Tag Archives: writing

Characterization part one – 7 rules for writing conversations plus 4 for extra credit

WritingCraftSeries_depth-through-conversationIn real life, we are drawn to certain people and get to know them better through conversations.

At first, they’re an unknown quantity. They become individuals to us once we’re introduced and we discover their speech habits, resonate with their sense of humor, and learn bits of their backstory.

On the opposite side of the coin, conversations can alert us to people we choose to avoid.

Elmore Leonard quote re dialogueGood conversations and mental dialogues bring written characters to life and turn them into people we want to know, our closest friends.

Here are seven rules for adding depth to our characters through their conversations.

One: Don’t indulge in the exposition dump: “Bob, remember how I told you (blah blah blah)?”

In real life, we might say this and not notice it. However, when we see it written, it becomes word padding, adding fluff to the narrative. This is a classic example of something we don’t need to know.

Two: Don’t repetitively name the characters being spoken to: “Bob, remember how I told you (blah blah blah)?”

The reader knows Dave is talking to Bob. If it’s only the two of them, no direction is necessary—they can just say what they need to with a few speech tags to keep the “who said what” straight. If there are three or more characters in the conversation, have Dave turn to Bob and then speak.

Three: Don’t use bizarre speech tags.

I don’t care for reading graphic and disgusting speech tags such as ejaculated. “Telling” words do our narratives no favors when used as speech tags. We are creative and can do better than that by showing a character’s shock, dismay, or joy as they are speaking. We intersperse actions with simple speech tags that don’t stop the reader’s eye.

Bob’s eyes widened, and he grabbed the letter. “You idiot.”

Don’t make the mistake of getting rid of speech tags and attributions entirely. Even with only two characters in a scene, the verbal exchanges can become confusing. Use speech tags every third exchange or so to keep things clear for your reader. Nothing is worse than trying to figure out which character said what.

Four: Please don’t indulge in internal dialogues (thoughts) that are a wall of italics going on forever.

William Falkner quote re dialogueInternal dialogues (rambling thoughts) are often a thinly disguised info dump in my first drafts. I seek those out in the second draft and either cut them to a line or two or eliminate them entirely. I try to avoid italics if possible, so this is how I write thoughts nowadays:

Dave fought down a wave of nausea, followed by a surge of anger so raw, it burned. The effort to stifle it took all he had. Brandon was at least ten years younger than her, barely old enough to legally drink beer.

Five: Don’t spell out accents to the point they are visually incomprehensible. “Oive got a luverly bunch uv coconuts….”

I refuse to review books I dislike. This is because some books I despise are beloved bestsellers, demonstrating that I don’t know everything. (What? Say it ain’t so!) As in all other things, it’s a matter of taste.

One of the many reasons I disliked “Where the Crawdads Sing” was how the accents were portrayed. They were shown in a demeaning way, in my opinion. I know that many readers didn’t see that as a problem; as I said, it is only my opinion.

gobbledegook detectedHowever, I have no problem understanding an accent and visualizing a character as foreign when the author consistently uses one or two well-known words that a non-native speaker might use, such as si, ja, or oui, in place of yes. Most English speakers recognize and know the meaning of these words when they see them. All it takes is a straightforward word to convey the proper foreign flavor.

Six: Please, please, please … pretty please … don’t make a habit of leading sentences off with drone words. “Aahhh … ummm …”

These are ‘thinking syllables.’ This is known as a ‘verbal tic’ and can be an ingrained habit that the speaker is unaware of.

Verbal tics are supremely annoying in real life and are excruciating to read when peppered throughout the narrative. Once in a while, a non-word like “Ah …” adds a moment for the character to show shock or another emotion in the narrative. But do go lightly with them.

You may have met someone who habitually opens every sentence with a meaningless syllable, such as “Aaaaaaaahh….” They continue droning while they gather their thoughts, holding the conversation hostage and not allowing the other person to speak.

The guilty party may suffer hurt feelings when you try to hurry them along.

Seven: Never use Google Translate (or any other translation app) to write foreign languages.

As mentioned in rule 5, a word or two used consistently here and there to convey the sense of foreignness is one thing, but in general, if you don’t speak the language, don’t write it.

good_conversations_LIRFmemeThe laws of grammar sometimes break down on the quantum level in conversations with our friends. This is also true of written exchanges.

Many new authors are confused about how to punctuate conversations. It’s not complicated, so here are four simple rules for punctuating discussions (offered for your extra credit):

Rule 1: Surround everything that is spoken with quotation marks. “I’m back,” he said.

In the US, we begin and end the dialogue with “double quotes.” These are also called closed quotes and all punctuation goes inside them. This is a universal, cast-iron rule that we must follow because readers expect to see them and become confused when you don’t set dialogue off this way.

Rule 2: When quoting someone else (as part of a conversation), you should set the quoted speech apart with single quotes (apostrophes, inverted commas) and keep it inside the closed quotes.

You can do this in two ways:

  • Dave said, “When I asked her, Jill replied, ‘I can’t go.’ But I’m sure she was lying.”
  • Dave said, “When I asked, Jill replied, ‘I can’t go.'”

In the second sentence, 3 apostrophes are placed after the period (full stop): One apostrophe and one double (closed) quote mark. This is in keeping with the rule that all punctuation in dialogue goes inside the quotation marks.

Indirect dialogue is a recapping of a conversation:

  • When asked, Dave said Jill told him she couldn’t go.

We don’t use quotes in indirect dialogue. Also, in the above sentence, “that” is implied between said and Jill.

comma or apostropheRule 3: Commas—Do not place a period between the closed quotes and the dialogue tag. Use a comma because when the speech tag follows the spoken words, they are one sentence consisting of clauses separated by a comma:  “I’m here,” he said.

  • When leading with a speech tag, the commas are placed after the tag and are not inside the quotation marks: He said, “I’m here.”
  • Dialogue split by the speech tag is all one sentence: “The flowers are lovely,” she said, “but they make my eyes water.” Note that the first word in the second half of the sentence is not capitalized.

Rule 4: When a speaker’s monologue must be broken into two paragraphs, lead off each with quotation marks but only put the closed quote at the end of the final paragraph. A wall of dialogue can be daunting in a story, but sometimes happens in essays and when quoting speeches.

Characterization definitionConversations, both spoken and internal, light up and illuminate the individual corners of the story, bringing the immensity of the overall story arc down to a personal level.

In good dialogue, readers are given all the information they need and are shown the characters’ motives and deepest desires.

They illustrate our heroes and villains as the people we imagine them to be—without making them cartoonish.


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Heroes and Villains part 3 – Drawing on the Shadow Within #amwriting

Today we’re continuing to explore character creation and the dark energy the villain of a piece brings to a story.

WritingCraft_Dark_EnergyIn his book, The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, Christopher Vogler discusses how the villain of a piece represents the shadow. The antagonist provides the momentum of the dark side, and their influence on the protagonist and the narrative should be profound.

The shadow character serves several purposes.

  • He/she/it is usually the main antagonist and represents darkness(evil) against which light (good) is shown more clearly.
  • The shadow, whether a person, place, or thing, provides the roadblocks, the reason the protagonist must struggle.

