Category Archives: Story Problems

May ends. June begins. Things occur. And there’s a cat photo in the middle of this post, so keep reading

One occurrence: I applied a month or so back to do some freelancing for The Local Reporter, a Chapel Hill nonprofit newspaper (Chapel Hill, like Raleigh, neighbors Durham). This week they contacted me, said a change in editor led to my response falling through the cracks, and they were interested. We talked on the phone; sounds like I’d be doing mostly business-related stories, and not a lot of them (the budget, at the moment, won’t stretch to a ton of articles). But it would be income, and the kind of gig I’m familiar with, so I’m down with it. I’ll let you know when something comes out.

Another occurrence: as I mentioned last week, I was blocked on Oh the Places You’ll Go because I hadn’t reconciled to doing more rewriting than my beta-readers had suggested. Monday, I got down to it; by Tuesday evening I’d gone through two rewrites and much improved things, including fixing the problems my beta-readers flagged. However I’ve introduced a couple more: a change in the time-travel rules required more exposition but what I wrote is neither clarifying nor enjoyable, just muddled and confusing. So more work ahead to smooth it out.

I sat down and rewrote the third chapter of Let No Man Put Asunder as I’ll be reading that to the writing group soon as I get on the schedule. I realized the fight scene needed a lot of work — too much banter instead of attacking — and I think I’ve fixed it. We’ll see what the group thinks.

That took up most of the week. Plus I had a post at Atomic Junkshop on Silver Age DC (possibly) knocking off Marvel’s storytelling style. Below, for instance, Gil Kane and John Broome inflict some atypical angst on Green Lantern. Plus I’m in Con-Tinual’s YouTube channel discussing mythological tropes in fantasy.

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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Dogs, disorder and doom! Okay, not much doom.

Another week where things did not go as well as planned. But let’s start off with good news: I had my semi-annual checkup this week and all my signs (cholesterol, weight, blood pressure) are better than last time. So yay! This is good.

Otherwise this was a sub-par week. Wednesday Plushie was having a mood, constantly barking whenever I came close to having a coherent thought. Thursday morning, before the doctor’s appointment, I just couldn’t focus. I suppose not eating so they could get clear lab results might have something to do with that. The dogs were both needy this morning, plus we had the housekeepers in.

At several points I wound up working on The Savage Adventures because it required much less creative thought than anything else.

It would have been worse if I’d gone to the in-person writing group Tuesday (as I’ve mentioned before, I wake up exhausted), though next time I’m going. I’ll have to schedule around sleeping late Wednesday or something. I intend to read the first chapter of Let No Man Put Asunder so I worked on that this week, tightening it up.  I got a little work done on Oh the Places You’ll Go; in hindsight not getting more was because after getting it beta-read, I’d started seeing a bunch more stuff I wanted to change. Today I faced up to that and started a more thorough rewrite than I’d planned.

Oh, I also finished proofing 19-Infinity and got some cover sketches. So I guess I’m on the way to publication, though also nervous that somehow I’ll have missed something in editing. Maybe one more pass, just focusing on spelling and grammar? We’ll see.

A few links of interest: I have a post on various Silver Age comics scenes up at Atomic Junk Shop. For example —Does that look like a plain Jane to you? Another post looks at how often superheroes wind up fighting when a little talk could resolve things, like in the Spectre’s encounter with Anti-Matter Man below.Two of the Con-Tinual panels I’ve been on are up on YouTube, one on worldbuilding for small towns, one on Hammer Horror.

One last good note: someone checked out one of my books again on Hoopla. Thanks, whoever! Still, next week needs to be better.

#SFWApro. Art by Bob Kane, Carmine Infantino and Mike Sekowsky, all rights remain with current holders.

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Filed under Doc Savage, Nonfiction, Personal, Short Stories, Story Problems, The Dog Ate My Homework, Time management and goals, Writing

Cutting exposition isn’t always the smart play

First off, here’s the cover for Oh the Places You’ll Go. Still needs some added lettering of course but I think the image works for a story about traveling through maps.

Earlier this month I solicited beta readers from my writing group. Normally I’d have submitted it for feedback in one of our meetings but at 8,000 words it would take around three sessions to finish and that’s a minimum of six weeks, assuming I read every meeting. I wanted quicker. The results were helpful but showed I’d made some mistake revising from the original.

The premise is that when countries die — annexed by bigger nations, split up by secession — the passion of their inhabitants doesn’t disappear. If you have, say, a 10th century map of Burgundy, you’re within those borders and you have the knack for “traveling,” you can will yourself back there. Ditto the Ottoman Empire, the Confederate States of America, the USSR, etc.

When I read the first version of the story to the group, several points kept coming up in the feedback. It’s too talky and expository. Not enough happens once my protagonists go back into the past. A map of the future that plays a role in the plot wasn’t imaginative enough.

