The Vegan on the Road – Conferences #amwriting

The month of October is upon us, and I am prepping for November’s writing rumble, NaNoWriMo. This month, my column will be devoted to NaNo Prep. I’ll be sharing my tricks for creating the characters I hope to write, building their world, and creating the structure of the plot that complicates their lives.

the vegan on the road - LIRF10022022As we progress into November, we will make that prep work into a coherent book.

For me, September is conference month. This year, my two regular conferences were in-person rather than virtual. I confess to feeling wary about large public gatherings and the possibility of catching a virus. In years prior to the pandemic, I regularly spent much of October and November suffering from severe respiratory illnesses. But I went, masked, and keeping my distance.

So far, I haven’t come down with anything other than my usual autumn allergies. While most attendees went unmasked, I wasn’t the only masked bandit at the ball.

The first conference of the month was the Southwest Washington Writers’ Conference, which I blogged on several weeks ago. I was on a panel there, and also had the chance to sit in on several fantastic seminars on creativity offered by sci-fi/fantasy author Jeff Wheeler.

Last week I attended the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association’s annual conference. That was an intensive three-day dive into the craft of writing. I focused my limited attention span on two brilliant multi-part seminars, offered by two vastly different presenters.

better you go homeThree-Part Point of View Seminar was offered by Scott Driscoll, author of Better You Go Home. Scott took a deep dive into the various aspects of narrative point of view (as opposed to character POV.). First, he asked us to consider “to whom do the words belong?” And second, he asked, “From what distance are they speaking?”

Besides writing gripping fiction, Scott teaches the craft of writing fiction at the University of Washington. He showed that even within a piece appearing to have a specific narrative voice (such as close third-person or omniscient), there will be viewpoint texture—it will be subtle, but it will be there. Within one paragraph, the immediate point of view can briefly draw us out or move us in closer, yet still remain consistent overall.

In parts two and three he looked at psychic distance, and then at narrative distance. He offered examples of each to illustrate how they operate independently of each other. I liked that he offered good examples demonstrating how the point-of view choices we make (even the tiny phrasing choices within a paragraph) determine the angle from which the reader views the story.

One book Scott offers examples from is Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. I mention this book because it’s relevant to future articles I’ve planned which detail several ways to structure a collection of short stories.

The information I am slowly absorbing from Scott Driscoll’s seminars and handouts will be an area of focus for me when I get to the revision stage, most likely in December or January. And lucky for us, he has kindly agreed to clarify questions I will surely have, ensuring the information I offer here will be correct.

The other multi-part seminar I attended was offered by none other than Damon Suede, romance author and also the author of Verbalize and Activate, two of my most well-used reference books. Damon’s Two-Part Trope Seminar was hilarious and educational, firing me with insights into the difference between tropes and cliches.

We will be talking about this distinction off and on over the next month as we begin laying the groundwork for a new novel (or short story).

Scott Driscoll and Damon Suede both offered an incredible amount of information in the brief time they had. Their styles of delivery are radically different.

Scott is the quintessential Northwesterner, with a relaxed style of teaching. He is entertaining and delivers a lot of information in a thought-provoking way. I have learned much of what I know about literary structure from Scott.

Now I’m working on finetuning voice in one of my nearly finished projects. Fortunately, Scott makes handouts available to his students, so that is really good for the way I learn.

activateDamon Suede, on the other hand, is fireworks. If you aren’t prepared for it, the amount of information he delivers can be overwhelming. His handouts are thorough and closely follow the content of his classes, which is essential for me as I have trouble learning without visual aids.

I enjoy both virtual and in-person conferences because I learn something new about my own writing with every seminar I attend. I can’t stress this enough—don’t ignore the importance of continuing to self-educate if you are committed to writing.

Read in multiple genres and dissect those books. What did you love? What did you hate? Was there a section where the prose stirred the secret poet in you?

What emotions did you experience along with the characters? Conversely, why did it leave you flat?

When you want to go deeper into the craft of writing, a good writer’s conference can inspire you to look at your own work with a slightly different eye. The speakers and authors giving seminars will make or break a conference. One positive you will always take away is this: you will gain strength and meet other writers in your area. Those connections are gold.

One last point about attending conferences—at large Regional conferences like PNWA you can get appointments to pitch your work to agents. Pitching is a good learning experience even if you intend to go indie. It never hurts to know the market you are writing for and pitching to an agent is a good way to find out what the big publishers are looking for.

So how do conferences work if you are vegan or have dietary allergies? It all depends on who is catering the event.

The Southwest Washington Writers’ Conference in Centralia offered a wonderful vegan/gluten free meal, for both days of the event. Not only that, but I was also able to commute and sleep at home which is always a bonus.

For me, conferences where I must stay in a hotel do have one downside—the food.

Hotel banquet catering rarely offers a nice vegan option. Usually they lump gluten-free and vegan into one unpalatable punishment meal, and the banquet at this year’s PNWA conference was no exception.

I wasn’t surprised by that, despite discovering that the restaurant at the Hyatt Regency in Renton offered a beautifully prepared grilled cauliflower meal. In my heart, I feared the banquet would be awful for any vegan or gluten-free people.

It was.

A pile of pasty lumps of something claiming to be gnocchi with a spicy-but-otherwise-tasteless tomato sauce had been hastily plopped into the center of a plate. Adding insult to the injury (love that cliché) they scattered a few stems of woody chickweed over it for decoration.

