Category: For Readers (Page 3 of 15)

New Release: Uncollected Anthology: Beasties

Uncollected Anthology: Beasties 

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All sorts of things make their way into a city.

They come, they breed, they adapt. One day, you’re looking at a raccoon breaking into a garbage can.

The next day, you’re not sure what you’re looking at, but it has intelligent eyes, lizard scales, and tentacles.

Should you get rid of it, or try to tame it? Spray some repellant, set out cheese for a midnight snack, or set the whole city on fire?

Can you make friends? And if you can, will it be more trouble than it’s worth?

Or will it lead to something glorious?

Uncollected Anthology: Beasties features 8 stories of beasties big and small, the ones we can live with—and the ones we can’t!

Featuring my story “Wee Beasties”!

Something’s going on in the new apartment building.

Something small…something blue…something that likes to steal things out of your kitchen trash can.

Not a rat, not a mole, not a vole, not a gopher…what?

The only way to find out might be to catch it!

New Release: The Nightmare House

The Defenders of Dreams Series

I started a new series – or rather continued a story that I had put up a while ago and turned it into a series for middle-graders (9-12 y.o.).  These aren’t picture books or chapter books (like Magic Tree House), but more on the level of Percy Jackson or early Harry Potter books.

Note: I’ll be updating the cover for “The Society of Secret Cats” to match “The Nightmare House.”

I realized I’d kept putting off posting that I had a new story up “until everything was perfect,” then decideed that I’d never get it announced if I waited for that 🙂

A third story, “The King of Cats,” will be out soon.


The Society of Secret Cats (Defenders of Dream #1)

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What if cats were really there to guard your dreams? Handsome, dashing Ferntail the cat must rescue  his human charge from a nightmare that invades her dream, with the help of a mysterious and beautiful cat.

The Nightmare House (Defenders of Dream #2)

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Ferntail the cat can do nothing about the nightmares the house is giving his family.  For that, a dog must be called in. An annoying pug puppy named Nodoji.

Only one question: will Ferntail or the house get Nodoji first?


When I was growing up, I loved visiting abandoned places.

I grew up on a farm in the 1980s.  Haunted houses, old trash landfills in gullies, rusting farm equipment, and half-collapsed buildings were a major part of my landscape.  My world seemed ancient and nostalgic, as if I lived in an actual post-apocalyptic society that had rebuilt itself to become modern times.  I was surrounded by the detritus of the Great Depression era, which devastated the area where I grew up.  The aftermath seemed almost magical.

But the thing that never connected was that abandoned places had once been not abandoned.  I couldn’t conceive of it as a child, not really.  Places were only abandoned in the past, which was a foreign country.  Not now.  Everything that existed now would last forever.

Now that I’m older, I can see abandonment in progress.

It’s strange; it feels like time and space are being twisted, that something is just plain wrong about such places.

Take, for example, a tourist attraction from my youth:  the Marine Life Aquarium of Rapid City, South Dakota.  It wasn’t big, it wasn’t impressive, but I knew it well.  My family would travel to the Black Hills every year for a summer vacation.  We must have gone to the aquarium a dozen times.  I had friends in college who worked there over their summer vacations.  One of my friends got to work directly in the dolphin tanks.  He had such a dense physique that he could walk along the bottoms of the tanks with them, without floating.  If I remember correctly, he said once that it was as peaceful as being dead.

There were trained seals, trained dolphins, all sorts of tanks for fish, murals painted everywhere.  Trainers would feed porpoises raw fish from their mouths.  I thought it was miraculous.

And now it’s gone.

There are other attractions from my childhood which have survived, of course.  Storybook Island is a free children’s amusement park with everything from live puppet theater to Noah’s Ark.  Giant dinosaur statues watch over the town from Dinosaur Hill (built in 1936 by the WPA), Flintstones Bedrock City in Custer is still there, and so are all the caves.  Even Reptile Gardens is carrying on.  (Sadly, Methuselah, a tortoise born in 1881 on the Galapagos Islands, passed away in 2011.)

