Wednesday, November 29, 2006


I found that when I was younger, I would wait for moments of inspiration before writing. After all, if I had no ideas, how could I begin a story? The problem is that by thinking in this manner, I prevented myself from writing as much as I should have been.

One thing I learned from seminars on improvisational speaking is that if we are given a random subject and asked to speak about it, the issue is not that we can’t think of anything. We can easily think of something, but since we are going to speak to an audience, we weigh each thought carefully before saying it, rejecting the first few ideas that come to mind. In order to do improvisational speaking well, you have to risk exposing those initial thoughts without fully evaluating how strong they are.

When we fail to write because we’re uninspired or cannot think of anything to write, we’re lying to ourselves. Certainly we could think of something to write, but we dismiss those initial ideas. Our struggle is actually one of fear: the fear of writing something terrible. If we persist in giving in to such self-intimidation, we will never write regularly, and we will never improve upon our craft.

No one learns to walk by taking a step whenever it can be done without falling. Consider any skill for that matter. It certainly wasn’t a great experience for anyone riding with me when I first learned to drive a car, and one time I was so angry at being corrected that I threw a car into park before stopping all the way. Without risking those bad moments, though, I would be unable to drive today.

If you can’t seem to pull out any random thoughts, think about things in your life. What did you do today? How do you feel? Who did you talk to recently? Perhaps you should play some music and write whatever it makes you think about. Surely there is something you can use as a starting ground for a story.

Don’t be afraid to take chances with writing. Use those first thoughts. Think more carefully after you complete the rough draft and rework it into the drafts that follow. If a completed story is bad, it’s still good experience. I’ve written plenty of bad stories, but I’ve learned from them. The worst thing ever is to look back later in life and say, “I had a thought about a certain story once, but it sounded stupid, so I never started it. I wish I had.” Sit down, and start writing now!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Art of War

Writers of high (or epic) fantasy will inevitably find their stories leading to a climatic battle at some point. Depicting war within a fantasy world should lend itself to a few principles of reality, but it shouldn’t become so engrossed with details so as to lose the pace of a military conflict. I offer a few ideas for crafting war into fantasy tales.

I never liked hearing this as a young writer, but this is true even of fantasy writing: you can’t effectively write what you don’t know. I’m not by any means suggesting that in order to write battles a writer must experience one first-hand. I do believe, however, that a writer must know about war and battles in order to best tell a story involving them. A parallel thought is this: a male writer could use a female protagonist effectively even though he has never been female, but he certainly won’t create a believable character if he doesn’t know any women.

Since fiction is not true, we cannot rely upon other stories for background information. I believe other stories can teach us how to write, but they should not be our sources for subject matter expertise. One of the main problems in relying upon fictional material is that it may have no factual basis for its military sequences either, so your own credibility gets washed away with theirs.

History is a great source for military knowledge, but by no means should we study medieval warfare alone. The fact that modern wars have been fought in different ways ought to aid us within the fantasy world. For example, suppose you have an army that utilizes gigantic tortoises to push through enemy barricades. Reading articles or books about tanks could give you the necessary understanding about the kinds of strategies and techniques favorable to your hard-shelled reptiles. Other things to watch for in classic battles: terrain, weather and battle formations.

If you can find someone with personal experience, that works even better. Before I wrote “From Drì Anem To Dervinâss,” I spoke with a friend of mine who participates in Civil War battle reenactments. Not only did he have the first-hand experience of what it was like to be in a battle (if only a mock battle) with the number of troops relative to what I was writing, but he also had an extensive knowledge of some realties of actual battle in that time period that I hadn’t considered. If possible, find local veterans and spend some time with them; they might be more than willing to share a few tales of their own.

A final point I would like to make is one of logistics. Research the rates of travel for armies of the type in your story. Also consider what it would take to feed and supply the army. One thing some people may not consider is how widespread an army can become while traveling. If an army of ten thousand foot soldiers is broken into ranks of ten, your army has a thousand ranks. Give each rank some breathing room, and the army easily spans over a mile in length. From being in marching band, I’ve found that even a group as small as four hundred, while marching, will stretch several blocks while moving. Ten thousand foot soldiers will likely stretch to several miles in length while moving, and they won’t all get to their destination at the same time.