The shadow lives within us all, and our heroes must also struggle with it. The most obvious example of this in pop culture is that of “Batman.”

About the original concept of Batman, via Wikipedia:

Batman_InfoboxBatman is a superhero appearing in American comic books published by DC Comics. The character was created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, and debuted in the 27th issue of the comic book Detective Comics on March 30, 1939. In the DC Universe continuity, Batman is the alias of Bruce Wayne, a wealthy American playboy, philanthropist, and industrialist who resides in Gotham CityBatman’s origin story features him swearing vengeance against criminals after witnessing the murder of his parents Thomas and Martha as a child, a vendetta tempered with the ideal of justice. He trains himself physically and intellectually, crafts a bat-inspired persona, and monitors the Gotham streets at night. Kane, Finger, and other creators accompanied Batman with supporting characters, including his sidekicks Robin and Batgirl; allies Alfred PennyworthJames Gordon, and Catwoman; and foes such as the Penguin, the RiddlerTwo-Face, and his archenemy, the Joker. [1]

Bruce Wayne is a flawed character. He is both a generous benefactor of many charities and a vigilante with little or no remorse for his actions. As Batman, he is a hero, a defender of the weak and defenseless. Much of what makes his story compelling is how he justifies indulging his darker side.

The story of Batman is complex, which is why so many movies have emerged exploring his story. We sit in theaters and applaud Batman’s dark side because it’s confined to taking on criminals.

The evil in a narrative is not always represented by a person. Sometimes war is the villain. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, wildfires—nature has a pantheon of calamities for us to overcome and no end of stories that emerge from such events.

True heroes don’t necessarily wear capes, and the evils they fight against are often disasters of epic proportions. Ordinary people can become heroes when faced with disasters of any sort.

Consider the true-life events of April 11 through the 17th, 1970. Via Wikipedia:

Apollo_13_liftoff-KSC-70PC-160HRApollo 13 (April 11–17, 1970) was the seventh crewed mission in the Apollo space program and the third meant to land on the Moon. The craft was launched from Kennedy Space Center on April 11, 1970, but the lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank in the service module (SM) failed two days into the mission. The crew instead looped around the Moon and returned safely to Earth on April 17. The mission was commanded by Jim Lovell, with Jack Swigert as command module (CM) pilot and Fred Haise as Lunar Module (LM) pilot. Swigert was a late replacement for Ken Mattingly, who was grounded after exposure to rubella. [2]

The villain in that epic space adventure was mechanical failure. The heroic efforts of the ground crew to brainstorm ways to get the astronauts home is one of the most powerful stories of the 20th century. We were glued to the television, watching as remedies for each disaster were devised, celebrating as the crew made their way home safely.

The villains we write into our stories represent humanity’s darker side, whether they are a person, a mechanical failure, a dangerous animal, or a natural disaster. They bring ethical and moral quandaries to the story, raising questions of morality, dilemmas we should examine more closely.

When the protagonist must face and overcome the shadow on a profoundly personal level, they are placed in true danger. Which way will they go? This is where my characters have agency, and they sometimes surprise me. They may unknowingly offer up their souls if they stray from the light.

Every character has a different personality and should respond to each event differently. The freedom you allow the protagonist and antagonist to steer the events is crucial for them to emerge as real to the reader.

Sometimes my characters make their own choices. Other times, they go along as I, their creator, have planned for them. Ultimately, they do things their own way and with their own style.

Our fictional heroes must recognize and confront the darkness within themselves. As they do so, the reader also faces it. The hero must choose their own path—will they fight to uphold the light? Will they walk in that gray area between? Bruce Wayne is a good example of one who walks the gray area.

The reader forms opinions and makes choices too, and these subliminal ideas sometimes challenge their ethics.

Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Batman,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Batman&oldid=1135964072 (accessed January 30, 2023).

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “Apollo 13,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Apollo_13&oldid=1133889788 (accessed January 30, 2023).

Image: Batman, drawn by Jim Lee for the cover of Batman: Hush. Created by       Bob Kane and Bill Finger. DC Comics; 15794th edition (December 6, 2011) (Fair Use) Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Batman&oldid=1135964072 (accessed January 30, 2023).

Image: Apollo 13 Lift off, Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Apollo 13 liftoff-KSC-70PC-160HR.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Apollo_13_liftoff-KSC-70PC-160HR.jpg&oldid=560250836 (accessed January 30, 2023). Public Domain.


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Heroes and Villains part 2: Who are they, and why should we care? #amwriting

When we begin planning a novel, we might have the plot for an award-winning narrative in our head and an amazing cast of characters eager to leap onto the page. But until we know who the hero and the antagonist are when they are off duty, we don’t really know them. And until we know what they want, we have no story.

depth-of-characterNo matter what genre we write in, when we design the story, we build it around a need that must be fulfilled, a quest of some sort.

For the protagonist, the quest is the primary goal. But they must also have secrets, underlying motives not explicitly stated at the outset.

The supporting characters also have agendas, and their involvement in that storyline is affected by their personal ambitions and desires.

Our task is to ensure that each of our characters’ stories intersect seamlessly. Motivations must be clearly defined.

We must know how the person thinks and reacts as an individual.

  • To that end, we assign verbs, action words that reflect their gut reactions.

What drives them?

  • This is where we give them a void, a lack or loss that colors their personality.
  • We assign nouns that describe their personalities.

Finally, we ask ourselves, “What are their moral boundaries, and what is out of character for them?”

  • Why are they in this story? What is their role?
  • What lengths will they go to in the effort to achieve their goal?
  • Conversely, what will they NOT do? Even supervillains have something they draw the line at doing.

So now we create their file:


The antagonist also has motives, both stated and unstated. They have a deep desire to thwart the protagonist and have reasons for that wish. They have a history that goes beyond the obvious “they needed a bad guy, and I’m it” of the cartoon villain.

No one goes through life acting on impulses for no reason whatsoever. On the surface, an action may seem random and mindless. The person involved might claim there was no reason or even be accused of it—but that is a fallacy, a lame excuse they might offer to conceal the secret that really drives them.

The antagonist also gets a personnel file:


One thing we must ask of each character is this: what will happen if they don’t achieve their goal? Who has the most to lose?

Once we know who has the most to lose and what motivates each character, we know who has the most compelling story. At that point, we have our protagonist and our antagonist

In the beginning stages of planning, we see a large picture, and the details are blurry. At first, we have an overall idea of what the story could be. We have the basics of who the characters are:

  • Sex and age
  • Physical description—coloring, clothes
  • Overall personality—light or dark, upbeat or a downer

A reader will want to know a little more than that. Good characterization shows those things but also offers hints of:

  • An individual’s speech habits.
  • An individual with a history.
  • An individual’s personal style.

As my characters develop, I ask more questions:

  • Are they an individual with or without boundaries? What are things they will or will not do?
  • What are the secrets they believe no one knows?
  • What are the secrets they will admit to?
  • What secrets will they carry to the grave?

