Tag Archives: writing advice

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Short Fiction Anthologies — When Does an Idea Become a Story?

Galactic Stew, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. Palmatier What is the difference between an idea and a story? It sounds like a basic question, but we have just begun the Zombies Need Brains Kickstarter for the coming year’s anthologies, and once again I am hoping to co-edit one of the collections. (This year, I co-edited the Galactic Stew anthology; last year it was Temporally Deactivated. I also had stories in both, writing as D.B. Jackson.) In past years, one of the most common issues we have found with submitted stories is that they fail to move beyond being an idea. They introduce a concept, often an intriguing one. But that is all they do.

Hence today’s post.

Temporally Deactivated, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. Palmatier I have touched on the subject of creative ideas in other Writing-Tip Wednesday posts this year (here and here), and I have also spent a bit of time on tips for short fiction writers (here). Today, though, I would like delve in a bit deeper, in order to spell out what distinguishes a story from a partially developed idea.

Let me begin with this: Every successful fictional story blossomed from an idea. Not every idea yields a story. That’s just fact. Some of the “best” ideas I’ve had kind of fizzled out before becoming anything close to a story. I find this frustrating of course. I expect all writers must. But, as I say, it’s simply the way it is. Some ideas “have legs,” while others don’t.

The problem comes when we write an idea and submit it as a story. Not to be too simplistic, but a story has a beginning, middle, and end. It involves characters and emotion, and it carries those characters through changes that a reader can trace. Too often when reading through submissions for past anthologies, I have encountered pieces that introduce a concept and a set of characters, but do no more than that.

Let’s take a for instance: The theme for this next anthology I’ll be co-editing is “Derelict.” We are looking for stories about abandoned or wrecked ships, be they sailing vessels, spacecraft, or something else that we haven’t even considered. Someone might come up with an idea for, say, a haunted shipwreck (and I would urge you to look beyond this for an idea — we are going to get LOTS of haunted shipwreck stories) that traps the unwitting and makes them permanent members of the ghost crew still onboard. Cool idea, right? But what are we going to do with that idea? It’s not enough simply to show us a character being ensnared in this way. That is no more than an illustration of the idea.

It becomes a story when we follow a character through that transformation in a way that dips into emotion and creates a true character arc. Perhaps an elderly woman has come to an island from which her grandfather once sailed a hundred years before. She was estranged from her parents while they were alive, and has lost her siblings to age and disease. She seeks some connection to the family she has lost. Knowing that her great grandfather died here on the island in a storm a century ago, she goes out to the site of the wreck. While there, she realizes that ghosts still inhabit the ship, and venturing closer, she sees a man she recognizes from ancient family photos or portraits. She makes contact with him, but that isn’t enough for her. In the end, she chooses to join that crew and become a wraith like her grandfather, seeking in that ghostly partnership solace for all she lost in life. THAT would be a story. (In fact, maybe that will be my story for the anthology…) We have taken an idea and turned it into a narrative that has emotional weight, that allows our point of view character to develop and progress.

Coming up with the idea is only step one in a far more complex process. We want to think of the most unusual, emotionally potent way to express that idea. And, I would add that this is not something we can usually do in five hundred words, or a thousand, or even two thousand. I don’t like to say that word count is essential to a story, but the fact is true flash fiction is VERY hard to do well, particularly with intriguing speculative fiction ideas. It CAN be done, of course. But generally speaking, full development of an idea for a themed anthology — into a story that touches on emotion, that traces a meaningful arc for our main character or characters — demands that we write more than a couple of pages.

I would urge you to think about this as August gives way to September, and the open call for the Zombies Need Brains anthologies approaches. In the meantime, the Kickstarter is well underway. In our first week, we have already funded well beyond the halfway mark, which bodes well for the ultimate success of the campaign. But please consider helping us out. We have a great roster of anchor authors, and our list of authors chosen from open submissions could include you!

Best of luck, and keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: The ABCs of Character

Last week, I wrote about befriending our characters, as a way of using empathy to improve our character development. This week I would like to continue the discussion of character work by taking a slightly different approach to creating and enriching the people we write about in our books and stories.

I first came up with this formulation about a decade ago, while preparing to teach at the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop, which then took place at Myrtle Beach. I have since used it at conventions, in workshops, and in an Odyssey Online course I taught several years ago. I refer to it as “The ABCs of Character,” because it gets at the basics, and because it uses a handy mnemonic.

The ABCs are “Attributes, Backstory, and Circumstances,” and they cover the elements of character that I like to think about as I “build” the person in question.

Let’s start with Attributes: These are basic facts that define who the character appears to be to the outside world. They include, but are not limited to, the following: name, age, gender identity, racial identity, national and religious identities, occupation, family/partnership situation (single, married, married with children, widowed, etc.), appearance (eye color, hair color, body type, etc.) socio-economic status, education level, and pretty much anything else we deem essential to identifying this person. If our world is a magical one, and this person has access to magic, or if it’s a tech world, and our character has special techie abilities, then that information would fit here as well. This is important stuff, but it’s fairly superficial. The deeper issues come next.

Backstory: This is where we start to delve into our character’s past. What has happened to her so far in her life? Where is she from? What kind of childhood did she have? Was she happy? Did she have lots of advantages growing up? Or was hers a more difficult upbringing? Were her parents around? Were they kind? Abusive? Indifferent? What has she survived? Is there darkness in her past?

