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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.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Writing Year in Review

It was an interesting year for me, filled with quite a few firsts. I published my first fiction way back in 1995, but only got serious about writing in the past two years. Without further ado, here's the successes.

  • A steampunk short story "Revolutionary" was published in the anthology Steel & Bone by Xchyler Publishing.
  • A short urban fantasy story "The Blight" was announced as a finalist in the Dragon Comet writing contest, with winners to be announced this coming February at LTUE.
  • A horror story "Exposure Therapy" was accepted for an anthology to be released, also at LTUE.
  • I won NaNoWriMo. For those who aren't familiar, that means I wrote a minimum of 50K words toward completing a novel. I posted about it earlier. That novel is at 73K now, and is going through edits.
  • I have four short stories currently out waiting for a response, three of which I can query next week to see what the status is.

My log also shows six rejections for the year, so it looks like my accept/reject ratio isn't that bad. I'm not a full time writer, so there are limits to how much I can have going at once. Given that this is all from the evenings and weekends not taken up by family, church, or career, I'd have to say it's not bad as entries into the writer community go.

I've been blessed to meet and become at least casual friends with a large number of fellow-writers both local and remote. The local writer community that I bump into at conventions and events is supportive beyond what I could have imagined or expected.

Picked up more books, and reviewed more books than any other year that I can recall (but I'm not counting when I raided my dad's library all through my teen years).

For the next year, my goals are to:

  • Attend four conferences (probably LTUE, FanX, Salt Lake Comic Con and Salt City Steamfest) to hobnob.
  • Recruit four new beta readers to add to the pool. This assumes I will also be a beta reader for others.
  • Publish Crystal King.
  • Submit four short stories to open calls or contests like web publishers, or 
  • Get invited to an anthology.

Some of those should be pretty easy, and some will require me to really stick my neck out and plow through undiscovered country, since like many authors, I'm naturally reclusive. If you see me, feel free to drag me out of my shell and encourage me to jump into the thick of things. I will try not to be grumpy about it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Non-Synonyms: John's Pet Peeves Number 6

This is more about language and attitude than about writing, per se. I've noticed a tendency for people to treat things as synonyms when they really aren't, and it makes communication much more difficult. It's even worse when it becomes tribal, and a group equates non-synonyms in their battle against some other tribal belief set.

To make this more about writing, these can be used as flaws for a fictional character to very good effect. A character could conflate any of these pairs, and become a more interesting and deeper character rather than a cardboard cutout. Flaws in fictional characters are interesting, where flaws in real people are more often disappointing.

So here are a few things I've noticed that have caused confusion in the past.

Opinion & Fact

Did person so-and-so really say that horrifically biased and controversial thing, or was it put together as an attention-grabbing meme? Or on a more personal level, have you taken the time to learn the difference between opinion and fact, and can you identify them when you see them?

A person's opinion is always valid, and facts are always valid. The difference is that one person's opinion may differ from another's and still be perfectly valid. Facts are non-negotiable.

Feeling something doesn't make it right for everyone. It doesn't actually make it right for anyone, necessarily. I like pizza. This doesn't mean that you must like pizza. That's the nature of opinion. On the other hand, disagreeing with me that 2+2=4 (given standard definitions) is a matter of fact, and disagreeing with me would mean that you're wrong.

Moral relativism fits into this argument, where a person may believe that they are the only one qualified to determine what is right and moral for them, when morals are really a group-wide and often humanity-wide or even a universal concept. Moral absolutes work like facts, even if we pretend they work like opinions.

If you like the idea of deciding what's right for yourself in spite of rules, regulations, standards and laws, but don't believe someone else should rob or kill you because of their own differing internal morals, then you don't really believe in moral relativism, and are simply selfish and confused. Your job is to tell if that's my opinion, or if it is a fact.

Fame & Intelligence

Have you ever seen a movie star or sports star or some other famous person come out for or against something to throw their weight behind a cause without having the background to know what they're talking about? Now, if someone wants to lend their weight to matters of opinion as mentioned above, that's great so long as everyone understands it's opinion. Lots of people take stands like that on even very controversial hot-button opinions. The problem comes in when the issue can be dealt with on a factual basis.

Some people jump into matters which can be determined by facts without first arming themselves with said facts. For instance, everyone seems to have a friend who re-posts without bothering to check or other fact-checking sources for every miracle cure or social outrage. Don't be that guy, but feel free to write about him for purposes of mockery.

Intelligence & Rationality

I saw an article about this a couple months back in reference to a very intelligent man who was convinced by his internet "girlfriend" to become a drug mule. A very intelligent man made completely irrational decisions, and destroyed his career by ending up in a foreign jail.

A quick web search showed me that this is a pretty common topic. Smart people do stupid things pretty regularly. An high score on an IQ test doesn't mean someone makes good choices. If you're a pen-and-paper role player, think about the difference between intelligence and wisdom which are typically used to help describe your character. Intelligence is knowing stuff, while being rational (or having wisdom) is making good choices based on the information you have, or can deduce.

Understanding & Agreement

This comes up at home a lot. The kids like to tell me how I just don't understand because I am not them. I'm afraid that in most cases I understand just fine. I just don't agree, and that's why kids aren't allowed to (insert dangerous or stupid idea of the day here).

In the cartoon Calvin & Hobbes, you see this all the time. Calvin wants to ride his sled off the roof or do some other outrageous thing, and his parents won't allow it. Calvin believes it's because they just don't understand. Rules suck and are designed to oppress the young and bend them to the will of the misinformed and ignorant adult, which Calvin sometimes imagined as mindless dinosaurs or evil insectoid invaders.

Love & Approval

I have had legal custody of three nieces and a nephew for over a decade because their parents had some serious problems with the legal system. I disapproved of the parents' actions regularly and pointedly, and often directly to them. Through it all, they were still family, still loved, still prayed for, and still helped whenever it looked like I could do something productive for them. Sometimes their idea of help and mine differed (see Understand & Agree above) but I did what I could. The extended family (and particularly their kids) still loved them through all of it, while maintaining a lack of approval for the poor choices which were made.

