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Busting Writing Rules: Only Use Said for Dialogue Tags


This rule lands on my list because it’s often treated like a black and white issue when it actually has shades of gray with shades of gray.

What it actually means

The definition is pretty basic: Don’t rely on dialogue tags to do anything other than identity who is speaking.  That’s their purpose.  We’ve all run into a page entirely of dialogue and it can be hard to tell who’s talking.

Said is generally an invisible word.  It’s mostly fine, except when it isn’t.

I can feel your eyes crossing.  More on that below…

Busting the Rule

This rule shows up even from professional level writers for the following reasons:

  1. Too much emphasis on dialogue tags.  

    Writers will collect lengthy lists of tags to refer to.  So we end up with tags like ejaculated. That conjures up a very different image than is probably intended.

    But moreover, these collections force the tag to do something else other than identifying the person talking.  They try to explain how the dialogue was spoken.

    Which leads to the second point…

  2. Not enough emphasis on description.

    Even up to intermediate writer level, description is largely dismissed, with writers advising, “Keep it to a minimum.”

    Except that it’s very hard to convey how words are spoken if there isn’t any description.  Pushing it on a single word in a dialogue tag is a throwaway device.  In most cases, the reader will eventually start noticing the goofy tags when they should be immersed in the writing.

What you can do

  1. Work on your description skills.

    Yeah, I’m repeating this one because so many skill areas like adverbs and show not tell connect to this.  Because once you change all the dialogue tags to said, you’ll realize that said is repetitive if that’s all there is.

    So you veer to using action tags.  But if you’re keeping description to a minimum, suddenly you’re showing a character is angry by having him wave his fist.  And then you discover ten instances of characters looking at each other on one page (guilty).

    Beefing up description is going to help here, a lot.

  2. Use common sense and don’t overthink it. 

    You’re writing along and it makes sense in the story to say “He whispered.”  You probably won’t have too many of those, and as you work on your description skills, you’ll need fewer tags anyway.

  1. Don’t collect tags.  Seriously.  Just no. 

You have better things to do with your time like writing your story that worry about dialogue tags.

 

 

 

Back in time to September 11, 2001


A year after the attacks of September 11 happened, Holly Lisle did a call for an anniversary anthology she published as Together We Stand.  I saw the call, said to myself, “No way.”

At that point, in 2002, I hadn’t even been able to wrap myself around Desert Storm (that happened in 2015).  Yet, the anthology call nagged at me.  I finally sat down and wrote this, which was published in the anthology.

# # #

The world started on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, and it slowly began to peel away like the layers of an onion.

The first layer, the top one, peeled away when the two planes crashed into the Twin Towers. There were murmurings around work as we tried to sort out what was happening. All we had were vague news stories as reports continued to come in. We could not comprehend anything other than it was a terrible accident.

Then the third plane came in. It struck the Pentagon, sixteen miles from my work. We were evacuated to the basement. My boss immediately found each of us and made sure we were all right.

We sat in the basement, waiting, not knowing what was happening, and imagining all kinds of things. After about half an hour, we were told to evacuate the building and go home.

Home for me was in Arlington. Home was about two miles from the Pentagon. I didn’t even know what would be there when I arrived. Or if I would be able to reach it.

I sat on the freeway with thousands of other cars in the sweltering heat. It was not a typical Washington, DC traffic jam. No one cursed. No one honked. No one fussed. We all had a moment of perfect understanding.

On the shoulder next to me, police car after police car raced toward the Pentagon. And when the shoulder ended, we all moved out of the way as one to let a military convoy through. One soldier hopped out of his truck to help direct us.

While I sat in traffic, I continually tried to call my grandmother on my cell phone. Others were doing the same, so the networks were all tied up. Finally I got through. I kept it short: “Tell everyone I’m okay.” She would get the word out to the rest of the family.

Four hours later, I discovered home was still there. As I stood out on the sidewalk, I saw the smoke rising from the Pentagon. The streets were deserted. The atmosphere was subdued.

