Old Internet Troll (With apologies to JRR Tolkien)

Troll typed alone in his basement home,
He whined and lied with his book of chrome;
For many a year he had made it clear,
That truth was hard to come by.
Done by! Gum by!

In his parent’s basement he dwelt alone
And truth was hard to come by.
Down came mom with a sigh and sob.
Said she to Troll: “Pray, get out slob.
For it looks like a pit, where you type your shit,
You should be workin’ at a real job.
Steel job! Deal job!

This many a year have you done nought,
And I thought you should have a real job.”
“But mom,” said Troll, “I need a host!
I can’t be distracted from what I post.
Thy bandwidth was free because I had your key,
And I need it to shitpost.
Bitpost! Hitpost!

Who can spare a share for a poor sad troll?
For he needs his tweets liked.”
Said mom: “I don’t see why the likes o’ thee
Without axin’ leave should go makin’ free
With the password o’ your mother’s router;
So hand the keyboard over!
Rover! Trover!

Though troll you be, that belongs to me;
So hand the keyboard over!”
“For a couple o’ pins,” says Troll, and grins,
“I’ll troll thee too, and post thy sins.
A bit o’ fresh meat will be fun to tweet!
I’ll try my posts on thee now.
Hee now! See now!

I’m tired o’ posting old whines and memes;
I’ve a mind to post on thee now.”
You’ll be a nice change from other targets.
Bargets! Czargets!

But just as he thought his mother was fought,
He found his hands had hold of naught.
Before he could mind, mom slipped behind
And snatched his keyboard to larn him.
Warn him! Darn him!

A snatch o’ the keyboard his mom thought,
Would be the way to larn him.
But harder than stone is the heart and pwn
Of a troll in his basement alone.
As well set your boot to the mountain’s root,
For the heart of a troll don’t feel it.
Peel it! Heal it!

Old Troll laughed when he snatched it back,
And he knew her rep would soon feel it.
Mom’s rep is slain, since he trashed her name,
She raised a troll to her lasting shame;
But Troll don’t care, and he’s still there
With the wifi he stole from its owner.
Doner! Boner!

Troll’s old game is still the same,
And the wifi he stole from its owner!

Winter of Discontent (New Book, Who Dis?)

New book, who dis?
My fantasy novel about Shakespearean Immortals is now live on Kindle and Nook. I’m still working out the kinks on this hybrid model, so other formats and venues to follow. An excerpt can be found here.

Ebook: | Kindle (Sponsored link)| Nook

Winter of Discontent:

Desmond was a soldier until a piece of shrapnel took away his life’s work. Now he only feels alive when he’s being someone else, so he’s majoring in theater while dreaming about losing himself forever. He’s about to discover the cost of dreams.

William Shakespeare is the greatest sorcerer who ever lived. People still believe in the characters he created 400 years ago. He has made them immortal. Literally. In Winter of Discontent, Shakespeare’s immortals live on in an eternal half life. Half themselves, half the creatures Shakespeare made of them. When the magic of theater meets the Magic of Theater in a production of Richard III a deadly chess game between the damned is the result.

Where there are players, there are also pawns. Matt and Riana are actors and friends of Desmond. They are also novices in the theatrical magic tradition that created Shakespeare where Desmond is not. Sworn to a secrecy that seals their lips, can they help Desmond stay alive and stay true to their oaths at the same time?

Some thoughts from the afterword:
This book has taken over twenty years to get from my brain to the page, or nearly fifty if you count its roots in my childhood love of Shakespeare. I literally can’t remember a time before the great plays were a part of my life of the mind. Sometime before I could speak my mother discovered that reading to me was one of the best ways to calm me down. She also discovered that it didn’t matter what she read. So, in addition to the typical children’s books, I got Shakespeare, Asimov, Tolkien, and various myths and legends in an endless loop that saw classic language and iambic pentameter layered into my bones along with the laws of robotics, the lore of middle earth, and the tales of half a dozen pantheons.
The love of literature and theater this created has dominated the course of my life. Though I am a novelist now, I started acting when I was ten or eleven, and performed steadily from then till shortly after I got my B.A. in theater, when I shifted to writing as my primary artistic outlet. Richard III was always a favorite, but as I grew older and learned more about the reality that underlies Shakespeare’s history plays, I found myself increasingly angry on Richard’s behalf and wishing I could do something to “write that wrong”—if you’ll allow me the pun. This isn’t the only time I’ve felt that way—in Cybermancy and MythOS, I addressed my anger with the plight of Persephone and the tragedy of Ragnarok—but the earliest versions of this book came first.
For readers who are familiar with my other work, this novel may seem something of a departure, though I strongly believe that if you like my other books you’ll also like this one. In voice it is less intimate, coming as it does in the third person, with three major point of view characters and half a dozen minor characters. As I was working on Winter of Discontent I read and reread Richard III as well as renewing my acquaintance with MacBeth, the Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Coriolanus, a Midsummer Night’s Dream and bits of the various Henry plays. I also corresponded with the Richard III Society, visited and wandered the backstage areas of several theaters, and generally indulged myself in a depth of research and scholarship that my more commercial work doesn’t normally allow.
Winter of Discontent has seen four major drafts and countless minor tweaks over the twenty-one years it has existed on the page, mostly due to my substantial improvements as a writer over that same time and continual attempts to bring the words on the page up to the standards of my vision for the story. The initial draft was my fifth completed novel and came at a point when I had written perhaps three-quarters of a million words of fiction and published a few thousand. The current version benefits from coming at the end of more than four million words written and more than a million in print. It is a work of love and anger and scholarly self-indulgence, and it marries my training as an actor to my vocation as a novelist. I hope very much that you will enjoy it.