I solved that last problem by setting the story in 1970 so the map is our time. From the 1970 perspective a world where part of Pakistan is Bangladesh, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have broken up, etc., is radical change, and I didn’t have to strain my brain to come up with it. I worked to have encounters with other travelers and to reduce the exposition. This is one of the standard bits of writing advice, of course: don’t assume your readers need everything explained. If the story is strong they’ll wait until you explain the rules. Don’t bog down the opening with exposition. Resist the urge to explain unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Judging from the feedback, I took it too far. My betas were completely confused by some stuff that I never explained — I was hoping it would be understandable by inference — and other stuff they needed much earlier in the story than I covered it. I shall rewrite accordingly.

This is why beta reading matters. I’m sure there are writers brilliant enough to do without it, but for most of us — particularly in specfic, where readers may not know how the world operates — it’s essential. I’m so lucky to have such a cool group.


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An unsuccessful experiment in time management, but first: thank you!

First, thank you to whoever checked out Atlas Shagged on Hoopla. I’m glad you took the time to try my stuff. Second, thanks to everyone who reads this blog regularly. It’s good to know there are people out there reading my words, whether it’s books or blog posts.

The unsuccessful experiment was trying to put all my tasks for a given day in the to-do list of my BusyCal app (which I switched to when Apple changed iCal to make it unusable for my style of scheduling). It’s a quicker read than when I plot out my whole schedule in Scrivener but it feels more awkward to use, particularly if I want to change and rearrange things (that happens). So probably back to some form of Scrivener page next week.

This week turned out well despite Trixie having combined diarrhea/vomiting late Monday, with some blood in the stool. Whatever it was, it went away after some doses of probiotics and a day of restricted meals, so phew! I hate it when my little angel is sick.For once it was TYG and  not me who woke up because I’d knocked myself out with my ambien prescription and slept through it. I did take Trixie to the vet the next day which threw me off my game I spent Tuesday mostly doing blogging rather than the fiction I’d had scheduled.

I worked a little more on Impossible Takes a Little Longer. This rewrite is still going well. Let No Man Put Asunder less so. I’ve been feeling something about the last few chapters was off and so I spent a couple of hours early in the week trying to nail down the problem. Finally I got it: the interactions with the police have lessened the threat level as Paul and Mandy aren’t going it alone. Not only that, the story’s gotten too talky. So I went back to chapter five and started reworking the story. Chapter Six ends with one cop dead, Paul and Mandy on the run from the law, a ruined church and the threat level upped. However that means the following four chapters are now no good, except for helping show me what not to do.

A couple of my writers’ group friends sent me feedback on Oh the Places You’ll Go. It was really helpful, as I’ll detail in a blog post next week. I’d hoped to start rewriting it but Tuesday threw everything off. Still, overall it was a productive week, so yay.Over at Atomic Junkshop I channeled my past writing on political paranoia in Screen Enemies of the American Way into a general blog post on American political paranoia and one about the JFK assassination in the movies. At Con-Tinual’s YouTube channel I’m on a panel about Hammer horror.

I’ll leave with a couple of photos of Snowdrop when he let me pet him on the couch recently.#SFWApro.

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We have a rose. Also poison ivy

A few years back, TYG asked for a rose for one of our special-day gifts — I don’t remember if it was a birthday, Valentine’s Day or an anniversary. Trouble was, whenever rose-planting season rolled around, she was slammed with work and could neither go shopping nor work with me to plant it.

This year, however, she has the time. After I read up on roses, we decided we’d be better off with a professional and I contacted Witherspoon Rose Culture. They planted it earlier this month.It’s grown a couple more blooms since then.

Unfortunately the rose dude pointed out that we had poison ivy in the same bed. I’ve sent out bids to several contractors who specialize in dealing with it, though if need be it’s doable by myself. Very carefully of course.

Once again this week I planned to attend the in-person meeting of our writing group (it’s live/Zoom on alternating Tuesdays) but didn’t make it. Just too tired, so I sat around and watched TV instead. I didn’t second guess my decision which tells me I made the right call, but I will get back to it soon. The Zoom group is great but it’s nice to see people in person too.

I finished the 10,000 words I committed to writing on Impossible Takes a Little Longer. It slowed down this week as I got into relatively new material (as opposed to chapters that have survived at least two or three drafts) but everything worked. Hopefully I can keep that up. I may write more on the book assuming I stay current on my other goals. I didn’t feel ready to return to Let No Man Put Asunder this week so that one comes first.

I worked on various short stories, mostly doing research or kicking around ideas for stories that have stalled.

I put in a lot of time in correcting 19-Infinity (I’m debating whether to stick with that for a title rather than the infinity symbol. No firm opinion yet) and ordering a hard-copy proof from Amazon. That’ll help me make the final corrections and decide if the fix I put in for the formatting problems works.

Oh, and our taxes are off. TYG dug up the last forms we needed. That took some time — good thing we bought a new printer last year because it’s way smoother than doing it on the old, broken one.

