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The Unfinished Swan is a little gem of a game from 2012 in which you play the role of a boy chasing after the fleeing, titular swan. That the swan came from one of the boy’s mother’s paintings, and is set on leading you through a series of magical locations is just a set up for one of the most compelling settings I’ve seen before.

The visual artistry in a game, as in a movie, goes a long way towards establishing the tone. It’s the equivalent to the verbs and adjectives used in a novel – if they’re all short and succinct, or long and flowery, we’re going to expect different things from the book. In The Unfinished Swan, you’re wandering through an environment that is often nothing except whiteness. At least, until you illustrate it by casting balls of paint around. In doing so, you give the world life, and, through careful painting, discover more about the boy’s story.

Accompanying all of this is a score and slow pace – there’s little running, shooting of guns, or penalties for ‘dying’ here – that beget wonder. Why is there an all-white labyrinth? Why are there giant, if mostly harmless, sharks swimming in the canals of this empty city? What happened to the king?

You consider these questions, and the game gives you time to mull them over. There’s never an absence of questions, but also never so many that you feel lost or confused. All of the questions, the unique things the boy discovers, all fit within the world created for the game. That cohesiveness keeps the enchantment going. There’s nothing that breaks the spell for you. Even the credits at the end are incorporated into the narrative, so that you’re left with a cozy narrative into which you can vanish for several hours and emerge happier for having experienced it.

A novel has a longer course to chart, and fewer tools (no direct video or audio components), but has the advantage of flexibility. The author can take the reader anywhere. Can start with the character playing basketball and end with a fight to the death with the murderous mole-people of planet Mordican Nine. The miracle is that your readers will go along with such leaps so long as you earn them. Make them fit your story, capture the magic of what you’re writing about, and suit the language to taste.

While I’m not perfect at this, it’s something I watch for on my edits. If the tone of a paragraph, or a setting, or a character’s dialogue doesn’t seem in keeping with the world of the story, it’s tweaked. Or cut. Even particularly clever witticisms, cocktail-party winners, get the ax if they don’t match the narrative.

So next time you’re looking at your work and starting another edit, keep the background in mind. What do you want your reader to feel, how do you want them to explore your world? Anything that detracts from that ideal should be changed, or if it’s necessary to keep, perhaps a revision of your atmosphere is in order. Pull the reader into your universe and don’t give them a reason to leave.

Tortoiseshell Cats Are Not Refundable

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It’s the near future. Experimental cloning is going on, and their target market, as you might expect, are those who’ve just lost a loved one. Only, as is common in stories like this, the end result isn’t a return of the blissful life left behind, but rather something new.

What I like most about Cat Rambo’s story, though, is that it strikes a different tone than the usual warnings and woe that accompany these ‘return of the dead’ fables. Rather than a resurrection and subsequent ruin, Rambo’s story allows for new life, new possibilities in the face of the unexpected.

There’s a cat here, one that dies and is remade. The titular breed makes exact cloning impossible, and at first the recipient of her remade pet is less than enthused. Only when she stops placing her new pet in the guise of the old one, can she move past the mental block.

The narrator faces a similar problem, though with greater consequences. The story doesn’t detail how the narrator deals with this change, deals with the disappointment of dashed dreams, but it doesn’t have to. It’s enough to end on a note of hope, when so many other’s would choose the well-tread cautionary tale.


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Occasionally a series of events happens at the day job that gets me riled up, incensed to a degree where I’ll run through tasks and phone calls with a vigor not always present on other days. Today, as you might gather, that happened. I made it home a little after six, after burning through emails and other things for nearly eleven hours.

On the drive home I wondered why it was I could churn forth that kind of manic effort for a job that I care about, but certainly isn’t a driving passion like writing. I think, weirdly, the answer lies in the publicity of it. Right now, my writing is largely hidden from view. I don’t have a series of novels getting criticism, I’m not reading about my lack of theme in The New Yorker. There’s nothing pushing me to be better, to be threatening me with some sort of performance assessment.

I think the nebulous distance of failure is one of the most under-rated challenges facing a new author, and it’s one I grapple with constantly. If I were to stop writing now, most of my friends and family might be slightly disappointed, but it wouldn’t be a huge problem. It wouldn’t warrant emergency phone calls, late-night sessions at the hotel, or a flurry of emails. I’m pretty sure, at this point, my writing career would vanish with nary a whimper.