It stayed that way until Sunday, when the next layer peeled away. I remember it was a beautiful day outside. The sky was bright blue, and the temperature comfortable. I emerged from my shell, and it was suddenly very important that I do something for myself.

I discovered I wasn’t the only one. Everyone in the county of Arlington seemed to wake up at the same time, and step into the sunlight to take in the day. We were cautious, but we weren’t going to hide any longer.

One email from Canada and two from England arrived—friends checking in to see if I was all right. Their emails were short, as were mine. I don’t think any of us were ready to talk too much about it yet.

It was still hard enough just to do normal everyday things. I hadn’t looked at a newspaper since September 12. I knew I wanted to save them, but I simply couldn’t deal with reading them. Instead, I tossed them on the sofa each day.

Another layer peeled away when I was finally able to look at a few of them again.

One day, I opened The Washington Post to discover a list of the people on one of the hijacked flights. I found myself automatically scanning the lists, not expecting to see anyone I knew. Then a name caught my eye and I stopped, staring. Was that who I thought it was? Did I know him?

Yes, I did. I’d met him nearly twenty years ago. I looked at the picture of him in the paper, thinking how different he looked from the man I’d met in California. He looked happier. Now he was dead. Just like that.

I tried not to think about what his last minutes had been like.

My cowriter called me about the novel we were working on. Same book time, same book place? I didn’t need to think about it. I needed to write.

Gradually, we began to distance ourselves from the events of that day. It was a sort of setting aside, a moving on—a necessary part of the process. The layers were now flaking away in bits and pieces.

In August 2002, actor David Hedison was starring in a play on Cape Cod. [ETA: He passed away July 2019.] One of my friends from England flew down so we could both attend his performance. We drove up from Virginia, and as we crossed Rhode Island, we began to see American flags on the overpasses. One had nearly thirty of them, of varying sizes, all carefully arranged.

Seeing that peeled away another layer. We started talking about September 11 and what we had each experienced. You know what? Even though we were an ocean apart, we had gone through the same thing. It happened to the United States, but the whole world felt it.

Was that the final layer? Not yet. I know there will be more.

Busting Writing Rules: No Adverbs!


A little bit of business before the post:

  • I’ll be guest posting on Anne R. Allen’s blog this Sunday, so tune in for how to conquer your fears of doing a pitch session (or at least not sabotage yourself).
  • My next book in this writing series, to start in November will be Writer’s Toolkit: 12 Tips and Tricks for Pantsers.  No cover yet, but soon.
  • Also drop in and follow me on my eNewletter.  I have one writing link and one Hollywood or science link each week.

 

Busting Writing Rules: No Adverbs

I used to subscribe to all the writing magazines and “No adverbs” was on every top ten list.  The articles always made it sound like you could zip through your manuscript, searching for words that end in “ly,” zap them, and publication happens.

The truth is something entirely different…

What it Actually Means

First up, if you need a refresher of what an adverb is (and an adjective), head on over to the Owl at Perdue.

If you look for definitions like this, always start with original sources like college sites.  There are a lot of writers who try to define terms without truly understanding what exactly they’re defining (passive voice is an example of that).

The rule itself exists because some writers veer into adverb abuse.  Especially in the beginning of learning how to write, it’s hard figuring how to convey that a character is angry.  That’s the most common example, but you can pick your flavor.

So a story ends up with something like this:

He slammed the door angrily.  “How are we supposed to do this?”

She scowled bitterly.  “What am I supposed to do about it?  It’s your fault.”

“My fault?  If you hadn’t—” He furiously grabbed the magazines off the table and threw them across the room.

By the way, that hurt.  The writing was horrible!

In fact, I think once it’s pointed out, it becomes obvious how bad it is.  So the writers veer from too many to none at all.

Busting the Rule

Our tendency with rules is to isolate an item like “no adverbs” and follow it.  But everything in writing fiction connects to something else.  This rule connects to all of the following:

  • Characterization
  • Description
  • Dialogue

It also picks up the following rules:

What makes it so complicated? It’s just a bunch of words that end in “ly.”