Backstory is where our character’s secrets lie. And in those secrets may lie the seeds of conflict that will inform our story. This is also where we might find the roots of our character’s strengths and weaknesses. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how very important backstory can be to all that will happen to our character and, even more to the point, how she might respond to adversity.

Finally, we have Circumstance: This is the immediate situation our character finds herself in as our story begins. This is where attributes and backstory meet our inciting event. Perhaps something has happened to change a key attribute. She has lost a job. She has found out her partner is cheating on her. A beloved friend or relation has died. Or… She has won the lottery, gotten her dream job, or discovered that she is the true heir to the throne of Whatever-Land. You get the idea. Big things have happened and her life has changed.

This event, for good or for ill, has dredged up some key element(s) of her backstory — a rivalry with a sibling, a dynamic in her relationship with her family, a buried memory that circumstance uncovers. Or this new circumstance calls on her to draw upon those strengths and weaknesses that are rooted in her life experience. This change, this inciting event, is where our story begins. This is where our character begins to figure out what motivates her, what she wants, and what obstacles she will face in trying to attain her goals.

Pretty straight-forward, right?

Let’s put this technique to use by using Gollum, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as a case-study.

Gollum’s Attributes: Gollum is several hundred years old. He is basically bald, he has overlarge blue eyes. He is small, wiry, very strong for his stature. It would be generous to say that he dresses poorly and in a minimalist way… He likes to eat fish. And he has this Ring that he just loves. A lot. I mean, he really, really loves this Ring. He calls it “Precious” for God’s sake. You might say he’s a little obsessed with it. He has no friends. And he likes to talk about himself in the second person, like royalty. Except he calls himself “Precious,” too. He has issues.Gollum, Lord of the Rings

Gollum’s Backstory: He was once one of the River Folk, a branch of the Hobbit people. His name wasn’t always Gollum. It used to be Sméagol And, to be honest, the Ring wasn’t originally his. It belonged to his cousin, Déagol, who found it while they were fishing on Sméagol’s birthday. When Sméagol saw the Ring he fell in love with it, and he murdered his cousin to get it. His obsession intensified, and the Ring stretched out his life for centuries. He retreated into caves, existed in utter isolation as little more than an animal. He hunted, hid, tolerated the presence of orcs. Mostly he looked at his Ring.

Gollum’s Circumstance: Gollum has lost the Ring and he is hell-bent on getting it back. It seems that is slipped from his grasp and wound up in the hands of — ironically — another Hobbit. He is forced to leave the lonely comfort of his cave and venture once more into a world that he fears, one that looks upon him with disgust and contempt. He is captured by agents of the dark who torture him for information about the Ring, which tells him that others are looking for it as well. He must find it first, even if it means killing the Hobbit or Hobbits who have it.

And there we are. The ABCs of character. Attributes, Backstory, Circumstance. Give it a try. You might find it helpful to conceive your main characters in this way.

Best of luck and keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Befriend Your Characters…And Be-Character Your Friends

This will be a relatively brief Writing-Tip Wednesday post. It’s a lazy, hot, stormy day and I’m feeling, well, lazy and hot…

So far this year, I have used my Wednesday posts to offer advice about any number of things, from finding agents and navigating the market to processing ideas and building worlds. I believe every topic I’ve covered is important and useful — I wouldn’t put so much work into these posts if I didn’t.

But I recently realized that I have yet to focus a post on character development. I’ve written about conflict and dialogue and point of view, which are integral to developing characters, but I have not tackled the subject head on. So for the next couple of weeks, I’ll be writing specifically about building and deepening characters.

Because nothing is more important to good story telling. For all the time we spend on our worlds, our plots, all the twists and turns and cool stuff we do with our stories, nothing matters more than giving our readers believable, compelling characters. The people in our stories are what captivate our readers. I would argue that they are also what captivate us as we write. I love my worlds and magic systems and such, but I live and die with my characters.

I have lots of suggestions I can make about creating characters, and I will focus on some in-depth specifics next week. For now, though, let me begin with something I have said before at conventions and workshops:

The qualities that make us good spouses, good parents, good siblings and offspring and friends, are also the qualities that make us good writers.

What do I mean by that?

Writing, I believe, is an act of empathy. So is being a good person, a caring companion to those in our lives. When the people we love need our guidance or our sympathy, we do our best to set our egos and needs aside and imagine ourselves in their positions. We draw upon our own experiences of course, and do our best to bring wisdom to their concerns, but we let go of the self and cater to what they require of us.

In the same way, we are at our best as writers when we dive deep into the emotions and thoughts of the people we create, when we put ourselves fully into their minds and their hearts and channel for our readers all that they experience. Put another way, our writing is most effective when we subsume ourselves to our point of view characters.

And so I often tell writers to befriend their characters, to nurture them, to give as much love and compassion to them, even our “villains,” as we do to the real people in our lives. Committing to our characters in that way will make them all the more real to our readers.

In this time of unrest and uncertainty, though, I would add this. I don’t often offer life advice in these posts. It takes enough gumption and hubris to offer writing advice in this environment. But to offer advice for the rest of what we do? What a terrible idea. And yet I would ask your indulgence as I do just that.

Because right now our world cries out for the some level of compassion and love that we ought to bring to our writing. And so I would ask that you “be-character” your friends and loved ones. Be as empathetic in dealing with the people you interact with as you would want to be in creating your characters. The world will be a better place for it.