The day after I arrived home, the hotel made the mistake of emailing a survey, asking me how I felt about my overall experience there.

Aside from the banquet and the dessert night, it was great.

food and drinkUnfortunately (for them) on that survey, there was a box where we could write detailed opinions about the catering. I’m a writer, so I took advantage of that opportunity.

Will my treatise help the next poor starving vegan/gluten-free person who is subjected to that kind of biased and indifferent treatment?

I don’t know, but I enjoyed writing it as much as I enjoyed the conference overall.

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#FineArtFriday: Moon Gate – Chinese Garden in the Hortus Haren by Dominicus Johannes Bergsma

Doorgang_in_muur._Locatie,_Chinese_tuin_Het_Verborgen_Rijk_van_Ming._Locatie._Hortus_Haren_01

Moon Gate, Chinese Garden in the Hortus Haren, The Netherlands

Date: 30 May 2015, 14:31:15

Author: Dominicus Johannes Bergsma

Camera location: 53° 10′ 48.67″ N, 6° 36′ 13.15″ E

About this image, via Wikimedia Commons:

A photograph of the passage in wall known as Moon Gate. Location, Chinese garden, the Hidden Realm of Ming. Location: Hortus Haren, one of the oldest botanical gardens in the Netherlands.

This photograph is a featured picture, which means that members of the community have identified it as one of the finest images on the English Wikipedia, adding significantly to its accompanying article. It was also a finalist in Picture of the Year 2015. [1]

What I love about this photograph:

This is a fairytale image. What magic lies beyond the gate? The composition is perfect. The round gate centered in the ordinary wall, a surprise opening onto a world of color and mystery. I would love to walk in this place.

About Hortus Haren, via Wikipedia:

Hortus Haren is a botanical garden in Haren, Groningen, Netherlands. First created in 1626 by the pharmacist Henricus Munting, it was then situated between Grote Rozenstraat and Grote Kruisstraat in Groningen.  Because of space considerations it relocated to Haren in 1967 and became the largest botanical garden in the country. [2]


Credits and Attributions:

Moon Gate, Chinese Garden in the Hortus Haren, The Netherlands, by Dominicus Johannes Bergsma. Dominicus Johannes Bergsma, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Doorgang in muur. Locatie, Chinese tuin Het Verborgen Rijk van Ming. Locatie. Hortus Haren 01.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Doorgang_in_muur._Locatie,_Chinese_tuin_Het_Verborgen_Rijk_van_Ming._Locatie._Hortus_Haren_01.jpg&oldid=684921659 (accessed September 29, 2022).

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “Hortus Haren,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hortus_Haren&oldid=1111475348 (accessed September 29, 2022).

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October is #NaNoPrep Month #amwriting

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is approaching, and October is NaNo Prep month. I have participated in that annual writing event every year since 2010. For the past 11 years, I was one of my area’s Municipal Liaisons for NaNoWriMo as a way of volunteering in my community.

nano-computer-word-count

November’s Goal

Usually, I have earned my “winners’ certificate” by the day they become available, but even so, I continue writing on that project every day through November 30th. I update my word count daily because using every moment available in November is a personal challenge.

I say this every year because it’s true: NaNoWriMo is only a contest in the sense that if you write 50,000 words and have your word count validated through the national website, you ‘win.’ It is simply a month that is solely dedicated to the act of writing.

This year, my personal life has taken a left turn for the different. I stepped back from my position as Municipal Liaison. I will still participate, but I can no longer serve my region as they deserve.

My husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in June and will be starting an intensive physical therapy regimen in the middle of November: Big Therapy For Parkinson’s – ParkinsonsDaily.com

I am already seeing improvements from the medication and the PT he has already been given. We’re fortunate to have good health insurance, an HMO providing us with a terrific neurologist and cutting-edge physical therapy.

An immediate effect of that diagnosis was that his doctor said he was not to drive. We live south of Olympia in an area with no public transportation and no uber or even a taxi.

StarshipHydrangeaLIRF072022So, for the two final weeks of November and the first two weeks of December, we will be firing up the Starship Hydrangea (our hydrangea-blue Kia Soul) and driving 30 miles a day to and from the clinic. This will happen four out of five days a week, barring snow.

Then, I will have an hour or two to kill at the clinic. I could take a laptop and write, but I find that more disruptive than waiting until I get home. Instead, I will probably read or daydream and make notes for possible plot twists.

And that’s not terrible. Taking a break from the grind helps spur creativity.

Usually, I end November with around 90,000 words on two or three projects. But twice I’ve finished with more than 100,000 words. Most were crap—I wrote them, cut them in December, and used them as fodder for other projects later.

50,000 words is an acceptable length for YA or romance. But for epic fantasy or literary fiction, it’s only half a novel. But regardless of the proposed length of their finished book, a dedicated author can get the basic story arc down in those thirty days.

Alice in Wonderland Tea SetI have no problem getting the first draft done with the aid of a pot of hot, black tea and a simple outline to keep me on track. All that’s required is for me to sit down for an hour or two each morning and write a minimum of 1667 words per day.

So how do we find time to write daily? I plan ahead and use my time wisely. Cooking and cleaning are things we all have to do. I think simple is best when it comes to food and housework.

I have a crockpot that gets a workout every winter. I use it two or three times a week for soups, chilies, and stews. I’m a fan of meals that can be cooked in the oven, and also of dinner salads. I serve tasty and eye-pleasing meals that don’t take much time to assemble.

