Back in the House; back to writing

The House

We are back in our house at last, recovering from the house fire. Everything is new and shiny and uncluttered and just about perfect. For the first time in my life I am not surrounded by books in every room, and it’s surreal and unsettling like I’m surrounded by a vacuum and might be pulled in at any moment.

But the lack of visual clutter and massive to-read piles that I will never actually read: that is relaxing too. Honestly, it’s a relief to be free of all the mess, and of most of the books too. Many I miss, don’t get me wrong; they are treasures beyond compare. But the vast majority were simply self-imposed duties I could not fulfill, weighting down my artistic conscience.

Really, I like the new place. It’s much better than the old place. Minimalistic, with only what we need.

We even have a new fake Christmas tree, and the needles aren’t even melted 😉


After two years of successive tragedies (the death of my mother, my grandfather, and my wife’s grandfather one year; the burning down and rebuilding of my house the next), I am finally crawling back into writing.

All the time I spent exploring plotting seems to have paid off. I am developing a pretty good plot that I love (shock! awe! when did such a thing ever happen before with pre-plotting? Never!). Also, I’m doing some pretty fun world building.

My actual writing skills are quite rusty, and I don’t like the words I am making, but I wonder if I should really worry about that. Once I have the plot, characters, and scenes nailed down, and I iterate through the book, the rust should be mostly gone. Then I can turn around on the rewrite and really polish the style up.

It’s nice to be optimistic again about the writing. I guess it takes a while to get your feet back under you after being bulldozed down so many times.

As the great philosopher Chumbawumba once said, “I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down.”



Agents and House Fires and Such

As a general update, Tuesday, December 10, 2013 was a freaking crazy day:

At 11:00am, I receive an email from Jennifer Jackson at the Donald Maass agency offering to represent my novel. My first agent! This is something I’ve worked for years (decades) toward, a major milestone in my writing career. And she’s a great agent and a great person too. So exciting!

And then, at 5:00pm, my house burns down.

Everyone is fine, even the cats, and doing well. We have insurance, and likely will be fine. And we are holding up really well. The fire was so incredibly hungry and swift, 5 minutes either way on the timing of the fire (or, worse, if it had happened overnight) someone would be dead. From first smoke to inferno was just a couple of minutes. Six fire trucks worked for an hour to put it out, and two ambulances and just about every cop in the city were on site. We are very lucky.

The rest of it is just stuff: furniture, clothing, books, DVDs. It’s hard to get upset about that when things could’ve gone so wrong. 

Jennifer Jackson, who now represents me literarily, has a post about it here. 

Yes, we are sad about a lot of things: pictures, letters, and keepsakes, mostly. We also had my  mom’s collectibles (a vast collections of collections, uncountable reams of autographs from any science fiction movie or TV show you can imagine, rare science fiction memorabilia, records, stamps, boots, etc.), and the insurance will not come close to reimbursing us for that.

But, really, we’re looking at it as a new beginning, a chance to rise from the ashes (see what I did there?) better and stronger than ever.  

It’s strange, we’ve both had problems with depression in the past, but as long as we keep smiling and marching forward and looking for the positives in the situation, it doesn’t seem to drag us down.

Maybe that’s the real secret to happiness, huh? It couldn’t be THAT easy, could it?

Still, there are a lot of things up in the air. We’ve never been through this process before (and hopefully we never will go through it again!), so the sheer weight of the unknown is a stressor, a weight on the back, all by itself. But we are filled with hope rather than fear, and that is the important thing!

A lot of people out there feel compelled to help us because it’s such a terrifying story. Because death was close at hand. We think we will be fine, and we are not asking for help, but if you feel compelled to aid us for some reason, don’t buy us blankets or crackers or juice (please don’t!).

If we end up needing help, it will be for unexpected things, housing overruns, or build overruns near the end of the recovery process, months and months from now. 

Our YouCaring site is the best way to chip in.