Sometimes identifying just whose emotional and physical journey you will be following is easier said than done. When faced with a pantheon of great characters, ask yourself these questions (listed here in no particular order):

  • Which character do you find the most interesting?
  • Whose personal story inspired this tale in the first place?
  • Who among these people has the most to lose?
  • Who will be best suited to taking full advantage of all this plot’s possibilities?

The character who best answers those questions must become the protagonist. It is okay to scrap that original draft and start a new one to reflect that change. Many parts of the first manuscript can be reused.

Author-thoughtsI recently had a manuscript undergo a complete change from what I originally planned. The original antagonist had such an engaging story that he had become more important to me than the protagonists.

At that point, the plot stalled. I had no idea how to get it going again.

I had to find a new villain—and then the solution occurred to me. One of the side characters was poised for that position, lending a little treachery to the mix.

That happy bit of treason kicked the plot in a new direction, and once again, I was having a good time, feeling energized as I wrote.

We were taught to use the “five Ws” of journalism in our essays in elementary school. These five words that begin with the letter ‘W’ form the core of every story.

Who did whatWhen and where did it happen?

Why did they do it?

Who are youAs a reader, I dislike discovering the author is at a loss as to what their protagonist wants. Without that impetus, they don’t have a good reason for the villain to be there either. Random events inserted to keep things interesting don’t advance the story, but motivation does.

Character creation crosses all genres. Even if you are writing a memoir detailing your childhood, you must have a fix on the person you were in those days. You must portray your gut reactions, hopes, and fears with immediacy, a sense of what it felt like. You want the reader to see the events that shaped you, not through the lens of memory, but as if they are observing as the events unfold.

Who are your characters? Who do they love, and who do they despise? What is their goal? Why is this goal so important?

When you answer those questions, you will know them well enough to write their stories.


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Heroes and Villains part 1 – One Coin, Two Sides #amwriting

You have a hero.

You have a villain.

WritingCraftSeries_character-arcYou’ve taken them through two revisions and think these characters are awesome, perfectly drawn as you intend. The overall theme of the narrative supports the plot arc, and the events are timed perfectly, so the pacing is good.

But then you discover that, while the story is engaging, your beta readers aren’t as impressed with the characters as you are.

This has been my problem in the past, and at this stage, I go to my writing group. Someone in that wonderful circle of friends will offer an opinion as to why the characters aren’t as strongly defined as I need them to be.

The problem is, it may take several drafts before my characters translate to paper the way I envision them. When creating their personnel file, I now try to give each character, hero, villain, or sidekick a theme, a sub-thread that is solely theirs.

A personal theme clarifies what drives each character and underscores their motivations. It is both a strength and a weakness.

  • A villain’s personal theme might be hubris – an excess of self-confidence. It is arrogance to a high degree, and terrible decisions can arise from it.
  • A hero’s personal theme might be honor and loyalty. This can undermine their ability to act decisively. The good of the one can exceed the good of the many—and people will die that could have been saved. Who is the villain, then?

Strong personal themes inform how each character reacts and interacts throughout the narrative.

Plot-exists-to-reveal-characterBut in real life, I often find little distinction between heroes and villains. Heroes are often jackasses who need to be taken down a notch. Villains will extort protection money from a store owner and then turn around and open a soup kitchen to feed the unemployed.

Al Capone famously did just that. Mobster Al Capone Ran a Soup Kitchen During the Great Depression – HISTORY.

In reality, heroes are flawed because no one is perfect. I prefer narratives that reflect that. What similarities might blur the boundaries of our heroes and villains and lend some texture to their narratives?

  • Both must see themselves as the hero.
  • Both must take unnecessary risks.
  • Both must believe they will ultimately win.

When I create my two most important characters, my hero and villain, I assign them verbs, nouns, and adjectives, traits they embody. They must also have a void – an emotional emptiness, a wound of some sort.

This void is vital because characters must overcome cowardice to face it. As a reader, one characteristic I’ve noticed in my favorite characters is they each have a hint of self-deception. All the characters – the antagonists and the protagonists – deceive themselves about their own motives.

The heroes come to recognize that fault and are made stronger and more able to do what is necessary. The villains may also acknowledge their fatal flaw but use it to justify and empower their actions.

SephirothBoth heroes and villains must have possibilities – the chance that the villain might be redeemed, or the hero might become the villain. As an avid gamer, I think of this as the “Sephiroth factor.”

He is featured in the metaseries Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, which includes other products related to the original game of Final Fantasy VII. It is a series originally begun in 1997 as a game for Sony’s PlayStation 1 and which became wildly popular among RPG players.

This game has become legendary with a huge cult following because of the well-thought-out, intense and layered storyline and the cast of instantly relatable characters.

In Sephiroth’s storyline, he begins as a hero, the most powerful member of SOLDIER, Shinra’s elite military division. He was revered, a heroic, invincible veteran of the Shinra-Wutai war.

Final Fantasy VII Crisis Core (which was made for PlayStation Portable) is a prequel to the original game. We get to know Sephiroth as he once was and meet other members of this elite unit. Over the course of that game, the three most beloved heroes of the Wutai war suddenly abandon their posts and go rogue.

From the outset of Final Fantasy VII Crisis Core, Sephiroth is the kind of hero that makes one wonder just what is going on inside him. He has begun to have doubts and, at one point, indicates that he might leave SOLDIER.

Toward the middle of Crisis Core, Sephiroth, Zack Fair, and Cloud Strife (who is only an infantryman when we first meet him in Crisis Core) are sent on a mission to the village of Nibelheim. There, Sephiroth discovers that he is the product of a biological experiment combining a human fetus with tissue from the extraterrestrial lifeform, Jenova.

This knowledge breaks Sephiroth’s mind, and he goes on a rampage, destroying the village. He is ultimately killed, but his physical death brings about his evolution into the ultimate enemy the true heroes of that RPG game series must battle.

In the end, only one SOLDIER first class remains, Zack Fair. He, too, abandons Shinra and is ultimately hunted down. Zack’s death sows the seeds of the delusion that creates the true hero of the piece, Cloud Strife.

Cloud_StrifeIn Final Fantasy VII, the 1997 game that started it all, we meet Cloud Strife, a mercenary with a mysterious past. Gradually, we discover that, unbeknownst to himself, he is living a lie that he must face and overcome to be the hero we all need him to be.

The fallen angel, the tragic hero who becomes the villain is good fodder for those of us who write fantasy. So is the broken hero, the one who rises from the ruins of their life to save the world.

However, if you strip away the fantasy tropes and the outrageous video game weapons, the hero in any story written in any genre can become the villain, and any villain can change course before it’s too late.

The way my creative mind works, plots and characters evolve together. When I sit down to create a story arc, my characters offer me hints as to how they will develop. This evolution can change the course of the original plot.

In a current work-in-progress, two characters, hero and villain, switched roles, requiring a total rewrite.

Who in your work will be best suited to play the villain? Character B?

Conversely, why is character A the hero?

The next installment of this series will drill down a little further into the nuts and bolts of creating fully realized characters, focusing on the protagonist and the antagonist.

Buddha quote

Credits and Attributions:

Sephiroth, designed by Tetsuya Nomura for Square / Square Enix Final Fantasy VII, © 1997. Fair use.

