July 5, 2024

Four Steps To Success

There’s a recurring type of video or article or straight up ad that you’ve probably seen. They’re the ones that say something like “Three simple tricks to losing belly fat” or maybe “How I turned this pile of construction waste into raised vegetable beds in just four easy steps.” Or of course, “Four easy steps to get your novel written and published!”

And let’s be honest… we’ve probably all checked out at least one of these. Maybe even a few of them. And I don’t know about you, but for the vast majority of these “four easy steps” things there tends to be a few recurring issues…

F’r example…

First, they usually require lots of practice. Yeah, it’s easy to do this—on the nineteenth or twentieth try. All those first attempts are going to be messy and expensive and possibly painful, but by the twentieth I should be getting completely adequate results.

Second, they often require lots of other skills or equipment. Building miniature scenery is a snap once I’ve got an electric foam cutter, an X-Acto set, these eleven paints, four different drybrushes, and all these specialized raw materials. Making perfect carrot roses are no problem at all. Just get out your 1 3/4” mellonballer…

Third, as the previous two points implied, is they’re rarely simple. A lot of times each of these “easy steps” has four or five sub-steps, which means this is really a sixteen or twenty step “easy” process and the whole thing ends up sounding like that guy at Comic-Con who walks up the microphone and says “My question actually has six parts…”

Fourth and finally… they’re just usually not that effective. In the long run, most of these “four-or-five easy steps to accomplish something” methods just aren’t worth it. Yeah, there’s a chance I might learn a small trick, but in the end, all the time and effort (and maybe even money) spent trying to do something the easy way could’ve just been spent on learning… well, how to do it. If I really want to make good-looking miniature scenery, maybe I should just… y’know, learn how? Not try to figure out some trick that’ll let me skip the learning curve.

Also, I just now realized I’ve listed out four recurring issues, but those aren’t the four steps I was talking about. Please bear with me. It’s just a weird coincidence a better writer would’ve avoided.


“Skipping the learning curve” is something I’ve talked about before, and it ties back to a little maxim I came up with when I was still working in the film industry. It’s one of those things that immediately struck me just how true it was, and I could see it borne out in everyone I worked with and almost everything they did. And yes, I could see where i fit in it, too. I call it the Four Step rule. Whether we’re talking about a career or a hobby or almost any sort of endeavor, everybody goes through the same four stages.

1) Not knowing what I’m doing.
2) Thinking I know what I’m doing.
3) Realizing I don’t know what I’m doing.
4) Knowing what I’m doing.

Pretty simple and straightforward, yes? I can’t remember exactly how I stumbled onto this, but like I said… it just instantly made sense. I could see it with other people on movie sets, yeah, but also with the staff members for an online game I worked on for a while. I saw it in tabletop gaming (both the gaming and the artsy side of it). I’m currently experiencing it in photography. I’ve talked to friends in a bunch of different fields about this and they’ve all seen it, too.

Hopefully most of you can see it applies to writing, too. Personally, when I first sat down to write a story in third grade, every aspect of “writing” was a mystery to me. Character arcs, linear and narrative structure, dialogue descriptors—these terms meant nothing to me. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

Of course, once the words were typed out in front of me, it was clear I was a genius. I mean, look at them—they’re typed! Alas, many editors did not agree with my assessment of those pages, and I had a good sized stack of rejections before I had body hair. And that file folder of rejections got thicker and thicker for many years.

I think I was in college when I started to consider that maaaaaaybe every single editor I submitted to wasn’t the problem. Maybe my stories weren’t genius just because they were typed. Yeah, the ones I was writing at that point had a much more elaborate vocabulary than my old ones, but were they really any better than the ones I’d been writing at age eleven…?

I had dozens and dozens of rejections under my belt, but it turned out I still really didn’t know much about writing or storytelling. I’d spent eight or nine years ignoring advice and missing opportunities because I was convinced I was already great. And how could you improve on great?

Being able to acknowledge I still had a lot to learn was what let me finally improve. And improving was what let me get where I am today. Working with other professionals who treat me like a professional. Able to offer actual advice with experience backing it up. Even if some of that experience is, “wow, don’t screw up like I used to…”

Now, there’s an aspect of the four steps you’ve probably seen before. A sort of trap. I know I saw it in the film industry a lot. I fell into it for a while myself. I see it in writing, too.

There are folks out there who are pretty mediocre, sometimes even bad at their chosen career or hobby or what have you… but they’re convinced they’re fantastic. These people are stuck on step two—thinking they know what they’re doing—because they never had that slap down moment. They never bothered to improve because they never acknowledged a need to improve. They just stayed at those early, flawed levels.