And since I know everyone is curious to see what fire damage looks like, here is my shelf full of esoteric books on Kung Fu, Taiji, Qigong, and Languages (everything from Sumerian to Chinese to Sanskrit to Lakota Sioux Sign Language to Latin to Cherokee, and many in between).



Novels, Old and New – and Doubts

I’ve been plugging away at my novels, up to 16k words on the new novel, a Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon-style adventure that uses Tai Chi Chu’an (Taijiquan) as a central element.

I’ve also been getting a reader to plow through my Great Depression-Era Range War/Western novel; when feedback is in from that, I will send it to an agent.

Writing-wise I am consistently, if slowly, scrimshawing out words. Submission- and agent-wise I am in the doldrums, drifting about the ocean sails-up with no wind in sight.

I don’t think there’s such a thing as a writer without self-doubt gnawing at his/her bones. The current, devouring ones for me:

1) If I sell both books, can I really get away with jumping genres so wildly?

2) I don’t seem to write as cleanly or as muscularly as I used to. Will I ever be as skilled again with words?

3) The current novel looks like it will be huge, and the themes are very scattered. Am I skilled enough to pull it off? Will I have to go back and do a rewrite, mid-draft, to keep making forward progress?

4) Will I ever successfully write a sequel to anything?

Building a Kickass Story Premise: A Checklist

I discussed recently that an outline isn’t enough — an outline is a plot, sure, but you need a kickass PREMISE for the story to be good.

You make your premise before or after you start your plot outline. Really, it’s all about your personal style. I kind of waffle — I have a general idea of what I want to right about.

Before I plot, I have a loose idea of setting, some very rough ideas of characters, and a controlling image, but nothing solid. Sometimes I have a scene or two that came out of nowhere as a seed. But I’m not “married” to any of it — none of its locked down.

Everything can change.

Once I have a very skeletal plot that makes sense, I start fleshing it out an analyzing it.

(Disclaimer: Remember, this is a new process to me, so it is not finely honed, and, since I haven’t sold a book yet, there’s no evidence that it works. HOWEVER, I *do* know that it sure does FEEL a lot easier, and I feel like the book — and even an entire trilogy — is a manageable enterprise with no real fear of spinning out of control, and I’ve never felt that way before.)

Section I: Analyze the idea

1) Is the plot solid, interesting?

a) Does it FEEL right?

b) Is it the story you wanted to tell? (This is your gut. I’m sorry. I can’t fix your instincts, that’s up to you.)

c) Does it seem to hold together?

2) Now look at the Setting:

a) Is it unique, charming, terrifying, or at least somewhat interesting? We don’t need pages of description here, or even paragraphs of it, but we definitely do NOT want the world to be have white walls or be a vacuum with no detail.

b) Is the setting just way too far out there/silly for anyone to believe? If so, it’s not going to work.

c) Is there something familiar enough about the setting for people to sink their teeth into, or your risk kicking them out. Is it familiar?

d) Is it original? It better have something unique, or at least flavorful to it.

3) Who are these characters anyway? Start building them — this is character work, guys, if you can’t do this, then look up some articles or books on it, I don’t have room to discuss it here. Characters are a topic that can go on forever, but here’s a basic checklist:

a) Figure out what your Villain and Protagonist REALLY WANT

b) Figure out what they REALLY DON’T WANT

4) Conflict — see 3a and 3b above? Where those collide, you have conflict.

a) Check your conflicts and make sure your story is about your conflicts. If not, something is way off.

b) Look for extra conflicts to use as subplots or additional items.

Section II: Make it stronger. Increase the stakes!

1) What’s on the line for the main character:

a) Physically (physical stakes ain’t enough!)

b) Emotionally (what does she love? What does she hate? How can you use this to threaten or push around your character?)

c) Morally (yes, MORALLY – moral stakes are important, please refer to Donald Maas’ “Writing the Brekout Novel” for a more detailed explanation)

You don’t need all of these stakes, but having multiple things at stake sure does ratchet up the tension.

