Spotlight on Local Author: Henry Herz

Intro

Henry Herz intimidates me.

He’s written and sold ten children’s books, along with numerous short stories, and he’s one of the few writers Jonathan Maberry trusts to run the Writers Coffeehouse when he can’t host it himself.

Did I mention he frequently runs panels for Comic-Con and WonderCon? And that he edited an anthology that includes stories from Peter S Beagle, Jane Yolen, and Jim Butcher?

Thankfully, he’s as friendly and approachable as he is super-organized (more on that later). He recently spent some time with me over Zoom to talk about his writing process, children’s book publishing, and his dive into the world of middle-grade novels.

Writing Process

What is your writing process like for a picture book? With something that short, does pantsing vs plotting come into play?

I’m a plotter by nature, and because of my background in industrial engineering, I don’t like wasting time. For me, being a plotter is more efficient than being a pantser because I don’t write myself into corners.

But it’s an artistic endeavor, and it may be that someone who loves to be a pantser can’t plot. They would actually be slower, so every writer must discover what works best for them.

For a picture book, there’s usually 13 to 14 two-page spreads, so I’ll just do an outline to show what I want to have on each of these spreads. Then I can look at everything and go, “Okay, do I have rising tension? Do I establish the problem in the first one or two spreads? Do I have a resolution about three-quarters of the way through?” And that’s easy to check. Then I can draft each of the pages and go from there.

With a picture book, you could easily get away with pantsing, because the word count is so low. And picture books typically go through a lot more revisions than a novel.

Really?

Well, how many passes are you going to make through a novel, realistically?

Three or four. Maybe.

Yeah, exactly. I have picture books that have gone through 25 revisions, but that just means me making a pass and making changes and tightening things up, or me soliciting feedback from critique group members and integrating the feedback that I think is constructive.

How does your writing process change for a short story or novel vs a picture book?

So I’m organized in both cases, but I’m a lot more organized for the novel or the short story, because it’s a bigger word count. I just feel like I’d be flailing if I pantsed a novel. I would be very likely to write myself into corners or spend too much time in one area.

I found a resource that I really like. It’s called Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, by Jess Brody. There was originally a book by Blake Snyder, Save the Cat!, which analyzed how movies are structured, and Jessica Brody took the same idea and applied it to novels.

So her book gives you a template, a starting point, which was invaluable to me, since I’ve only written one novel. I used her structure for that novel and about half-a-dozen short stories in the 3,000 to 6,000 word range.

It guarantees you have the arc that you want. The character development is still obviously up to you, but it helps with the pacing and the arcs.

There’s also a great resource for character development, the book that Jonathan Maberry always touts, which is the Writing the Breakout Novel Handbook, by Donald Maass. There’s a bunch of questions in there that help you understand your own characters.

In my idealized process for writing a novel, I start with a rough idea of the story just in my head through inspiration, but then I flesh out the characters using the Donald Maass workbook, and then I come up with an overview and story beats from Save the Cat! Writes a Novel.

And that helps chunk it down, because I’m a picture book writer used to writing 500-word books. The first novel, the first and only novel I’ve written, is a 30,000-word middle-grade novel. 30,000 words is intimidating to somebody who’s only written 500. If you’re an adult novelist, you’re like, “Pfft. I do 100,000 words all the time. It’s no big deal.” But for me, it was a lot.

So staring at a blank document that I know will have to contain 30,000 words is pretty intimidating. But if I use the Save the Cat template, then the writing is broken down into anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand word chunks, and that makes it much easier. “Okay, I know how to write that. I don’t know how to write the whole thing, but I know how to write this little piece.”

Like the parable about how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

What does your novel outline look like?

Jess Brody breaks the novel up into about 15 beats.

Beats like “The Opening Image”, “The Theme Stated”, “The Set Up”, and then there’s “The Catalyst”. Then you break into Act II.

So having a couple of sentences about each of these beats, it gets me far enough to start writing.

So you had all the beats mapped out first? Or did you map out a beat, write it up, then map out the next beat, etc?

I map out all the beats up front, before I start writing.

Only somebody as ridiculously organized as me would pay attention to this, but Save the Cat Writes a Novel suggests roughly what percentage of the word count should be in each beat. Obviously, you fiddle with it. But that really helps me.

For example, The Opening Image, I think, is 1%. It’s just an opening image, right? So if I have a 30,000-word novel, then I know, “Okay, I have about 300 words to play with.” Now, they’re not strict limits, but it tells me what I’m aiming at. There is a big difference between writing 300 and 3,000 words.

I find it helps with the pacing, to make sure that things are happening at the right times, and that there are head-fakes, that you’re moving in a direction and something shifts. You’re building tension, and then you ramp it up even more. It’s just helpful. I know Jonathan [Maberry] has done this so many times that it’s instinct for him, but since this is my first novel, it was really helpful to have a tool.

How do you go about building a scene in your head? Do you think cinematically, or…?

Let’s take Stephen King’s novel, Carrie.

So if I was writing Carrie, and I’m doing the opening scene, how do I want to set the stage? Would I want to have Carrie in her room levitating something, or would I want to have Carrie in the high school locker room getting picked on by the other girls?

But once I made that decision, then I would envision the scene in my head. “Okay, what’s going on? Who’s going to say what?” Make sure that the dialogue and the action is consistent with what the characters want.

In the end, these are stories about characters, so you always have to make sure that you’re being true to those characters.

I probably pants that more in that I have a general idea of what the character’s like, but I let the character’s voice emerge as I’m writing as opposed to having it all worked out ahead of time.

I can think, “Okay, this character is smart but a little self-centered, has a good sense of humor, mouths off in class when they shouldn’t.” And then having those rough guidelines, then I can let the character’s personality take shape, let it flesh out as I’m writing.

Do you use beta readers? Or maybe a critique group?

I’m a member of a group here locally that I like. It’s some experienced writers, and we do 3,500 words a week that we share and critique. I got through my novel in nine sessions, nine weeks, which feels slow to me as a picture book writer, but I know as a novelist that’s pretty fast to get detailed feedback from multiple people on your novel.

Do you all email out your selection to each other?

So this group uses Dropbox to pass out the pieces and then to give feedback. But then we were meeting face-to-face on a weekly basis until coronavirus, and now we’re doing it all through Dropbox. Just sharing marked up versions of the manuscripts.

No Zoom meetings where you read aloud something and critique it?

No, that would take too long also to read aloud. 3,500 words times five people, that’d be a long meeting.

Oh, it’s 3,500 each for each person, so each week you’re reading 15,000 words or more?

Yeah, but it’s a lot easier to read and critique somebody else’s stuff than to write 15,000 words.

Fair enough. To get back to the critiquing real quick, how hard is it for you to switch between the draft brain and the editing brain?

Oh, for my own stuff? Very easy, very easy, because I draft until I have a complete draft, so I’m not context-switching on a daily basis. I’m drafting, drafting, drafting, drafting until I have a draft completed, and then I switch to revision mode.

Some people edit as they draft. I’m guilty of that too. But I try to discourage myself because it is important to get that first draft out.

But with short stories, I allow myself to edit as I go. That also means that when I’m done, the first draft is tight.