But, when I first drove past the area after it closed, there was nothing in the place where the Marine Life Aquarium used to be.  It closed in 1997.  I don’t remember what year I first drove past.  I don’t actually want to remember.  In fact, I make a point not to look, if I’m in the area.

And as far as I can tell from Google Maps, there’s still nothing there:  just bare ground.

Since the aquarium closed, I’ve heard all kinds of creepy stories about how bad it was for the animals.  I wouldn’t have believed it at the time, but now I’m not so sure.

It’s hard to feel nostalgic, exactly.

There’s nothing left to feel nostalgic about.  No ruined buildings, no cement pools, no bleachers, no half-standing tents, no rusting metal, no peeling paint.

And yet:  that place along the side of the road is not a normal place.

Someday, someone will build there again, and I will still not go there, no matter how tempting.  That place along the road just feels wrong.

Part of me wants to go:  oh, that’s because it’s haunted.  I want to start coming up with stories about how someone died there in an accident, or it’s the tortured souls of the marine mammals who once swam there, or something.  That’s usually how a ghost story goes, right?

But I can’t find any legends about how the old site is haunted.  If there had been anything left for people to go, “There, that’s where the ghosts of the dolphins still swim,” then maybe there would be.  But it’s just a bare spot on the ground, so truly abandoned that it doesn’t even have a street number anymore.

It’s like the place itself doesn’t even exist, it never existed.  It’s not a haunted place so much as one that got erased.

It’s a strange thing to have seen a place disappear like that.  As a writer, I think, This must happen to everyone, eventually.  I’ve known people who have died; I’ve grown apart from other people, knowing that I’ll probably never see them again; I’ve had the strange sensation of still being “friends” with dead people on social media.  I’ve seen places where I used to live change slowly, in a succession of snapshots as I drive through, becoming somewhere else.

But this seems different.

I’ve read stories where people talk about how this or that city seems to have a personality and life of its own; one of my favorites is by Neil Gaiman and Alec Stephens, called “A Tale of Two Cities,” about a man who wanders the streets of his favorite city until he accidentally steps into the city’s dreams, and begins to fear what will happen if the cities awaken.

As a farm kid, I’ve never had trouble with the idea that cities are alive and might do something to you that gets you so lost that you never find your way back home again.  Of course cities will do that!  The first time I went to the Twin Cities I was terrified.  (Fortunately, someone else was driving.)  Tales about haunted bookshops and antique stores that have exactly what you need but that you can never find again—oh, yes.  That is what it feels like, to go to a strange new city.  I understand that.

But what about this other thing, where an abandoned place just disappears as though it never existed?

Does the city remember that place in its dreams?

Or do we forget it, because the city itself can’t remember?

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Heraldhere!


New Release: Cat Tales Issue #1







Cat Tales Issue #1

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No matter where you go, no matter what you do, some cat, somewhere, is always watching you!  Nine tales of cat magic, suitable for reading in front of clever, adorable, and even irascible cats.



Questioning Fairy Tales

I’ve always been interested in folk and fairy tales, as far back as I can remember.  I grew up with Grimm’s fairy tales, as a lot of people like me do, and for a long time I thought that was that: Grimm’s was how a fairy tale should be told.

Later, of course, I started discovering fairy tales from other countries and saw similar versions of tales from Grimm’s.  I read both Edward William Lane’s and Sir Richard Francis Burton’s versions of The Thousand and One Nights, and discovered just how much was getting bowdlerized out of certain books.  I read The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettleheim and started thinking about what fairy tales are for.  I had even read several versions of fairy-tale collections that gave the “original, uncensored!” versions of classic fairy tales.

Then, last year, I read The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Talesrecorded by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, edited by Erica Eichenseer, and translated by Maria Tatar.


I hadn’t realized how much the Brothers Grimm had removed from their retellings of folktales intended for children.  It’s a lot:

  • Extramarital sex.
  • Defectation.
  • Gender-reversing tales.
  • Tales about adult situations, that is, themes that kids and teen wouldn’t care about, like quality of life in old age and how to die happy.