Cloud Strife, designed by Tetsuya Nomura for Square/Square Enix Final Fantasy VII, © 1997. Fair use.


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Managing the Large Cast of Characters #amwriting

Today we begin a series on character creation. A large cast of characters can be difficult to write well. We want each character to have an evolving personality. The reader wants to know them as friends, to see them to grow in a positive or negative way as the events of the story unfold.

MyWritingLife2021BI try to keep the ensemble narrow in my work, limiting points of view to only one, two, or three characters at most. I keep the core cast limited to four or five, as it takes a lot of effort to show more people than that as being separate and unique.

Any number of evolutionary occurrences can happen in the first draft, and the plot will often change from what was originally planned. I use a stylesheet, also known as a storyboard, to keep track of the plot and the characters.

  • I update my stylesheet/storyboard whenever a significant change occurs. This avoids errors such as a character’s name being a duplicate.

So, let’s talk about books with large casts of characters. How do other authors keep large casts separate and prevent their readers from becoming confused? How do they do this and ensure the plot rolls forward at a good pace?

Several years ago, I read Nine Perfect Strangers by Australian author Liane Moriarty and talked about it on this blog. The book details the experiences of nine people booked into an exclusive Australian health spa and three staff members.

Nine_Perfect_Strangers_Liane_MoriartyMoriarty’s characters are immediately engaging. They sucked me into their world in the opening pages. I couldn’t set the book down, as I wanted to know everyone’s dark secrets. I was hooked; I had to understand what led these people to book themselves into that exceedingly unusual health spa.

  • Moriarty introduces us to the cast by opening with Yao and his experience as an EMT and introducing us to Masha as she suffers a heart attack.

The story picks up a decade later when nine people meet at a remote Australian health spa. They’ve all been lured there by word-of-mouth and brochures that promise to transform their lives. They are guaranteed a complete transformation in only ten days, which seems impossible.

  • All have deeply personal reasons for wanting their life to be changed for the better.

The characters are wary, as the reviews they have read are glowing, and so are the recommendations by their friends. But no one will explain how such a change will be accomplished.

  • Each guest arrives with emotional baggage.

So—everyone steps onto the stage with reasons for being there. This sucked me in and made me like or dislike each guest from the outset. And whether I liked them or not, I wanted to know their secrets.

  • Several chapters in, Masha, whom Yao rescued from a heart attack in the opening pages, is revealed as the benevolent antagonist.
  • Yao has become her ardent disciple.

The pair was exceedingly mysterious. I couldn’t tell exactly what their relationship was, and it intrigued me. Was Yao her lover, her henchman, or both?

  • How had Masha and Yao come to form this strange partnership? They had only met in the line of duty because of her heart attack.
  • At the outset, I had to know Masha’s secret and how she had become this guru.
  • I needed to know what she and Yao were up to.

This novel demonstrates that one doesn’t have to follow every literary rule to make a great, engaging narrative. Structurally, the plot is choppy, and the ending is a series of infodumps.

But it works because Moriarty establishes each character as an individual at the outset. Each one is infinitely relatable, and their personal stories are layered into the plot-arc, forming an onion-like narrative. I had to read, had to keep peeling that onion, eager to get to the core.

  • She gives them each a vivid personality, a physical appearance that is only theirs, and a unique history.
  • Each guest embodies a mystery that unfolds as the plot progresses.

Who are youThe guests are immediately thrust into an unknown and possibly dangerous environment. The food they are offered is high quality but not what they are used to and varies from guest to guest.

PLOT POINT: The nine guests are required to ingest certain vitamins and minerals that Yao and Masha prescribe for them.

  • Their diets, vitamins, and medicines are carefully tailored to what Yao and Masha have determined are their individual needs.
  • The diet of fruits, cereals, and vegetables is not universally loved.
  • An exercise program is also enforced.

These stresses impact each character’s evolution, some for good and others, not.

Even later in the middle of the narrative, I had no trouble following who was who, as each character has an unmistakable surface persona.

  • This means each character’s outward personality is different from the others.

Soon after meeting the cast, Moriarty gives us small glimpses of weaknesses and fears, hinting at the secrets each character brings with them to the spa. As the story progresses, we learn more about the sorrows, guilts, and regrets that drive them.

The nine guests have each signed contracts before arriving at the wilderness spa. When it becomes clear the rules they have agreed to obey are iron-clad and strictly enforced, they become angry and afraid. Each guest reacts in a way that is true to their established personality.

  • Some vent their rage, some rebel, and others accept it as what they signed up for.
  • Yet, each character is willing to continue because they are desperate to heal a void in their lives.

Characterization is a core aspect of a story. When I am revising a first draft, I try to discover and reveal snippets of their history, gradually melding those secrets into the evolving plot. My stylesheet/storyboard helps me stay on task.

Even if you don’t make a stylesheet, I suggest you create a personnel file for each character. This will help you understand what makes each one different from the others.

A personnel file should contain:

personnel fileCharacter Names. I list the essential characters by name and the critical places where the story will be set.

About: What their role is, a note about that person or place, a brief description of who and what they are.

Personality traits: Are they sunny and upbeat or dark and brooding? Are they somewhere in between?

Physical appearance: Coloring, hair color, eye color, short or tall, physical build.  Are they smartly dressed, or uncaring of clothing styles?

Their problem: What is their void, their core conflict?

What do they want? What does each character desire?

What will they do to get it? How far will they go to achieve their desire?

What secret will they take to their grave?

Don’t worry if you do things in a way that might not be technically correct. Books like Nine Perfect Strangers prove that good prose, compelling storylines, and strong character arcs engage the reader and overcome most writing wrongs.

In my next post, we’ll talk about the fine line between villains and heroes and how flaws and imperfections in our characters can improve the narrative.


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Syntax and Instinctive Grammar Rules #amwriting

Syntax is defined as the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language. English has certain standard rules of speech that are learned so early on in life that they are instinctual.

Words-And-How-We-Use-ThemNo matter the level of our education or the dialect we speak, we use these rules and don’t realize we are doing so.

Several years ago, I found three delightful quotes on these rules from linguist Steven Pinkereditor Stan Carey, and Tim Dowling, a journalist for The Guardian.

The Jolly Green Giant rule:

The rule is that multiple adjectives are always ranked accordingly: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose. Unlike many laws of grammar or syntax, this one is virtually inviolable, even in informal speech. You simply can’t say My Greek Fat Big Wedding, or leather walking brown boots. And yet until last week, I had no idea such a rule existed. Tim Dowling, for The Guardian, 13 September 2016. [1]

My editor often finds and points out words whose order must be rearranged to sound natural. Some sentences seem clumsy when she reads them because when I first wrote that section, I was going too fast and put my words in the wrong order.

I didn’t notice it during the revision process. Some hokey phrasing goes unnoticed by me through upwards of six revisions.

