Links: The week in review

I  have nothing deep and meaningful to talk about with writing at the moment but I want the feeling of having blogged, so I’m going to repost some of the links that I put up last week.  Or is that too honest?


Let me try again.

I have run into a number of wonderful things over the last week, and I thought I’d share some of them here, as it seems like Facebook has this tendency to hide the coolest stuff from people, because they’re–



*No rickrolls, I promise.

Ehhhh, close enough.

10.  If you ever wanted to know at least part of what a con man is thinking, check out this book:  How to Cheat at Everything:  A Con Man Reveals the Secrets of the Esoteric Trade of Cheating, Scams, and Hustles.  I gave it four stars (it went on a bit).  Some of it may even be true.

9.  The Witches’ Brew Bundle is still up, a slew of stories of witches for Halloween.  I have a short story in it, “The Ballad of Molly McGee,” about a grandmother, a baby, a foul-mouthed young woman, and the dying spirit of a mountain.  I think this is done on Friday.

8.  I put up a craft blog on information flow.  I’m just starting to be able to consciously handle information flow–so it’s not the most refined blog ever.  But if you have tips or challenges on the subject, I’d be glad to hear ‘em.

7.  Because I am nothing if not meta, I have a listicle within a listicle:  Ten Odd and Eerie Tales of London’s Victorian Cemeteries.  London used to have a special train just for funerals, did you know that?

6.  If you write dark fiction (of various stripes, like dark fantasy, horror, etc.), you can pitch your completed work to various agents and editors at #PitDark on Twitter, October 20.  More details at the link.

5.  You can make sure you’re registered as a Colorado voter online at the Secretary of State website.  And that’s all I have to say about that.

4.  Some lovely black and white photographs of Hong Kong from the 1950s.

3.  Researchers led by the Lund University archaeologists recreated one of the houses destroyed in the Pompeii volcanic eruption, a huge banker’s house.

2.  Some Latin American drinks that will make me forget pumpkin spice for fall.  HAHAHAHAHA!  The joke’s on you:  my husband, Lee, just made pumpkin bread.  I can have my Latin American drinks, and my pumpkin spice, too!

And my #1 link last week (in my humble opinion, anyway) was…

1.  The Mad Farter of France, who earned a higher fee at Moulin Rouge than Sarah Bernhardt, while playing his internal trombone for the amusement of adoring crowds.

No, seriously.

I also received the books I bought from Powell’s while I was out in Oregon for the Historical Fiction class; I bought Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (Freshly Updated) by Judith Martin.  While I deplore the apostrophe use of the title, I can only approve of the following:

Dear Miss Manners:

Please tell me what is the proper way to stuff wedding invitations?  Etiquette books and local stioners have given me conflicting answers about whether… [snip]

Gentle Reader:

Please listen carefully, because this is going to sound like instructions for making paper monkeys out of bubblegum wrappers, as translated from the Japanese.


Dear Miss Manners:

Sme time ago, I had a short, tempestuous affair with my wife’s boss’s wife… [snip]

Gentle Reader:

No.  The only person who would feel better after such a confession would be you, and you don’t deserve it.  Whatever she suspected, your wife does not deserve the pain caused by certainty and vividness.

Besides, a secret affair is, by its nature, a secret jointly held by two people.  Although she has dissolved this union, you retain joint custody of the secret.  That a gentleman may find himself participating in a dishonorable situation does not excuse him from the obligation to pursue the course of honor within that situation.

Burn!  Almost as good as something out of Jane Austen.  Have a good week, and let me know if you’re reading something good.

Kobo 30% Off Promo Sale

Kobo has a 30% off sale on selected ebook titles – the promo code is 30OCT.

A Murder of Crows

A Murder of Crows

A Murder of Crows:  Seventeen Tales of Monster and the Macabre is there to be had if you want it :)

Information Flow: An initial blather

Note:  this is not the tightest blog post ever.  

In trying to write about handling information so I can clear up confusion, I keep stumbling over how to explain how to handle information about handling information…etc.  Things got confusing.  So my apologies in advance; this is tricky stuff to catch, and I’m fighting myself.  I’ll probably redo this post later, after I’ve spent more time with with the concept of how to handle information flow.  Take this as an initial brainstorming session, not a finely crafted position.

The bane of my writerly existence has been…

“I like the story but I have no idea what it means.”

Just writing that statement makes me feel like walking away from the computer, it’s so fraught with heartbreak.  And it’s totally on me.  I did it–or rather didn’t do it.  I didn’t present the story in a way that was readable and fair.

There are characters.  And plots.  And settings.  And conflicts.  And some other stuff.  And those things are important.

But there’s another level of what I’m doing, and it’s “how to tell the readers what will happen, what is happening, and what has happened.”

Which is kind of hard to explain to a non-writer.  Let’s say characters, plots, settings, and conflicts are all ingredients for a good story, but a lot of how a story goes over depends on the skills of the cook.  Good ingredients make for a better dish, but a good cook can do great things with whatever comes to hand.

How and when you tell readers things is part of a writer’s cooking skills, as it were.

And I really haven’t been paying attention to it.

I’m making some really great stories but I’m not letting other people really taste the dish.  I’m not dragging them into my imagination.  I’m not setting the stakes.  I’m not making promises the story has to keep.  I’m not clarifying what their questions are before they can ask.  I’m not making sure there is no way to misunderstand my goddamned pronouns.  I’m not describing every setting in such detail that the reader can be inside it.  I’m not reminding people of critical details as they become more vital in the plot.  I’m not wrapping up loose ends, I’m not telling the reader what this all means to the characters, I’m not making sure that I’ve nailed down everything I promised in the beginning, or taken out that which nobody needs.

Personally, I have a way higher tolerance for being utterly confused in a story than most people.  Recently, I went to a Historical Fiction class in Oregon with Kris Rush & Dean Smith.  We had books to read for class; one of them was The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter, an alternate history.

I loved it; everyone else in the class was meh or hated it.

The reason, Kris explained, was that the author hadn’t handled the information flow correctly, and assumed the reader was familiar with the historical time period, the historical figures in the book, and the reason that all of this was so important.