I assumed, because I had grown up reading tales from the Brothers Grimm, that their versions of the tales–even their selection of the tales–constituted a sort of “default.”  Other collections of fairy tales, like Andrew Lang’s color-titled fairy books (The Pink Fairy Book, The Blue Fairy Book, etc.), also tended to aim their fairy tales toward children, often watering down already watered-down versions.  Even collections of tales from other countries tend censor themselves.

Most existing fairy-tale collections for children seem to bias themselves in several ways:

  • The stories that were not that meaningful for children or young adults tended to be absent, either not recorded or removed.
  • Elements of stories that were deemed “not appropriate” for children were removed.
  • A strong bias toward raising “good” children who valued whatever the anthologists (e.g., the Brothers Grimm) valued was inserted–no more gender-reversal tales where the prince has to be rescued in Brothers Grimm, even though such tales are included in The Turnip Princess.

About the same time that I read The Turnip Princess, I also read The Tale of Tales, also known as The Pentamerone, by Giambattista Basile, who collected and amended fairy tales in 17th-Century Italy.  This is another collection of folk and fairy tales that was never intended for children (although it claims to be entertainment for children!).  Lots of sleeping around, gossip, spitting (if you have a serious issue with being grossed out by spitting, you may want to skip reading this, seriously), and backstabbery.

These aren’t tales for children in the sense that most of them don’t address the issues of children or young adults, either.  The stories tend toward topics of getting ahead in life, when it’s okay to trick someone in business, and what sleeping around on your spouse is going to get you (generally, murdered).

I’m sure there’s still bias in there; after last year’s adventures in more adult fairy tales, I kind of just assume that all fairy tales are told with several levels of bias.  But previously, I had no idea.  I just thought the Brothers Grimm approach to editing and selecting tales was the right, correct, default one.

My suspicion is that it’s difficult to question an assumption that you already have on every level.  But this one hit me particularly hard.  I was supposed to be “good” at fairy tales, although (I would say with false modesty), I was no expert.

Maybe that’s just it, though:  until you’ve had your assumptions shaken to the core, until the very idea of becoming an expert at a thing becomes, at some secret, internal level, somewhat laughable, you’re not going to progress beyond a beginner’s ignorance.

No matter how many books you read.

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Heraldhere!




New Release: Ever After Fairy Tales #2, Innocence and Deceit

Ever After Fairy Tales #2: Innocence and Deceit

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Cinderella’s not so innocent, but neither is Prince Charming.  Innocence and Deceit, the second volume in the Ever After Fairy Tales anthology series, contains fourteen fairy tales retold, reimagined, and reinvented.  Enter the magical, unpredictable, wonderful world of fairy tales!

Contains my short story, “Dr. Rudolfo Meets his Match,” an Aschenputtle retelling (quite close to Cinderella!).  The editor, Jamie Ferguson, said that she got a lot of Cinderella retellings for this volume and decided to just go with it.  We writers, being much like cats, did not go in the same direction.


The Learned Something New Blues

Side note – I’m trying to write more articles for readers (instead of or in addition to helping writers get better at their craft).  Normally, the advice that writers get on “what to blog about” is to write about the same thing that you’re researching for your current works in progress.

Right now, I’m working on a story about a cat who travels dreams.  So what do I write about?  Cats?  Dreams?

I sat down this morning and went, “Well, what do people who read my stories actually find interesting?  They like cats and dreams, sure, but is that what I’m really writing about?  Is those the kinds of articles that I’m passionate about reading?”


If you look over at my Facebook feed, what you’ll see me reposting are:

  • Posts about people discovering that they were wrong about something.
  • Posts that dig deeper into a commonly held narrative, to find something not commonly repeated.
  • Psychology and mental health stuff.
  • Pop-culture jokes, memes, and puns, but usually the second-generation ones that are a little meta.
  • Gothy art.
  • Snark.

I like the idea of writing about the things I actually like, not the things I research so I can write about the things that I acutally like.  I think I’ll go with that kind of thing as my “for the reader” posts.  It’s an experiment 🙂

Today, I’d like to talk about learning new things.  It’s hard.