Okay, let’s your character is angry.  How do you show that if you’re keeping description to a minimum?

With adverbs!

But if you eliminate all the adverbs, we circle back around to the original question: How do you show the character is angry?

Both the description, which is a chunk of characterization, and adverbs work hand in hand to build what you’re trying to show.  Zero tolerance is like leaving the salt entirely out of the food and have no flavor at all.

What you can do

  1. Identify if you’re overusing adverbs

    Run a search and replace for ly and add a space after it.  Replace it with a bolded or highlighted version.  If each page lights up like a Christmas tree, then it’s time to figure out why you put them in there in the first place.  But don’t panic if you see a lot of them.  Just refer to the next two steps.

  2. Work on finding adverbs that you can replace with stronger words. 

    This is just a skill that takes a bit of practice.  It’s unfortunately too easy to put in two words describing something when one would be more powerful:

    Original: He ran swiftly.
    Try: He bolted.

    This is NOT about economy of words.  It’s about what words will best convey the image you’re shooting for.

  3. Practice your description skills.

    We all are told to keep description to a minimum because it’s boring.  But it’s only boring if you write it that way.  More tips on writing description are on Rule Five.

Adverbs are an important part of writing.  Use them as a tool.  Your story will love you for it.

Time Management and Fiction Writing


General Business

I’m guest posting on Anne R. Allen’s blog today, 1:00 EST.  The post is on how not to mess on your pitch session.  I ran the pitch sessions for a writing conference and saw a lot of writers sabotage themselves.  Drop on by!

My fantasy short story Words of Rain and Shadows is featured in the RabbitBundle Here Be Magic.  You can get a lot of great stories and discover new writers with RabbitBundles.

And a reminder that you can sign up for my newsletter.  There’s always something about writing for the writings, and a topic about Hollywood or science.

Making Writing A Priority

Every writer talks about finding the time to write.  Some of that is actually putting it on a priority list and doing it.

Most of the time when someone tells me “I’m writing a novel,” it’s taking ten years to write because they surface periodically when inspiration strikes and add a few hundred words.

Everything else is important.

With some people, this is going to be the case.  They want to write one book, and that’s all they want to do.

Indie’s tricker because producing more words is important, especially if you want to write full time.  James Hunter at Superstars said that you have to produce a minimum of four books a year to be successful.

For that kind of goal, writing has to be on the priority list.

Writing and a Day Job

I’m in a periodically crazy and chaotic day job.  Originally, I was breaking under the weight of it.  It was a four-person job on one person.  It made it very hard to write when I came home because the job sucked the energy out of me.

I used as much of the job as I could to learn process and practices that would help me on my writing side.  In fact, I was so desperate to solve the deluge of information that I read every time management book I could lay my hands on.

But time management is a scam.

Yeah, it really is.

All right, you get this guru who gives you a system to follow.  Doesn’t matter which one.

The majority of the systems are about jamming as much as you can into the time you have.  I remember on the Harvard Business Review, when I posted a comment about to-dos (which I despise, by the way), another writer popped up and bragged that she had a tracking system with 900 to-dos.

900?

Bragged?

Been there at work.  Don’t want to be there.

I think if I hadn’t been focused so much on keeping up and instead let everything fall behind, I might have gotten an extra person much earlier. I’d complain about being overwhelmed, but all people saw was that I was getting things done.

I did get help eventually.

What It Taught Me

This year seems to be the year of thinking strategically.

It means turning some things down to do more writing.  Not on the personal side though—I still go out and have fun and yesterday was entirely lazy because of the gorgeous late summer weather.

But it means maybe not taking any classes for a while.  Dean Wesley Smith offered a licensing course, and all I could do was look at that and no…the time would have to come from writing.

It simply didn’t have any value for me at this time.

I also looked at the number of projects I could do at one time: It’s three.