We all have to live in a home, which means we all have housework. It’s not my favorite thing, but it’s how I get my exercise. I zoom through the house daily, wiping down surfaces and vacuuming.

When the holidays approach, I locate the cobwebs, spray them with hairspray, toss a little glitter on them, and presto! The house looks festive with little effort on my part.

(My mother’s ghost just fainted.)

(Did I mention I write fantasy?)

Anyway, as in many good things, there is a downside to November’s intense month of stream-of-consciousness writing. Just because we sit in front of a computer and pour words into a document doesn’t mean we’re writing a readable novel. Many cheap or free eBooks will be published every year, a testimony to that fundamental truth.

to err is human to edit divineThe real work begins after November. After writing most of a first draft, many people will realize they enjoy writing. Like me, they’ll be inspired to learn more about the craft. They discover that writing isn’t about getting a particular number of words written by a specific date, although that goal was a catalyst, the thing that got them moving.

For a few NaNo writers, writing becomes about embarking on a creative journey and learning a craft with a dual reputation that is difficult to live up to. They will find that we who claim to be authors are either disregarded as arrogant ne’er-do-wells or given far more respect than we deserve.

More people write during November than you would think. In some previous years, half of the NaNo Writers in my regional area devoted their time to journaling, writing memoirs, or even writing college papers.

For a few people, participating in NaNoWriMo is about writing and completing a novel they had wanted to write for years. These writers will join writing groups and begin the long journey of learning the craft of writing. They may find the courage to go back to school and maybe even get their MFA.

steering the craft leguinA good way to educate yourself is to attend seminars. By meeting and talking with other authors in various stages of their careers and learning from the pros, we develop the skills needed to write stories a reader will enjoy.

One good way to polish your work (which costs nothing) is to join a critique group. Be bold—ask the clerks at the local bookstores in your area if they know of any writing groups that are open to new members.

Every year, participating in NaNoWriMo will inspire many discussions about becoming an author.

Books contain ideas, and ideas are the most dangerous magic of all—a magic that topples kings and gives rise to great civilizations.

Dare to be dangerous.

Go ahead and write that book.

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Using Polarity #amwriting

When I get into revisions, I often find my characters seem two-dimensional. Certain passages stand out because the characters have life, an intensity that feels palpable.

Others, not so much.

ContrastsI aspire to write like my heroes, authors who create characters who come alive. While I’m in that world, I see the people and their stories as sharply as the author intends.

Some of my work manages to find that happy place, but other passages feel flat, lacking spark. That is where I look at contrast – polarity. When I use polarity well, my narrative makes my editor happy.

I know I say this regularly, but word choice matters. How I choose to phrase a passage can make an immersive experience or throw the reader out of the book. Sometimes I am more successful than other times.

My goal is to make vivid sensory images for my readers, but not one that is hyper-dramatic and overblown. Subtlety in contrasts is as essential as painting a scene with sweeping polarities. They both add to the texture of the narrative but must be balanced for optimal pacing.

Poets understand and use polarity. John Keats used both polarities and similes in his work. The last stanza of To Autumn begins with this line:

“Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;”

We see one obvious polarity in that line, and also a sneaky one:

  • Lives or dies is a clear polarity.
  • Sinking implies heaviness, and Keats contrasted it with light wind, a less weighty, gentler sensory experience, the opposite of the weight of sinking.

activatePolarity gives the important elements strength. It provides texture but often goes unnoticed while it influences a reader’s perception.

The theme is the backbone of your story, a thread that binds the disparate parts together. Great themes are often polarized: good vs. evil or love vs. hate.

Think about the theme we call the circle of life. This epic concept explores birth, growth, degeneration, and death. Within that larger motif, we find opportunities to emphasize our subthemes.

For example, young vs. old is a common polarized theme with many opportunities for conflict. Both sides of this age-old conflict tend to be arrogant and sure of their position in each skirmish.

Wealth vs. poverty allows an author to delve into social issues and inequities. This polarity has great potential for conflict, which creates a deeper narrative.

In my current outline, I seek to see beyond the obvious. I am searching for the smaller, more subtle contrasts to instill into my work. My intention is that these minor conflicts and hindrances will build toward each major plot point and support the central theme and add texture to the narrative.

This outline is evolving into a mystery. The main character is a peacekeeper who must solve it. To that end, I am inserting clues into the outline, guideposts for when I begin the first draft. On the line that details the plot arc for each chapter, some of those words will have antonym’s listed beside them, opportunities for roadblocks.

The theme of justice looms large in this novel. Hopefully, I can make this plot worthy of the characters I’ve created and who stand ready for NaNoWriMo.

Contrast is the fertile soil from which conflict grows. It can make protagonists more interesting, and in worldbuilding, it underscores the larger theme with less exposition.

Contrasts within the narrative shape the pacing of the action, as ease is contrasted against difficulty. In my projected piece, justice as a theme allows for many contrasts. Justice only exists because of injustice.

Polarity is a sneaky way for each word’s many nuances to raise or lower the tension in a scene.

Let’s look at the word cowardice. Cowardice is a gut reaction to fear. In real life, cowardice is often exhibited as a habitual evasion of the truth or as an avoidance mechanism.

It can be shown in an act as mild as a fib told for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. Or it can be as epic as an act of treason committed for fear of a political change in a direction the character finds untenable.

