Fearless rabbit trails and owning your inner nerd

The other day I thought about this:

We haven’t done anything big and adventurous in a long time.

Ponder this: During the Skunkworks days of Lockheed, pioneers built the Blackbird in just a few years.

Now we have jet technology that takes decades and runs into cost overruns.

What about Hollywood?

I remember when Star Wars came out. People stood in long lines at the theater to see it. How many times you saw it was a big bragging point.


I can’t even name a movie I think people will remember and still talk about in ten years.

TV series are cancelled and people don’t even remember them. Star Trek was created in 1966 and is still memorable over 50 years later.

What happened?!

Writing Nerd Speculates

I’ve watched as this destruction of taking chances started in television. Then it showed up in the movie industry. Now it’s in the publishing industry.

Dollars versus creativity overbalanced.

Understandably, companies and people wanted to make money.

Heck, I want to make money with my books.

But people focused too much on making money. In fact, I think now it’s only on making money.

We saw the publishing industry gut their mid-list writers because the books didn’t turn into best sellers. Never mind that in the next few years, their reliance on best selling writers is going to hit critical mass.

Hollywood’s already hit critical mass. They do not take any chances. Everything’s a remake because a remake is a “sure thing.” It was successful before.

So we get retreads.

Can it be fixed?

This is one of the reasons I’ve changed what I’m posting. As a fiction writer, I don’t stand out when everyone else is all talking about writing. I fell into the trap of being like everyone else.

It means trying out something that’s not only outside the line, but the line is nowhere in sight.

It means taking a chance that something might fail–and probably will.

But it’s what we learn from the failure that propels us to success. And sometimes the success isn’t immediate, but long term.

Embrace your inner nerd today.

More Reading

If you like what I write here, visit my book pages:

Once upon a rabbit trail

The story is going along and going along.  Then the muse sees something shiny because it always likes shiny and it’s off!  It’s following a rabbit trail.

Unknown territory.

The grass is tall and whispers when the wind stirs.  The air smells of a tingle of…something.

Up ahead.

Is a good thing?  Is it a bad thing?  Is a dead end?  Let’s find out!

Is the rabbit trail a waste of time?

Somehow we’ve become a world where everything should be planned.  Whether it’s a story or your day down to the very minute.

Spontaneity is important for the muse.

The unknown stretches us.

Makes us see new things.  That feeds the muse, and the story.

But there’s always a problem…

Sometimes it’s a false trail.  Happens.

Sometimes it’s important to try and fail to find the right path.

If we always follow the well-trod path, it’s not creative.  It’s just what everyone else is doing.  That’s not really creative either.

The Writer Nerd gets involved

But that little voice is gonna come in and say that venturing off the known path is wasting time, and wasting words.

It’s fear.

It might not look like fear.  It might not act like fear.

And fear keeps everyone from trying.  What if I step off the well-trod path and the rabbit trail is full of weeds?

What if it makes me waste my time?

What I find a better path, a better story?  Better than what I thought?

That can be terrifying!  But the muse needs a little fear and a little fun to thrive.

More Reading


Taking the muse out to go potty

The muse is sometimes like a dog.  The dog wants to go outside to go potty.  But once he gets out there…oh, wow!  So many interesting things!

That tree needs to be sniffed!

The wind blew and made a whooshing noise. I must bark.

Hmm.  Someone’s been here.  You been seeing anyone, human?  Can I meet them?

The muse gets silenced

All the muse wants to do is play, and explore.

But the world gets impatient.

“Get down to business,” it says.  “Time is money.  We can’t afford to waste it with wandering.”

The muse slinks off with its tail between its legs and hides.

The ideas disappear

Bud Sparhawk was joking when he said a man would write an idea on a postcard once a week and send it to him.

Writers came up after the panel and asked for the address!

Once ideas are shut down, it’s hard letting them romp free again, much less go potty.

The Writer Nerd strikes again

The nerd has to get out some statistics about how much creativity we actually lose from childhood to adulthood.  Check out the chart from Idea to Value.  The number is shocking, and horrifying.

We lose creativity because of evolution.

We lose it because we self-edit–“that’s a terrible idea!”

We unlearn how to be creative, how to come up with ideas.

That’s not good for the story.

Practice taking the muse out to potty

  • Go a to a museum
  • Take a short workshop (i.e., library, lecture, etc.)
  • Take a walk in nature
  • Follow the front of the car
  • Just see something new

Be like the dog wandering outside and stop and sniff the tree.

More Reading







How to hide a unicorn in plain sight

How the heck do you hide a unicorn anyway?

It has that pointy ice cream cone for a horn and a glorious, flowing mane.  A horse with sparkles.

Hardly something that would be easy to hide.

So you’d do it with a fish.  A red herring, to be precise.

What is a red herring?

A red herring is a false trail in a book, designed to distract the reader from the actual clues.

It’s like being a magician when you write!  While you are showing the trick to the audience, you’re also slipping in the actual trick under the radar.  Pretty cool, huh?

The real clues are actually right in front of the reader, but the red herring is really shiny.  It screams: “Look at me. I’m important!”

