September 25, 2023

September Newsletter

Hey look! We’re back from vacation! And using a new newsletter service! And you can’t even tell, can you? It’s okay, that was the general idea, remember…

Anyway, let’s get to the stuff you want to know…

I think I’ve added just shy of 12K words to TOS since coming back from vacation. Also, it’s really weird to say “coming back from vacation” when we mostly just stayed at home and did stuff and tried to relax. I mean, we spent the last last two days talking about all the things we think we did wrong during this little staycation and how we’d probably do it differently next time. Not that this was nightmarishly bad or anything (okay, yeah, I might have fractured a bone in my leg doing garden work, but who among hasn’t dropped a hundred pounds of concrete on their shin?), we just realized we kind of overplanned some things and underplanned others and had a few of those “you know what we should’ve done…” moments at the end. Next year, it’ll be better.

But anyway… sorry, yeah, the new book is a litle over 52K now and I’m very happy. Lots of enthusiasm for it. Nothing could wreck my momentum now, right…?

<cue ominous music>

My agent finally got his notes back to me about GJD, the previous thing I wrote. He loved most of the characters and their arcs (see below), a lot of the different plot elements, the big overall idea of it. BUT he also pointed out a couple fairly large problems. And he doesn’t think he’d be able to sell the book as it is. Which means a big rewrite for me.

No, no, I can hear some of you. Thing is, he’s absolutely right. Two of my early readers pointed out some of the same things, but I kind of brushed them off and told myself they just didn’t get what I was trying to do (so big apology to Kristi and Robyn). Whereas the real truth is, I did exactly what I set out to do… it just didn’t make for a good story. I got so caught up in trying to have a certain theme, to make this statement, that I didn’t realize how, well, boring it got in places. Or how annoying one or two characters were.

So, back to the drawing board. It’s not a page-one rewrite, but probably close to one of those house renovations where they tear it down to the studs and start again from there. I’m guessing this’ll be at least a month to six weeks of work. Maybe closer to two.

On the plus side, this might not change things much at all, from your point of view.

In other news…

As I mentioned above, we’re not on Substack anymore. I, for one, feel a little morally cleaner already. I’m afraid whatever comments and likes there are lost forever, but all the old newsletters are still over on the Ranty Writing Blog. I plan to stick to my regular schedule—newsletter goes out mid-month, gets re-posted there on the last Monday of the month.

So by subscribing, you get early access to quality material like this…

Cool Stuff I’ve Been Watching— Finally got around to watching Upload, which I’m enjoying a lot more than I thought I would. We’re just a few episodes into season two right now. Lower Decks is back, which is always fantastic (“Moopsie!”)

Cool Stuff I’ve Been Reading—I hate to say it but I’ve read almost nothing since we last talked like this. I mean, I read one thing that was kind of ehhhhhh and I’m in the middle of something that really could go either way. Nothing where I feel like “hey, I’ve got to tell you all about this!”

Cool New Toys – My beloved grabbed me the Marvel Legends Joe Fixit Hulk, and I grabbed myself the What If..? Gamora. Really, I’ve got a pile of stuff that needs to be opened because I hate leaving toys in boxes. I’m just not that guy.

August 31, 2023 / 1 Comment

Class War Nonsense

I stumbled across this old train-of-thought document a few weeks back, which I guess I’d written out… looks like sometime early in lockdown? Maybe in response to some social media discourse of the time? I don’t know. But parts of it struck with me and I’ve been flipping it over and over in my mind, so I thought I’d share it with you.

I’m kind of 50-50 on writing instruction, for lack of a better phrase. All those articles, lectures, books, and blog posts that tell you what/ when/ how/why to write. Which probably isn’t a great thing to confess here on the ranty writing blog. But really, I think if you look at most of that stuff with a critical eye, we’d find there’s a lot of good stuff you can get out of them, but also a lot of useless stuff, depending on our particular situation. Some might even be classified as harmful.

And it struck me that part of this is that “writing instruction” covers so much stuff. I mean, we all probably had a bunch of basic writing classes in grade school, right? Everybody had those. But maybe you also had creative writing classes in high school? Not the same thing. And I had a class in college that tried to teach writing, but also another one that tried to teach you how to be a writer.

Hopefully you can see the subtle nuances in all of these. I try to make it here a lot of the time. This blog is about writing (turning the idea in your head into a finished manuscript) but overall I tend not to talk as much about writing (the life, the career, the source of 83% of my stress and worry).

