March 28, 2024

Ignorance is Bliss

Okay, this one’s going to feel a bit random, but stick with me…

My junior year college roommate was a friggin’ brilliant guy (he teaches biochemistry now). We used to stay up late working out the solutions to scientific problems like “how many hamburgers would it take to reach Pluto?” and other important things we did not get a Nobel prize for. It really was one of those higher-education experiences you only seem to read about– we just liked figuring out the answers to things, and we were in a position where we could spend a random hour (or more) doing it.

And—again—not being rewarded with a Nobel prize for our scientific work.

Anyway, John introduced me to the idea of invisible math. If you and I are on opposite ends of a lawn and I toss a baseball to you, there are so many measurements and calculations that need to be made. Think about it. Distance. Height. Speed. Weight of the ball. Force to put behind the ball. The torque of your arm. Arc. Rate of descent. Air resistance. Wind resistance. And there’s more past that. Every time we throw a baseball, there’s so much invisible math behind it.

But most of the time… we just throw the baseball. Our brains do all that math subconsciously for us. They’re pretty cool, right?

In fact, weirdly enough, if you think too much about any of these things as you’re getting ready to throw, you’ll probably mess it up somehow. Try to concentrate on two or three of those factors and you’ll almost definitely mess up your throw.

Which, of course, brings us to Lindsay Lohan.

If you somehow didn’t know, Lindsay Lohan was a fairly talented Disney kid who eventually moved into “older” roles when she could. But as her roles became more and more serious, her performance became more and more… Well, let’s politely say erratic. Unpredictable.

Now, if you are familiar with Ms. Lohan, I know the easy thing to do is giggle, maybe punch down a bit, and point at all the reports of addiction and abuse that came out as she got older. But please consider this. She was a pretty solid child actor. Seriously. She carried a bunch of movies. But even after she got cleaned up and dealt with some parts of her life, her performances were still kind of all over the place.

Now, I don’t know Lindsay Lohan. I think we were living in LA at the same time, so we’ve probably been within, say, a mile of each other one or thrice. Maybe even a few yards? Point is, I’m kind of guessing here, based on my own experience.

That said, I’d bet real money when she started doing “serious” movies, now that she was a real actor… people started telling her how to act. Maybe she took a class or got a coach. Doing a bit of ye olde method acting, perhaps? Maybe she started putting serious thought into motivations and stage business and presence.

I bet she started thinking about how to throw the baseball.

See where I’m going here?

For most of us, when we first decide we want to tell a story, we just sit down at a computer or pick up a pen and… we start writing. That’s it. We don’t think about grammar or structure or character arcs. We just write about cool stuff we like. Romance. Monsters. Space battles. Wizards. Ninjas. Lizard people! We make characters who are basically us (but cooler! and more popular!) and they go have adventures of one kind or another.

But eventually (hopefully!) someone sits us down and talks to us about grammar. And story structure. And character arcs. Maybe even themes! They tell us how to write. Maybe it’s a schoolteacher. Or a college professor. Maybe it’s a book we willingly picked up, not knowing the awful things it was going to teach us.

And it’s my personal belief that people have one of three reactions at this point.

One group of people essentially say, well, screw this. Turns out writing is way harder than I thought it was. And a lot less fun. And they walk away from this and go become frustrated studio execs or bureaucrats or something.

The second group says wow, I didn’t realize there were so many important rules. I better follow them all! To the letter! At all times! And these people keep writing but it loses a lot of the fun for them and I think.. well, most of them stop being any good. They get so focused on all those rules and guidelines—the stuff we never actually register—that they lose the ability to actually tell a good story. They’re more concerned with making sure the math works out than they are with throwing the baseball.

And the last group?

They’re the ones who take this new knowledge, sift through it, and apply it where they can. They keep writing and try to work with it, rather than wrestling their writing to fit all the rules. They know sometimes all this stuff matters and sometimes… you’ve just gotta write like you’re nine again. Dance like nobody’s watching. Write like nobody’s going to read it. There’s a time and place for all those rules, but its not right now.

Please note I’m not saying ignore the rules. Rules help. They really do. But that’s the key– the rules are there to help me tell my story. They shouldn’t be shaping it. My story doesn’t exist so it can be an example for how all the rules work.

Really it’s a forest-for-the-trees thing. I want to be aware of the rules. I want to know them. I want to understand them. But I don’t want to be focused on them.

My focus should be on my story.

Next time… I think I may babble on about the different ways we can get from A to Z.

Until then, go write.

January 11, 2024 / 1 Comment

Speaking of Resolutions

So, a few times here on the ranty writing blog I’ve talked about diminishing returns. The idea the more you read and study about a topic—say, writing—the less you’re likely to get out of it. F’r example…

Most of us start of by picking up a few books on writing or maybe taking a creative writing course in high school or college. Depending on where you live or what you’ve got for resources, maybe you attended a conference or convention where you got to listen to writers, editors, and agents talk about writing. I know I did.

