Friday, November 27, 2015

Let's Get Visual!

As a creative writing teacher, I sometimes struggle to get concepts across to my students. That’s why I created the Amazing Story Spiral, a visual tool to help students plot stories from character rather than event. (You can read about the Amazing Story Spiral in a previous blog post here:

Since then I’ve developed three more visual tools for fiction writers (I created all three when I was supposed to be reading student stories – avoidance is sometimes a writer’s best friend!). I’ve drawn pictures of these three tools and while I’m no artist (as you’re about to see), hopefully they’re good enough to get the idea across,

THE NO-PROBLEM STORY PROBLEM WHEEL One of the most common problems my creative writing students have is difficulty keeping their stories focused on a specific story problem – a central conflict around which the entire action of the story revolves. A huge part of this difficulty is being unclear on how their characters are connected to the story problem. I created the Story Problem Wheel to help writers make sure that all their characters are connected to the story problem in ways big or small, and therefore serve a specific, vital function in the story. This technique is simple enough. You write the name of each character on one of the spokes, and then you write an explanation of how that character is connected to the story problem. This technique can also be used as a plotting aid, for once you know how the characters are connected to the story problem, you can design scenes to show their connections. For example, let’s say the main story problem is that Sally and Bob are separated, and Sally wants to get back together. One of the characters is Sally’s friend Joan. Joan’s connection to the problem is two-fold: she wants to support her friend, but she’s secretly in love with Bob, although she’s never expressed her feelings to him. Now we know that Joan’s role in the story: she will serve as an advisor to Sally while at the same time trying to convince her to divorce Bob for her own benefit. We’ve strongly connected Joan to the story, her role is integral, and we know what role she’ll play in the plot.
THE INCREDIBLE VIVID FICTION CHART The more vivid fiction is, the more effective it is. Most writers, raised on a steady diet of movies and TV shows, usually only evoke the senses of sight and sound. But we experience reality on so many more levels, and writers need to be able to create the illusion of reality in their fiction by reflecting this richness of experience in their work. I created the Astounding Vivid Fiction Chart to give writers a framework to help make their fiction more vivid. Elements of experience are listed down the left side of the chart: dialogue, thoughts, emotions, sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing, memory connections, and imaginative connections. These last two might need some explanation. Memory connections are associations characters make when something in the present reminds them of something from their past. Imaginative connections are associations a character makes with his or her imaginative, like seeing a spindly, leafless tree in a graveyard and thinking it looks like a skeletal hand emerging from the ground. The vertical sections of the chart represent units of a story – a scene, a paragraph, even a sentence, whichever you choose. As you’re working on a story unit, you can chart the experience details you use by putting a dot, an X, or a checkmark in the appropriate box. You don’t need to use all the different types of details every time. The chart can help remind you to make your fiction more vivid as you write it, but you can also use it to go over parts of a story you’ve already finished and chart how vivid those parts are. If you see you aren’t using enough variety of details or that you’ve fallen into a rut in terms of the details you use and you need to change things up, the chart can give you guidance for revision.
THE ASTOUNDING SCENE DIAMOND Another difficulty students often have is considering the emotional aspects of their scenes as well as the action aspects of their scenes. In fact, they often neglect the emotional aspect altogether. This visual is designed to help writers think of the action level of their story along with the emotional aspect, with the story goal/throughline running through the middle of the chart. Action obstacles are on one side of the throughline, emotional obstacles on the other side. Each scene has both a physical and an emotional obstacle, and each scene has a reaction to the character’s dealing with those obstacles. The action and emotional qualities can be different aspects of the same obstacle. For example, a character wants to confront a rival at work. The confrontation is action. The anger the character feels during the conformation is emotional. The confrontation turns violent, and the rival punches the character. The character decides not to continue the fight and leaves. That’s action. The character also feels anger, shame, and self-loathing for retreating. In each scene, the character deals with both the action and emotional obstacles, reacts to them, then moves on to the next scene. The end of the story the climax has both an action aspect as well as an emotional aspect. The value of this chart is that it continually reminds writers to tend to the emotional level of their stories, making their fiction far richer in the process.
Give these three tools a try and see what they can do for you – and if you’re a teacher, feel free to steal them for your classes, and see what they can do for your students. Let me know how they work for you, and especially let me know if you find ways to improve them. After all, we’re all in this together, right?

Saturday, November 7, 2015

To Market, To Market

When you’re a writer, marketing your books is a necessary evil. (And I’m a horror writer, so I know evil!) There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people out there who are only too happy to share their advice on marketing fiction. Some of these people are relative newcomers who are still trying to figure out the whole marketing thing themselves, while others are seasoned professionals with years of experience who offer tried-and-true techniques. But regardless of where all these people are coming from, their advice has one thing in common: it deals with marketing a book after it’s finished. I’d like to suggest that the most important marketing happens before a book is written.

First, let me tell you a story. Several years ago I was on a panel at a science fiction convention. The panel dealt with the business of writing and the panelists were a mix of experienced and up-and-coming writers. The moderator began by saying that if you’re going to write, you must treat it like a business, and the other panelists echoed this sentiment in turn. But when it was my time to add my two cents, I said that writing is a creative act, and therefore has an artistic purpose at its core. If writers’ sole purpose was to make money, we’d become doctors or lawyers. I said it’s up to writers to decide what their goals for their writing are, and they can write for pleasure, as a hobby, as a second vocation, or as their primary vocation, but whatever they do, writing is ultimately a creative act, not simply a business proposition. The other panelists then back-tracked a bit and agreed that yes, the artistic aspect was the foundation of a writing career, and the panel went on from there.