2) Now think:

a) How do I make the stakes HIGHER?

c) How do I make them hurt more?

c) How do I twist the knife?

Yes, it’s about being cruel to the characters. Areas to mine for increased stakes: Relationships, personal respect/reputation, the welfare of innocents that depend on the character, etc.

3) Remember, there must be HOPE too! Some people go too far down the road of torturing their characters. There must always be hope in a story as well, especially in a tragedy. It’s the hope that keeps us reading, that keeps the reader engaged.

The BIG IDEA is really all about narrowing down your idea, focusing in on what’s at stake for the characters, and then making those stakes higher.

General rules:

Amplify. Make it all bigger – the characters, the stakes, the setting. As long as it doesn’t get ridiculous, you’re okay. And if you’re writing comedy, a little “ridiculosity” can work too.

Be cruel to your characters, but always make sure there is hope as well.

Book Recommendation: “Enchanted” by Alethea Kontis

Let me tip you off to the next big hit book. It’s called “Enchanted”, by a talented and enchanting new author, Alethea Kontis. Here’s the copy from Amazon:

“It isn’t easy being the rather overlooked and unhappy youngest sibling to sisters named for the other six days of the week. Sunday’s only comfort is writing stories, although what she writes has a terrible tendency to come true.
When Sunday meets an enchanted frog who asks about her stories, the two become friends. Soon that friendship deepens into something magical. One night Sunday kisses her frog goodbye and leaves, not realizing that her love has transformed him back into Rumbold, the crown prince of Arilland—and a man Sunday’s family despises.
The prince returns to his castle, intent on making Sunday fall in love with him as the man he is, not the frog he was. But Sunday is not so easy to woo. How can she feel such a strange, strong attraction for this prince she barely knows? And what twisted secrets lie hidden in his past—and hers?”

This book is selling like mad, and that’s really cool because Althea is a really cool lady. I’ve only known her online, but it’s always nice seeing someone you knew from the old writer’s haunts launch into the stratosphere. Go, Althea, go!

This thing is hot, really hot, with kickass blurbs from top authors, and everything. My blog ain’t gonna make a dent in her sales, but I’ll do everything I can to help.

The Quest for Plot, Part 4: My Current Plotting Solution

As I said, I am still in the middle of fixing my lack-of-plot, but I recently had a pretty convincing “light bulb turning on” moment. I watched a series of videos, and took copious notes, and, somewhere between listening and writing it all down, a connection was finally made in my head.

For the first time in my life, PLOTTING WITH AN OUTLINE MADE SENSE.

Now, you have to realize, it never had before. Even when I plotted my first novel before I wrote anything, it was slipshod plotting — I shot-gunned out every possible conflict based on the personalities of the different characters and sorted them out into some sort of logical order. (Yeah, I told you it was painful enough I would never do it again — now you know why.)

The thing about the system is it’s not even Dan’s. He lifted it from a Star Trek: The Role Playing Game Administrator’s Guide.

But it’s still really good.


Here it is below, but changed a little (I’ve modified his terminology to fit with ther terminology I was trained to use in Lit class — except for the word “pinch” — I really like his use of that word, and I’ll keep it):

1) Setup — introducing Protagonist and, usually, the problem

2) Turning Point 1 — Call to adventure, finding out Protagonist may be special (a jedi, a wizard), or other first steps down the Protagonist’s journey, whatever it is.

3) “Pinch” 1 — Something goes wrong/something bad happens to squeeze the Protagonist, forcing them to change.

4) Midpoint/Commitment of Protagonist — Protagonist finds out the truth about the Antagonist (this could even be nature or self, in other conflict types), swears to overcome Antagonist

5) “Pinch” 2 — Everything goes wrong, defeat looks inevitable

6) Turning Point 2 — Protagonist finds a way to overcome the problem. Sometimes this is ingenuity (MacGyver, Sherlock Holmes), sometimes this is finding the power within (Use the Force, Luke), sometimes this is the “power of true love” (Princess Bride, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), etc.

