New World 4: Way of the Giant

November 21, 2022

Here’s a excerpt from early in the draft of New World 4: Way of the Giant. Future editing may wipe this scene from existence… so enjoy it here, because you never know!


For shelter that night, they dug a burrow in the snow. Simon could see the darkening sky through the opening, and he watched the moon climb and the stars come out as he crunched on black, curled pieces of smoked meat. Bush bacon, Bogg called it.

The mountain man lay beside Simon, not snoring yet. “It were a fine trek. The pleasantest days to pass over my head.”

“You’re sorry to be home?” Simon asked.

“Indeedy. We crossed that ridge, that… I disremember what you called it.”

“The continental divide.” Simon had learned some geology while working his father’s press, too.

“Right. I recall your tale of it. You spit on one side and it runs into the Hestern Sea. You spit on t’other, and it runs to the Keelkicker Shallows.”

Simon grinned.

“Anyway, I suspicioned our journey might be drawing to a close. City life lies in wait for us. No escaping it.”

“You’ll change your mind about city life when you have a mug of ale in hand at the Mermaid.”

Bogg chuckled. “You do know me, don’t you, pup?”

The night was quiet. Simon craned his neck to see the moonglade cast on the snow. The stars shone brighter and the turn of the night approached. He saw a new light in the sky, near the moon. Pale and hazy, like a white star with a milky stream pouring from it. “Oh… a comet. Bogg, look.”

Bogg turned over and raised his head. “Good land. It’s the Little Sister.”

“The what?”

“I haven’t see that since I was a wee lad. They say it’s the little sister of the Moon Rabbit. He takes care of her, and she looks out for him. Moon Rabbit plays it safe and stays on his path, but Little Sister, she trampooses off hither and thither. Gone most of the time. He hardly ever sees her.”

“A comet.” Stories came to Simon. “They say a comet is a bad omen. A sign of war, or famine.”

“Who says?”

“Astrologers in Algolus. They say a comet appeared in the sky before the goblin hordes began their seige of Isengrim. And the night that Wizard Malbardwin raised the undead from the killing fields of Saale, they say a comet could be seen in the aust.” Simon frowned. “I like your version better. Moon Rabbit and Little Sister are a family. Sort of like us.”

Bogg grunted. “Is that what we are? I hadn’t thought of it that way. ‘Family’ makes me think of my old brother Ackerley. How long has it been?”

The blue unicorn privateers had killed Ackerley, Simon’s father, and sixteen more in Fort Sanctuary. “I was twelve.”

“That I know. How old are you now?”

“I’m…” Simon had watched the weather and the passing of the seasons on their journey, but hadn’t been counting the days. “Sixteen? Surely by now.” His fingertips rubbed the itchy stubble on his jaw.

“Family,” Bogg said. “Well, I reckon it can’t be avoided.”

POV rhymes with mauve

February 16, 2021

No, it doesn’t.

But hey, my friend Penn Wallace invited me to present a Zoom talk on POV (that’s “point of view,” nerds) to SDWEG (that’s the San Diego Writers and Editors Guild, nerds), and the magic happened Saturday morning.

I scraped together everything I know about POV, and looked up a few things I didn’t. I started the talk with a quiz: Can you identify the point of view?

Lemony Snicket's a Series of Unfortunate Events... omniscient

Click here to see my slides.

A Million Books a Year

April 2, 2020

According to Bowker’s ISBN registrations, about a million books are published every year. We can quibble about the handful that are new editions of older books, but it doesnt change the truth:

Readers are drinking from a fire hose.

Even voracious book-a-day romance readers can’t keep up. Titles are going live far faster than readers can read them. And I don’t know about you, but I’m just as happy with a classic from the twentieth century (or the nineteenth) as with this year’s bestseller.

It’s a great time to be a reader. Three thousand new books available today! And three thousand more tomorrow!

Suppose your book is one of those three thousand. What’s a writer to do?

(Tedious repetition about perfect cover, perfect blurb, perfect launch, sticky email magnet to feed your massive email list, and all #20Booksto50K strategies to beat the competition gets a parenthetical nod. I can’t disagree; it’s all “good” advice.)

Here’s a thought: Take your time.

Average books stand no chance. Good books stand no chance. Invest the effort to make your book extraordinary. Someone with a hooked audience waiting for the next sequel benefits from speed, but if you don’t have that audience, you win by grinding.