Bravery can be as small as a person facing a silly fear or as thrilling as a responder entering a burning building to rescue a victim.

I like stories with protagonists who contrast acts of bravery with small acts of cowardice. It adds texture to their otherwise perfect personalities and subtly powers their character arcs.

In all its many forms, polarity is a catalyst—the substance that enables a chemical reaction to proceed at a faster rate. In this case, the reactions we’re trying to speed up are the emotions of the reader.

oxford_synonym_antonymI use the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. This book is as essential to my writing as my copies of Damon Suede’s Activate and the Oxford Writer’s Thesaurus.

Here is a sample of words found in the “D” section of the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. I’ve posted this list of opposites before because they create powerful mental images:

  • dangerous – safe
  • dark – light
  • decline – accept
  • deep – shallow
  • definite – indefinite
  • demand – supply
  • despair – hope
  • discourage – encourage
  • dreary – cheerful
  • dull – bright, shiny
  • dusk – dawn

In short, by employing polarities in our word selections, we add dimension and rhythm to our work. Polarity is an essential tool for both character creation and worldbuilding.

Often you can find great reference books second-hand, which will save you some cash. But even at full price, the books I referenced above are good investments.

However, we’re all cash-strapped these days, so a comprehensive list of common antonyms can be found at Enchanted Learning. Their website is a free resource.

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#FineArtFriday: Boulevard de la Madeleine in Paris by Frits Thaulow ca 1897 (revisited)

Frits_Thaulow_-_Boulevard_de_la_Madeleine_à_Paris_(1890s)Title: Boulevard de la Madeleine in Paris by Frits Thaulow

Date: circa 1896-1897

Medium: oil on canvas

Dimensions: Height: 88.2 cm (34.7 in); Width: 66.3 cm (26.1 in)

Collection: Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

Inscriptions: Signature and date bottom right: Frits Thaulow (date is unclear)

What I like about this painting:

This is a street scene viewed from an angle we rarely see in paintings. The people and vehicles are small, insignificant in comparison with the size and grandeur of the buildings.

While Thaulow didn’t enjoy painting cityscapes, I think Boulevard de la Madeleine in Paris is one of the best of that era.

The soot from the chimneys in the distance, the wet street, the muted, watery colors of a rainy spring day, and the God’s-eye view of the busy street—it all comes together to present a powerful statement.

About the Artist, Via Wikipedia:

Thaulow was one of the earliest artists to paint in Skagen in the north of Jutland, soon to become famous for its Skagen Painters. He arrived there in 1879 with his friend Christian Krohg, who persuaded him to spend the summer and autumn there. They arrived from Norway in Thaulow’s little boat. Thaulow, who had specialized in marine painting, turned to Skagen’s favourite subjects, the fishermen and the boats on the shore.

Thaulow moved to France in 1892, living there until his death in 1906. He soon discovered that the cityscapes of Paris did not suit him. His best paintings were made in small towns such as Montreuil-sur-Mer (1892–94), Dieppe and surrounding villages (1894–98), Quimperle in Brittany (1901) and Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne in the Corrèze département (1903). One of his most famous works once he moved to france was A village street in France. In Dieppe Thaulow and his wife Alexandra made themselves popular: they were friends with artist Charles Conder, and they met Aubrey Beardsley. [1]


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Frits Thaulow,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Frits_Thaulow&oldid=1026282924 (accessed June 10, 2021).

Boulevard de la Madeleine in Paris, ca 1896-97 by  Frits Thaulow, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Frits Thaulow – Boulevard de la Madeleine à Paris (1890s).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Frits_Thaulow_-_Boulevard_de_la_Madeleine_%C3%A0_Paris_(1890s).jpg&oldid=566337323 (accessed June 10, 2021).

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The Business Side of the Business: Publishing Industry News #amwriting

Autumn is arriving as we speak, and it’s a good time to look at how the publishing industry is doing.

publishingIndustryChatLIRF03162021Let’s have a look at how the Big 5 Publishers of literature did last year. You will note that the top players have changed since my last Big 5 article. Some of the big fish have been absorbed by the even bigger fish since we last looked at them.

#1 on the list is Penguin-Random House. They’re headquartered in Germany and are still the big kid in the schoolyard. Last year they reported earnings of 3.3 billion US dollars.

#2 is Hatchett Book Group. They are headquartered in France. Their reported earnings were 2.7 billion US dollars.

#3 of our top 5 is a corporation called Springer Nature. They publish periodicals and magazines like Nature and Scientific American. They’re headquartered in both the UK and Germany. Their reported earnings were 1.9 billion US dollars.

#4 is Wiley (John Wiley and Sons), a US company publishing academic and instructional materials. They reported revenue of 1.7 billion US dollars.

#5 is McGraw-Hill Education, with reported earnings of 1.7 billion US dollars.

So, did you notice the trend? Only two of the top five traditional publishers are focused on publishing fiction.

EPSON MFP image

EPSON MFP image

And what is affecting the profits for these companies? According to Publishers’ Weekly, supply chain issues combined with inflation and dropped earnings in the first quarter of 2022. However, strong backlist sales propped things up at Penguin-Random House, titles like Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and Atomic Habits by James Clear. They also report that the late Dr. Seuss’s titles sold more than 5.7 million copies in that period.

As always, audiobooks also performed well. Penguin-Random House’s global CEO Markus Dohle said the ever-expanding international audio business has become a strong growth pillar of their publishing efforts. He also noted a technology- and data-driven transformation of their sales, marketing, and publicity strategies.

