Dean Wesley Smith on writing without an outline

This is a video of Dean Wesley Smith talking about writing without outlining or “writing into the dark.”  He details the process of cycling, which allows for clean copy and cuts revision.

My cycling process is  little different. I can bounce around in the story like a ping ball.  It’s sometimes the previous scene, and sometimes I might jump back to a connecting scene earlier in the book.  I’m somewhat messy when I write.  My creative likes to take all the toys out of the toy chest and toss them on the floor (sometimes in no particular order), then it wanders off and plays with a few and forgets about the others.  So stubs of things get into the story, and never get used.

At the point when I’m doing the climax, I can usually tell because my creative brain gets the sudden urge to cycle through the entire story from the beginning.  Then it’s pulling together everything…taking out those stubs that I completely forgot about and never used anywhere.  The stubs are kind of like flash in the pan ideas.  You know, things that sound exciting when I put them and then later, it has me scratching my head wondering what I expected to do with it.

In a way, cycling is a lot of fun because it keeps me reconnecting with the story!



BookBaby Marketing Conference (Part III)

On Sunday, Joanna Penn wrapped up the conference with a keynote address.  Sorry the photo is a bit blurry.


Joanna Penn on the podium

She talked about how deeply unhappy she was in her day job–she’d actually written her first book as a response to how unhappy she was.  Then, she went to a vanity press, got a bunch of copies…and well, you know how that turned out.  Though a vendor is trying to make money off that old book.  I saw it online for $200!

When she jumped in on the early days of epublishing, she also came up with a lot of different ways to make money that were related to the books.  She expected that she wouldn’t make money with the books for a while.  That was a very realistic way of viewing what she was doing.  Most writers seem to think their writing is so fantastic that everyone will flock to it and turn it into a best seller.

She also noted that marketing should be able to happen all the time even when you aren’t tending to it.  That goes to making smarter choices about marketing, rather than doing as I saw a writer say, “Writing books is 90% marketing and 10% writing).

Like going to Amazon and starting to type “How to” and seeing what those results are…and doing a book using those results.  She updated her first book and released it again under the title Career Change–because that was an Amazon search term.  It helped sales because it showed up first when people typed it in.

She also brought up consistency, which was a theme during the conference.  She was doing podcasts and got frustrated with the lack of success with them.  But then buckled down and started doing them consistently each week and then they gained popularity.  I think this is the hardest thing is just sticking to the schedule.

The conference was all very positive, and I’m glad I was able to hear Joanna speak.  It has been hard sometimes to connect books and blog posts to actual actions.

One of the first things I did after I got back from the conference was to set up an email newsletter, which you can find here.  It’ll start up on December 3.


Book Baby Marketing Conference (Part II)

The conference had perfect timing being early in November.  This week we had our first snowfall—usually we don’t see any snow until January and February.  I’m glad I wasn’t taking the train in that!

This was only half a day, but the panel below had a lot of notes:

The Jeopardy Approach: How to Find Thousands of True Fans

Short summary: Email newsletters.

From last year’s conference, I picked up one piece of advice on newsletters: Just because you’re overwhelmed by email doesn’t mean everyone else thinks the same.

This workshop was stepping off into the deep end.

What is marketing?

“Marketing is getting someone who has a need to know, like, and trust you.” – and buy books.

Email builds the relationship with the reader over time while they’re waiting for the next book to come out.  Consistency, of course, is key.  If people come to expect your emails, they’re more likely to read it.  If you fall off the schedule, the rest of the world fills it in…and when you send out another email again, they’ve forgotten that you’ve signed up and get annoyed. (This part is not from the workshop, but my thinking on it).

The basics

Be human

I think that’s the biggest problem when writers try to figure out how to market.  They don’t see any sales, so they go onto Twitter and start sending out tweets for “Buy my book.”  A writer friended me on Facebook.  I should have looked at what she was posting because her first three were “Buy my book.”  Spam makes the rest of the world think you’re a robot.

Be consistent

This is like a TV show…same time, same day.

Schedule it all in advance

Just plain time management 101. It’s hard to be consistent if you’re in constant reaction mode (not to mention stressful!).

Use monthly themes

This helps with coming up with ideas for the newsletter.  Themes can be focused around releases.  I’m going to do a digital organization in February and do a release of a book called Digital Minimalism: Reduce Clutter on Your Computer Now (there’s a specific reason for this month, but more about that when I go into Joanna Penn’s keynote speech in Part III).