Now, y’see, Timmy, we need that screw-up step. That early burst of overconfidence is important. It’s why we don’t give up on something the moment anything doesn’t turn out exactly like we planned. Well, most of us don’t.

But it’s even more important that we recognize it and move past it. That we admit how much we need to learn, accept some of that criticism of our work. And yeah, it’ll be frustrating as all hell and there’s a good chance I’ll find out I spent a lot of time on something that’s just going to go straight into a drawer or maybe the circular file. But if I’m open to learning from all that—to admitting I need to improve—that’ll ultimately move me through the whole process much faster.

We’re all going to fail at some point. And it’s okay to fail. The only problem is if I’m determined not to learn from it.

Next time– okay, look, I’ve got a minor procedure scheduled for next week that’s probably going to knock me out for a day or two, plus I’m about to start juggling edits on two different books. So next time might not be for another two weeks or so. I’ll probably still be getting the newsletter out, if you’re subscribed to that.

All that said… next time I’d like to tell you a fun and 100% true story about Harry Houdini and the lost city of Atlantis.

Until then, go write.

July 1, 2024 / 2 Comments

June Newsletter

<<Yeah, normally the newsletter comes out the last Monday of that month, but it just worked out weird this time so you’re getting it the first Monday of the next month. You could avoid this sort of weirdness by just subscribing>>

Okay, sorry this is running a bit late. A bunch of things happening. Which I’ll get to in just a bit.

But first, as usual, some random musings…

Some of you may have seen a few articles floating around the interwebs about how adults are now the biggest audience for toys. I thought overall it was one of those cases where a lot of data got thrown out there, but none of the articles bothered to dig any deeper or actually make any conclusions. Which is a shame, because I think there’s some interesting possibilities in there if, y’know, anyone bothered to look.

Anyway, at one point famous toy enthusiast Dan Larson (interviewed for the article) said that some toy collectors spend up to $400 dollars a month on their collections and I thought, whoa, I’ve got a habit going but at least I’m not one of those guys.

Wait, am I?

I mean just last time I was talking about how I’d kind of given up on Games Workshop, and I’d been pouring a ton of money into that for years. I mean, it wouldn’t shock me to find out there were points in my life when I spent two or three grand a year, easy, on GW stuff, and that’s probably not even counting some of the little bits I’d buy piecemeal on eBay. So now that I’d broken that habit… how much was I spending on toys nowadays?

I started by thinking, hah, I maybe buy one or two action figures a month. Maybe. But then I realized once you start counting preorders, LEGO sets, and a few Kickstarters (I think I may technically be a stockholder in Spero Studios after that Animal Warriors of the Kingdom campaign)…

Yeah, even spreading that out over a year or two, I may not have saved that much money when I gave up Games Workshop.

Anyway… let me give you some updates.

Between StokerCon, by birthday, friends in town, a shingles shot that knocked me on my butt for a day and a half, plus all the other usual stuff I then had to get caught up on after that week, I’m running behind on a lot of stuff. Like this newsletter.

That said… we have a deal for GJD. We still have a few last things to sign before it’s 100% official but, yeah, that’s a thing that’s happening now. Before anyone asks, no we don’t have any dates yet. If I had to guess, we’re probably looking at next spring. Ever so slight chance of it happening before then, but I doubt it. Hopefully next month I’ll have more information about all of that for you.

I just this morning finished polishing a short story for something that could be considered… a childhood dream? Wild fantasy? Definitely a personal milestone if it happens. We’ll see about that.

Tomorrow morning (after all the above stuff) I dive into my first big rewrite of TOS. I think it’s going to go faster than the first draft did but there’s a chance I may have to put it on hold at some point to work on publisher-edits of GJD. We’ll see how the next two months go…

Finally, I had a very interesting phone call last week about a possible film project. Just a casual phone call. Me and one other guy. But still very interesting and a freakin’ amazing name may have come up in connection to said project. And also… just a Hollywood phone call. Not worth talking about more than this for now.

And I think that’s all the big stuff…

What else have I got for you…?

Cool Stuff I’ve Been Watching
For my birthday I watched Godzilla x Kong: the New Empire and Godzilla Minus One back to back. They’re both very good, although in extremely different ways. I’ve convinced my beloved to watch My Hero Academia, so we’ve restarted that from the beginning. The end of Star Trek: Discovery was very nice, even if this last season has felt a bit uneven. As a Doctor Who fan of a certain age, I shrieked when the big bad was revealed this season.

Cool Stuff I’ve Been Reading
DuaneSwierczynski’sCalifornia Bear by was amazing on several levels. About to finish The Art of Saving the World by Corrine Duyvis and really liking it so far. I think I want to dive into some graphic novels/ collections after this.