On Writing Humor

Every morning I get up knowing that I’m going to be making between two and four humor posts, and that people need to laugh right now perhaps more than at any time previously in my life. I also know that it might be a reach day when I go beyond the baseline. I don’t always succeed, but I do always try.

One part of that is understanding that there are lines that you have to cross to make things funny and lines that shouldn’t be crossed if you don’t want to hurt people. My process for humor is largely built on top of poking at the English language and seeing what falls out.

That means following the loops and puns of language to places that can be pretty fucking dark. When I get there I always pause before posting and think about who this joke might harm. That means that something between ten and sixty percent of what I come up with on a given day gets thrown away. Humor is transgressive by nature, and that means that you have to explore where the speculation takes you, and you also have to pause and assess whether a given transgression is going to hurt people who are vulnerable and who have already been hurt too much.

I have come up with things that are hella funny that would probably make ninety percent of my audience laugh pretty hard at a moment when they really need a laugh, but which comes at a cost of hurting some portion of the ten percent who wouldn’t laugh in a way that is unacceptable for anyone who cares about paying attention to the vulnerable.

In humor, as in life, restraint is as important as pushing yourself to the limits.

Books I Have Written or Tried to Write (Update)

I got this meme from Naomi Kritzer about million years ago and she got it from jpsorrow.

I’m updating the status on a lot of the older books here as I plan on releasing some of them myself and others are moving again after years of sidelining.

01. 1990 Uriel

My first Urban Fantasy, a vampires and faeries book. From which I learned that: I can write a book. I can do it fast. I really like doing it. Rejection letters are not much fun, and this business is tougher than it looks. Oh, and that I am not Anne Rice, and that’s a good thing. Status: Trunked for now.

02. 1991 The Swine Prince

High Fantasy Farce. Wizards and princes and thieves and gnomes. From which I learned that: Uriel was not a fluke. I can write funny. I still don’t much like rejection. I am not Terry Pratchett, although I’m much closer to being Pratchett than I am to being Rice, and again, it’s a good thing. Status: mostly rewritten to current standard. Needs a new first 10,000 words. It’s on the list for indie release.

03. 1992/1993 The Assassin Mage

High Fantasy. Book I of III, wizard assassins. From which I learned that: I really really like this writing stuff. Rejections suck. This business is tough, but I’m going to make it if it kills me. Status: Trunked with the intent to rewrite it as a YA.

04. 1994 (Partial) Uprising

High Fantasy. Elves and dead gods. Shiny. From which I learned that: I maybe need to figure out why I’m not selling stuff (I wander off to do short stories for three years). I also learn that I am not Mercedes Lackey and that this is an exceptionally good thing. Status: Reevaluating as part of Blade series revival.

05 1997 (Partial) Family Planning

A scene is written in which a bunch of really cool characters have intense and interesting dialog that implies many dark and wonderful things. I fall in love. It goes nowhere. From which I learned that: Loving a story doesn’t mean knowing where it goes or how to write it. Status: This is one I will come back to.

06. 1998/1999 WebMage

What I sometimes call my senior project book. This is where I finished my writer’s equivalent of college. (My real college experience finished when I got a BA in Theater in 1991) Cyberfantasy that will sell in 2005. I sold the short story, my first sale, Woot! I’ve written another story in the same world. It occurs to me that there might be a novel here. In a fit of optimism I plot it out and begin. From which I learned that: Writing short stories has taught me an enormous amount about plot, story, and only putting in what should be there. Also, I learn how to write subplot that supports the main plot and how to write theme. This is the book that gets me an agent, and that keeps a second one when my first agent closes up shop and offers a bunch of us to a fellow agent. Status: In print.

07. 2001 Winter of Discontent

Contemporary fantasy. Shakespeare, Richard III, MacBeth, A touch of Coriolanus and The Tempest. From which I learned that: I am still deeply in love with Shakespeare, care deeply about theater, and am not so fond of theater people. That handling 8 viewpoint characters is a real challenge. That writing about things you love is pure joy. That I can write 60,000 words in 30 days without breaking a sweat. That I am very interested in the idea of belief and how it shapes the world we see (sub this, that being the child of a paranoid schizophrenic may have something to do with same). That my agent may not always love everything I write, but that he’ll support me wherever I go because he has faith in me and my work. I tend to think of this as my Master’s thesis in writing. I’m still very much learning and mastering my craft. Status: Recently rewritten and in process for an indie release in the next few weeks.