I have had this discussion before; often, when I say that “learning new things is hard,” there will be that one person who bravely makes the stand that learning new things is not hard.  That person will often lash out at me personally, either within the same conversation or (and this has happened more than once) on via some other post or even a private message to tell me what a terrible person I am.

There is a psychological term for learning new things being hard; it’s called “cognitive dissonance.”  The definition is actually is that cognitive dissonance is when a person holds two contradictory beliefs, values, or emotions.  But one of those beliefs is held before the other one.  Ergo, cognitive dissonance is the discomfort of learning something new.

So, to repeat my previous statement: learning new things is hard.

I don’t believe pretending otherwise makes learning any easier, although doing so literally is one of the techniques for reducing cognitive dissonance: pretending that the new belief doesn’t actually come in conflict with the others you hold.  I have a suspicion that the people who lash out at me for saying “learning new things is hard” are using this technique.  “Learning things is not so hard!  Therefore I don’t have anything to fear!  How dare you tell anyone otherwise!  It’s discouraging!”

Well, okay. That’s one coping technique.

The rest of us cope with the difficulty of learning new things by:

  • Avoiding learning new things.
  • Overestimating how difficult learning new things will be (if something is impossible or takes too long, you don’t even need to try!).
  • Learning new things “at any cost,” and then not being prepared for the actual cost.
  • Start learning the new thing, then quitting as soon as learning triggers difficulty or cognitive dissonance.
  • Becoming angry at the new thing, mocking it, devaluing it, “I didn’t want to do that anyway, it was stupid.”

We have a lot of mental tricks to help us avoid learning anything truly new.

What’s a healthier, more effective way forward?  It’s going to vary from person to person, obviously, but here are some strategies:

  • Set priorities.  How important is learning to you in general?  How important is it to you that particular day?
  • Admit that learning something truly new is hard on every level, and treat yourself as though you are having a bout of physical illness and/or depression.  The mind can get melodramatic about this.
  • Limit your focus to one truly new thing at a time.
  • Accept that other elements of your life that require willpower to accomplish will slide on especially difficult learning days.
  • Acknowledge negative self-talk (“I suck!!!”), and remind yourself that it’s likely part of how hard learning really is.
  • Acknowledge arrogant self-talk (“This is stupid!”), and remind yourself that it’s a defense mechanism against feeling like you suck.
  • Be ready for an especially bad negative reaction on days when you get feedback.  Even positive feedback can be shattering.

Learning something truly new at some level involves changing how we think about ourselves, even changing our identity.  If you take a class on learning how to cook like a chef, for example, there’s part of your brain that goes, “I am supposed to be as good as a professional chef.”  That can be painful on days when you screw up a meal; that can also be painful on days when you make the best meal ever and you’re like, “Why am I not as famous as that one TV Chef?  I’m just as good.  Maybe even better.”  If you are a chef, the mental consequences can be even worse–because it’s your livelihood at stake.

There is some good news, though.  Once your identity has recovered from the hit that learning something new delivers, the learning gets easier.  It’s like taking that chef class and telling yourself, “Okay, at first I sucked at this, but then I got better, and now when I screw up, I know how to fix or disguise that.  I’ll know that I’m not perfect, but nobody else will.”

The best thing, I think, is to identify the way in which the new thing is making you question yourself, and address whether you want to change that about yourself–or not.

Do you really want to be a chef?

Yes?  Okay, then.


Sometimes we start on something new, not knowing that it’s going to take us to a place we don’t actually want to go.  (“I don’t care how much better of a chef it would make me, I just don’t care about food costs.”)

Sometimes we just want to obsess over the easy early part of learning something and move on to the next relatively easy thing–sometimes we just want learning to be easy, a kind of distraction from the real stress of the day.  And that’s fine, too.  As the saying goes, “Jack of all trades, master of none–but oftentimes better than master of one.”  It’s no bad thing to know how to make homemade mayo, even if you’re never going to be a professional chef.

