October 12, 2023

Speed Limits

Wanted to try out a sort-of new analogy. Congratulations! You’re all my test subjects.

I’m going to make a bit of a leap here and assume most of you reading this know how to drive. Just, y’know, basic driving. A car. A pick-up. Maybe some of you even know how to drive a motorcycle.

I’m also going to assume most of you have a degree of experience at driving. You’ve been doing it for a while. Yeah, there’s a chance one or two of you are still in high school and only just got a learner’s permit, but the general vibe I get here in the comments—and from my readers in general—is most of you are solidly in the “adult” demographic, which means I can say you’ve probably been driving for at least a decade. You’ve got a license and got a solid feel for it. We can put you behind the wheel of a car and you can follow the rules of the road.

Of course… well, let’s have a little moment of honesty here. We’re all friends, right? We trust each other to a certain degree? And we can all admit that maaaaaaaybe we don’t always follow the rules of the road.

No. No we don’t. Come on, we said we were going to be honest. Okay, look. Quick show of hands. Just put your hand up, nobody else can see it. Well, I mean, all those people there at work, but they don’t know why you’re doing it. If they ask, tell them you’re stretching.

How many of us have broken the speed limit in the past week?

Don’t nitpick. It doesn’t matter if you were only going five miles over or that there wasn’t anyone else on the road at the time. Going over the limit means you broke the speed limit. So put your hand up if you’ve done it in the past week.

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Oh, of course I’ve done it too. I’m not lording it over anyone.

I’m sure more than a few of us have also failed to come to a complete stop at a stop sign. Made a U-turn we weren’t supposed to. Let’s not even getting into signaling for turns or lane changes.

Now here’s the thing. We all know this is wrong. We know we’re breaking the rules. But we keep doing it. And a lot of the time, we get away with it.


Well, a lot of it ties back to the experience thing I mentioned up above. Yeah, we were all taught the rules by a relative, in a drivers’ ed class, or maybe from a friend. We had to demonstrate we knew the rules to get our license.

And most of the time we need to follow the rules. I can’t just decide red lights and stop signs don’t apply to me anymore and plow through ‘em all at full speed. Eventually that’s going to catch up with me. So to speak.

But the thing is, once we’d been out on the road for a while, we started to see there’s still a degree of flexibility. Like driving on the freeway. Ten, fifteen miles an hour over? It’s breaking the rules but it’s also… just kind of accepted. We all do it.

Because we’ve all learned when and where it’s acceptable to break the rules of the road. When it’s going to make my driving experience a little faster or easier without hurting anyone. We know we can be a little excessive on the freeway, but we should probably rein it in a bit in school zones and parking lots. Making that u-turn on an empty road in the middle of the night isn’t the same as making it at lunchtime in heavy traffic. We understand why why it’s okay to do it here, but not here.

Let’s have one more moment of horribly honesty. Some folks get caught speeding and get a slap on the wrist. Other people get large tickets. Or worse. The ugly truth is, some people can get away with breaking the rules just because of who they are. Doesn’t mean the rest of us get to break them in the same way. Sucks, but that’s the way life goes sometimes.

And yes… there’s definitely someone out there who taught themselves how to drive and didn’t bother getting a license and drives 83 miles per hour past the school and the police station every day and they’ve never gotten a single ticket. Hopefully it’s clear this person is a rare exception, not a role model. Please don’t follow their example.

Now, hopefully you see where I’m going with this.

Y’see, Timmy, there are rules to writing. Absolutely, no questions, no arguments. There are rules, we need to know them, we should be able to pass a basic test on them. And a lot of the time we’re going to have to follow these rules to some extent or another.


Once I’ve done this for a bit, I’ll get a sense of when and where I can bend those rules. Or break them. Or flat out shatter them. And I’ll know I’m totally, 100% justified in doing it. I’ll be able to tell you exactly why it’s okay. Yeah, the rule says do this, but I’m doing this because it’s better for the dialogue, the flow, the suspense, or what have you.

I definitely don’t want to break a rule and then just say “ehhhh, I don’t know why. I just felt like breaking it. Shake things up a bit, y’know? I’m disrupting storytelling.”

That’s not going to go over well.

Next time…

Well, there’s a whole aspect to this rules thing I just barely touched on, so next time I think I’m going to talk about why Doctor Watson told all those stories about his old roommate.

Until then, go write.

July 8, 2021 / 1 Comment

Dating Profile

I (finally) wanted to step away from the usual process stuff we talk about here—structure, dialogue, characters, editing, and so on—to talk about another important part of the process.