08. 2002 Numismancer

Contemporary fantasy. Coin magic. The EU and the Euro. More belief and reality. My dissertation book. From which I learned: An awful lot about directed research. How to successfully transfer dream cool to book cool. That thinly fictionalized incidents from my life will sometimes read as less believable than stuff I simply make up. Status: Doing a final edit pass in the process of making it into an indie release.

09. 2003 The Urbana

Contemporary fantasy. Assume that the fey really did die out. What evolves to use all that magical energy? That’s where this one started. From which I learned that: I can write a book that I’m not feeling one hundred percent enthused about because I know that a lot of my readers are likely to enjoy it. How to love what I’m writing on a day-to-day basis even when I’m not as enthused as I have been about other books. I’m really pleased with this book, and I think of it as my first truly professional novel. Status: Needs a massive rewrite due to changes in the industy.

10. 2004 (Partial) Outside In

Contemporary dark fantasy, architecture magic. From which I learned that: I am much more interested in certain aspects of architecture and construction than my writers groups. That I need to rethink some of the structure of this book. That being depressed makes it much harder for me to sustain a book in the face of criticism. Status: Trunked for now.

11. 2004 (Partial) Ave Caesar

Mystery, cozy, theater. A departure for me, and one that I want to come back to. From which I learned that: If your early readers aren’t familiar with mystery as a genre, you may have a problem. Writers groups that specialize in one genre are probably more effective than groups with lots of folks doing different things. Status: Trunked for now, but I’ll come back to it.

12. 2005 Chalice book 1

Young adult contemporary fantasy–arts magic. From which I learned that: YA is a blast to write and that the shorter length is incredibly natural for me. Oh, and that I still feel deeply and deeply ambivalent about theater. Status: In rewrite to tighten up some things from an editorial rejection.

13. 2006 Cybermancy

WebMage Book II. From which I learned that: I can write a second book in a series that wasn’t supposed to be a series, just a stand-alone. That Greek myth matters deeply to me. That being paid and having deadlines are both really great motivators for me. That I really really like turning books in early. Status: In print.

14. 2006 The Black School

Young adult, alternate history, WWII, fantasy. From which I learned that: Everything I liked about YA last time goes double for this book. That my YA is much darker than my adult fiction. That anger at contemporary politics is a great motivator for me to write. That my writers group likes my dark stuff more than my funny stuff, or at least that they like these books more than anything else I’ve ever done. Status: On submission as part of a trilogy.

15. 2007 Codespell

WebMage III. From which I learned that: I can write an ongoing series and enjoy it. That I’m happier writing under contract from proposal than writing spec books. That my own assessment of how smoothly I’m writing doesn’t necessarily agree with my readers–everybody else liked this book more than I did, and I could see why when I reread the copyedited manuscript. That I really like turning things in way early and that this makes my editor happy too. Status: In print.

16. 2007 MythOS

WebMage IV. From which I learned that: I should feel free to make strong changes in an ongoing series as long as I talk to my editor and agent first (did that, they were quite happy with the proposal and hopefully they’ll like the result as well). That I really want to write at least one more WebMage book after this one. Status: In print.

17. 2007 (currently unfinished) Duel of Mirrors

Contemporary fantasy with a humor edge. Hopefully this will be the logical successor to the WebMage books and will help build that thread of my writing brand. From which I learned that: It’s always a joy to fall in love with a new book. That travel juices the heck out of my creative mind. That I become very difficult to talk to when I’m in composing mode. Status: Out on proposal.

18. 2000-2004 Chonicles of the Wandering Star

Hard SF, YA, illustrated short-story collection/serial novel for the teaching of physical science. This one is unusual which is why it’s down here out of order. It’s a work for hire project that I wrote as part of National Science Foundation funded full year physical science curriculum. I was hired to develop a science-ficitonal context for the curriculum and to write shorts as teaching tools. Fun project. From which I learned that: If the pay is high enough, work-for-hire is a great deal. That I can write YA. That I can write 1,000 word short in an hour if I have to. That I can write that short to teach a specific science concept, and that I can do it well enough to make a goodly percentage of the students who read it happy. That deadlines and getting paid are great motivators for me. Status: In print.

2013 Update: Yeah, I’ve written a bunch since the original post.

19. 2008 The Eye of Horus

Book II of The Black School. I love this book and it’s predecessor, but despite near universal agreement from those who’ve read them that they are some of my best writing I have not been able to sell them. See also: Argh! Status: On submission.