My point wasn’t to try to shut down the other panelists. I wanted people to realize something essential about writing: only an idiot goes into the arts with the sole purpose of making money. You’re trying to sell a product – a book, a painting, a song, a performance – that most people aren’t interested in. People who love the arts forget that the arts have a very small audience when compared to the total population. We’re selling a product with limited appeal, trying to sell it to a small customer base, and we’re competing with all the other artists who are trying to sell similar products to the same customers. From a business perspective, this is a recipe for disaster.

The first thing writers need to realize when it comes to marketing is this:
1. We’re creating a product with limited appeal, we’re creating it for a small audience, and we’re competing with each other to capture this audience’s attention.

It’s important to understand this reality from the start. If you want to sell something, you need to understand exactly what it is that you’re selling, and exactly who you’re trying to sell it to.

The second thing writers need to realize:
2. You must decide whether to write what you want or what they want.

Do you write what you want (an artistic choice) or do you write what you think will sell (an economic choice)? If you make the artistic choice, you will be more fulfilled creatively, but you’ll create a product that may appeal to an even smaller section of the book-reading audience. For example, horror fiction has a limited appeal, otherwise the bestseller lists would be filled with horror novels. If you write horror, your audience will be horror fiction readers, a small group compared to all the readers out there. If you write a subset of horror – extreme horror, literary horror – your audience will be even smaller. A few weeks ago on his Facebook page, author and editor Darrell Schweitzer said that authors of genres with limited appeal should realize that they are basically selling books to each other, and what’s wrong with that? I immediately thought of literary fiction, much of it coming out from small-press publishers with low press runs. Who reads those books? Mostly other lit-fic authors.

So if you write what you want, there’s an excellent chance that you’ll have a small audience to sell to, and that no matter what you do, you won’t be able to enlarge this audience in any meaningful way. My mother didn’t read much, but when she did, she liked to read romance novels about nurses. My dad likes to read hard SF and military fiction. Nothing could’ve gotten them to change their reading tastes, not even having a son who writes in other genres.

There’s nothing wrong with having a small audience who appreciates your work, but I think it’s important to recognize this so that your marketing expectations are realistic. (In other words, you’re not going to get rich.)

If you’re lucky to love a genre that’s popular, like Romance (over half the novels published in the USA are Romance), then you can write what you want and have a much better chance at selling your work because there’s already a large readership out there.

If you write what they want, then you need to write in a genre that has a large audience, such as Romance or Thrillers (or weird porn self-published on Amazon). The pros of this choice are obvious. Your book will have a stronger built-in appeal for a larger audience. The cons are that since there are more readers (and thus more money to chase), you’ll have more competition – and worst of all, you may hate what you’re writing because you’re writing it for business reasons, not artistic ones.

But whatever choice you make, write for yourself or write to please an audience . . .
3. Write the absolute best book you can every time (and never stop trying to write better).

In other words, create the highest quality product possible for you to sell. Why would anyone want to buy a poor-quality product even if they generally like that kind of product? Why would I buy shitty lemonade when I can buy delicious lemonade? You want to sell something? It better be damn good. More than that, it better be competitive.

High quality can mean different things for different readers, of course. Some readers prize literary style and characterization more than plot, and vice versa. Some prefer fast-paced stories, some more leisurely paced stories. But while there’s no one-size-fits all definition of high quality when it comes to fiction, you need to decide what it means to you – and more importantly, your audience – and strive for that standard.
4. You need to create an attractive product.

This goes for traditionally published writers as well as self-published ones – although the self-pubbers obviously have to work a lot harder at this aspect since they’re going it alone. Intriguing book title, interesting synopsis, cover art, layout, solid editing, production value . . . Traditional publishers partner with writers to create an attractive product and then share in the profits from sales of that product. Self-pubbers need to hire professionals who can provide these services. Whichever road you choose, at the end of it, you better have a goddamn good-looking book – outside and inside – if you want to attract readers.

Bottom line: Focus on why you write, how you write, and to whom you’re writing, and when it comes time to market your fiction, you’ll be that much ahead of the game.

Earlier, I mentioned there are lots of resources available to give you advice on how to market your book after it’s written. Here are three excellent book marketing resources I recommend:
  • Guerilla Marketing for Writers by Jay Conrad Levinson and Rick Frishman.
  • No Nonsense, No Gimmick Guide to Marketing Your Book, by Eric Beebe.
  • Author’s Guide to Marketing with Teeth, by Michael Knost.

My novel Eat the Night will be available from DarkFuse Publications in January. It should be available for preorder soon.

I’m the featured writer in the latest issue of LampLight magazine. There’s a new interview with me in it, along with a new story called “Tresspasser.”

I have a story in the debut issue of Dreadful Geographic.
My article on writing with emotional impact, “Once More, With Feeling,” appears in Writers on Writing, Vol. 1.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Decreasing the Learning Curve