The last three I short stories I wrote, I was ready to submit after version two. One revision pass, and I was ready to go, because I had been editing them as I typed them in. So they were close to finished in the first draft. Then it’s just a matter of polishing.

When you get feedback from your critique group, do you always make the changes they suggest?

It’s a good question, and the answer depends on context. Sometimes I just get, “Hey, this isn’t working,” and sometimes I get, “Hey, this isn’t working. Have you thought about this?”

And I will consider what they say, but I’m not feeling bound to do it. My choices are reject it completely, do nothing, accept it as is, or accept that there’s a problem, but fix it a different way. Any of those are possible. It just depends on the situation.

I don’t feel constrained by a critiquer’s proposed solution, but I’m happy to hear it. The suggestion might be really good, or it might prompt me to go, “That’s a good point, although that won’t work because of something the reader isn’t aware of,” but it gets my brain spinning. “Okay, yeah. I do need to address that, and I know how to do that. I’ve got to go back a couple of chapters and plant something so that I foreshadow that.”

Publishing

Have all your picture books earned out?

No. Some of them have, some of them haven’t.

Oh. Is that hard to do for a picture book? I guess it depends on the level of advance.

Yes, it depends on the level of advance, and it also depends on how much effort the publisher puts in.

Because there’s an 80/20 rule that applies to a lot of things, and I think it also applies to how publishers market their books. I think 80% of their marketing budget gets focused on 20% of their books that they have a really good feeling about. These are their top authors, proven authors with good track records, who get the lion’s share of the marketing budget.

I’ve sold 10 picture books, but I am nowhere near the top of the field, not even close. I get a modest amount of help marketing-wise. They solicit professional reviews, and they put it on their website, and they do the things they do for everybody, but it’s not like they’re paying for me to go on a tour around the country.

I’d say the most critical thing is can they get your book in Barnes & Noble, because that’s the biggest chain.

And they can’t always do that. Just because a traditional publisher produces a book, it doesn’t mean Barnes & Noble will take it. They have finite space, and they’re going to pick the books they think will sell the best. It’s perfectly logical from a business perspective, but it sucks if you’re not a well-known author.

Do you have an agent?

I don’t have an agent currently, and I think the novel is a good opportunity for me to approach agents, because there’s a lot more picture book manuscripts floating around than novel manuscripts floating around in children’s literature, I think.

And if an agent likes my middle grade novel, then I can say, “By the way, I also have a number of picture book manuscripts.”

Some agents specialize in picture books. A lot of them skip them, because unless you’re at the top of the field, the advances for picture books are small, and the agency gets 15%. The agent gets less than that if they’re not the owner of the agency.

So imagine seven-and-a-half percent of a $4,000 dollar advance. That’s not a lot of money for a picture book agent. $300 isn’t going to pay the rent.

I’m hoping that this will increase my appeal because now I’m a dual threat, I can write picture books and I can write novels.

Do you have a list of agents already in mind for the middle-grade?

I have a list of agents who I like for picture books, and what I’ll probably do is go through that, because I want somebody who works for a reputable agency and somebody who’s interested in the same genres.

You have to align with what the agent is interested in reading, and I tend to write a lot of science fiction and fantasy.

So I will start with my list of picture book agents and go through them again, and go, “Okay, does this agent also represent middle-grade,” and if they do, then “do they like fantasy and sci-fi?”

How do you feel your background in process improvement engineering helps you with your writing?

It doesn’t help me with writing, but it helps me with my career in terms of being organized and being efficient about all the non-writing things that I have to do: submitting, soliciting an agent, and tracking when markets are open that you can submit to. And what you sent and whether you’ve heard back or not.

If you’re being active, you could easily just drown in all the data. If you don’t use a spreadsheet or something to manage it, you’ll just completely lose track of what you’re doing. I’m a pretty prolific writer, so I have to do that.

How do you keep track of it all?

For my picture books I have a spreadsheet. The columns represent the different manuscripts, and the rows are for the different publishers.

For each cell, there’s really two dates, when I submitted it and when I heard back, either a rejection or an acceptance.

So that’s a helpful thing to have, because then you know who’ve you sent to. I can put notes in there too, like if they rejected but they gave me some feedback, then I can stuff that in there as well.

And then I do something similar for my short stories, which are submitted to online magazines, print magazines, and anthologies.

Has your system evolved over time?

I didn’t used to have that spreadsheet. I used to just have the Evernote list, organized by market.

For example, I scroll down past Amazing Stories, Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies to Clarkesworld. I can see that I submitted ABC to Clarkesworld on this date. It was declined or accepted on that date. So under each market, I list every one of the stories I’ve submitted. I may also list stories I’m planning to submit.

But many of these markets don’t accept multiple or simultaneous submissions. That makes it really hard to know at a glance “Can I submit there? Where else have I submitted that story?”

That’s when I built a short story spreadsheet, where each row is a story and each column is a market. That format makes it easy to see at a glance where I’ve submitted it, and where I might submit it. You can use color-coding to show which markets allow simultaneous submissions and which ones don’t.

I want to push my writing out into the world. There are some markets that will give you a fast response, within a few days. But most of them, it’s weeks or months. I think, “Okay, which one do I want to send to in what order, and if I send there, that means I can’t send it over to these other markets until I hear back.”

So it’s like a three-dimensional chess match. I’ve found that I needed the spreadsheet just to retain my sanity and get these stories out in as expeditious a manner as possible, get responses, and then if it’s a no, move on to the next market.

Field Trip to Earth

Why go for a middle-grade novel after having written and successfully published so many picture books?

I’ve been published more than once in the picture book market, but writing a middle-grade novel makes sense for a couple of reasons. First is career-wise, it’s better to be able to write in more than one market. But also, when you’re writing picture books, your vocabulary is tied behind your back. You’re writing for young readers, and are constrained by what words you can use and what concepts you can cover.

You also have to very carefully leave room for the illustrator, because picture books, at roughly 500 words, don’t give you word count to describe the scenes. You have to leave room for the illustrator to do a lot of the scene description.

Writing middle grade lets me use my full vocabulary and describe scenes and incorporate motivations that are too mature for a picture book. So writing for older markets supports both self-expression and career growth.

I chose middle-grade as opposed to young adult or adult, because I’m also being practical. I’ve written a number of picture books of anywhere from 500 to 1,000 words. I sold an early chapter book, which was 6,500 words, so that was a step up. But nothing longer than that.

I thought, “I don’t want to jump to a 100,000-word epic fantasy. That’s just a bridge too far. Middle-grade novels can be as short as 30,000 words.

I figured I would hone my novel writing chops by writing a shorter novel.

It’s also closer in tone to picture books than an adult novel would be.

So, what’s the novel about? What genre is it in?

The middle-grade novel is science fiction with a good dose of humor.

It’s called Field Trip to Earth, and it’s basically an alien middle school student finds herself in academic trouble, and she needs to take an unauthorized field trip to Earth to collect data for her school report.

Some of her friends go with her, and hijinks ensue.

That sounds great.

It’s been fun to write. Soon I expect to be done with my second full pass, and then at that point, I’m going to throw it out there and see if an agent wants it.

Have you gotten any feedback that made you completely rewrite part of it?

Partially. So in my sci-fi novel, the main character is a middle-school kid from Proxima Centauri.

