcon and the After Parties

Usually there’s a bar at the hotel, and usually that’s where Barcon takes place.  It’s the informal con within the con, and it’s a great way to talk to people in a relaxed environment.

Unexpected things can happen at Barcon.  Jim Butcher found his agent at Barcon.  She’d turned him down before, but after meeting him in person in a relaxed environment, changed her mind and took him on.

Don’t go into Barcon or con parties with this story in mind.  It can happen, but it’s not going to happen if you go in desperate and hungry.  Just go and relax and have a good time.  Be a good listener.  Make friends.

That’s what conventions are really for, after all.  We say “networking” but really that’s just a fancy word for making friends.  The same skills apply.



1. Be Professional

This is one of those lessons they teach you at conventions, which applies both at the convention and outside in the regular world.  Agents, editors, and publishers are looking for people that they can work with.  They want people that can follow directions and listen to instructions.  They also want people that can present themselves in a fashion that is suitable for doing business.

You don’t have to be a stick-in-the-mud.  You don’t have to pack your personality in a closet and hide it from the reset of the world.  Being professional doesn’t mean turning into an automaton.

Professionals respond to emails in a timely fashion.  They’re polite.  They’re engaging.  They’re honest without being cruel, and they’re confident without being too cocky (most of the time).  They dress appropriately for the event they’re attending, though this can mean a lot of things and isn’t nearly as restrictive as a regular day job.  You can get away with weird color hair and most tattoos (probably want to avoid the face).

Receiving rejection as a professional means grieving in private and not responding emotionally.  Often it means you don’t respond at all, though you can probably get away with a simple thank you.  Don’t go to your blog or social media and start blasting the person that rejected you.  That is unprofessional behavior, and it will be a quick and easy sign to people that you’re not someone that they can work with.

2. Don’t Quit Your Day Job

In addition to being a shitty thing to say to an artist, it’s one of those truisms that you just have to accept.  I’ve completed two novels and a fist full of short stories, and even if I get all of it published, I’m not going to be able to quit my job.  That’s not practical.

It’s fine to dream it.  It’s fine to aim for it.  Just don’t be too disappointed when it doesn’t happen.  It’s better odds than playing the lottery, but it’s still a long shot.

I think this is the third night in a row where I’m going to mention perseverance.  That’s what this is all about.  Keep the day job, as it will act as a pillar supporting the rest of your life, enabling you to live while you write.  If you’re too stressed over figuring out how to pay your bills, you’re too stressed to write.

3. Rejection is Normal

Agents and editors are looking for stories they can sell.  But they’re receiving a wealth of stories from hopeful writers, and any excuse to let a story go will do.  Sometimes the story can be great, but they still can’t use it because it’s too close to something else that’s just been published, or they don’t see a market to sell the story to.

Rejection sucks.  It stings.  It works to confirm all those feelings of impostor syndrome.  Every time I get a rejection, I have to fight all my doubts and fears all over again.  It’s the hardest part of the job.

But it’s normal.  Everyone is rejected.  Stephen King’s wife had to fish out Carrie from the garbage after he’d given up on it from rejection.  Keep that in mind when the rejection makes you feel like giving up.


I think I could go on and on about the business of writing, pros and cons of self publishing, world building, themes, editing… I’ve attended a lot of panels over the years, and I’ve taken a lot of notes.  I think that’s too much for a Thursday night post, though.

Beginners at conventions will get a lot of out panels.  People trying to make the transition from undiscovered to published (like me) are going to get more from meeting people and making friends.  The pros at conventions get the benefits of networking as well as opportunities to promote their books.

Whatever you’re there for, have fun.  And after you leave and you get back into the real world?  Have some more fun.  Writing is work, but it’s also creation and escapism and expression.  When I’m feeling down about my writing, it helps sometimes to remind myself that this is something I enjoy.  Something that brings me peace and quiets my anxiousness.


Trauma that Becomes Writing Pearls

The last couple of nights have been pretty great! The blog posts have really boosted my mood as I’ve talked about the people closest to me and how much they inspire me to be the best writer I can be.

So tonight, let’s keep the positive vibe train going with–

Wait, THAT’S my topic tonight?


Okay.  Fine.  Let’s dive write in.