This side note about the backlists propping up the Big 5 reminds us to be careful when we’re offered a contract. Legacy book contracts are a terrible danger zone for the author. A hastily signed contract means you might never receive back the rights to your intellectual property (your books), even if the publisher is no longer publishing it.

Quote from the Authors Guild post of July 28, 2015:

Diamonds may be forever, but book contracts should not be. There’s no good reason why a book should be held hostage by a publisher for the lifetime of the copyright, the life of the author plus seventy years—essentially forever. Yet that’s precisely what happens today. A publisher may go bankrupt or be bought by a conglomerate, the editors who championed the author may go on to other companies, the sales force may fail to establish the title in the marketplace and ignore it thereafter, but no matter how badly the publisher mishandles the book, the author’s agreement with the original publisher is likely to remain in effect for many decades.

Most of us are not attorneys. If we go the traditional route, we should consider hiring a lawyer specializing in literary contracts.

This is good advice, even if you are represented by an agent. The complexity of negotiating a literary contract is both confusing and intimidating. By not having the advice of a professional, you risk unwittingly signing away secondary and subsidiary rights to your own work forever.

Many well-known authors were smart or had good lawyers. They either weren’t offered or didn’t accept a legacy contract. These authors regained the rights to their work when the contract terms were fulfilled. They’re now self-publishing their backlists and earning more royalties even though they sell fewer books.

On the indie side of things, we’re in the same boat financially as the Big 5, but we’re better positioned in some ways. We’ve always relied more on digital sales, which have no upfront cost outlay. Many indies are moving to audiobooks too. However, we do need paper books.

Significant cost increases for paper and production (and for distribution and freight) will affect our costs and profit for the foreseeable future. Per an email I received from Draft2Digital, due to supply chain issues and the rise in material costs, their print partner will be increasing D2D’s costs. This means that effective October 1, 2022, the cost of author copies via D2D Print will increase.

I suspect the same will be true for Amazon KDP and IngramSpark.

Scientific American 1848For indies, our most reliable royalties have always come from digital sales, although we do sell some print books. But the best route to gaining loyal readers has been book fairs, conventions, and signings at bookstores.

We pay upfront for our stock of books and have to keep an eye on our inventory to ensure we have enough on hand for each event. So, with printing costs going up, we will either raise prices or see a drop in our already-slim profit.

So, that is the industry’s current state as of this week. The Big Traditional Publishers are still consuming each other as fast as possible. At some point, there will only be one Big Traditional Publisher owning thousands of popular imprints worldwide, and they will be based in Europe.

The publishing industry is currently in a downturn because of inflation and production costs, but little has changed for indies. We’ve always been at a disadvantage, so in some ways, we’re better equipped to deal with change. We adjust and go with the flow whenever the market goes up or down or moves in a new direction.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Nature volume 536 number 7617 cover displaying an artist’s impression of Proxima Centauri b.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Nature_volume_536_number_7617_cover_displaying_an_artist%E2%80%99s_impression_of_Proxima_Centauri_b.jpg&oldid=675402098 (accessed September 20, 2022). ESO/M. Kornmesser (photo displayed on the magazine cover), CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Cover of Scientific American, the September 1848 issue Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:SciAmer.gif,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:SciAmer.gif&oldid=655833071 (accessed September 20, 2022).

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Outlining is Pantsing it in Advance so you can Wing It Later #amwriting

Over the years, I have learned many tricks to help people get a jump on their NaNoWriMo project.

Most writers will start an entirely new story. Some have an outline, but others are flying blind, or in author speak, “pantsing it.” Other writers will continue writing the first draft of an unfinished work-in-progress.

plotting as a family picnicI am a planner, but I’m also a pantser. I’m just writing to a loose outline. All I need is a little free time in advance of November to let my mind wander.

When I first began writing, I found Excel useful, but any document or spreadsheet program will work. The outline becomes my permanent stylesheet for that novel. I think of outlining as pantsing it in advance—a visual aid for winging it later.

Once I’m done winging it through the story and am in revisions, some scenes will make more sense when placed in a different order than originally planned. An outline allows me to view the arc of the story from a distance, so I can see where it might be flatlining. Perhaps an event should be cut completely as it no longer works. (I always save my outtakes in a separate file for later use.)

Over the years of editing and reviewing books, I’ve assembled a list of questions that help me nudge a novel from an idea into an outline. If I make notes as I think of things, I’ll never lose those characters or their story. Even if I can’t get to it right away, I’ll have all the essential stuff in a document and saved.

The first two questions I ask are what genre do I think I’m writing in, and what is the underlying theme? I prefer to write character-driven fantasy. A world will emerge with the characters, and I will make notes as bits and pieces of that environment occur to me. I have a deep streak of gallows humor in my personality, so humor in the face of disaster will be a theme. This theme comes out in most of my work.

Who are youNext, I ask the creative universe who the protagonist is. I create a brief personnel file, less than 100 words. It’s a paragraph with all the essential background information. Sometimes it takes a while to know what a character’s void is (a deep emotional wound), but it will emerge. I note the verbs, adjectives, and nouns the character embodies, as those give me all the necessary information.

Let’s create a protagonist. He doesn’t have a story yet, but that will come along once I have a few other people figured out.