So let me tell you about a few writing classes I took. One in high school, two in college.

Also probably worth mentioning up front, I’d been writing for years before that first class. It was all garbage, sure, but I’d been writing and submitting and getting professional feedback. I’d already collected a good number of rejection letters from assorted editors at Marvel and a few different fiction magazines.

Class #1 was high school. In retrospect I’d call it harmless. It was approached more as a potential hobby than anything else. The teacher gave us writing prompts, would give us simple deadlines, taught us some bare bones stuff about character and imagery and critiques. But there wasn’t any in-depth discussion of anything, art-wise or career-wise. This would’ve been spring of ‘87– no public school was going to encourage a kid to go into the arts. Writing wasn’t a real career, after all.

I stumbled across one of the stories I wrote for this a few months back. It’s a kind of fun, fairly predictable story about two little kids (almost) being tricked into letting a monster loose. I remember the picture he showed us that inspired it, too

Class #2 was junior year of college. In theory, a general creative writing class. In reality just a bad experience overall. I liked a lot of my classmates, but the instructor had very literary aspirations. He talked a lot about ART and berated anyone in class who wasn’t trying to write the great American novel. I wrote a sci-fi/ horror short story for one assignment and was told (loudly) in front of the class that it was just mass-market garbage. If I was just writing to entertain—if I wasn’t trying to change people’s lives with my words—I was just wasting everyone’s time and should probably leave.

There wasn’t much instruction in this class of any sort. It was really just a critique group where the instructor encouraged people to be as harsh as they could with said critiques. All in the interest of “making them better writers,” of course. I ran into one of my classmates a year later and she told me she’d kind of given up on writing after that…

(fun fact—the story the instructor tore apart in front of the class was called “The Albuquerque Door,” about an experimental teleportation gateway gone wrong, and I always liked it even if he thought it was nonsense. It was (eventually) the inspiration for a book…)

Class #3 was my final semester of college. It was simply amazing. I was lucky enough to spend five months with John Edgar Wideman as a professor at UMass. Yeah, we’re naming people now that it’s a really positive experience. He made me look deeper at my writing and showed me how real life could still be the foundation of the strangest characters or situations. He was also the first person to point put that sometimes writing meant not sitting at your desk. It was good to shake things up now and then. Today… you know what, let’s just go down the hall to another classroom. I think 216 is empty. Today we’re going to have class under that tree out there. Today… everyone’s 21, yes? Let’s go get a drink at the bar in the campus hotel.

I have to add Professor Wideman was also the first person to ever tell me he thought I was going to be a successful writer. Direct, flat out, no qualifiers. My writing was very good, I could do this.

So… what’s the point of this stroll through my memories?

Every one of these classes was titled “Creative Writing,” even thought there was a huge range in what the instructors were offering. And what they delivered. Some were teaching about writing, others touched on being a writer, and really none of them were about writing as a paying career. Depending on what I was looking for—or needed—they could’ve been absolutely perfect or a complete waste of my time. Or even worse, the thing that makes me decide I hate writing.

I think, when we approach any kind of writing instruction, we should be really clear about what we need and what we’re hoping to get. And if it’s possible, maybe get a better sense of what this book/ class/ site/ conference is actually offering. If I’m really invested in the art and nuance of writing, a course about how to game the social media and Amazon algorithms to promote sales probably isn’t for me. If I want to work on going from my first draft to an edited second draft, a book of writing prompts and encouragements won’t be of much use to me. And if you just want a couple people to tell you your writing isn’t horrible and you should keep at it…

Well, you definitely didn’t want to be in that junior year writing class I was in. I should’ve dropped out. You could’ve too, and we could just go encourage each other at the Bluewall.

Anyway, next time I wanted to talk a little bit about Rashomon. I seem to recall you liked that movie, yes?

Until then, go write

August 28, 2023

August Newsletter

So, where are things at?

Well. my agent’s been swamped with stuff and only just got to start reading GJD a week or so back (as you’re reading this, not as I’m writing it). Life happens, sometimes things get slowed down. We’re both still hoping this means we can get it in front of editors before the end of the year. For a few reasons I won’t bore you with right now.