Dating apps.

When we’re looking to find that partner for life—or, y’know, maybe just for the weekend—these apps can be phenomenal. They’re not perfect, no, but they can save a lot of time by, well… weeding out a lot of folks that aren’t going to work for me. For whatever reason. Maybe I have some really firm personal philosophies. Perhaps I know exactly what kind of relationship I’m looking for right now. Maybe, hey, there’s a certain body type I prefer—or one I don’t. Regardless of what my criteria are, whether they’re right or wrong, these apps can help whittle down my prospects to a manageable size by matching me up with the people who meet my requirements.

Except… well…

Okay, look. Clearly there can be basic misunderstandings now and then. She said she likes football, I said “hey, I like football,” but it turns out she meant soccer and okay, well… this was awkward. Sorry I scheduled our first date during the World Cup.

Or maybe it was a little more deliberate. Maybe I realized I get a lot better matches when my profile says I’m six foot even and 179 pounds with a thick head of dark hair. Which, for the record, is a 100% accurate description of me that I’m just using for this example. Except then we finally meet face to face and now I can’t hide that, okay, yeah, I’m closer to 5’9” and 225 pounds (look, lockdown was very stressful) with a silver-gray widow’s peak that’s pulled back a bit over the past decade or so. But I have a great personality and I’m sure… well, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if the matchee wasn’t too interested when they finally saw me. They might even be justifiably annoyed. I mean, they spent time looking for a good match on this app.

Hell, maybe I’m just going to be kind of obnoxious about it and rationalize away their criteria. Her profile clearly says she doesn’t want short guys and no sci-fi/superhero geeks, but she’s hot, dammit. I’ll just explain to her how short guys are more dependable (in so many ways) and that Star Wars is actually more in the science-fantasy genre, so we should definitely hook up. I mean, that’s what DMs are for, right? To make my case and skip over all those limitations she’s putting out there to weed out other guys exactly like… me.

Anyway, where were we? Oh, right, why the hell are we talking about dating apps on this here writing page? What’s going on?

Well, as I’m sure a lot of you have already figured out, using a dating app is a lot like submitting my work somewhere. It’s trying to find that perfect person who’s looking for what I’m offering. Either a long term partner like an agent or maybe just a quick, one-time thing like placing a short story in a magazine, anthology, or a contest. And I’m going to have my best results with these submissions if I’m being honest. With myself and with them.

Yeah, sure—there’s always going to be the occasional mistake. I might spell someone’s name wrong or misread a requirement. Hell, one time I submitted to a magazine and the editor politely wrote back and pointed out thanks but they’d gone out of print six months earlier. These aren’t a lack of honesty as much as signs I’m maybe rushing things a bit at times and need to slow down a bit.

But I really don’t want to be lying about what my manuscript is. I shouldn’t reformat it to make it hit a certain page count. I don’t want to call it a romance when it’s a thriller with a minor romance subplot. I definitely shouldn’t say it’s got strong religious themes without being clear the “religion” is a doomsday cult trying to summon the old gods to cleanse the Earth.

I especially don’t want to ignore what they’ve specifically said they want. Yeah, they don’t want urban fantasy novels—but they’ll want mine, dammit! All short stories have to be under 7500 words, but once they read mine they’ll understand why it’s 11,000. No explicit violence toward women or animals… but I mean, they just say that to weed out the real weirdoes, right? And I know I’ve mentioned the guy who sent his sex comedy to a Christian values screenplay competition… ?

If I want to make a connection—a serious one that’s going to lead to something, even if it’s only something short term—I need to be honest. I can’t lie about what I’m offering. I can’t ignore what they want. If I do, I can’t blame them when they toss my manuscript in that big pile on the left.

Or, y’know, if they swipe that way.

Next time, I really want to not talk about something.

Until then, go write.

February 25, 2021

The Six-Mile Drop

I follow a lot of writers over on Twitter (and I’m friends with two or three of them), and it’s not unusual for a lot of them (and me, too) to occasionally toss out storytelling advice of one kind or another. As best you can in 280 characters, anyway. Or a longish-thread. Sometimes it’s random encouragements or self-care reminders. A fair amount of time it’s basic guidelines or rules. It all depends on what sparked this particular bit of Twitter-musing.

When we’re talking about guidelines that talk usually revolves around publishing–the business side of things—and how it may affect our writing. Manuscript length. Genre definitions. The preferences of a certain agent or editor.

