JM Williams

A home for all things fantasy and sci-fi.

3 Tips for More Productive Writing

Jan
15

The past year and a half has given me a few insights about writing productivity that’s I’d like to share.

1) Wake up early and keep a regular schedule.

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I’ve had a lot of free time to write after quitting my full time job in 2016 (not having full-time employment has proved to not be the boon it’s cracked up to be). I work full days at different jobs from time to time, but many days I am just off for the whole day. I have found that waking up at a regular time, as if if it is a regular work day, sets me up for success later on. For me, this is around 7am. I think it has to do with creating the right mindset, expecting a day of work rather than a day of rest.

2) Put on pants.

I imagine this is much the same as the previous tip, setting the mood for work. It may be tempting to stay in sweats or PJs if you are going to be home all day, but putting on regular clothes tells your psyche that it’s time to get to busy. For me, that’s pants.

3) Note your ideas when they come, not when you think you have time.

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Even though I been blessed with a lot of time to write, I don’t always have time when I need it. In a similar way, I often get ideas at the absolute worst time–in bed, in the bath, in the car, etc. I’ve found that it is critical to take note of the idea once I have the slightest chance. If I am parked for a moment, waiting to pick someone up, I jot a note in my phone or record a voice note. If in bed, I often wake up to take a note then go back to sleep. If in the bath, I just mull it over until I get out. It has been shown that writing something down helps you remember.

Now, I have a couple dozen ideas in my notes and if I every find myself without something to write, I just have to look there. Also, reviewing my story notes from time to time often welcomes a spontaneous muse and helps me bring the story to fruition. This is precisely what happened with the most recent short story I wrote, which I submitted to the previous quarter of Writers of the Future.

In the end,

it’s about generating and maintaining the right state of mind. Any writer knows that if you don’t have the right mind, you can’t write well, even if you force it. And even if you wake up early and get dressed for success, it does not guarantee that the day’s writing will go off without a hitch. But it is an easy way to set the groundwork for a good day.

Hope these tips help! Good luck with your writing.

~JM

I will be sending out my next newsletter, in honor of the new year, which will include an exclusive video of myself, talking Iric and future projects, as well as the usual publication highlight and writing tips. If you’d like to see all that, and be part of the “cool” crowd, you can sign up to join the RABBLE on the right side of the page!

 

Thoughts on Classic Narrators

Jan
14

I’ve been working my way through H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, and was struck by a random thought. The narrative structure of the book is very similar to other contemporary works.

This is actually my first time with this particular work. I am also surprised by the shortness of it. I had been under the impression that The Time Machine was a novel, but it is in fact a novella. Only around 33,000 words depending on the source. Wells’s The War of the Worlds is only around 46,000 words. Both details have me thinking about the current demand of publishers of 80k or more words for fantasy and sci-fi books. Where does that come from? But that’s a question for another time.

For this post, I am thinking about the narrators used in The Time Machine and many of its contemporary works. The narrator takes the form of a side character who is witnessing the actions of the main character of the story. This is the same narrator used by Arthur Conan Doyle in the Sherlock Holmes stories, in the form of John Watson. Though I haven’t read it, I believe it is the same in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, accounts of the famous vampire conveyed by a third party. The same is true for Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, though you might not notice it as most of that novel is told in first-person. But this is a first-person account being heard and relayed by the narrator, who is not himself, the person who traveled back in time.

The Time Machine is similar to Twain’s work in that–at least what I have gone through so far–the narrator is not part of the actual story. He is simply a witness that relays this incredible story to us. It seems to me that classic fiction–for popular fiction for wide audiences emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries, as did the modern form of the novel–demanded very straight-forward, realistic narrators. That old writing question, that is now unnecessary but is often still asked, “How is this account delivered to the reader?,” is a critical component of classic novels. So you tend to find a lot of discovered letters, and third-party witness type stories.