I had no issue with the book, and knew very little of the history.  It’s just that I’m used to extracting that kind of information from the barest hints.  I’m not sure why; maybe it’s just that that’s how I’m used to interacting with the world:  not paying attention when the explanations are being given out, getting bored with repetition, faking like I understand what’s going on later based off some half-remembered clues.  I really do think that I have some sort of girl-version ADD going on.

Doesn’t everyone do that?  No?

Well…okay.  I’m working on being more clear on what I’m writing means.

Here’s my initial checklist of things to look for with information flow, not to be used to plan an opening but to go over if a story is an informational flop:

  • Demonstrate character in the opening (the opening is the first 500 words or so).  The ways I’ve been doing this are to show the character doing something characteristic, or to lay the character voice on pretty thick.
  • Show setting in the opening (and demonstrate it, if it’s going to be a “character” later on).  How does one show why the setting means what it means to the character?  Describe it with love or hate, show it in contrast to something else?
  • Suggest conflict and stakes in the opening, and either demonstrate them or promise that they’ll be demonstrated later (this the part where you can totally bury clues to the ending in the beginning).  If the ending revolves around a death, maybe show a death in the beginning (thrillers do this all the time in the prologue).  If the ending revolves around a swindle, maybe show a swindle in the beginning.  I think romances are particularly good at this, often hinting how the relationship difficulties will be resolved in the meet cute.
  • Make promises about the story, using clues and subtext.  I initially tried to explain what subtext was, but that’s another blog post.  “I want to surprise the reader, so I won’t tell them what’s going to happen!!!” is a common tendency among writers.  It’s no good.  Do the opposite of that.
  • Explain the rules in the opening, or make a promise that the rules will be explained soon (and then do so; I think a 25% mark is a reasonable cutoff point).  For example, if the solution of your story is about magic, then you better explain how the damn magic works and proceed to play fair with it.
  • Explain the necessary backstory in the beginning of the story (the first 25% or so).  The opening of The Mummy is great at this; the voiceover doesn’t sound like a robot speaking, but like a wonderful storyteller telling you the beginning of a dramatic story over a fire.  (Note the bug on the back of Imhotep’s robe, as a hint.)
  • Undo any unwarranted possible assumptions in the beginning of the story by acknowledging them, then showing how your story differs.  Readers aren’t blank slates, who knew?  And so if you’re writing a story about vampires in which they can go out in the sunlight, you better damn reverse that assumption before it comes up in the story itself.
  • Use names carefully.  I recently discovered that not everyone slides between different versions of their names and nicknames as easily as I do.  All the names that a character is going to use have to be directly connected to each other on a regular basis.  “Jennifer (also known as ‘Weasel Killer’) Jones had recently come into a sum of money that no woman with such bad taste should ever see in a lifetime.”
  • Nail down all pronouns and vaguewords (“stuff”) so that there’s only one thing that they could possibly point to.
  • Give explanations and descriptions of new elements of the story before they become important.   If a reader feels anything other than juicy curiosity when they ask a question, then you need to back up and answer the question before it can be asked.  Think like a verbal storyteller:  this is a tactic to get your audience members to keep their damn mouths shut.
  • Remind the readers of important points multiple times.  Good grief you’d think that people would get bored of this, but apparently not.   “But you missed the clue on page 37″ is such a horrible thing to have to say, though.
  • Tell us what events mean to the characters.  You have to tell the readers what it all means, either directly (“She would have given her right eye and a parrot’s wing to never have to see Soren the Pirate ever again”) or indirectly (” ‘Did you miss me?’ Soren asked.  After careful consideration, she splashed the pint of beer in Soren’s face, then began beating him with the heavy mug.  If she had had her pistol she would have shot him, once in his twinking eye, and once somewhere else, just for fun”).
  • Tie up all the loose ends from the beginning.  At the end, go back to the beginning and see if you a) fired all the guns that were on the wall at the end, and b) put all fired guns on the wall in the beginning.
  • Resolve the main conflict of the story.  Even if there’s a sequel.  Sometimes overarching fantasy series don’t do this, but it’s almost always better if they do.  Think back to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy.  The ending of each book was such a mind@#$% that you started the next book with a completely different, and increased, set of stakes.  The main conflict is resolved…and replaced with something even worse.  Dun dun dunnnnnn…
  • Tell us what the ending means to the characters.  Stoic is a meaning.  Conflicted is a meaning.  Riding off toward the mountains so that a kid doesn’t grow up to be a gunslinger is a meaning…then watching the kid watching the gunslinger ride away is another meaning (Shane).  You don’t have to spell it out–but you can.

This is not, I’m sure, a complete list.

I mean, if nothing else, there has to be something that says when you’ve given too much information and are blathering on a bit (I’m always saying things twice, once to say the thing, and then to say the thing more poetically).  I’m not really sure how to say that yet, though, because I feel there’s something deeper going on there that I haven’t identified yet.

And paragraphing, I haven’t said anything about paragraphing, and that’s vital.

Hiding clues versus not hiding clues, ugh, didn’t even touch that…

Ehhhh…this subject is probably a book, when all is said and done.  But here it is for now, the incomplete and initial list.  The big uglies of information flow…as I understand them so far.

“I like the story but I have no idea what it means.”

If nothing else, let me apologize for all the times that I didn’t let readers fully in on all the fun & games I’ve had.  From here on out, I am to rectify that.

Witches’ Brew Bundle: For Halloween

Facebook+image+-+1200x628The over image for this bundle was so much fun I that I’m adding it full-size.

The Witches’ Brew Bundle is up, and contains my short fantasy story, “The Ballad of Molly McGee.”

Never trust a witch; she might not be telling you everything.  This is the story of how Molly McGee’s grandmother saved Molly’s newborn baby from her father–the spirit of a dying, strip-mined mountain.

Sometimes things get complicated, even for witches–and their grandmothers.

I wrote this while on vacation in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, out by Victor and Cripple Creek Colorado.  We went to all the history museums we could find, and all the tourist trap shops.  This is what my brain spat out during that trip.  It’s more than a little bit goofy, and says something about how some words get old–but others don’t.





I’m used to writing very analytical posts about how to accomplish what you set out to do as a writer.

However, sometimes it’s important to do the opposite and write (mostly) non-analytical posts–anti-analytical posts, even.  Certainly anti-”one stripe of analysis is better than any other” posts.

