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: 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.




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.



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.