We have grown a lot since that time. Now we feel no need to explain where a third-person account comes from, nor how the narrator knows what it knows. Though many would argue with me, I would even go as far to say that first-person narrators do not need to be accounted for. I have indeed written on the topic before.

It quite interesting to look back and see, what appears to be, much more rigidity than what we have in modern writing. There’s nothing wrong with having realistic narrators, especially if you’re writing historical fiction. I have even though of writing a “discovered letters” story myself. But it is not necessary. We have so many more narrative tools than they did back then.

I am having a lot of fun with The Time Machine, much more than with the last page of IT, which is becoming a major drag. Maybe I should get back to it, eh?

Thanks for reading.

~JM

I’m getting ready to send out my next newsletter, in honor of the new year. I will be including an exclusive video of myself, talking Iric and future projects, as well as the usual publication highlight and writing tips. If you’d like to see all that, and be part of the “cool” crowd, you can sign up to join the RABBLE on the right side of the page!

My Experience with Book Covers and Artists

Jan
05

I recently had my third cover made. It was a couple months ago and was for my self-published flash collection The Adventures of Iric (which is available for purchase). That was my third time working with cover artist, as I do no feel capable of making marketable covers myself, each time being a totally different experience. The three experiences differed in many ways, from the amount of control I had as the author, to the level of contact I had with the artist themselves.

I feel I have learned a lot about getting covers made through these three experiences and wanted to share that information with all of you.

Let me begin with a short summary of the cover services you can find out there. There are generally two types of covers: stock art covers, and original art covers. Stock art refers to the pictures that are sold for use on sites like ShutterStock.com. Original art means an artist is (digitally) painting something totally new for you. Original art covers will likely set you back at least $500 as you are not only paying for design, you are paying for image creation. Artists generally get paid by time, so drawing something entirely new, then designing a cover, will take much more time than just arranging stock art. Also, you are paying for sole rights to new content, whereas stock art is available for purchase and use by many people.

Since my three experiences were all with stock art covers, I will limit my discussion to that side of the business.

On the stock art side of the cover market, there are more divergences. One such difference is the quality of the stock art used. Some artists only use free stock art sites like Pixabay. There will generally be a marked difference in quality between covers that use free stock art, and those that pay for stock images. This is because the best stock images are on paid sites like ShutterStock, and those sites also have a significantly larger library of images.

Another difference is whether the cover is premade or custom designed. Premade covers are ones that artists have already created. They simply put your name and book title on it. I am generally against premade covers since it is hard to find one that is a proper fit for the book. But it’s not impossible, and some artists do them very well.

These factors are going to affect the cost of your cover. A stock art cover can cost anywhere from $10-$500 depending on the artist, the stock art type, and the level of customization. You’re going to pay more for an artist that pays for stock art. You are going to pay more for a custom design, as it takes more time to complete. Typically, a good, original concept, paid stock art cover is going to cost you $100-200. But as I learned, you can find ways to save a bit if you’re willing to do some extra work.

Now let me talk about my three experiences with making covers.

The first was the cover for Call of the Guardian:

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This cover was paid for by the publisher, Fiction Vortex. I did not have much input in the process, other than suggesting I wanted a protagonist stand-in and a dragon on it, and a lot of fire. Boom! This is what I got. It felt a bit like playing the lottery, but I was not too disappointed. I was told by the Boss Man that if I wanted to get this artist to do something for a personal project of mine, it would likely be around $200.

The next cover was for The Nightingale (releasing in April!):

Nightingale - Front

This cover was also paid for by the publisher, Fantasia Divinty. Unlike with my first experience, this time I had more input on the design. However, I did not have direct contact with the artist; the publisher stepped in as a intermediary. There was a lot of back and forth through those channels. I suggested an initial concept, the artist sent something back, I suggested changes, and so forth.

At first it was a bit of a struggle, as I did not care for what the artist was suggesting. In particular, I didn’t care for the character models the artist was choosing. So I started digging around on stock photo sites offering suggestions. This was perhaps the biggest lesson I learned about making covers, which I will discuss in detail below.