(I started to write them all out and then realized “this’ll probably be really boring to about 83% of the people reading it” )

My current project, TOS, is at about 41K words. I spent the last week or so of July just scribbling like mad, filled up two more legal pads, and now I’m in the slow process of transcribing it all. This is kind of how I wrote Paradox Bound. Longhand on legal pads and then typing it up becomes a sort of preliminary clean up/ edit pass

Why so much at the end of July? Why so slow transcribing? Well, as it turns out…

I’m on vacation.

Yeah, taking the month off. All of August. The whole thing. Yes, I’m very aware how super-lucky I am to be in a position to do that. Also, yes, it’s almost disturbing to not be working on anything for this long.

Which is part of the reason I’m doing it.

See, my partner and I haven’t had a real vacation together in years. I think last one was in… 2006? Around there. Before I was writing full time and definitely before my career took off in any way. Since then I might take a week off, but she’ll usually keep working on her own projects. Or maybe we’d take two weeks at the holidays, but holiday time gets filled up fast with visiting friends and family and, y’know, holiday stuff. And let’s be honest– either way, how often does “taking a few days off” quickly become “doing all those random errands around the house” …?

Another thing is… well, ugly truth of the world is the climate is shifting. A lot of places have had really hot summers and/ or extreme weather events. Here in southern California, we’ve shifted into more of a hot late-summer early fall. Two or three years in a row now, August means regular temperatures of 100+. We’d be blissfully happy when it dropped into the mid-90s because we could work without our computers overheating. Which really meant we spent most of August hot, frustrated, and… well, not working anyway.

So last year we decided y’know what– let’s just plan on not working in August. Let’s take the month off and catch up on reading, gardening, gaming, hobbies, whatever else we want. Do all the stuff that always feels like it’s “other stuff we need/want to do.”

And we’re not being monsters about it. I mean, we both like writing,a lot, so if one of us has this sudden flash of inspiration, we’re not pointing fingers and shrieking accusingly. I’ve been doing some transcribing every day of that end-of-July rush. The ranty writing blog. This newletter, obviously.

Yeah. Vacation. It’s been kind of nice. A little distrubing, like I mentioned above.

In other news…

This is the last newsletter you’ll get through Substack. The newsletter isn’t going away, mind you, it’s just… going away from Substack. I’ll be migrating the mailing list over to either Buttondown or just straight through WordPress. Mentioned this last time, but if you’ve changed your mind about having your email shifted to a new list, I get it. Just say the word.

For the rest of you– you should see this same time as always next month.


Cool Stuff I’ve Been WatchingGood Omens 2. The Strange New Worlds/Lower Decks crossover was such pure joy I’ve already watched it three times.

Cool Stuff I’ve Been Reading—The Endless Vessel by Charles Soule. Cult Classic by Stephen Blackmoore, Atomic Robo: The Vengeful Dead by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener

Cool New Toys – Just after the last newsletter I found something I’ve wanted for years—a Comic Con exclusive Micronauts set. An impulse purchase over that weekend has also left me with a small collection of Star Wars: Mission Fleet ships and figures, most of them centered around The Mandalorian. I have a pile of action figures I need to free from their packages, so check out Instagram if that interests you at all.

August 24, 2023

It’s All Greek to Me…

About a year and a half ago, when the ranty writing blog was still out in the wild, I did a post about being a little cautious when I use made-up words in fiction. Y’know, words like cromulent or midichlorian or squale. In the comments, Oliver asked if the same would hold for real-world foreign languages as well. Should I be cautious using, say, Japanese words the same way I would be using Klingon technospeak?

Which is why I’d like to talk about paint.

I think we’re all familiar with the idea of slapping a quick coat of paint on something to make it look new or different, right? House flippers do it, painting rooms with the latest colors and shades. Not unheard of for a used car to get a fresh coat of paint on it either. Heck, if you’re familiar with Games Workshop, I’d guess 83% of their “new and different” armies are just a lot of the same models with different colored paint on them. Again, it’s not a new idea. It was blue, now it’s red. It was something we’d seen before and now it’s something cool and different and, y’know… red.

And sometimes… we do this with storytelling. It’s the same character, but now she’s a brunette instead of a blonde. It’s the same old capitalism, but now they’re credits instead of dollars. Same problems, but now he’s hooked on stimms instead of drugs. We slap on a quick coat of paint and whoa-ho! now it’s an alien future world with a different financial system and everything! Hey, those stimms are fifty credits each! Your Earth-dollars are no good here on our very different alien planet.