The more I learn, the less likely I am to put faith in any teacher who advises One True Way in anything.  Party because I can think of dozens of examples that violate the One True Way, no matter how much it’s stretched.  But mostly because it puts my dander up.

I mean, at least put a veil of “your mileage may vary” over your advice–it’s only decent.

AmyBeth came over to my house on Tuesday, and we got to talking about writing (as you do) and ended up discussing minor characters, or NPCs (NPC refers to “non-player character,” that is, the non-POV characters in video games).  I won’t get into specifics–they are literally not my stories to tell–but it did make me realize it was time to check back in on what I think about how to build minor characters.

First, let me say:

Just as not all plots are Joseph Campbell plots, you do not have to do minor characters–or even the total number of characters, minor or otherwise–the way other writers tell you to do them.

It is not necessary to limit the number of characters in a story…it’s only necessary that it be a) fitting for your story, and b) clear to the reader.

It is not necessary to make your minor characters have minor personalities.  You may name them.  You can give them all personality and names and significant stories that knock against the main characters like pool balls, if that’s what suits you.  Likewise you could take a Kafkaesque route and give none of them names or personalities.  Names without personalities; personalities without names.

If your heart is calling you in a certain direction, if it says, “We will be exploring lots of characters,” then there is no need to reduce the number of characters in order to make the reader happy.  Don’t break your heart like that, and don’t assume you know what readers want before you give it to them.

You might need to split up characters between books, you might have to pull a George R.R. Martin and write thousand-page epics with carefully arranged POVs throughout the chapters.  You might have to kill off characters you like as events come closer together.  You might have to write spin-offs or sequels.  Who knows?

You might spend a lot of time mastering techniques that keep your readers caring about all the characters that you write about; you might have to learn to create characters who will never show up again in an extremely efficient manner so that the main plotline doesn’t get bogged down–if you’re a main plotline kind of writer, that is.  Three lines may be all that character ever gets–but those could be three great lines.

If you like, that is.

You don’t even have to have one single main character (romances often have two).  It might involve trickier footwork than you can currently imagine–but it can be done.  I think there’s a main character in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, but there certainly doesn’t have to be, or it could be dozens–George might keep us guessing until the last moment, then kill everyone off, maybe even pull a Battlestar Galactica.  Who knows?

Then again you might be making nameless, identical characters who show how the bad guys destroy even the personalities of the people over whom they rule…or giving the story a mythical feel by focusing on one or several larger-than-life figures and dimming down the light on everyone else to make the main characters seem even more legendary…or maybe subtly showing that the good guys aren’t as good as they seem (because of all the random people they kill or accidentally allow to die).  Or making characters who die off one by one…or isolating the characters from the start:  no minor characters.  You might even make up minor characters who are nothing more than the main character’s longing, reflections of what she wishes was true–but that she has to make even more real in order to come to grips with her own inner desires (and fears).

Who is or isn’t a minor character is part of how the story is told; it’s an opinion that the author holds.  Who is important enough to have a soul?

The original Star Wars movies are famous for having a lot of characters who have hidden, rich backstories–except for the Storm Troopers (and even their history comes up later).  Why?

Why make all the different species in the cantina different?  Why give them different clothes?  Why give them such heavy attitudes as they happen to interact with our heroes?

Why not do the same thing with the Storm Troopers?

Why does that choice seem seemless with the larger plot of the original movies?

Why is it important that the little robot on the Death Star bonk into Chewie’s leg, then oh shit oh shit back up and roll away? Which races have what seem to be individual members–and which seem to have identical members?  Why?

(“Dink dink, dink dink dink dink dink dink!”)

Why are there so many developed characters in The Princess Bride?  That’s…let’s see…the four heroes, Vizzini, the old couple, Prince Humperdink, Count Rugen, the hunchback, the old king and queen, the crone who shrieks in Buttercup’s nightmares, the impressive clergyman, the grandfather, grandson, and the mom, that weasel Yellin…

And why are there characters who aren’t developed?  There are the other members of the Brute Squad, the crowd in the village (“Everybody MOOOOOVE,”), the “sixty men” in front of the gates, the members of the wedding party…Why don’t they have personalities?  Why have them at all?  Does it make the main characters (and why have so many of them?) seem more important or less?

Why does Star Trek: The Original Series have so many red shirts dying?  Why does Captain Picard constantly try to reduce developed characters into nobodies (“Shut up, Wesley”) at the beginning of The Next Generation?  Does he treat the people on the planets they visit at the beginning of the series as individuals or as stupid members of stupid races?  Why–and when–does he stop?

Why are there so many developed characters at the beginning of The Stand, and so few at the end (and why are there so many strangers that we never even meet at the end, when we couldn’t swing a stick for characters with personality at the beginning)?

Why aren’t there so few developed characters in The Shining?  It’s a big book.  Surely King had room.

Why are some minor characters developed with contempt, only to be killed off–what does that say about how the author sees the world? Why are some minor characters nobody?  Why are some interesting–why do some threaten to take over the story as the author is writing?

Here’s the answer:  because that’s what mattered to the author.

By all means, study how to build minor characters, in all the ways that you can find out.  Be efficient…be over-wordy…give dossiers…veer off into backstory chapters…give no past, only one-eyed attitude…witty banter, baleful stares, identical uniforms, innumerable Tribbles.

But write them that way because that’s what matters to you.

Not because someone told you once that you have too many characters, or you need a single main character, or you need to have minor characters who don’t call so much attention to themselves, or…


You have no power over me, said the writer to the authorities, the teachers, the professionals, the agents, the editors, the publishers, the readers…

And then there was fun.

New short-story ebook: Bad House Spirit


Bad House Spirit

Kindle | Nook | Kobo | iBooks | Goodreads (reviews)

Carrie used to clean houses for a living. Mostly it was hard work but it was all right. But there was one house that was bad. Not the cleaning, although it was. But the house itself, from the creepy pictures to the barred and tinfoil-covered windows to the KEEP OUT signs all over the doors to the thing breathing down the back of Carrie’s neck…

This is a short horror story originally published in Three-Lobed Burning Eye. It also appears in the Fantasy in the City bundle, which collects twenty different urban fantasy stories together, featuring a bunch of different authors, if you’re interested in that kind of thing.