To my surprise, though, my suggestions were rejected. It took some time for it to become clear that the artist was only using free stock art, and I was suggesting pictures from paid sites. Moreover, I eventually learned that the artist used only one specific site for their stock photos. But once this bit of information came to light, the process became much easier. I searched the site in question, and though I did not like the choices there as much as on the paid sites, I did find a few that might work. This took me several hours of digging, but I viewed this time as an investment towards having a good cover. Finally, we settled on the character model shown above.

I do not know how much the publisher paid for this cover.

These two experiences suggested to me that the most important thing for an author to do, when getting a cover made, is to be directly involved. Be involved as much as possible. I carried this insight with me when I began working with an artist for The Adventures of Iric.

I found the artist, E. Rachael Hardcastle on a Facebook group. She responded to my query about cover letters by sending me a sample and a quote. I was satisfied with what I saw, so we started working.

It took about a week to finish the cover. Much of this was due to our geographic separation and online correspondence. I gave her an idea of what I might be looking for, and she responded by tempering some of my expectations. But I knew right from the start how I wanted to work it. I asked her upfront what stock photo site she used. Then I started looking for things to use on the cover.

I sent her suggestions of art and design ideas, she either shot them down as not good or even doable, or worked the idea and sent back a concept. At first, I felt like things weren’t progressing, but she kept trying. She suggested photos to me, and I looked for more.

After a lot of back and forth, I stumbled on a paid site that gave out five free images by signing up. I don’t recall what site it was. I entered my credit card info, selected my five free images, then canceled the account. What I found delighted me. This was the image that I discovered:

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My first reaction was, “This looks just like Iric!” Having been somewhat disappointed with how the characters in the two previous covers reflected those in the books (and being told that this doesn’t really matter, as the cover is more of a concept than a honest view), I was delighted to have an image that reflected what I saw in the character. It was also proper for fantasy.

I sent the image to Rachael and she also had a strong reaction. She did her bit of tweaking and artsy magic, and delivered me this:

Justin Cover small

In addition to adding the text, obviously, she also added a blue tint, shadows on the character’s face, darkened the hair, and many other things I would have never thought to do. It was mostly luck that the one image filled the page; usually the cover will be a composite of several images, as with the others shown above. But the end result was still a bit of a shock.

In the end, she spent hours on the project with me. She was ready to deliver a custom cover, on her own, had I not been so involved. She sent me at least four concepts before we settled on the one above. For that service I paid around $30.

Now I am guessing the lowness of that price is partially due to the effort I put in to help design the cover. When I asked her whether she appreciated my help, she told me “I think having the authors input helped. It’s their cover and they’ll all have a vision of what they want. Finding ideal images and keeping in touch with their own ideas makes my job easier and means I can design something suitable.”

That seems to me to be the hidden truth of cover creation. I could have simply rejected the concepts and asked her to do more, without any further input. But the easier you can make the artist’s job, the more willing they are going to be to go the extra mile. Also, they might charge you less if they have to work less, just like how premade covers are cheaper than custom ones.

So the advice I have for you, as I have learned over this past year, is to be involved with your cover design. Find the stock art that fits what you want and then let the artist turn it into something that will sell.

I certainly think I will be using E. Rachael Hardcastle’s services again if I self-publish another collection. But that is something to think about later. I have too many projects, and real work, to do right now.

I hope this helps you when you are deciding about covers and artists.

~JM

REBLOG: Man vs. Self – A Guide to Writing Internal Conflict — R. Morgan Stories

Dec
28

Here’s a great rundown of psychological struggles for you characters that I couldn’t help but share. R. Morgan does a great job distilling concepts like gestalt down into digestible bits. Some of you might recognize the must vs. need conflict, which I think is very similar or the same as the “truth and lie” concept in character arcs. All in all, a good post that might be a”good starting point for a character who seems to have no or very little development.”