Now, contrast that with an author who’s published a few books. Doesn’t even matter if they only have a few sales, or a few hundred pages read in Kindle Unlimited. That career exists. Someone, somewhere, even if it’s only family, invested some time and maybe some money in that. There’s a relationship there, a contract of sorts between reader and author that’s similar to the one between employer and employee. A service rendered.

Me and my quaint little unpublished life have no contract, no service is really rendered, and thus I could walk into that good night and leave only my dreams behind.

I’d rather not do that. I’m more a fan of fiery failure, going out with a fireworks display. Bangs and pops. Fantastical exuberance. Mutterings of insanity. All that good stuff. And it’s just waiting there – waiting to be grabbed, to be cared about with the same degree of energy that the high-priority email demands.

I’ll get there.

Too Sleepy

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I’m not a particularly effective sleeper. That’s not to say that I have bad dreams, or even that, once I’ve snoozed off, that I can’t reap the benefits. It’s more to say that I don’t do a good job at getting the amount of sleep I like. Or a consistent amount at all.

While this is due to myriad factors, not a small one being an absurd desire to keep awake and doing ‘things’ even if those things are pointless, the main consequence of feeling exhausted is a lack of desire to write. The heavy-lifting my brain is averse to on normal days is exacerbated on tired ones. Like the weight is magnified to a degree where attempting to lift it is a daunting task.

I’ve mentioned time and again on this blog the various things that undercut my writing, and probably your’s too, and this is one of the largest factors. If I don’t have the energy to put words on the page, I’m not going to be getting any closer to finishing the novel.

All that being said, a couple of things I’ve found that help me meet the sandman faster:

  1. Reading on something that isn’t a screen. This means paper books or an e-reader (I have a Kindle Paperwhite). Neither of these shine a bright light like a phone, and don’t refresh their screens numerous times a second, causing me to stay awake.
  2. Stop the work earlier. Not necessarily writing, but if you’ve got a bunch of ideas percolating in your head when you lie down, it’s going to be hard to fall asleep any time soon. As such, the wind down is, for me, a key part of getting to sleep effectively. Which is why it sucks so hard when I forget to do it and the clock’s pushing midnight and I haven’t even brushed my teeth yet.

So, in continuing the quest for quality sleep, I’d do well to listen to myself. It’s just hard to turn off the devices that I’m addicted to. One more thing to improve, I suppose.


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It’s the curse of today’s world that every moment is filled with a thousand possible decisions. There’s the myriad wonders of the Internet, the forests of the app store on your particular phone or device of choice, the possibilities on the TV, on the book shelf, or in the car and drive ten minutes to the nearest place to explore. It’s so hard to take out the noise and focus on what’s really important.

I have problems with this. Will continue to have problems with it. Despite my mind knowing and understanding exactly what I need to do to progress towards the ‘life’ that I’d like, I undermine myself on a daily basis.

There are dozens of self-improvement blogs out there that lay out all the pitfalls of distractions, of getting swept up in the mental satisfaction of achieving your dreams without actually doing the hard work to get there. It all makes sense when you read it. As though you’ve internalized this wise guru’s comments about cutting off the wifi on your computer, making a daily checklist and sticking to it, plotting out your steps long term and running with a plan. That’s all wonderful.

But in the moment, now, that’s the hard part. Sitting your butt in the chair, or walking it to a coffee shop and after doing that declaring that you’re now going to try and pull some masterpiece together is nice in theory, but hard in practice. The brain wants that quick dopamine rush and it’s going to do whatever it can to get it.

So I struggle through. And I’m guessing you probably do too. I’m not great at fending off distractions – I don’t cut off wifi, for example. I forgive and forget my actions too easily – letting myself off the hook for doing work that needs doing by claiming (to myself, silently, in my head) that it’s fine not to do it now. That reading a book, or playing a game or something is OK and besides you’re tired and you deserve a break. That might be true, but dammit, I’m going to be tired all the time. That’s part of working a stressful job. If I wait till I’m in perfect shape to write, it’s never going to be written.

So here I am, blog, ignoring the distractions to pound out this post. After I hit publish, I’m going to crack open a victory beer and pound out some of the novel. Even if my brain doesn’t want me to.