Eventually, though, we need to stop with the books and classes and online seminars because we hit a point where the information just starts to repeat. We’re just hearing the same things over and over again. Yeah, sure, maybe someone might put a new spin on this or give a better example of that, but was it really worth the fifteen-to-one hundred-ninety dollars I paid to learn it? Or the time I put into reading/ attending it?

But since it’s the start of the year, I wanted to talk about another kind of diminishing return. And this one’s a little more personal. For each of us.

Sooner or later, we all develop a certain approach to writing that works for us. A process, if you will. Everyone’s process is unique. I tend to work at my desk, but maybe you work best at a coffee shop on your tablet, and she writes best on her phone, and he (to fall back on an old example) does all his best work with dictation software while wearing that ren faire corset. Whatever it is, we’ve tried a few things—maybe a lot of things—and figured out what lets us get the most literary bang for our writing buck. And that whole metaphor fell apart but you see where I was going with it.

For some folks, these habits and methods we’ve accumulated work great and continue to work great. Project after project, we know we can do A-B-C-D and get a great manuscript. So naturally, we keep doing it.

But sometimes, for any number of reasons, my process begins to be less efficient. It doesn’t give me the same results as fast. Or maybe it goes just as fast, but the quality has slipped a lot. Maybe time and quality are both the same but it feels like it’s taking a lot more effort. Our returns, one might say, are diminishing.

And yet… we stick to it. Because this is our process. We found it. It works for us, right?


I was lucky that very early on in my writing process I had a mentor/ professor who emphasized not getting pinned down to one thing. Most of the time our class would be in our assigned room but sometimes, just for the heck of it, he’d have us all move to another room. A virtually identical room, yeah, but oddly enough we’d all end up in different seats, next to different people, sometimes facing a new direction just because of how that room was set up. When it got warmer he had us meet outside by a big tree once. One time (after making sure we were all old enough) he took us to the professor’s lounge at the top of the campus hotel and bought the class a round while we talked about the latest round of stories and writing.

I didn’t like using outlines for a long time. I had bad results with them, so my book-writing process was much more free-form. But eventually I decided I needed to get better with them and have a lot more things figured out ahead of time, because my career was taking off and I needed to be able to talk with my agent and editors about books I hadn’t written yet.

I also tend to write here in my office at my desk. I know the setup. I know my surroundings. Some people (like my beloved) might call it cluttered, but I find it so comfortable and familiar I can easily focus past all of it. And yet sometimes I still do other things. About 2/3 of the first draft of Paradox Bound was written on legal pads in a coffee shop back in LA. At the moment I’m about 60K into a new project (TOS, if you’re subscribed to the newsletter) and that’s also mostly written on legal pads, too, sitting out on the back deck. Because it just worked better.

So here’s your New Year’s nudge. Take a long, hard look at your process. Has it diminished? Is it still working as well as it used to? Does it give you the results you want?

If it isn’t… change it. Try something new. Do something different.

This is a scary idea, I know. The worry that I might try something new and that might not work, either. And now I’ve wasted more of my precious writing time smacking my head with legal pads or drinking overpriced coffee or strapping myself into this goddamn corset that wasn’t even the color I wanted! Trying something new feels risky.

Yeah. It is. Art is risky

Y’see, Timmy, we’ve got to take some risks now and then if we want to improve, and sometimes that means accepting we should try doing things differently. So be open to new ideas. Be open to the idea that you might need to be open to new ideas.

Next time… maybe I’ll talk about a few other things we should accept.

Until then, go write.

January 5, 2024 / 1 Comment

Let’s Start Again

Welcome to the far-flung future of… 2024!

Anyway, I often start off the year with a little post about why I do this. How the ranty blog got started. What I tend to blather on about. Sort of like that first lecture in most college classes—here’s what we’re doing for the next six months.

But let’s flip it around

Why are you here? What are you reading this for? What do you hope to get out of this?

Are you just here because you like my books and you’re looking for fun facts or advance news about upcoming projects? Nothing wrong with that. You can get a lot of that out of the more-or-less-monthly newsletter. You can sign up to get it delivered right to your inbox or just wait for it to show up here on the ranty blog at the end of the month

Are you curious about my process? Maybe you want to know how I came up with that character or some insight into why I set things up like this. Also a valid reason to be reading. It does come up here now and then, usually as an example. Hell, there’s a few dozen posts here that reference my first finished novel– The Suffering Map – and what a cautionary tale it turned out to be.

Are you thinking about writing something yourself? Maybe you’re already in the process of writing something? Heck, maybe you’ve completed something? Good on you. Whichever, maybe you’ve ended up here looking for the next step. Could be one of the very first steps. Could be one of the last ones. Maybe it’s somewhere in the middle and you need a helping hand or a little nudge or a firm kick in the butt.

Honestly, you’re the folks this is mostly for. I blather on about a few different things here, but mostly I’m just trying to make the kind of resource I wish I’d had access to back in the day. One place where I could just type in, f’r example, “structure” and find a bunch of explanations and examples. And maybe not have someone basically say “wow, you’re doing everything wrong” the whole time.