Part of raising children is teaching them what is approved and what is not while maintaining a loving environment. You don't let your toddler play in the street, even when she wants to, because you don't approve of the behavior. Your disapproval is enhanced by your love, not diminished by it.

Disagreement & Hate

This is linked at the hip with the previous idea of love and approval. I can disagree with you without hating you. It's pretty easy, actually. It happens all the time. I disagree with kids, as noted above. I disagree with my boss, my friends, and complete strangers. My own internal desires and goals disagree with each other on a regular basis, but it's never filled me with self-loathing. Disagreement is part of being human. Whenever there is opinion involved, you can guarantee disagreement. When facts are involved, guess what. People still disagree. People can disagree without hate. Whether people do disagree without hate is up to them. Feel free to disagree, but know that you will be wrong. I won't hate you for it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Crystal King novel

I just finished my first pass of Crystal King all the way through to the end. It was my NaNoWriMo project. I was able to top 50,000 words to win NaNoWriMo, but I wasn't done yet. At about 60,000 words, I have my first rough pass done. Really rough.

Some writers need to edit down from their first pass. Because of the way I write, I'll expand the story as I edit, since I tend to write without all the color and description in my first pass.

One amusing note was that Brandon Sanderson posted regularly on how much he wrote in November, and he squeaked in at 50K on the 30th of November. If you ignore clear quality differences, I outwrote Brandon Sanderson last month. :)

Brandon posted this on Facebook:

And I've finished #NaNoWriMo2015. 50,031 words on Stormlight 3 this month--with an entire hour to spare, even. :)
Posted by Brandon Sanderson on Monday, November 30, 2015

Reasons why I made it this far

  1. NaNoWriMo gave me targets to shoot for.
  2. I had a really detailed outline, which helped me to write quickly. I topped 4,000 words on at least four days.
  3. My outline was the right order of magnitude in size. I had hoped it would turn into about 80-90k words, and it might reach 80k once I flesh things out a bit.
  4. I took Thanksgiving week as vacation from the day job. I was on pace to make it without that, but it helped.
  5. Friends and family all encouraged me.


If I can get my editing done quickly enough, my goal is to have it ready to pitch at LTUE. I have one small press I've already worked with whom I can ask to give it a look, and one or two more I really want to check with.

Also, there some anthologies here and here I want to submit to, but those depend on whether I get my edits done on the novel.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Submission Guidelines: John's Pet Peeves Number 5

File this one under "Bite the Hand that Feeds You" since it's probably bad form to complain about the people who send contracts and money to authors. My hope here is not to get myself blacklisted, but to point out some odd things you might see as an author, and how I ended up dealing with them. In the spirit of limiting my inner curmudgeon, I won't call out names on any examples of what bugs me.

I'm primarily concerned with short story submissions here. Your mileage may vary with novels, but most publishers and agents will give you guidelines similar to the short fiction guidelines.

Let's cover the simple stuff first. Some sites, including some qualifying markets for SFWA don't actually specify a manuscript format at all. In those cases, they're assuming you're professional enough to already know. Some sites just refer to a standard such as William Shunn's Proper Manuscript Format web page, or they refer to Standard Manuscript Format without any example or citation. Those are the easy ones once you know what to do, but they can be a pain for a beginner who doesn't know where to look. For those markets, I just keep a template document with all the right headers, paragraph format, and writer info block already in place.

But in case you were wondering, standard format isn't really all that standard. You can pick out differences, for instance, between William Schunn's example and this other one. The good news is that if you adhere to one, you're not too far off from the other.

Other things are not so easy to figure out. I've seen several problems, some of which can be chalked up to typos and leftover editing errors. Others are shortcuts people have taken, some of which can leave submitters confused.

  • Bad links. Yeah, things happen sometimes, but it's really annoying to chase through and find yourself staring at a 404 error instead of submission guidelines.
  • Stale information is really annoying. There was a regular annual contest once, and the page was left active. I sent an email about it, and they updated the page with a new contact email, but it turns out that the contest wasn't even held that year.
  • Some places won't specify their policy on simultaneous submissions (sending a story to more than one place at a time) or multiple submissions (sending more than one story to the same place). The unstated standard policy is to not do either, but some places don't make that clear.
  • Misspelled or transposed words in the guidelines. I saw a font name with the words out of order once. This wasn't a big deal to figure out, but my internal spell checker was triggered as I read their guidelines.
  • While closed for submissions due to a regular submission schedule or a temporary closure, some places take down their guidelines entirely rather than leave them up for those who may wish to submit later.
  • Partial specifications, such as one-inch margins, mono-spaced font, double-spaced lines. You have to assume they mean standard format on everything not mentioned, but if they're calling out things that are already standard format, it makes me wonder if they just left stuff off.
  • I've seen guidelines spread across multiple web pages. Not just scroll-up scroll-down, but actual different URLs to get all the info. It makes me wonder if this is yet another publisher running an IQ test to filter out the writers who can't figure it out.
  • Some publishers will purposely change the desired font, line spacing, or margins just to see if you'll notice. If you can't  read and follow instructions, they're not likely to be interested in you, even if you've already formatted your story to the usual standards. Either that, or they're just really picky about readability.
Longer fiction submissions generally require a synopsis. Details matter when requesting a synopsis, and I've seen vague requests to tell what the story is about, when it helps a lot more to have details such as requested page or paragraph counts, and whether or not choice excerpts may be helpful for flavor, or if you should give a strict outline rather than prose summary.

When it comes to file format, it's the writer who must be flexible. I also understand the limits publishers may put on submissions. If they only accept RTF, it could be because someone sent them a virus-infected mess once. Specifying weird file formats is not a pet peeve for me. Some even go as far as to have a web form where you must paste your text to submit the story. That bypasses the entire problem of standard format and submissions, since they also ask for all the other info they want, such as name, address, email, and so on. Good on them for being both clear and safe from corrupted files.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

UAACON15 Report

Here's proof that an event doesn't need to be big to be very useful. UAACON was held in two rooms of the Springville, Utah public library, and had six speakers per room. Unfortunately I was double booked for the day, and only made it to four of the presentations, and talked to one of the other presenters briefly about her topic.

The link above will take you to a description of the event, but I wanted to cover some of the things I learned.