And she realizes she needs to go to Earth. Now, she has attended driver’s ed, so she knows how to fly a spaceship, but she doesn’t own one.

In my original version, after school ends, she basically hijacks a school vehicle and flies it to Earth.

I got feedback from more than one person saying, “That’s a little too dark. It offers a behavior that’s not one parents would want to encourage in their kids.” I can’t pull off what Eoin Colfer did with Artemis Fowl.

So instead, she has a nemesis at school. Now, the nemesis is wealthy and has his own ship, so she enlists his cooperation into doing the trip.

Oh, that’s a neat solution

Another piece of feedback: In my early version, the two of them would have verbal sparring, and the nemesis was a different species and chubby.

I had my protagonist teasing him about his size and his eating habits. The feedback I got was, “Your protagonist is being kind of a bully there.”

Even though it was in reaction to the nemesis’ actions, my protagonist’s responses felt too mean and bullying. So I toned that down.

Those weren’t complete rewrites, but they definitely were significant changes to the character and for one plot element. But that’s the idea, right? I’m making it better.

Definitely. When making those changes, did you revise the outline first, and then the text?

No, because the structure is still solid. I don’t need to change the structure. The beats are the beats.

In the way that I am operating, following the Save the Cat! Writes a Novel structure, the beats come in a specific order, and the relative size of those beats is unchanged. I just go into the individual chapters and tweak what I need to tweak to make the desired changes.

I don’t have to rewrite the whole thing. I may have to insert pieces that I needed to set the stage in an earlier scene, but that’s it.

Spotlight on Local Author: J Dianne Dotson

I won’t be shy about admitting this: Dianne’s one of my personal heroes.

A trained scientist, turned science writer, and now indie publisher, Dianne’s one of those people that makes me wonder how they find the time for it all.

Did I mention she also has two kids, did a cross-country tour to promote her books, and was on a panel with Cory Doctorow at Wondercon last year?

Dianne was kind enough to take some time — over Skype, given current circumstances — to talk with me about her writing process, going indie, and what’s it like to work on one long story for thirty years.

The first two books — Heliopause and Ephemeris — in her Questrison Saga are out now, and the third’s on its way soon.

Writing Process

Let’s start with your writing process. Are you a pantser or a plotter?

I would say that everything is in my head. I already know what’s happening. I basically just sit down and write it out. I don’t really follow an incredibly structured situation, I just write it. Things can come up as I write that influence where I think things might go and the characters have minds of their own. They might do things I didn’t expect.

But I don’t do outlines.

What about editing? Do you do multiple editing passes or do you do everything in one big push?

For the most part, I will go through the book and I will do my first pass, and then I’ll go back and do it again.

Then I hand it off to beta readers.

Then the beta reader feedback, I get back. If there need to be edits or anything expanded upon, then I incorporate that. I read through it again.

Then at that point, I need to hand it off to the editor.

Do you mind going into a little more detail about your editing passes? I know some writers will break it up, so first they do a dialogue pass, then a consistency pass, etc

No, I just go through it all. It’s just in literal order, line by line, chapter by chapter to the end, and I fix things as I go.

Do you take any time between writing a draft and then doing the edit?

I don’t like to, because I feel the fire. I feel like I want to get this done. That’s very much a “me” thing. I’m very much like that. Once I finish something, I want to make sure it’s really, really done. I can’t stand waiting on stuff like that. I tend to just jump right in.

Do you give any guidance to your beta readers?

Well, I don’t like to frame things for them in advance. I do it more after they read. I do ask them, I say, “Hey, if you see anything blatant, let me know. If you have any questions, let me know.” I keep it simple.

After they’re done, that’s when I really ask them the questions, because then they read it. That’s what I want to know about, as a reader, what worked for you, what didn’t work? I’ll ask things like, “Who is your favorite character? What made you laugh? What made you cry?” Different things like that. “Do you think that this particular passage worked?”

Do you do an editing pass per beta reader?

No, because they’re finishing at varying times. I thought, well, I want to ask my questions now that it’s fresh on their mind, they just read it. Then because of that, then I’ll go ahead and incorporate right after that, their feedback, if I felt that it merited changing.

Not everything does. In some cases, I’ve had to say, no, this is the way it is supposed to be.

You have a lot of really strong characters in your books. Are those based on real people?

Some of them are.

Sumond, the alien chef in Ephemeris, I based on this chef that I knew from San Francisco from when my brother lived there in the early ’90s. This guy, this chef was hilarious. He had been an opera singer. That’s where Sumond comes from.

Or take Troy in Heliopause. We all know Troy. He’s a lounge lizard kind of a guy. He’s loosely based off some people I know and he’s named after my dad’s cousin, Troy, who was more like an uncle to me than a cousin. It’s a little bit of family nod there.

Then who else? Let’s see. Even Veronica is influenced a little bit by people I know. I won’t say who.

Everybody’s got a little bit of influence from here and there, but nobody’s an outright translation now.

Aeriod, though, is full-clothed from a dream that I had as a young teen.

Wait, what?

I dreamed that this alien Brit rocker had taken me up in basically a boat with some friends of mine up to this island in the sky, this land that he had with palaces. He showed me around and he talked to me.

There are some direct lines in Ephemeris from that dream, when Galla is dreaming about Aeriod showing her around. That dream was my dream.

Aeriod was just straight out of my head like somebody I knew. He seems very real to me. That’s one reason I guess people say he’s complex. It’s because he’s been in my head this whole time.

Does that happen often? You dream of characters for your stories?

I have very vivid dreams, and sometimes they do lend themselves to stories.

In fact, the first little scenes of Forster in Heliopause, where he’s walking along the soft floors with the dim lights, that’s from a dream.

I had already made his descendant, Kein, but Forster himself I dreamed separately later. It’s funny.

Indie Publishing

You’re publishing the Questrison Saga yourself, rather than go through a traditional publisher. Why go indie?

When I had worked on this for so long and then didn’t really know what to do after that, I knew I should submit to a publisher. I realized that, oh, you can’t really do that anymore, that there’s a gateway to publication and it’s called a literary agent.

That was about 2017, around the time that I started going regularly to the Writers Coffeehouse at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore. I was going to get an idea of what I needed to do.

I started there and I queried quite a few agents. I got some bites.

At the end of it, there were four that I came very close to using.

One of them turned out to be a shyster.

The other one was just really sitting on it, and sitting on it, and not getting back to me.

The third one had a very strange reaction to it. She’s like, “I think it has too many characters,” but then she kept going back to read it. I’m like, “Just make a decision.” What’s the decision? She couldn’t make one.

Then the fourth one, I really hit it off with, and she had loved the samples that I had sent her. She read the whole book. But she actually wanted me to kill more people than I was ready to kill at that time.

That was when I decided: I don’t want to do this anymore. It’s my story. I’m going to tell it the way I want it. I’ve had it in my head for years.

I can write other stories and submit to this process all over again, they won’t matter as much to me. This particular one, I’m doing myself.

Plus, I was uniquely positioned in a time in which you could make a really good quality independently published book by having professionals do the covers and having professionals edit it.

When you set it side by side with a traditionally published book you can’t tell, that was the goal. That was accomplished.

Would you do it again?

I will not do this again, because it is a lot of work. It is expensive. You are the publisher, the agent, the promoter, and all these other things when you’re still a writer.