I have the primary manuscript I’m working on (currently Golden Lies), a promotion-focused one (that’s the Busting Writing Rules now), and a floater.  Last week, the floater was a short story for an anthology call.  The floater has also been the short story refresh, which I’ll be getting back to later this year.

It’s hard because I look at the number of words I’m doing and totals I have for Golden Lies—it’s doesn’t feel like I’m making enough progress for the number of words.

But it’s because I’m working on three projects at once.  It’s possible when the Busting Writing Rules finishes up, I won’t have one book done but two.

Alternating between the project requires management of my priorities.

The short story, Alien Pizza, bubbled up to the top last week because I wanted to get it in when the anthology call opened.

Busting Writing Rules bubbles up because of the weekly deadlines to get a blog post up.

Golden Lies fits in the rest of the time.

The Biggest Takeaway?

Do less, not more.

Busting Writing Rules: Keep Description to a Minimum


For September, we’ll have chapters on well-entrenched rules:

  • Keep description to a minimum
  • No adverbs (is that like “no wire hangers”?
  • Only use said for dialogue tags
  • Show not tell

And a reminder that you can sign up for my newsletter.  There’s always something about writing for the writings, and a topic about Hollywood or science.

Off to the first one…

I cringe when I see this advice show up on blog posts and even in a recent craft book. The writers say the following:

  • Keep your setting description to a minimum. No one wants to read about the setting.
  • Don’t describe your characters. Let the reader imagine them. Or, if we are to describe the characters, do it in quick bits here and there, like “she tossed her blond hair.”\
  • Don’t bother with the five senses. Those don’t add anything to the story.
    The problem is that it’s really bad advice.

If you’re getting form rejections, this is one of the reasons. It’s not that comma on page ten.

What it Actually Means

This rule exists because of how description is taught. If you go to a writing class, you’re assigned an exercise like “Describe a village marketplace.”

So you dutifully form a picture of it and describe it like a TV camera panning over the scene. Five senses get wrapped up in this description.

It’s boring.

For a character’s description, this lands us in mugshot territory: He was six foot one, with a medium build. His hair was black and curly, his eyes gray. He wore jeans and a t-shirt.

That’s boring, too!

So what’s a writer to do?

Busting the Rule

No one mentions that description is a big piece of characterization.

Let this sink in for a moment.

If you keep description to a minimum, you undercut your characterization. Writers starting out tend to think characterization is identifying a favorite color, what time the character drinks her tea or the name of her parents.

But if your heroine meets another character and the heroine’s first reaction is that the other character’s hair looks like she put a finger into a light socket–suddenly you know a lot about your heroine from a few lines.

Or let’s suppose your character is out walking and gets a smell of a skunk. His first thought is a memory about his Golden Retriever coming into the house with skunk stink and giving it to everyone in the family. That one even does duty as backstory for the character.

And setting? One person might walk into a room with 1950s decoration and think it’s dated and another finds it a fond memory of their grandparents.

But if you don’t believe me, pick up Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. He talks about it as the “telling details.”

Also bear in mind that if you don’t describe something, you hand over control to the reader.

If you don’t describe your spaceship, the reader is likely to imagine the one they are most familiar with from TV or film. So when your story does pull in the setting for a battle scene, the reader gets thrown out of the story because you didn’t do your job in the first place.

For characterization, common wisdom is that the reader will imagine themselves as the character—except that not everyone does. If you leave it off for this reader, I’m going to feel a lack of characterization. I might or might not stop reading, but I probably won’t pick up another book.

What You Can Do

This one’s pretty simple.

  1. Have fun describing everything–all from your viewpoint character’s perspective.
  2. Huge paragraphs can really slow down your story.

    To keep pacing under control, write a description and hit three aspects. Then have the character talk, or their mind wanders to the problem troubling them. Then swing back for some more description. You can see this is best-selling books. Michael Connelly’s done it to describe Los Angeles while his character drives from one location to another.

