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<== Click to receive a free copy of my short story Crystal Servants and learn about some of the major players in Crystal Kings, my upcoming novel due out this September.

Adrian, a spy for the King, sees a nobleman murder a servant. His desire for truth is pitted against the dangers of a high-stakes political game. When his friend Draken insists on pursuing justice, Adrian must protect those he cares about as the political games of powerful men alter the lives of everyone around him.

Monday, July 17, 2017

What's In a Name?

I've been thinking about how important titles are for books. Sure, everyone judges books by their cover, but a close second to the artwork is the title. If you can't make it past the picture and the title, it doesn't much matter what's in side, right?

As is typical, I made a list of resources to monkey around with.

  • Amazon best seller lists related to fantasy.
  • An empty spreadsheet.
  • Enough knowledge of spreadsheet formulas to be dangerous.

I typed in all the normal words from a couple hundred titles. No proper names, no connective words like "and, of, the." The first thing I noticed was that certain words were used quite a bit. Here's the top 13 words, those I had more than about three occurances of:

  • blood
  • dark
  • dragon
  • fate
  • city
  • fire
  • king
  • queen
  • long
  • mage
  • secret
  • shade

Then I sorted them and removed duplicates. You may want to save the original copy before you remove duplicates if you're following along with a spreadsheet of your own. I forgot to save a copy before removing my duplicates so I may need to go back and rebuild my word list at some point.

Now comes the fun part. Mix and match, and see how many titles you can make from just that super-common list and the connector words you skipped over when building the list.

Imaginary titles I'm making up on the spot:

  • The Dragon Queen's Mage
  • Secret of the Dark Dragon
  • Fate and Fire
  • Secret City of the Dragon King
  • City of Fire and Blood
  • Fire Shade of the Dark Mage's Secret Dragon-City of Blood

It's like buzzword bingo book titles! With some pretty art, would you crack the cover to see what these stories were about? Except that last one, I mean.

Now to expand things out a little. There are only so many titles if you can only use the hottest words on the list. I took my sorted list and build a little table to pick ten items at random from it. This lets you do the same exercise all over with a new set of buzzwords. I've just hit F9 on my spreadsheet to refresh it, and here's the random set it gave me. No pre-planning on this one.

  • critical
  • failure
  • bone
  • accord
  • bed
  • man
  • moonlight
  • hunt
  • hundredth
  • moon

Now to play mashup and make some titles. If you're a gamer, or have looked through the Amazon best seller lists, you might recognize some of these. Critical Failure is already a book title I saw, so I won't use that one in my mashup list. Romance writers have some good fodder here, but I'll bypass that as well and stick with fantasy.

  • Bone Hunt by Moonlight
  • Critical Accord
  • The Hundredth Moon
  • Moonlight's Failure
  • Moonlight Accord
  • Hunt Man by the Moon

And that was with a pretty bland word set. I've seen some that show a lot more promise. It's easy to combine the hot words list with the random list. Just don't remove the duplicates from the list, and those hot words will show up more often. If you copied my mistake and didn't save the original list with all the duplicate terms, you can just add in two or three copies of the hot words.

Spreadsheet geekery:

  • Put your words in column A. Make note of how many there are. My list ended up 233 words long.
  • Create a colum of random numbers. I did ten items in column F, and the equation is:
    • =RANDBETWEEN(1,233)
    • The 233 here is the length of the word list, so it picks a random word's row.
  • Next to the equation in column G, I do a random lookup in the word list based on that index.
    • =INDIRECT("A"&F2)
    • This means fill this cell with whatever is in column A and row whatever's in cell F2.
  • Copy those two cells (F2 and G2) and paste it to make ten or so lines with the magic equations.
  • Hit F9 to refresh until you like the random set it gives you.

Here's a screen shot of my random lookup:

Let me know if you try this, and what cool book titles you come up with. I may run through some of the best seller science fiction lists and see what sort of words are most common over there, too.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Marketing and Publicity

As with many reclusive, shy authors, I'm not great at marketing and publicity. Putting myself into the public spotlight is awkward, and by nature, I'd rather sit at home and work on projects than go out among the teeming masses.

When you treat writing as a business, that doesn't work. Even though I still feel like I'm just getting started, I want to be seen as a reliable business partner and a successful author who makes things happen on schedule and to specification. That's the engineer in me leaking out into my writing.