Polish that draft from 99% perfect to 100%. steve-martin

“Be so good they can’t ignore you.” — Steve Martin

And there’s this: good is relative. Who is your book for? If readers have a million new books to choose from this year, some will choose yours… if you wrote it just for them. Maybe you’ve heard of the idea of “1000 true fans,” but whatever it takes, know your audience, the people you are speaking to.

Or are you speaking for them? Are you giving them a voice?

Fifty-million-copy blockbusters will still happen now and then. But the real future of literature consists of you and your tribe.

Make Your Family Your Allies

June 30, 2019

It’s hard to be a writer.

There’s no paycheck. At least, not this week. If you write fast, and your books sell well for many years, your pay can rise far beyond minimum wage. But slowly, oh so slowly, and we’re interested in the writing you’re doing today. For which, the pay is zero.

There’s no boss. This is a huge positive, of course. But that means there’s no reprimand if you show up to writing late, and no note goes in your employee file if you stop early for the day and go get a beer.

Worse, your boss (you know the one) and your paycheck have to come before your writing. And if you manage to write in the mornings or evenings around work, there’s your family to contend with.

Maybe that’s not a problem for you. Maybe your family is wonderful and supportive, and you couldn’t finish the draft without their encouragement. Or maybe you have a family of normal human beings, who have normal human needs. Whether parents, a spouse, or kids, you love them and you want to be there for them. But you want to hammer that keyboard, too.

How can you bring family members over to the dark side, so they support your writing efforts?

First of all, “support your writing” means “give me quiet keyboard time.” It would be nice if your spouse was your first reader and Uncle Stanley did great cover art, but what we writers need most… is to be left alone.

And what families need most is… attention.

Let’s arrange a trade. Here’s how:

1) Find a place to write and choose a window of time. Behind a closed door is better. And the shorter the window of time, the better. Did you get that? If your family doesn’t understand your need to write and won’t give you solitude, start with a shorter writing period. Then tell them about it.

“I’m going to be writing Monday to Friday, from 6:15 to 6:30 every morning.” Then do it.

When they interrupt you at 6:19, remind them that this is your writing time. When they need something at 6:28, remind them that this is your writing time.

Two notes: you won’t get much done in only fifteen minutes, and you’ll get even less done with the interruptions. That’s not the point. The point is to train your family.

2) At the end of your writing window, be with your family. Address those interruptions and show them some love. Let them know that your writing time is over, and that you are theirs now. Likewise, keep a lid on daydreaming or jotting story notes during family time. Again, you are training them. The key is to show them that, outside your writing window, you are with them one hundred percent.

Keep it steady with steps 1 and 2 until there are no more interruptions during your writing time. Your family is learning that when your writing window is over, you will be there for them. This takes faith on their part, so give that faith time to grow. Want to know a side benefit? You’ll learn to be freakishly productive in a fifteen-minute window. Once it’s going well, try the next step.

3) Expand your window. If you have waited long enough, and your family’s faith in you is solid, this will go smoothly. The increase can be small. Twenty minutes, or forty-five. Then back to steps 1 and 2. Be useless to them during your writing time. Don’t engage. Then be totally present the rest of the day.

4) Once your family is trained, and their faith in you is strong, you can try a big bump. Switch from a time window to a word count. Maybe 2000 words per day. Maybe 300. Obviously, it should be close to what you accomplish organically during your writing window. The training will start all over again. When they interrupt you at the keyboard, tell them, “I haven’t gotten my words yet.” If you take a break for coffee, say, “Almost there. Two hundred words to go.” Then go back to it.

When you hit your daily word count, stand up and cheer! They’ll celebrate too, because they have learned that when the day’s writing is done, you are all theirs. Important point: Once you’ve gotten your words, stay away from that keyboard! You’re done for today, remember? Don’t betray your loved ones.

5) The last step is only to listen. You will know that you have made your family into your writing allies when you hear them ask, “Did you get your words yet?” Now, they want you to succeed, because they know that once you do, you will be with them. Congratulations. Your family has gone from holding you back to cheering you on.


This is how Sam looks while he’s waiting for me to get my words for the day.

Choosing a Point-of-View Character

June 16, 2019

Two friends on an adventure.

The hero and villain meet at last.

Two characters in a blossoming romance.

“Who gets the point of view?”

I mean, whose point of view (POV) will you write the scene from? If the story only has one POV character, this is easy, but if you’re alternating scenes or chapters with the POV of different characters, how do you choose for a particular scene?