Sometimes learning gets to be easy and fun.

But other times it’s hard.  New jobs, new tasks, new expectations, new attitudes.  Admitting that you’re struggling won’t defeat you.  But pretending that it’s either always impossible or always easy–that just might.

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Heraldhere!




Interview with Jamie Ferguson, author of Bundle Up!

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Welcome to fellow author Jamie Ferguson!  Previous interviews with Richard BambergRob ChanskyP.R. AdamsMegan RutterJason Dias, MJ Bell, and Shannon Lawrence are also available.

1. First, tell us about bundles and other beasts.  Briefly, what are they, who should buy them, and where can you get them?  Optional: what’s your favorite format?

Until I started writing Bundle Up, I’d never realized how confusing the terminology can be. 🙂 I finally switched to using terms like “multi-author project” in the book to make it clear the concepts could apply to different types of projects.

Some people use “bundle” to apply to any collection of stories or books that are packaged together for sale. I’ve found that while this makes logical sense, it tends to confuse people, so I use “bundle” to refer specifically to collections of ebooks that are created using a bundling website. These sites handle splitting royalties among the participants, and may offer the option to donate a percentage of the proceeds to charity.

Other beasts include anthologies, which are collections of stories packaged together into a single book; magazines, which are similar to anthologies, but may include additional content, like essays; and boxed sets, which are collections of books in either print or ebook format. And there are even more permutations—for example, you could create a bundle of audiobooks, or a bundle of bundles of ebooks.

The three main sites where you can purchase ebook bundles are BundleRabbit, StoryBundle, and Humble Bundle. Bundles created via BundleRabbit may also be available for sale on sites like Amazon. Anything that doesn’t qualify as an ebook bundle can be sold at any retail channel that sells books.

I don’t have a favorite format—I feel that there are situations where each format works well. That said, for collections of short stories, I prefer the anthology format to the bundle format. A bundle of short stories is an ebook that contains other ebooks, so the formatting can vary quite a bit between the items in the collection. An anthology is a single book, so the formatting is consistent across all stories in the collection.


2. I’ve worked with you on a bunch of different projects (and, in fact, I did edits on Bundle Up!), and I know that you’re super organized, to the point where it’s almost a minor superpower.  Please gimme a story about how you came to appreciate that about yourself. I’m always interested in how people find their minor superpowers 🙂

My organizational superpower has always been there, so I can’t really remember a time when it wasn’t present. My mom says I made lists even as a small child. 🙂 What isn’t apparent to most people is that I’m super organized in giant swaths, but will ignore other areas if they’re not as important to me at the moment.

For example, once a month or two I’ll have built up a pile of papers and books and random things that eventually gets so high it starts to block my monitor, or I won’t have any room left to put my tea. At this point I “clean my desk,” which usually involves sorting through some things, and moving the rest to a pile elsewhere in my jam-packed office. But the colorful spreadsheets I use to track the writing and publishing projects I work on are very detailed and structured.

It’s kind of like synesthesia. I associate letters and numbers with colors, and didn’t realize until I was well into adulthood that most people don’t do this type of thing because this seems so normal to me that I rarely even think about it.


3. Your book is featured in the Nano Writing Tools Bundle aimed at writers doing a project for the National Novel Writing Month.  How did you get involved with that bundle, and has it been a positive experience?

I’d been planning on writing Bundle Up! for a long time, but kept putting it off partly because I felt I didn’t have enough experience, and partly because the idea of writing a non-fiction book was a little frightening. In the summer of 2018, Mark Leslie Lefebvre interviewed me about bundles, curation, and collaboration on his Stark Reflections podcast. I mentioned writing my book during the interview—I figured that by committing to the project in a public forum I’d put pressure on myself to finally start on the project—and my plan worked! I told Chuck Heintzelman, the founder of BundleRabbit, that I’d finally started working on the manuscript. He mentioned it to Kevin J. Anderson, the curator of the NaNoWriMo Writing Tools bundle, and Kevin contacted me and extended an invitation—with the obvious caveat that my book would have to be done.