20. 2008/2009 SpellCrash

The last WebMage book for some time to come. In some ways I think this is the best of the series. I learned so much about writing on the way to this one. I’m somewhat bummed that it is also the least read of the books. Status: in print.

22. 2009 Spirits of the Past

First book in a dark contemporary fantasy series centered around alcohol magic. This book exists only as three chapters and a series outline that now comprises six books. There is an excellent chance that this will be my next adult series once Fallen Blade is finished. I love the premise of these and still really want to write them. Status: Waiting for the pandemic to end—I don’t seem to be able to manage contemporary under current conditions.

23. 2010 Broken Blade

Fantasy noir with a badly broken hero. Status: in print, the first of six confirmed books in this series and now available both in German and as part of a Science Fiction book club omnibus edition of the first three Fallen Blade books. Book 1 is available as an unabridged audio, and all six books are available as dramatic audio—essentially an old fashioned radio play. I think I’m finally getting the hang of this writing stuff.

24. 2011 Bared Blade

Fallen Blade II. Status: in print, in omnibus, in audio play, and in German.

25. 2011 Crossed Blades

Fallen Blade III. Status: in print, in omnibus, in audio play, and in German..

26. 2012 Blade Reforged

Fallen Blade IV. I’m loving this series more and more as I go along. It’s enormous fun to write something that’s simultaneously episodic in the detective novel mode and a multi-book epic fantasy storyline. Finding the balance between having each book complete in itself and building multi-book and series arcs challenges me every day. Status: In print, in audio play, and in German.

27. 2013 School for Sidekicks: The Totally Secret Origin of Foxman Jr.

My first Middle Grade book. Silly superhero science fiction about a boy who sets out to become a hero and ends up at the School for Sidekicks. I had a ball writing this and learned a lot about writing something much closer to pure humor. I learned even more in the first round of revisions—there’s a huge difference in how books are written and marketed for younger readers. Current revision with my editor at Feiwel and Friends—crossing my fingers that she like the revised version which includes 25,000 words of material not in the first draft. Status: In print, and in Chinese.

28. 2013 Drawn Blades

Writing this right now and about 25% of the way through it. Barring misfortune this will be my 20th completed novel. …how the hell did that happen? Again, barring misfortune it will be my 11th published. One thing I’m finding absolutely joyous about writing this book is that I’m getting to pull stuff from novel attempt number four up there in 1994—there’s stuff from the early years that I loved that I’m only now getting good enough to pull of. I’m working on an incredibly compressed deadline on this one due to me make a minor but self-compounding mistake in my workflow. Status: In print, in audio play, and in German.

29. 2014 Darkened Blade.

Outlined, under contract, and due in June. I’ve reached a point now where managing my time and learning to say no to projects that I’d really like to do is becoming increasingly important. I feel that I mostly have the hang of the writing part writing books, though I continually strive to push the edge of what I can do, and still land on my nose with some regularity. The rest of being an author? There, I’m learning new things all the time. Status: In print, in audio play, and in German.

2020 Update

30. 2015 Magic, Madness, and Mischief.

My second middle grade novel, in which I cannibalize my childhood including the difficult books and the hippie school and rewrite my trauma for your amusement. In which I learn that I can continue to turn trauma into humor. I love this book, and there’s more of me in it than anything else I’ve ever written as it’s demi-autobigroaphical. Status: In print, also, probably, in Russian.

31. 2016/17 Spirits, Spells, and Snark.

The sequel to Magic, Madness, and Mischief. More cannibalized trauma, though this time with a lot more collateral damage as half was written before the 2016 election and half after. I was in a pretty dark place and probably should not have written this book without benefit of therapist. Ended up having to essentially scrap the second half and completely rewrite it to recapture the funny tone it needed. Sadly, though I’m quite proud of the end result, this book has not done particularly well sale wise, and my adventures in middle grade are over for the moment. Status: In print, also, probably, in Russian.

32. 2018 Baker Street Ronin (partial).

Steampunk, alternate history. A Japanese airship invasion of London. Sherlock Holmes illegitimate son who is half Japanese and the eponymous Baker Street Ronin. Jane Austen’s great-granddaughter who is member of Queen Victoria’s secret service and a Bondian style super spy. She is also the granddaughter of the woman who invented this world’s steampunk super-science and the daughter of the one who most advanced. This book is pedal to the metal gonzo weirdness, and I adore what I’ve got of it so far. Status Out on submission in proposal form.

33. 2018 Hob’s Apprentice.

High fantasy and book one of a trilogy. I love this book. It’s about theater, and spying, and an alternate camedia-del-arte that is both theater and this world’s fey. It synthesizes a lot of things I love about theater and the fey and history and the lessons of years of playing Japanese style RPGs and how they frame the debts of duty and honor. It’s some of my best work to date and I very much hope it finds a home. Status: On submission.