Provide positive value

I think this one is really important.  When I have subscribed to writer newsletters, I end up just getting an announcement of the next book coming out.  Contrasting that to FundsForWriters, which has two short articles about writing and a list of markets, plus any new books coming out by the writer.

No rants!

I think this is pretty self-explanatory.  I personally would add no politics to that.  You can turn off a reader really fast with politics.

Recommended newsletter schedules

Five days a week

Which isn’t as scary as it sounds.  The proposal was about 100 words, or 3-4 sentences, just like a Facebook post.  Follow a topics schedule:

  • Monday – Inspiration
    Tuesday – How to
    Wednesday – Links (two, with a sentence about them)
    Thursday – longer question
    Friday – Podcast or video


Explore this world—drama, humor, self-help, education.  I think it is tough for fiction writers though because it doesn’t have the same neat fit that a non-fiction book does.

Create a buzz

This newsletter is like a TV season, for example: Game of Thrones.  Do a story in email over three months and spend the rest of the year creating a buzz.

It’s interesting that nowhere on this list are the two most common mailings…once a month and when there’s a release.  In this fast moving world, those may be too little.

Based on this panel, I’m going to start an email newsletter December 1.  I’ll be doing the five days a week option.

Part III of this will be next Tuesday.


BookBaby Marketing Conference (Part I)

Last weekend, I attended the BookBaby Conference in Philadelphia.  BookBaby (yeah, I know.  That name…) is a company that does all the stuff that happens after you create the manuscript.  The conference was entirely focused on marketing books.

I went last year, too.  That was their first one. It was a little rough around their edges.  Most of the panels were from vendors and framed marketing from the perspective of non-fiction.  It’s a lot easier talking marketing for non-fiction than it is for fiction.  Almost all the advice I see on marketing assumes non-fiction, and fiction is a completely different animal.

But I still got enough out of it that I came back…especially when I saw the keynote speaker: Joanna Penn.

Philly is two hours out of DC, so I hopped a train out of Union Station.  The hotel was by the Delaware River.

View of the Delaware River from the waterfront.
The Delaware River

I don’t like the city much because it’s hard for me to eat.  I’m gluten free and dairy free, and the majority of the meals have some form of bread in everything.  If it’s not breaded and fried, it’s in a sauce.  I like travel and don’t like travel.  Food is always hard.

This conference had a more diverse group of speakers (still some who were vendors), but this time I felt more like it was speaking to the fiction writer.

Self-Publishing is Not a Backup Plan

Eva  Lesko Natiello gave this panel.  Highlights:

  1. The #1 thing is to get reviews.This came across over and over during all the sessions.  Amazon gives all new books a bump in the rankings for about 30 days to give it a chance to be noticed.  Reviews show activity and interest.She also said to put a request in for reviews at the back of the book.  I’ve seen traffic on this before.  Some say to do it, some say it makes you look desperate.  But I’m trying it anyway.  At this point, it’s not going to hurt.
  2. Use subtitles.
    This was an interesting one. The subtitles don’t go on the cover itself, but in the field on Amazon.  It might provide additional keywords and the genre.  She noted that a traditionally published writer got stuck with a cover that totally misrepresented the book and put it in a different genre than it was (it was women’s fiction; cover was young adult male).  The publisher refused to change the cover because of cost, so she suggested they add a subtitle to Amazon to clarify the genre.
  3. The Amazon Link
    When you copy and paste the link to your book from Amazon, they know it comes from you. All the sign-in info is in that link.  So you have delete everything after the ISBN number so that the link is clean.

Success Leaves Traces

This one sounded better than it actually was.  Highlights:

  1. Rise to the challenge
  2. Understand and practice the pain of discipline
  3. Combine persistence with perseverance
  4. Willing to learn from every possible source
  5. Embrace the partnership with editors and other publishing professionals.
  6. Know the power of information
  7. Know the importance of relationships
  8. Constantly search for the next opportunity to practice their craft

Typing it out from my notes, it’s a good list, and yet the session was somewhat unmemorable.  But a particular highlight is item #4.  There was a writer I absolutely loved when I first discovered her series.  Every time I visited B. Dalton, I looked on the shelf to see if she had anything new.  Every book she wrote got better.

Then she turned into a best seller and decided she didn’t need to learn anything new.  Her writing went downhill.  She still sold books, but I went from buying them in hardback to getting them at the library.  Then, eventually, only occasionally at the library because the books weren’t worth my time.  A few books ago, it looked like she was trying to recapture those early days (maybe sales have gone down?)—and she can’t.  The skills she had then are completely gone.