Might only be a squeaky voice, since fish don’t really talk.

Clue hide-and-seek

  1. Take the clue out of its frame of reference.  Makes it hard to realize the clue is important without the context.
  2. Make something else the obvious choice–that really shiny thing.  You can play up on the reader’s expectations here…like the guy with the violent criminal background has to be the killer and then–BANG!  He’s the victim.
  3. Bury it in a list.  Human brains can only take in three things at once.  If you give them four, they’ll probably forget the second or third items.

But always play fair with the reader.  It’s no fun to have the detective know something and the reader doesn’t.  That’s the fastest way to get a book thrown across the room.  We like being given information and not seeing it.  We don’t like being tricked.

What’s fish got to do with it?

Nerd me had to ask where the term “red herring” actually came from.  Was it a popular mystery story now lost to time?

Dons my black belt in Google Fu.  Ee-yah!

Turns out a journalist in the 1800s wrote a story about a boy using red herrings to mislead the hounds.

More reading about red herrings

International Thriller Writers on Hiding Clues from the Reader

Gillian Roberts on Playing Fair with the Reader

Let me hear from you about a red herring you spotted in your travels!

Busting Writing Rules: No Dream Sequences

This is going to be the last post in this series.  Next up will be Writer’s Toolkit: 7 Secrets No One Tells Pantsers.

No Dream Sequences

This one has shown up on numerous agent blogs as a top ten of what not do.  When I was considering one for my book Rogue God, I asked writers what makes a good dream sequence.  They sternly told me to never use one, even though I was planning for one in the middle of the book and it would be fifty words.  When I said I was doing to use it, they thought I was crazy.

A form of a dream sequence is in the book.  The character got hit with too much magic from a god and he starts hallucinating.  The bad part is that he can’t tell if the monsters are real or fake.

What it Actually Means

Writers are often fascinated by dreams, quite understandably.  Dreams can be strange and surreal.  But the result is that writers also use them badly.  So we all get told simply to not use them, rather than learn how to use them correctly.

Busting the Writing Rule

This a rule where it helps to know what NOT to do and avoid it.

  1. A dream is not an excuse for backstory.

    Dreams frequently get used as a flashback.  The writer has backstory they feel is essential so they have the character dream it in full detail.

    Not very interesting.

  1. A dream shouldn’t generally be the start of the story.

    The last thing you want is the reader getting into the story and then finding out it was all a dream.  Just like a TV show where the producer does a “reset” of an entire season.  Instead of being satisfied, the viewer feels like the show just wasted an entire year of time.

    For a reader, it’s enough to put down a book.

    But this guideline can be broken, if it it works.

What You Can Do

  1. Veer into the surreal for the dreams.

    Just like in real dreams, have your character be in his body but it’s not him.  Or he’s in once place and then it’s another place.  Have a person walk into the dream who’s not supposed to be there.  Just embrace your inner weird.

  1. Have fun!

Dreams can be a very interesting place to experiment with.

Busting Writing Rules: Show, Don’t Tell

General Business

Got a name change for my upcoming pantser book: Writer’s Toolkit: 7 Secrets No One Tells Pantsers.   It’s all the things I wished I’d known decades ago.  Several of the secrets are almost never talked about, which is astounding.

Onto the next installment….

Show, Don’t Tell

Like the “no adverbs” rule, this one showed up on all the top ten writing lists in the major writing magazines.  In critiques, writers are lectured sternly on it and scratch their heads, trying to figure out what exactly they’re doing.

What it Actually Means

 This rule boils down to a basic concept: Use specific details in your descriptions from the character’s perspective and include the five senses.

Busting the Rule

This is a rule that has been oversimplified to the point of making it meaningless.  Unfortunately, not everyone understands it really well to start with.

How can you figure out if you tell too much and don’t show enough?  There are some clear signs:

  1. You’re keeping your description to a bare minimum.
  2. You’re abusing adverbs.
  3. You’re abusing dialogue tags.

It’s pretty hard to show a character is angry if there isn’t any description available to do it.  That results in telling to explain that the character is angry.

But does that mean telling should be entirely done away with?

No!  And that’s why the absolutes of a rule are such a poor choice.  Saying something like “It took two and a half hours to drive to Santa Barbara” is telling…but really, would your story actually need to show a road trip where nothing happens?  It’s a matter of common sense to figure out where to use telling.

What you can do

Be specific in your details

This does mean ramping up the description skills.  If the room in your romance novel is “perfect,” what does that entail?  Does it smell of main character’s other half?  Why does she like the furnishings?  What memories might they evoke?

There are a lot of places here where you can get specific and have some fun building the characterization.

Just remember—when doing details, use only three at a time.  Then switch to something else, like an inner conflict or a puzzle, and then switch back for details.  You can study this technique in pretty much any bestseller.  In Elizabeth Moon’s Oath of Fealty, the new king wakes up for the first time in his palace room.  We learn what the room looks like and also how uncertain he is about this new place, all at one time.

This is a skill that simply takes practice.  Have fun doing it! You’ll be digging deep into who your character is and that makes the best stories.

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.