Why do we overlook typos and errors in our work? StudySkills.com tells us:

… the more familiar our brains are with the content in print, the less we are able to focus on details. It’s how our brains are designed to work. We often cannot see our own writing mistakes. (Susan Kruger Winter, CEO & Founder of SOAR Learning, Inc. Why We Can’t See Our Own (Writing) Mistakes, 22 July 2018) [2]

It happens because, in the first draft, I am madly getting the words out of my head. My ability to use a pen or run the keyboard can’t keep up with the stream of words falling from my mind.

  • (Wrong) My red large Cadillac is fun to drive.
  • (Right) My large red Cadillacis fun to drive.

Actually, my small blue KIA Soul is fun to drive. (Grandma’s imaginary red Ferrari would be a lot more fun, but no one would be safe on the road.)

powerwordsWordCloudLIRF06192021Muddled phrasings often slip by when I revise my work because my mind sees the words as if they were in the correct order. This is the writer’s curse—the internal editor knows what should be there, and the eye skips over what we actually wrote.

This ability to see our work as if it were finished is a necessary aspect of creativity. We have an image of what it should look like and know what needs to be done to shape it that way. However, after so many hours of laboring on a manuscript, our brains can trick us into seeing what we intended to write, overlooking the flaws.

When I first began writing, I had a naïve belief in the perfection of my work. I was soon shown differently, and (once I grew a thicker skin) I found a good editor.

In every language, native speakers automatically order their words in specific ways. In English, we order them this way:

  1. opinion,
  2. size,
  3. age,
  4. shape,
  5. color,
  6. origin,
  7. material,
  8. purpose

Stephen’s dark blue wool jacket was left behind.

Another rule I love is the Mishmash rule:

“Reduplication” is when a word or part of a word is repeated, sometimes modified, and added to make a longer term, such as aye-aye, mishmash, and hotchpotch. This process can mark plurality or intensify meaning, and it can be used for effect or to generate new words. The added part may be invented or it may be an existing word whose form and sense are a suitable fit. (Stan Carey, A hotchpotch of reduplication, MacMillan Dictionary Blog 2012.) [3]

mish-mash-ruleI adore mishmash words. They’re poetic and musical and roll off the tongue with a satisfying rhythm. Sadly, while I regularly bore my grandchildren with them, I hardly ever get to write them. Mishmash. Hip-hop.

The Hip-Hop rule:

Have you ever wondered why we say fiddle-faddle and not faddle-fiddle? Why is it ping-pong and pitter-patter rather than pong-ping and patter-pitter? Why dribs and drabs rather than vice versa? Why can’t a kitchen be span and spic? Whence riff-raff, mishmash, flim-flam, chit-chat, tit for tat, knick-knack, zig-zag, sing-song, ding-dong, King Kong, criss-cross, shilly-shally, seesaw, hee-haw, flip-flop, hippity-hop, tick-tock, tic-tac-toe, eeny-meeny-miney-moe, bric-a-brac, clickey-clack, hickory-dickory-dock, kit and kaboodle, and bibbity-bobbity-boo? The answer is that the vowels for which the tongue is high and in the front always come before the vowels for which the tongue is low and in the back. (Pinker, The Language Instinct, 1994:167) [4]

Verbs are power words. The order in which we place them affects how readers see our work. Sometimes we frontload our sentences like this: In any situation, Charlotte runs toward danger.

Moving the action to the beginning of the sentence makes it stronger. Nouns followed by verbs make active prose: Charlotte runs toward danger, never away.

First drafts are the place where we might write something like: Running toward danger, Charlotte was happy. This kind of awkwardness says what we mean but does it poorly. It might slip through many revisions because the internal editor rearranges them correctly, and we don’t see it as written.

WordItOut-word-cloud-4074543“Ing” words are a terrible temptation to those of us raised on Tolkien. He was writing a century ago, but that style of lush prose has fallen out of fashion. We open the gate to all sorts of verbal mayhem when we lead off with an “ing” word at the front of a sentence.

So, you now have a mishmash of words and a bunch of rules that native speakers of English use without consciously thinking about it. Wonky word order is one more thing to watch for when revising our manuscript.

But it’s easier to notice strange syntax when we are reading another author’s work.


[1] Tim Dowling, Order force: the old grammar rule we all obey without realizing, © The Guardian 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/sentence-order-adjectives-rule-elements-of-eloquence-dictionary (accessed 13 January 2023).

[2] Susan Kruger Winter, CEO & Founder of SOAR Learning, Inc. Why We Can’t See Our Own (Writing) Mistakes, 22 July 2018 (accessed 13 January 2023).

[3] Stan Carey, A hotchpotch of reduplication, MacMillan Dictionary Blog 2012 © Macmillan Publishers Limited 2009-2023. http://www.macmillandictionaryblog.com/a-hotchpotch-of-reduplication (accessed 13 January 2023).

[4] Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Instinct. New York: HarperPerennial.


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The Business Side of the Business: Managing Inventory #writerlife

Today’s post is a follow-up to Monday’s post by Ellen King Rice. It is tax season, and many people will begin trying pull together the numbers needed for their federal tax returns. If you sell books at book signing events or trade shows, you are in business for yourself, and Ellen’s post details what your responsibilities are.

Its a BusinessAuthors make readers when they do in-person book signings. We have the chance to connect with potential readers on a personal level, and they might buy a paper book. If we are personable and friendly, they might tell their friends how much they liked meeting us. Those friends will buy eBooks. (We hope!)

Most shows and events will require you to have a business license if you intend to sell books in person. This means you will have a small amount of paperwork after each in-person signing, so I am revisiting a post from 2022 detailing how authors can manage an inventory of books and have the right numbers for tax purposes.

For eBook sales, you have no obligation to report sales taxes, only your royalties as listed on the 1099 issued by Amazon or Draft2Digital, or other eBook sellers.

Whether you are traditionally published or indie, if you intend to make personal appearances at local bookstores, fairs, or conventions, you will have an inventory of books on hand to manage and account for at the end of the year. But more importantly, even if you are traditionally published, you pay for the books you sell at shows. 

The good businessperson has a spreadsheet of some sort to account for this side of the business, as it will be part of your annual business tax report. An excellent method for assembling the information you will generate for your tax report is discussed the previous post, The Business Sequence for Writers. Ellen King Rice has given us a great framework for keeping our business records straight.

There is only one more skill to have, and this is only for those who intend to sell books in person. A wise author understands that good records ensure a successful business and sets up the bookkeeping system before they go to book fairs. They have a list of the stock on hand, what books are on reorder, the day they were ordered, and how long it takes for them to ship. Also, you should keep an account of your cost for each book, both for tax purposes and insurance purposes, just in case the stock of books is lost or damaged in a house fire or flood.

You can do this on notebook paper with a pencil, a ruler, and a calculator.  I began working as a bookkeeper in 1982, using the industry-standard tools of the trade for the time. We noted each transaction with a red or black pencil in a green or yellow ledger book of varying sizes (2 to 32 columns). Then, we used rulers or yardsticks to ensure that we tracked a particular item on the correct line across all the columns. The handiest electronic device on my desk was the calculator with a printout tape.

The tools for this method of accounting are still available in the stationery section of any store and are quite affordable. I have used Excel since 1993 for all my accounting purposes, but no matter how you create your spreadsheet, each title you have on hand to take to book fairs or shows has several costs associated with it.