~J.M.

A psychological point of view to writing internal struggles

via Man vs. Self – A Guide to Writing Internal Conflict — R. Morgan Stories

An Ambitious Work

Dec
22

I hope that my comments yesterday on Stephen King’s IT did not come off as hyper-critical. I know I tend to rant when the passion gets in me.

I could have easily continued rambling on about what is wrong with the book (one thing that really bugs me is the over-reliance on pop culture references, which I find to be a very lazy sort of writing…but I’ll have to save that for a future post).

In all honesty, I am enjoying the book. It is a story I have always enjoyed, since I first saw the TV miniseries in 1990. I enjoy this book much in the same way I have enjoyed the last two Star Wars films–having fun on the ride, but acknowledging the many bumps along the way.

Many critics, including VOX, have described the book as “one of King’s most ambitious works.” Is it?

 

It is all too common to associate ambition with length. The phrase “ambitious work” is often directly tied to, or at least associated with, the work’s length. This is the case with the VOX article, where the length of the book is given in the same sentence where it is described as ambitious.

But is length all that matters when considering a work ambitious?

My answer is no. In fact, I would argue the most ambitious novel you could write today would be 40,000 words. That’s the standard length given for the cutoff between novel and novella. I mean exactly 40,000 words, not one word more or less. To put things in perspective, IT is 444,414 words, more than ten times the length I am suggesting. And the book needs to be a complete, deep, and fulfilling novel in its own right.

Anyone can tick off all the boxes on the novel-writing checklist with enough pages. The test of a really good writer is doing more with less, efficiency and brevity. All the more difficult it is to hit an exact word count without either filler or holes.

But as I mentioned in the last post, we have a tendency to equate length with quality. Longer works are “ambitious” while shorter works are generic. It really bothers me how many speculative fiction publishers have minimum word count requirements of 75,000 words or more when the cutoff for a novel is 40. They often state outright “we will not even look at anything below this.” Why not? You cannot know what you will find unless you look.

The first fantasy book I wrote, In the Valley of Magic, clocked in at 66,000 words. This was after several revisions that added to the length. But the work itself, structurally, is really unlike anything else out right now that I have seen or heard of. That’s why I started with that project, thinking that a unique and novel approach to the fantasy novel (pun intended) would be an easy sell. It’s disheartening to see that it has been rejected several times without consideration just because it didn’t meet some arbitrary length requirement.

On a side note, Fiction Vortex, who is publishing my fantasy series Call of the Guardian, will be picking In the Valley of Magic up later in 2018, after they get their app (Fictionite) and core stories rolling. Good thing about this is that their contracts are dope. Bad part is the waiting, after already waiting an eternity (okay, only since March, but it feels like forever).

All this is because science fiction and fantasy readers have been led to believe that length is quality. Well, sorry it be the bearer of bad news, but length is more often indicative of weak, lazy, bloated writing. You get length when you refuse to cut what needs to be cut, when you do not take care with every word choice. And of course, there is that sentiment that with a longer work you are getting more product for your money. But in the arts, that is not necessarily the case.

This is why I enjoy writing flash and microfiction. These forms force you to consider the efficiency of your words. They train you to be a better writer.

IT is too long for it’s own good, having many sections and even full chapters that should have been cut in the editing process. I don’t find that ambitious at all.

All that being said, I still enjoy the story and find Pennywise to be a disturbing and compelling manifestation of evil. Speaking of which, I’d better get back to it. I’m almost to the “apocalyptic rock fight.”

Here’s an important question, since if you are following this blog you probably read some sci-fi and fantasy: Would you be turned off of a fantasy book if it was “too short”? Would you open it to look at the writing, or just pass on sight alone?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments

~J.M.

What Makes a Classic?

Dec
21

This is something that has been brewing in my head for some time. Perhaps fermenting is a better word, because it’s begun to stink.