Brand (MC) (Fire-mage, armsmaster, 36, divorced. Brown hair, brown eyes, suntanned.) Parents were mages, now deceased. VOID: Deep sense of failure. A convergence of personal tragedies led to a failed suicide attempt. VERBS: Act. Fight. Build. Repair. Protect. Create. ADJECTIVES: wary, sarcastic, hopeful, dedicated, considerate. NOUNS: sorrow, guilt, purpose, compassion, wit.

Does Brand have close friends? If not, will he gather companions? This question is important. If he doesn’t have friends at first, I will leave space on that page to add them when they emerge from my imagination. As I contemplate Brand’s story, perhaps a love interest will show up later, or maybe not.

What happens to take Brand out of his comfort zone? Sometimes I don’t have the answer to this for quite a while. Other times, it’s the spark that starts the story.

The entire arc of the story rests on how I answer the following question. What is Brand’s goal, his deepest desire? Currently, it looks like he’s hoping to regain his self-respect. That will become a secondary quest when a more immediate problem presents itself.

What stands in his way? Who or what is the Enemy?

Let’s name the enemy Silas. What is his deepest desire? How does Silas control the situation at the outset? Once I know who the antagonist is and what they want, I give them the same personnel file I give all the other characters—I identify a void, verbs, adjectives, and nouns for him.

Once I have Silas described in a paragraph, I can determine the quest. Silas is the key to what Brand must achieve. A believable villain is why Brand’s story will be fun to write.

Now we come to creating the plot. I decide where the story begins, then list a few possible scenes, using keywords to show mood and intention.

Mood words for meditationMeditating on mood words often precipitates a flash of brilliance that has nothing to do with anything. What if …

Newly arrived in the border town of Axeton, Brand discovers an ancient gate sealed with a magic lock. Beyond it, a faint path leads into the Deadlands, but where does it go? No towns exist in the moors, and no country wants to claim the Deadlands. The elemental creatures are too dangerous. Could it be a beastmaster searching for rare elemental creatures to use as weapons? If so, who has that skill, and what could they intend to do with them?

This plot twist forces me to rearrange the outline, and now I have to change Silas’s paragraph to make him a beast master. He can’t be two-dimensional, a cartoon villain, so why does he do evil with this talent? Why does he think he is the hero? The answers to those questions should give Silas a personality. We should feel some empathy for him.

How does Brand react to the pressure Silas exerts? Side characters may emerge as Brand works his way through the problems, people who will influence the plot’s direction. As the outline evolves, I will see many places where the struggle can deepen the relationships between the protagonist and their cohorts/romantic interests.

Later, after I have the characters figured out, I will work on the plot outline and try to shape the story’s arc. This is where roadblocks and obstacles do the heavy lifting, and my outline will contain ideas I can riff on. Brand will have to work hard to achieve his goal, but so will Silas.

Information and the lack of it drive the plot. Brand can’t have all the information. Silas must have more answers than Brand and be ruthless in using that knowledge to achieve his goal. My outline will tell me when it’s time to dole out information. What complications arise from Brand’s lack of information? My outline will offer hints for what he can do to rescue the situation.

With each chapter, Brand and his companions acquire the necessary information, but each answer leads to more questions. Conflicts occur when Silas sets traps, and by surviving those encounters, Brand gains more information about Silas’s capabilities. He must persevere and use that knowledge to win the final battle.

I could actually use this example as the genesis of a story, but I have a different outline in progress. Having my characters in place and an outline on hand helps keep me on track when I am pantsing it through NaNoWriMo. New flashes of brilliance will occur as I am writing, and hopefully they will make the struggle real. But two fundamental things will remain constant:

Brand’s determination to block Silas and wreck the enemy’s plans is the plot.

Brand’s growth as a character as he works his way through the plot is the story.

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#FineArtFriday: On the Saco by Albert Bierstadt

Bierstadt_Albert_On_the_SacoArtist: Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902)

Title: “On the Saco”

Genre: landscape art

Description: Of the Saco River, Maine.

Date: Unknown date (19th century)

Medium: oil painting.

What I love about this image:

Bierstadt understood and respected the power of nature. The way he rendered the sky is wonderful. He captured that brilliant darkness of a distant storm against the bright sunshine of an autumn afternoon. I love contrasts in this painting, the bright foliage in every shade of red and yellow, the serenity of the cattle drinking in the shallows.

The heavy darkness of the storm in the hills seems to be pushed back by the serene glow of fall’s sunlight on the river. Will it rain itself out before it passes over the herd? Possibly.

About the Artist, via Wikipedia:

Albert Bierstadt (January 7, 1830 – February 18, 1902) was a German-American painter best known for his lavish, sweeping landscapes of the American West. He joined several journeys of the Westward Expansion to paint the scenes. He was not the first artist to record the sites, but he was the foremost painter of them for the remainder of the 19th century.

Bierstadt was born in Prussia, but his family moved to the United States when he was one year old. He returned to study painting for several years in Düsseldorf. He became part of the second generation of the Hudson River School in New York, an informal group of like-minded painters who started painting along the Hudson River. Their style was based on carefully detailed paintings with romantic, almost glowing lighting, sometimes called luminism. Bierstadt was an important interpreter of the western landscape, and he is also grouped with the Rocky Mountain School. [1]


Credits and Attributions:

Image: On the Saco by Albert Bierstadt, Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Bierstadt Albert On the Saco.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Bierstadt_Albert_On_the_Saco.jpg&oldid=618723154 (accessed September 16, 2022).