What follows are several screenshots of a simple way to organize a spreadsheet:


The first column contains the heading Titles: under that heading, list each book you take to shows by the title. We will use Huw the Bard as our example book.

On the same line as the title, working to the right in column 2, write unit cost. This is the price you pay for each copy you must take to a show and varies from title to title by the length of the book and the trim size. On the same line as the book’s title, write the cost you pay KDP or Ingram Sparks or your publisher for that book: $4.99. (edited, thank you Judy!)

Column 3 is the current stock-on-hand at the end of the taxing quarter: Quantity in stock: 19

Column 4 is the sum of column three times column two: Inventory value: $89.11. That is what you would have to pay to replace those books. It is also what some Departments of Revenue may tax you on at the end of the year if the value of that stock is over a certain limit, say $5,000.00. My stock on hand never even approaches that limit.

This is why retail stores have end-of-the-year sales. They need to offload their inventory to keep their taxes low.

Column 5 is the retail price. This is what the book sells for at bookstores: $12.99. You set your retail price to cover the cost of replacing the book, with some revenue to cover table and vendor fees at shows and conventions, and still allow for a small profit.

Column 6 is the special show price (if you discount your books at shows): $12.00.

Column 7 is the retail value of your stock on hand. It is the sum of column 3 times column 6: $228.00.

Were you required to collect sales tax from your customers? When you apply for your business license, you will receive a pamphlet with all the taxing jurisdictions in your licensing area and their tax rates. These range between .08 and .11 here in Thurston County. Washington State has no income tax, so all our state’s revenues come from businesses and sales taxes collected at the time of purchase.

Make a note of the city or county where the books were sold, as you may be required to forward the taxes collected to the Department of Revenue or your local Business and Occupation tax collecting agency. If you are smart, you will make a second page with these columns:


At the bottom of the page for both spreadsheets, total each column. That will give you the stock expenses for all your titles. There will be no scrambling at the end of the quarter for Business and Occupation taxes if you live in a state like Washington State or at the end of the year if you live elsewhere. Be smart and set the money collected as sales tax aside because it is not yours and shouldn’t be considered part of your income.

That way, you will have it at the end of the year if you only do a few shows a year like me, or quarterly if you are out there doing shows and signings every week.

The bookkeeping side of your business should take less than an hour after each show. If you have kept your spreadsheets updated, filling out annual business tax forms for your state and federal agencies will go quickly. You will have all the numbers you need to back up your reports if you are audited.

Also (and this is important), you will know the exact number of books you have on hand in each title. You will know when it’s time to reorder more stock. There is a two-to-three-week lag in printing and shipping time, so ordering books in advance is critical. You don’t want to waste money purchasing stock you have plenty of, but you need to have a supply of your better sellers.

My personal spreadsheet is a little more detailed and is saved in the cloud as are all my business and other records. It looks like this:


Something we rarely consider is the random natural disaster, but we must be prepared. If something should happen to your stock of books due to theft, fire, or flood, you will be able to claim your business loss. Many authors are more prolific than I am.  For most of us, replacing the stock of 1 to 30 titles is an expense that is difficult to carve out of the family budget unless we have sold enough to cover that cost.

Theft is rare, as people are usually quite decent at conventions and trade shows. I’ve only had one book stolen from a table at a show in all these years—a $15.00 (show cost) loss (or $6.80 my cost).

While it disturbed me on one level, I was a bit honored that someone wanted my book that badly. The experience left me confused as to how I was supposed to feel. But on the good side, it was nice to know that shoplifters are readers too!


Filed under writing

Revisiting the Business Sequence for Writers, guest post by Ellen King Rice #writerlife

Today I am revisiting a guest post from last year, written by Ellen King Rice. She has great advice about the business side of this business, and information we all can use. Ellen is a successful indie author of an engrossing series of mushroom thrillers set in the Pacific Northwest.

Its a BusinessShe also wrote the brilliant, hilarious standalone novel, Larry’s Post Rapture Pet Sitting Service. If you haven’t read that book, I highly recommend it. I laughed out loud and couldn’t set the book down.

And now, here is Ellen King Rice and her advice on how to treat this business like a business.

*** *** ***

Moving from hobbyist to professional can be challenging in any field. For indie authors, financial numbers and formal paperwork matter. There are several steps, and the sequence of them can make life easier or . . . not.

The first step in finding a path through the thicket of “business stuff” is to remember past challenges conquered. For many people this may be recalling a first bicycle ride or an early cooking effort. For others there may be a wince as we remember that first round of playing “Hot Cross Buns” on an instrument. Whatever your early challenge was, you didn’t know everything when you started, but you learned quickly.

Today, let’s build a ramp up to a business set up, including tax prep work.

  1. Author’s name.

Search your name on the internet. Make sure you are aware of other writers, activists, artists and business people who share your name. In my case, there were several, including one who shared my middle initial. After some agonizing, I decided my author’s name would be Ellen King Rice even as my friends and family know me as Ellen Rice.

  1. Publisher’s Name

I highly recommend that you chose something other than your author’s name. This gives the writer flexibility to write in more than one genre. There are also times when the publishing house name gives a bit more cachet to projects. I chose Undergrowth Publishing.

  1. Tax Number

This requirement will vary by nation. In the United States, you will want an EIN tax number from the Internal Revenue Service. There is an on-line application here: IRS EIN application online.

The EIN is a Federal Tax ID number used to identify businesses.

Having a Publisher’s name and Tax number helps with getting a business license and a bank account. Of course, I didn’t know this, so I did things backwards and sideways. I tried to get a tax EIN and failed when I was faced with the question “What is your name?”  I highly recommend brisk walks and much chocolate to break up paperwork-filing sessions.

  1. Business license

Again, requirements will vary by location and jurisdiction. If you are resident of the State of Washington, you can find the details here:


I chose Sole Proprietor for my business, but some writers choose to form a Limited Liability Company.

Do you need city or county licenses? In my area, obtaining a state business license triggered a letter from the city demanding I purchase a local license. It took some research, but I determined that the local vendor’s license did not apply to my circumstances (I live in the county, and I sell books on-line).

It’s wise to learn about your community rules, but often these rule sets only apply to those who are selling in person (i.e., your online sales aren’t part of the local tax structure). Even then, there are times when small vendors or special events like an arts fair are exempted.

  1. Bank account

With your writer/publisher names sorted, a Tax EIN and your business license number, getting a business bank account should be straightforward. Mine is with the Washington State Employees Credit Union. I was able to open the business account with $50 and a $5 savings reserve. This gives me an account for Amazon expenses and deposits. I also asked for a dozen checks, which the credit union provided as a courtesy.

Credit card? A business debit card is easy to request once your account is set up, but a business credit card is hard to get. So far, I’ve managed without one.

  1. Spreadsheet and Tax Forms

Last steps! At this point, it is wise to print off the small business end-of-year-tax form that you’ll be using so you can see the information required.

In the United States, this is the Schedule C “Profit or Loss from Business” form from the IRS website. We can use this form to set up a spreadsheet, by category.

We want things set up so a “Sum this category” command will make it easy to fill out the Schedule C at the end of the year.