I used to take fantasy writing lightly, substituting facts for my own thoughts on how things could work. It’s a trap to think that since we’re writing fantasy, especially high fantasy, that we can neglect certain principles of reality (such as armies traveling three hundred miles a day on foot without rest or food). Use nuggets of plausible facts to build credibility and establish trust with readers. Oh, and you’re welcome to use the tortoise idea if you like, but please don’t describe them as living off sunshine and happiness.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Get Organized

Submitting to markets can become rather tedious. I’ve found that the time I spend in finding markets and preparing submissions is time taken from writing. I have a few tips for minimizing the amount of time spent with this particular business end of writing.

Use a template for cover letters. A template is like a cookie cutter so that all copies look similar and uniform. Fill in the parts that won’t change (like author’s bio, your address and signature line). Then leave space for the recipient’s address, greeting line and verbiage specific to the work or the person you’re submitting to. Now, whenever you need to submit your query letter, start with the template and fill in the gaps.

With each work you complete, take a moment (the sooner the better) to write a simple synopsis of the story (for short stories, this should be only a few sentences). It should read like the back of a book, spurring interest in the story. Eventually, you will plug this into your template when submitting to markets.

Now that your work is complete and you know the word count, find all the markets that match up (fantasy writers, check out this article: finding a fantasy market). Make an ordered list of the markets you want to submit your work to. If you’ve already found and prioritized markets ahead of time, you won’t need to periodically repeat the same search. I advise keeping a link to each magazine in the list so that you can quickly lookup the address and confirm that they are still in existence and accepting submissions.

Another time saver for me is to purchase large envelopes ahead of time from the post office (my personal choice is the more expensive type used for photos because it doesn’t bend easily). Then all I need to do is print the story and cover letter. At the post office I go to, there’s even a machine set up that will calculate the correct postage and sell the appropriate stamp, keeping me free of any frustratingly long lines (unless I need more high quality envelopes).

By using these tips, you should be able to flip stories from one market to the next efficiently and painlessly. The amount of time needed to apply changes to the template, print and go should be hardly noticeable. It just takes a little organization up front.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Watch Your Language

In writing fantasy, more than likely we find ourselves developing a world with more than one culture and more than one language. As writers, if we invent languages just as we do characters, there are a number of ways to use those languages effectively. This article focuses on three approaches I’ve seen and used.

One of the more common elements I see with language invention is to refer to the language by its name but never use words directly from that language. For example, I could write: I couldn’t understand anything he said, for the elf spoke in ìloâ. It’s like a character without dialogue. I can describe how the language sounds, what it may look like on paper, but I won’t give a single word of it to the audience. The key thing is not to be so simplistic in this approach so as to make the reader think you’re just too lazy to flush out actual words from the language.

A second approach is to create what you need and nothing more. With this, you let a character say or read some strange words, and that utterance is probably all you’ll ever invent for that language. Even though but a few words are relayed to the reader, there should still be a consistency to the fragment of the language revealed. The words should sound (or look) like they go together. There should also be a reason to use this approach versus the first one, other than to just throw some nonsensical expression out there. I’ve done this to be cute, but cute didn’t get me published.

My favorite approach, depending on time available, is to go the whole hog and create a base for the new language. Certainly it seems unreasonable to sit down with a dictionary and translate every word, but I do have a few suggestions for a startup kit. First, I highly recommend learning a foreign language. This helps train the mind to think differently about linguistics and will give you a broader language base to borrow from. Second, start with the small everyday words like personal pronouns and greetings. Third, as you create verbs, conjugate them to your personal pronouns in a manner relative to your language. Finally, put together some simple phrases, like: I am going for a walk outside. Or: That dwarf’s head will make a fine paperweight. Make sure all the words sound like they go together. Imagine how characters sound while speaking in that language, even before you begin creating it. As you need additional material for your stories, follow the pattern of your base. Be sure to keep your language document broken into groups so that you can easily find the words you’re looking for later.

Languages add depth to a fantasy story, and I highly recommend inventing them in order to better show the differences between disparate groups of people/races. We must be responsible with them, though. Hinting at another language without giving any specifics makes it seem completely implausible while writing paragraph after paragraph in an invented language can aggravate the reader. Let’s choose our words wisely.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

One World To Rule Them All

Fantasy writers have a couple of options with world building. One option is to create one world so that all stories take place in this same environment. Different stories may take place in different locations or times, but it’s still in the same world. A second option is to build multiple worlds where one or more stories take place in one or more worlds (a little bit of my data modeling as a programmer is coming through here). In this article, I am not going to debate the issue. I’m simply going to write about what I know, which is using one world for all stories.