Laura Watkins

First up was Laura Watkins talking about marketing. The short answer is that if it's boring, you're doing it wrong. It's about relationships, emotions, and filling a need with the customer (your reader). It's not something you can do for a week once you've got a book hitting Amazon because it takes a lot of time to develop those relationships as someone who is genuinely interested in both people and subjects that they're interested in.

On social media, she emphasized posting regularly. This isn't the same as posting often. If your schedule is one blog post a month, keep it. If it's a tweet every waking hour, keep it. The idea is to make your schedule predictable.

She recommended Ryan Mendenhall's book Selling Well: The 5 Relationships That Experts, Authors & Coaches Use To Sell 1,000 Books In 21 Days. Ryan was there as well, but wasn't on the presenter schedule.

Her presentation ended with this. If marketing is boring, then are you:

  • Just selling?
  • Not enjoying what you do?
  • Not genuine?
  • Not connecting?
  • Not feeling it?
  • Not filling a need?
  • Burned out?

Unfortunately, I missed John Brown's message on Scene / Sequel during that first hour since I haven't delivered a time machine to myself from the future yet. I can still only be in one place at a time.

Michael Darling

My second session was Michael Darling, on Using Misdirection. He's both a magician and an author, and described how indirection is a valuable tool in fiction. Of course he started us off with an example by selecting a volunteer from the audience. The little magic trick he showed us was first, an example to us of getting his assistant to not focus on what he was doing. Second, he showed us that he had used a second level of indirection against us as his audience. The trick itself isn't as important as the message that indirection is entertaining, and can be pushed layer upon layer to be revealed when it will have the most impact.

Michael and his assistant. Beware of sitting in the front row or you might be called upon.

He emphasized the difference between indirection and a trick ending. Trick endings are where the writer pulls one over on the reader, more like "ha ha, got you" than "while you thought you knew what happened, this was under your nose the whole time." As an example, he described a lot of the misdirection in the movie "The Sixth Sense" as the right way to do it.

The highlights:

  • Manipulate the reader through deliberate choices to enhance a story and achieve a desired effect.
  • Not a trick ending.
  • People can focus on one or two things at a time, so you can sneak stuff past them by making it look innocent.
  • Keep characters away from climactic situations both in time and distance through misdirection.
  • Details should be scattered through a story, then should become important later.
  • It's a process of learning for both the character and the reader.
  • Review important things when they become important.

You can misdirect people in many ways:

  • Title (A story title seems to be about one thing, but is about another, The Sixth Sense)
  • Character (Is the story really about the character you think it's about? Psycho.)
  • Setting (Are you sure that you're not doing something besides the obvious? Ender's Game.)
  • Object (Is the McGuffin really what you think it is? Maltese Falcon, Sword of Shannara)
  • Plot (Derp. Forgot what his examples were)

One of the most critical points was that as a writer, you must always play fair. Leave real clues and hints. It's fine if they don't look like hints until the story ends, but don't yank the reader's chain by trying to fool them because readers don't like having a joke pulled on them.

Jordan McCollum

Jordan McCollum spoke about Approaching POV Through Voice. A lot of writing has issues with Point of View, and with character voice. If you can't tell who the POV character is by picking a random page, or if all your characters speak the same way and have the same feel, then you're stuck in the area she was helping us to fix.

The solutions are to generate a distinctive voice for each character, and to use good POV mechanics.


Create a cohesive whole where you and the reader will both see the needs, abilities, attitudes, beliefs, hobbies, and interests of your characters to make them stand out from each other. You need to dig deep to ask why and how they do things, and why anyone should care.

The voice should be distinct enough that you should be able to get rid of most of your dialog tags (he said, she said scaffolding). You need to have the POV character notice what they would really be interested in. That allows them to become likable when a reader shares an interest, and it allows you to believably make characters interested in each other.

POV Mechanics

Start a scene with anchors. Always mention the POV character first, and always tie them to the scene physically by having them do something. Don't leave the reader hanging trying to figure out whose head they are in, or where they might be. Once you've got the character named and doing something, move on to their thought or concern to cement things firmly.

Callie Stoker

Again, I missed a session I wanted to go to. Callie Stoker spoke on Plotting to Pantsing: where your prewriting falls on the pectrum. I've gotten to know her over the past couple of years as she has spoken at several conferences, and she's always been eager to talk shop and help new writers. While I was at the library I bought a copy of Secrets & Doors, an anthology she edited.

Julie Coulter Bellon

Julie Coulter Bellon spoke about Self Editing / Revision.

Julie gave us a list of things to watch for.

  • Too many dialog tags.
  • Cliches.
  • To many adjectives and adverbs.
  • Tense inconsistency.
  • Subject / verb agreement.
  • Repetitious descriptions.
  • Overuse of favorite words.
  • Weak POV and chapter breaks.

When self-editing, it's good to walk away from a story for a bit, to print it out and review it as hard copy, and to let someone else read it. There are lots of tricks to get you to see your own mistakes instead of just automatically glossing over them, but those are the ones she mentioned.

She also gave us an editor's checklist of things to watch out for.

  • Characterization
  • Setting (which can sometimes behave as a character for purposes of plot)
  • Continuity
  • Conflict
  • Plot
  • Balance between narrative, action and dialog
  • Natural flow

To finish up a book, you can go over edit lists to rewrite. This can rejuvenate the story and the characters, and is a chance to make the story shine.

Julie ended with a quote:
You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what's burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke. - Arthur Polotnik
After Julie's session I ended up running into that whole time machine problem again, and needed to be in two places at once. Unfortunately, UAACON15 lost out, so I missed the last two sessions. The part I was able to attend was great, and it was good to both review and learn new things.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Non-Uniform Distribution of Writer Events

It's been quite a week. A friend has just released Desert Rains, a new novel on Amazon, another friend is doing really well with pre-orders on her 2nd in a series Rider of the Crown, Two other close friends are in the newly released anthology Beyond the Wail. The funny part is I hang out with all four of them and a few other friends almost weekly. That's a pretty high author density for a group that didn't form because of writing. As for myself, one of my short stories got an acceptance that I can't quite announce yet (and another got a rejection), and I submitted a story to a new contest. Yeah, I know I'm small potatoes, but I take success where I can. :)

One important thing to remember with writing is that it's NOT zero sum. More good books from good authors means more happy readers who buy more books from more authors. Mutual support and promotion is a big deal, and I'm happy to report that there are a lot of authors (some getting fairly well known) that have been happy to give me advice and pointers, and to just socialize. I've also been happy to promote them. Not "promote them in return" but promote them because they're good people who have created good things.