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Albert Bierstadt,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Albert_Bierstadt&oldid=1107140650 (accessed September 16, 2022).

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Questionable Physics, Plot Armor, and the Searchable File #amwriting

No matter their failings, our protagonist is always endowed with a special power not granted to ordinary mortals: plot armor. They alone are allowed to survive all manner of dangerous situations because they are needed for the plot to continue. 

And if the author has done their job, we believe it, and ask for more.

researchI just finished reading a sci-fi book set ten years from now, in 2032. It was a free Kindle book, but I felt overcharged.

One glaring issue, a blunder that outshone the obscenely poor editing, was this: The heroine’s amazing survivability was made possible by the author’s indulgence in Questionable Physics.

Via Wikipedia: Physics is the natural science that studies matter, its fundamental constituents, its motion and behavior through space and time, and the related entities of energy and force. [1]

The science seemed more like squishy magic. Once I realized that, the book veered into fantasy, which wasn’t what I was in the mood for.

Readers of hard science fiction are quite particular. They want ideas that inspire thought about large issues, such as the far-reaching impacts of scientific, social, and technological innovations.

Science, technology, and their possible consequences are the core of hard sci-fi, and this book had nothing to say to society other than many mentions of how brilliant the heroine was.

The author had marketed their novel in the wrong subgenre—it belonged in Narcissistic Self-gratification, not hard science fiction.

Alarm clock quote ray bradburyNever once did the super-heroic and uber-capable protagonist fear for her life no matter what ridiculously dangerous situation popped up.

Above all, a protagonist must deserve their plot armor.

But enough about that book—let’s talk about research.

Authors who write science fiction should learn what modern physicists are currently doing in the lab and what they’re theorizing on paper.

We must use that knowledge to extrapolate how societies will look in the future. Authors must do the research and take what we know is possible today and flavor it with a dash of what we wish for.

Therefore, research is needed. But if we aren’t physicists, how do we go about it?

First, we identify what we need to know, and keep a list as new questions crop up. Then, we hunt for information. We use the internet, ask an expert, and create a searchable file or database of material that backs up our assertions.

A searchable file is a document containing links to every website, book, or published paper where you have found information about your project.

Every book I write has a stylesheet, usually in the form of an Excel workbook. For instance, this is how some of the tabs on one of my stylesheets looks:

tabs of a stylesheet

That workbook has several pages: a glossary, a calendar, a sheet with the maps, the outline of the projected plot, and personnel files for each character. Also, it has a page with the technology that might be available in an agrarian society. It also has a page with all the links to the websites where I’ve found information, and what I found useful on that page.

But I love science and spend some of my non-writing time randomly watching science shows.

One of my regular bits of brain food is a daily science news report by Anton Petrov, What da Math? His YouTube channel focuses on up-to-the-minute advances in astronomy and physics.

For example, Anton’s report which aired on September 11, 2022, discussed the known dangers of space travel as we are currently capable of it and possible solutions based on our current capabilities.

And Anton’s is not the only hard science show out there.

If the book I am currently bashing had been researched at all, the author would have understood more about the hazards facing humans in the colonization of Mars.

What if you are writing something involving a common, well-understood physics problem—that of braking and docking with another vessel in space? That maneuver is complicated, and there are many reasons why. What you learn about velocity and inertia won’t make it into your story, but you will know what you are writing about. That confidence will emerge in the rest of the story.

But science fiction is not the only genre where magic bullets and impossible solutions ruin a story for me.

For example, I am also a history buff. I love historical fiction, but stories set in that genre must also be meticulously researched. History details events that occurred before the present time and accurate information is still available.

Lost_Country_Life_HartleyTake a look around in your local secondhand bookstore. A brilliant source of information on low-tech agricultural life and culture came in the form of a book I found at a second-hand bookstore in Olympia in the mid-to-late-1980s. It was called Lost Country Life and was written by the late historian, Dorothy Hartley. She details how every aspect of farming was done, the wide variety of tools and equipment that everyone knew how to make and use. If you need to know it, it’s in that book.

As far as I know, it’s still available as a second-hand book and can be found on Amazon.

But let’s go back to the future. If you are writing a contemporary sci-fi novel, you need to know what interests the people in the many different layers of our society. Go to the magazine rack at your grocery store or the local Big-Name Bookstore and look through the many publications available in their racks.

You can also find many scientific papers published online. But for non-scientists, sites like SpaceX, NASA, and Digital Trends will offer a wealth of information in bite-sized chunks and give you leads about where to look next.

Fairy of Eagle Nebula By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fairy of Eagle Nebula By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Most importantly, if you hope to write hard sci-fi, you must read that genre. Examine their content. Much of what was considered highly futuristic in the era of classic science fiction is today’s current tech. See what other writers think will be the technology of our future.

Talk to scientists. Email them and tell them what you are writing and ask them questions. Many will help you because they don’t like mushy science.

We may be fiction writers, but we are also disseminators of information and dreams. No matter what genre we are writing in, we want the reader to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the story. If we do the proper research, we remove one barrier to the success of our work.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Physics,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Physics&oldid=1109211521 (accessed September 13, 2022).