As I said yesterday, the most important skill a writer needs is perseverance.  I talked about how my family helps me persevere.  On the other side of that, some writers need to persevere difficult events in order to be able to write from a place of truth.

I think I’m coming at this backwards.  Let’s try again.  I’ll start with examples from my own life and go from there.

I started writing after my friend Douglas showed me something he wrote for a class assignment.  He wrote about a detective that was following a murder case.  The most distinctive thing I can remember about that particular story was that his fictional reporter called the case “The Peanut Butter Murderer” or something along those lines, because a jar of peanut butter had been left out near the body.

When I got home, I thought, “I bet I could write something like that.” And I did. I wrote something like that, only I went way bigger.  My guy was a private investigator, and he was super rich! And smart! And a master of disguise! And he lived on The Moon! And he knew martial arts! And…

I was 10 or 11, and I was having fun.  I did all this writing in Appleworks on my Apple IIc.  I mostly wrote when I was bored with the limited number of games I had for the computer.  The word processor itself became my game.  And it was fun!  I might even still have some of those old stories on floppies in my garage.

My stories started as pure wish fulfillment.  They changed after my Dad died.

I stopped writing for a little while.  It was about 6 or 7 months before I even thought about it.  I still wasn’t doing great, but I was okay.  I sat down at the computer and even though I had games I could play, I went straight to the word processor.

Looking back at that early draft of The Arthur Kane stories, I can see that I was writing as a way of processing my grief.  I didn’t think of it in those terms.  I had this inspiration that I should make the main character flawed.  He was still a private investigator living on The Moon, but he was no longer super rich.  He still had a lot of wish fulfillment about him, but he became more real.  I projected too much of myself into him for him not to be real.

In that story, Arthur needed to save The Moon from a bad guy.  He deeply missed the man that loved him and raised him, and that loss and grief shaped his decisions.

There were some good ideas in that story.  More importantly, there were real emotions shining through the poor prose and the gimmicky writing.  It wasn’t a great piece of fiction, but in the process of dealing with a powerful grief, I created something real in the text.

A writer doesn’t need to experience trauma in order to write about it.  That’s not what I’m saying.  But if you’ve gone through some difficult experiences, you can use them.  There is emotion you can tap into and channel into the words.

Not all trauma has to be death.  I mentioned the break-up with Christine yesterday, and I guarantee you that had an impact on my writing.  The trauma from that experience came in the shape of a crisis of faith.  The next several stories I wrote involved characters desperately trying to deal with their hopes and dreams shattered.

To this day, the importance of love, faith, and hope are themes that I prefer to explore in my writing.  I’m not laying it all on that one event in my life, but that break-up traumatized me significantly.  Getting to the other side of it taught me quite a bit about myself and how to write about characters struggling with deep emotional loss.

Boot camp.  Marriage.  The birth of my children.  My Dad’s alcoholism.   Getting fired for bullshit reasons.  Not all of these things sound like “trauma” but they’re all significant events that have tested me.  They’re experiences I can draw from to make my characters more real.  The experiences are wells of emotion I can tap and transmit to my readers.

Not all traumatic events need to be personal in order to become writer fuel.  Anyone paying attention to the news in the US for the last couple of years has been experiencing trauma.  It doesn’t matter if you’re red leaning or blue leaning, the news has been stressful for everyone.  And frightening.  I think there’s going to be a lot of dystopian fiction coming out soon, and it’s going to be too realistic.


How do you take trauma and use it in your fiction?

First, you have to process it enough that you can put separation between yourself and the characters going through the reflection of your trauma.  Without the separation, you’ll get lost and lose track of the story you’re trying to tell.  Also, if you’re too close to the trauma in your story, you’re going to find the pain too much of a distraction to form good words.

Second, don’t try too hard. Ease into it.  Let it sit in the back of your mind while you focus on the characters and the nuts and bolts of writing.  In this way, the real emotion will flow naturally into the story and the reader will experience it in a way that is more satisfying than if you try to force it.

Third, make sure the traumatic event you’re drawing from is right for your story.  Make sure it’s something you want to tap into at all.  If you set out to write a light Urban Fantasy that doesn’t take itself too seriously, you might want to wall yourself off from the experiences that will drag the story down.  If you can’t do that, consider writing a different story until you’re ready to move on.