34: 2020 Reunion (partial)

High school reunion at the School for Magical Oddities. A charming troll, his compassionate nightmare girlfriend, fashion golems, the living emdodiement of the blues, child Merlin, etc. Another gonzo style piece. I love this so much, but have recently learned that I simply don’t have the right emotional frame of mind to write contemporary fantasy during a pandemic. Status: Parked till vaccine.

35: 2020 Lost Blade.

I just started working on what will be the seventh Fallen Blade book. I outlined nine when I started this thing, and now that I’ve had a couple years off after book six, I’m getting back to them. Will probably be an indie release. Status: In process.


(A bit over half of this was originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog November 26 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted, reedited, and updated as part of the reblogging project)

World Building: In depth or in focus

Some brief thoughts on worldbuilding adapted from a note I wrote to a writer friend this morning.

Nota bene: I describe myself as world driven writer. I would cheerfully write travelogues about worlds that exist only in my head if I could get paid for it. Since I can’t, I’m a novelist. I ADORE world building. It’s also not what writing is about. So…

World building more generally. There are three main ways to crack that problem from where I sit.

1) You can do what I do, which is more or less have a big chunk of world jump into your head in one go, and then sit down and extrapolate how that plays out and how you got to that point with a thousand years of alternate history that literally no one will ever see taking up space in your head. This works really well for me, but that’s more or less a side effect of how my brain is wired, and while I do a pretty good job of focusing down from there to find the actual story, it’s not a great plan for most people.

X) A brief digression. Any writing advice that helps you advance the story you want to tell is good advice. Any advice that causes you to freeze up, feel despondent, or otherwise does not help you move the story forward is bad advice and should be discarded without a second thought.

2) Bullet point the big things in your world building. The ones that really matter. In this case: what happened to cause your apocalypse? Ignore the rest until you need it. When do you need it? When it directly impacts the story as you’re telling it and when it’s something your Point of View characters would know and can express within the needs of the story.

3) Don’t world build outside the confines of the story at all. Tell the story. Focus tight on the bits you think are important, the emotional context, the family struggles, the really cool setting, independence, overcoming the post-apocalyptic landscape. When you need something outside that focus to serve as a lever in the shape of conflict or peril, write the scene with [fill in world detail here] and don’t worry about what needs to go there until you see how the story unfolds and tools you need to make it happen.

World building isn’t really a goal in itself. You need a world in which your story can happen, but it doesn’t have to be a big bold fully fleshed thing. If that stuff makes you happy, go ahead and write it. If it doesn’t, you can think of the action of the story like the action of a stage play. Focus on what has to be painted on the canvas walls or set on the prop table to make the story work in the enclosed space of the play. The fact that it’s all just happening in an enclosed and artificial environment surrounded by what is essentially a big empty block of space painted black doesn’t really matter to the action of the play.

On the Naming of Characters

The naming of characters is a difficult matter…

I was asked about how I choose names for characters and I thought my answers might be of more general interest, so I’m making it into its own post.

For me the most important part of a name is mouth feel. I always say a name out loud before I use it. It has to feel in my mouth like I want to feel on the page. Usually that’s a least partially emotional. Harsh characters need harsh names. Friendly characters need approachable names. Etc.

Names need to be distinct. I do that in part on a purely mechanical basis. Every time I introduce a new character I make sure the name doesn’t sound too much like anyone already in the story and I rarely have two important characters that have the same first initial in their name. No stories with Mark, Mike, Mack, Mara, and Moira.

Shorter is usually better for me. As a personal preference I prefer one-two syllable names, and/or longer names need to be easy to shorten. Valerie to Val, for example. Even if never use the short form, I think about how that might work and who might use it. This is a place where it’s important to remember the class structure of your world.

The following over broad and purely a tool of narrative: Upper class/aristocratic characters are more like to have long names, and more likely to use the full name in some circumstances. Lower class characters will often have shorter or truncated names. Nicknames are more likely to be used at the top and bottom end of the class structure and for criminals than in the middle. For the wealthy it might be because they use a smaller total pool of names and repeat names more often. So you might get Hal for Henry V to distinguish him from the other Henrys. For lower class characters it might again be partially the reusing of names and partially because less social and physical mobility make it more likely a childhood nickname will carry forward. For criminal characters it’s as much to obfuscate real identity as to identify.

When I’m looking for names, I steal freely from history, classical literature, and fiction where that’s appropriate to the venue. I have a terrible memory for names of people I meet, but I’m quite good at names in stories. For the names adapted from fiction I am likely to change spellings, or to simply use the name as a starting point. So, something like Marak, might become Moric.

When I’m working to come up with a new name for science fiction or contemporary or historical fantasy I will often cruise baby name sites looking for names that start with what feels like the right first letter. Modern names for contemporary names. Historical names for historical fiction. For those latter I might try to find things like: what were the 50 most popular women’s names in 1928?