Details matter. Take some time looking over the Tax form for your situation. Think of it as your End-of-Year Party destination. A party in the tropics requires different prep than a party with penguins. Knowing the lines to be filled makes for clever spreadsheet set up. And, yes, it feels wonderful to be fast and accurate at year’s end.

For Americans, pay attention to Schedule C, Part I which asks what your “gross receipts or sales” are (line 1) and your “cost of goods” (say, printing 30 copies of your book) for line 4.

Next look at Part II. Lines 8 to 27 list different expense categories you can report. Line 8 is Advertising, so I want an “advertising” category when I set up my writer’s spreadsheet for the year. Line 11 is “Contract Labor”, so I’ll set up that category too. My book cover designer fees can go here. Line 18 is “Office expense.”  I set up Office Expense as a category and that’s the designation to house all my paper and printer cartridge charges.

DEFINITELY check in with a qualified tax advisor (which I am not!) to make sure what you are doing is correct before you file your taxes. All I’m encouraging here is to use the Schedule C as a guide to setting up bookkeeping for easy end-of-year number crunching.
Once you have slogged your way through all six of these steps, you should be well on your way as a writing professional. Be sure to celebrate!

Footnote for American tax filers: What happens if I don’t make money? After filling in Part I (income) and Part II (Expenses), I typically show a Net loss (line 31).  That loss amount will go onto a Schedule One form, and from there to Line 8 of the 1040 form as a negative number, which will lower my taxable income.

Thank you, Ellen, for allowing me to reprint this wonderful and enlightening post. If we intend to sell books at book signings and conventions, we have a business. If we want to avoid problems with our respective taxing agencies, we must jump through the proper hoops.

The next post in this series will revisit my post discussing book signings and book fairs, and tracking inventory for both tax and insurance purposes. The pandemic has eased, and many authors have held signings and in-person events. It doesn’t matter if we are indies or traditionally published – if we sell books in person, we need to manage our costs and protect our investments.

This something we all need to consider no matter where we live in this ever-smaller world.

EKR_author_photo_2022About Ellen King Rice:

I am a wildlife biologist who suffered a spinal cord injury many years ago. Although my days of field work are over, biology continues to intrigue me.

I am fascinated by sub-cellular level responses to ecosystem changes. I also like the predictability of animal behavior, once it is understood.

A fast-paced story filled with twists is a fun way to stimulate laughs, gasps and understanding. I work to heighten ecological awareness. I want the details and your new insights to remain in your thoughts forever.

You can find me and my books at www.ellenkingrice.com

​Please join me on Instagram at:


And on Facebook:




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The Business Side of the Business: Finding places to submit your work #amwriting

Today, we’re going to explore the various forms of short fiction publishers are looking for and how the market drives what they will buy. Each publication only buys work they think will appeal to their readers, and each serves a different segment of the reading public.

Its a BusinessWe are looking for markets that will pay you for your work. They are difficult to get into, but once you are in, you will be offered more opportunities.

If you are writing science fiction, you most likely dream of having your work published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact. They are seeking work that is strictly science-based, because that is what their readers expect.

You might also want to submit to Uncanny, as they publish both sci-fi and fantasy. Their readers are more eclectic.

Apex Magazine publishes work that pushes the limits, and that is what their readers expect.

Cover_of_October_1952_issue_of_The_Magazine_of_Fantasy_&_Science_FictionFantasy & Science Fiction is one of the most respected publications in the business. They have published some of the industry’s most famous and award-winning short fiction. But they are highly selective as to what they will accept, so read their magazine and see what sort of work they buy.

Galaxy’s Edge publishes science fiction but is currently closed to new submissions. Keep checking to see when they will reopen.

One of the best resources for authors trying to sell their work is Reedsy. They have assembled a list of 58 reputable publishers seeking a variety of works in all genres and lengths:

58 Top Short Story Book Publishers in 2023 | Reedsy

Reedsy is a fabulous resource for writers, as well as for editors who are seeking clients. This is a good place to start if you are looking for an editor. As always, when you are looking to hire a professional, be sure to check their references.

Writing Tips Oasis also has an excellent list of publishers who pay well.

Many contests and publications use the Submittable platform to accept and review the large volume of manuscripts they receive from writers. When a publisher uses this platform, it’s great for us as authors. We can use their app to track what we have submitted and where it currently is in the process.

But what kind of work are these publishers seeking?

First, they want stories with strong plots and good character arcs. They want believable settings and well-developed themes.

Second, they want work that shows us a world we might find familiar but from a new and different angle.

300px-Astound5006Third, they want work that looks professional, as if the author read their submission guidelines for formatting the manuscript and followed them. Publishers have specific, standardized formatting they want you to use, and these guidelines are posted on their websites.

When a call for submissions goes out, their editors will have no time to deal with poorly formatted manuscripts. If you don’t follow their guidelines, they will assume you aren’t a professional and won’t read your work.

What are the formatting guidelines? Each publication has its own, but most follow this standard:

What goes on the first page? Your first page should include the following:

  • The story’s title.
  • The word count. Some will want an approximation, and others will expect accuracy.
  • In the upper left, your contact details should be formatted in the same font and size as the manuscript font. (See the image below.)


For the most part, the requirements are basically the same from company to company, with minor differences. To ensure your work conforms to the intended recipient’s requirements, go to the publication’s website and read the standards they have laid out.

We know that selling our work to anthologies and magazines is the best way for an indie to build a reputation as an author. Remember, we’re competing with many other authors, some of them famous, and all of them as creative and talented as you are. Take the time to make your work look as professional as possible, and you will have an edge.

When we finish writing a story, an article, or a novel, we feel a rush of pride. The urge to immediately send it to a magazine or contest is strong, but the wise author must overcome it. Don’t even show it to your writing group at this stage because you are too involved in it, and there may be some awkward flaws that were introduced into the narrative during the rush of creation.

Set your manuscript aside for a week or so, then return to it. This will give you a more critical eye. You should look for

  1. Dropped or missing words.
  2. Words that spell check won’t find because they are spelled correctly but are wrong: They went their for breakfast.
  3. Extra spaces in odd places and after sentences. Editors want one (1) space after each sentence.
  4. Use the Read Aloud function or a narrator app to have the story read back to you.

While we all agree that only submitting work of the highest quality is critical, one thing is clear: the greatest hurdle Indie authors face is getting our work in front of readers’ eyes.

leaves of grass memeDon’t be discouraged by rejection. Rejection happens far more frequently than acceptance, even to famous authors. Don’t let fear of rejection keep you from writing pieces you’re emotionally invested in.

I always say this, but it is true: how you handle criticism and rejection tells editors what kind of person you are. Rejection gives you the chance to cross the invisible line between amateur and professional. Always take the high ground.

  • If an editor has sent you a detailed rejection, respond with a simple “thank you for your time.”
  • If it’s a form letter rejection, don’t reply.

When you receive that email of acceptance, do that happy dance, and don’t be shy about it.

There is no better feeling than knowing someone you respect liked your work enough to publish it.