I ask you, what makes a book a classic? Besides that some stuffy old white men in an ivory tower say so. What makes a book or a story endure?

It’s well acknowledged that Moby Dick is terrible long winded, that Melville in his opus, had a tendency to go on long tangents.

The book Dune, by Frank Herbert, is often consider the best science fiction novel of all time. But it, too, suffers from some weak writing, and more critically, constant and almost nonsensical point-of-view jumps. Not only is the POV done in a way to reveal everything upfront, leaving no room for the reader to wonder or inquire about events or character motives, the POV even jumps heads after one or two paragraphs!

An interesting side note is the fact that the “best science fiction book of all time” is actually more fantasy than science fiction. Sure it’s set in space, in what seems to be the future, but little about how the world functions is explained, and explanation is what makes science fiction scientific. But I digress.

Both Moby Dick and Dune are considered by many to be classics. Both have been reprinted continuously and have had their stories told in other formats such as film, to this day. This is despite the fact that if someone were to have pitched either manuscript to a modern agent or publisher, it probably wouldn’t make the cut for the problems I have already mentioned.

What’s another famous book that has been reprinted and turned into film several times?

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Tim Curry will always be Pennywise to me.

Now, I’m not going to suggest that It is a literary masterwork. But Stephen King is one of the most popular writers of our time. And as noted in The Guardian, “It is one of King’s most enduring novels; it’s crossed over from just being read by his fans, and become a part of a wider cultural consciousness.”

But IT is far from a great book. In places, it is even outright bad. I am currently about sixty percent through the audiobook, but I know the story, I’ve seen the movies. And I am becoming more and more convinced that the movies are simply better.

Most people will tell you, about any film adaptation, that the book is better. This is primarily due to the book having more content, and being able to explain the characters better, cover more ground. In the case of IT, length is a bane not a boon.

Clocking in at 1100 pages or more, depending on the format, the book is a beast. Length is not, by itself, a problem. There are many long books that work just fine. But people seem to have a tendancy to equate length to quality, that a long epic must be some sort of masterpiece. Masterpiece IT is not.

It was Stephen King himself that famously said in his manual On Writing to “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” To this he was rehashing the age old writing rule of write once, cut twice. Writers today are expected to cut down their work, to make it efficient and concise.

It’s perhaps not surprising that On Writing was first published in 2000, almost 15 years after IT. And it shows.

In this book, King violates almost all of his writing rules. In regards to cutting and editing, the book has several sections and even chapters, that have no bearing on the central characters. They might be nice and scary chapters, they might illuminate the monster a bit, but they are far from essential. They would not survive a modern publishers red pen.

The structure of the book is all over the place, and relies on the main character having amnesia, an old cliche. There’s a reason why the films are more appealing. They are linear, and don’t really mention the amnesia bit. It is, in fact, wholly unnecessary for the characters to not remember the events of their past in order to bring the memories up in the narrative bit by bit. It is a a tired, and unnecessary narrative tool.

Then there is the writing itself. King said in On Writing, “Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created for the timid writer in mind.” Well, King must have been timid in his earlier days, because his book is just stuff with adverbs, bad adverbs. Things like “[the door] banged gustily” and “sitting miserably.”

These combinations of verbs and adverbs don’t even make sense. Adverbs are tied directly to the verb they are modifying. So in the case of “banged gustily”, while King surely meant to mean that the closing of the door caused a gust of wind, what it really means is the sound of the bang was like the wind, as in not loud or at all intimidating. And how does someone “sit miserably”? When I heard that one, the first thing that came to mind was sitting on thumb tacks or something. The miserableness must be related to the verb sitting, that’s how adverbs work. It does not relate to the state of the person sitting. To convey that, you should say something like “Richie was miserable, sitting by himself.”