I was super excited about this opportunity. Not only had I started writing my book, I also had the opportunity to be part of the annual NaNoWriMo bundle! Having a super firm deadline meant I had to buckle down and focus, which I did. I’d probably still be poking at the manuscript if I hadn’t had this opportunity.

In addition to all that, it’s not only been a really fun experience to be a part of this collection, I’m also a fan of the charity we’re working with. The Challenger Center for Space Science Education, a non-profit education organization founded by the families of the crew of the space shuttle Challenger, gets a portion of the proceeds from the NaNoWriMo bundle.


4. If a writer wanted to get involved in a bundle, what would be the best way to do that? What would make it worth it for an author to organize a bundle of their own?  

Networking is by far the best way to get involved in a bundle or any other kind of multi-author project. It’s not the only way, of course. You can submit a story in response to an anthology call, put your ebook up in BundleRabbit’s Marketplace, etc. But if you connect with other authors, they’ll be more likely to invite you to participate in a project.

There are a lot of things to take into consideration if you’re interested in organizing a collection. Most people just decide to do it and jump right in, which is exactly how I ended up curating my first collection a few years ago. 🙂 But I know several authors who organized one collection and then swore they’d never do it again, and there are several main reasons why. There’s a lot of cat herding involved—as the curator, you need to make sure the authors sign the contract, get their stories/ebooks in on time, give you biographies, and so on. You also need to plan on doing a fair amount of promotion, and/or rely on the authors to help out—but not all authors understand how to do this. One of the most common complaints I hear from curators is that they expected the authors to pitch in more on the marketing side.


5. If you had one tip for authors on how to make the impact of the bundles (and anthologies) they’re in more effective, what would it be?  

I’m going to cheat and give two tips, since I consider them both important. 🙂

The first is to figure out what you can do—and are willing to do—to promote the collection, and do it! Ideally, think this through ahead of time so that you can schedule time to write promotional posts, put together marketing images, and so on.

The second is to collaborate on promotion. I’ve found collaboration with other authors to be a huge benefit of multi-author collections. Not only can this help promote the collection, by working on marketing with other authors, you’re also promoting each other.


and last but not least, the bonus question:

6. Is there any note that you’d like to leave your readers on?  (Hint: the additional promo question.)

Be creative! 🙂

One of the sections in my book is called Think Outside the Boxed Set. It contains examples of less common ways to use story/book collections, like creating a collective of authors who share tasks related to a series of collections. (Examples of this particular approach include the Uncollected Anthology, which I joined in 2018, and Boundary Shock Quarterly, a speculative fiction magazine created by Blaze Ward.) There are always more ways of doing things! Don’t allow yourself to be constrained by what you’ve seen others do—give yourself the freedom to think of new ideas, and try them out!


How to Study Fiction, Part 16: Structure, Part 4

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

Scenes vs. Summaries

Beginning writers are told to show, not tell.

But intermediate writers start to learn that show and tell are both necessary, and in fact aren’t exactly opposites.  The two techniques can, and often must, coexist if you’re going to get a story told.

I find it a lot more useful to ask not whether to show or tell, but whether something should be a scene (with a beginning, middle, and ending structure and acted out more or less in real time) or a summary (which is not acted out in real time, but summed up to condense the story).

In general, events should be spelled out when the content is used to increase the tension of the story.  Events should be summarized when the content is used to anchor the world of the story (this includes the characters’ backstories or explanations of the situation in general, not just the literal world of the story).

Scenes increase tension in fiction.

Summaries provide context.

Let’s use a hypothetical section of backstory as example.  You’re writing a story in which you need to reveal to the reader an important event that occurred in the past–in this case, let’s say the main character’s father drowned in a boating accident.

In most cases, the backstory will simply serve to provide context to the main character’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, and should be summarized.

In some cases, however, the backstory will increase the tension of the scene.  Let’s say that you want to provide clues to the reader that the father wasn’t just drowned but that he was murdered, but that the main character hasn’t really put the pieces together yet.