Don’t use writing as your only therapy for trauma.  If you’re having difficulty eating or sleeping or functioning at school or work, if your emotional palette has been reduced to different shades of gray, if you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, get help.  Writing can be a great way to deal with depression and trauma, but it shouldn’t be your only treatment.  It also shouldn’t be the first way you cope.

If for some strange reason you think that you need to hold on to your trauma in order to write, please reconsider.  I broke my pinky a long time ago.  I had to wear a cast.  I remember how much it hurt when I fractured the finger, and how much the skin itched as it healed.  It smelled funky after a week or two, and when the cast finally came off, the skin was pale and pink.  I don’t have to have a broken finger to write about the experience.  That memory is locked in my head and I can draw from it whenever I want.  So it is with depression and other trauma of that nature.  Heal yourself, then let the memory guide you when you include that kind of experience in your story.

You don’t have to have the exact identical trauma to write about it.  If your parents are still alive but you want your character to go through that kind of loss, just think of a family pet you probably lost when you were little.  I’m not saying that losing a pet is the same as losing a parent.  I’m saying that the pain of loss can be used to extrapolate and imagine another kind of pain.

I think that’s all I have to say on the subject.  Tomorrow, I promise the topic won’t be nearly as depressing.


My Family and Writing

Let’s start tonight’s essay with a simple question: What is the most important skill or quality a writer must acquire?

A lot of people give an answer that has to do with language.  A strong vocabulary, a knowledge of punctuation.  Something along those lines.

They’re all wrong. The most important skill a writer must learn to be successful is perseverance.

New writers suck at writing, and that means that people trying to read that early work are going to be critical.  A writer has to get through that.  They have to be tough enough to keep going and at the same time, open enough to learn what they need to improve.  Writers start with a vision of what they can do, but without the writing strength to get there.  Even when they’ve started writing stories that are truly good, great even, they will still receive rejections.

A lot of times, rejection isn’t about the quality of the writing.  That’s why perseverance is so important.

Q: But Brian! Weren’t you going to write about your family?

I’m getting there.

A key part of perseverance is having a support system.  As tough as you may be, as much as you might prepare yourself to defend yourself against the slings and arrows of rejection, no armor is complete.  Rejection hurts.  It’s important to have people in your life that can prop you up when others seem to be tearing you down.

That’s where my family comes in.  They’re on my team.  They’re my first fans.  They’ve been with me every step of the way, supporting me, encouraging me.  Sometimes, they even feed me.  My family helps me persevere, and they are amazing.

Let’s start with Melissa. She’s a superhero. There have been times over the last 10 to 15 years where I’ve thought about giving up.  Melissa has been there to put her arm around me, listen to my whining, and then either tell me to get back to writing or take a break.  She’s really good at telling the difference between which I need the most.  She’s my constant companion at conventions.  She takes better notes than I do at the panels these days.  And she reads what I write, and she tries to provide honest feedback.  She’s usually biased, but she’s been able to tell me a few times when what I wrote didn’t actually work.

Then there’s Bryanna.  She’s a quiet writer that’s participated in NaNoWriMo with me a couple of times.  The first year we tried it together, she did way better than I did.  She’s very talented, an all around artist, and a constant, quiet support.

The last of my immediate family is Christopher.  He checks up on me and tries to make me laugh.  Apparently, when I’m in the zone, fingers blazing on the keyboard and words flowing like water, I look like I’m getting ready to murder someone.  He brings his sense of humor to bear and tries to make sure I’m doing okay.  Sometimes he even barbecues burgers and brings them to me while I’m working in the garage.

My family is the core of my support system.  There are other people that support me, too, but my family is always there, present, and interested in what I’m writing.  That means a lot.

They help me persevere.


The Incredible Michael Todd Gallowglas

Let’s see… what did I schedule myself to write about tonight?  Another challenging topic on writing where I have to dig deep into my writer’s brain?

Oh goodness.  I’m talking about Michael tonight?  I’m going to need Scotch for this one.

[pauses to get a 21 year old single-malt that tastes like a campfire and dreams conjured beneath a forest sky]

I’m going to refer to my friend as Michael throughout this post.  Some of his fans know him as Todd.  Some of his fan-friends may even know him as “Mmm. Todd.” He’s an independently published author that recently completed his first Masters of Fine Art at Sierra College, and you can find him most Wednesday evenings in a Starbucks sitting across from me, either writing or talking to me about writing, or both.