King continues his assault on adverbs in On Writing, saying “I insist you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions.” Tell that to the guy who wrote IT. I would guess that more than a quarter of the dialogue tags in that book have adverbs. There are whole exchanges where each new dialogue tag has some cute adverb after it. Some are just bad, like “‘daddy… ‘ she whispered huskily.” How do you whisper huskily? A husky voice to me is one that is deep and resonant, the opposite of a whisper.

And of course there’s the problem with Beverly. King should be given credit for how socially conscious his book is. He addresses class, and racism. You even get the feeling that he tries to deal with sexism, too, but he fails. The book is horribly sexist. The only lead female character is constructed solely through her relationships to men. She is also the only character that is sexualized, and often. We are introduced to her in a chapter section that is in the POV of her abusive husband.

Moreover, I have trouble believing that Beverly, after being abused by her father, would fall in with another abuser. My understanding is that child abuse makes people hyper-vigilant, and turns them into future abusers, not victims. There is a time when, during that introductory section, I get the feeling that King might be leading us on, that Tom Rogan just thinks he is in charge and it’s Beverly abusing him. But no joy.  Tom Rogan turns out to be one of the most cliched, and unbelievable characters I have ever read (“I’m going to teach her a lesson”–does any man, even the most abusive chauvinist really think that? I feel like they probably don’t process what they are doing until it’s done).

So with all the problems in this book, and the others mentioned earlier, why are they considered classics?

It’s the story.

King’s book might have problems with it’s prose and structure, but the story is incredible. There’s a reason why Moby Dick is replicated in countless revenge stories. Most people know what Romeo and Juliet is about, but can’t recite more than a few lines from it and often mistake the meaning (wherefore art thou, Romeo?). But the stories are timeless.

The stories are classic.

Well, that’s all the time I have for right now. I think I’ve said my peace about IT. Now I need to finish it. The audiobook is 44 hours! What in the heck?

What do you guys think? Have you read any classics that probably wouldn’t cut it today?

~J.M.

My Story Submission Process

Dec
04

It feels like I haven’t written about my current writing process in quite some time, but a recent comment from the wonderful Joy Pixley has me thinking about it again. She is not the first to comment to me that I seem to have had a lot of success in publishing.

I posted long ago about my story submission tracker. This is my method of keeping notes on all my submissions, which is necessary since my basic strategy is to write and submit a lot. The tracker is based on spreadsheets I use all the time in the Army.

Here’s part of the tracker as it looks now:

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The tracker is now much too large to try to share in full. It has more than 60 rows and 28 columns. I have extended the submission attempts for a single piece out to 13, though in practice, the most times I have submitted a single story is still only 11. I have two stories currently on their 11th attempt, stories I like to think are particularly good.

If I were to sum up my submission strategy in once picture, it would be this:

2

My current acceptance ratio is around 1 in 5. Is that good or bad? I cannot say. I’ve also submitted almost 60 stories in total. At least 30 of these were first sent out by the middle of February. I am slowing down now as larger projects (and real work) take more of my time.

I think success is highly subjective. I’ve have 33 stories accepted for publication (also a novella and a fantasy series). Is that success?

I have not yet been published in a pro-rated magazine (SFWA defines pro rate as 6c/word). For a 5000-word story, a pro-rated sale would be over $300US. Currently my best sale is only around $50, though I did win $300 in a contest. Of course, I want a pro-rated sale. That would make all this work feel like it accomplished what was intended. Does that mean I am not yet a success?

To be brutally honest, I am not sure. I feel good about my writing and publishing so far, but I know I have a long way to go.

If I could offer any advice, it would be to not give up. Don’t send your story to a single publisher and give up if it is rejected. After a rejection, you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again. At first, I was always feeling on tenterhooks, waiting for a response, only to be devastated when the form letter came. I’ve come now to expect rejection. This makes it easy when rejection does come, and a delightful surprise with each acceptance.