If you’re taking a lot of time to promote this book yourself, that’s time taken away from your writing. Even though I’m a very fast writer, it can be exhausting to keep on top of it.

I still feel that it was the right decision for this series.

But for everything else I’m doing, I will submit to traditional publishing.

How much did it cost you to produce Book One? Was it any cheaper to finish Book Two?

About the same. It is actually a little bit more expensive for Book Two because the editing, it was bigger book.

Do you mind talking about those costs?

I don’t remember exactly all the costs. For the first editor of Book One I think was $1,200 and then the copy, the final proof was mostly $600, the art was $600, and then I actually had to buy the books myself from IngramSpark to be able to supply to bookstores and to conventions. That’s a significant expense.

Advertising, promotional materials, posters, everything ranging from postcards to business cards to just all kinds of stuff, it was a few thousand at the end of the day.

Have you made that back?

I have made it back for Book One.

I have not made it back for Book Two, I don’t think. Not yet.

I think what was interesting was that the minute Book Two came out, more people bought Book One. I think people just like a series.

How did you find all the people that you’ve ended up working with: the editors, the artists, the graphics people, and the web designers?

Well, everything about this process has been throw something at the wall and see if it sticks, literally. Because I didn’t know what the heck I was getting myself into, piecemealing it, but I figured it out.

I got the website going first. For that, I had gone through a couple of web design people and logo designers.

I ended up asking a food and lifestyle blogger, Michael Wurm Jr., who runs “Inspired By Charm”, because he had a really sleek website. He gave me the contact information for Dash Creative. That’s who I’ve used the last couple of years.

In terms of the editing, I had gone to San Diego Writers Ink. They had a class on book publishing.

The woman who hosted the class, Laurie Gibson, said she was also an editor and so I contacted her after I’d finished the draft of Heliopause. That’s how I met my main editor.

Then through her, I met Lisa Wolf who did the proof edit who is actually the editor for Book Three.

It’s a chain of contacts, basically. My cover designer was a parent at my kids’ school and he knew the artist, Leon Tukker. That’s how that happened.

Can you talk about distribution? I think you mentioned you use IngramSpark?

IngramSpark prints and distributes most of the books that you see.

When I upload a book and it’s ready to go and I purchase the option for both paperback and eBook, they upload it to everywhere: Kobo, Amazon, Google Books.

They do all that and they also put the links up all across the world on various international bookseller websites.

I chose Ingram because of its reputation, it’s worldwide distribution, and the fact that it would not be limited to Amazon. I wanted independent bookstores to have my books and not feel competition from an Amazon published book.

Did you have to form your own publishing company to own the copyrights or deal with IngramSpark?

I filed copyright. I immediately copyrighted it through the U.S. government.

If you’re an indie author, I highly recommend that you get an entertainment lawyer to help you with policies because we don’t have big publishing companies behind us.

We need legal help. We need contract help. That’s what an entertainment lawyer is for. I secured one of those.

He recommended that given the uniqueness of the name Questrison, that I trademark the Saga. I did that. That was extremely expensive, but I feel good about it.

Because now I can put the circle R, it’s a registered trademark. The Questrison Saga. You can’t use it. It’s my baby.

Questrison Saga

You’ve mentioned before that you’ve been working on these books for thirty years. Can you talk about why you decided to finish these books when you did?

All through college, even though I was overwhelmed with schoolwork, the stories were always in the back of my head. I had also drawn a lot of the characters in them. I sometimes would still sketch those while I also learned how to do actual watercolor art from classes.

After I had graduated college, it was a nightmare just entering the workforce. I ended up moving to the West Coast from Tennessee in 2000, and did work for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle for a number of years.

Then after that, I briefly lived in San Francisco. That’s when I thought “I have to get back to these stories.” They’re been in my head all this time.

That’s when I started working on what is now Ephemeris. I even made a brief little comic of it with my own sketches, outlining the story a little bit. That was the closest thing I’ve ever come to an outline, was this storyboard.

After that, I had children. And I was very busy with them. laughs I worked as a science writer for four years. I felt that I was preoccupied by writing nonfiction.

After the recession, I was laid off. I decided to apply to graduate school and I chose epidemiology, which is very topical at the moment.

I came to San Diego to start a Master’s Degree in epidemiology. I would have finished it, but I never saw my family and my younger child, who at the time was two, did not cope well. I chose to withdraw from the program. I have no regrets about doing that, because it was the right thing for the family.

Then I meet another parent at my kid’s school, who was an editor. He edited scientific papers, not fiction. I mentioned I had these stories, and I showed him the first few chapters of what become Heliopause.

Not being a fiction editor, it wasn’t really something he could work on, but he did encourage me to finish the story. I hadn’t had that kind of encouragement. It was a kick in the pants. For that, I’ll always be grateful to him.

I call him the man that saved Heliopause.

It’s funny how encouragement or discouragement at just the right times can make a huge difference.

Yes, and I definitely had been discouraged a few times.

Some people would say, “Maybe it’s time you just let that story go and work on something else.”

I hated hearing that. I thought, no, I want to finish the story. It’s been in my head for most of my life.

Positive encouragement is more powerful than discouragement. Because when somebody believes in you at the right time, and I hope that everyone has that person, it makes all the difference.

Having worked on these for so long, how many drafts do you think you’ve been through for Ephemeris in particular?

Well, it’s funny because what is now Book Four was actually the first book.

I started with what is Book Four now and then morphed it around, and what is now Ephemeris then came after that.

Ephemeris is an interesting book because it takes place before, during, and after Heliopause. It’s giving you a preview of things to come as well as things that happened in the past, and tying everything together later in the book with people from Heliopause.

I’ve had so many drafts of these stories over the years. In my closet here in the office, there are binders full of handwritten drafts from over 30 years ago, including maps that I made, travel guides, glossaries, everything.

My handwriting is just garbage, and that never got better.

There were some typed versions too. I had a terrible typewriter, but a lot of it was handwritten.

There’s so many drafts. It’s ridiculous. I kept a lot of them. I threw out a lot of them too. I don’t even know how many there were to be honest with you.

Basically, we have to talk in terms of the Questrison Saga instead of just one of the books, the whole saga. I knew the endgame from the beginning when I was a young teen. Just the journey to get there changed along with me as a writer in developing the craft as well as maturing as a person in experiencing life.

When reading Ephemeris, it felt like I could point to certain locations and go, I think this is such and such a place that I know Dianne has lived. Like reading about Perpetua, is that Seattle?

Heliopause, I’ve often said, is a love story to Oregon. Because Forster keeps remembering Oregon, and the time he was with Auna in Oregon.

That’s why when Aeriod presents him with the possibility of such a place as a planet [Perpetua], basically an untouched Oregon, he’s delighted.

Aeriod sets him up that way. He’s thought it out. He knows what Forster cannot say “no” to. He’s already thought through all the scenarios. “How can I get Forster to do what I need him to do? Let’s throw out everything that he could just never say no to.” And that’s what he did.

When I write about Galla on Perpetua, that’s her first experience on a forested planet, near an ocean or anything like that. It’s very instantly different than anything else she’s experienced. That is similar to when I moved to Pacific Northwest in 2000.