Keep writing, and be kind to one another.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: World Building Lessons I’d Forgotten

Back in early March, I posted about creating magic systems, and said then that I expected I would post about world building at least once more over the course of the year. And so here I am, making myself a prophet (because right now making myself a profit is proving difficult [rim shot]).

I am world building again, for the first time in a while, actually. The last time I created a world whole-cloth was when I began work on the Islevale Cycle, which was several years ago. I have a completed novel that my agent and I are shopping around, but that is set in our world with only a small speculative fiction element. My other most recent work has been in the Thieftaker universe, which I developed nearly a decade ago. I’ve written a couple of Fearsson short stories, but that world even pre-dates the Thieftaker world (though the books took longer to find their way into print).

My point being that it feels a little odd to be immersed again in world building, and several times over the past few weeks I have had to remind myself of lessons I thought I had internalized long ago. So I figured I would share some of these lessons with you.

1) Begin with questions: As I said in that March post, I love world building. There is something thrilling about starting from scratch with limitless possibilities. I had forgotten, however, how overwhelming the process can feel, particularly at the outset, when ideas are amorphous and we don’t yet grasp what we need to discover about our world. And so I like to start with a series of questions, which serve to rationalize and structure my task. (This, by the way, is how I approach research as well; I see research and world building as connected parts of the same creative act.) That list of questions is long, and early on, as I learn more and more about my world, the list continues to expand, the addition of new questions outpacing my ability to answer them. Eventually, though, the questions get answered and the contours of my world — literal and figurative — come into relief.

2) Organize from the outset: I am not nearly as organized as some assume I am, or as I would like to be. Too often, my impulse is to dive into my world building and research and jot down what I find as quickly as I can. The result is haphazard to say the least. I do much better when I slow myself down from the start and make an effort to keep orderly notes. That means using Scrivener as it is meant to be used, as a catch-all for ALL world building and research. Already with this new project, I have not been as good in this regard as I would like to be. But the first step toward curing myself is recognizing that I have a problem, right? Right??

3) Consult with smart people: This new project of mine is NOT fantasy. It’s science fiction, almost space-opera-ish. I know. I can’t believe it either. But there it is. And so I know even less about my subject matter than I usually do at this stage. I have been in touch with literal rocket scientists about this stuff, and I’m learning a lot. Chances are, no matter the nature of the project we’re working on, we know someone — or we know someone who knows someone — who can help us fill in gaps in our knowledge base. Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends, or acquaintances, or even perfect strangers. The truth is, most people like to talk about the things they know, they like to help people, and they often think it’s pretty cool to learn we’re writing a book about something that fascinates them. Moreover, institutions like police departments and medical examiners offices, not to mention museums, government agencies, and scientific institutions, often have public relations offices that are there to answer our questions. Avail yourself of these resources.

4) Let your brain go wild: Plotting our books takes time and precision. It’s hard work, in part because we are forced to reign in our creative impulses a bit in order to come up with narratives that are logical, that make sense to our readers. World building is hard, too, and it also requires a certain rationality. But, as I said before, it is a time of possibility. We can choose what it means to be logical in this new setting. Decisions that will become immutable once we begin to write, remain fluid for now. This is the stage in the process when our imaginations should be most at liberty to roam. Enjoy that freedom.

5) Finally, be patient: Most of the time, I measure my work output in terms of pages and word counts. Progress is tangible and easily quantified. World building isn’t like that. At this stage of a project, I spend much of my time staring out the window, thinking, trying to come up with ideas, with names, with histories and forms of government and religions and the like. It is an amorphous, sloppy process that is nearly impossible to measure in any concrete way. This bothers me — it always has. I grow impatient. I chide myself for not “getting more done.” I have been world building for this new series for, like, two weeks, and already I’m railing at myself for not being done. Just for the sake of comparison, I took three months to research the Thieftaker books, so I need to cut myself some slack. World building is work. It might not break down into units that are easily counted and banked, but it’s work nevertheless. And if you’re like me, and you chafe at that sort of thing… Well, give yourself a break. That’s what I plan to do. Because I have a lot more world building to do.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: The Allure of the New Shiny

All of us who write have felt it. Many of us have given into it. Others have resisted. Personally, I’ve done both — with different projects and also within a single one. We loves it and we hates it, but always we must have a healthy respect for its power.

I speak, of course, of the allure of the New Shiny. The bane and grail, the procrastination and promise, the distraction and passion. The New Shiny is all these and more.

The first time I experienced it, I was in the process of outlining the SECOND LonTobyn book. Not the third and final book, but the second. Nancy had a conference in Birmingham, England and we made a trip of it, even though we were toting around our older daughter, Alex, who was all of three months old. Our travels took us to Wales, where we toured castle after castle. I fell in love with the countryside, became totally obsessed with the notion of writing castle intrigue, and started to imagine the books that would become my Winds of the Forelands tetralogy.

The problem was, I still had TWO books left to write in my first trilogy. As the Forelands began to take shape in my mind, as I grasped the myriad possibilities of a new world in which to write, LonTobyn seemed to shrink before my eyes. Compared to the Forelands, the LonTobyn world became small and ordinary. In reality, of course, it was neither. In fact, LonTobyn was a pretty good world, and those books not only sold well, but also won me an award and launched my career.

For weeks after we returned home, though, I spent hour upon hour building my world for the new series. The series that wasn’t contracted yet. The series no one had ever heard of. The series I absolutely WOULD NOT GET TO WRITE if I didn’t FINISH MY FIRST SERIES.