I’ve heard a number of arguments against the one world philosophy, but there are a number of advantages with this type of world building. The most important reason in my mind is that each story builds the same world. Regardless of whether a story is ever published, you can use it for background material later. I’ve heard some people term this as lore (as in folklore). If you find something that absolutely didn’t work, disregard that piece and remove it from your world. So long as it wasn’t published, you can’t go against yourself (and to a degree you might not care if you do).

Second, if you write for years upon years for this one world, it’s going to have a depth that is instantly available to each story you write. That’s not to say you need to probe those depths with every story, but since it’s there, it can save you the time of having to reinvent the wheel for each story. For those of you who do a bit of mapmaking when you write (I hope that I’m not some sort of odd-ball because I do it), save your cartographic creations and apply them to each story. Now you’re able to see your high-level settings ahead of time.

On my final point, I will deflect the strongest attack against the one world: the lack of creativity or overall boredom in reusing the same world. Creativity can exist because there is always something left undiscovered. Think about our own world. There is such a vast history that there are thousands of books covering past events, from an epic level down to the personal stories. Our world cannot be exhausted, at least not by a single writer in one lifetime. Why should your world be any different?

As always, use what works for you. I’m just giving some of my thoughts and explaining why I think as I do. In another ten years, I might completely change my mind, but for now I’m all for one world.

Feel free to post your thoughts on one world versus multiple worlds. What’s your preference?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Intelligence of Your Readers

In my early years of writing, I would often insult the intelligence of my readers, giving them every piece of information I possibly could, removing any opportunities for using the imagination. Some things are better left unsaid. There is a balance somewhere between vague and obvious, and I personally know a lot about erring on the side of obvious.

One of my biggest mistakes was what I call Scooby-Dooing the ending. In every episode of that old cartoon, everything tied up neat and pretty. We learned that the janitor dressed up like the jelly ghost in order to scare everyone away from his counterfeiting operation. I never walked away from an episode with questions in my mind, other than possible plot holes or why the team continued to fear these ghosts and monsters when none of them ever turned out to be real. Likewise, the endings of my stories left nothing unanswered, including what characters thought, why they thought it and what they planned to do next. I’m not saying that as writers we should completely ignore any of these ideas because that’s just being lazy with the story (and will likely result in gaps or points of nonsense within the plot). Just don’t unwrap a present at the end that has everything in it.

Another mistake I had was stating the obvious. A friend of mine suggested that I show character emotions rather than giving a straightforward description of a character’s emotional state, and that was a critical thing for me to learn. I often took the easy way out by throwing an adverb after the word “said” to let the readers know how that speaking character felt. By omitting the adverb and describing the character’s body language instead, I now left it up to the reader to decide what was felt.

One final example of my inexperience was the lack of foreshadowing. Things simply happened. Each plot point advanced to the next with perhaps a little mystery left in between if any. There was nothing to consider, no clues to grasp (or if there were clues I made sure the reader saw them as plain as a forest fire). There should be hints of future events within the story and points that make the reader wonder about something that was not fully explained. A story that is constantly in a state of resolve can easily be set aside, a dreadful thought for any writer.

There is a trust relationship between the author and reader. On our part, we need to trust that the readers will grasp the subtle points and follow us where we lead them. We should make their journey exciting, giving them a maze and baiting them in certain directions until they come to the end. We shouldn’t be dragging them along a straight path. What fun is that?

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Importance of Writer's Groups

A number of writers use writing groups to help them advance in their skills. I know of some very talented writers who do not belong to any groups, so my stance is not that this is a necessary requirement for great writing. There are, however, some valid reasons to consider joining or starting a writer’s group.

One benefit to a writer’s group is that you have someone to give you direct feedback about your ideas and stories. I think we tend to go one of two directions as writers: we either feel that our work is great or that it is terrible. A peer critique can help identify which parts of a story are great and which ones truly are terrible. Sometimes we’re blind to this when we read our own stuff.

Another reason to join a group is the opportunity to talk about writing. I don’t know anyone else who writes where I work. My wife and closest friends don’t write either. Without a group, I’m unable to converse with people who understand writing. We can share our triumphs and disasters and be on the same page (no pun intended).

Information sharing is another usefulness to the writing group. No two people know the exact same thing, and when we share news and opportunities with one another, we add to the collective knowledge of the group. There’s a responsibility for each of us to learn something meaningful for the benefit of others, but it’s very rewarding to help someone else.