Cool New Toys
For my birthday I was lucky enough to get several LEGO sets (which carried me through that second shingles shot), plus my beloved gave me the Patch – Joe Fixit two pack, which means I now have multiple Joe Fixits! I also got myself the utterly amazing Four Horsemen Anubis and Bast two pack, but I haven’t opened it yet.

And I think that’s all for now. Thanks, as always, for your interest.

June 27, 2024

Hail Flash!

So, I’d like you to cast your mind back a few weeks to when I told you what we’d talk about next time. Which, by odd coincidence, was casting you mind back a few weeks to thhink about what I told you then…

Yeah, I’m running late, but it turns out it works thematically so… yay.

I thought it might be cool to talk about flashbacks for a minute or six. I’ve mentioned them half a dozen times over the past few years—usually relating to story structure, but I haven’t really talked about how to do them in a couple years. Maybe ten years? Wow I remember it as if it were only yesterday…

Anyway, for our purposes, when I’m saying flashback it can cover a few things. It can be an element within the story like a recalled memory, or something more physical like a letter or journal entry. Sometimes, like in my Ex-Heroes series, it’s part of the way the narrative has been structured. All I need to remember is that whatever form my flashback takes, it just needs to follow a few rules-of-thumb if it’s going to work.

<insert usual disclaimer of yes it’s always possible to find a way, exceptions do not disprove the rule, etc, etc>

Now, first rule of thumb is I can use a flashback anywhere in the story, but this switch in the narrative structure can’t affect the dramatic structure. If I’m going to drop linear point E between points R and S in my narrative, it still has to keep the story moving forward. It needs to keep building tension and/or pushing the character arc. If it doesn’t do either of those things… what was the point to this flashback?

A lot of writers use flashbacks as infodumps. The flashbacks are seen as a chance to show how Wakko met Phoebe, how Phoebe became a ninja, why Wakko hates snakes, and so on. The mistaken belief is that if I do this in a flashback, I’m not affecting the pacing or tension of the present storyline because these events aren’t happening now—they’re happening in the past.

When I do this, I’m confusing linear structure with narrative structure. A flashback has to keep moving the story forward. It doesn’t matter where the events fall in the linear structure of the story, but wherever I’m using them they have to fit into the narrative structure I’ve established.

I mentioned the Ex-Heroes books and, in all fairness, I did this with the first one. I dropped a flashback dead in the middle of the big climactic end battle and brought things to a grinding halt. Full-tilt, non-stop action to no-tilt, standing-in-place dialogue chapter in one page. Which meant (once it was pointed out to me) weighing if I needed this flashback or not, and if I did… where should it be instead? Where would it actually fit?

Now, the second rule of thumb is just the reverse of the first one. It’s when I confuse the narrative structure with the linear one. This is similar to a problem I’ve mentioned once or thrice before, understanding when something happens for the first time in my story. When I do this with flashbacks, instead of messing up the tension or the pacing. I mess up the internal logic of the story. It also happens sometimes with poorly set-up twists or reveals.

F’r example let’s say I’m telling a werewolf story, and on page 100 my protagonist has no idea who the werewolf is. Then, on page 200, I flash back two weeks to something that happened “off camera” earlier. Here I reveal that she learned the identity of the werewolf because of a clue she spotted in the old family Bible.

And yeah, in a quick, don’t-think-about-it-too-much way, this makes sense. On page 100 she doesn’t know, but by page 200 she does. Except… it’s new information for the reader on page 200, yeah, it’s not new to my heroine. She’s known all along, right? Pg 200 happened before page 100 once we look at this in linear order. Which makes her actions, motivations, and even some of her dialogue for the last hundred pages… probably don’t make a lot of sense.

The simplest way to test this is to take my narrative apart and put it back together in linear order. When I read it now… are people doing or saying things that don’t make sense? Does that twist land really flat? Are they acting strange for no reason? If my flashback doesn’t work once it’s in linear order… something probably needs work.

Now there’s one last thing I need to watch for, and that’s my third rule of thumb. This one had a bit of venn diagram overlap with the last two, but I think it’s pretty its own thing. It’s also a common problem in prequel stories which, if you think about it, are just big flashbacks.

By its nature a flashback is giving my readers a glimpse into the past. This also means, though, that they’ve effectively seen the future. They know, to a large extent, how things are going to play out. So trying to create a lot of drama and tension within my flashback can end up feeling… well, a little silly. Did forty-year-old Phoebe get eaten by a shark when she was fifteen?!? Hopefully we’ll find out in her next flashback…

I think some writers feel like they’re adding to the tension or suspense when they do this with flashbacks. Thing is… there really isn’t any tension in this cliffhanger, is there? Because y’see, Timmy, the moment the reader pauses, even for an instant (like, say, at this chapter break), they’ll remember forty-year-old Phoebe’s back here in the main narrative of the story and pretty solidly un-shark-eaten. No missing limbs. No major scars. Not even any nibbles that we’ve seen or heard her mention. So the attempt to build tension here just feels, well, artificial. It’s me trying to create tension in a situation where there clearly isn’t any.