Also, don’t read too much into a publisher before submitting. A lot of places will suggest to read a copy of the mag before sending, but this is often A) a ploy to get sales and B) an arbitrary restriction on the content of submissions. Editors often don’t know what they like until they see it. If the publication is in the same genre as your work, and doesn’t have a blanked rejection on some aspect of it (for example, some speculative fiction publishers won’t take certain subgenres and others have specific content such as sex or gore that they won’t accept), send it in.

Think about it. What’s the worst, and best, thing that could happen? Worst, you get a form rejection. Let me tell you, you’re going to get a whole lot of those no matter what you do. But the best thing would be getting a sale! It seems entirely worth the risk, doesn’t it?

The review process is completely subjective. A certain editor might just not like your style or voice, no matter the content. And many places have only one or two people doing initial reads, that first step that gets your work from the slush pile into the hands of someone who will actually give it the time and attention it deserves.

I learned over the past year that the editors of Daily Science Fiction don’t like my style. Each one of the stories I have sent to them–which varied significantly in style and content and even structure–got form rejections, despite being clearly better written, at least technically, than much of what they do end up publishing. On the flip side, the editor of Bards and Sages seems to enjoy my style, as she has accepted three of my pieces so far, currently my best sales.

While I am now more inclined to send my stuff to Bards and Sages, since I know the editor likes my work and have enjoyed working with her, I still continue to try new places. Most of my submissions in the past month were to new publishers.

That’s really it. Submit often and submit a lot. Not much of a strategy.

Of course, you must read each publisher’s submission guidelines carefully, often necessitating substantial formatting changes to your manuscripts. And you want to be sure you are submitting to places that publish your genre. But other than that, just write a whole lot and don’t let rejections discourage you.

What comes along with submitting often is a deeper understanding of the publishing process. My experience with other publishers, and in reading many publishing contracts, allowed me to quickly identify a sketchy publisher who offered me a contract for my book In the Valley of Magic. I was quickly able to not only identify behaviors the editors and other members were demonstrating that were not right, but also quickly see a dozen significant problems with the contract. That deal was dead before it even started.

All of the writing has also helped me develop my skills and personal style. The stories I write now are clearly better than the ones I wrote even 6 months ago. After 4 or 5 submissions to the Writer’s of the Future Contest, I finally earned an Honorable Mention. My writing is getting better with each story, so maybe that pro-rate sale will come eventually.

That’s about it. No magic. No special rituals. I don’t have the chance to do any networking, as I live in Asia and do not have access to conferences and conventions. I just spam my work to anywhere I think it might fit. Maybe it was inevitable to find some being accepted.

Thanks for reading. If you have any specific questions, drop them in the comments.

Good luck with your writing!

~J.M.

 

Are You a Good Writer? — A Litmus Test

Nov
23

Joel Gordonson, author of The Atwelle Confession, offers an interesting discussion on how to tell if you have the potential to be a good fiction writer. He distills his litmus test down to three items. I only fully agree with one of the steps. Of the other two, one I half-agree with and one I don’t. Let me explain.

His first test is being able to tell a joke to at least four people successfully, meaning getting a laugh. I agree that this is a good test. Storytelling in fiction and prose is not so different from a story-based joke. They both require a good use of language, creativity and timing. If you can keep people following along with your joke, with interest, and hit them with a punchline, then you probably have a good chance of hitting them with a fictional twist or a horrific surprise (if that’s your sort of thing). I also think that humor is important for all writers, whether you actually write humor or not. Prose that is dreadful and serious all the time can wear your reader down fast.

His second test is writing a good piece of flash fiction, though he doesn’t define what “good” means. Does it mean a published piece? Getting a dozen likes? But I disagree with this test for a different reason. Flash fiction is hard. Writing good flash fiction is harder than writing regular short stories. You have to do more with less. You have to be efficient. Each word choice carries much more weight. This is not a good acid test for writing because if you can write a good piece of flash fiction, you are already well past amateur level.