Book Marketing Masterclass

This was one of Joanna Penn’s sessions.  It stated right after lunch, so I came back half an hour early to make sure I got a seat.  I figured it would be full, and I was right!  We had people sitting on the floor.  She just did a post about the conference.

Joanna Penn on the podium
It’s hard to believe this is so far away. I was in the front row!



  1. Strategy is choosing what you want to do and more importantly, what you don’t want to do.
    Pretty much, if you hate doing something, you’re probably not going to be very successful at it.  This, of course, includes writing in a genre you don’t like.
  2. Long term marketing has to be autopilot
    Because we need to write!
  3. Put links everywhere.
    In the front of the book, in the back of the book, in your email signatures. I came back and uploaded the eBook for Cursed Planet with a updated bio to add more links.
    An email responder can also be used to add more value, providing a link to a podcast or an interview.
  4. Consistency
    This is another tip that came from multiple sessions. For blogs, post on a schedule and stick to it (which I haven’t always done).  She recommended doing content planning because otherwise it can really be hard to keep up (something else I’m going to think about).  I remember one writer from my old WANA group who waited until the last minute—when she needed to post—to come up with an idea for the post, write it, revise it a bunch of times, and then post.  She was complaining about how much time the posts took.
  5. Pinterest
    She mentioned that she was on Pinterest, because she loves pictures. She uses pictures to show some of her research for her books (it’s under the J.F. Penn name if you go looking for it).  I’m visual spatial and like pictures, but I’ve been so overwhelmed by my day job, something like Pinterest was too much.  Things have improved there, so I’ve created a folder for my current project, Last Stand.

That’s  just the first day.   Part II of this will be posted next Tuesday.

The Curse of Perfection

November marks NanoWrite, which is is when many writers try to write 50K in 30 days.  Nano, perhaps curiously, reminds me of the cooking competitions on Food Network.  They just finished up the Halloween Baking Championship and are about to start the Holiday Baking Championship.  There’s all the cake competitions too.

Particularly with the cake competitions, we sometimes get a cake decorator who proudly boasts up front that their standard is perfection.

Then they make contact with the timed challenge of the competition.

There’s no time to be perfect.

But some of them try to hang onto the perfection, and the time crunch pulls them apart.  They start making careless mistakes that put them behind.  Because they’re still focusing on perfection, they fall further and further behind, refusing to abandon part of piece that’s too complicated or try something else.

Others quickly toss out the perfection, but veer in another just as bad direction.  They go sloppy.  Their focus becomes laser focused on finishing, without regard to quality.

Suddenly they hear “One hour left” and it’s a mad rush to try to pull everything together.  Only it’s really too late to play catch up, and the piece either ends up a mess or on the floor.

Which sounds a lot like Nano.  The purpose is to drive out the perfectionist, because if you stop to perfect each sentence, you’ll never get 50K by the end of the month.   Yet, it’s hard for writers to let go of needing to be perfect and they end up not even getting close to their goals.  Or they write sloppy.   Imagine writing a story and leaving out all the punctuation.  Now imagine having to fix that during a revision.


Perfect is a curse, because it is anything but perfect.


Just in Time For Halloween: The Lottery

A thoroughly creepy story from The New Yorker, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.  I read this when I was in school.  It’s one of the few stories that still has the same impact on me even as an adult.  It’s a masterwork of carefully chosen details that grow on you slowly, saying something is not quite right about this lottery.

Fiction Writers, as Seen on TV

Sometimes I wonder what Hollywood writers actually think of fiction writers.  We’re all writers, and yet, there’s some appalling characterizations of writers floating around TV.

A Badly Written Best Seller

The most common is the writer writing a book that populates the story with thinly veiled characters based on the people he knows.  The book is horribly written and somehow he strikes gold when he plops it in the mail and it becomes a best seller.  Pretty much, it’s a winning the lottery fantasy.

In NCIS, McGee makes it about his team, gives slight name changes to the characters, it turns into a best seller, and he gets to ride in a limousine to a party.  Girls hang off his arms.

The truth?  A local writer in Washington DC area  wrote a book with thinly veiled characters based on county board members.  It did get attention…and really not the attention he probably wanted.