I've had short fiction accepted and printed by several publishers, with more on the way. They've all been great to work with and helped me with my craft, and given me tidbits here and there on marketing and publicity. Here are the ones I'm closest to with either past or current work.

I've Also done several things to integrate myself into the amazing local writing community. These go beyond my writing.

  • Attend conferences, conventions, and mass book signings. I've been to seven or so, some of them multiple times as they come around each year.
  • Join the League of Utah Writers.
  • Become a chapter president in the League of Utah Writers.
  • Volunteer to help with some of those book signings and other events.
  • Sell books at many of the conventions and conferences.
  • Speak at conferences, whether as a solo class, team teaching, as a panelist, or moderating a panel discussion.

Still, those things only go so far in building an audience of people who like to read what I like to write. With that in mind, we had Ann Hunter come out to speak to our LUW chapter several weeks ago about mailing lists. She told us about how she's used InstaFreebie to build a list and a bit of what she does with that list.

Armed with enough information to be dangerous, I wrote a short story set about ten years before my novel Crystal King, and I set it up as a giveaway with InstaFreebie. You might still be able to see the link for it at the top of my blog. I'll eventually change out that link for something else.

Just signing up, adding that link, and making a couple of Facebook and Twitter posts gave me a trickle of up to five people per day interested in reading the free story and joining my email list. Then I saw some facebook groups on extending my reach. My blog isn't a high-traffic mecca, so I wanted to bump things up to the next level. I joined some promotional events to put my free story into lists of other free things.

Two promos kicked in this week. Wow. I don't know how the week will end, but it's started really well. Yesterday I added fifty people, and we haven't hit the big push days yet. It's really cool to see that people are interested enough in my story to sign up, and have stuck through my string of emails talking about writing. Here are the links to the promos, both very well run by their organizers.

My first promo email where I share these events went out yesterday and another goes out tomorrow. These won't bump up my list because those people are already signed up. This is co-marketing with other writers because maybe their readers will be interested in adding my story to their to-be-read list, and maybe my subscribers will be interested in those other writers and their stories.

I'll use my list of new fans to keep them up to date as my release date nears, as well as giving them reviews and recommendations for other authors. My challenge now is to give them content worth their time.

Maybe I'll do a second write-up on publicity after my novel comes out to see what sort of difference it has made. The challenge there is that it's a first novel (mostly), so there's nothing to compare against besides other authors' debut novels. Stay tuned, and if you like horse stories, you can join Ann's mailing list.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Fyrecon Schedule 2017

I will be presenting at Fyrecon, a new conference on art and writing held June 8-10, 2017 in Layton, Utah.

Here's where I'll be helping out:

  • Thursday 4:30: Cat Saving for Fun and Profit: Various Story Structures (panelist)
  • Friday 1:30: Adapting Timeless Stories (moderator)
  • Friday 2:30: The Future of Steam Punk and Cyber Punk (panelist)
  • Saturday 10:30: Calligraphy (teaching a hands-on beginner class)
  • Saturday 5:30: The Short Story Submission Machine (team teaching with Julie Frost)

I guess that means I need to update my presentations page on the blog now. I like to at least reference the stuff I've done so I can remember later. "What was that one con where I did that one thing?"

I'm also signed up to attend Toni Weisskopf's master class.

  • What’s Missing? Story/Theme/Structure—How to Build a Strong Story

This will be a lot of fun. Come on out and join us!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Evolution of an Ebook Cover

I have a short story now available for free as a promo for my novel Crystal King. The problem is that I needed a cover for the ebook, and didn't want to spend a lot for something that's a freebie, and didn't want to do it without a cover.

Now, you must realize something. I'm a software engineer by trade. I do programmer art. For those not familiar with the term, it's what you get when the engineer drops placeholders into the project to be replaced by the art director later. Stick figures, colored boxes and the like.

I decided it was time to branch out my skill set a bit. I dug up this photo from a vacation last year where my wife and I visited Mount Saint Michael on the Normandy Coast.

It looked medieval (being a castle and all), so I figure it would make a good base. Next, I needed a couple of characters. It's a night scene, so all I needed was silhouettes. To oldest son: "Hey, you. Can you come here for a minute? Wear this. Now hold your hands like so. Good. Now, look like someone's interrupting your sneaking. Cool. Thanks."