When it comes to teaching fiction writing, one of the most hotly debated questions is whether the subject can be taught at all. So much of it is inborn – a feel for language, a sense of narrative – and just as much, if not more, is developed through an individual’s reading. The more a person reads, and the more widely he or she reads, the more that person grows as a writer. And of course you have to write – a lot. So what role can a teacher play, beyond giving encouragement, pointing out mechanical errors, and passing along a few tips and tricks? Well, there’s one very important thing that teachers – and for that matter, editors – can do: we can decrease your learning curve. Over the course of our careers, we see so many manuscripts from beginners that we eventually become experts in What Not to Do if you want to get your story published. (Or, if you’re a self-publisher, What Not to Do if you want your stories to compete with all the others out there that readers have to choose from.) So – based on close to thirty years of teaching and writing – here’s my list of the most common mistakes that beginning writers make.
1. Starting Too Early
I can take a student story, flip to the third page (sometimes the fourth), place my finger on the paper two-thirds of the way down, and find what should be the beginning line or situation. I don’t need to read the story to do this, and I’m right nearly every time. I’m not certain why beginners do this time and again, but I have some theories. One problem (which as you’ll see affects other items on my list) is that the vast majority of stories people experience in their lives are presented in visual media – TV shows, films, cartoons, etc. These media can immediately set a scene because they can present a lot of information simultaneously: shape, color, sound, movement. But prose writers can present information only one word at a time. I think beginning writers struggle with how to present the same amount of information visual media do in precisely the same way they do, which is impossible. Beginners spend paragraphs setting the scene, giving weather reports, detailing characters’ appearances and fashion choices, info-dumping exposition, and all the while NOTHING IS HAPPENING. The visual equivalent would be watching a film where one small bit of visual information appears on the screen, followed by another bit, and yet another, and so on, as the full picture slowly pieces itself together. After ten minutes, the picture is fully formed at last, and only then does the story actually start.
2. The Central Conflict Takes Too Long to Appear
This problem is similar to the first, and it can be caused by the same reasons. And sometimes beginners’ stories have an ill-defined conflict or no conflict at all. In novels, the central conflict might not appear until several chapters into the book. In general, the central conflict should appear, even if only in terms of mood or suggestion, in the very first sentence. This morning, I listened to a short story in audio form about the interrogation of a man who authorities believe has knowledge about a devastating new weapon that will be unleashed on the world within days. The man resists all attempts to get information from him, though, including torture, without ever speaking a word. A third of the story passed as a bunch of exposition was presented, and only then did we get to the first interrogation scene. The story would’ve been far better if it began with the interrogation in progress and the author then dropped in exposition in bits and pieces as the story progressed. The central conflict of the story is between the interrogators and the suspect. That conflict should’ve appeared immediately in the story instead of being saved for the last third.
3. Only Sight and Hearing are Used
When it comes to description, beginners primarily use only two of our five senses – sight and hearing. I suspect there are two reasons for this. One is that these are the two senses we rely on the most, since they’re the only senses we have that allow us to gather information from a distance. The other reason is that our media present stories using only visual and auditory information, and as I stated earlier, we’re all strongly influenced by these media, much more so than prose. The important thing to remember about the other senses – smell, taste, and touch – is that because our body has to be in contact with what we’re sensing for them to operate, they’re far more intimate senses that sight and sound. And because of this, they have far more impact on humans. A person may not appreciate seeing a picture of dog poop, but they’ll have a much stronger reaction if someone holds it under their nose. Don’t forget to evoke all the senses in your story. You don’t have to try and cram them into every sentence or even every paragraph; just don’t neglect them, and don’t forget the power they have.
4. The Point of View Isn’t Immersive
Beginners often write stories the same way that they watch movies – as if they’re a passive audience member observing from a distance. They should write with an immersive point of view (whether first person or third), imagining that they’re inside a single character’s head (at least for each scene), thinking, feeling, and experiencing the same things the character is. In this sense, writing fiction is like acting. The writer portrays the character and then tries to recreate on the page what it’s like to be the character. This immersive point of view is one of the great strengths written fiction has over other media. It allows readers to get into someone else’s head and imagine being that person. Maybe we’ll invent technology one day that allows the same experience with films and games, but for right now, only fiction has this capacity. It’s one of the reasons people choose to read fiction instead of watch it, and you should take advantage of that. In my fiction writing classes, I’ll put YouTube up on the display screen and show the class a scene from one of the Bourne movies. We are observers watching Matt Damon fight bad guys. Then I show them the official music video for Biting Elbows’ “Bad Motherfucker”: In this video, we view the action from the point of view of a spy, just as if we are that person. Sure, only sight and sound are evoked in the video, but it gets the point across about how writers need to imagine the scenes they write, not as passive viewers but as active participants living them. I always remind students to consider what thoughts are going through the spy’s head, what emotions is he feeling, what sort of pain does he experience from injuries sustained during the battle, how does his body react to all this exertion, etc.
5. No Emotional Core
Stories need to be about more than “This happened and then this happened.” Unfortunately, beginners – probably because they’re still learning the basics of constructing scenes – almost never have an emotional core to their stories. Successful stories need to move readers emotionally, and they do so by focusing on their characters’ needs, desires, motivations, and reactions during – and preceding – the events of the story. The emotional core of Jaws (both the book and the movie) is Sheriff Brody. He’s sworn to serve and protect the citizens of Amity, but he faces an enemy hidden in the waters offshore, an enemy he can’t simply walk up to and arrest. He’s not a native New Englander. He’s come to town from New York City. He knows nothing about the sea, nothing about boating and fishing. He’s not prepared in any way shape or form to go after a killer shark. To make matters worse, his town depends on summer tourist money for its survival. If he closes the beaches, the town will lose important income, to the point where the town itself might die. How the hell does Brody protect the people of his town when, whatever choice he makes, it may well end up hurting them? The movie may be called Jaws, but the story isn’t about the shark. It’s about the man who has to deal with the shark. He’s the uncertain knight who has to face a very real dragon. So think about your characters, about what they want in your story, about what emotional needs they’re trying to fulfill, and make sure that this fulfillment (or failure to reach fulfillment) is really what your story is about.