A Writer Who Never Writes

The next most common is the person who is a writer and never quite seems to actually do any writing.  Granted, it’s pretty hard depicting a writer’s job on TV.  He or she sits in front of a computer and puts black marks on the screen.

Looks kind of well, dull.

So we end up with Castle and Jessica Fletcher, wandering all over fighting real life crimes.  Both are best selling writers, but when exactly do they write?

Writer as an Misfit

Hollywood also seems to think that fiction writers are hacks.  They type one word on a sheet of paper in a manual typewriter, then tear it out, crumple it up and toss it into a full trash can.  Writer then types the SAME WORD on the next piece of paper and repeats the process.

The writer will type all this on an old Royal manual typewriter (which in real life he probably can’t get any ribbons for).  McGee is the perfect example of this.  He’s a computer nerd, talks processor power, and yet writes on antique technology?  Even Jessica Fletcher wrote on an old manual typewriter.  Computers were around during the run of the series, but the technology was pretty new–the electric typewriter wasn’t  I suppose there was something to showing the keys hitting the page, but still….

I guess typing on a computer and putting black marks on screen doesn’t look very exciting…

Edited to add: I just saw an advertisement for a Melissa McCarty movie.  She’s a writer in the movie.  The trailer clearly shows she has a manual typewriter.



Rendering Book Reviews Meaningless

When I was in college, we had this really great library of film.  Included was a set of reference books of movie reviews so I could read reviews of movies I’d seen. It always amazed me how different the viewpoints could be.  The reviewer wouldn’t like a film that I’d immensely enjoyed.

Social media’s made reviews a flashpoint.  Netflix recently dropped their existing system in favor of a simple up or down.  Amazon is still struggling with this issue and has been trying to figure out how keep fake reviews.  But one of the biggest headaches is the five star system.  The selection of the stars is based on personal taste, and all the readers have different definitions!

Anyway, I’m in a social media business group.  The owner, like most business people, did a book on the system they’re selling.  All pretty routine.  I bought the book, I read it.

Then the owner pops up into the group with a post about her first one star review.  So it’s become this big event, and to her credit, she was trying to use it as a teaching point to not let negativity get you down.

(Uh, that’s why you don’t read the review.)

The problem: She called the reviewer a “hater.”


Another person popped up and said that if she did research into who had given that one star review, she bet they would be a negative person who hates everything.

Double thud.

When the word hater was used, even in jest, I was very glad I hadn’t done a review.   I’d have probably given it three stars.

I don’t like the way hater is bandied about today.  People seem to use it when you don’t give an opinion they want to hear, which renders any opinion pretty meaningless.  I enjoyed reading those movie reviews in colleges because they were opinionated, and sometimes I had to see a film to find out if I agreed or disagreed.  I’ve bought books for the same reason.

Flash Fiction Challenge #2

I revisited fantasy for my second story.  The theme came from a magazine call for “The resistance.”   While I doubt if my version of “the resistance” is the same as what they’re thinking, I wanted to try the story anyway.

So I was driving around after lunch, trying to figure out what to write.  Turned down this street and followed it.  Where I had to turn back, I looked back up at the street sign:


And the opening to the story popped into my head.

Challenge Stories:

  • Story #1: Mystery, set in Hollywood 1940s, called Lost Starlet.
  • Story #2: Fantasy, set after a war, called Robinwood

Flash Fiction Challenge #1

Sometimes it’s easy to do something to mess yourself up when it comes to the writing.  I really want to write full time, and get out my day job.  That means writing longer fiction like novels because it sells better.

And once I set the goal of writing longer fiction, I stalled out because I tied the money to it.  I’ve been shocked at how little I’ve been accomplishing, even though I’m writing every day.

So I’m taking on a Flash Fiction Challenge to get me going again.

Flash Fiction is a story that is 1,000 words or less.  I previously sworn off them because they’re harder to find homes for.  There is a sweet spot for length.  1K–there are pro markets.  Anything shorter, it’s very hard to find anything that pays at all.  Likewise, many indie platforms will not take anything shorter like that.

But 1K is nice because it is doable in a day.

The rules (in case anyone wants to join in):

  1. Story has to be 1,000 words.  Not under, not over.  That’s with the five senses, the setting, characterization.
  2. One story a day.  This is just until September 16, and then I’ll reassess what I want to do next.
  3. It goes out to a market first.  In this case, I’m looking for the market first, particularly themed calls.

Challenge Stories:

  • Story #1: Mystery, set in Hollywood 1940s, called Lost Starlet.