For secondary world fiction, I go to baby name sites for the root language of the culture I’m working in. So, if I were writing a secondary world rooted in Germany in the 1200s I’d look for German names and I’d alter them to suit mouth feel and appropriate spelling. I’d also look for Austrian, Swiss, Italian, Polish, etc, because languages bleed across borders. Names especially bleed as people move around.

I also look at both place names and last names appropriate to the setting I’m using, as names don’t stay in a steady relationship. People often get named for the place they’re from. Or they might be given a first name that used to be a last name to keep it alive and in the family.

Think about the language of the place you’re creating. How does it sound? If you don’t want to build your own language, look at others. What do they sound like? What sounds repeat. Build your names from syllables that are common in that language.

Another useful tool is to check out work by someone else that’s writing in a world that feels like the world you’re using. How do their names feel and sound? Do they have commonalities? A system? Can you build a system that works in a similar way.

Remember to think about where your character is from. Are they local to the setting? Are the from a great distance away? What’s their social class? Are they from an old family with a long history? Are they an orphan who doesn’t know their antecedents? A main character needs to stand out. One way that can be accented is by naming them in a way that violates the general rules of names for the area or of their class. If your character is from someplace far away, how do naming conventions work there? Is there a lot of cultural bleed so that people will know how to pronounce the name? Is that a problem for the character. Etc.

In the end, I always always always come back to that mouth feel. Does the name I’ve picked up from whatever source material feel right when I say it? If it does, than it will usually feel right on the page. If I’m feeling doubtful, I’ll try saying it different tones and registers. How does it sound if I’m yelling it? How does it sound when it’s spoken in the ways it’s mostly likely to be used in the story? With affection. Loathing. Fear. Etc.


Author Event

Pssst… I’ll be reading and signing at the Har Mar Barnes and Noble in Roseville MN on Jan 25 at 6:30 PM

Synopses, A Lengthy Discourse on a Pithy Topic

I’m posting about synopses as part of a project set up by Joshua Palmatier to help newer writers deal with some of the scarier parts of trying to sell a novel. There are three parts, each with a master page linking out to all the participating writers.

The elevator pitch project.

The query project.

The synopsis project.

Being the somewhat lazy soul that I am, I’m going to borrow from my own previous writing on the topic and only update the bits that I feel I got wrong. So, stealing from myself:

First, and, IMHO most important, is the question of what a synopsis should do. If you don’t get that right, the details hardly matter.

Now, the marvelous agent/blogger Miss Snark* claimed at one point that all a synopsis had to do was be short, not painful to read, and show that the author hasn’t screwed up somewhere in plotting the book. Now, those seem like good minimum conditions, but I want more from my work than to demonstrate I haven’t screwed up in the minimum number of words.

I want to leave the reader with questions that interest them enough to want to read the whole manuscript. This does not mean questions about what happened–those are by way of screwing up, because the reader of a synopsis needs to end their perusal knowing what happens. What I’m talking about are questions of method. I want my reader to say something like That’s cool, I want to see that or, Really? Why didn’t I see that coming, I have to read this, or just, oooh, nice.

A well written synopsis gives conflict, plot, setting, character sketches, and some genuine flavor of the book, at least in my opinion, and if that takes slightly longer, I think it’s okay. I keep coming back to the idea of talking about what excites you about this story as a writer as I did in the elevator pitch post, because that’s what’s going to convey the most important parts of the book’s flavor. Since I already covered that in detail I’m going to go ahead and give you a bunch of bite sized thoughts on the matter followed by examples in the shape of the proposals that sold WebMage, The Fallen Blade Series, and School for Sidekicks.

Practical advice on writing synopses.

1. Learn how to do it. If your career ever takes off, it’s likely to be an important and painful part of your life.

2. This is easiest if you can A, write several of them in quick order, and B, get your hands on someone else’s synopsis to read and really thoroughly critique. Knowing what worked or didn’t work for you in someone else’s synopsis is a great learning tool. Doing this with several is better, and synopses that have sold books are probably best, especially if you can read the book at the same time. You needen’t ever give the critique to the author, that’s not why you’re doing it.

3. The normal structural stuff: one inch margins, double spacing, etc.

4. The abnormal structural stuff: Present tense. Five pages is standard for most synopsis requests. For pitch sheets one page, (single spaced!?!-what’s up with that?) is what I’ve been told is standard and how I do mine. different editors and agents often have different rules for these, so YMMV, and be sure to check before sending it along.

5. Dig through your favorite books. Read the dust jacket or back of book blurbs. Really study the ones that successfully represent the book in question. Try to write several of those for your book. Do the the same with the ones that strike you as bad. Pick the best of your sample and expand from there. Don’t try to trim it down from the book.

6. Again, what’s cool to you should drive the synopsis. But don’t forget plot, character, setting, and theme.

7. Try to write it in the same style as the book, not the same voice necessarily, but a funny book should have a funny synopsis.

8. Pace and swear. No really, this helps. So does a long walk away from the computer where you mutter to yourself about what your story is really about.