If anything mentioned seems like something you’re in need of, don’t hesitate. Start looking for a group in your area. Or perhaps an online group would work well. As for finding a group, don’t focus solely on ones specific to the fantasy genre, or you may never find a group. Writing transcends genres, and most groups will likely welcome you regardless of what you write. It’s time to get connected.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Finding a Fantasy Market

As someone who has submitted to wrong markets in the past, I wish to help those who are willing to find the right market for their work. I’m focusing on the fantasy genre because that’s what I write, and it’s the market that I know the most about. Specific markets will not be mentioned since the market is constantly changing.
I was a big proponent of using the Writer’s Market books. To this day, I agree that they convey a lot of helpful information, but there are free methods of locating fantasy markets that work just as well. If you have the money available to buy the book (or ask for it as a gift), it will prove useful. It just isn’t essential.

One of my favorite finds on the Internet is Ralan. Ralan’s list of Speculative fiction and humor markets remains current, relying upon updates from the writing community. The markets are broken into various categories, such as book publishers, semi and pro markets, paying markets and just for the love markets. Each market comes with a description and information about its state of affairs (backlogged and slow or temporarily closed, for example). Before submitting anything to a magazine, I’ll check Ralan because sometimes not even a magazine’s own website will list any problems or changes, but the writing community found out and informed Ralan.

Another recent discovery for me was Duotrope. This allows users to query the various markets of a wide number of genres. Queries take shape with a number of parameters, including pay scale, length, media type and submission type. Duotrope also has a database on response times from the various markets and acceptance/rejection ratios (similar to another good response time site called The Black Hole). Duotrope is another website dependent upon information from the writing community.

Finally, information comes from writers themselves. Whether you’re reading the information from a blog, newsgroup, chat room or personal web site, up to date news comes from those who have already hunted for it. Why rediscover something that someone else already found?

We’re writers, so our time should be spent writing, not searching endlessly for markets. The key information is out there. You just have to know where to look. If you know of some other data-rich sites for finding markets, add a post to inform others of your grand discovery. I’d be excited to find out about it!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Writing For Others

I have noticed a strange philosophy among certain writers. It is a concept summed up in the statement: I write for myself. On the surface, it seems like a mantra more writers should aspire towards, but I believe that within this principle is a basic fallacy.

A comedian doing stand-up work has routines. Those who are perfecting their art of humor test their material on various audiences, learning what works well and discarding the rest. Their purpose is to make the audience laugh; those who attend are hoping to be amused. Suppose a comedian told jokes that very few would understand and fewer would laugh at. Justifying such anecdotes because the comedian jokes for his own amusement shows a blatant disregard to the audience. Eventually such a comedian may find himself standing alone in a room.

When we express our ideas through writing, are we not trying to connect with others? Aside from personal memoirs or journals that we keep, if we write anything that is intended for the eyes of others, it is detrimental to compose stories in such a way that they are incomprehensible. Our ideas never leave the page, and the story fades into nothingness.

We should identify our audience and write for them. Not all stories are for all people, but if there is a target in mind, we must at least take aim before firing. It is our responsibility as the modern storyteller to keep trying until we get it right, honing our craft so as to reach every mind we intend to connect with.

If someone says, “I write for myself,” such a one should not be upset when he or she cannot find publications for finished works. After all, that person has already reached the target audience. Instead of submitting to a magazine, the person needs only to print the story on paper, look into a mirror and read it aloud.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Small Press

While attending the World Fantasy Convention, I learned more about the role of small press publishing and its impact on the literary world. I know writers that have works published through small press and have personally sat in on more than one panel discussion on the subject. This is a high level overview of my thoughts and observations.

Small press publications refer to those who are basically publishing material at a smaller volume than the large publishing houses. For example, a new novel may be published a few thousand times by small press but twenty thousand times by large press. The larger markets have a greater financial investment in their projects. (Of course, considering the relative scale of available capital to both large and small press, I wonder if there is the same degree of risk on new projects for both.)

The small press cannot pay at the same rate as the larger publishing houses, and it is for this reason that some writers who find success in the small markets pursue the greater financial payouts of the larger markets. Certainly the idea of fame and fortune appeals to many, but small markets offer authors the opportunity to find publication on projects large markets would pass on. Experimental, niche, risky ideas pour forth from the small press; these are risks they are willing to take if the stories move them.