So, to recap, my three three rules-of thumb for flashbacks.

1) My flashback needs to work within the narrative structure.

2) My flashback needs to work within the linear structure.

3) My flashback can’t create tension that’s undermined by the present.

Also, as I’ve been doing for years, I’m going to suggest some homework for you. Go watch the first Resident Evil movie. Yeah, the one with Milla Jovovich. Seriously. It’s action-horror fun but it’s also got some of the best flashbacks I’ve ever seen. Each one nudges either the plot or Alice’s personal story forward a little bit more, they all fit together flawlessly (as the movie even shows you), and rather than get undermined by the “current” narrative these flashbacks actually rack up the tension in it. Honestly, it’s well worth a watch and you can probably find it for free on Netflix or Tubi or something.

You only have to watch the first one. I mean if you want to watch them all, I happen to think they’re kind of fun. No, they don’t follow the games but it’s a pretty solid sci-fi/ horror series in its own right, especially when you consider almost every movie is clearly done as “okay, this is the last one…”

Anyway, next time, I’m going to revisit my simple four step plan for success.

Until then, go write.

I almost didn’t do this one because I couldn’t figure out the exact way to phrase it, and it’s obviously an important one. Wouldn’t want someone to miss out because I used the wrong word. Plus, to be honest, I’m waaaaaaaay behind this week between a birthday weekend combined with StokerCon weekend and friends in town and a shingles vaccine that made me kind of useless for a day, so I almost didn’t do this at all.

But here I am. And here you are. So let’s do this.

Are you ready for the ultimate networking tip? You should probably get ready to write this down. It’s going to change everything for you. Bookmark this page, at the very least. Right now, before we go any further.

Damn. I could’ve had t-shirts made up. Finally an excuse for a merch store…

Anyway, ready? Here it is. My ultimate networking tip that’s going to make your attempts at networking so much easier, more efficient, and much, much more effective. Ready?

Stop trying to network.


Just stop.

I got to see a bunch of writer friends this past week, and—especially with StokerCon as the backdrop—I thought a bit about how we’d met. How we connected. And so often it was really mundane, non-writery things. My first real conversation with two writers I’m friends with was about Doctor Who (and weirdly enough, now that I think about it, both were Dalek-related). Another one was about fencing (the with-swords type). One time I was talking with someone and discovered we both had a connection to the weird little amusement park in my hometown. Plus so many chats about the film industry and different aspects of it.

And yeah, sometimes we’d talk books. Rarely our own, but other people’s we’d enjoyed or loved or perhaps even quietly been, y’know, less than impressed with. Or publishing. Many long talks about publishing, sales, marketing, social media, all that sort of stuff.

But the key thing is, I wasn’t trying to bond with them over any of this. It wasn’t a calculated ploy. It was just stuff that came up. Things we were interested in. They were the kind of casual conversations you’d have at someone’s cookout or a party or a random bar meet-up.

I know I’ve said this before but active networking is dead. It’s been dead for decades. Seriously, people were pushing it as the big secret to Hollywood success thirty years ago and you might notice that Hollywood’s still just as difficult to break in to. And then this belief slipped over into publishing circles and… well, I’m sure most of you know how easy it is to succeed in publishing these days.

Simple truth is active networking has never worked and never will. It just comes off an weird, intrusive, pushy, and sometimes just flat-out creepy. And I know some folks would respond by saying hey, if there’s only a one in a million chance of it happening, that’s still a chance! Someone just told me recently that’s how it was explained to them.

But here’s the thing. It’s also a 999,999 in a million chance of being labeled as weird, intrusive, pushy, or maybe creepy. So what do you think’ll happen when that one in a million editor/agent talks to any of their colleagues about this writer who just showed up in their mailbox…?

So stop networking. Right now. No more handing out business cards to every single person you meet. Please, please, please stop showing up places or randomly mailing things. Don’t seek people out just so they’ll carry you further along the path you want to walk. And I’m begging you not to give some guru money for their very exclusive networking event that will take your career to the next level.

Y’see, Timmy, don’t worry about networking. Just make friends. Friends you actually care about and respect and share interests with and like being with.

Believe me, we all need friends in this industry.

Next time, I’d like to talk about what happened last time.

Until then, go write.