9. Call your writing buddies. If they’ve read the book, ask them what they thinks its about. This will be enlightening and possibly terrifying. If they haven’t read it, tell them about it. Remember what you’re telling them and use it.

10. Treat yourself when you’re done. The job sucks and you deserve a pat on the back.

11. It goes to eleven!

12. Write the one sentence version. Expand from there.

13. If you outline, grab the outline and trim it to the right size. Then edit for tone and format.

14. The rules can sometimes be bent. My WebMage outline was ten pages double spaced. Both agent(s) and editors were cool with this. Don’t try this at home, i.e. without the approval of your agent if you’ve got one.

The examples are going behind the cut, because they’re enormous.

Continue reading “Synopses, A Lengthy Discourse on a Pithy Topic”

Queries…Or, I May Be Talking Through My Hat

I’m posting about queries as part of a project set up by Joshua Palmatier to help newer writers deal with some of the scarier parts of trying to sell a novel. There are three parts, each with a master page linking out to all the participating writers.

The elevator pitch project.

The query project.

The synopsis project.

I’ve never written directly about queries before because I’ve never actually written one myself* so take everything I say after this with a grain of salt. That said, the query is basically a combination of the cover letter and the single page pitch both of which I’ve done about a zillion times at this point in my career, often successfully.

So, first, the cover letter part. Keep it as short and simple as possible. My cover letters go something like this:


I’m Kelly McCullough, author of (three most relevant publications here**).***

(Insert personal connection if appropriate here)****

I am looking to place the (novel title here) or, I am looking for representation, my latest novel is (novel title here).

One page or shorter novel pitch goes here (more on that below the break).

Thank you,

Kelly McCullough

____Arbitrary break to provide someplace for cover letter footnotes_________

*I got my agent through a truly bizarre process, but he’s done very well for me.

**If you’ve you’ve got them.

***Which three of my publications or series are most relevant depends in what I’m pitching and who I’m pitching it to. Basically, my novel resume is not the same as my fiction for science education resume, and it’s important to remember audience.

****”I met you at ArghCON, we discussed my work, and you suggested I send you something” and the like is appropriate. Most other things probably aren’t.


Now for the short pitch segment, I’m going to play to my strengths, laziness and organization and pull from previous things I’ve written on pitch sheets and only update the bits I feel need it. So, stealing from myself:

I’ve already covered some of what a pitch needs to do and how to do in the post on elevator pitches and I’ll go into it further in my post on synopses, so I’m just going  to post a diverse set of examples here. Below you will find a pitch for a novel I’ve never written, one for a novel I’ve written and haven’t yet sold (though I’ve had it almost sell three times), and one for the first novel I sold, WebMage. All of these are exactly as they went out to editors. After each pitch I’ll include a brief note. Oh, and there will obviously be major spoilers.

The rest of this post is beyond the cut to hide the spoilers and because it’s enormous.

Continue reading “Queries…Or, I May Be Talking Through My Hat”

The Elevator Pitch—My take.

I’m posting about elevator pitches as part of a project set up by Joshua Palmatier to help newer writers deal with some of the scarier parts of trying to sell a novel. There are three parts, each with a master page linking out to all the participating writers.

The elevator pitch project.

The query project.

The synopsis project.

Being the somewhat lazy soul that I am, I’m going to borrow from my own previous writing on the topic and only update the bits that I feel I got wrong. So, stealing from myself:

The elevator or, personal, pitch, question one: Why do it at all? It’s really the book that makes the sale, so what’s the point? So, here are a number of reasons why you might want to at least be ready to make an elevator pitch.

1. Many writers have never actually had any interactions with an editor beyond the profoundly impersonal form-rejection. A pitch session allows you the writer to actually verify the existence of a real live human being at the other end of the process as well as exerting your own personhood to the editor. This may not do any good, but it can help you feel you’re not up against a giant inhuman system and let you feel empowered.

2. Mad personal skillz. Despite what stereotypes might say, many writers are social creatures and some are even very good at personal interactions. Writers who fall into this category may believe (with some reason) that they can do a better job of convincing an editor to give a novel a look using tone of voice, gesture, eye-contact and other interpersonal tools than they could through a query and synopsis or pitch letter. Depending on your skills on that front—a related but not identical skill set to novel writing—you could well be right.

3. Multiple projects. Some writers are idea fountains. They have ten or twenty novel ideas at any given time. And, as part of deciding which one to work on next, they’re interested in editorial opinion, believing (not unreasonably) that an editor is going to be more likely to buy a novel on a subject they liked from the inception.

4. Nothing else has worked. After the tenth rejection on the fifth book, a writer can get to the point where anything that has any chance of moving their career along looks like a good idea.

5. Choose your own adventure. I’m sure there are many other reasons, and I’m sure some of you could name them.

So, next question: I’ve decided I want to try an elevator pitch, how do I go about it? I think the most important part of an elevator pitch understanding that when someone asks you what your book is about, the answer they’re looking for isn’t all the fiddly details, though those are important too. What they’re really asking is:

Why should I read this book? What’s exciting about the story?