Now let’s talk about languages…

I want to be clear this is a “no easy answers” topic. Much like with completely fictional words, a lot of it’s going to depend on the story, my intended audience, and context. This isn’t something where I can say “only four foreign words per page and never do more than sixteen per chapter” and that answer will fit every scenario in every book by every other author. There’s just too many possibilities to cover.

There’s also that whole gray area of words I can feel relatively confident most people don’t think of as foreign-language words. Even here in the United States, where the majority of our paler citizenry famously only knows one language, most folks would understand words like bonjour, quesadilla, dosvidania, kaiju, aloha, or gesundheit. So should we be counting them? Do I need to explain what a quesadilla is? Or a kaiju?

Anyway, rather than give out any firm rules for how to do this, I’d like to offer you a couple of loose guidelines to keep in mind.

First off, why am I including these words? In a general sense, but also specifically this one and that one and those three on the last page. Am I trying to establish a setting or a character’s speech pattern? Or am I just slapping down that coat of paint to give my characters or setting a thin veneer of “otherness”? Yeah, look, we’re definitely in Cairo now– see, the guy said shookran instead of thanks.

I want it to be clear these words are necessary. They’re an integral, load-bearing part of the setting and the characters. And just in case you didn’t know… paint isn’t load-bearing.

Second, is it going to be clear to my readers what these words mean? Maybe not exactly crystal clear, but is there enough on the page, in context or subtext, for a reader to figure out this is a piece of clothing (maybe outerwear), that was her brother’s name, and that was an expletive (and definitely not one you’d use around your mother)? If there’s not enough there for my reader to understand it, is it going to get explained to them? And if they can’t figure it out and I’m not going to explain it… is it really a word I need?

There’s a bunch of ways to use words in my writing that my readers might not know. I want to remember that hitting an unknown, indecipherable word will break the flow of my story for a reader.

Also worth noting an important aspect of this—my chosen audience. We all want our books to be international best sellers with three or four million readers, but the truth is we’re probably going to be aiming at a specific group of people. Even if it’s just something like “sci-fi fans” or “religious thriller fans.” And hey– religious thriller fans might know a lot more Latin than the average reader. So I might not need as much context/explanation for some of those words.

Third, am I absolutely sure I’m using these words correctly? Look, languages are tricky, complex things. They all have their own subtleties and nuances and… look, this may come as a shock to you but Google Translate is not quite on par with the Federation’s universal translator. Especially now that they’ve plugged it into their half-assed AI. There are languages out there that do things English can’t even wrap its head around. Like, you may remember from high school that a lot of other languages have feminine and masculine verbs. Heck, y’know how English has singular and plural? Well, Arabic has dual. Yep, a whole way of dealing with verbs and nouns that’s specifically for two people. Spend a few minutes thinking how that changes how you write. And think. And if I’m using these words in the wrong way…

Or how about this–there are some words in English that have multiple meanings, but in other languages they’re actually multiple words. If you don’t know the difference, just looking up how to say this word in German could cause problems, he said, from personal experience. When I was writing The Broken Room, at one point in an earlier draft I’d unknowingly used the Spanish verb “shield” (as in, this lead vest will shield you from the X-rays) as opposed to the noun “shield” (the thing Captain America uses). Still can’t remember what made me check it again, but around the third draft I suddenly just had this weird, gnawing worry about it.

Anyway, those are my three personal rules-of-thumb for using other languages.

And I’ll leave you with this one other thing to consider. Benjamin Dreyer, reigning copy editor supreme at Penguin Random House (that’s his actual title) has suggested maybe we should stop italicizing foreign words. Italics generally mean emphasis, and we used to italicize words in other languages to highlight their difference. These weren’t normal words. They were Spanish words, words people used in some strange, different place.

We’re all past that, right? I mean, did any of you have a problem with aloha and gesundheit not being in italics up above? Maybe it’s time to admit words in another language are just… words.

Things to keep in mind when you write.

Speaking of which…

I haven’t had any suggestions or requests in a while now. I’m sure I can struggle on for a bit longer, coming up with ideas on my own. But if there’s something you’d like an answer to or some help with or just wondered what my thoughts were on a topic… please let me know in the comments. And if not, i guess next time I’ll just blather on about, I don’t know, creative writing classes I took in the past or something like that.

Until then, go write.