Next, came The Gimp. It does most of what I want for image editing, and it's free. I loaded everything up and made the silhouettes. I added some weapons to emphasize the fantasy theme. The level of detail here is not critical because of what I do later, but I kept the detail pretty high anyway. It was easy to add weapons and boots.

I'm making an ebook cover rather than print, so I set everything to 72 DPI. It took a bit of work to colorize the background to turn it into a night scene. Here's the final background with the silhouettes in place.

This looks a little goofy, so it's time for some artistic magic. I used FotoSketcher (also free) to turn it into this next image, which has an oil-painted feel to it. This is the result of several passes through the trial and error loop as I updated the base image, the silhouettes, and the FotoSketcher settings.

I combined my intermediate cover art with text, and both evolved over several passes. These are the covers I built, with the last one using a lightened version of the previous picture.

Me: How about this?

Smart people: Nah, fonts don't work well. Can't tell it's fantasy from the picture.

Me: Okay, try this one.

Smart people: Hmm. Nope. Fonts are better, but wording needs help.

Me: I'll try something new with the text and lighten it up a bit. It prints darker, but since it's an ebook, I don't care how it prints.

Ah. There we go. We're making progress. It's not perfect, but it's far enough up the curve that it will hold its own in comparisons. Now, let's read up on cover design and see what the experts say ... Crud. Reworking some more.

It's interesting how dangerous a little knowledge can be, isn't it? I have a new hammer, and everything looks like a nail. :)

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Search and Replace: John's Pet Peeves Number 8

It's been a while since I've written a pet peeve. This one is aimed at the guy in the mirror because it's my own writing that sometimes annoys me. Over time I've discovered a list of things I can search for after a draft is complete. The more I write, the less I have to rely on this list, but it still saves me and my editors a lot of time by finding problems early.

Also, I keep seeing social media posts on self-editing and words to avoid while writing. I'm going to share my current Search and Replace (or Search and Destroy) list and just point people here as needed. Some of these came from lists, but many are things I've discovered in my own writing.

The Search part is mandatory. The Destroy part is optional since every one of these may be not only valid but the best choice in some circumstance.

I've used these to fix hundreds of instances of passive voice in a manuscript in one evening before. That's a huge time savings on hunting down and fixing things one at a time as you read through a manuscript.

Here's a post at the Writer's Circle of the sort of thing I've kept an eye out for so I can add to my list.


Adverbs can often be replaced with stronger phrasing. The easiest way is to look for the most common adverb ending followed by a space. The space is important since you don't want words with "ly" in the middle. This will be a long slog of a search so you may want to delay it until after you've done the easier ones.
  • "ly "

Bad Starts

The following entries are usually a bad way to start a sentence. Turn on the flag to match capitalization in the advanced search settings for these. These starts set might work well for folk tales or other special cases so your mileage may vary.
  • There is
  • There was
  • There are
  • There were

Weak Words

Weak or overused words to remove or replace in most cases.
  • just
  • very
  • really
  • suddenly
  • amazing
  • awesome
  • that
  • already
  • look
  • there
  • over
  • try
  • so

Passive Voice

Passive voice flags, which could also indicate weak words as shown above.
  • started/starting/starts
  • begin/began/begins
  • were
  • is
  • are
  • have been
  • had been
  • would be
  • would have
  • to be
  • could still

Senses and Emotion

Sensory or emotional crutches can be replaced with showing a scene instead of shortcutting it by telling us the emotions and senses involved. Show the scene that generates the input or thought.
  • felt
  • realized
  • saw
  • heard
  • smelled
  • seemed
  • decided

More Passive Voice

Passive voice with wildcards is a great timesaver in Word. Open the advanced search dialog and turn on wildcards. Then you can search for these passive voice hunters. Again, they're not all bad. Just mostly bad. The idea is to replace things like "was jumping" with "jumped."
  • [Ww]as [A-z]@ed
  • [Ww]as [A-z]@ing
  • [Hh]ad [A-z]@ed
  • [Hh]ave [A-z]@ed
  • [Bb]een [A-z]@ing

Obscure Stuff

Past perfect tense. This is a bit obscure, but it introduces hesitation.
  • had always

Checking Dialog Tags

You can also find lots of dialog tags that could be bad, confusing, or in need of clarification with these wildcards. It finds lots of false positives, so it's not always useful. You can find stuff like "He barked" with this.
  • [Hh]e [A-z]@ed
  • [Ss]he [A-z]@ed


Simple search and replace can fix lots of things. Word uses ^p as a paragraph marker when not in wildcard mode. You can get rid of spaces at the start and end of paragraphs with two simple searches, and then nuke all accidental double spaces. You're not one of those types who LIKES double spaces after a period, are you? ;)
  • Replace " ^p" with "^p"
  • Replace "^p " with "^p"
  • Replace two spaces with one.