Jana (Desert Rains' author) described the care and feeding of authors on Facebook:

And as a gentle reminder. If you love an author, any author, the best way you can show that love is:
1: Buy their books
2: Share their books
3: Review their books
4: Send chocolate

The writer community may have its quirks and arguments at times, but I've felt welcomed across the board as I've taken the time to get to know people and make several new friends over the past couple of years.

I'm not sure how many accepted short stories I will do before I tackle the novel I have outlined, but I'm getting there.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Beyond the Wail - Twelve Grave Stories of Love and Loss

I am still only part way through an advanced reader copy of this book, but what I have read is a lot of fun, particularly if you like reading about paranormal and relationships. That's what paranormal is all about, isn't it? I have a couple of long-time personal friends who have stories in the book, but I'm going to highlight the anthology as a whole and one of the other authors today.

About the Anthology

What is it about fear and the unknown that pulls so passionately at the human heart? Perhaps we are drawn not to the darkness itself, but to the resolution, the overcoming of what we most deeply dread. After all, the more terrible the struggle, the greater the victory when it comes at last. Presented in this anthology are twelve remarkable stories of the darkness that overshadows us, and the resolution that may be found beyond them. They are stories of fear and oppression, but ultimately stories of hope, stories that will take you BEYOND THE WAIL.

At twelve stories, this is a large anthology. There is plenty to sink your teeth into here. We'll check with one of the authors about her story now.

About "Date Due" by Danielle E. Shipley

Danielle describes her story thus:
Let's talk for a bit with A magic library’s guardian determined to protect her treasured books, whether their authors elect to do things the easy way … or the fatal one.

How did you come up with the concept for your story?

I came across an image accompanied by the phrase, “I wish I had a secret library with all the books in the world in it.” My brain’s third reaction – after playing a few bars of the intro from “Into the Woods” and just generally drooling over the thought of ALL THE BOOKS – was to question: Suppose someone had a library full of all the books never written? How far would this bibliophile go to keep the books’ authors from writing them out of his/her possession? I wondered “aloud” on my Facebook page, and multiple responders commented, “You totally have to write this.” My muse seconded the motion, and the “Losers Weepers” theme of Xchyler Publishing’s then-upcoming anthology contest matched my premise perfectly, so I basically had no choice but to get the tale down on paper.

How did you come up with the title?

I wanted something equal parts library-related and ominous. “Date Due” – the little phrase seen on library book check-out cards/receipts everywhere – fit both criteria to a tee. Like a librarian’s dark day of reckoning.

Please provide some insight into or a secret or two about your story.

One of my inspirations was Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”. Both Poe’s narrator and mine are anonymous – the text never once gives their names – and both insist throughout the story that they’re not insane, despite the fact that they are blatantly out of their minds. And, y’know, they’re both murderers.

What was the most surprising part of writing this story?

It was slightly slow going, for a short story of mine. I can normally knock out a story of this length in a day or two, but this one took me ten. My narrator would not be rushed. She wanted to give me her tale just so, and in her own sweet time.

What was the hardest part of writing your story, and how did you overcome it?

The hardest part was titling all of the books the narrator called out by name. Coming up with a title is hard enough for me when I’m familiar with the story in question. To name a book I’ve never read? Horror! Fortunately, once I’d gotten a first draft out of the way, with “[TITLE]” acting as a placeholder wherever necessary, a couple of my best pals were willing to toss out some random options, and I picked and tweaked my favorites from the list to insert into the blank spaces. 

Sherlock: Robert Downey, Jr. or Benedict Cumberbatch? 

Very much enjoyed what RDJ brought to the table, but I’ve got to give this one to Cumberbatch. All my love to BBC’s Sherlock!

About Danielle E. Shipley

Danielle E. Shipley’s first novelettes told the everyday misadventures of wacky kids like herself. . . . Or so she thought. Unbeknownst to them all, half of her characters were actually closeted elves, dwarves, fairies, or some combination thereof. When it all came to light, Danielle did the sensible thing: packed up and moved to Fantasy Land, where daily rent is the low, low price of her heart, soul, blood, sweat, tears, firstborn child, sanity, and words; lots of them. She’s also been known to spend short bursts of time in the real-life Chicago area with the parents who home schooled her and the two little sisters who keep her humble.

There are a zillion ways to get to Danielle's web presence. Here are a few places to learn more about her:

About Xchyler Publishing

The publisher is running a give-away raffle, so loot is involved! Enter and see what you can win. These have had some cool prizes in the past. Here's the link to it:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

They've also put together a cool trailer for the book.

You can buy Beyond the Wail at Amazon, and find it on GoodReads.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Logic, Math and Lingusitics: John's Pet Peeves Number 4

Okay, you're probably going to think this is just too picky, but that makes you wrong. These things really bug me, and should bug all right-thinking rational people everywhere.

"One of the only"

Let's be clear headed here. It's either "one of" or "the only," and never both. the first case is when there are more than one and the item in question is one of them. The second is if there is only one and the one you have is it. You can't have more than one and exactly one of something because that is a logical contradiction.

Now that you've read this, you have been infected, and you'll see and hear this everywhere. It's like buying a white Kia, then discovering the city has thousands of them being driven around. You don't notice until something like that is pointed out, then you can't un-notice it.

"Three times less"

Really? Come on, guys. This is simple math. "Three times" means you are multiplying something by three. What can you multiply by three to get one third of something (which is what the writer or speaker probably meant to say)? Math says that in this example you get one third by multiplying one ninth by three. So to generalize, for "N times less," you're somehow talking about some mysterious property that is 1 / (n x n) of the original. That's just wrong. Stop it!