You would write out the backstory as a scene so you can a) set up the clues, and b) increase tension.  The reader might not pick up consciously on the clues, but they will still feel the increase in tension, and associate it with that scene–they will know, at least subconsciously, that there was something important about that scene.

If you write out every event in a story as a scene, every event will serve to increase tension, no matter how minor.  There’s a famous film director who tends to do that; it’s Michael Bay.*  So unless you’re writing over-the-top thrillers, you may want to include some summary in your work.

We’ve already talked about how to write scenes; let’s take a moment to talk about how to write summaries.

Writing Summaries

The key to writing a good summary is focus on the style of how it’s told–not the content.  There, I said it!  Sometimes in writing, you have to value style over substance, and this is one of those instances.

The tension in a scene, where a character tries and fails to do something, is what drives a scene forward.  It is what, in general, drives a story’s plot forward.  So without an increase level of tension, what’s left to hold the reader’s attention? What makes a series of events inherently interesting to read, if the reader already knows that the conflict being described has already been resolved?

First, let’s look at a famous summary:

All right, all right, let’s see, she was inna water, the eel is comin’ after her, she was frightened, the eel started to charge her, and then–

I’m back to The Princess Bride, of course.  This is the scene when Buttercup is in the water as the Shrieking Eel is about to eat her, after the Grandson has interrupted the Grandpa and made him lose his place.  He’s skimming through the text, summarizing out loud.

The funny part isn’t that the eel is or is not about to eat Buttercup; it’s that the quick summary is told in the Grandpa’s voice, briefly breaking the immersion of the story.

Another one:

THE thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely, settled–but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

This one is the opening paragraph of “The Cask of Amontillado,” of which I have also made frequent mention.

A lot of openings of scenes are, themselves, summary.  Before the main action of the scene starts, there is often either a) a description of the setting and/or characters, or b) a description of the situation/problem…presented in the form of summary.

The beginning of a scene should not, by itself, increase tension.  That’s the task of the middle of the scene.  Summary and/or description are used to set the scene and give context.

So what goes into a summary, if it has no inherent drama?

  • The deep perspective of the POV character or narrator.
  • Some information that adds context to the rest of the story.

That information can be as simple as “Time passed in traveling from one place to another” or as involved as Stephen King explaining what’s been going on with Edgar Freemantle at the beginning of Duma Key.

Sometimes the information in a summary is provided after it’s relevant.  Normally this is a mistake.  Readers get upset about finding things out after they need to know.  One sentence too late is still a screwup; nobody liked being made to feel ignorant and stupid.

However, if there are two ways something can be interpreted, then it’s usually better to set up the simpler, more obvious explanation before the event, and the deeper, more complex explanation afterwards.

For example, in The Princess Bride, we learn that Westley is killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts before we meet the Man in Black, and that Westley replaced him, after.  The information that Westley is the Dread Pirate Roberts cannot be revealed until after the reader has a chance to look at the actor and go, “Wait…that dude sure looks like the farm boy.”  You have to give the reader a chance to guess; and, if they don’t, a chance to be surprised.

What does that have to do with summary?

Summary is for context, right?  We don’t need a whole scene of the Dread Pirate Roberts on the high seas.  Instead we get the following:

Westley didn’t reach his destination.  His ship was attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who never left captives alive. When Buttercup got the news that Westley was murdered–

“Murdered by pirates is good,” the Grandson interrupted.

–she went into her room and shut the door.  For days she neither slept nor ate.

“I will never love again,” said she.

We won’t find out the truth until Westley is rolling down the hill and he shouts, “As…you…wish…” And we don’t find out about it as a summary, but as part of a scene.

The information before the Westley reveal is given in summary; the information afterward, in scene.  I would say that that’s a good way to do it–but it will depend on your story.  If you were working on a mystery or suspense story, you might provide the initial information in a scene, then let the detective sum up the truth at the end of the story.

Sometimes you want a plot twist that shouts; other times, you want a plot twist that whispers, for greater impact:

Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!