7) Climax/Resolution — This is not your falling action. This is the end result of the big showdown where the Antagonist is defeated/world is saved (or in a tragedy, where the main character dies — whatever floats your boat). In simplest terms, does your Protagonist win or lose?

NOTE: The first thing you’ll see is I’ve only talked about happy endings, and kind of only about hero’s journey, adventure novels. That’s okay. Dan Wells uses the system to break down Romances and Horror and Tragedy as well, and it can also be applied to Mystery. Just watch his video for more examples (link at end of article).

“BAH!” I hear some of you say, this is just a streamlined plot system. It doesn’t help at all! AHH! That’s where you’re wrong.

The genius part of this system is that it’s not just a structure — it gives you an ORDER TO BUILD THINGS IN!!! This was the big jump for me. This, along with all of the examples of different movies and books Dan plotted with it, made the lights come on in my head (note: I’ve changed Dan Wells’ order a little bit, too, because it gave me chicken-and-egg problems; the order below works best for me):

Step 1) Define your Climax
Once you know where you’re heading, it’s sooo much easier to figure out the rest. Does your protag win or lose, is the easy question.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (HPSS): Harry Potter (in the Sorcerer’s Stone) defeats Voldemort.
Star Wars(SW): Luke becomes powerful with the force and blows up the Death Star.

Step 2) Define your Setup
This is usually the opposite of the Climax.
HPSS: Harry Potter is weak and disrespected.
SW: Luke is just a farm boy.

Step 3) Define your Midpont
This is the crux of the story, where the hero accepts his quest or starts to take action, halfway in character development between Setup and Climax. Usually at this point they swear to defeat the badguy or avenge a wrong or something like that.
HPSS: Harry learns the truth about the Sorcerer’s Stone and swears to defeat Voldemort.
SW: Luke learns about the Death Star, and swears to help the Rebel Alliance fight the Empire.

Step 4) Define your Turning Point #1
This is where the character is called to heroism/adventure, or first starts the process of change.
HPSS: Harry Potter finds out he is a wizard and goes to Hogwarts
SW: Luke meets Old Ben, learns about his father being a Jedi

Step 5) Define your Pinch #1
The pinch should hurt, it should squeeze your character into action
HPSS: The troll attacks Hogwarts. Without any adults around, Harry and his friends have to grow up and learn to be heroes.
SW: Luke’s aunt and uncle are killed by Storm Troopers, there’s nothing left for him. He has to grow up and find his own meaning.

Step 6) Define your Pinch #2
This is the point where “All is lost” in the book (or, in a tragedy, where “Everything’s going to be okay after all!”). Usually this means all friends are eliminated, and the hero is alone.
HPSS: Harry Potter is all alone with the mirror, facing Voldemort, helpless.
SW: No one else has been able to blow up the Death Star, time is running out, only Luke is left, his ship is damaged, and Darth Vader and two other tie fighters are right on his tail.

Step 7) Define you Turning Point #2
This is where the hero snatches victory from the Jaws of defeat! (Usually by finding a new, powerful weapon, “true love”, or a talent within — yes, it’s hokey, and there are better solutions, but it is everywhere)
HPSS: Harry Potter finds the Sorcerer’s Stone because his heart is pure, and he is protected from Voldemort’s touch by the power of his mother’s love.
SW: Han Solo knocks the Tie Fighters off Luke’s tail, and Luke hears Ben say, “Use the force, Luke!” and turns off the targeting computer and destroys the Death Star.

Wow! That’s easy, right? It can’t be that simple! Well — it is. It really is. And that’s why I feel so damned stupid that it took me years to figure it out.

You’ll notice of course that this is a little sketchy — yes it is. This is just the main plot line of the story you’re looking at. You need to add some more plots — one for the villain (so you know what he’s up to), one for any love interest there is, one for any other side plots or sub plots you may be thinking of. I usually do them by major characters.