I don’t need to tell you that our minds are notoriously independent of our wills. The moment we tell ourselves not to think of, say, golden retriever puppies, golden retriever puppies become the only things we CAN think of. So telling ourselves not to think about our New Shinies is pretty much futile. More to the point, I’m not entirely certain we would want to banish them from our minds. The creative energy that comes with falling in love with a new world, a new concept, a new set of characters, can feed all our artistic endeavors. Why would we want to deny ourselves the power of that process?

At the same time, though, more often than not, the best thing we can do for our careers at any given moment is finish our current project. I learned a valuable skill when writing my first trilogy, with the Forelands concept lurking in my hind brain. I learned to compartmentalize my art. I continued to think about the Forelands books. As ideas occurred to me, I typed them out. But then I closed those files and went back to writing the LonTobyn books. I had no choice in the matter. I wanted to build a career, and I certainly didn’t want a reputation as a writer who failed to complete projects, or as someone who delivered books late. I allowed myself to brainstorm when I had the chance, but I forced myself to reach my daily word counts on the work-in-progress.

And I would suggest that when grappling with the New Shiny, you do much the same thing. Don’t stifle your creative impulses. Take the time to jot down every idea, to write out scenes that come to mind, or to create character sketches as the people in your new world present themselves to you. When you have set aside your WIP for the night or the weekend, let your mind run wild in New Shiny-land.

But do not sacrifice the work you’ve been struggling with, simply because the New Shiny is teasing you from the other side of your brain. Because here are a few things the New Shiny will never tell you. First, the idea might not pan out. I have many files on my computer that contain half-realized worlds, half-baked ideas, and half-formed narratives. The New Shiny can be fickle and undependable. Second, as wonderful as the New Shiny MIGHT prove to be, the work-in-progress is real, it is immediate, it deserves to be finished. It represents a tremendous amount of time, energy, and completed work. As I said before, finishing our current project is almost always the best thing we can do to advance our career. Third, and last, never forget this one essential truth: No matter how bored we might have grown with our current work, no matter how much of a slog those last chapters of the last book can prove to be, the current work-in-progress was once itself a New Shiny.

The next idea is always the most exciting. That doesn’t make it most important.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Self-Defining Success

Islevale compositeAs you know at this point, we are in the midst of release week for Time’s Assassin, the third book in my epic fantasy/time travel series, The Islevale Cycle. For today’s writing tip, I am going to address a matter I’ve talked about before in conferences and workshops: defining success and balancing external disappointments with the satisfaction we ought to take in work well done.

To state the obvious, we want all of our books to succeed, to garner great reviews and sell like gangbusters. (And, with that in mind, you can order Time’s Assassin here. You can also get books I and II in the series at a special price. Here’s the link.) With few exceptions, our most recent efforts tend to be the ones we think are the best. That has certainly been the case with my work. Some series are more successful than others, but generally speaking, I have been most proud of whatever book I have completed most recently. The Islevale books are no exception to this. I love, love, love these books. All of them. And I think that Time’s Assassin is the finest concluding volume to a series I have ever written. I had creative goals for the book — things I wanted to accomplish with the narrative — and I feel that I achieved every one of them. I’m deeply proud of that.

Time's Assassin, book III of The Islevale Cycle, by D.B. Jackson (jacket art by Robyne Pomroy)The truth is, I have felt that way about all three volumes of this trilogy. The Islevale books were incredibly difficult to write. I knew going in that writing time travel would be really hard — as one friend told me, “It’ll make your brain explode.” So much can go wrong. We have to examine every plot point from every possible angle to make certain it holds up to logic, and to the simple reality that time travel gives us endless opportunities for do-overs. Put another way, every event in a time travel story is negotiable. Each one can be altered or reversed by the very plot devices on which our stories depend.

I have never struggled with a set of books so much. Part of the problem was, maybe due to the time travel, I could not outline the books. I’m a planner. I outline all my novels. Except these. And, early on, it showed. My wonderful agent, Lucienne Diver, tore apart the first draft of the first book, which I liked very much. And every criticism she had of the book was valid. I wound up cutting 40,000 words from that initial iteration and then writing scenes totaling 60,000 words to make it work. It was a brutal slog. But when I finished that new draft of Time’s Children, I knew I had written the best book of my career.

Time’s Children, by D.B. Jackson © Angry Robot. Art by Jan Weßbecher.I hoped that Time’s Demon, book II, would prove easier to write. It didn’t. This time, I did most of the cutting and adding on my own — I didn’t need anyone to point out most of the early flaws; I saw them for myself. Again, I couldn’t outline the book, but by the time the second volume was done, I had fallen in love with it as well. And so it went with book III, Time’s Assassin.

These books have also had a tangled history. The first book received terrific reviews — a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, a designation as the Best Fantasy Novel of 2018 from Reviews and Robots, an Audie nomination — and sold well, too. The second book also received great reviews — and one high-profile poor one that stung. More, its release coincided with a turnover in management at Angry Robot, the original publisher. The book got lost in the transition and tanked. Angry Robot’s new editor apologized to me about this, but sales being what they were, she could not pick up the option on book three. Fortunately, John Hartness at Falstaff Books took the book on and made this week’s release possible. I’m grateful to him, and to all the great folks at Falstaff.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)I frequently tell beginning writers that they need to self-define success, something which is really hard to do in this business. All too often we writers are forced by the nature of publishing to seek exterior affirmation for our work — reviews, sales, awards if we’re fortunate enough to win them. These are the things the industry values and so, naturally, they are the things we care about as well. The problem with this is, the industry is cruel and capricious. We all know of good, even great, books that go unnoticed and unacknowledged. We all have seen mediocrity rewarded with terrific sales and undeserved attention. And we know that this is true in the world beyond publishing as well. Life is not always fair.