Not Seattle per se, which I don’t have a lot of love for, but Oregon I absolutely adored.

Are there other planets in the books that are also drawn from places that you’ve lived before?

Well, I’ve driven a lot of roads.

There’s definitely some influence from my road trips because I have gone across the country several times in the past several years by car.

Now there’s a world in Book Four that is heavily influenced by my time in both Tennessee and San Francisco. Because I know that planet the longest, it feels very real. I feel like I’m there when I’m reading it.

You’ll see connections to a lot of the places I’ve lived in that book. It will seem very intimate. It will seem very real, I think.

Books One and Two are already out. When is Book Three due?

Early April for pre-order, with an intended release the end of May.

Spotlight on Local Author: Tone Milazzo

Intro

I met Tone Milazzo through the San Diego Writers Coffeehouse group hosted by Jonathan Maberry. I’ve known him for a couple of years now, and I still don’t know how he has time for all of his projects.

When not running the podcast for a local publisher or play-testing his own Fate Core modules, Tone’s preparing for grad school, scripting comics, and writing novels.

His first book, Picking Up the Ghost, came out in 2011 from Chizine. A follow-up, The Faith Machine, will be out in May, from Running Wild Press.

Tone took some time out of his incredibly busy schedule to talk with me about his process, writing diverse characters, and how “Done is Beautiful.”

Writing Process

To start, can you talk a bit about your writing process? When you’re designing a novel or a short story, are you a pantser? Are you a plotter?

Definitely a plotter. And the outline for Picking up the Ghost, was something like 12 pages long, which I thought was a full outline. But I definitely, as I got to the middle, I needed to stop and do some more outlining. The story was coming to an end too soon.

When I outlined my second novel, The Faith Machine, it was 77 pages long. That’s a page per scene. Now that’s an outline.

77 pages, wow! What do you actually have in your outline?

It’s a bullet point list: plot points, foreshadowing, and payoffs. Sometimes there’s dialogue snippets in there, if something occurs to me at the time. It’s mostly about where the characters are coming in, what changes, and where the characters are coming out at the end of the scene. Kind of like a method or function in computer programming.

Kurt Vonnegut said every scene should either move the plot forward or move the character forward. So it’ll be either one of those two.

Ideally it’s nice if you can do both in the scene, without jamming too much in there.

When I first started writing, I would put way too much stuff into a scene. Now I’m trying to keep it to one or two changes or insights per scene.

Other things in the outline…Sometimes it’s pop-cultural references, like I’ve put something in the scene that’s supposed to evoke something from another book, classic literature or something like that. In Picking up the Ghost there was a lot of occult symbolism. A lot of tarot card stuff. There are some scenes that are supposed to evoke the Major Arcana.

Do you ever get feedback on the outline?

It’s mostly for me.

Though if there’s an idea that I’m not sure will work, I’ll try to compartmentalize that idea and pitch it to people. Ask them: “Do you think this thing is going to be okay?”

That’s about it. I don’t want anyone to look at my outline or my first draft. It’s too messy.

Nobody?

Yeah, it’s terrible. Especially the first draft for sure. The first draft of Picking up the Ghost, there was a sentence in there, “He stuck a stick in the spot. The stick was stuck.”

Oh God.

Yeah. I think I wrote the first half and got distracted and then wrote the second half, forgetting that I wrote the first half.

When outlining, is there any particular technique you use for building your plots?

So Picking up the Ghost was definitely me trying to invert as much of the hero’s journey as possible.

The typical interpretation of the hero’s journey in fantasy is an orphan with a destiny, who finds a magic sword, and has a magical mentor. It’s basically King Arthur, right? People are cop-opting King Arthur.

So I decided to take that list and make it a manifesto for the book. Instead of an orphan, the protagonist is dealing with family issues. Instead of being some sort of knight, he’s a shaman. And he has mentors, but they’re not trustworthy mentors.

I also wanted to make it American instead of European. So that’s where his ethnicity comes in. Being biracial: African-American and white.

The African-American culture, my attitude is, that’s the most American culture. Even like what most books think of as American, which would be like a rural white culture, that’s traceable in a straight line right back to Europe.

Whereas African-Americans had their culture stripped from them by the slave trade. They had to rebuild themselves from the ground up on this soil.

The Faith Machine isn’t YA. How did you build that one?

So for the second book, I wanted it to be Hollywood friendly. I looked at something called the Save the Cat outline for screenwriting. It’s a 15-point plot, and that’s the spine of that story.

It’s the first time I used that, and I discovered that it’s probably a little short to fill an entire novel. A movie is about a novella in length. Fortunately, because I had an ensemble cast, I had a bunch of b-plots that I could use to fill out the page count.

With all this time spent on the outline, what’s your editing process like?

Go over it again and again until my eyes bleed, and it’s never enough.

For The Faith Machine, because the outline has such a deep understanding of what the story is supposed to be, I didn’t have to do quite the extensive rewriting that I used to, like I did on the Picking up the Ghost.

When I wrote out the first draft of a scene, it was a scene I’d been thinking about for over a year, so I knew how it is going to play out.

And even when it got to editorial, I had two editors, one that I paid for and then one from the publisher. And the one that I paid for, it was mostly grammar and little details.

The one from the publisher, he lived on the East coast, and he had some thoughts about the opening scene. On The Faith Machine there’s two characters who are in charge of the team traveling around the East coast, activating all the agents in person. But the order that they activated in was not a good commute. So stuff moved around just because I didn’t realize that this place and that are more than a day’s drive away. Minor stuff like that.

Picking Up the Ghost

In the acknowledgements of Picking Up the Ghost, you mentioned that it was a five year process to get the book together. Can you talk a bit about that?

I think for that one I found a publisher fairly quickly. I think the process of finding a publisher was under a year. Which was stellar compared to The Faith Machine.

The biggest chunk of time came when I had the book finished, and I workshopped it with three of my friends. None of them liked the second half of the book. So I had to rewrite the entire second half.

I had taken Cinque (the main character – ed.) into what I call the Halfway World. So it still looked like St. Jude (Cinque’s home town – ed.), but there was nobody else there with him.

And what I’d done was, I didn’t realize that they liked the supporting cast so much, and I took all them away.

How long did that take you to rewrite?

That was about probably about another year.

A lot of revising by myself. Some moments where I just wasn’t writing for a few months at a time. Distractions, like World of Warcraft.

Most people’s first book usually takes a few years though, from what I hear. Even Jonathan Maberry says he took three years to write his first book.

Working on the same book for five years, how do you keep yourself going?

It’s the opposite of the sunk cost fallacy.

How’s that?

The sunk cost fallacy is the attitude of, we’ve put this much time and effort and money into a project, so we have to see it through. That’s a fallacy, because maybe this isn’t worth finishing and to throw more money and time and effort into that pit is not worthwhile.

Whereas in a novel, if you’ve written 70,000 words, then you only need 20,000 to finish. If you don’t finish it, then you literally have wasted all that time.

And I think that’s where the sunk cost fallacy is not a fallacy. Because books take so long to write. And nobody’s going to read a book that’s 95% done.

An artist I knew said something they taught in art school is: Done is beautiful.

I take that as a mantra. Think about all your favorite pieces of art, what do they have in common?

They’re all finished.

Exactly.

Why set Picking Up the Ghost in a town along the Mississippi?