The Dangling Thread

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It happened yesterday while I was driving to the grocery store. Thinking about the ol’ novel and what was going to happen next, I remembered a minor plot thread from the first book. One that’d slunk into the back of my mind and insidiously kept itself hidden while I’d plunged through to the finish line and onto the next work.

After a few choice expletives that the novel I’d sent out to some readers contained a lapse, a plot hole (if a small one), I started to calm down. None of the readers that’d sent feedback so far had caught it. Maybe I’d make out successfully, a tiny heist of the mind, getting away with that bit of dangling plot. But I would know, and that made all the difference.

There were a number of options. I could go back and edit the original novel, throw an extra chapter or a few pages devoted to wrapping up the missing moment. Or, I could leave it unresolved until the second book, bring it back and reference what happened to this thing that I, and the characters, forgot about. Play with it a little. Maybe it could have ramifications, or set up a plot development moving forward that I hadn’t thought about.

For now, I’ve decided to leave the missing piece, well, uh, missing. I’m dealing with it in the second book, using it as a narrative device to spur some choices that otherwise might have seemed forced, or may not have come up at all. Now I’ve got some new toys, narratively-speaking, to play with.

Lesson being, I suppose, that what, at first glance, looks like a mistake could in fact turn out to be a twist in a new direction. Not something to be corrected, but to be used instead. Enjoyed, even.

The only consequence was, thinking about the possibilities, I totally forgot the milk.

Share the Wealth

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The problem with writing novels is that you can go for so, so long without any sort of real feedback on what you’re doing. For all you know, typing away on the edge of sanity in the bleak hours of the day where minutes creep and seconds stalk your mind, whispering that you’ll never make it to the end of the sentence, much less the chapter, your words are a giant bundle of crap.

It’s ironic, then, that the most necessary thing that you’ll have to do as a writer is also one of the hardest. Solicit that feedback, send out your stuff to the wild open where a whole range of people can take potshots at it while your baby sits there and suffers. There’s no defense once the word is on a page in the hands of a reader. Nothing you can do to disguise the typo, no re-arranging of tin-eared dialogue or a protagonist whose hair color inexplicably moves from brown to black to red throughout the story.

The only way to catch these sorts of things in a way that doesn’t doom your book to the bottom of the trash pile is to spin it through the grasping hands of friends, writing-group pals, and/or anonymous nutters on the internet, so long as they promise to give you honest feedback. I’d recommend putting the book through at least three people, more if possible, and collecting their impressions.

Take notes on what they tell you. Store the feedback somewhere and when you go through an edit, hunt down and track the things they noted and make sure to squash them. Ask for theme and character feedback too – if they didn’t realize that your protagonist was really an amalgam of Ghandi and Vlad the Impaler, then perhaps you’ve got some brushing up to do.

Watch for the tone of the feedback too – were they excited about it? Ready for the next book in the series? Was it two lines of stuff chock full of meaningless adjectives and a link to the lunch menu of Tojito’s Taco Palace? All of those are clues that your stuff did or did not strike home.

My method, which for the novel and novella have worked decently well, is to do the following:

  1. Write the damn thing.
  2. Wait a bit, write the next damn thing (or at least some of it)
  3. Do an initial edit of the thing. Clean up major errors, do some polish, etc.
    1. The initial edit is key – you want valuable feedback, not a list of typos and a complaint on how all your names are variations on ‘John’.
  4. Send out to a group of first-readers. Continue writing other jazz.
  5. Get feedback. Do a second edit.

And from there you can send to another real editor to get into the weeds with it, or wrap it up for publishing. I’d recommend getting a real editor, but for now that’s all based on other people’s experiences. I’m planning on doing that soon, once work calms down for a hot second. But so far, having others run through my work has been a valuable, eye-opening experience. Do it.

Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead

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Ursula Ruiz does something clever with her short story – it’s arranged like a Kickstarter with all the usual elements, cleverly structured to provide the exposition, conflict, and growing horror that something terrible is going to happen.

There’s a risk with inventive formatting of fiction that Ruiz is taking here. For one, there’s a lot of unnecessary expended space and words just to accomplish the feel of the Kickstarter vibe. Names, dates of posts, headings and frequent line breaks make for a jarring read. There’s also the risk that your audience, admittedly a safer bet in a sci fi setting, doesn’t understand the reference you’re making. Last, but probably most important, is that you sacrifice story and plot to suit the format.