Or maybe… you’re here looking for the secret word? The word that makes writing a novel easy? The word that gets you an agent and a publishing contract and your first hardcover? That word is mellonballer!! Seriously! Drop it into an opening paragraph, a cover letter, a casual DM with an editor and behold! Champagne will fall from the heavens. Doors will open. Velvet ropes will part.

No, of course they won’t. I think (I hope?) all of us here know there’s no secret word that makes some part of this easier. No magic phrase. No trick. A very large percentage of getting to do this as a career (if that’s what you want) is just doing the work. Not finding a clever way to get around doing the work.

So if that’s what you’re here for… sorry.

Anyway… I guess that tells you a little bit about what I’m doing here after all. Drop a comment down below, say hi, and let me know why you’re here.

And since we’re talking about the start of the year, next time I’d like to talk to you about your resolutions.

Until then, go write.

December 14, 2023 / 1 Comment

Three Random Answers

So, a few weeks back Rhyen asked three (supposedly) unrelated questions…

1. Have you ever used index cards for plotting?

2. Have you tried Scrivener?

3. (Stealing from the Colbert Questionnaire) What is the best sandwich?

I shall now answer these in reverse order. Just because.

First (or 3.) the best sandwich is clearly a turkey club with bacon. Once you move away from childhood classics like PB&J or baloney and cheese, the club the bedrock on which all “adult” sandwiches are built. Multiple meats, multiple veg, multiple condiments, works with almost any type of bread. There’s a reason it’s in the Criterion Collection of sandwiches. Sure, people will offer you more elaborate sandwich creations all the time—different meats, stranger veg, unusual condiments, is that even technically a bread? But that’s just it– they’re all trying to make more elaborate, overcomplicated versions of the classic.

I am, of course, open to hearing counterarguments on this, as long as you understand up front that you’re wrong.

Now, if you’re still with me after that…

Second, I haven’t tried Scrivener. I tend to just work in whatever my current word processing program is and have never been a fan of software that “helps” me do things. This goes back to my (attempted) screenwriting days. My current book and the one I finished earlier this year were both written in Open Office. Everything for about twenty years before that was plain old Word. Before that I was using a program called AmiPro.

Why? Well, I get uneasy whenever a piece of software (or a writing course, or a book) starts offering options or suggestions. F’r example, I’ve never once considered breaking all my chapters into individual files/documents. But it’s an option in Scrivener. Is that good or bad? Who knows? Up to you. Reference photos for locations? You can add those, too. Oh, you don’t have any reference photos…?

See, I think for a lot of folks, once an option like this is put out there—especially put out there by a vetted authority like this piece of writing software—it makes us think “huh, should I be doing that?” And because we tend to see books or machines as the voice of authority, I think some folks keep doing the thing the software suggested they do. Even when it doesn’t work for them. The computer wouldn’t lie to me, right?

To be clear, I’m not saying Scrivener is bad. My partner uses it and she loves it. I’m just saying folks should approach any piece of writing software—and all the bells and whistles they offer—as possibilities, not necessities. If you think it might help you, cool. Try it out. But if you ultimately feel like it doesn’t help, then just stop. It doesn’t matter if it works for a dozen writers you follow, it just matters that it works for you.

There’s probably a whole post about this sort of thing. Maybe in the new year…

Anyway, third (or 1.), no, I haven’t used index cards for plotting. I think I tried once (back in high school, maybe?) just as a character-notes thing, but even that didn’t sit right with me for some reason. When it comes to plotting, I tend to work right on the page, moving sentences back and forth in my outline (or just drawing arrows if I’m using a legal pad)

But that’s just me. And a few other folks I know. But I do know writers who use index cards and swear by them. Some go so far as to color-code the cards for different plots and subplots and story threads. I also know some folks who just pull them out to work through problems. And there are folks who use index card software, whiteboards, and look there’s a bunch of ways to do plot stuff out. I can tell you what’s worked for me, but it might not work for you.

I will say this, though—if I’m using index cards to plot out a book (or screenplay or whatever), I want to make sure the cards are plot beats, not details. “Miles fights all the alternate versions of Spider-Man” is a beat. “The fight spills out of headquarters and into the city” is a beat. “One of the alternate Spider-folks is a Tyrannosaurus” is a detail. Just remember, beats move the story along, but details stack up on beats.

This also might into that early-new year post. Or maybe I’ll just do a whole post about plotting? We’ll see…

Anyway, that’s three questions answered. See? Posting comments does do something!

Also, last week I signed a bunch of books at Dark Delicacies in Burbank. I believe they’ve still got a few copies of The Broken Room, Paradox Bound, The Fold, and Ex-Isle. If you’re looking for Christmas gifts, it’s probably too late to ship anything without ridiculous charges, but if you’re in the LA area… they’re right there in Burbank. Just saying…

Next time… let’s talk about all those Hallmark-y Christmas movies. You know the ones I’m talking about.

Until then, go write.