So, I knew I wanted the protagonist to be African-American. And then I picked a location. I wanted it to be a living ghost town.

It was going to be Detroit. We all hear these stories about urban decay in Detroit, right? Which would have been a good choice, except a friend of mine turned me on to East St. Louis.

He showed me a book about East St. Louis’s history. And it’s like the Detroit situation, but far, far worse. It was literally a company town and the local government was in service of either the metallurgy companies or the mining companies, I forget which.

And then when the industry was done with it, it abandoned the place. Everybody who had money left. And there were people left who didn’t have money, didn’t have the resources to leave.

Consequently, it was the descendants of the African-American workers who had come to work the low-end jobs in the factories and production that are still there.

So did you actually go to East St. Louis? What sort of research did you do?

When I was in the Marine Corps I got to meet people from that part of the country, so I got some perspective there. I also found a great urban decay exploration website where the guy spent a lot of time in East St Louis.

The main place where all the magic happens, the meat packing plant, it’s based on an Armour Meatpacking Plant on a hill outside of East St Louis. And it’s still there. You can see pictures of it. So I was able to lift all that.

I read a few books about the education system in Middle America, its decline, and stuff like that. They had a lot of stuff about that city.

And that’s also part of the reason I fictionalized it. I called it St. Jude instead of East St. Louis. That gave me a little bit of freedom to make up stuff. Whereas if I use a city from the real world, I’ll never stop doing research on that city.

Why St Jude?

St. Jude is the Patriot Saint of lost causes. Good name for a dying town.

Did you have any concerns, as a person who presents as white, writing not just a protagonist who’s African-American, but a novel where most of your characters are African or African-American?

When I started writing it, it was before this sort of increased awareness of appropriation. So I wasn’t aware it was even a thing. I knew who Vanilla Ice was, but I didn’t connect that to writing fiction.

And as I said before, I wanted to write an American story, and I think of African-Americans as having the most American culture. Then there’s the fact that the town St Jude is based on (East St. Louis – ed) is something like 98% African-American. To put white people in that book would just be weird.

When I write about any kind of marginalized group, I’m not making a statement, other than I’m presenting people with these traits in roles that they’ve normally not had.

For example, in both books (Picking Up the Ghost and The Faith Machine), all my protagonists have mental disorders.

Cinque is schizophrenic, and then all the characters in The Faith Machine, except for Park, have mental disorders too.

So I’m not making a statement about mental disorder at all. I am taking this trait, which is normally relegated to villains or antiheroes or supporting characters, and assigning them to the protagonists. That’s it.

So you, along with a lot of authors, recently went through getting the rights to your book back from ChiZine. Are you going to put Picking Up the Ghost yourself, or focus on The Faith Machine for now?

The eBook is up. I’ve already written a short story that bridges the two novels. I’m going to put that at the end of an ebook edition of Picking up the Ghost, and sell it for a buck.

And then if somebody gets to the end and they like it, there’s a link to where they can buy The Faith Machine.

It’s going to be a loss-leader. I figure that’s the best use I have for it right now.

Did you get anything back from ChiZine, like the final manuscript or –?

No, they hold onto the formatting and stuff like that. And they also hold onto the cover. So I’ve had to make my own cover.

And I have to get my own ISBN number if I want to return to print, even print-on-demand.

When do you think you’ll have that ready?

The Faith Machine comes out in May, so hopefully before that. A friend of mine volunteered to do the cover for it, so whenever he finishes.

For now, you can find Picking Up the Ghost on Kindle

Writers Coffeehouse, January 2020

First Coffeehouse for the new year! And the last one in Mysterious Galaxy’s current space. They’re moving towards the end of this month, to a rental with (I hear) even more meeting room space.

My notes are below. Thanks again to Jonathan Maberry and Henry Herz for hosting!

Marketing Yourself

  • put your credentials — certified electrician, lawyer, martial arts expert — out there for people to find when doing research or organizing panels at cons; you’d be surprised at what other writers want to know about

Upcoming Events

  • comicfest in march, smaller comic con
  • wondercon in april

Getting Better at Writing Comics

  • read lots of comics, pay attention to the storytelling, read comic scripts (find online, including on maberry’s website
  • booths are comic-con are staffed almost entirely by editors and editorial assistants; talk to them, trade business cards, but don’t bring a script, they don’t want it

Pitching

  • when pitching, and wanting to tell the target audience, don’t say “adults from 35-45”, say “fans of stephen king’s salem’s lot”

State of the Weird West Genre

  • with short stories, you’ve got a shot. novels, you’re almost definitely going small press, and you’re probably going to struggle to earn out

Coming Soon: Writing Workshops

  • once mysterious galaxy moves, will be doing workshops at the new location: fight and action scenes, children’s books, comic books

Character Description Tips

  • old action movie trick: give a bad-ass character something to hold in their hands, like a cup of coffee, so they don’t look dangerous (until they punch someone in the face), the contrast works
  • can get more mileage out of describing what a character wears rather than their specific physical appearance (because the clothes show character, but the hair color, eye color, etc, does not)

Setting Writing Goals for the Year

  • likes 90 days, 6 months, the year, but also 5 and 10 year plans
  • Maberry sets daily writing goal based on a week’s worth of actual writing; finds the average and halves it, then uses that as the daily goal, everything past that is bonus; pays himself for every day he hits his goal, can only use that money for fun
  • allows himself business days off when knows in advance (ex: knee surgery, spending all day in business meetings in LA)
  • build your schedule for mental health and comfort, not pushing yourself to the limit all the time
  • good to have a few projects at once, because writer’s burnout is real; can feel like writer’s block but happens if you’ve been working on the same novel/project for too long (for example, when you don’t bang out a novel in 3-5 months, but years)
  • after daily goals, have project goals, and make them realistic too; maberry’s first novel took him 3.5 years to write and revise
  • first draft and the revision process should not be part of the same plan, because they’re different sides of being a writer; the first draft just needs to get the story out, and be mildly entertaining and coherent, it really only needs to done
  • stephen king’s carrie was a terrible first draft, that he almost threw out, but his wife saved it and made him revise it (6 times) until it was ready to go out
  • the person who revises the book needs to be unemotional about the book; because we can see so much that needs fixing that we come to hate the book or lose faith in the book
  • trick: when writing a book in a year, break up the project into 11 parts (not 12!) and set the goal of having that first draft done by december 1st (so you can spend december partying)
  • careful with the rolling draft (write some and then revise some), because the storytelling mind and the editing mind are not friends! they can barely talk to each other. going back and forth for the same project is hard
  • writing down the bones: good book on writing craft
  • revising requires more writing craft chops than writing; should do some research first, learn how to revise from others then go about revising
  • revision strategy: unique character identities, making sure each character sounds different, moves and acts differently
  • one pass character identity, one pass character voice, one pass character arcs, one pass making sure protagonist is interesting, one pass for story chronology, pass on figurative and descriptive language (reads poetry now before writing any prose, to help his linguistic imagination), one pass on the logic of the story (which can mean checking or redoing his research), optional pass on POV consistency, very last pass is how much he can cut out of it
  • short story goals: write four new stories, revise them, send them out by the end of the year (that’s one drafted and done every three months)
  • if revising a novel this year, decide in advance when you’re going to submit it; don’t plan on sending it from mid-november to early january, because no one is going to read it, they’re all on vacation or at office parties or with family
  • other goals: 3 years from now? want to be published! your novel (maybe not the one you’re working on now) sold to a publishing house
  • 10 year goal: put things on there that are beyond your ken and your skill, then start looking for and doing the things that could get you there

Social Media Tips

  • for social media, two guidelines: don’t be a negative jerk, and post consistently (even if it’s just once a day)
  • the three platforms to be on: facebook, instagram, twitter; set it up so you can cross-post from one to the other
  • will save up links and quotes and youtube videos in a list and post them when he has nothing to say for that day
  • interactive posts: what are you working on? what do you think of this new show? i need a playlist for this book, here are the elements of the plot, what would you suggest?