This story was inspired by the period in my life when I was cleaning houses in Iowa City. We cleaned a number of houses that were haunted or at least lived in by some less-than-sane people. The houses felt funny. Oppressive. (Others were a joy to clean.) Some were McMansions (huge, ugly cheaply-built, copycat houses that were sold by the dozen to the doctors at the University of Iowa), a couple were perfectly normal except for one room that the owners didn’t want cleaned (like the filthy, reeking, dirt-floored room under the deck that was walled in just for the dogs and had a big plate-glass window facing inward, like a tank at an aquarium), or the place where the owner screamed at us because we had a duty to move the fridge without a hand-truck on her linoleum tile floor (and which wasn’t in the contract).

And then there was this one, scary from the word go. We only did that place once.

Writers as Readers

Note:  As I was writing this, I realized that I had gone into full nerd mode, which is something that most people don’t need, most of the time.  So I’m going give what I think most people are going to want first, and then leave the full-nerd-mode blog post after a break, in case you are not most people, most of the time.

Here’s a situation that happens more often than I like:

I don’t spend a lot of time reading, said the writer.

Okay.  I get that life happens.  But whaaaa??!?!!???!!  NO CAN BRAIN.  IS NOT THE LOGIC.  Often the writer later begins to speak of all the television they’ve watched lately, and I tune out.  Blahdiblah.  Blah.*

I get that it’s overwhelming to try to select a book to read next when you’re not reading on impulse; I too suffer from decision fatigue.  Anyway, as best I can tell, your best no-brainer plan is to find a top 100 list for books in your genre and start picking your way through them.  At least put one book on your phone and read it while you’re standing in line.  Go in alphabetical order, date order, list order–just pick an order, so you don’t have to think too hard about which book to read next.  It’s fiiiine.

Here are some decent top-100 genre lists, broken down by “I am so not going to think too hard about this” genres:

If you don’t find what you’re looking for here, you could, you know, use the Google to find something more to your tastes.  Or read the full-nerd article below if you’re like WHAAAAA YOU PICKED THE WRONG LIST or THAT LIST I DISAGREES WIF IT.  Up to you, but you’ve already been warned about that.

If anyone has a curated, solid top-100 list for Westerns or overall Historical, or pulp, OMG I have been wanting a good pulp list forever, let me know.



Note:  Here beginnith the full nerd.  You have been warned.

Writers read books.  It’s like an internal compass; if you drop a writer in the wilderness then they automatically turn to face the nearest library or bookstore.  And yet it’s possible for a writer to have reading-related issues.

These issues usually don’t look like reading-related issues.  They look like, oh, marketing-related issues, or creativity issues, or grammar issues.  But the root cause often points to not knowing what other books are out there.

So I’m gonna talk about how to get a broader knowledge of what books are out there, why you should bother, and how to drill down on specific problem areas.  Your mileage may vary; if you’re satisfied with what and how often you’re reading, cool.  This is just how I do it.

First and foremost:  are you reading enough?

My baseline assumption is that if you’re not reading a book a week as an author, you’re probably not reading enough (say a half hour to an hour a day).  Some books take longer, some less time; if you’re a reader of epic fantasies than perhaps you may spend an hour a day and not get through a book for a month.  If you have a reading disability, you might cover less.  You might have personal obligations.  So be it.  But I’m assuming four books per month:  not for all readers, mind you.  For writers.

I also recommend finding a way to track your books, so you know what you’ve read over time and can spot the holes in your reading habits.  I like Goodreads and try to write just enough of a review that I can remember what the hell I read and why I liked it or didn’t.  I don’t review–and don’t count–books that I don’t finish.

I personally find myself struggling to keep up with TV shows/movies that are relevant to my niches; I should probably work out a way to burn through more video in general (especially because I work in the horror genre–a lot of seminal work started not in fiction but on the screen).  But that’s another blog post.

How do you know if you have a reading-related issue?  It’s a possibility if…

  • You have no idea what genre or subgenre your book is in.
  • You have no idea what subgenres are in your genre.
  • You can only discuss your genre as it existed fifty years ago, and you often run out of new books to read in that genre.
  • You can only discuss the current books in your subgenre, all of which you have read, and you often run out of new books to read in that genre.
  • Your favorite book in the genre is pretty much the only book in that genre you have read.
  • You are consistently screwing up one element across stories.
  • You have no idea why you’re getting rejected.
  • You have no idea what the expectations are in your genre.
  • You have no idea what books are like your book, so that you can compare them to your book for marketing purposes (query letters, book covers, etc.).
  • Early comments on your work include statements like, “reinventing the wheel,” “not fresh,” “it’s just like book X,” “it’s an X knockoff” (“it reminds me of book X” is not a bad thing, though).
  • You are unable to tell a skillful writer from one you like.
  • You can sneer at any category of book (particularly bestsellers).
  • You can’t understand why some books are selling more than yours.
  • You have no idea why bestsellers are doing so well, or blame their success primarily on luck or readers’ stupidity/foolishness.
  • You have no idea who publishes work in your genre.
  • You have no idea what flavor of your genre different publishers publish.
  • You write cross-genre books that aren’t working.
  • You never or rarely read books written by authors who aren’t like you (don’t consult your ego on this–consult your shelves).
  • You assume your book will be enjoyed “by all audiences.”
  • You can say, “I read what I like” or “I don’t care about what kind of person wrote the book, I just read what I like” with a straight face.
  • You know the basics of writing but your stories still feel thin and fake.
  • You don’t recognize your readers’ other favorite authors in your genre.
  • You have no idea which of your books to recommend to readers based on what they read.
  • Your ability to recommend books based on a reader’s preferences stops at “buy my book.”
  • You have no idea why some people don’t like your books or might review them negatively.
  • You don’t know where to steal cool new techniques from to make your own.
  • You have gotten wrapped up in reading like a professional writer and have forgotten how to just have fun with it.

A couple of notes:

I read a lot, and I still do more than a few of these things:  I’m always trying to improve my reading selection.

Also, readers who aren’t writers get to do whatever the hell they want.  Doing the book thing isn’t their job.

Just as writers should know the rules of grammar, they should also know what’s been done with stories and books, both in what’s been written and how they’ve been organized (in genres, usually), and for pretty much the same reason:  know the rules so you can break them.