That’s a super quick, superficial bio.  But if you’ve traveled this far with me, you’re not here for the surface level stuff.  You want the deep dive.  You might even want a list of topics I’m going to cover as I write this 1500 to 2000 word essay on my best friend.  Well, I aim to please, so let’s get right to it.

  • The Early Days
  • The Complexities
  • The Writer


The Early Days

In order to appreciate what kind of miracle it is that Michael and I are friends at all, I have to dial back the time machine to the early ’90s.  I’m also going to have to talk about where I was in my life, some of the things that were going on that affected me, and how Michael fit in.

My first journey to Sacramento was the summer of ’91.  I stayed with my Mom in her apartment in Citrus Heights near Birdcage, and I only planned to be there for that one summer.  By the Fall, I knew I’d be moving back to S. Oregon and going to college in Ashland.  My girlfriend at the time, Christine, lived in Medford.  I hated being away from her, but I tried to make the most of my time away from what I considered my “real home.” While in Sacramento, I looked for some people to game with.

I went to the gaming store at Birdcage and put my name up on the bullet board.  I think what I wrote was something along the lines of, “Experienced gamer, interested in most systems.  No D&D.” That last part caught the attention of David Mullin.  When he read that little note, he imagined that I must be a gamer of exquisite tastes and disposition, much like himself.  Thus he invited me to join him in a game he was running in Rancho Cordova.  I accepted his invitation and soon after, we became good friends.  When the summer ended and I was getting ready to head back to Oregon, David said, “Don’t worry.  You’ll be back.”

How prescient of him.

After a somewhat abysmal year of college, after the money ran out and the car-less commute between Medford and Ashland became too big a pain in the ass, I moved back in with my Mom.  I hated it.  My Mom and I didn’t get along that well.  I hated being separated from Christine again, and if I wanted to get around the suburban sprawl, I had to walk.  But I still had gaming with my friend David, which helped me get through the loneliness.

This is 1992 we’re talking about, before the internet was really a thing.  David introduced me to a gaming discussion group called Techno-Gnomes.  The group consisted of 20 to 30 regular members.  I’m not sure how most of them found the group in the first place.  Some might have found it through Usenet or BBS’s.  Maybe it was simple word of mouth or through the gaming stores.  My avenue into this illustrious group, which met at the Roundtable Pizza in Roseville once a month, was through David, who was kind enough to pick me up and drive me there those Saturday evenings.

And that’s where I first met Michael.  That’s also where I met Richard and Jason, a couple of other wonderful folks that will feature in this story in just a moment.

At the end of Techno-Gnomes meetings, we’d break off and head to someone’s house and engage in a huge, usually terrible one-shot game.  Michael ran a couple of these.  And as much as I love Michael today and would hate to say bad things about him, his games back then were horrible.  Not all of them, but the one-shots were particularly bad because he was a cruel, adversarial GM, and even back then, I wasn’t into that kind of conflict.

Adversarial is a good adjective to describe our early relationship.  We were opposites.  I was a bit high strung, wound up tight in jeans and a T-shirt most days.  He was relaxed, a frequenter of Ren Faires and dressed in garb all the time.  I was a conservative Christian boy, a virgin waiting to marry my long distance girlfriend.  He… like I said, he was the opposite of me.  He was a flamboyant charmer with confidence oozing from his pours, and he had no problem meeting women interested in the same things he was looking for.

I didn’t know at the time that we were both writers.  He didn’t talk about any writing hobby with me back then.  I remember showing him one of my short stories.  I don’t remember if he was particularly impressed or not.  I don’t think we exchanged much in the way of compliments to each other back then.

He was present the night Christine and I broke up.  Jason had an apartment in the same complex as my Mom, and Michael, Richard, and I were at Jason’s house playing Car Wars.  I had just gotten off the phone with Christine, not really able to move or grasp what happened.  The game kept going in the other room.  Jason’s cat sat on my chest, keeping me company until I had the strength to get up and rejoin the game.  I don’t remember much else that night, other than I blew everyone’s mind when I rolled a 1 on a 6 sided die four times in a row.  That was a pretty rough night.