Once you have all your plots done, you weave them together into something that makes sense. When you’re doing this, remember that you want your climax and your midpoint to have a lot of different plots converging on the same point — this will build emotinoal resonance.

And then you write a synopsis, so you can see if the story holds together in narrative form.

Man! We’ve come a long way, haven’t we? Yes we have. Now go plot something!
(BTW, there’s a lot more to Dan Wells’ system – Action Prologues, Try/Fail cycles, etc. Check out his video here:
Dan Well’s 7-Point Plotting System )

The Quest for Plot, Part 3: How to Make It as a Professional Author, By the Numbers

This article will discuss how much mid-list writers need to write and sell to publishing houses in order to leave their day job.


My dream is not to be a professional mid-list author, either — I want to be the next big, famous break out author — what writer doesn’t want to be Cormac McCarthy, JK Rowling, Steven King, Dan Brown, etc? — but I have to be realistic too.

Most of us, even the very talented poets and geniuses among us, will not make it to the top levels. That rarefied air, for a writer, is akin to winning the lottery. The odds are better than the lottery, of course, but they are still STEEP. For every superstar writer, there are tens of thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands) of one-book-wonders and solid midlisters.

So when I talk about being a professional author (especially from my island of ignorance, not being one), I am assuming that to make that jump from day-job-worker to author-with-a-relatively-reliable-stream-of-income will mean that you are mid-list, most likely upper-mid list. Most of us that end up “living the dream”, will be in the mid-list, and that’s great, it’s still the dream! We just need to know how much to produce to keep the bills paid!


Now since every writer gets paid differently, and since most of them don’t share their income statements with the public on a regular basis (except John Scalzi and Jim C. Hines — both AWESOME), I don’t know how much people make on their books. Also, even if I did, I don’t know what your living expenses are. I am therefore basing most of my opinions off of hearsay and tabletop at conventions — and that is not a reliable source, so take all of this with a grain of salt.

According to a certain book publisher who was kind enough to express her opinions about “making a living at writing”, based on the few professional mid-listers she’s worked with. Here’s her opinions:

The real key is to put out 2 books per year, and to hit a critical mass of about 10 books. After 10 books are out (and assuming you still have enough readership that your books aren’t being cancelled), the royalties and advances start adding up to the point that it’s reasonable to think about quitting the day job, if you want to.

Simple Math: This is about 5 years of work, and in the sixth year you should be able to think about making the jump (barring all-too-common disasters, like health issues, or your series is cancelled due to poor sales). At one novel per year, it could be a much longer road.


AT my current production rate, somewhere around 1 book every 1.5 to 2 years, I will not be able to hit the thresholds above. It’s just not going to work unless I’m a lottery winner. I’m just too darn slow.

The problem: I need to produce books faster by a factor of 4!

The issue here is that I do not want to write “crap”, either. Most writers say that it’s hard to crank out a book in a year and have it be good, much less two books in a year — but I do see some authors pulling it off.

Cat Valente does. Jeff Vandermeer does.

So there has to be a way.

My guess is that the solution is to plot in advance.

The Quest for Plot, Part 2: My Turbulent History with Plotting

I have never really been a big plotter/outliner before.

I did successfully outline my first novel entirely — and I went from blank page to finished rough draft in 16 days — but I spent 18 hours a day every day on it, and the whole experience was so difficult and messy, mentally, and the plot was so thin and predictable that I swore I would never use that process again.

Ever since, I’ve kind of held my nose up at it and pretended it wasn’t important (because I had no idea how to do it, and snootiness was my only defense).

The process I used on my last few novels basically boils down to this: Find your good guys and your bad guys, figure out what they’re fighting about, figure out where they’re going to fight at the climax, and set them loose. On the way, I have the freedom (or, rather, temptation) to explore side characters and dead ends, and it seems to work pretty well as long as action is involved.