Keeping Score: October 11, 2019

Thank goodness for the Writers Coffeehouse.

Went this Sunday, after skipping for a few months. Jonathan Maberry again led a fantastic discussion, plus Q&A. He gave us a rundown on options vs production deals, persistence in the face of discouragement, and told us some new markets opening up that we might not have considered before.

And he also gave me great advice about my nervousness with the magazine that I hadn’t heard from since acceptance: Send them an email.

Yeah, it seems simple in hindsight. But what would I say? How would I ask the question on my mind?

He gave me a few examples of things to say, and insisted it was not too early (or too late!) to want to hear from them.

So I followed his advice. Sent the email, after rewriting it three different times, trying to avoid coming off too flippant or too formal or too needy.

And I got a response within an hour that cleared everything up.

I feel silly for not writing earlier. It was such a non-deal, and I felt so much better afterwards.

So much so, that I’ve already written 2,208 words this week, and I’ve still got the weekend 🙂

What about you? Has there been something you’ve been nervous about doing as part of your writing — whether sending it off for review, or reading it to a critique group, or emailing an agent — that turned out to be nowhere near as big a deal as you thought it’d be?

Writers Coffeehouse: June 2019

Peter Clines ran the Coffeehouse this month (on his birthday weekend no less!). We had a free-form discussion this time, covering everything from good twists in fiction to outlining techniques.

I had to leave early because I wasn’t feeling well, but I’ve captured my notes below.

Thanks again to Peter for running the show, and to Mysterious Galaxy for hosting!

  • at different points in your career, different writing techniques will work for you; that’s ok, it’s normal for your process to change over time
  • second sunday of each month: LA writers coffeehouse in burbank at dark delicacies at noon, then dystopian bookclub that night at last bookstore downtown
  • good twist: needs to make logical sense, should change your perceptions of everything that came before
  • empathy critical to being a writer; that’s why it’s important to go out to talk to people, experience things, to maintain that empathy
  • remember that people (and thus your characters) are different around different groups and in different situations; give your characters a chance to show different sides of their lives (think killer on phone with family while finishing off a hit)
  • expectations are a real constraint; we will let a comedy get away with different things than a drama; and genre (horror, scifi, etc) always comes with expectations
  • one way to get away with blending genres: hang a lantern on it from the get-go; ex: i am not a serial killer, predator, where they broach the topic of monsters early on, and then go into the other genre for a while before coming back to the monsters
  • clive custler’s rule: no chapters longer than 5 pages (potato-chip chapters)
  • stephen king: any word you need to go to a thesaurus for is the wrong word; meaning *not* that only blue collar words are worth using, but that reaching for a word you’re not familiar with is wrong, write in your own vocabulary and it’ll sound more natural
  • transitions: in written fiction, we can’t be as choppy as in tv or movies, where they jump from place to place instantaneously; we need more connective tissue, or it starts to feel episodic

Writers Coffeehouse, May 2019

After missing last month’s, I finally made it back to the Coffeehouse yesterday.

Peter Clines stepped in for Jonathan Maberry to run it this time, with Henry Herz providing some useful counterpoints throughout.

We had more of a free-form discussion than usual, which ranged from “What’s going on with the WGA and their agents?” to “How do I write characters of other backgrounds and ethnicities without stepping into cultural appropriation?”

Many thanks to Clines and Herz for sharing their wisdom while keeping the discussion flowing, and to Mysterious Galaxy for hosting!

My notes:

  • henry: you can pants your story, but don’t pants your career
  • peter: know what you want to get out of it, be honest about what you want, and go for it
  • in tv, producers have more power than directors; directors can change every week, but producers stay and control the story arcs
  • upcoming events:
    • may 11th: san diego writers workshop
    • september: central coast writers conference
    • peter: phoenix comic fest has great writers track, con runs until midnight every night; it’s next weekend, but something to think about for next year
    • early august: scbwi annual conference in LA
    • june 20-22, historical novel society, in maryland, good program
    • mythcon is in san diego this year; run by mythopoetic society
    • new york pitch fest: 4 days in june, pitching to agents and editors in manhattan
  • black hare publishing: soliciting submissions for two anthologies; small press, but looks professional; drabble fiction (200 words)
  • contract reviews? join the author’s guild, they’ll review contracts for members
  • arbitration: wga takes all the people that did drafts of a movie or dialog polishes, etc and decides who gets credit for the movie
  • pierce brown wrote screenplay for red rising specifically to get paid screenwriting credits via wga arbitration; more important to him than the control over the screenplay
  • 95% of the time, when they option your book, they’ll ask if you want to write the screenplay; they’ll throw it in the trash, but they’ll ask anyway, just to stave off any future tantrums
  • watch the balance between plot and story; if the story finishes but the plot keeps going (moonlighting syndrome) it’s going to feel flat and boring
  • peter: when revising, will do a draft just for one character, following their thread all the way through; helps catch inconsistencies in appearance, name, and their story arc (did i do anything with this plot of her conflict with her boss?)
  • k.m. weyland: creating character arcs
  • aeon timeline: interacts with scrivener, can help visualize the timeline of your story
  • henry’s doing picture book writing pt 2 later this month; send first draft to him ahead of time, they’ll critique it in the class; compliment to the first class, but not necessary to have taken it
  • lookup robert smalls, escaped slave

Writers Coffeehouse: March 2019

Henry Herz was kind enough to take on hosting duties this month, giving us more insight into both the children’s book markets and indie (adult) publishing.

My notes from the meeting are below. Thanks again to Mysterious Galaxy for the space, and to Henry for hosting a lively and informative meeting!