This means a lot of reading.

If you’re not doing a lot of reading, that’s another blog post for another day, something titled, “Ten tricks to read more” or something.  I’m personally not interested in writing it.  Let me know if you know of a good one and I’ll link to it.

If you’re already doing a lot of reading, great.  What you need then is to investigate what areas your current reading tendencies are missing and find which books you need to fix that.

It used to be that there was a “Western Canon,” that is, a list of books (and other media) that you could point toward and say, “This is what formed Western civilization and is therefore where you should start as the basis of a good Western education.”

However, as of late a lot of people have been saying things like, “wait a minute, that so-called canon of yours doesn’t actually have anything to do with my actual, lived life, or how I see the world now.”  Then other people began saying things like, “but the canon has always been the canon your books aren’t any good compared to the ones in the canon.”  And that’s when the fight between the prescrivists and descriptivists started.

We’re going to skip that part.

The best books for you to read are the ones that accomplish what you want accomplished.  Sometimes the process of figuring that out is mysterious, indirect, and strange–you may have to read some books that strike you as purely repugnant or illogical in order to define what is it that you want to accomplish (“not that“).

I tend to focus on reading lists, so my suggestions are based on finding a reading list rather than other possible techniques, but you don’t have to stick with a pre-made list.  You could also try:

  • Bestseller categories.
  • Award winners (I generally don’t follow these; awards can be selected based on some truly mind-boggling rules).
  • Asking people who are long-term readers of a type of book that you’re interested in (ah!  recommendations!).
  • Bestseller lists, like the New York Times, USA Today, or from a genre publication (e.g., Locus Magazine for SF/F).
  • Books mentioned by your favorite writers (for example, Stephen King).
  • Best-of Anthologies (make sure to read the introductions and honorable mentions).
  • Books that you assume you won’t like for some reason.
  • Librarians.

I tend to use the following guidelines when looking for lists, although of course there’s never a perfect list–just the best list for whatever your purpose is.

  • Consider the source.  A list that somehow factors in a wide variety of opinions without giving undue weight to any set of opinions.  A list argued over by multiple people familiar with the topic is far preferable to some random list on Amazon.  A list by a famous writer who writes the same kind of thing you do is better than a Goodreads list.  A Goodreads list is better than a list made by someone with a soapbox, etc.
  • A larger list is better than a shorter one for genres; a shorter list is better than a larger one for subgenres or other specialty topics.  I like 100-book lists for entire genres or “best books evah.”  I like 10-25 for subgenres.  Trying to do a top 100 of Steampunk means a lot of “yeah whatever, points for participation” books sneak in.  And a top-10 genre list is too short to give a sense of the possibilities of an entire genre.
  • Diversity of the list is important.  If I start skimming through a list and there are 10% or fewer women, I’m out.  If I can’t find at least one person of color on the list, I’m out.  Those lists reflect such an extreme amount of bias that they’re not worth my time.  It’s funny how often that is actually a factor.  If I ever find a list for a genre that reflects the type of people who actually live in United States (let alone the world), I may shit a brick.  And before you comment about “but what about all the collections/lists that only feature women writers/writers of color/insert whine here?” please take a look at the books you read in the last year and tell me whether it reflects the actual demographics of the country you live in.  I know of some people who are exceptions, but I’m not one of them.  Half of what I read for pleasure isn’t women authors.  I can’t even bias my own reading habits toward people who share my gender and who happen to be the majority of human beings and writers in the United States, even when I’m making a point to read more women authors.  That’s saying something.  If you have the attitude that you only need to read the books you like and don’t consider race/gender/sexual orientation/disability/etc. when selecting books, then what the hell are you reading the full-nerd section of this post for anyway?  Full nerd.  You aren’t one.
  • How many books I’ve read that are on the list is important to me, too:  If I’ve read over half, it’s questionable how much I’m gonna get out of it.  But if (and I’m fairly widely read, so YMMV) I haven’t read at least 10% of the books on the list, I won’t bother with it, either; I have no way to assess whether it reflects the genre or not.  With a genre where I’m running completely blind (as I was a few years ago before I started reading romances), I’ll go for a top-10 list for a genre just to dip a toe in, or focus on a subgenre that I know that I’ll like.  Nerdy girls who get the handsome guy and get to wear the pretty dress?  I’m in.  (Regencies.)

Lists take a long time to read through.  I know this.  And you have to track down books that might not be at your library.  But consider the expense and time involved in a grad school program.   Consider how long and how much effort it takes to become a doctor.  You’re a professional.  There are no certifications in “being a writer” land.  There are just all the books you read.  That’s your certification.

“I keep up with my genre.”  A statement that reflects a world of work.  Be proud of it.

 I’m going to go back through the list of issues above, put them into general categories, and address what to look for when you’re reading.

  • You have issues inside your “home” genre.  You don’t know what genre or subgenre your book is in.  You don’t know what’s currently being done or what has been done in your genre.  You don’t know what the expectations are in your genre.  Your book “reinvents the wheel,” etc.  You don’t know what books are similar to your book.  You don’t know your genre’s publishers or why they’re different.  You’re not familiar with other writers in your genre.
  • You have issues with not reading widely enough across genres.  You’re consistently screwing up one element across stories.  You can sneer at a given category of book (and don’t understand why anyone would read it).  You write cross-genre books that aren’t working.  You don’t know where to steal new techniques from, or where other writers have stolen their techniques from.
  • You have issues with not reading from a wider audience’s perspective (people who are not like you).  You have no idea why you’re getting rejected.  You are unable to tell a skillful writer from one you like.  You can’t understand why some books are selling more than yours.  You have no idea why bestsellers are doing so well.  You never or rarely read books written by authors who aren’t like you.  You assume your books will be enjoyed by all audiences.   You “read what you like.”  You can’t recommend books tailored to a reader’s tastes unless they are the same as your own.  You don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t like your books.
  • You have issues with not reading enough nonfiction.  You have a grasp of basic writing techniques, but your stories feel thin and fake.
  • You’re overthinking this.  You have gotten wrapped up in reading like a professional writer and have forgotten how to just have fun with it.