Good luck and keep submitting no matter how many rejections you receive, whether you are trying to be published in a magazine or hoping to publish a novel.

Johnathan_Livingston_SeagullRemember, 18 publishers thought a story about a seagull was ridiculous before Richard Bach’s novella, Jonathan Livingston Seagull was finally picked up by MacMillan – and even they didn’t give it any real support.

Yet that novella is one that many people, myself included, consider a watershed moment in their reading lives. Keep writing, and may 2023 be a good year for us all.


Filed under writing

The Business Side of the Business – managing submissions #amwriting

Do you consider yourself a professional writer? If writing is your real career (regardless of your day job), this is a good time to consider your path. One of the best ways to get your author name out there is by having your work published in magazines and anthologies.

Its a BusinessA new year has begun, and open calls for spring and summer contests and anthologies will start appearing in various forums that I frequent. Finding places to submit your work can be challenging, but here are links to two groups on Facebook where publishers post open calls for short stories.

Open Submission Calls for Short Story Writers (All genres, including poetry)

Open Call: Science Fiction, Fantasy & Pulp Market (speculative fiction only)

  • You must apply to be accepted into these groups and answer specific questions to prove you are legitimately seeking places to submit your work.
  • Once approved, the rules of good conduct must be followed for a happy coexistence. Troublemakers and trolls are unceremoniously ejected.

Some will be open calls for anthologies that are not paid, and others will pay royalties. Be wary and carefully research the unpaid ones to ensure that the publisher is reputable and that there is a good reason why you are being asked to donate your work for no compensation.

Don’t get sucked into submitting to “charity” anthology mills, no matter how fancy their website is. These publishers give legitimate charity anthologies a bad reputation. The only cause these vanity mills support is the publisher’s pocketbook, so they are thinly disguised vanity presses.

Despite their claims, many charity anthology mills are for profit, with less than 10% of any royalties going to the specified charity and the rest remaining as the publisher’s source of income. The only volumes they sell are the ones the individual authors can pressure their friends and families to purchase.

Epic Fails meme2

For those authors new to the mean streets of publishing, vanity anthology mills seem good because they’re guaranteed to be published by these predators. The publishers do little to no editing. So, you must ask yourself this: do you want your author name listed on the cover and forever associated with that pile of awfulness?

We must do a little research and only submit our work to publications that respect both the work they publish and their authors.

And on that note, be sure any contracts you sign limit the use of your story to that volume only, and you retain all other rights.

  • You should retain the right to republish that story after a finite amount of time has passed, usually 90 days after the anthology publication date.

SFWA has a list of predatory publishers you should avoid doing business with. They also have useful information on things that might be found in predatory contracts. You don’t need to be a member to access these. https://www.sfwa.org/

But there are legitimate calls for extremely short fiction by highly reputable publishers.

These publishers pay for the work they publish and offer reasonable contracts. The compensation will be small as the work they are buying isn’t long, but it is payment. Sometimes reputable publishers have open calls for charity anthologies and those are worth submitting to, with one or two well-known authors donating a short story and the rest will be work by up-and-coming writers.

You could be one of those up-and-coming authors–but you need to have written something that you can submit.

Writers gain proficiency in all aspects of writing fiction by writing short stories and essays. We increase our ability to tell a story with minimal exposition and learn ways to use intentional prose.

For practice, try picking a theme and thinking creatively. Think a little wide of the obvious tropes (genre-specific, commonly used plot devices and archetypes). Look for an original angle that will play well to that theme, and then go for it.

theRealStoryLIRF01102021My problem is this: all my stories want to grow longer than 1,000 words. It requires weeks of effort to get my work to fit within that parameter. So, I often write practice stories, limiting myself to telling the whole story in 1000 words or less. These practice shorts serve several purposes:

  1. I have a finite amount of time to tell what happened, so only the most crucial information will fit within that space.
  2. Space is limited, so the number of characters is restricted to just the important ones.
  3. There is no room for anything that does not advance the plot or influence the outcome.
  4. The fewer the words, the more important the theme becomes. One learns how to use a theme to their advantage.

Best of all, writing a new short story each week builds a reserve, a “bank” to draw on when I need a good piece to submit to a contest. If you select a different theme for each tale, and you may have just the right story in your files to submit to a themed anthology.

When you choose to submit to an open call for themed work, your work must demonstrate your understanding of what is meant by the word “theme.” This is as important as skill as your ability to write clean and compelling prose.

When you submit your work to various places, you need to keep a record of it. Most publishers won’t accept simultaneous submissions. To avoid that, you should list:

  • what was submitted,
  • links or email addresses of where it was sent to,
  • when submissions close,
  • what date the contest ends,

To that end, I suggest you create a database for your work. I use an Excel spreadsheet that lists the title, word count, completion date, where and when I submitted the work, how much I earned for it, etc.

Below is a screenshot of what my list of submitted work looks like. I started this file in 2015 and am still using this spreadsheet to track my submissions.

List of Submitted Work

I also suggest you track your productivity by keeping a daily log of your writing sessions, a writing journal. Each time you sit down to write, make a little note to yourself of how long your writing session was and your word count at the end of the session. Make a note of the time of day you were writing as well.

It’s fun to look back and see the ebb and flow of your productivity. It’s also an excellent way to determine what time of day is your most creative.

Writing is my job. I see this little productivity diary as my way of clocking in to work. It inspires me to develop a writing routine and encourages me to write at least 100 new words every day.

In extremely short fiction such as drabbles and other flash fiction, you must include only the most essential elements of a story.

Drabble_LIRF_1_jan_2018_cjjapAs a poet, I find it far easier to tell a story in 100 words than in 1,000. That 100-word story is called a drabble and is an art form in itself.

You can find publications with open calls at Submittable. Unfortunately, that site is not as useful regarding speculative fiction as it was several years ago. However, I have seen anthology calls for spec fic there. Still, poetry collections, literary anthologies, and contests use Submittable, so that is an option. https://www.submittable.com/

Some more suggestions you could implement during the forthcoming year that fall under the heading of the business of writing are:

  • Find time for education—I attend writing conferences and seminars.
  • Find time for reading—I read for two hours every evening, often longer.
  • Follow editors on Facebook, Instagram, and also their Twitter feeds if you are still using that platform. Consider following the magazines you submit to (or would like to send work to) on each social media platform you use.

This is something a fellow author suggested: keep a networking notebook. It should include the names of people in the industry you have spoken to, who they work for (if an agent or editor), their emails and/or business cards, etc., as you never know when that contact will come in handy.

Finally, you must invest in your career, and that does require a little money. You must develop the habit of saving for future expenses, so I suggest you set aside two dollars for every day you write. That isn’t much, but it adds up and can help pay for a seminar or a conference, or any number of expenses that will come up.

coins That way, you won’t be left wondering how to attend a conference and still cover your household bills.

This list of suggestions is meant for authors who intend to write professionally. It’s a business, so these little bookkeeping habits help keep me focused and on track.

In my next post, I will explore the various forms of short fiction publishers are looking for and how the market drives what they will buy.

Credits and attributions:

Coins, courtesy of Microsoft content creators, accessed December 31, 2022. Non-commercial use.


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