With the books of the Islevale Cycle, I have been left with no choice but to heed my own advice: I have to self-define my success. I can lament that these books deserved a better fate than that which the industry offered, or I can draw satisfaction from what they have meant to me, personally. Because they mean a lot: The series in total was the most ambitious project I’ve taken on, and the final products represent the finest work I have done. Writing these books forced me to stretch as an artist — every book and story I write from here on out will be better because of this series. So, yeah, I wish the second book had sold better. I wish I hadn’t had to deal with the pain of being dropped by the first publisher. And I hope that the release of this third volume will build sales for all three books.

I said at the outset of this post that I LOVE the books. And it’s true. I love the characters, the setting, the magic system, the prose, the emotion, the twists and turns. And I am hopeful that you will love them, too. Not just because I want to sell some books — though, yeah, I do — but because I take pride in the work, and I want others to see what I’ve done. I’m like a little kid showing his latest scribble to everyone who’ll take time to look at it. And I’m okay with that. When we’re kids, self-defining success comes easily. It’s when we’re older, and more aware of the pitfalls of creative careers, that we lose sight.

Thanks, and keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Taking Stock Halfway Through 2020

As of today, July 1, we are halfway done with 2020.

Yeah, I know. It seems like this year has lasted a decade. And it seems like this year has flown. Time is unnervingly elastic right now, at least from my perspective. I have been distracted all year long — that’s how it feels. I can hardly believe that six months ago I hadn’t heard of Covid-19. I haven’t been at my best for so long now, I’m not entirely sure anymore what “my best” really means.

That said, I look back on the first six months of the year, and I see that I did, in fact, accomplish something. Quite a lot, actually.

•I’ve edited an anthology, reading through literally dozens of stories, choosing (in consultation with Joshua Palmatier, my co-editor) the ones we would be including in the final collection, and then editing and copyediting those.

•I’ve written and revised a short story for said anthology.

•I’ve written, revised, and then revised again a lengthy non-fiction piece.

•I’ve revised and copyedited TIME’S ASSASSIN, the third Islevale novel, which will be out from Falstaff Books on or about July 7.

•I’ve written the first drafts of three Thieftaker novellas, totaling just over 100,000 words.

•I’ve put out five issues of my newsletter, and will be coming out with number six very soon (I tend to take January off).

•I’ve posted Monday Musings, Wednesday Writing Tips, and Friday Photos, every week for the first twenty six weeks of the year.

All in all, not bad.

I know that I’ve done all of these things, because I keep a day journal in which I jot down, among other things, all of my professional activities. And I keep that journal for just this reason. Even in the best of times, it is so, so easy to convince ourselves that we’re not doing anything, that we’re just spinning our wheels and wasting our time. This is especially true now, in a period of sustained social crisis unlike anything most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. Our tension and apprehension and sense of being overwhelmed consumes all else, making it too easy to gloss over our accomplishments, whatever they may be.

Keeping a day journal is easy. You can do it electronically, or physically. I do everything electronically these days, except this. Each year, I buy a Sierra Club Engagement Calendar, and I use it to keep tabs on myself, writing down each day’s highlights before going to bed. I recommend it. It may be just the thing to help you keep track of all you’re getting done, despite your conviction that you’re not getting anything done at all. More than that, it can be a source of motivation. On some days, I wind up working harder than I would otherwise, because I don’t want to face that blank space in the evening with nothing productive to jot down.

I also want to say, at this, the turn of the year, that 2020 is far from over. Whatever you have gotten done so far, you have six more months in which to accomplish old goals or set and get started on new ones. It’s tempting to give in to the negative impulse: “The year’s already half gone. What’s the use?” I choose instead to look at it from the other side. “I still have half the year left to do X, Y, and Z.”

So I plan to keep the newsletters coming, to write my three blog posts each and every week. I have a release next week that I intend to promote. I hope to be editing a new anthology by the end of the year. I intend to revise and put out those three Thieftaker novellas before the year is finished. I have more edits to get done on the nonfiction piece. I have a new idea for a major project — I’m researching it now. I would love to have the first novel in that project finished before the end of the year. I have gotten the rights back to the third and fourth Thieftaker novels; I want to edit those and get them reissued this year. And more…

So, yeah, it’s July 1. Wow.

Now, back to work.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: My Favorite Reference Books

Last week’s Writing-Tip Wednesday post was about the computer apps I use most when researching, outlining, and writing books and stories. As promised, this week I want to look at what are probably  the most important writing tools I have: my reference books.

I use the internet a great deal when I’m writing. I look up a ton of stuff every day. But to my mind, there is no replacement for having the physical books, for being able to thumb through an index, or flip through pages on our way to the topic we’re after only to discover some tidbit of information we hadn’t known we wanted until the instant we found it.

So with that in mind, here are the books I use most often and recommend most enthusiastically.

Let’s start with the basics. Every writer should have a good dictionary and thesaurus at hand all the time. My dictionary of choice is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition. My main reason for using it, beyond the fact that it is comprehensive and widely accepted, is that for every entry it gives the date when the word first entered the popular lexicon. That is invaluable for authors who write in historical periods or fantasy analogues to historical eras, and who wish to eliminate anachronistic words and phrases from their books.