If you have issues within your “home” genre, there are several things to look for:

  • Have you read about 80% of what a variety of people consider the “classics” of the genre?  Do a search for “best [insert genre here] books of all time” or look at the lists at the head of this article and skim through the titles on various links.
  • Are you familiar with your genre’s subgenres?  Do a search for “list of [insert genre here] subgenres.”  Note the subgenres.  Then do a search for “best [insert subgenre here] of all time.”  If you think it might be your subgenre, then prioritize those books.  If you’re interested in the theory behind what makes a particular subgenre what it is, then search for “What is [insert name of subgenre].” There will be arguments.
  • Are you familiar with the current state of your genre/subgenre?  Do you not particularly want to read every possible book in the genre but feel kind of unsure about the various awards and their biases?  Search for “best [insert genre/subgenre here] books of the 21st Century” or since 2010, or of 2015, etc.  “Best new [insert genre/subgenre here] books” also works well.  Look for commonalities between lists.  Finding good sources for recent books in a subgenre is sometimes difficult (“Buy my book!” tends to drown out curated lists), so when you do, bookmark them–they may continue to update their information with new books.
  • Pay attention to the publishers of books that you read and like, and investigate their backlists.  Smaller presses, especially, have a distinct vision of what books need to be in the world.

If you have issues with not reading widely enough across genres:

  • Read the top 100 list from another genre.  Which genre?  I recommend romance for relationships (including romantic ones) and how to write a happy goddamn ending or a satisfying ending, period; crime for any kind of “what is going on here?” story, and also for setting/description issues; science fiction and fantasy (not all SF/F, but the best of it) if you have issues with, hmmm, how do I say this? Not being able to pull off anything original; Westerns for setting and satisfying endings and character; horror for a wide variety of pacing techniques and in accepting how personal a reader’s tastes can be; historical fiction for setting, character, and handling Too Much Information; general fiction for the BIG GUNS of story and a wide range of what it’s possible to do in fiction (hint: a lot); middle grade for making your writing clean and clear without writing down to your audience; YA for character voice.

If you have issues with seeing your stories from a wider’s audience’s perspective:

  • Read for a wide variety of authors.  In the United States, approximately 50% of people are men; 66% of people are non-Hispanic Caucasian; 90-95% of people are cis and straight; 90% of people are abled.  So, roughly, if more than a third of any given list is straight white guys, you already know that 1) it’s been strongly affected by bias, and 2) you are not reading the best possible books.  Some of those books never got written or published, because bias sucks, but you can still find a lot of them if you try.  Search for “women writers of [insert genre here]” or “people of color writers of [insert genre here].”  Or possibly “best international writers of [insert genre here].”  Or best Native American writers…best LBGTQ or queer writers…best writers with autism…best Chinese writers in translation…the list is endless.  If you don’t question the diversity of your reading, then you’re not reading the best of what is possible, or even the best of what is out there, and your mind’s gonna get blown.  To learn how to bust up the assumptions of a genre while still writing solidly within it, read diverse authors.  You won’t even know the assumptions that you’re making until you start doing this.  (For example:  Japanese vs. U.S. horror.  Graphic novels vs. manga.  Historical romances that aren’t set in the Regency, Victorian, Highlander, or Western eras.  African-American sci fi.  Non-Tolkein fantasy…)
  • Read slush.  That’s right, volunteer to read the raw fiction coming in to an online short-story publication in your genre.  Most of them are looking for volunteers.  That which does not kill you will make you stronger.
  • Read the USA Today bestseller list.  It’s a firehose–you can never keep up.  But find the first author you haven’t read before and pick up one of their books from the last ten years.  (The latest book is often checked out from the liberry.)  The New York Times filters, nudges, and winks at the data…USA Today is more of a spigot directly to what most of the people read, most of the time:  not book lovers, not regular readers, but people.  These are the books that out-entertain Netflix and Angry Birds.  Respect.
  • Yes, there should be more male writers of romance.  But that’s what happens when you make an entire genre the “girl germs” of books:  not enough male writers.  I say go for it; I’d like to see more of it.

If you’re not getting enough nonfiction under your belt:

  • I skimp on this all the time because nonfiction is more demanding and slower to read than fiction.  Also, the skill set necessary to select nonfiction books is enough different than fiction books that I have a hard time with it.
  • If you’re not reading a nonfiction book per month, you’re probably not getting enough organized, curated, researched, and considered information to be able to make your stories feel solid.  Granted, you’re probably going to read a lot more if you’re writing historical fiction, historical [insert genre here], westerns, or science fiction, but pretty much any writer needs to be aware of what’s going on in the real world.  The news is one thing–but it hasn’t been put in perspective by a professional in a relevant field.  A book about neuroscience is going to be more considered than an online article summarizing a scholarly paper that nobody can read because it’s behind a paywall.  A book on history written by a historian is going to give you more than a Wikipedia article.  And so on.  Even if you later dig down to primary sources, I think that having a professional–better yet, several professionals–walk you through their opinion on the matter is going to be of great benefit to your writing.
  • How to find the books you want?  Even though they aren’t curated, I’ve had the best luck with Goodreads lists.  Many Goodreads fiction lists make me raise an eyebrow; a lot of authors hustle to get on the lists, then hustle to get more votes.  But I’ve had a lot of luck with the nonfiction lists, and you can get as specific as you like and probably still find resources.  Search for “goodreads nonfiction [insert subject here].”  Another good technique is to find one book you like on the subject and raid the bibliography.

And last but not least, if you’re overthinking this and not reading what you love:

  • At least one book a month (still going off the one-book-a-week minimum) should be a book that you’ve been looking forward to reading, or a book that you randomly grab off a shelf, or a book that you’ve been meaning to reread, or…
  • Whatever books you do read, don’t analyze them until after you’ve read them.  You can yell at the book, you can throw it across the room, you can put it down, you can cry, you can laugh…but you can’t pick it apart until you have declared yourself done with the book.  (I also have a terrible time with this one.)

So now you’ve read the full-nerd version, and you’re like, “Oh, De.  You’ve given me too many things to read now, so many that I can’t even pick the list that I want to work on first, let alone the book.”

I warned you, right?

But I do have suggestions for that.

If you go by a four-books-a-month goal, then consider this as a plan and see whether it’s doable:

  • One book a month to tackle a genre reading list.
  • One book a month of nonfiction.
  • One book a month that’s a bestseller or something deliberately diverse.
  • One book a month for pure pleasure.