Now, you can never really pick out what will excite someone else about your work, because everyone outside your head interacts with your story in strange and mysterious ways. What you can pick out is what turns you on about the story. For example, I’m a world-driven writer. I do all the other things too, plot, character, theme, prose, etc, and as a part of a full length pitch or synopses I need to talk about those things. But at core, what gets me going is coming up with a cool world and exploring it through story.

It has been my experience that when I start with setting, and let my enthusiasm about the world drive the conversation, editors and other writers become involved in the conversation and interested in what I’m telling them. Contra, when I start with what I think they want to hear, I bomb.

So, with my novel The Black School, I might start out with “It’s an alternate World War II novel set in a world where industrial scale black magic— sacrifice magic—has become the most important means of combat.” Then I’ll go on to give my audience a description of the scene that popped into my head fully formed, the one that got me excited about the book, and move on to some of the backstory of the world because that’s where a lot of the cool is-like, there is no white magic, at least not at the beginning of the book.

After that if I haven’t lost my audience, I’ll address the specific setting and the characters involved: The Black School, a young mage student, his mage girlfriend, the teachers, the enemy—shape changers from another dimension—etc. As I go along, I’ll also explain my themes: industrial impact on environment, the ethics of war, the implications of fighting a genuinely, verifiably, evil enemy, when does the end justify the means?

That’s all rough and it was off the top of my head when I wrote this post, but it’s also the product of a lot of practice. I’ve been answering the What’s it about? question for years on more than 20 completed novels, something like a hundred proposals, and dozens of short stories. Mostly those questions come from friends, family, and fellow writers, but that’s all to the good. If you practice with a friendly and genuinely interested audience, you’re going to have better results at crunch time with an editor or agent.

The things you’re excited to tell your sci-fi buddies about your work should be the exact same things you’re excited to tell an editor or agent. Always remember that agents and editors aren’t the job, they’re people who are really interested in the same kinds of stories you are. Neither job is one that someone gets into without loving the genre (Note: the same is true no matter the genre). Run with that, talk about what excites you in the field and what you love about your story and others. You may not make the sale, in fact, considering the odds against any particular sale, you probably won’t. But you might make a friend and you’ll have a hell of lot more fun.

Now, I know how much you all hate the idea of pitching your novel, because it’s something I have trouble with too, so I will digress a bit and tell you why I hate it, and point out that as much as I don’t like pitching, I do it anyway, because it’s part of the job. So…

Why I don’t like to pitch my novels. First off, I’m a writer. If I wanted to work with a live audience I’d have stayed in theater. I really really don’t miss stage fright, and pitching triggers it for me. When an editor asks me about my current book I’m not fool enough to decline to talk about it, and I do practice thinking through what to say in those situations. That’s because if I have to improvise on the subject of novels I turn into a babbling cretin. The question “What’s your novel about?” induces instant split personality disorder.

The half that is still a theater person usually goes into “wit” mode and tries to say things like “it’s about a hundred thousand words, why do you ask?” This is not a smart idea, and the frontal lobes are pretty good at stepping on the impulse. But having half of your brain trying to turn a serious conversation about your work into a stand up routine leaves only half a brain for the actual conversation. Worse than wit mode though is the actor’s nightmare, when the actor side of my brain suddenly realizes it’s in a terribly important performance and that it doesn’t know its lines!

Then there’s the writer half of my brain, which immediately starts whining to itself. “If I could tell the story of my book in two minutes I wouldn’t have had to write a novel.” This is true on some level, but also pointless. Then my writer brain starts trying to condense and synopsize, both of which are important skills, but are much easier to deploy at the keyboard with plenty of advance notice—or at least that’s what my internal writer voice says.

Basically, without proper preparation, it’s all bad. The separate parts of my brain make horrible individual decisions and then start yelling blame at each other when it all goes to shit.

So, my final advice: Plan ahead. Rehearse.

Direct links to the other posts:
Harry Connolly: http://harryjconnolly.com/for-gods-sake-dont-talk-in-the-elevator-the-social-media-pitch/ (Added 9/19/2017)
Elaine Isaak/E.C. Ambrose: https://ecambrose.wordpress.com/2017/09/19/crafting-your-pitch-elevator-style/ (Added 9/19/2017)
Kay Kenyon: http://www.kaykenyon.com/2017/09/19/pitching-a-novel/ (Added 9/19/2017)
L.E. Modesitt, Jr.: http://www.lemodesittjr.com/2017/09/18/literary-pitches-and-timing/ (Added 9/19/2017)
Joshua Palmatier: http://jpskewedthrone.dreamwidth.org/492441.html (Added 9/19/2017)
Phyllis Irene Radford: http://www.radfordeditorial.com/?p=94 (Added 9/19/2017)