My thesaurus of choice is Roget’s International Thesaurus (6th ed.). This is the really big one – over 1200 pages. It is organized conceptually, by category of word, with an alphabetical index. The advantage of this is that if we look up a word like “total” we get a lengthy listing of possible meanings. Do we want a synonym for “total” that means “amount” (noun) or “compute” (verb) or “whole” (adjective)?

The other general writing reference I use is The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the industry standard for all matters relating to grammar, punctuation, and usage. I have a slightly older edition. I believe the most current is the 18th.

Another word oriented reference I have and love is English Through the Ages, which further refines the historical dating of words. It has an extensive index in the back that distinguishes among different meanings of words. Take the word “spleen”: The body part was named before the 1300s, but “spleen” was not used as a synonym for “temper” until the 1600s. I love tidbits like that.

I write fantasy, and so I am a big fan of the Scott Cunningham books on magic. Titles on my shelves include: The Complete Books of Incense, Oils and Brews; Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs; Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Crystal, Gem, and Metal Magic; Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner; Earth Power: Techniques of Natural Magic; and Earth, Air, Fire, and Water: More Techniques of Natural Magic. I will admit that Cunningham offers his books as guides for people who actually believe in the various sorts of supernatural techniques and objects he describes. I don’t. But I find the books indispensable as reference guides.

I also write mysteries into my stories and books, and have therefore relied heavily on the Writer’s Digest “Howdunit” series of books on crime and policing. These books are designed specifically for writers, and so they offer incredibly valuable information in a format that is easily digestible. They are made to be reference books. Titles in my collection include the following: Police Procedural (investigative procedures); Scene of the Crime (crime scene techniques); Cause of Death (forensics); Body Trauma (wounds and injuries); Deadly Doses (on poisons); Just the Facts, Ma’am (general investigative techniques); and Howdunit: How Crimes Are Committed and Solved. These are great books. Highly recommended.

I have several books on magical creatures and demons, all of them in encyclopedia format. Two of them are put out by W.W. Norton and written/edited by Carol Rose: Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins and Giants, Monsters, and Dragons. I also have Demons and Demonology, by Rosemary Ellen Guiley (Checkmark Books); and The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures, by John and Caitlin Matthews (Sterling Publishing).

I write about castles with some frequency and do my best to get all my architectural terminology right. I actually use two kids books on castles as my primary references: Castle, by David Macauley, and Castle: Cross Sections, by Stephen Biesty. I have supplemented these two books with small books that I have picked up at just about every castle I have ever visited while in Wales, Ireland, England, etc. These are basically self-guided tour brochures that give terminology and history and offer illustrations. Almost any castle gift shop will have one.

Another book I love is called What’s What: A Visual Glossary of Everyday Objects – From Paper Clips to Passenger Ships (edited by Reginald Bragonier, Jr. and David Fisher, Ballantine Books). This book gives you the name of every part of hundreds upon hundreds of objects, vehicles, architectural features, and more. It is out of print (as are many of the titles I have listed in this post) but can be found on used book sites, Ebay, etc.

I could go on, of course. I have dozens of books about the Revolutionary Era, all sorts of field guides, a book about animal tracking, books about baseball and history and weapons, about ancient Scotland and Ireland and Peru and Greece, about Civil War and World War II battles. I could go on and on. There is no rule for collecting reference books except to keep your eyes open. The bargain rack at your local Barnes and Noble can be a great place to collect helpful titles. So can flea markets and library sales. As I say, most of the titles I’ve shared with you here are out of print. But with a bit of legwork and digging you can find them and begin your own collection.

Best of luck, and keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: My Favorite Computer Applications

A few weeks ago, in response to another plea on my part for suggestions of things you all would like to see covered in these Writing-Tip Wednesday posts, someone mentioned that they would appreciate my take on various writer tools and resources. This reader had in mind computer applications and the like, and I will cover a few of those today. But I also thought of book resources that I draw upon regularly, and that will be the topic next week’s post.

For this week, let’s begin with a couple of basics. The app on my computer that I use the most – and I mean by a long shot; it’s not even close – is my word processing software. I have always hated Microsoft Word. Always, always, always. And my antipathy for the program goes far beyond my visceral disdain for Clippy. I simply don’t like the way Word looks, the way it works, the way it “feels” when I’m writing. Early on, back when computers still had a sheen of novelty, I used WordPerfect and loved it. Today, I use a word processing software that is, to my mind, the closest thing to WordPerfect that one can find. It’s called Nisus Writer Pro. It has all the things you’d want a word processing app to have – including a dictionary and thesaurus and all the formatting bells and whistles. It saves files in Rich Text Format, but can also save them as .docs to be Microsoft compatible, and exports them as .pdfs to facilitate document sharing. It has Track Changes and Comments and both features are fully compatible with Word, so you can edit with others across platforms.

“How much does it cost?” you ask. This is the amazing part. It’s $65.00 new. The one catch is, it’s only available for Mac users. Sorry. But if you are a Mac user interested in an affordable, professional-level word processing app, this is the one for you.

My other favorite writing app is Scrivener. Scrivener is made by Literature and Latte and it sells for $49. It started as a Mac-only program, but it now comes in a Windows version as well. Same price.

Scrivener is like that amazing Swiss Army Knife you have that has twenty-seven gadgets on it. Chances are, you might only use seven or eight of them, but it’s nice to know that they’re all there if you need them. I use Scrivener for a few things, but I am fully aware that I have barely scratched the surface as to its capabilities. I tend to use it as an organizational tool, a place in which to create and store character sketches, setting descriptions, and general documents that serve as my conceptual framework for each book. I store all of my research in Scrivener – the app allows me to import web pages so that I don’t have to go hunting for them once I’ve found them.