It took about 1.5 years to draft my second book, and 1.5 years to do my third — both of them heavily action driven — but on the fourth book the process stopped working. Book 4, you see, was more character driven, with more introspection, and things went off the rails fast. Without a cast of characters that hate each other and want to kill each other racing to an end point, my technique of wandering-around-with-a-climax-in-mind just didn’t work. The plots went too far afield, and now I will have to dump it all and start over again if I ever want to finish that book.

Worse, I’ve been writing that novel for 2 years. 2 years and it’s a dead end with a complete reboot.

The situation is not sustainable if I want to be a professional, and I know it. And I do hope to be a professional one day — so I need to figure this out now and develop some sort of expertise in plotting because I need to write better stories, faster.

But how much do you need to write to make a living at writing? Let’s talk about that in the next post.

The Quest for Plot, Part 1: My New Obsession

I have been driving myself crazy recently questing for something that for years I felt was either impossible or, maybe, just wasn’t mentally possible for me:

Outlining novels quickly, efficiently, and relatively accurately — while still leaving enough breathing room to develop the novel.

Plotting has always been a weakness of mine. I have tons of beautiful, brilliant opening scenes that have been discarded because they go nowhere. I have a tendency to wander around in my fiction, exploring fascinating characters from all angles. Sadly, this means that rewriting is a pain.

No. I mean a REAL pain.

Each of my last two books have taken just under 2 years each, and my current one — the one I will have to start over on from scratch AGAIN — is 2 years in and a complete mess.

This is not sustainable. I cannot ever be a professional novelist with this slow an output unless I won the lottery and had a breakout series — and, even if I did, I would CONSTANTLY BE PULLING MY HAIR OUT because I would never know if I could write another good book again, because I don’t know how I did it in the first place.

Let me express by example my level of desperation. I am currently reading:
-“Writing the Breakout Novel” by Donald Maas
-“Story Structure Architect” by Victoria Schmidt
-Cat Valente’s post about “How to Write a Novel in 30 Days”
-Jeff Vandermeer’s post about “How to Write a Novel in 2 Months”
-John Brown’s many posts on writing
-Jim Butcher’s many posts on writing
-(watching) Dan Well’s 7-point plotting system

Many of these I have read before and just couldn’t use. Many of these I have tried before and failed. This all feels pretty darn desperate, doesn’t it? That’s a lot of bashing my head into a wall that has never cracked before, isn’t it?


But I have to find a solution.

I have to be able to plot a novel ahead of time and have a pretty good idea of the layout. It is the only way I feel I can be commercially viable and artistically consistent as a writer.

…And, strangely, I may be close to one that works for me.

…And if this seat-of-the-pants-writer can learn plot, maybe my journey can help others, too.

We’ll discuss what I’ve discovered so far in the next post.

Great New Book: Nightshifted by Cassie Alexander

A friend of mine, Cassie Alexander, has a great new book out. If you are into Urban Fantasy, you have to check it out — “Nightshifted”.

Here’s the cover copy:

Nursing school prepared Edie Spence for a lot of things. Burn victims? No problem. Severed limbs? Piece of cake. Vampires? No way in hell. But as the newest nurse on Y4, the secret ward hidden in the bowels of County Hospital, Edie has her hands full with every paranormal patient you can imagine—from vamps and were-things to zombies and beyond…


Edie’s just trying to learn the ropes so she can get through her latest shift unscathed.  But when a vampire servant turns to dust under her watch, all hell breaks loose. Now she’s haunted by the man’s dying words—Save Anna—and before she knows it, she’s on a mission to rescue some poor girl from the undead. Which involves crashing a vampire den, falling for a zombie, and fighting for her soul.

Grey’s Anatomy was never like this…


Nightshifted is the story of Edie Spence, a nurse who works on a ward for supernatural creatures. The author, Cassie Alexander is also a nurse in real life.


Check her website out on:

Or buy it on Amazon here.