I remember another night about a month later at that same apartment complex.  My departure time for the Air Force was rapidly approaching.  Michael Gallowglas, someone I’d gamed with several times but still felt guarded around, asked me to step out into the night so we could talk away from the others.

“Dude, I think you’re making a mistake,” he said.

After everything I’d gone through that Spring, Michael was the only one of my friends that took the time to take me aside and try to talk some sense into me.  He tried to warn me off of going into the Air Force.  He wasn’t trying to make me feel bad about it.  He wasn’t trying change my mind for his own selfish reasons.  He thought I’d be damaged or changed by this decision I was making, and he was looking out for me.

Even though I disagreed with him, it touched me that he was looking out for me.  He didn’t know, couldn’t know, what I was capable of.  The kind of friendship we had at that time didn’t give him any insight into the wells of untapped strength I possessed.  But he still tried to look out for me, and I still remember it 25 years later.


The Complexities

I think that’s as nice a way as I can put it.  It hasn’t always been easy to be Michael’s friend.

Let’s carve out some facts.  Michael taught dance for a while until a car accident messed up his back.  He made himself a name and a career telling stories at Ren Faires, a long chapter of his life that’s only recently come to a close.  He has a son that’s a Marine, a son in High School, and a precocious daughter that’s about 5 or 6 that has him wrapped around her little finger.  He’s bearing the weight of some trauma from early childhood, the details of which I’m not completely familiar.  This trauma has led to PTSD, borderline personality issues, depression, suicidal thoughts, and difficulties with his marriage.  All of his relationships, including his friendship with me, have experienced severe rough patches.  Some of those rough patches have been so severe that reconciliation became impossible.  He loves whiskey, especially Scotch, but because he’s working on getting his life together, getting his career off the ground, and most importantly, getting his mental health in order, he doesn’t drink nearly as much as he used to.

Those are facts.  Now I’m going to give you some opinions based on those facts.

He has a deep appreciation and respect for the truth.  I’m starting with this because some of what I’m about to say about him might seem unkind.  But since I’m holding to the truth, and since I’m approaching these subjects with respect, I know that he’ll forgive me for some of my less flattering statements.

Harlan Ellison was his hero for the longest time, and Michael styled himself after the man in many ways.  That means that like Harlan, Michael could sometimes be a complete asshole.  He’d pummel someone with the truth, shaping his words like a blunt instrument and driving them home with strength and eloquence.  He was an unrepentant, self-describing asshole with a chip on his shoulder and a need to prove something.

That’s who he was.  He’s changed over the last decade or so.  He’s grown a bit more wise, a bit more caring, and he makes an honest effort to be a better man.

He still prefers the truth, but he isn’t trying to hurt people with it as much as he used to.  He’s taken on the role of a teacher and a mentor, and that’s changed him at a profound level.

I’m proud of him for who he’s become.  He’s more generous than he used to be.  He doesn’t look at things through the selfish lens of youth anymore.

I can honestly say he’s a good man.  I’m not sure I could have said that 15, 20, or 25 years ago.  I’m interested to see how he continues to grow.


The Writer

I read First Chosen during Worldcon in Reno.  I bought it through the Kindle app on my phone and read it between panels.  It had some interesting ideas, but honestly, I saw too much of Michael in all of the characters.  I also didn’t like some of the choices he made with changing tense and perspective briefly at the start of one of the chapters.  It felt artificial, like he was trying to do something clever that didn’t really serve the story.

I remember trying to talk to him about some of those choices he made, but he didn’t really give me much of an opening.  He didn’t want to hear it, and I didn’t press him on it.  I also didn’t go and buy the other stories in the series.  Not at that time.

Renovention was August, 2011.  In the grand scheme of things, that’s not really that long ago.

And yet, for Michael, that could have been a lifetime ago.  He’s grown as a writer.  I listened to Jaludin’s Road in 2015, and found that story to be much more accessible than First Chosen.

I’ve read other work by him, and his growth as a writer is clear.  He’s constantly looking for ways to improve and his craft is getting better and better.

This is the year 2018 and he can talk with eloquence, passion, and logic about the qualities and pitfalls of Pulitzer prize winning stories.  He’s constantly reading craft books by people like James Wood and Donald Maass.  He studies.  He questions.  He experiments.  And he passes on what he’s learned.