Some people enjoy working for small companies while others stick with corporations. There is no right and wrong, better and worse. The literary world reflects this as well. If you have a finished work, consider each market carefully and then decide based on what fits you.

Monday, November 06, 2006

World Fantasy Convention Overview

The World Fantasy Convention is one of the largest gatherings of speculative fiction writers, artists, agents, editors, publishers and fans. It occurs annually, but the location varies from year to year; most conferences take place in U.S. cities, but there have been (and will be) meetings in Canada and England. The number of attendees seems to be around one thousand based on the two years I have attended.

(autograph session at World Fantasy Convention 2006)

Conferences are good opportunities to network with peers and others that you would like to be connected with. It can be very intimidating to attend, especially if you don’t know anyone ahead of time. There are a number of books on the subject of networking, but my recommendation is People Power by Donna Fisher.

There is a wealth of knowledge in those who attend WFC, and most people are more than willing to share it. Even if you can’t summon the courage to talk to anyone, attending the panel discussions can help you learn new information about the market, trends, how to improve and more.

Don’t wait to be published before attending a writer’s conference. I made that mistake for years. It is difficult to work up the nerve (at least for me), but the experience cannot be gained elsewhere. Also, you will find people who are quite open to conversing with unpublished writers wanting to break in. We’ve all been there, and becoming a published author simply leads to the next challenge (much like an adventure story where each completed task builds towards an even greater one).

WFC has something for every level of writer. If you attend and feel lost or uncertain, find me. I’ll talk to you.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Common Mistakes

After learning many writing mistakes the hard way, I thought I should make some notes for the benefit of those that want to avoid similar pains. This is not about writing technique; it is about selecting a market for a finished work and then submitting to that market properly. By no means is this an exhaustive list of my mistakes, so I will likely share others in future posts.

Mistake #1 – Failing to properly prepare a submission. There are standard rules for submitting fiction. For short stories, there’s a query letter, the story itself and a Self Addressed Stamped Envelope (SASE). For novels, there’s usually just a query letter until the publisher or agent asks for more. Each market may have subtle differences, and in missing those differences, you have demonstrated your ignorance about whom you’re submitting to and stand little chance of having your material read.

Mistake #2 – Assuming you know more than you do. I always thought the most professional-looking font for story submissions was Times New Roman. Later, I discovered that it’s better to use Courier because it makes it easier to look at the length and is more of an editing standard. It may be a small thing to use Courier font, but it is yet another identifier of your level of professionalism and may be the difference in how much of your submission is read by the editor. Don’t make any assumptions about your submissions. Buy a book (like Writer’s Market) and check websites for suggestions.

Mistake #3 – Paying for confirmation with a submission. This means that whoever receives your submission cannot simply pick it up from the post office box or mailbox. Instead, someone must sign a receipt that it was received. While doing this confirms that your submission reached its intended destination, it marks your submission as more trouble than it’s worth and labels you as insecure and paranoid. I did this in the past before I learned from multiple sources that it’s a really bad idea. Now, if I haven’t heard anything on a submission for a number of months, I send follow-up letters. In the few times that I’ve sent follow-ups, I’ve received responses within a week or two indicating reasons why I haven’t received my SASE back.

Mistake #4 – Submitting to the wrong market. I never properly researched the magazines I submitted to at first. Even if your writing style is superb, not all magazines are the right place for your story, and not all publishers are right for your novel. It takes time to research the markets, but when you send something to the wrong place, you’re wasting time because instead of sending the story to places where they actually publish similar narratives, you’re waiting months to hear back from someone that never would have published your story regardless of how well it was written.

Mistake #5 – Asking to have your manuscript returned. I don’t know that this makes any difference in how you are perceived by the publisher or editor, but it’s a waste of money. In order to have a manuscript returned, you must purchase an envelope large enough to contain it and pay for the extra postage. Once it comes back, it’s highly unlikely you will be able to submit that same manuscript to a new market because it has lost its pristine quality in which you sent it originally (in fact, I once had a manuscript returned with a shoeprint on it). My reason for asking for manuscripts to be returned was out of the fear that someone would steal my work. This is, of course, an irrational fear because as soon as anything is printed on paper, even to go into submission, it has an inherent copyright.

The five mistakes listed are common pitfalls to many new writers. If you are committing any of them, rather than panic, simply adjust what you’re doing for future submissions. It’s never too late to change as long as you’re drawing breath. Slap your forehead, and move on.