If someone’s talking about rules, it’s usually stuff every writer eventually has to learn. I need to know what words mean and how to spell them. I’ve got to have a solid understanding of structure. A firm grasp of grammar. My characters will need to measure up in certain ways. The stuff that we see come up again and again, oddly enough, when we talk about good writing.

And the sad truth is, learning the rules generally means study and practice and failure. Followed by more study and more practice and more failure. And eventually some success.

Now, as you’ve probably guessed, anytime someone offers advice like this… there’s pretty much always someone who argues against it. They’ll mention an article they read about someone who did it differently or another tweet they saw about an editor who bought something that didn’t follow the guidelines. In short, they’re pointing to an exception to the rule in an attempt to disprove the rule.

A lot of the time, oddly enough, these folks are doing this to justify their own opinions and preferences.  I don’t like statement X, or what it implies, so I’ll find an example where X isn’t true and use it as proof that X is never true. Therefore, my opinions and preferences aren’t wrong.

Now, let’s be clear on one thing—there are always exceptions to the rule. Always.  Anyone who tells you that something is never-question-it, 100% always this way can be ignored. Especially if they shriek “no exceptions!!” I don’t care who they are or how many million copies they’ve sold (or not sold, as is more often the case)


Exceptions to the rule are very, very rare. You could say exceptionally rare. That’s why they’re the exception and not the rule.

I mean, sure, there’s a double handful of authors who sold awful manuscripts filled with horrible spelling, bad grammar, and not the slightest clue about formatting. But the vast majority of those manuscripts never made it past the first reader for an agent or editor. We can point at a dozen or so people who sold their first book because they knew/ were related to/ were sleeping with the right people. But there are tens of thousands of writers (probably hundreds of thousands over the years)who broke in by taking their time and writing really good books. And, yeah, maybe I can point to a few people who sold the first draft of the very first novel they wrote. But I can also point to the tens of millions of people—actual, literal millions—whose first draft submissions were rejected.

Now of course, the downside of this is… well, it means most of us aren’t the exception. We’re all in the majority. And nobody wants that. Nobody likes the thought of eventually breaking in, we want all the success and recognition now! We want to be the exception!

And maaaaaybe we are. Maybe what we’ve done is good enough that it doesn’t matter I broke a ton of rules and guidelines. But we definitely shouldn’t assume we’re the exception. Because that’s where things get dangerous. Just ask Vesna Vulovic.

(yes, I’m going to tell this story again)

For those of you who never heard me explain this at the Writers Coffeehouse (either at Dark Delicacies or Mysterious Galaxy), Ms. Vulovic was a flight attendant back in the early ‘70s. And in 1972, the airliner she was working on was bombed in mid-flight. She was trapped inside the plane’s hull as it plunged over six miles to the ground. 


Vesna didn’t die.  She fell 33,000 feet to the ground and survived. In fact, she was only in the hospital for a couple of months before being discharged. She recovered for a bit longer, but ultimately she was… fine. She ended up with a limp. That’s it. Seriously. She just died a couple of years ago, in her mid-sixties.

So… anyone here want to assume they’re that exception to the rule? Feel like taking that chance? Sure, the vast majority of people would die horribly after a six mile fall—I mean, assuming our hearts didn’t explode during the fall—but Vesna did it so I guess it probably applies to everyone, right?

What? No takers?

As I was saying, it can be dangerous to start with the assumption that I’m the exception.  That the rules or requirements don’t apply to me.  I’m always going to be bound by the same rules as pretty much every other writer, and I’m going to be expected to follow them.  Until I show that I know how to break them.  If I don’t know what I’m doing or why, I’m just a monkey pounding on a typewriter, unable to explain how or why I did something and also probably unable to do it again.

Now, again, I’m not saying exceptions don’t exist. That’d be silly—they clearly do.  But it’s important to understand they are the exception. They’re the unusual rarity, not the common thing.  That’s why we’ve heard of them—because it’s such an oddball thing to happen. Like, y’know, surviving a six-mile drop.

But exceptions can’t be my excuse not to learn those rules and guidelines. All these rules have developed over the decades for a reason, and they apply to all of us. 

Well… the vast, overall majority of us.

Next time… I’m kinda drawing a blank to be honest. I’m about to dive into something new and that’s occupying a lot of my headspace is right now. Feel free to toss suggestions or requests down below, and if I don’t get any, I guess I’ll come up with something.

Until then… go write.