The last test, writing the first and last chapters of a novel, just doesn’t make sense to me as a writing test because there is no way to measure success. Anyone can write the first and last chapter of a novel. There are plenty of people out there that have written whole novels, but are not good writers. Without a feedback mechanism, just writing something is meaningless (for the sake of gauging skill, I mean). And I don’t think there is a way to fix this test, since no one is going to get a publishing deal on a first and last chapter alone.

I would combine tests two and three into a single task: publish a short story. There are so many places you can publish stories now, that it really isn’t too hard. You might not get paid for your work, but you can be published. The important thing for this test is that someone read your work and thought it was good enough to put their stamp of approval on it.

Now, that leaves us with only two steps to our revised test, so what could be our third? I think there are many skills that a writer needs–being able to accept criticism, having a strong work ethic, being creative and inspired–that do not necessarily equate to being able to write well. I think a third thing that is indicative of being a good writer is being able to identify flaws in other people’s writing. Genuine flaws, not just prose you dislike. Grammar mistakes, problems with tense or voice, or even better, knowing when the whole piece should be in a different tense or voice. The measure of success for this test would be having that other writer accept your advice. If you are successful at peer review, it means you understand how language works in fiction. And, I think, peer review is critical for writer’s of any kind.

Well, those are just my thoughts. You can find the original article HERE.

To all my friends out there in the States, Happy Thanksgiving! To the rest, winter is coming, better stock up on hot beverages!

~J.M.

Some Details About Me Posted Elsewhere

Nov
04

Some comments I wrote on my relationship with writing were posted by fellow blogger Richie Billing. My blurb is accompanied by that of another writer named Paul Freemanwho I had not heard about before now.

Richie is planning a series of posts like this, and I think it’s a interesting concept–looking at how writers got started in the craft and what keeps them going. I find it interesting that Paul Freeman responded to someone’s sarcastic jab by going all in on a book. My fall into writing was much more gradual.

Anyway, head over and read the post.

~J.M.

SHARE: The Key to an Engaging Story is Conflict

Oct
07

Even a novice writer knows the truth of this: fiction is driven by conflict. It simply wouldn’t be interesting to read about someone going about their day and having everything go their way. The uneventful is boring. We crave big events, flashy and even crazy events. We don’t go to concerts to watch some dude stand around doing nothing. There’s gotta be sound, and lights, and maybe a little rough-housing!

Conflict is critical to any work of fiction and it becomes more critical the shorter the piece is. This is largely due to the connection of conflict and action. Conflict forces a character to make a choice, and ultimately to take action. And the shorter your work of fiction, the more action-centered it needs to be, in order to provide a pleasing experience for the reader. Flash fiction is not a good place for complex world-building or convoluted plots.

I stumbled on the following article in my Facebook feed and found it to be a very well-articulated summary of one half of the conflict topic, namely external (or physical) conflict. These days, Lit is usually concerned with internal (or emotional) conflict, but speculative fiction–especially Fantasy, and soft sci-fi–tends to favor external conflict. We fantasy fans love our villains. It’s no surprise then, that most of the examples given in the article are SF/F works.

I have to say, I really like the look of this site. It feels more like a fiction ezine than a writing blog. Near the end of the article, the author provides a good seven-point checklist for working out your story’s conflict. But I will let you read that at the source.

Head on over and read the full article, linked below.

~J.M.


What is external conflict?

by Kristen Kieffer

As humans, our curiosity piques when two forces oppose one another. “What is happening?” we ask. Why are these two forces at odds? How will the conflict play out? Who will win? What would I do if I were in that situation?

These are the questions readers ask, more or less subconsciously, as they read. Which means they’re also exactly the kinds of questions writers should ask themselves when crafting plots for their stories.

In stories, as in life, there are two types of conflict: internal and external. Internal conflicts are the mental, emotional, or spiritual struggles a person faces—Character vs. Self—which we’ll talk about in a new blog post soon! Today, however, we’re going to focus on the second type of struggle: external conflict. Shall we dive right into the breakdown? … READ MORE