Now be aware that it's perfectly normal if you're talking about percentages to say "twenty five percent less" because you're clearly talking about something in relation to the whole, so you meant seventy five percent. No brain damaging weird inverse square calculations needed. Even "one third less" or "one third of" are cool because they also refer to a portion of the whole.

You can also say "three times more" with no problem, because that also refers to the whole thing and not some bizarre fractional component required to make the math work.

I'm glad we had this little chat. If you're going to ignore me and keep using these perverse expressions, have mercy and don't do it where I can hear.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Salt Lake Comic Con 2015 Day 3

It's been a very long but fun three days. I was able to get to four panels, all related to writing in one way or another. Also I managed to bring my "writing notes" notebook with me, so I didn't have to take notes on my phone, or borrow my wife's notebook.
Me and Kelly steam punking
My wife and I actually had costumes that went together for day three.  Day one, she was Rapunzel and I had my lab coat. Day two, she was steampunk, and I wore a Pinkie and the Brain shirt. Finaly, we go together.

Jodi and Joe Milner
Jodi Milner and her husband stopped by the Xchyler author table to say hi. She's in one of the anthologies we had for sale at our table. They were merciless and didn't stay to help at the table. :)

The First Five Pages: How to Hook you Readers Instantly
with your Novel or Screenplay
I took more notes at this panel than from any other the whole week. We learned a lot of what editors look for and what will get a story dropped for not starting out well. If you haven't given the editor a reason to care by page three, then you don't have much chance for success.

Some of the good points to cover are to generate detailed questions in the reader's mind with the problems you pose. Start out with something happening, which I've heard multiple times as starting on the day that's different. Avoid having a character wake up at the start of the story (unless it is really important and plays into the story somehow).

While the conflict, setting, and voice are important, the characters are critical because that's how you snare the reader's interest.

The biggest part of my notes related to the question, how do you learn the craft? Rather than just ways to learn, the list contained things to learn as well.

  • Read and analyze good stories (books and movies) as you would a textbook.
  • Get into a good critique group and find alpha readers who will be tough and honest.
  • Are you blocked or bogged down? Just write through it with whatever you can do and come back to edit later.
  • Listen to critiques, but more in aggregate than as individual messages. You'll never please everyone, but if 80% of your alpha readers dislike something, you should probably fix it.
  • Identify when someone else's book is good by noticing when your internal editor goes quiet.
  • Read the first page or two of every story in an anthology. Identify why some are more interesting.
  • After you finish something, write something new before going back to edit. It's sort of a palate cleanser.
  • Read lots of story beginnings. Identify what the good ones have in common. Do this in genres you don't normally read.
  • Promise a good character, theme or setting up front.
  • Promise conflict in page 1 or 2, then keep piling it on.
  • Scenes are new openings. Treat them as you would a story opening.
  • Editors need to see the author's confidence by how you write.
  • Don't start by pulling all the stops, because you won't have anywhere to go that's more extreme later.
  • Don't kill characters until the reader cares about them.
So that's the panel's list of advice.

Writing MG/YA Fantasy
 Similar to one of yesterday's panels, they covered ages for mid grade and young adult. MG is typically 10-13, while YA is 13+. The difference is that MG is often about belonging and finding your place in the world filled with external pressures. YA is more about individuality and finding yourself, with internal pressures.

James Dashner told about a horrible romance scene that was cut from Maze Runner. It's fun to hear about some of the things which end up on the cutting room floor.

They all agreed that you should not change the way you write based on the audience. Things like altering vocabulary and style don't do what you would expect for younger kids. Vocab and style are not the things that make it YA or MG.

James A. Owen talked about pigeon holes authors could get stuck into in the past, making them forever YA, or MG, or some other category or genre. That's not nearly the problem it used to be, and lots of authors do cross-overs to other areas these days.

This panel's list of advice: (as with all advice, some things may conflict, and some won't apply the way you expect.)

  • Find a favorite book. Highlight favorite scenes. Break it down and analyze it.
  • Don't write based on market analysis. Use your own voice and preferences.
  • Don't end the writing day at an end point like a complete chapter. Leave it where it's easy to pick back up.
  • Enhanced dumb ideas are no longer dumb ideas. You don't need to start with pure genius.
  • Sometimes the ideas you think are scary or hard are the best choice because they stretch your abilities.
  • You must make the kid be the hero in MG and YA. Don't ever send the adult to fix the problem or the story fails.
  • On a series, don't start book 2 until book 1 sells, because you may end up with serious editing passes which may invalidate anything you do.

Creating Good Characters
I heard some new things here when talking about creating good characters. Rather than just being sympathetic, good characters are fun, interesting, intriguing, and cool. There should be layers to what makes them tick, and those layers should be revealed over time. If you write your character true to all their layers but reveal them slowly, your reader will have "aha!" moments.

Good characters will take action rather than respond to it. Reacting is weak, while acting is strong. Their actions must matter to themselves.

The difficult balance is to make them imperfect so they have room to grow or make mistakes, because their ability to lose is important to the reader. If the reader believes a character can't be hurt, no amount of peril will make a difference.

Whether hero, villain, or side character, they're the hero of their own story. The real hero of your story just gets more attention from you as the author. One of the few differences is that villains often will have certainty where your hero is conflicted.

Characters need to have different voice, humor and attitudes so they don't all end up sounding the same.
Urban Fantasy
Like Friday, I ended the day with a heavy hitter panel full of successful urban fantasy authors. There was a lot of overlap between this one and last night's panelists. They were (left to right) Shawn Speakman, J, R. Johansson, Larry Correia, Terry Brooks, Jim Butcher, and Kevin Hearne.

One theme they covered is that normal is boring. Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden character was built to be unusual. He's six feet nine inches tall, and has a mixed bag of really odd traits.

For every fantastic thing you add to urban fantasy, a good rule of thumb is to add two normal things to balance things out and make it not be all weird and new, which can lose a reader's interest.

The panelists described their favorite characters, monsters, and other writers that they liked. Nope, Jim didn't choose the T-Rex. The skin walker won that contest.