It was that point, the plot, that I was wondering about as I read Ruiz’s story. There’s references to places like Bethlehem, but it’s unclear whether it’s the Biblical one or a different town. There’s talk about physically entering the Land of the Dead, something that can apparently be done with a few hundred dollars worth of ingredients and a hefty ticket price on top. Still, we’re talking a world in which relatives can go visit their deceased family. And, apparently, the deceased family can talk back to them through the Internet at will. The character’s sister, whom she is trying to find, communicates via postings on the kickstarter.

That last kind of breaks the story a bit for me – if the sister can communicate, then why wouldn’t she tell Ursula (the protagonist) that she knows what happened to their parents, thus obviating the entire search in the first place?

If you ignore that hole, though, the rest of the story is inventive, quick, and brutal. There’s personality carved into the few paragraphs. Enough so that you feel the sarcastic, disillusioned sister trying to find her sibling and identify with the struggle. The last few messages, increasingly desperate, from someone who must be a family friend, neatly convey the growing horror at an outcome most readers will probably guess. That the mystery can be solved isn’t a problem, here, because again Ruiz succeeds with her characters. And when we’re talking less than ten pages of story, creating realistic, interesting characters is an achievement in and of itself.

That Environmental Factor

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The day job keeps me moving. Tomorrow, for example, I’ll be flying to Connecticut for a few days. The week after, to a smallish town in South Carolina near the currently-high-flying Clemson Tigers. For the last few years, I’ve spent more than a third of the days on the road.

What that means is that I’ve learned to write in a variety of places. Ones with space and character, others without either (airplanes, I’m looking at you). Below I’m ranking the top 10 places, based on my experience, to get some writing done.

10. The Airplane

C’mon, you knew this had to be last, right? Writing on an airplane is often a struggle against the reclining seat in front of you that reduces your lap space to a pair of micrometers. When it’s not that, you have a dearth of outlets and the extremely close proximity of another person to shake your immersion. Turbulence and a general stress about making it to your destination on time are just extra fun.

That’s not to say an airplane can’t be productive, though. I’ll use longhand notebooks that are much smaller than the laptop to jot down story ideas. Occasionally, if I get upgraded (work travel = airline status and benefits), I’ll have the space to crank something useful out. The most underrated part, though, is internet access. It’s getting more common on planes, but still takes effort to connect to. The removal of that distraction gives you a chance at getting things done, at least till that baby starts wailing.

9. The Office

Every once in a while when there’s a gap for lunch I think about getting some writing done. Sometimes that gap is enough to get through a blog post, but anything longer or more intensely creative? Yeah, right. There’s phone calls, endless emails, people knocking on the door, and the harassment of the schedule about that meeting you have coming up. The office, what with the desk and setup, might seem like a great place to get creative, but there’s too many distractions to be productive.

8. The Hotel Room

I’m not really sure why I have such a hard time getting real writing done in hotel rooms. I think it’s something to do with the bland art on the walls. Or that it’s also the place that I’m sleeping, and potentially working out, watching the game, etc. In short, there’s too many potential activities there that it requires a lot of discipline to knock out the word count in the hotel.

7. A Boat

This one is partially dependent on the size, but I’m writing this with regards to a 90-footer that holds a little over 20 passengers. I’m sure a giant cruise ship is going to be calmer. While I found the sea breeze a nice catalyst for ideas, the rolling over waves and staring at a screen combination eventually unsettled the stomach. I’m not prone to seasickness, and this wasn’t severe, but the mild nausea really killed the desire to put words down.

Still, the first thirty minutes were great.

6. The Beach

No motion sickness on the sand, right? Ah, but then you have, you know, sand. The stuff is potentially murderous for computers, so I stick to notebooks for beach writing. But that can be really productive – you have the steady sound of the waves and, again thanks to lack of interwebs and other distractions, the opportunity to let your creative mind loose. Skip the beach reading for a change and try some beach longhand next time. You might be pleased with the results.

Sidenote: Beachfront anything makes a wonderful place to write. Less sand, great view. 

5. The Park

This is a rarer writing destination for me, if only because it takes effort to get all the stuff together and get to a park just to write. However, once I’m there and settled on a blanket or chair or something, the ambient calm of being outdoors helps get the ideas flowing. This makes another ideal spot for the notebook as opposed to the laptop. No chargers in the park, after all, and sunshine can make it hard to see a screen.