I’ve had to learn a little bit about lit theory in order to hold up my end of some of our conversations on Wednesday nights.  I think his true passion for writing really caught fire after he’d already put out a couple of books.  I think his best work isn’t out there yet, and I can’t wait to see it when it arrives.

He’s started an online community If you’re interested in growing as a writer, you should check it out.  Some very talented and passionate people have already joined, and Michael is looking to pass on what he’s learned through that community.


Why Am I Writing This?

The short answer is: When I asked him and Melissa for topic suggestions this month, he threw out “M. Todd Gallowglas is Awesome” as a joke.

The longer answer is that he’s my friend and I think he deserves this kind of attention.  I want to point the spotlight on him for a moment and talk about how much he’s grown.

He and I have both come a long way, in every way.  We’re different people than we used to be, we’re better writers than we’ve ever been, and I think we’re both better people in general.

In 2007, during my birthday party, he and I got into an argument that ended with me yelling, “Get the fuck out of my house!” It took us a couple of years to reconcile.

Now I’m featuring him on my blog.  And he deserves it.

Thanks for being my friend, Michael.  I’m proud of you.


The Necessity of Continuous Reading as a Writer

It’s Sunday evening and time for me to write my 14th blog post in a row!  Let’s see what topic I set myself up for night.  Surely I planned ahead, realizing that fatigue would be settling in at this point.  I must have given myself something light and easy to write about, right?  Right?

[brief pause for laughter-crying]

Okay, fine.  Let’s talk about the necessity of continuous reading as a writer.  That shouldn’t be too hard, right?

First of all, is the underlying implication true?  Is it necessary for a writer to perpetually read the works of other writers?

Technically, a writer only needs an idea and some ability to form sentences using a written language.  As soon as we are able to put words on a page, we are capable of creating stories.

Those stories probably aren’t going to be very good.  At that point in our development, we simply don’t know enough about what we’re doing to create a good story.  If we want to be good in an artistic medium, we generally need to immerse ourselves in the work of others in order to even know what “good” means.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s assume that tonight’s topic is about transcending in skill as a writer.  Without that assumption… yeah, you don’t need to read anything.  Throw words on the page in ignorance.  Use crayons, if you want.  I don’t care.

Here are a few reasons why it is necessary to continuously read the work of other writers:

  • Entertainment
  • Learning what Works
  • Learning what Doesn’t Work
  • Community



This is where it starts for most of us.  Before we ever consider the possibility that we might be able to write a novel, we fall in love with a book.  We’re swept away on currents of metaphor and simile to a place of wonder in our imaginations.  Tales of noble heroes and wicked villains thrill us, epic romances and daring fights wow us, and the rich poetry of a well constructed world touches our soul.  The joy of a written story is what inspires us to start in the first place.  That same joy can keep us going.

Artists immerse themselves in art.  Musicians buy records and go to concerts.  Painters and sculptors visit museums.  Landscape artists… I don’t know.  Visit other people’s yards?  Actors go to the theater.  We were inspired before we set out to create work of our own, and we can be inspired again by the beautiful work of others.

It’s true that an artist’s enjoyment of the art is impacted once that person develops their own skill.  I’m rarely surprised by writing anymore.  I see the scaffolding beneath the painted scene, and I recognize the tricks the writer is using to guide the narrative.  I see right through the writer’s sleight of hand, and I’m not quite as entertained as I used to be.

On the other hand, the entertainment I derive from stories now is on a different level.  I can appreciate the craft.  Maybe I’m not surprised as often by the turning or the shape of a story.  Instead, I can appreciate a writer’s cunning as they create the setup and the delivery.  I’m even starting to read through the different lenses of literary theory, though I’m far from an expert on that subject.


Learn what Works

N. K. Jemisin won three Hugos in a row for best novel.  That’s remarkable.

How did she do it?  It was probably a combination of strong characters, intricate world building, unique voices, and an occasional use of 2nd person.

People weren’t really using 2nd person that much before Nora Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. Now writers are experimenting with it and creating really interesting stories using 2nd person.

Writer’s read novels and discover what can work.  Sometimes when something works well enough, it expands an entire genre with imitators.  Do you think we’d have as much Young Adult fiction these days if it weren’t for J. K. Rowling?  Harry Potter inspired a generation to read, and a lot of those kids that grew up with dreams of going to Hogwarts became writers themselves.