I don’t use the Scrivener word processing feature because I’m picky and I like the look and feel of Nisus Writer Pro. But with Scrivener you can outline your book, write it, and then export it into various formats, including .doc, .rtf, .pdf, OpenOffice, epub, and Kindle format. Better still, you can write the book as a single document, OR you can write each chapter, or even each scene as a separate file. The advantage of that approach is that Scrivener then allows you to shuffle files around until you have found the perfect structure for your project. Pretty cool.

I also use Pages, the word processing app that comes with Mac computers. I don’t think much of it as a straight word processor, but I use it for my newsletter because its graphic features are incredibly easy to use. That would probably be the one place where Nisus falls flat. I know there are fairly strong graphic features in Nisus Writer Pro, but I have never found them intuitive or easy to use. Pages is weak in other ways, but it does make a nice newsletter (or party invitation, or flyer, or… etc.). And it interfaces seamlessly with iPhoto, allowing me to import images of my photographs and book jackets with ease.

As a bonus addition to this post, I would like to recommend an app to the photographers out there. I shoot in RAW format and I used to process my photographs with Adobe Lightroom. Then Adobe went to its monthly subscription payment structure, which totally pissed me off. So I did some research and settled on a new RAW image processor: DxO PhotoLab. I could devote an entire post to describing all that this app does, and perhaps at some point I will. For now, suffice it to say that there is literally nothing I want to do with my photos that I can’t do with PhotoLab. DxO has a comprehensive library of profiles that enable the app to automatically make camera and lens specific adjustments to each image. It literally has a profile for every combination of camera and lens made currently or in the past by most major manufacturers. It is as powerful as Lightroom, and in many ways far better. (For instance, I found that Lightroom washed the color out of my RAW images, forcing me to push the vibrancy and saturation in processing more than I would have liked. PhotoLab does a much better job of preserving the true color of the captured image.) It is not expensive as these things go – $129 for the basic program. $189 for a suite that includes two other useful apps.

So there you go. These are the creative programs I use most. I hope you find them helpful, too. Next week, my favorite book resources for writers!

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Special Guest, Alma Alexander!

Today, I welcome my friend Alma Alexander to the blog to talk about her new novel, The Second Star. She has lots to say about the book, about writing in general, and about advice for beginning writers. Please welcome her to the site!

*****

The Second Star, by Alma Alexander1. As we begin, please tell us about The Second Star. What is it about? What are its major themes?

The Second Star tells the story of the crew of Earth’s first starship, lost for 200 years, found and returned home, still alive but badly damaged by the experience. As one of my characters said – six people went out to teh stars; more than 70 fractured souls returned.

There are several LARGE themes in here.

It’s a novel about the big eternal questions – about who or what God is; about our own immortal souls and their ‘salvation’; what it really means to be human; and whether it is possible to go out to where the monsters dwell and expect to come home again unchanged.

In the two centuries that have passed on the ground since my starship originally departed, the world didn’t stand still.

Global warming has affected the world dramatically (but it is background, here, and is not a major factor in the unfolding of events except for details embroidered in – like the fact that air travel is now a rare event, for instance). There have been historical
developments which have shaped the foundations of the ‘new’ world, two centuries hence. Some of those changes turned us backward as well as forward – and my tech is commensurate with that – I am not portraying full-on high-tech utopia here.

The six rescued crew members have literally aged only a handful of years in the duration of those two centuries, and when they are plunged back into their world… For the people on the ground – they’ve been the frogs in the pot all along, a pot which was simmering so that they didn’t notice the rise in temperature. For the returned ship crew, they’re very much frogs who have been thrust into boiling water without warning. For them, things HAVE changed. They have returned home, to the home world… but have they? Can they? That’s a huge theme thread running through the story – can you ever really ‘come home’ again?

Especially so if you return after a major and chaotic ‘first contact’ situation, a traumatic event for both the humans and the alien, resulting in a psychological crash involving the splintering into many different personalities. All of my characters return as multiples of
themselves. And dealing with that – and with the shattering aftereffects of that alien encounter – is the bones of the story.

It deals with science, and also with faith – about the things we hold holy, and the reasons we believe those things, and what happens if the rock we thought we were standing on crumbles beneath out feet.

It’s a big book. There’s a lot in it.

2. The story resonates so powerfully with what our world has been through in recent months — quarantines, fears of contagion. To what degree did you respond to events, and to what degree did you anticipate them?

The story was long written by the time the pandemic came roaring in. It might well be read differently by readers who have lived through/are living through quarantine conditions… but such “quarantine” as occurs in the book was neither a response to nor an
anticipation of what the year 2020 brought to our doorstep. In retrospect, if the thing wasn’t already done and imminent in terms of release… if I were writing it RIGHT NOW… it is entirely possible that I would have at least referenced the quarantine in terms of 2020, in this story’s distant past. As it is, I have to leave it to readers to do the necessary extrapolation.

3. Your lead character is, essentially, a a psychologist, and your narrative does a pretty deep dive into Dissociative Identity Disorder (aka Multiple Personality Disorder). Are you trained in psychology? What sort of research did you do as you prepared to write this?