Now it's time to prop the feet up for a bit of rest and recovery and a day at church before the day job calls me back to the real world on Monday.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Salt Lake Comic Con 2015 Day 2

The vendor floor opened earlier Friday, so I was there to help get our table set up. I spent time at our table on and off all day between the various panels, but had a good chance to get to some really fun ones.

Me with Tracy Hickman
I got "Lincoln's Wizard" signed by Tracy Hickman and Dan Willis. It should be good for a nice steampunk fix.

Killing Your Darlings: When Authors Turn Homicidal
The panelists talked about murderous authors from two viewpoints. First, you must kill the parts of your story that aren't working as well as they could. Second, there was a lot of discussion about characters who die, and the purposes of those deaths. There must always be some reason for the death, even if it is just to point out that a character is a sociopath.

Writing Action: Fisticuffs, Guns & Things that Blow Up Real Good
This was a really fun panel.There was a lot of talk about if you're going to put details in, get it right. Larry Correia said that the only fans that will come down on you harder than gun nuts for a mistake (like for blunders such as writing about the non-existent safety on a Glock) are the horse lovers. They're not hay-powered motorcycles.

If you're not an expert at something, find one, or gloss over the details you don't know. It should be pretty easy to send action scenes past a friend who knows martial arts or boxing, is in the military, or is a police officer. There was a conversation about being able to tell a difference between an author who has been punched in the face and one who hasn't.

Other interesting bits are that the character's perception of violence is critical. Are they an emotional iceberg, or do they freak out? Their response to violence tells a lot. Action scenes typically should come down to a person making a mistake that costs them a fight. The interesting part is to identify why the mistake happened.

Pacing and Plotting in YA Fiction
It was actually difficult for the panelists to identify the specific differences in YA plotting and pacing, since there is such a wide variety of successful YA titles. Most of it comes down to YA relies upon characters and their identity, finding out who they are. For contrast, mid grade tends to concentrate more upon the discovery of independence.

Plotting related to identity can look a lot like plotting for other things, so the concepts behind it are the same. Some of the differences, however, are the details such as what an identity crisis looks like before smart phones and Internet vs. after.

From MST3K to Invader Zim: Adventures in Television With TV's Frank
I hadn't planned to attend this one, but caught the last half. I'm a fan of MST3K, but mostly just wanted to post this picture of Frank Conniff to make my friend Bryan jealous. It was fun to listen to him talk about bringing in the tape for Manos: The Hands of Fate. He also talked about how some movies were just to horrible to be able to give them the MST3K treatment.

Then there was my favorite panel of the day, Writing Fantasy: An Inside Look at the Art of Creating the Fantastic. It was loaded with the heavy hitters at the convention, as shown below.

Terry Brooks

Jessica Day George

R. A. Salvatore

David Farland

Jim Butcher

James A. Owen
Shawn Speakman (moderator)
Yeah, this was a lot of fun as you might suspect, and most of it was pure entertainment value with bits of cool advice tossed in. There was some initial discussion about what fantasy consisted of, like having a quest, a band of heroes, conflict of good vs. evil, and magic. There are rewards for right choices, and penalties for bad choices.

Character is more important than plot, but that's not limited to fantasy by any means.

Jim Butcher told about how he and a writing teacher disagreed at a fundamental level on a lot of things. She had sold forty-some-odd books, but he was a lit major! He decided to prove her wrong by following every single piece of her advice to prove how bad the book would end up. It was the first Harry Dresden novel, and he learned that she knew what she was doing, and that he could write successfully and enjoy what he did in an genre that he hadn't planned on.

They all seemed to agree that you should let the reader take part in the creation of the story. Rather than spell everything out, leave room for imagination because the reader may be able to imagine something better than you can write because it's tailored to them.

So there's Day 2. One more to go!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Salt Lake Comic Con 2015 Day 1

It took a few texts and wandering around before all the passes were in the right hands to get in to set up the Xchyler Publishing author's table. (Not an official table for the publisher, but a bunch of their authors getting together since we're mostly locals.)

Here's Jay Barnson manning our table, photobombing himself.
We were next to the Curiosity Quills and Space Balrogs folks, so we had several book-laden tables in a row. I was able to get away from the table for a few panel discussions, which is always fun. I was rushing from one thing to another, so I didn't get as much time to talk to people as I would like.

Writing Advice: The Good, The Bad & The Very Ugly
It was fun to hear several people describe the best and worst writing advise they've received. Michaelbrent Collings is a strict and disciplined moderator, and helped things move along smoothly. One thing in particular which came out is that any time someone expresses an opinion on how to write with "always" or "never" they are most likely wrong.

Outlining Vs. Discovery Writing
Outline vs. Discovery is also known as Plotter vs. Pantser. Do you outline everything, or do you write by the seat of your pants? It turns out that it's more of a broad spectrum with those two cases being the extremes. Professional authors tend to do more plotting since they have deadlines and schedules, and need to be able to write to deadlines. Newer authors tend to do more free-form writing. Neither is an absolute though, and everyone tends to do a mix of some kind.

Creating Horror: How to Scare the Crap out of People
I'm writing a short horror story, so I figured I'd spend some time listening to successful scary story writers. Michaelbrent Collings is a complete loose cannon when not moderating, and is loads of fun to listen to. :) You tend to need to write about what scares you personally, and to broaden it out from there to take in the fears of more than just yourself. Most of these authors claim a Stephen King book as the scariest they've ever read, but I don't think they doubled up on any single book.

Writing a Book Series
Dave Farland (AKA Dave Wolverton) moderated this one. Writing and pitching books as a series can save a lot of time once you've built a reputation up to where you can approach agents and publishers that way. If you have the reputation for dependability, a series can keep you going on a project for a lot longer than single books can. It's not quite so good as a first entry out of the chute if you're a new author, just because it's hard for a publisher to trust someone that's an unknown.

Now I'm looking forward to Friday and Saturday. Today I forgot to take a notebook so I had to run from memories jogged by my pictures. Tomorrow will be better.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Realistic Physics: John's Pet Peeves Number 3

I saw an article in the newspaper this past week about a school bus which went off the edge of an overpass. It was a horrible tragedy where people died. Things like that happen in the real world. Physics is not on your side when you disagree with reality.