  3. All five senses should appear every five hundred words.

    This is really hard to do. But human beings constantly interact with their background. As I write this, a TV is running the news, I hear voices echoing all over the halls, and behind me, air rushes out of a big vent that stands eight foot tall. A man just walked by, his heels clicking on the floor, and a door banged closed. And this is just the sounds!

Immerse your reader in the world around the character right from the start.
For more to read on this topic, check out Do Sweat the Small Stuff from Wylie Communications.

On September 8…


I’ll be doing a guest post over on Anne R. Allen’s blog.

Everyone always talks about doing the elevator pitch at a conference.  No one talks about how to deal with the actual pitch session.

When I was still thinking of going to traditional route, I ran the Washington Independent Writer’s Conference pitch sessions for about seven years.  I saw all kinds of things writers did to sabotage themselves.

So wander by and check it out.

Busting Writing Rules: Make the Character Suffer


One of the interesting aspects of busting all these rules is that they force me to really think about them. This one came into the book because of a trend I’ve been seeing where writers are pushing the envelope and going really dark to make the character suffer. I just stopped reading a series because of that. The writing was really good and engaging, but the escalation of suffering became exhausting.

So let’s head off to bust the rule.

What it Actually Means

Like a lot of advice, this started life in a much simpler version: Don’t make things easy for your character.

  • The mystery should not be too easy to solve.
  • There should be bumps and misdirections along the way in a relationship
  • The character’s own shortcomings should get the way of their success

Busting the Rule

The problem is two different issues:

  1. It’s a trend in today’s society to have darker stories that treat characters as victims, not as heroes/heroines.

    The media portrays people as victims of their circumstances. If someone is broke, it’s because society has done something to him, not because he made poor financial decisions.
    This ends up translating into fiction as lots of bad things happen to the character. It’s not the character’s fault, even though he is guilty of either inaction or bad decisions. So the character bounces along in the story, letting the story have control.

  2. Our society has a “more is better” attitude.

    It’s not hard to see this one everywhere. Just watch commercials for fast food restaurants, or commercials advertising exercise machines. The sandwiches get bigger and bigger and have more and more added to them. The exercise machines are about pushing, pushing, pushing so you get the body you want. (Somehow, no one connects the problem with these two, but that’s another story).

    But more is not necessarily better.

    Readers come to the story because they want escapism and an entertaining read. It’s hard to enjoy the story when the suffering turns ugly.

    One story I read was a detective series, and the suffering started out over the top and got worse. I did not understand why the character would repeatedly put herself through things that were horrifying. “More” made the character into a victim who struggled through life, not a heroine who survived, victorious.

What you can do

  1. “Suffering” does not have to be a negative emotion.

    Your character can have a huge win and the success brings unexpected emotions and complications. When I got my first personal rejection from a pro-rate magazine, it blew me out of the water. I’d improved my writing enough to get to the next step on the ladder! And my writing stalled out for about six months.

    There are plenty of examples of this in real life. You get an interview at your dream job and your nerves get out of hand. You think a relationship is going great and suddenly you do something really dumb to screw it up.

  2. It’s about balance and pacing.

    This is a more advanced writing skill. Pacing is knowing how much to give to the reader and when. Balance is figuring out not only how much to put it in, but also what to leave out.

    In James Rollins’ thriller series, one of the characters has a family crisis in the middle of all the action. His father starts out with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and eventually dies. Most writers would have done all that in one book. But these are fast-moving thrillers and that would have definitely slowed down and even distracted from the book.

    So what we get is a skillful blend into multiple books of this secondary plot happening. There are scenes at the beginning and the end of the story with the family, dealing with the latest complication. Then throughout the story, the character is struggling with his family life while he’s racing against time to save the world. He might be feeling guilty for not being back home and not helping more.

  3. The character must have agency.

    Chuck Wendig has a great definition of agency.

    One of the biggest issues with making the character suffer is that she reacts to the suffering but doesn’t make any effort to change her fate. She doesn’t have any agency.

Readers want characters to be larger than life. We want them to be heroes of their own stories.

If you want to read up more on this topic, head over to Justin Ferguson’s post.