And there you have it. That's the current state of my Search and Destroy list. Have fun!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

League of Utah Writers Spring Conference

I'll join thirty-some-odd presenters at this year's spring conference this coming Saturday. I'm looking forward to this conference both because there will be a lot of great content, and because I'm giving "Why Write Short Stories" presentation.

This is an annual one-day event, where the fall conference is two days and is scaled up. We're also branching out to have a smaller conference in Logan and St. George if I recall correctly. One of the major goals of the league is literacy, and helping authors to write books that people want to read falls directly under that umbrella.

You can find a lot more about the League of Utah Writers here. I'm currently one of the chapter presidents in the Salt Lake Valley where most of our chapters live.

I'll also have some anthologies containing my stories there at a vendor table. Stop by to say hi to me or to my wife Kelly!

Monday, February 20, 2017

LTUE 2017 report

Another conference has come to a close. Life, the Universe, and Everything was held last Thursday through Saturday, and I had the pleasure of attending all three days. (Thanks for the two days of vacation, day job!)

I had the wonderful opportunity to help as a panelist to talk about hacking late on Thursday. We covered good examples and bad examples of hacking in media, whether it be books or movies. Some get it close, while others sacrifice any sense of reality in order to get the right sense of tension. Technical people get annoyed if they're picky, but solving a password one character at a time gives a (hideously fake) visual sense of time constraints.

And never put two people on one keyboard to better fight against a hacker. Keyboards don't work that way.

One odd thing happened with the Apocalypse Utah anthology I mentioned in my last post. The publisher ordered copies the same day I did, but theirs came from the east coast instead of the west coast like mine. I got my books almost a full week before the conference, but the publisher's copies (including a copy for each author) didn't arrive until the Friday of the conference.

That wouldn't be so bad except that we had our release party Thursday night. The only copies of the book in the whole building were the ones I had ordered. I brought them along with me to the release party and had them available for purchase. We lined up all the authors in attendance to sign them. Luckily I had enough for all those who wanted to buy a copy at the event.

We also had some authors read their stories. Due to tight time limits, I had to skim over the middle of my story a bit, but it was a lot of fun. My story has a strong Twilight Zone vibe.

Friday morning I realized in the rush of the evening I never got a copy signed for myself at the party, so I tracked everyone down through the day Friday to get their signatures in my personal copy. It now sits on my shelf with the other anthologies containing my stories.

Saturday night we shut down the booth in the vendor room at closing time, so I packed up my books and headed out with the first load to the car. I tossed boxes into the trunk and figured it was warm enough I didn't need my coat, a 2002 Winter Olympics black leather jacket with lots of insulation I didn't need. Into the trunk with it.

The wife and I finished packing and took the rest of the load out to the car. I reached for the keys. Yup. In the coat pocket. Inside the trunk. With the banquet starting in about ten minutes.

The Mariott Hotel folks stepped up in a big way. They called around, but the local police who have tools to do that sort of car unlock were not on duty. I could call a tow truck and spend $20-50, but we decided to try our niece who lives with us to see if she could bring a spare key. She was at a movie but would call when she got home.

She called, found the key, and was on her way as we finished dinner. The tension level dropped all the way to DEFCON 5. The entertainment was great, with M. Todd Gallowglas telling stories, and Larry Correia talking about his fondness for the LTUE symposium and the authors, artists, and volunteers who make it great. It's not out on video yet, but you can probably search for Larry's talk if you want to hear Larry talk about Dave Butler's sandwiches.

Long story short, my niece drove 45 minutes to deliver the spare key, and she was able to meet an old family friend who had hung around after the conference to talk to people.

All's well that ends well, and the conference ended well.

You can find my pictures from the conference here on facebook. I got a shot of just about every panel I went to.