I'm all for the thrilling chase in fiction, don't get me wrong. I just believe there should be some justification when someone drops thirty feet onto concrete and doesn't end up in a hospital, or jumps a car over a river without busting all axles when it lands. At least in the James Bond movies, the boats they use for special effects use jets instead of props, so there's nothing to scrape off as the boat scoots along the ground.

When writing fiction with significant action scenes where physics plays a role, I'd recommend consulting an actual fan or student of physics. Consultants are great in lots of areas, and physics is one that can make or break a scene.

There's a lot of middle ground between having a car made of indestructible super-stuff that never scratches, and having it made of explodium. Mind you, parody is great. I've seen a Chevy Nova turn into a giant fireball when something touched its bumper, and it was great! But if your goal is realism and not yoinking your reader out of the story, you need to pay attention to the little things. Odds are pretty good that you'll have a reader that remembers high school physics, and will complain if you do it wrong.

You may need to know, for instance, which way precession will turn a space station if you turn on rockets to change it's spin axis before stopping the spin. If you don't know anyone to ask, get out a bicycle tire and give it a try. Interestingly enough, the rotation axis can align with the thrust vector of the rocket. If that doesn't make sense, that's why you need consultants and proof readers.

You might need to know how far a car really can drop before the engine mounts just won't take any more, or what can blow out shocks or tires. How do crumple zones work? I have no idea of the details, so I would have to ask someone who does bodywork on cars. What are the odds of needing to cut someone out of a car with the jaws of life if their car gets squished between to semis? What speed of collision would likely make the question moot? How does ablative shielding work on reentry for space vehicles, and how long does it last?

Here's an example from my short story Revolutionary. I needed to know how long it would take to reach the ground skydiving from 30,000 feet, so I looked up the terminal velocity of a human body and did the math. If math isn't your friend, find a consultant (preferably a good friend) who likes math. You can thank them in your dedication. Knowing terminal velocity gave me hard limits on the length of a fight scene where there were three people and two parachutes. At two thousand feet, how much longer did they have? What does it take to steer, and to change your rate of descent? If I'd got any of that wrong, anyone who knows skydiving would likely launch the book through the air rather than finish the story.

In summary, do what you can to write a fun story, then for all those details that you might not know off the top of your head, verify them. Your readers will thank you.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Not-So-Hard Science Fiction: John's Pet Peeves Number 2

I've seen some pretty odd things praised for their realism in science fiction, and I'm sure you have, too. There are a lot of goofy details that just get ignored as well.

Hard SF by its nature takes our current universe, moves it to a futuristic setting, and will generally grab one or two fantastic elements and declare them to be science for purposes of the story. This could be faster than light travel, time machines, wormholes you can travel through, or other story elements that don't work like they do in the real world.

My pet peeve is when it's done inconsistently. I'm going to pick on a movie this time instead of picking just on writing. I haven't read the novelization of Interstellar, so I will stick with what I know.

Take relativity and time dialation for instance. If you're going close enough to an event horizon to get a 1000:1 or greater time dialation ratio by going from orbit to a planet, no planet is going to survive the shear effects and no ship is going to hang in the same spot "in orbit" and never get closer to the event horizon.

Also, if you need a full Saturn-V-sized rocket to get off the earth's surface the first time, I would not believe a ship the size of a Star Trek shuttle can just hop between surface and orbit multiple times.

Consistency will buy you a lot of "suspension of disbelief." Rewriting a rule is normal, Just make everything follow that new rule. Consider the consequences and ramifications of having changed a rule. Is space travel simple and fast? It had better be the same every time it's used.Are you using relativistic slower-than-light travel? You'd better bone up on time dialation and use it consistently everywhere. Don't forge orbital mechanics, either. As a different sort of example (and one that doesn't poke fun at Interstellar), do you want to arm your soldiers with swords? You'd better have a consistent reason why long range guns won't get the job done, because they replaced older tools for a reason.

Sorry if I've ruined the movie Interstellar for you now by raising an eyebrow at everyone who praised its accuracy. But just so you know, I've watched it twice. On purpose. Just don't expect me to praise it for its science, or for its consistency.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A Shape Shifter Gaffe: John’s Pet Peeves Number 1

Not that this is my biggest pet peeve, it’s just the first one I decided to write about. J

Have you ever read an urban fantasy story or some other sort of fiction where people shape shift into animals? Have you ever read about knees reversing direction as the person became an animal? Have you been tempted to write that into one of your stories?

For the love of biology, do not do this! It makes me want to throw the book, and if you read a little farther, it might get the same reaction from you in the future. This is because I like to share.

Do a couple of web searches. First, find an animal skeleton with the bones labelled. It can be a dog, cat, horse, wolf, whatever. Now do a search for a human skeleton, also with the bones labelled. Now, note that many of the same bones show up in both places. Do you see that bendy part that looks like a backwards knee on the rear leg of a dog or cat? That would be a heel.

If you look at the knee on the rear legs, you can see that most animals have a patella, or knee cap. The knees face forward. FORWARD!

Now that you’ve looked up and seen the differences, don’t assume four legged animals are all the same. It gets even more interesting if you look at the front leg of a horse. The equivalent of the elbow is actually up quite high where the humerus ends, and the entire lower half of the leg, what you would think of as everything below the forward-facing knee, is made up of metacarpals, or what for you and me are wrist and hand bones. It makes a little more sense if you think of the hoof as a fingernail.

Granted, a writer who is making up fantasy for entertainment purposes should not be forcibly held to rigorous scientific standards. Hard science fiction is a category of story that tries to get the fiddly scientific bits right as much as the story allows. Hard fantasy isn’t a category at all. I suspect there is a reason for this. I’ve enjoyed some stories that got their biology so horribly wrong that I suspect they never took a class, never cracked a book, never did a web search on the subject, and probably had no pets.

Still, I can’t help but think how much better a story would be if the paws were not so faux, since illogical biology can rip a reader right out of the story just as much as any other writing blunder if the reader has a little knowledge in the area where an author has skimped.

I feel better for having shared. How about you? Do you have a pet peeve that you want to share?