Fairy of Eagle Nebula By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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The Action Scene #amwriting

I attended the Southwest Washington Writers Conference this last weekend. On Friday, I attended two master classes offered by sci-fi/fantasy author Jeff Wheeler. The first class was on worldbuilding and writing the first chapter, and while I understand that aspect of our craft well, I enjoyed hearing his take on it.

action scenesThe second master class was on the how of creativity. Those of you who follow my blog know how the subject of creativity fascinates me. If you haven’t read any of Jeff Wheeler’s work, here is the link to my 2013 review of his first book, the Wretched of Muirwood. It’s book 1 of one of my favorite fantasy series of all time.

The next day, I was privileged to be on a panel, What I wish I had Known, Four Veterans of the Indie Trenches. We talked about the pitfalls and pratfalls of our early years in this business and what we could have done differently.

But that is life. You learn from your mistakes and grow in the craft.

One of the seminars I attended on Saturday was offered by Lindsay Schopfer, From Body Language to Brawls. Again, I have a method for fight scenes, but as he pointed out, action is about so much more than mere brawling. That concept lines up with my theory that every scene is an action scene, even the quieter moments. Tempo and how we pace the intensity is as important as the plot-arc of every scene.

But Lindsay offered five questions about planning the action in each scene. They were different from how I normally think. I found them pertinent to the plot outline I am currently building for this year’s foray into NaNoWriMo.

strange thoughtsFirst, Lindsay pointed out that thinking is an action scene, as are conversations. He asked what a character does while thinking. He pointed out that Humphrey Bogart had a way of tugging on his ear when thinking, a habit that carried over into his movies. A side character with a certain amount of screen time but isn’t the POV character can be shown as real when they have a small personal habit that appears from time to time.

Lindsay cautioned new writers to go lightly, and I agree. If you give one or two side characters an occasional personal habit, you won’t muck up the visuals with a barrage of personal tics.

Next, he asked what their body language betrayed about them when they were worried. I liked that he brought that up because if our characters aren’t worried, they should be. How do we show our characters’ individual ways of handling worry? We all exhibit signs of anxiety in different ways.

Lindsay asked three more questions: how do our characters look when they’re happy or excited? How do they look when angry? When depressed?

You can show these emotions with either a facial expression or a physical reaction, combined with internal dialogue or conversations.

For me, the most challenging part of writing is balancing the visual indicators of emotion with exposition showing the more profound, internal clues.

We need to offer the reader a hint, a gesture, or a fleeting expression. Their imagination will do the rest.

It takes work and practice to write a narrative so that we aren’t telling the reader what to experience. We allow the reader to infer what to feel. Remember, we are still in the inferential layer of the Word Pond, the layer in which readers draw conclusions from the clues we offer them.

I suggest the Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi as a good affordable reference guide to showing these emotions. Sometimes we hit a spot where we know what we need to say but not how to phrase it. This guide offers good hints for how to show what a character is feeling, someone to point the way.

However, I must point out that discretion is a good thing when it comes to showing emotions.

Enrico Mazzanti (1852-1910), Public domain, via Wikimedia CommonsWhen a character’s facial expressions take over the scene, they become cartoonish, two-dimensional displays of emotion with no substance. A landslide of microscopic showing can make your characters seem melodramatic. All that physical drama doesn’t show a character’s emotions. What is going on inside their heads?

You must relay the thought process that led to those physical reactions. You can lay the groundwork with some crucial bits of exposition. Just a bit, not too much.

The trick is to use words that offer the most information in the least amount of space. It’s a trick I’m still trying to master.

I will stop reading stories where the author leans too heavily on slowly painting visual descriptions of the characters’ internal struggles. Creased foreheads followed by stomach-churning, gut-wrenching shock and wide-eyed trembling of hands are a bit too in-depth for me. Pick one indicator and go with it.

Finally, Lindsay pointed out something I have also said before. Word count matters in a fight scene. When I write an action scene involving violence, I ask myself how long it will take a reader to read that blow-by-blow description of the melee.

A war is one thing – it takes up page after page because it is the driver of the story. But when a fistfight or sword fight takes up three pages of description, I can’t suspend my disbelief as a reader.

Physical fights in real life are fast, violent, and finished in a space of minutes. It’s not humanly possible to go on and on with no rest. That is why professional boxers have rounds – fight a while, rest a while, and so on for 15 rounds.

If it takes me forever to read that running commentary, I will skip forward, or worse, set the book aside.

2022 cover mock-upAnd this brings me to the core of this post. During NaNoWriMo, when I write new words as quickly as possible, I lean too heavily on the external, relying on a lot of smiling and shrugging. Conversations are action scenes, but too much “face time” is too much.

Those facial expressions and gestures are markers for the second draft, words signifying places where more work will be required to flesh out the scene. This is where writing becomes work.

If you haven’t seen this before, here is my list of surface emotions, code words I use in my outline to remind me of what action I should portray in a given scene:

  • Admiration
  • Affection
  • Anger
  • Anguish
  • Anticipation
  • Anxiety
  • Awe
  • Confidence
  • Contempt
  • Defeat
  • Defensiveness
  • Denial
  • Depression
  • Desire
  • Desperation
  • Determination
  • Disappointment
  • Disbelief
  • Disgust
  • Elation
  • Embarrassment
  • Ethical Quandary
  • Fear
  • Friendship
  • Grief
  • Happiness
  • Hate
  • Inadequacy
  • Indecision
  • Interest
  • Jealousy
  • Love
  • Lust
  • Powerlessness
  • Pride
  • Regret
  • Resistance
  • Revulsion
  • Sadness
  • Shock
  • Surprise
  • Temptation
  • Trust
  • Unease
  • Weakness

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