A lot of the time, a certain POV will just feel right. If so, go with it. That’s your prerogative as an artist. But what if you’re not sure?

There’s a rule I like to use. The POV character is the one who is the most surprised by what happens in the scene.

Every story is a series of surprises, of gaps between what the character (and reader!) expects and what actually happens. These gaps apply pressure to the character until the character is transformed in some way.

In any good scene, at least one character is in for a shock. That’s your POV character.

When I was writing New World, which is told from the point of view of both Bogg and Simon as they chase villains through the woods, I noticed that the growth of their connection over the course of the book consisted of one surprising the other, over and over, as they got to know each other. Whoever was due to be flummoxed would get the POV.

Let’s call it the POV rule of surprise.


Sam is often surprised, so he’d be a great POV character.


The 2019 NILA Writers Cider Toast

May 8, 2019

What is it?
It’s a writers conference. And it’s a reunion for students of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts.

Wait. Is it “writers conference” or “writer’s conference” or “writers’ conference”?
“Writer’s” means there’s only one writer, so a “writer’s conference” is just me at the keyboard most days. “Writers'” is the plural possessive, and there are a lot of us, so that’s probably correct. Then again, I don’t want the grammarians to take over so I’ll drop the apostrophe altogether as an act of civil disobedience. Next question.

Who’s doing it?
My friend Bob (the poet Robert Hoffman) and me, with lots of help from alumni, faculty, and the fine folks at Whidbey Island.

Why another writers conference?
Yeah, there are a lot of those. They’re expensive, and all those strangers can be exhausting for an introverted writer. Okay… we’ll pack this one with writers who are already friends. And then we’ll make it free to the public. No charge. Gratis. You just show up and go to classes.

But that’s crazy.
I know! We’ll get swamped with people! But wait, no one knows about us yet. Someday we’ll need a bigger venue, but as long as we don’t get famous, we’re all good. (By the way we funded this thing with a successful Kickstarter.)

When? And where?
August 3 and 4, 2019. And get this: it’s on an island. At a century-old hotel. Seriously. Because we’re writers.
The Captain Whidbey Inn, on Whidbey Island, way over in Washington State. And if you’re reading this, you’re invited.

Writer's Pond

Writers, Beware the Dunning-Kruger Effect

December 29, 2018

First, you know some stuff. Second, you know that you know it. Third, these are two different psychological phenomena.

That’s the essence of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is the failure to understand the extent of your own knowledge or competence. If you fail to accurately assess how good or talented you are, that’s Dunning-Kruger.

This is often thrown around the interwebs as an insult: “Look at that buffoon who thinks he’s so smart! What arrogance! Classic Dunning-Kruger Effect!” This is how I first saw it, and so I paused to look it up.

(No, the insult was not directed at ME.)

Wikipedia describes the ur-example of the bank robber who soaked his face in lemon juice so the surveillance cameras would not see him. Because that’s how invisible ink works, right?

This actually happened. To grasp the D-K aspect, imagine his friends telling him that his plan would never work, and he rejects their advice. He scoffs at the fools.

(This is important. D-K is about the failure of feedback. More on this in a sec.)

The other side of D-K is “imposter syndrome,” when, for example, truly skilled and competent writers doubt themselves and their work. Talented people can fail to grasp their talent, and see themselves as frauds. If they receive praise, they think it’s some sort of mistake or fluke.

What about you? How do you avoid delusions of grandeur as people laugh at you behind your back? Or… how do you avoid being overpowered by your own self doubt? In essence, how can you truly know whether or not you are a good writer?

It’s about feedback. When you get it, believe it. And if you’re not getting it, seek it out.

(Not your mom’s feedback. Sorry.)

Do you have a critique group? I’ve been meeting with my group, the Legion of Plume, for years, and one thing they showed me is how I never miss a chance for an unclear pronoun antecedent.

I used to haunt to get advice on every short story I wrote, and I learned a ton from writing hundreds of critiques for other writers. The site started in 1995 and has expanded to include all genres.

Are you sending your work out to markets, so editors can see it? I’ve got rejections going back so many years, some of them came in the mail. Be glad you no longer need to send stamped return envelopes to magazines. Now, with email, the humiliation is free, and that’s an innovation I welcome.

If you’ve done the above and your work is published, are you reading your public reviews? This is not for the squeamish, but Chris Fox recommends taking your reviewers seriously and listening to their advice. Your Amazon reviews might make you a better writer.