Saturday, August 15, 2015

DragonComet short story contest

I'm sure anyone with a significant number of stories sold will likely read this and think, "noob." :) Veterans probably don't go "squee" when they receive a little bit of recognition. I just found that a story of mine has been selected as a finalist for the DragonComet short story contest, with final winners announced at next year's LTUE conference.

I doubt you've heard about this contest unless you're a regular attendee at LTUE, a writer-centric conference held each February in Provo, Utah. It's not a big name contest. My world won't likely change much based on being a finalist. The upside is that becoming a finalist (and possible winner) puts a new paving stone in the path.

I've read quite a bit recently about how short stories are a good way to break into writing. They give you contacts, references, and in general ease your way along in the market. Not to say it's ever easy; just that it can be less difficult.

This has proven true with me. In the past year and a bit I've attended a steampunk convention (twice), Salt Lake Comic Con, CONDuit, and LTUE, have had my short story "Revolutionary" published in the anthology Steel & Bone based on another writing contest, and have made a lot of new friends. Some of those friends and acquaintances are writers, editors, agents, small press publishers, or (like myself) have recently started to take writing more seriously.

So if you're wondering whether to jump in and start writing, or if you're wondering what to do with your writing, or better yet if you MUST write and you figure you might as well make something of it, there are lots of contests out there to get you started, and many are free to enter. Good luck to you as you plow through the learning curve, no matter where on that curve you are right now.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Salt City Steamfest 2015

Last year, I attended only Saturday at the Salt City Steamfest. This year my wife and I were able to be there for both days.
We had Victor Chopine take some pictures, which was lots of fun. He has a great eye for poses.

I helped out a bit at a booth full of authors associated with Xchyler Publishing. That's Candace Thomas, Sarah E. Seeley, and Jay Barnson pictured, and we had Scott Taylor and Scott Tarbet there as well.

We even had this cool online poster put together.

I also attended quite a few panels, mostly on writing, pitching your writing (to editors and agents, not into the trash), and storytelling in general. Our friend Julie Barnson told ghost stories, which are her specialty.

One of the panels consisted of these three ladies ( Terra Luft, Christauna Rose Asay and Callie Tolman Stoker), which was great fun.

Scott Tarbet played moderator for their panel.
There was a writing contest hosted by Curiosity Quills Press, where James Wymore was supposed to announce the winner at the conference. Unfortunately, James had a schedule conflict and had Jason King fill in for him. Due to unforeseen complications, the announcement was moved around and rescheduled, so a troop of us were constantly asking Jason if he knew when we would hear about the contest. He was constantly apologizing for delays that were not his fault, and bore up well under our constant barrage. Finally, the announcement was made!

I didn't win.

But the best part of the contest was yet to come. The gal who won had just been in a round table discussion with me and a few other people a few minutes before. Several of us held our own impromptu session talking about how to approach publishers. The speaker had been a no-show, so everyone just shared what they knew about both short story and novel submissions and publishing methods. When I saw her next she was sort of bouncing and floating down the hall, bordering on giddy because she had just received the good news.

That's when Terra, Christauna and Callie started to talk to her. (You know, I should find out her name,but haven't yet.) They invited her to dinner. I'm not sure how many of the three had been beaten by her in this contest, but I heard one of them had been in 2nd place. They were all nearly as excited for her as she was for herself.
The contest winner is second from the right. This picture is from Terra Luft's Facebook page. The struggling new author was taken under the wing of this fine group of writers. It was great to see her adopted into the community, where even those whom she beat out in the contest were not just happy for her, but went out of their way to be inclusive.

I've felt this same thing in how I have been adopted into the Utah writer's scene. I know several local authors now because of conferences and events over the past year, especially after being included in a Xchyler anthology. Some of them even remember my name. :) I really appreciate my new friends, and their willingness to share, support, and help others.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Servant of the Crown give-away

My friend Melissa is giving away a copy of Servant of the Crown on Goodreads from July 6 to July 13, 2015. (Yeah, I like to specify the full date like that in case someone finds this post in the 23rd century, and is bummed out that it happened back in the dark ages.) You can reach the give-away from her web page.

You can also find her Amazon author page here.

I've read several of her books now (including some still in the pipeline), and like both her writing style and her storytelling ability. She also writes fast, so expect lots of cool stuff from her in the future.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Steel & Bone, nine steampunk adventures

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Steel & Bone is coming out this Saturday! There is a Rafflecopter giveaway for Steel & Bone. Enter it and win cool stuff!

I was interviewed for the book's blog tour. It will show up over at Nikki Trionfo's blog tomorrow (Friday, June 26). Go take a look.

It not only has nine great stories, it has some illustrations and a forward by James Ng that are pretty cool. I'm really pleased with how the book has turned out, and I'm sure you will enjoy it. Here's a rundown of the stories:

The Clockwork Seer by Katherine Cowley: On an island of oddities, a young clairvoyant struggles for normalcy, but deadly automatons have other plans.  
Sindisiwe by Scott E. Tarbet: A slave girl in Zanzibar escapes a beating when a stranger in the marketplace proves her past is more than just a fairy tale.  
Stand and Deliver by TC Phillips: Neither shackles, slave labor, nor the island’s deadliest inhabitants will prevent these brothers from meting out justice to their father’s murderers.  
Island Walker by C. R. Simper: Kit digs her treasures out of trash heaps, but the theft of her invention leads to discoveries money can’t buy. 
A Mind Prone to Wander by Danielle E. Shipley: Beyond a locked door lies Rowan Charles’ death or his sanity, and the survival or extinction of his people.  
Curio Cay by Sarah E. Seeley: The future of humanity rests in the hands of three time-traveling scientists battling biomechanical creatures in the Jurassic past.  
The Mysterious Island of Chester Morrison by Kin Law: Dodging her chaperone, a debutante stumbles into adventure and romance at the World’s Fair.  
Revolutionary by John M. Olsen: A dirigible captain goes down with his ship, and wakes to find himself a captive of a sky-dwelling civilization.  
The Steel Inside by Gail B. Williams: Darkness lurks in Sarah’s forgotten past, kept hidden by those who claim to be her devoted husband and loyal servants. 
If steampunk is your thing, you can get it at Amazon starting Saturday. (Or pre-order it right now!)