6. The Story is a Copy of a Copy of a Copy of Another Story
We spend so much of our lives immersed in entertainment that the experience beginners draw on to create their fiction is all too often second, third, or even fourth-hand experience. Instead of using their own lives and experiences as inspiration for their stories, they write the same kind of mysteries, romances, science fiction, horror, etc. they’ve read – or more likely seen on TV or on film. They’re writing stories about other stories. I tell students that if you’ve ever read or watched a story similar to yours, don’t write it. Strive to write something original or at least find a way to put an original spin on it. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly travels back in time and accidentally prevents his parents meeting, thereby endangering his own existence. That idea was old back in the eighties when the film was made. The writers gave the idea a spin when they focused on teenage Marty developing a relationship with his parents, learning about what they were like at his age, and learning to accept them for their faults, and help them meet – for their own sake as much as his. The writers focused not on the time travel aspect of the story, but on the theme of family and how that connection can transcend time. (And they also added a wonderful emotional core to the story by doing this.) Last week, my wife and I were returning home from attending the Scares That Care convention in Virginia. We got lost at one point, and we pulled off the highway and into a Pizza Hut parking lot to check directions. The restaurant was closed, and a man approached the car. At first I thought he might be an employee checking to see what we were up to, but it turned out he just wanted to ask for money. My wife and I left, and that was the end of it. If I wanted to use this as the basis for a story, I would not make the man a serial killer. Too obvious. I would not make the man a hungry vampire looking for food. Too cliché. I would not make him a threat of any sort. That’s exactly what most readers would expect. Instead, I’d try to come up with something no one would expect. The man is a friend who’s supposed to living in another country, but who suddenly appears here. The man is an old boyfriend of the wife who she hasn’t seen in decades. The man is an older version of the husband who’s somehow appeared in the present. I could go on, but my point is not only to draw on real experience (which I did) but then to keep pushing your ideas until they’re no longer run of the mill but become something interesting, something that only you can write.
7. Expository Lumps
This is one of the most common problems beginners have. I sure did. Expository lumps are large blocks of explanatory text provided by the author or delivered through character dialogue. I learned to avoid these when an editor gave me feedback on a story early in my career, retyping (back in those pre-Word, pre-email days) an entire paragraph of exposition from my story to show me what I was doing wrong. “You’ve got a lot of similar paragraphs in your story,” the editor wrote. I made a fresh printout of the story, grabbed a red pen, blocked out the paragraph the editor highlighted, and then went through the manuscript and blocked out at least a half dozen paragraphs like it. That editor’s comment was one of the most useful pieces of feedback I’ve ever received, and it improved my writing tremendously. I tell students who have problems with expository lumps to write their first drafts without any background information included. Absolutely none. Then I tell them to go back through the draft and add in only the most minimal amount of background information, only what is necessary for readers to understand the story, and only add it in a few sentences at a time, in different places, and in different ways (a bit of dialogue, a piece of description, short authorial narration, etc.). In longer work like a novel, you can get away with chunks of exposition because readers are prepared for a longer reading experience and the chunks seem smaller in proportion to the rest of the book. But even then you should be as restrained as possible with exposition.
8. Saving the Best for Last
Beginning writers often save what they believe is their best idea for the end of the story. This usually means the end is the only interesting part of the tale. Why would anyone read the rest of it? I tell students to start with what they think is their best idea and keep writing, making the story even better as they go. This is also a great way to avoid writing clichéd stories. An example I always give students is Clive Barker’s story “The Body Politic.” One of the clichéd story ideas in horror is the severed hand that has a life of its own and is out for revenge. These stories end with the hand crawling toward someone, ready to choke them. The idea of the severed hand is saved for the end. Barker begins his story with the premise that hands possess lives and desires of their own. All hands. They’re sick of being slaves to us and are waiting for a messiah to come and lead a revolution against what they call “the tyranny of the body.” Barker starts with his best idea and develops it from there. In class, I sometimes have students take the ending of their first story and use it as the beginning for a brand-new story. It’s a great exercise for teaching them the power of starting with a great idea/image and continuing on from that point.
9. Having a Character Die at the End
I can’t tell you how many beginners’ stories I’ve read that end with the main character dying (or worse, narrating the story in first person even though he or she is dead). Beginners think that killing a character at the end of their story will have a strong emotional impact on readers, but it never does. That technique might work in a novel, where readers have had time to get to know a character, but in a short story? Readers have so little time to emotionally attach to a character that his or death is almost meaningless. Besides, death is an easy way out for fictional characters. If you keep them alive, you can make them suffer more!
10. You Really Want to Write a Script
Students often tell me the reason they write short fiction is because they really want to write screenplays, and they figure stories are easier. If you want to write a script, write a script. Otherwise, write a goddamned story. Both forms are hard as hell to master. Neither is easier than the other.
Hopefully, some of the advice I’ve given will decrease your learning curve, at least a little. And if you read all this and thought, “Well, hell, I already know this stuff,” then feel free to pass the information along to someone you think might be able to use it. Better yet, steal the advice and pretend it’s yours the next time you mentor another writer or teach a class. Because the more we all share what we’ve learned about writing, the more we all grow, and the better writers we all become.
The audiobook version of my zombie novel The Way of All Flesh will soon be released from Audio Realms:
My novel Dream Stalkers, the sequel to Night Terrors – about an agent who polices living nightmares with her psychotic clown partner – is still available:
My story “Blood and Bone” appears in the shapeshifter anthology Flesh Like Smoke:

And as always you can find out more about all my novels and short story collections at my website:

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Guest Blog by Jay Wilburn: Do It Yourself Failure

My first short story collection was self-published. It was called Life Among The Zombies and it is a raw little collection of zombie stories that hold up pretty well even just being a roughshod creation. I was still teaching public school when I published that and I started writing and submitting other short stories. I branched out from zombies and started getting some paying publishing credits.

My first novel was picked up by Hazardous Press back when they were a new operation. I had submitted to fourteen publishers and went with Hazardous after a couple others bit at the novel too. My second novel was picked up by Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing. My third is sitting in limbo trying to land an interested party. I guess it is technically not my third since the first book in a twelve book series is out. I wrote another novel or two earlier in my life that were tossed out with my old computer. I suppose I was more picky than I give myself credit for.

There was a point where I was sure I was never going to self-publish again. Publishers, even small ones, will pay for editing, cover art, formatting and will put books up on Amazon for you. These are all things I don’t do well myself.

After I left teaching to write full time, I found that other guys that were making a go at the same thing used self-publishing as one avenue of revenue for their support. I started ghostwriting and freelance writing too to make ends meet as the slower money from my own published fiction came in. Self-published work seemed to fall into that middle range between the faster money of ghostwriting and the longer money of press published fiction.

One thing I learned from other full time self published writers was that the weight of the responsibility rested on the writer. Professional editing and art were the investments that the writer puts into the work. I also added a musical soundtrack to my Dead Song series, so I was hiring a producer and studio musicians to flesh out the radio plays and songs I wrote to make my playing and singing sound like something real that told a story. I invested in all of that and put it out into the world for readers and listeners to accept or reject.

There is a level of control that goes with putting it out yourself along with the responsibility, investment, and risk. If you are going to jump off the cliff, I suppose there is some comfort in knowing you packed your own chute even if you doubt your own skills.

All authors are writing their own ticket in one way or another. Whether one does so in the few moments that are squeezed out to write between life and a day job or in the moments between life and interruptions for a full time writer, we set our own terms in where we submit and what we accept. We all succeed and fail and fail again as often as we choose to get up and try it all again. Self-publishing is just another way to do the game of success and failure. Enough folks are out there doing it that it doesn’t exactly feel like doing it alone. Writing in any form is much like jumping with a parachute you packed yourself, I think.

Check out the latest book and music from a new series by Jay Wilburn:

The Dead Song Legend Dodecology Book 1: January from Milwaukee to Muscle Shoals

The Sound May Suffer - Songs from the Dead Song Legend Book 1: January


Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in Conway, South Carolina near the Atlantic coast of the southern United States. He taught public school for sixteen years before becoming a full time writer. He is the author of the Dead Song Legend Dodecology and the music of the five song soundtrack recorded as if by the characters within the world of the novel The Sound May Suffer. Follow his many dark thoughts on Twitter @AmongTheZombies, his Facebook author page, and at   

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Decisions, Decisions . . .

Recently, I had the honor of being a guest on Don Smith’s radio show at my alma mater, Wright State University. Afterward, I accompanied Don to a capstone creative writing course he was taking, and I had the privilege of answering questions from the students and teachers for an hour or so. Unknown to any of them – at least, I hope it was unknown – I had a splitting headache and wouldn’t have minded if one of the students had pulled out a 9mm, pressed the muzzle against my head, pulled the trigger, and put me out of my misery. I managed to soldier on and hopefully make at least a modicum of sense as I answered questions, but for all I know, I might have been speaking in tongues.

One of the students asked me how I managed to write so much, so fast. (There are plenty of days when I don’t feel like a fast writer, and days when I don’t write at all – usually because I’m grading papers for a class – but I did my best to answer the question.)

“I’m good at making decisions,” I said.

I went on to explain that, in a sense, you can view writing as nothing more than a series of decisions. This idea, not that idea. This word, not that word. (At least, I’m good at making writing decisions. When I’m looking at the menu at the Cheesecake Factory, that’s a different story.) Later, after my time with the class was over and I’d swallowed some Extra-Strength Tylenol I’d found at the college bookstore, I started thinking. What if a lot of the difficulties people have with writing are actually problems with decision-making?

A couple months earlier, I’d read an interesting article on about something called decision fatigue. Stated simply, after an individual makes a number of decisions over time – say during the course of a workday – the quality of those decisions deteriorates. Have you heard the story of how Albert Einstein wore the same kind of clothes every day so he wouldn’t have to expend any mental energy deciding what to wear each morning? Albert understood decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue can affect writers in a number of ways. If you’re writing over a long period of time – say four or five hours – you may find yourself having difficulty getting the words to keep coming. Or maybe you keep writing, but you’re making what, in retrospect, are questionable plot and character choices. Or maybe your brain seizes up and refuses to produce any more text at all.

Most writers have a day job. (I’m a college writing professor.) And if you’ve been making decisions at your job all day – many of which might have been mentally or emotionally taxing – it’s difficult to come home, sit down at your computer, and start making more decisions as you write. So difficult, that maybe you can’t write at all. And the next thing you know, you think you have writer’s block.

So here are some tips to help you head off decision fatigue or deal with it when it rears its ugly head.

Write Before You Need to Make Non-Writing Decisions

This might mean writing before you head off for your day job in the morning or before you decide to work on your home-improvement project or head off to the grocery to stock up on supplies. In my case, it could be all of the above, as well as writing before I sit down to grade papers. The fewer decisions you have to make before you write, the better.

Write in Smaller Chunks of Time and Take Breaks

Instead of writing in marathon sessions lasting several hours, write in one or two hour chunks with thirty minute breaks in between. Studies have shown that even short breaks can help combat decision fatigue. Whatever you do during your break, keep it as decision-free as possible. Don’t shift gears and start working on a different project, don’t answer emails, don’t hop on social media (you’ll end up making decisions about what to post in response to some idiot who’s said something stupid to piss you off.) And take your break away from your writing space, so your mind’s not tempted to keep thinking about your story.

Develop Character and Setting Descriptions Before You Write

If you don’t have a clear notion who your characters are or what settings they live in and move though, you’ll have to make decisions about those aspects when you reach them in your story and fabricate details as you write. But if you write character profiles and setting descriptions, you’ll have details like a character’s eye color, the car he or she drives, and what his or her office at work looks like in hand before you sit down to compose text. You’ll have a wealth of decisions pre-made so you won’t have to waste mental energy as you write scenes.