[pauses to get Scotch]

What am I saying in this section that isn’t obvious?  A good writer doesn’t read another writer’s work in order to steal their ideas.  That’s not what this is about.  A good writer isn’t looking in someone else’s book to lift techniques, either.  A good writer reads to see how someone else might have experimented, and if the experiment paid off.  A good writer reads to be entertained and inspired.

We had a surge of urban fantasy for a while.  It was all written in the first person and it usually featured a talented main character in a role very similar to that of a private investigator.  Why did we get that surge?  Because that’s how Jim Butcher wrote The Dresden Files and other writers picked up the superficial details and tried applying those details to their own work.  What I think they failed to realize is that it’s not the setting that makes The Dresden Files so special, nor is it the format.  What makes The Dresden Files special is Butcher’s amazing ability to make all of his characters fully realized and interesting.


Learn what Doesn’t Work

After the previous section, this one should be obvious.

Sometimes, fiction makes it onto the shelves that includes less successful deviations from the norm.  There’s a lot buried in those pages for a writer to learn from.  They just have to be careful not to take away the wrong lesson.

Stephen King is an amazing writer and many of his stories have become ingrained in our culture.  Unfortunately, some of his endings suck.  That’s just how it goes.  What can writer’s learn to avoid when looking at Stephen King’s endings?  A big one… avoid the deus ex machina.  The Dark Half and The Stand have a bit of that going on.  Also, maybe don’t have an underage orgy scene like towards the end of It?  Some of these things are probably obvious even before reading Stephen King’s work.

Twilight is super popular.  Stephanie Meyer played with the mythos of vampires, and even if you hate their sparkle, what Stephanie Meyer did with changing the rules and subverting expectations is actually a good thing.  The real lesson writers can learn not to do in Twilight has more to do with her world building.  Also, maybe we don’t need some of the creepiness of having someone as old as Edward date a girl still in high school?  Or maybe avoid having a young adult man “imprint” on a newborn baby?  I’m just spit-balling here.

I’m not trying to bash popular books.  On the contrary, I have a great respect for any author that has persevered and reached the point in their career where I’m trying to go.  Maybe someday, I’ll have some books out that people can read, and also learn things that don’t work.  I humbly hope to reach that point.



Writers go into their cave, hunker down over their computers or notebooks or concrete slabs, and they write alone.  They type/write/carve their words, extracting images from their head and making them take shape in a permanent form.  It’s a solitary act, but once you’ve started, you’ve joined a large and diverse community whether you realize it or not.

Writers are everywhere.  Writing wisdom can be found anywhere.  There are more people out there offering advice on how things can be done or should be done than there are writers publishing books.

[pauses to sip Scotch and let those words sink in]

Though writing is a solitary activity, you will want and need people to join you as you make progress on your books.  This could be writer’s groups, editors, agents, long-suffering spouses that are either thrilled or horrified by your books, friends wishing you success and jealous rivals poking voodoo dolls hoping you won’t get too far ahead of them.  There are online communities, offline communities, seasonal communities, regional communities, and communities that you only see occasionally when you go to conventions.

The writing world is big and if you want to be a good citizen in it, you should read the works of other people sharing that community with you.  It’s fair, because you’re going to ask them to read your work.  So just do it.

As has already been established, you’re going to be entertained and/or educated when you read someone else’s work.  It’s good for you in all of the other ways we’ve talked about.  That it makes you a good citizen of the larger writing community is just a side benefit.

At one point in your career (the point where I’m currently sitting, in fact) there will be more writers reading your work than non-writers.  So be a good sport and buy their work, too.  Promote it when you can.  Be gracious and lift them up.


Final Thoughts and Confessions

All of the things I’ve said in this post are ideals to work towards.  I have work to do in everything I’ve talked about.  I read for entertainment and to learn, but I don’t spend as much time reading as I should.

I mentioned The Fifth Season earlier.  The truth is, I didn’t finish that book.  I was listening to it on audio and the experience frustrated me to the point I couldn’t continue.  Eventually I’m going to get it written form and read it just so that I can talk about it more intelligently.

The necessity of continuous reading as a writer is an ideal.  It’s something to work on.  On this matter, maybe we all have a bit of work to do.