It’s a daring thought. For me, the calls for a sequel in the reviews for New World inspired me to write Hair of the Bear. And more importantly, I used those reviews when crafting the sequel, noting the elements that people liked in the first book so I could include them.
Finally, to overcome the dangers of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, ask yourself this: am I a better writer than I was yesterday? Work each day on improving your skill set and productivity. Take a tiny step forward today, and tomorrow, and the day after that, and your fate as a writer will take care of itself.

There Are Steps to This Dance

November 5, 2018

The learning curve of your writing career, if you want to save time, should look like this:

1) Craft
2) Productivity
3) Marketing

The order matters. Learn to tell a story well, then learn to produce a body of work, then learn to sell. Master where you are before you move on.

Otherwise, you’ll produce a stack of badly crafted books, or spend a fortune on advertising such a small number of titles that you have no chance of breaking even.

If I were to choose sources for these three stages, they would look like:

1) Rebecca McClanahan & Robert McKee
2) Rachel Aaron & Chris Fox
3) Kboards & 20Booksto50K

What is my wish for you?
Write well. Write fast. Sell books.

Sam at the beach

Research is a perk of this job

July 27, 2018

I’ve written about the perils of fiction research before. Now I want to share some of the fun.

Writers are masters of the arcane. Historical fiction research will make you an expert on a particular time and place, a single town in a single year, down to the slang and eating utensils. Mystery writers know more about police procedure than anyone but a cop. And writers of thrillers and adventure fiction know seven different ways to kill you where you stand.

It’s all learned in moments of spare time, on late nights and early mornings. Reminds me that the root of amateur means love.

I’m reminded of this because I’m editing the draft of Here Be Dragons — Book 3 of the Tales of the New World series — and I find myself looking again and again at pictures in my ancient copy of the US Army Survival Manual. I’ve been looking at these pictures for three novels now… and they’re all about wilderness survival.


This is a “figure 4” deadfall trap. Young Simon sees Bogg craft these three sticks, and realizes there’s more to his uncle than he thought.


When Simon and Bogg get deep into the snowy wilderness of Mira, they need to create a warm shelter to survive. Bogg digs the snow out from around a tree, and they have themselves a stealthy little hiding spot.


This is bracken fern — delicious if you happen to be starving. Simon and Bogg survive on this for a time in the deep woods of Mira.


And here is a vivet-style campfire. Flames are below ground, hard to spot from a distance. If branches above disperse the smoke, the villains won’t see you sneaking up on them.


This is Sam the Novel Dog. He’s not in any book… yet.


How to be a (faster) writer

April 22, 2018

I’ve always been slow at it. But I’m here to post a breakthrough. I just wrote a novel (New World 3: Here Be Dragons) at four times my normal speed. Here are three points about how I did it.

(1) I set a goal that was easy.

I’ve learned that failing to meet a writing goal is quietly devastating to my writing psyche, but achieving a writing goal consistently will unleash a poweful fuel — an explosive mixture of confidence and habit. The best goal is one that you can achieve on your worst day.

My goal was 500 words per day, no matter what. The number doesn’t matter. Yours might be much more or much less. What matters is…

(2) I achieved that goal with machinelike consistency.

I wrote when I was tired, when I was busy, when I didn’t have time. As the words piled up, I learned that I could do it. Some days, I didn’t get my 500, but I always made up the difference the next day.

It began to feel normal. And that’s an important feeling.

(3) I changed nothing.

I felt ready to raise 500/day to something more ambitious. But I didn’t. I got smug, then I got bored… but I wrote on, stopping somewhere after 500 and never holding myself to more. I noticed which days were easy and which were hard, which scenes were easy and which were hard.

I call this phase “Sustain and Observe.”

I want do do 1000/day or 2000/day, but I need to take the time to get strong (writing is a muscle) and notice my strengths and weaknesses, so I can amplify my strengths and sidestep my weaknesses.

The novel’s finished. Now it’s editing time. I’ll start the next one August 1, 2018, and I probably won’t change the wordcount goal. I might go another year at 500/day — and when I finally raise it, I’ll raise it to something I can achieve on my worst day. It’s a long game.

Keep the goal easy, always hit it, and sustain.

(I need to give credit to fast writers Rachel Aaron and Chris Fox, who inspired me to look closely at my process.)

Sam the Novel Dog

Sam the Novel Dog