I read more than that, so I pretty much do this:

  • Book from horror reading list.
  • Book from crime reading list.
  • Bestseller
  • Nonfiction
  • Book from underrepresented group–I tend to skip straight white women as a target group at this point.
  • Between each of those books, I generally read or reread a book for pleasure (lots of graphic novels in here).
  • I finish about three books per week and often go out of order, but try to keep an eye on it.
  • I’ll ditch the “for pleasure” books at the drop of a hat, but it takes a lot to make me put down a list book before the end.  Especially with the horror list, I’m getting a lot of “books that were not written for me, a woman, in any way shape or form,” and I end up going “well, that thing that drives me up the wall, don’t do that” a lot.  But I already know the genre better as a whole than a lot of other horror writers do.

I’m starting to approach the end of the horror list; I’ll probably switch to all things gothic after that.   A lot of the women horror writers that I discover aren’t from the list I’m reading at all–they’re shoved off under other umbrellas, one of which is “gothic.”  This annoys me to no end.  Half of a genre I love is hidden under a code word; no wonder horror books aren’t selling that great, outside King and Koontz. The full range of possibilities aren’t being included–and the genre is starving to death as its target audience gets smaller.

And before you start arguing with me on this one… You know what’s not on that horror list?

  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Bronte sisters
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  • Angela Carter
  • Patrick Suskind
  • John Ajvide Lindqvist
  • M.R. James
  • Daphne Du Maurier
  • Toni Morrison
  • Mervyn Peake
  • Kafka
  • Anne Rivers Siddons
  • Robert Chambers
  • A ton of modern people I’ve never heard of.

So that’s something to keep in mind:  not all these people are women.  In fact most of them aren’t.  Of course a list of 100 books can’t include everyone…and some lines have to be drawn…

But Edgar Allan Poe isn’t on the list.  There are no collections of early ghost stories.  Stephen King has seven books on the list, one of which is the eminently forgettable Bag of Bones.

Every list has issues.  Every genre has issues; that’s one of the things you’ll discover the better you know a genre.  Keep a sharp eye out for bias, watch for patterns in what you read versus what your ego says you read, and send me list suggestions.

Full nerd 4ever :)


Pacing: The tentative explanation

Pacing.  What is it?

Pacing is a tool that controls the speed and rhythm at which a story is told and the readers are pulled through the events.

Writer’s Digest.

Okay, fair enough.  But what is that tool?

 It refers to how fast or slow events in a piece unfold and how much time elapses in a scene or story. Pacing can also be used to show characters aging and the effects of time on story events.

Pacing differs with the specific needs of a story. A far-reaching epic will often be told at a leisurely pace, though it will speed up from time to time during the most intense events. A short story or adventure novel might quickly jump into action and deliver drama.

This still doesn’t tell me what pacing is, just its attributes.  It’s skipping the part where you say “Aphrodite is the goddess of love,” but noting that she has a nice butt and tends to sleep around.

Pacing is part structural choices and part word choices, and uses a variety of devices to control how fast the story unfolds. When driving a manual transmission car, you choose the most effective gear needed for driving uphill, maneuvering city streets, or cruising down a freeway. Similarly, when pacing your story, you need to choose the devices that move each scene along at the right speed.

For a moment I got excited…but the passage still didn’t define pacing.

Explanations like this drive me nuts; they’re bandaids of meaning, trying to patch up a hole where “dunno what it was, guv, but it went that way” would more properly go.  It’s easy to note that pacing exists.  It’s hard to put a finger on it, or to use it properly.

So what is pacing?

Pacing is the art of selectively matching the length, structure, and content of every unit of a story to its overall content.  Matching the length, structure, and content of every unit of a story to its overall content allows the writer to convey the desired experience of the story to the reader without having to inform the reader of what experience the writer desires the reader to have.

(“This is a fun book!!!  You should read it!!!”)

Pacing is a lens that only writers, editors, and some critics can see.  Even better, most of the time, writers can’t see pacing in their own work either–unless it’s broken and they have to fix it.  The average reader cannot see pacing at all–they can only feel it as the story rushes past, or crawls along their skin, making delicate, wincing bites.

Let’s say you’re telling a joke:

“Knock knock!”

“Who’s there?”


“Wanda who?”

“Wanda hang out with me right now?”

This is a simple joke.  If it took five laborious minutes to tell it, it wouldn’t be worth your time.  Short words, short sentences, short joke.

…I was sorry to see Gentleman John Kilian approach the chalk line with a gin-and-gin in his hand. John is a short dapper Englishman with a quick mind and a wicked talent for summatory puns. He’s not on this side of the lake much, and a lot of folks dropped what they were doing to listen.

“I commanded a submarine in Her Majesty’s Navy during the last World War,” he began, tugging at his goatee, “and I propose to tell you of a secret mission I was ordered to undertake. The famous spy Harry Lime, the celebrated Third Man, had developed a sudden and severe case of astigmatism—and many of his espionage activities forbade dependence on spectacles. At that time only one visionary in all the world was working on the development of a practical contact lens: a specialist at Walter Reed Hospital. I was ordered to convey Lime there in utmost secrecy and dispatch, then wait ’round and fetch him home again.”

“Is this gonna be a Limey story?” Long-Drink McGonnigle asked, and Callahan took a seltzer bottle to him.

John ignored it magnificently. “He was an excellent actor, of course, but before long I began to suspect that there was nothing atall wrong with his vision. I searched his quarters, and found correspondence indicating that he had a girlfriend who lived some twenty miles from the hospital. So I called him into my cabin. ‘I can’t prove a thing against you,’ I said, ‘but I’m ordering you–’” For effect, he paused and elegantly sipped gin.

I hated to do it. I’m a liar: I loved doing it. In any case I had seen the punchline coming long since, and so I delivered it before he could. “’–to go directly from the sub, Lime, to the Reed oculist.’”*

Every element of this joke says:  wait for it…

Word choices:  sorry, gentleman, approach, chalk line, gin-and-gin, hand, short dapper Englishman, quick mind, wicked talent, summatory puns, this side of the lake, dropped what they were doing to listen.