4. The Airport

Not the airplane, but the airport itself. Specifically once you’ve reached your target gate or little restaurant and have an hour or two to kill before takeoff. Ideally you’re not too worried at this point because you’re where you need to be, and have little else to do. There’s tons of white noise in the sounds of passing crowds, boarding announcements, and so on. There’s also inspiration everywhere in the form of people-watching – that guy walking by with the big guitar case? That woman with three dogs? That family wearing entirely souvenir-based clothing? All stories you can tell.

3. Home

Geez, only number three for the place where I do, by far, the most writing? I think my house, whether it’s in the office or on the couch, has endless potential. It could be number 1 eventually, but it’s going to take time to get it there.

See, home is full of distractions. Whether it’s other people asking questions, the cats harassing me, the constant backdrop of errands that need running or food that needs cooking, all of those things break the ease of getting into the writing vibe.

I find that writing at home becomes much easier with a routine. That standardish time when you’re going to get the writing down is, when reinforced with consistency, be so important at home because you don’t have that physical distance from everything else going on in your life. Discipline is required here and I’ll admit that I’m not perfect at it. Yet.

2. The Coffee Shop

Raise your hands – most people probably thought this would be number one. And it’s close. Real close. The one thing that stops the coffee shop from anchoring its spot as numero uno is the lack of availability. This is my list, after all, and I just don’t have time to go there on most days. When I’m traveling, I often won’t have a car, or will need to get breakfast and coffee straight from the hotel lounge prior to going to the office.

At home, I have to get to work. Sometimes I’ll get up early and try to get to the coffee shop, but the extra ten-fifteen minutes that takes is just time I lose from writing at home. On off days I’ll definitely hit up the espresso cafe for a shot of the good stuff and let the light music and crowd of other wordsmiths keep me motivated. It’s a treat right now.

1. The Restaurant Bar

When you travel as much as I do, you inevitably spend a lot of nights going out to dinner by yourself. Because I sometimes find it a little awkward to get my own table in the middle of a restaurant’s dining area, I’ll often find the bar spot and snatch a stool or something on a small table. There I’ll avail myself of the nightly special, order quickly off the menu, and stay for a couple of hours pecking away at the keyboard.

For whatever reason, putting myself in this space divorces me of the stress of the day. There’s almost never internet in the places, so I’m able to focus on the words. Often I’ll get asked what I’m doing, or if the server is being particularly attentive, what I’m writing. That alone is often worth the whole visit. People wondering whether you’re a writer they should know about. It’s a confidence booster, but also motivating. I want to be a writer people know. I want to be able to pull up my amazon page or have a book handy to pass along, signed and ready to go.

So there you have it, my ten most frequent spots to scribe in the order in which I prefer them. I’d give each of them a try if I were you, see what strikes you best. You might even find some are better for certain things like new stories, editing, or punching out a word count, than others. So long as you get the words down, though. That’s most important.

How to Get Back to the Forest

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In a delirious fit, which is basically my constant state when in a bookstore, I procured a pair of short story collections. One of them, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2015, happened to be the first target for my lingering gaze. Mostly because it happened to be on top when the clerk put them in the bag, but also because the first experiences I ever had with books that truly captivated me were the ones that were out there.

Sofia Samatar’s story opens the volume, and it postulates a world of succeeding generations going through camps and being pushed out into targeted industries or the army to meet the world’s needs. It’s not really about that, though. The stories I remember stick in the mind because of the characters, the people populating whatever nutty setting the author has conjured after their tenth cup of coffee.

The narrator in Samatar’s story is a wallflower, hanging out and not pushing buttons. She’s our window into Samatar’s world, but it’s a tinted one. Our narrator is missing a friend, one that was possibly crazy, but also possibly very right about a very wrong situation. And our narrator’s main action in the story is to prevent that friend from disclosing her secret, from convincing the others to believe.

Samatar’s tale is a stream-of-consciousness exercise, and it’s fascinating to read the narrator re-evaluate her actions and change her mind in real (fictional) time. Is the setting creepy? Are there the unanswered questions and vague statements about things that exist in a shadowy beyond about which we’ll never know anything?

Of course. But that’s all back-drop to the emotional core of two friends holding hands in a dark and scary world. Only one let go, and both were lost.