Notes:

  • san diego writers and editors guild: around 40 yrs, offers manuscript review service, meets fourth monday each month, next meeting will be from sd zoo publishing house, also has a marketing support group
  • upcoming events:
    • charlotte huck children’s book festival (all the way up to ya): march 9-10, university of redlands
    • henry teaching class about writing picture books, san diego writers ink, march 10 and 17
    • wondercon in anaheim end of march
    • april 13th: san diego writers festival, downtown library
    • san diego writing workshop: may 11th
    • nebula conference in LA later this year
    • san diego comic fest is next weekend
  • tips for being more efficient in using your limited writing time?
    • david morel (writer of rambo) got up at 4:30 every morning and wrote for two hours before work
    • henry uses spreadsheet to track writing pieces and where he’s submitted them to (or queried, etc)
    • using google calendar to set deadlines and reminders
    • managed flitter: lets you schedule social media posts ahead of time
    • 4thewords.com: gamified rpg that you play by writing (250 words in 15 min to fight a monster, for example)
    • another trick: when stopping for the day, stop mid-paragraph so it’s easier to get back into it the next day
  • scbwi (society of childrens book writers and illustrators) has ad-hoc critique groups that form at their monthly meetings
  • indie author found personal appearances took a lot of time but yielded fewer sales than putting same time in to online marketing (10s of books vs 1,000s of books)
  • indie author uses service to do all the formatting for him, makes it easier but he spends $4,000-$5,000 per book to publish it
  • how do you find an editor?
    • san diego professional editors network
    • reedsy: website with professional editors that have struck out on their own
  • agents don’t usually expect exclusivity when querying, check their guidelines, but usually can send out queries to as many agents as you want at a time
  • if you don’t hear anything after three months, ping them, if still don’t hear back, assume it’s dead
  • another short story marketplace site: “entropy: where to submit”; will show contests, etc coming up for the month
  • childrens books: advice is to avoid inanimate objects as characters, because they’re harder for children to empathize with
  • authors guild: join, if you get a contract but no agent you can hire lawyers through them to review it for you
  • henry’s editing process: edits on own, then sends out to four different critique groups for feedback, multiple iterations with each one, polish off the rough edges

Writers Coffeehouse: Feb 2019

Another great Coffeehouse this month. Jonathan Maberry was out at a conference, so Peter Clines (NYT Bestselling author!) stepped in for hosting duties.

Clines’ style of running the Coffeehouse (he’s been running the one in LA for 4-5 years now) is a little more freeform than Maberry’s, but even without a strong structure, we had a lively, respectful discussion that covered a lot of ground. I even got a couple of my own questions answered, about some things I’ve been struggling with.

I’ve posted my notes below.

Thanks to Clines for hosting, and to Mysterious Galaxy for letting us use their space!

Notes:

  • peter clines has the Conn; he’s been running the LA coffeehouse for 4-5 years; subbing for jonathan while he’s at writer’s festival
  • his method: 1st half writing craft, 2nd half publishing side
  • thinks it’s better to not have a social media account than to have one that looks abandoned or run by bots
  • whatever you do, if anything, it’s critical that you be honest and authentic, even when crafting a public persona
  • small trick: switching the font for third or fourth draft can make different things pop out at you, help you find errors
  • libby hawker: making it in historical fiction
  • also: read wolf hall and see how hillary mantel does her description and world-building
  • random nugget from shane black: plot is what happens outside the characters, story is what happens inside the characters
  • clines: used to follow writing guidance slavishly, reading writers digest, doing what it says; has become more skeptical over time, especially as he’s figured out what works for him, and how that differs from what works for others
  • pantsers: can be very helpful to have a timeline, even after first draft; one writer found 12-yr gap in her book (!)
  • tip from mystery writer: even if you’re not going to have a big “gather the characters together so sleuth can layout the clues” scene, write it anyway; it’ll solidify everything in your head so you can confidently write the mystery itself (with dropped clues, red herrings, etc)
  • chapter to chapter: have something driving the characters from scene to scene, either internal or external, so the reader has a reason to move forward; even placement of flashbacks needs to be driven by the story
  • prologues are fine, but make sure they have a payoff within a few chapters, or cut them altogether
  • relevance is key: even if your planning a series, make the nuggets you put in the first book relevant to that book
  • “start with action” can be a trap: if you begin with volume at 11, you’ve got nowhere to go but down
  • recall the punches of humanity and comedy in the midst of horror or action: the terrorist grabbing a candy bar while setting up in die hard, etc
  • don’t discount the freedom you get by not being published yet; enjoy the fact that you have no deadlines and no pressure to finish
  • beta readers: seek out at least one or two people who read mostly outside your genre, to make sure you don’t have too much inside baseball
  • the 50% rule: half of all submissions can be rejected on pg 1: wrong format, wrong genre, etc; following the rules and sending a polished manuscript to the right people can put you ahead of 50% of others
  • one step beyond read it out loud: have someone else read it out loud to you, and see where they stumble or hesitate or pause
  • short story tips: damon knight’s book on writing short fiction
  • one bit: if you have a first-person story, write it in a different pov and see if the main character vanishes; if so, you don’t have a character you just have a viewpoint

Writers Coffeehouse: December 2018

Another great coffeehouse! Since it’s December, we had a bit of a holiday pot-luck: people brought EggNog (spiked and not-spiked), cookies, candy canes, and wine. They also collected Toys for Tots, and even lit the first two candles of a menorah in honor of the first night (upcoming) of Hanukkah.

Lots of people had just wrapped up NaNoWriMo, so there was a lot of good news to go around. Biggest news was probably Henry Herz getting published in Highlights for Children, which is (apparently) a wickedly hard market to crack.

My notes are below. Congrats to Henry and all the NaNoWriMo winners! And, as always, many thanks to Mysterious Galaxy for hosting us, and Jonathan Maberry for running the Coffeehouse!

  • the one golden rule: no writer bashing; like or dislike the twilight books or da vinci code, but they opened doors for thousands of other writers and injected billions into the books industry
  • san diego writer’s festival: april 13th, central library, similar folks to the festival of books
  • option prices have dropped a lot since the recession; standard is now $5K, but can include lots of extras, like five-star treatment to get to set, executive producer credit (paycheck per episode), royalties per tv episode, etc
  • remember that your agent is a business partner; don’t be afraid to contact them, but don’t think they’re your best friends, they work for you, and you can learn a lot from them; agents love writers that are business savvy
  • nov and dec used to be a bad time for agents, but since it’s the slow season, it’s a good time to submit to them; ditto pitches to editors of magazines for articles to write
  • “we’re looking for original stories, not original submission practices”
  • when selling anthology to publisher, need a few big names on there so they feel that it’ll definitely sell
  • maberry: budgets 10 min out of every hour for social media; has a lot of pages and has to manage them, and manage his time on them
  • henry herz: got article accepted into highlights magazine! very hard market to crack
  • january coffeehouse will be about pitching; will also do sample panel
  • on a panel: they’re looking for a celebrity, need people to be a little larger-than-life; sometimes audience will ask questions they know the answers to, just to hear a celebrity say it
  • being a panelist is a skill; you need to be a slightly different version of yourself that the public will accept as “writer”
  • neil gaiman is naturally very awkward; had to hire an acting coach to script out appearances so people will get to see the “neil gaiman” they come to see
  • pitching, being on a panel, these are all skills you need to practice, but they *are* skills you can develop and improve, even if you’re a complete introvert
  • exercise: pick your favorite novel (or movie), and pitch it as if you wrote it; something you know well enough to do without notes
  • need to be good at it and comfortable with friends so that when in front of agents you aren’t so scared and vulnerable
  • people are more comfortable with peers than with people that put them on a pedestal
  • recommends using donald maas’ workbook on writing the breakout novel; the way it’s intended is after a first draft is done, makes you drill deeper into the book
  • also: don’t revise until after you’ve waited a month and then also read the whole thing through again
  • finally: do revising in waves; handle one change at a time, to make them manageable
  • unsure whether to make book a mystery or fantasy? write the book you’d have the most fun writing; if unsure of audience, pick the one you’d have fun writing for and go all in