The word choices here are longer than those of the the previous joke.  Even the shorter ones are carefully arranged together for a slow, dry comedic effect.  Even the drink is essentially a martini so dry that it has nothing but gin in it.

Sentences:  The sentences are medium to long, except in the interruptions, where they are much shorter.

Paragraphs:  The paragraphs are medium to long, except in the interruptions, once again, where they are much shorter.

Entire section:  The author is so confident that you can’t guess the pun at the end that he interrupts the joke twice in order to dare you to work it out–like a mystery–before the punchline.

The word choices, sentences, paragraph, and indeed the entire section are written in order that each element matches the content–in order to manipulate the reader.  A fair chance at “solving” the pun is offered, but the author acknowledges that it’s a tease and probably the reader won’t solve it in time.

Is one joke’s pacing better than the other?  No.

Both are appropriate for their content–and are designed to effectively manipulate their respective audiences (for example, the first one definitely takes the attention span of a five-year-old into account).

You study pacing just like I did above:  type it in, break it down.  Over and over again.  The connection between the content and pacing of a particular passage might not be obvious at first; it’s probably better to read the whole work, then double back and start studying (although I do do some cold pacing study every week on SF/F/H long-term professionals, and that’s good, too).

Getting to the point where you can “see” pacing is a weird process.  It comes in fits and starts…and I doubt there’s any end to how much depth you can get out of it.  Right now I’m working a lot on the pacing of the openings and closings of various levels of storytelling, and it’s really interesting.  But even if all you do is type in the opening of your favorite book and take a quick look at it, you’re bound to find something wonderful and strangely appropriate.


What is it?

Where writers get really clever.  And often don’t even know it.


*Spider Robinson, “Have You Heard The One…?” from The Callahan Chronicals.




August 50% Promotion @ Kobo

Kobo always has a ton of sales.  From now until August 22, 50% off a bunch of titles, including Alice.

Here’s the link for all the books in the promotion.  The promo code is 50AUG.

Alice's Adventures in Underland Book 1

Alice’s Adventures in Underland Book 1

And here’s the link for Alice.


Information Management & Storytelling, Part II: Beginnings

So after I wrote the previous post on information management, I let my subconscious play with the idea.  Sometimes, sometimes, if I’ve done my homework and researched my researches and thought my thinks, my subconscious can be set loose on a problem and can come up with an answer.  Voila!  Insight.

It was another one of those blatantly obvious ones, in retrospect.  So blatantly obvious that I had actually told myself the answer weeks ago.

So:  if information management is the art of storytelling, as opposed to a craft, then of course your mileage is going to vary here.  Because there are a thousand ways to open a book or a chapter or a scene–and every one of them is right, as long as it makes the reader happy.

But this is one technique that makes me happy.

One of the things that I’ve been shy on (and I think a lot of not-yet-long-term-professional writers would have to agree with me here) is…beginnings.

I like to cut right to the action in a scene.

This is generally exactly the wrong thing to do.

Because guess what goes in the beginning of a scene?

All the things that people tell me that they get confused about.

Scene descriptions, character descriptions, backstory, opinion, how much time has passed, setup on future plot points, setup on character development, setup on mood and theme…


I was in the shower (you know that showers are the quickest way to get ideas, right?) and suddenly I realized it:  I had figured out the theory of the thing in my current state of advice to other writers:

Beginnings introduce the story in its various aspects:  character, setting, plot, theme, etc.


[Slaps self on forehead.]

Anyway, I started a new book for a client, and he’s giving me feedback as I’m writing it, which normally annoys the holy shit out of me, but is working well now–because I’m taking his notes about things that are confusing and writing new beginnings on the scenes where he’s confused.

And it’s wonderful.

Instead of trying to bury the information that I need to bury somewhere in the scene, I write a new opening to the scene.  If he is not confused, I don’t.  I have a couple of scenes that don’t have a lot of opening to them at all–but now I can look at them and go, “There’s a reason I don’t need to introduce the scene for more than a line or two.”  In one case it’s because the scene after that scene is all backstory that explains a timejump (and shows how much the character grew over his obnoxious teenage years while we weren’t following him around, thank God); in another case, it’s because the setting is the scene–a guy is getting chased around a city, and you get description of the city layered in as he runs.

Whenever he says he’s confused, I find a new way to open the scene.  Usually I don’t have to rewrite anything–I’m just add a completely new opening of the scene, right before what I thought was the actual opening of the scene.

I’ve been typing in a lot of Dan Simmons’s The Terror lately (and am thinking about working deeply with Drood, too).  His chapter openings (and endings) have multiple layers to them–he’ll do an opening that establishes character, and then another opening that establishes setting, and then another opening that transitions the reader from the inside of the character’s head and into the action of the story.  He’ll have thousands of words of a character pondering their backstory, then the dark and the ice and the stinking ship upon which they are stranded, then come back to the here and now as they get ready to talk to someone.

Granted, The Terror is a really thick novel, in more ways than one.  But a technique of using multiple openings is a thing, and I can do it if I want to.  Or at least to the extent that it works for me in each chapter.


Something I’d like you to do, if you have a moment:  go back to the beginning of this post and read it again…but only after the first set of section-break formatting dots.  Those three dots are where I would have started a week ago, thinking that I had said everything that needed to be explained in order to set up the blog post.

One of the things that I’ve been shy on (and I think a lot of not-yet-long-term-professional writers would have to agree with me here) is…beginnings.

I approached this blog more like I’ve been approaching those ghostwriting chapters:  take some time and set things up.  I didn’t think too hard about what was going in there; I just wrote.  But I think the blog post flows better with it than without.

Those chapters very certainly do–the client is very happy.

Blog posts take time that I’m not using to write fiction.  So if you’d like to express your gratitude for this post or my blog in general, sign up for my newsletter.  I’m really behind on it so I think you’re pretty safe from newsletter harassment, but if I do get one sent out anytime soon, I promise to include a couple of bad puns.  I’m trying to ease myself out of doing so much ghostwriting, and into writing more for myself–and one of the best ways to do that is to build a mailing list of people who are a) loyal fans, b) moderately interested fans, or c) can be bribed into forwarding things on social media.

If you’re not a fan of bad puns, all I can say is that at least the newsletters don’t come out very often…


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