Outlining Before You Write

Even if you’re normally averse to outlining, consider it as a way of avoiding decision fatigue. You can have a full outline that details every story beat or a more general outline that only gives the story’s basic events. Either approach will help reduce the number of decisions you have to make while actively composing text. I use outlines like this all the time, but I also use smaller, simpler outlines that I create before it’s time to compose a particular scene. That way, I am focused on writing the scene without having to stop and try to figure out what happens next.

To Wrap Up

We need to create a writing space for ourselves, and I’m not just talking about physical space. We need mental and emotional space, and we need time, the most precious and hard-to-come by commodity of all. We need our minds to be at their most creative and productive, and learning how to avoid or at least decrease decision fatigue can go a long way toward making that happen.

And it’s not a bad idea to keep some Tylenol on hand, too. Just in case.


My latest novel out is Dream Stalkers, the sequel to Night Terrors, is out from Angry Robot Books. Audra Hawthorne and her psychotic clown partner Mr. Jinx are back battling nightmares made flesh, fighting to save both the waking and dream worlds, and trying not to kill each other in the process.

My first short story collection All Too Surreal is now available for the first time as an ebook from Crossroad Press. My other two collections – in case you’re curious – are Broken Shadows and Bone Whispers, and of course they’re still available, too.

My young adult horror novel Dark Art is still out from Past Curfew Press. A young artist’s anger fuels his drawings, bringing them to dangerous life – and none is more deadly than the being called Shrike.

Dream Stalkers:

Night Terrors:

All Too Surreal:

Dark Art:

Monday, December 15, 2014

Getting Lucky

“You’re so lucky . . .”
I can’t tell you how many times someone’s said this to me or posted it as a reply to a comment I made about my writing on social media. It might have been in response to an announcement about a new publishing contract I’d landed, or a new book release, or something as innocuous as a post about how I was sitting in Starbucks writing in the afternoon.
Many writers – myself included – find the phrase more than a little insulting. It implies that everything we’ve achieved is merely a result of chance and that all the hard work we’ve put in over the years, all the sacrifices we’ve made, had nothing to do with our success. And if we point out that talent and hard work might’ve had just a little to do with our success, we get responses from folks saying we’ve forgotten what it was like to be a beginning writer or insisting that luck has to be the main factor in success. Otherwise, they would be successful, too. After all, they’re brilliant and talented. If no one’s publishing their writing, it has to be because they’ve had rotten luck. What else could it be?
Now, I am in no way suggesting luck is unimportant in writing and publishing success. But there are two kinds of luck: the kind you have no control over and the kind you have at least some control over. And if you can learn to maximize the latter, you can increase your chances for success.
I was born a white male to a middle-class American family, with a father who read a lot of science fiction and fantasy (and a little horror) and who was happy to let me read his books when he was finished with them. My family was supportive when I told them I was thinking about becoming a writer, and I had an inheritance that allowed me pay for college. I was also born with a vivid imagination and a talent for language. I had no control over any of those things. (By the way, all of this is what the kids are calling "privilege" these days, just in case you're fuzzy on the concept.)
But I chose to read the books my father left lying around the house. I chose to start writing and drawing my own comic book when I was in sixth grade. I chose to use my inheritance for college, and I chose – after a short period of indecision – to major in English. I also chose to major in education so I could support myself by teaching while I wrote. I chose to start writing and submitting stories seriously at eighteen, and I chose to start my first novel then and I finished it when I was nineteen. And when the rejections kept coming in, I chose to keep writing. I chose to start reading Writer’s Digest and The Writer. I chose to take as many creative writing classes in college as I could. I chose to work in the Writing Center as a tutor to earn money while sharpening my skills as both a writer and teacher, and during my senior year I chose to apply to be the editor of the college’s literary magazine and I got the job. I chose to go to graduate school and major in English with a creative writing concentration, and while I waited for school to start, I chose to apply for a job as a reporter for a small-town newspaper to learn more about writing to deadline, and I got that job, too.
Sometimes luck was involved in these choices. For example, I had no idea that my college had a Writing Center until one day when I was standing at the drinking fountain when a student who was in the same creative writing class as I was stepped into the hallway, saw me, said, “Hey, you’re a good writer. You want a job?” and beckoned me to step into the Writing Center with him because they were hiring. His seeing me at that precise moment and speaking to me was luck. My accompanying him into the Writing Center was a choice.
So let’s talk about some ways that you can get some measure of control over luck – and maybe even generate some for yourself as well.
1) Examine (or Re-Examine) Your Dedication and Focus
In high school, I explored art, music, and theatre as well as writing as possible career paths. But once I hit college and decided that I wanted to be a writer, everything else was left by the wayside. With the exception of three days working for K-Mart and one summer working for a company that packaged and distributed Olympic commemorative coins and pewter products, every job I’ve held has been related to writing in some way.
Here’s an old piece of writer’s advice: make a list of everything that’s more important to you than writing. The shorter the list, the greater your chances for success. There’s only one item on my last that’s more important than writing: my family.
Ask yourself: How dedicated and focused am I? How could I arrange my life to make more room for writing? Set up regular writing times for yourself, go on weekend writing retreats, do whatever you can to increase your focus on your writing.
2) Maximize Your Talent
We have no control over the amount of talent we’re born with. But we can control what we do to hone it. Take as many classes and workshops as you can, read as many how-to-write books and articles as you can, read interviews with successful writers, go hear them talk at events, go to conferences and attend every panel that you can. If time and money are limiting factors, instead of asking for presents for Christmas or birthdays, ask for money to attend a workshop or take a class. Consider starting/joining a writers’ group – face-to-face or online – with serious, dedicated, talented writers who provide useful feedback. Keep reading and read widely, not just in your genre. Keep striving to do better with each story you write and never stop pushing yourself to hone whatever talent you possess to its finest, sharpest edge possible.
3) Make Choices That Further Your Writing
The above is so much easier said than done, but we only get so much time to live. It’s up to you what you do with that time. I don’t go out with friends as often as I’d like, I don’t travel as much as I want, and I don’t watch much TV. Most of my trips are writing-related somehow. I won’t miss kids’ soccer games or band concerts (remember, Family is Number One on my list), but otherwise, most of my non-teaching and non-family time is used for writing. Choosing writing may mean giving up some things you enjoy. It may mean being a bit more selfish that you’re used to. But the choices you make on a daily, hourly, and even moment-by-moment basis can make all the difference when it comes to maximizing your luck.
4) Learn to Say Yes to Writing Opportunities
Someone asks you to edit the company newsletter? Say yes. Your church needs someone to write a holiday play for the youth group? Volunteer. Whatever writing and publishing opportunities come up, say yes to them – especially when you’re starting out. You never know what you’ll learn or where these opportunities will lead unless you explore them.
A few words of warning here. Be careful not to say yes to anything that will end up harming you – an exploitative contract, unethical reading fees for faux agents, etc. Also, don’t say yes to so many things that you become overburdened and unable to deliver on your promises. (Something I’m still working on learning.)
Check out Writer Beware for advice on how not to get scammed:
5) Explore Different Avenues
I’ve written short stories, novels, novellas, plays, articles, essays, news stories, a regular column, and humor pieces. In fiction genres, I’ve written horror, science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, action-adventure, mystery, erotic romance, literary, and media tie-ins based on movies, TV series, cartoon characters, video games, and role-playing games. I’ve explored all these various types of writing not only to hone my talent and add new tools to my writer’s toolbox. I did it to expand my opportunities for success. In other words, to increase my luck. I figured the more I learned and the more versatile I became as a writer, the more opportunities would come my way and the more prepared I would be to take advantage of them.
So try everything. Submit your work to publishers, magazines, and contests. Respond to every open call for stories that you can find, even if it seems like a long-shot. Especially then. The more chances you take, the greater your odds of succeeding.
6) Make Connections
The more people you come to know and interact with, the more writing and publishing opportunities will present themselves to you – and more importantly, the more people you’ll have to learn from and the more emotional support you’ll have. (The more psychologically healthy you are, the more you’ll be ready to take advantages of opportunities when they occur and the more confident you’ll be about taking risks.) Not only will these connections benefit your career, they’re the best part of having a writing life, at least for me.
Get to know people in creative writing classes, at writing events, at your local library, at bookstores . . . Join a writers’ group, meet other writers at conferences, attend conferences as a panelist and get to know the writers, agents, and editors sitting beside you. Introduce the new people you meet to people you already know. Follow writers, agents, and editors on social media. Memorize their faces so you can say hi to them at conferences (but don’t be a Creepy McCreeperson and stalk them the entire weekend!).
Here’s an example of how I helped make a butt-load of luck for myself. Years ago, I was preparing to attend a local science fiction/fantasy convention, the very first where I would serve as a panelist. The newspaper carried a story about the con, featuring the local authors who would be in attendance. (I wasn’t included in the article; I’d only published a handful of short-stories at this point.) Fantasy authors Dennis McKiernan and J. Calvin Pierce were going to attend. I’d already read several of Dennis’ books, but I’d never read any of J. Calvin’s. I ran out, bought his first novel, and read it before the con, so I’d have something to talk to him about. (It was a well-written, humorous fantasy adventure called The Door to Ambermere.) I ended up on a panel with Jim (as he preferred to be called), and we chatted a bit. Afterward, he was headed to a nearby pub to have a beer with Dennis and he asked if I’d like to join them. I said yes (of course). Jim invited me to come to his place a couple weeks later, and it happened to be the night of his writers’ group – which included both Dennis and Lois McMaster Bujold. He asked if I’d like to come along with him. I said yes. Eventually, I became a member of that group and I learned a ton. I chose to go to the con, chose to ask if I could be on programming, and chose to prepare by reading Jim’s book . . .   And when he asked if I wanted to have a drink with Dennis and him, asked if I’d like to come to his place and talk about writing, and asked if I’d like to go to his writers’ group, I said yes.
7) Ask
My mother used to tell me, “Go ahead and ask. The worst thing they can do is say no.” (Of course, it helps if you’re not a jerk when you ask. This is why everybody hates the writer on Facebook who immediately sends a request to Like his or her author page the instant you accept them as a friend.)
Querying agents and editors is of course asking. But if you learn of an invite-only anthology that’s in the works, ask the editor if you can submit on spec. (And once you make connections with editors, ask them now and again if they’re working on any projects you can submit to.) That’s how I managed to sell quite a few stories to anthologies Marty Greenberg edited. I just asked what anthos his company Tekno Books had coming up and if it was okay that I submit. Only one time did I get a story rejected from a Tekno antho, and I wrote another one over a weekend and that one was accepted. (It was for the anthology Alien Pets, if you’re curious.) Want someone to offer you a blurb? Ask. I get quite a few people asking me for blurbs these days. I just wish I had time to read all their books! Want advice on writing and publishing? Reach out to writers, editors, and agents on social media or via their websites. Attend panels at conferences and ask questions. And ask questions one-on-one when you run into folks outside of panels. Over the years, I’ve learned that editors and agents are happy to talk to you if they realize you don’t want anything from them other than to have a conversation. Treating editors and agents like human beings? Who knew that would work! Want to pitch a book project to an editor or agent? Ask if they’re willing to take pitches during the conference. Ask for their cards so you can follow-up.
But whatever you do, remember the Golden Rule about asking: Don’t be an obnoxious pain in the ass. And if you’re not sure you’re being one, ask!
8) Don’t Stop
This is a big part of the luck equation, in some ways maybe the biggest. You can’t prepare to take advantage of the opportunities that show up on their own and can’t create opportunities for yourself if you stop trying. Don’t stop writing, reading, learning, choosing, connecting, asking, and all the rest. You want to get lucky? Then never forget that get is a verb. (Yeah, I know it’s a noun, too. Don’t get picky with me.)
Department of Shameless Self-Promotion
My new young adult horror novel Dark Art is now available from Past-Curfew Press. Here’s a synopsis:
It began with a drawing.
High-school student Sarah Pennington is in art class one day when her desk mate, Ben Phelps, shows her a drawing he’s done of a sinister knife-wielding figure he calls Shrike.
Then came the dreams.
Sarah begins having strange dreams of Shrike in which he commits disturbing acts of vandalism. When she awakens, she discovers her dreams have come true. The destruction is real – and so is Shrike.
Now Shrike’s alive.
As Shrike grows stronger, his actions become increasingly violent, escalating to stalking, terrorizing, and ultimately, murder.
And he must be stopped.
Sarah must help Ben stop the monster he created. But how can they fight a being that was born from anger and shaped by imagination? A creature that lives halfway between dream and reality? They have to find a way – before it’s too late for them both.
They say art imitates life.
Sometimes, it imitates death.
Print and ebook editions are available direct from the publisher or via Amazon:
In October, I had two new novellas released:
The Last Mile:
A Strange and Savage Garden:
And two of my older novels have been released as ebooks:
Pandora Drive:
Darkness Wakes:


Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Amazing Story Spiral

Teaching how to plot is hard. In essence, you’re trying to teach someone how to build something when they can’t touch the materials they’re working with, can’t watch a demonstration of someone building the thing, can’t get their hands on a finished physical product to take it apart, can’t follow a pre-made step-by-step blueprint, and so on.
Creative writing teachers show their students visual representations of plot structure in the hope that it’ll help. But there’s really not much to show about Classic Plot Design, which follows the ever-popular Hero’s Journey. It’s a simple linear progression from beginning to end, with a few basic elements labeled. There’s nothing wrong with the Hero’s Journey pattern. But the diagram doesn’t give writers much to work with, and it really doesn’t help people who don’t think linearly as create – which, let’s face it, is most of us. Classic Plot Design is especially unhelpful for writers who wish to produce more literary, character-centered fiction.
Every time I teach novel writing, I struggle to find techniques I can offer to help nonlinear plotters create their stories. I often show the movie Wonder Boys in class as an example of a character-based plot that doesn’t follow Classic Plot Design. Usually we watch the film and discuss how the various elements blend together, but last week when after showing the movie in class, I was struggling to articulate a metaphor for how such stories were created, and I had – check this out, literary writers – an epiphany. In my mind, I saw a wheel with multiple spokes coming from a central hub, or more accurately, spokes which were leading TO a central hub. These spokes were different plots elements, the hub was the climax or ending point of a story, and the main character was represented by a spiral line which started on the outside of the wheel and continued circling toward the hub, touching the different spokes at various points along the way, and at each point the character engaged with the spoke in a different way that moved that section of the story forward.
And thus the Amazing Story Spiral was born!
To create a Story Spiral, draw a small circular in the middle of a piece of paper (or in the middle of your computer screen if you’re using a drawing program of some sort). This is the climax or the end point of your story. Then decide on various main story elements and draw a line coming from the middle circle for each of those elements. Then, starting at the top of the circle, draw a spiral line representing your main character which progresses through the spokes, curving ever inward in a spiral until it reaches the middle circle. Then go through the spiral and pick points where your character intersects each spoke and decide what event/story/character development will take place at that point. You can write notes about those events on the spiral itself, or if you don’t have room, on other piece of paper or Word document. When you’re finished, you have an alternative outline you can use as you draft your story.

Image by Keith Minnion:

I realized this pattern could work well to help nonlinear writers – and writers looking to break away from classic plot design – so I introduced it to my students and we spent a class using the Story Spiral as a plotting exercise. Here are some of the things they discovered about the technique.

·         You don’t have to have your character progress through the spokes in lockstep fashion. Just because the spiral touches a spoke doesn’t mean you need to create a scene for that spoke right then. For example, in Jaws one of the story spokes would be the sheriff’s conflict with the mayor over closing the beach because of the shark attacks. Since this isn’t as important a story element as other spokes, the sheriff character only touches that spoke a couple times. Whereas, in Jaws, the sheriff is going to intersect the spoke representing the shark many times.

·         Spokes can end before they reach the hub, or the climax of the story. Some plot elements are resolved before the story’s end. For example, if one of the spokes represents a character, and that character dies halfway through the story, that character’s spoke ends.

·         You can create different Spirals for different characters/viewpoints. You can use the same spokes, but the different characters will intersect them at different times and in different ways.

·         You can use a Spiral to plot out a chapter or even a scene.

·         The tightening of the spiral mirrors the rising action of Classic Plot Design, but it implies a sense that opposing forces are drawing closer and closer to the main character, which more accurately depicts how a character feels as the events of the story draw near a climax.
So if Classic Plot Design hasn’t worked for you, or if you simply would like to try an alternative plotting tool, give the Story Spiral a try. And if you do and have any reactions or suggestions, please leave them in the comments section. (And when commenting, please be kind in critiquing my skills as an artist!)
Happy Spiraling!
My collaboration with Michael West, “In Vino Veritas,” which deals with Elliot Ness facing the Greek god Dionysus, is out in the anthology Streets of Shadows from Alliteration Ink.