That’s the end of “The Cask of Amontillado.”  The line For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them is pure summary–and redefines everything that went before it from the possibility of just being a cruel joke to the definition of revenge itself.

Scene vs. Summary Redux

I like to think of scene and summary as inhalation and exhalation, wax on and wax off, rise and set.  One of the techniques increases tension; the other doesn’t release the tension but provides a moment of calm that interrupts and defines it.

Some stories are going to need more summary than others; a thriller should have less summary, scattered lightly; an epic fantasy is probably going to have more summary, laid on with a trowel.  How much context do you need?  Do the characters live in the moment, or do they constantly consider the past and how they got where they are today?

A story with too little summary can feel like an onslaught of events with no meaning; a story with too much summary can feel like it moves at a crawl–because tension is not increasing on a regular basis, merely being maintained at a status quo.

One of the best ways to get a feel for this is (surprise surprise) to type in the work of an author that “feels” about right for pacing, and finding how much summary is actually included in the work, and where it’s tucked in.  Is it in big chunks at the start of a scene?  Is it scattered throughout?  When a character mentions something that POV character already knows but the reader doesn’t, does the POV character make an aside to the reader?  Is backstory spelled out in scenes?  Are the clues of a mystery located in scene or summary?

I can’t answer those questions for you: each writer handles them differently, and has different techniques.  I suggest taking a closer look at your favorite writers and how they handle their choices of scene vs. summary.

You have a lot more options than “show, don’t tell.”

Next time, let’s talk about what order to tell things in, and why.  Why Pulp Fiction?  Why Memento?  Should the reader know more about what’s going on than the character does?  And how can you set that up?


*Check out this video and its second half to see an interesting essay about Michael Bay’s style, both good and bad.

Free book and other curiosities here.

Tales of the Normal: 31 Days of the Horrific & Mundane, Day 31

Flash fiction project: one dark story per day, all the way through October, each one based on one normal thing gone wrong. More of this year’s stories here.  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  Parents


Where was it said, where was it written, that one had to send one’s children away?  To schools, to colleges, to lives and jobs of their own?  It was an uncomfortable situation altogether.  Their children would insist upon making fools of themselves.  They took up basket-weaving and learning about, well, not very nice people, as if that were something that one could make a living at.  They were impressionable.  They could not think for themselves, a condition which they had demonstrated time and time again, and their parents should know; they had raised them.  Had they not taught their children to respect themselves?  They had.  So why these grand yet disgusting gestures of independence?  It was just being stubborn.  They could not stand to be proven to be wrong.

Could they not be trusted to select friends for themselves?  Could they not date someone nice?  Could they not get married, have children, buy a house within walking distance, keep up a yard?  Why were all the good things that they had been taught cast aside?

To be fair, well, there was nothing to be fair about.  They did not come home for Thanksgiving or Christmas.  Their phone calls became increasingly separated by time and distance.  One could see them, mucking about on social media, having lives that they had no business living, pretending to enjoy themselves, not listening.

They were sharp and rude and didn’t understand that their parents were only trying to help; or they were soft and gelatinous, hard to pin down; or they simply pretended to ignore half the things one said, things that had been said to them when they were younger didn’t they understand that they had to grow up? What was all this about tattoos?  Why not stop drinking expensive coffees out of those foolish porcelain travel mugs?  Why not use the machine that they had bought for them, the one that takes the little plastic coffee packets, you can make anything that way? And no one didn’t need to know about their…their significant whatevers, that filth, in our day we wouldn’t have come within fifty feet of those pieces of trash,

Baby murderers! Burn the illegals! Burn the gays! Burn them all!

And then their parents left the house, they were seen in RVs, in restaurants, in cars with someone else’s badly-raised children in the streets in front of them, a foot on the accelerator and a bump under the tires, in wheelchairs, in nursing homes, in badly-upkept or luxurious retirement apartments (depending on whether they’d lived virtuous lives earlier on; of course everyone gets what they deserve), finally having grown up enough to leave their children behind and live lives of their own.

…And that’s about as much normal as anyone should have to take.

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.

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