I am not a trained psychologist but I AM a trained scientist, with a Master’s degree in Molecular Biology. I’ve already used that background in a much more focused manner, in my Were Chronicles books, where I posit an entirely plausible biological basis for Were
creatures and how they exist and what happens (genetically) to them as they change into their animal avatars. For Second Star, I did my usual research – but I probably took liberties with the subject matter because in our reality the so-called Multiple Personality Disorder arises from childhood trauma, abusive situations, a way to survive the unsurvivable. There is a precipitating event in my story, to be sure, but in THIS reality the precipitating event is both psychological and physical, in a very real sense. What that meant was that the syndrome would function in ways different from what current research into the area posited. I certainly don’t claim to be an authority – but I read up on a fascinating syndrome and then gave it the kind of shape thatmy story needed. In other words, if I may, Dammit Jim, I’m a storyteller not a psychologist…

4. From a craft perspective, what was the greatest challenge you faced while writing The Second Star, and how did you address it?

My six crewmembers from the lost-and-returned starship each came back carrying different fragments of personality – fragments which were just as real and ‘coherent’ as humans as their original personality might have been. The difficulty was that I was working in a written medium and all I had to work with was the words on a page – I could not rely on visual cues (except as described in those words, and I couldn’t do too much of THAT) – which meant that the personality ‘changes’ had to rely on changes of ‘voice’, as rendered through the written word. Sometimes writers do get envious of the ability of visual media to convey subtle changes through minor alterations of posture, through expression of face and eyes, through an actual AUDIBLE spoken voice which can ‘change’ as required – we have none of those luxuries, we rise or fall by power of word (and the reader’s imagination) alone. Doing a multiple personality book is HARD. Starting with keeping track of which personality is speaking at any given time, and adjusting voice and vocabulary for that personality, to trusting the reader, in the end, to ‘hear’ spoken words in the voice that you are trying to paint, and to differentiate – sometimes several times in the space of a single extended dialogue scene – between different personalities manifesting *in the same character*. As in, the reader knows that the character is speaking – there is only one mouth, only one set o f vocal cords, but they HAVE to hear the moment when one personalty flips into another, to hear that changed happen. Everything depends on that. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever attempted to do in the written word…

5. You have written a broad spectrum of speculative fiction over the course of your career, and have made a name for yourself as a fantasy writer. Why this book at this time? Is this turn into more science fiction-based story telling a one-off, or do you plan to do more of this going forward?

Fantasy is still my primary milieu, as it were, but although this is my first serious ‘science fiction’ novel that doesn’t mean I haven’t dipped my toe in the genre before.

I did a science fantasy, so to speak, trilogy that is my Were Chronicles books (Random, Wolf, and Shifter) which posits a valid genetic basis for the existence and function of Were creatures in our universe; I did a science fiction novel with a humorous turn,
where time traveling androids take an entire SF con on a joyride to the moon (“AbductiCon”) – it’s my love letter to fandom and to conventions,I am something of a polymath when it comes to that. I am already in the planning stages of another more purely ‘science fiction’ novel, so The Second Star is probably not the last of its
kind. Watch my website for any further announcements…

6. In what ways has your artistic life changed with social-distancing, stay-at-home, and the rest? Has it impacted your creative process? Your output?

Becoming a primary caretaker of two loved family members who are high(er) risk for the Covid-19 scourge does take up a lot of time. I’m the chauffeur, I’m the grocery shopper, I’m everything that is necessary, and often that simply means shelving my ‘work’ and doing
whatever I need to do to fulfill my responsibilities there.

I’ve lost income – people who are themselves cash-strapped are less likely to seek out editorial work, for instance, which is what I do as a professional service, and I’ve also lost several people from my Patreon as they reduce non-essential spending in a time of uncertain income of their own. I’m also becoming prone to what has become known as the Pandemic Procrastination syndrome, and I find myself simply postponing things I have to do because there simply doesn’t seem to be any tearing hurry to do them right now. I have joined up with social media stuff that keeps me in touch with my tribe (there’s a ‘convention’ going on in Facebook – I don’t know I think it started in March sometime – and it’s still going strong – it’s a blast). Keeping in touch with friends through the computer screen is becoming New Normal, but maybe one day the real cons will return and we can all meet again. In the meantime…it’s a tough time.

7. Can you offer any advice to authors just starting their careers at this difficult time?

A jaded advice giver once said, “if there’s anything else that you want to be besides a writer… be that.” It’s not an easy choice. But as I tell people – if you don’t want to be a writer nobody can help you; if you do want to be a writer nobody can stop you. Things have slowed down but they have not stopped and neither should your vocation, if you truly have it. Write, not because you expect fame or fortune, but because you have to – listen to the voices inside your heart and your head – tell the stories that want to be told. Even if
the world ends tomorrow, those stories are important.

But don’t take the easy shortcuts. Don’t “publish” stuff that should never have been published, just because you can. If you do, make sure it’s edited, and that you present the best possible product that you are able to present. And do understand that when people don’t like your offering – and if nobody has ever disliked it you aren’t being read by enough people – they aren’t out to destroy YOU. Never forget that there is no such thing as universal acclaim. Write something else. Write something better. There is no way out except through – and if you make it through the thickets and the chasms and the booby traps I’ll see you on the other side.

*****

Alma (A.D.) Alexander’s life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with her husband and two cats) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. Find out more about Alma:

Website (www.AlmaAlexander.org)

Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/AuthorAlmaAlexander/)

Twitter (https://twitter.com/AlmaAlexander)

Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/AlmaAlexander)