While I didn’t get any Atomic Junk Shop posts up this week, my Con-Tinual panel dealing with mythological tropes is up on YouTube. You can read my most recent mythological contribution, Death is Like a Box of Chocolates, at Mythaxis. I’ll have more in 19-Infinity later this year.

I’m also almost ready to apply for a “doing business as” name for my new self-publishing house. I’ve narrowed it down to two but I’m going to sleep on it over the weekend.

At the end of a week like this I still feel frustrated with my progress. I didn’t sell any stories, didn’t finish anything, 19-Infinity is still several months from going live. I know that’s the nature of the game — writing’s not the sort of career where I get concrete, finished results every week — but it still bugs me. Such is the writer’s mind.

#SFWApro. Cover by Jack Kirby, all rights remain with current holder.

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Speed in fiction and its discontents

So last week I read the finish of my short story Obolus to the writing group. The story (formerly Don’t Pay the Ferryman) is 8,000 words which took three sessions to get through. I particularly wanted feedback on the ending because while the story and character arc seemed logical, it still felt like it needed something.

The feedback was much more positive than I expected, which was great. It also confirmed that while the character arc and the resolution work, it still needs work. Specifically that it felt like I’d rushed to get to the final scene, that I need to slow it down and pace it here and there. I agree, and it should be fixable.

That got me thinking about speed in my writing more generally.

I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from the writing group that says I need better packing: I hit readers with a shit-ton of characters or action scenes and it’s overwhelming. Give readers time to breathe and they can absorb it better and follow the story better.

But then again, the editorial feedback on Southern Discomfort said it was too slow, paced like epic fantasy when urban fantasy requires more tension and urgency. I don’t think that’s contradictory: different stories, different lengths, different points in the tale. Having tension at the start when you’re hooking the reader doesn’t conflict with a directive to slow down later in the narrative. Plus there’s the question of the execution: one author might make a particular pacing work while other authors founder.

The book Writing the Breakout Novel, which is one of the how-to writing guides I often use, in general frowns on any break in the tension: if it’s not there, why read on? I’ve certainly seen that happen with books where the protagonist forgets the danger while they’re out dating; I don’t think I’d agree that never easing up is a good thing. In the first play I directed, the reviews from my fellow directors were that I need to change the pace and tension at times; watching it on video later, I could see they were right. I think it’s possible for characters to relax without completely forgetting the peril/mission/threat.

Pacing is also going to vary depending on the kind of story I’m writing. Mage’s Masquerade is a Regency fantasy and while I think it keeps up the tension, it’s not at the same pace as the more action-oriented The Savage Year. The threat in Death Is Like a Box of Chocolates is more subtle so the pacing is different there, too.

I don’t have a brilliant conclusion or advice here, just musing on how pacing is something I have to work on and be conscious of going forward.

#SFWApro. Covers by Ross Andru (top) and Carmine Infantino (bottom), all rights to images remain with current holder.

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The power of improv!

Three of the stories I’ve worked on recently have used improv to solve plot problems. Not that I used improvisation, but the characters did.

In Mage’s Masquerade, for example, I’d straightened out most of the plot problems with the original story but one remained: the villain’s method of murder was absurdly cumbersome. My solution was to throw in added elements that showed his original scheme had come unstuck and within a couple of days would unravel completely. His solution was to pull a murder plan out of his butt, so understandably it’s not a brilliant plan.

In Bleeding Blue magic has returned to the world and menstruating women work like a dispel magic spell. This has led to women getting drafted for “shield duty” with the cops and getting an absurdly limited amount of training. My explanation was that the draft system is cobbled together and like so many political projects, not well designed: nobody wanted to spend money training millions of women before they were drafted and once they got a bad draft number they didn’t have time for training.

I think this is a legit approach. Certainly other writers have used it. Steve Englehart, for instance, had the final battle between the Ultraverse heroes the Strangers and their archfoe the Pilgrim wrap up in the Night Man Annual (yes, the same character who showed up on TV in the late 1990s). The Pilgrim had a perfect plan for dealing with the Strangers but it didn’t factor in the Night Man getting involved. As the hero puts it (IIRC) “You had to imrprovise — and jazz isn’t your thing”

However I don’t intend to make this a constant feature of my work. It would get annoying and probably turn into too much of a hand-wave. It’s convenient but like any shtick, I shouldn’t overuse it

#SFWApro. Cover by (I believe) Rick Hoberg.

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I admit, we got a little panicky …

Tuesday evening Snowdrop and Wisp showed up for breakfast. That was the last we saw of either cat until Wisp showed up this morning. This didn’t surprise me — we got several days of warm weather, when they’re more likely to roam — but after the second day I admit it worried me a little, and TYG a lot. Even though it’s unlikely something could have killed both cats simultaneously, it’s hard not to conjure up scenarios. And even if they’d found someone wonderful to adopt them instead (given how skittish they were, that’s unlikely too), we’d never know it.

Wisp showed and man, was she hungry. Scarfed a couple of bowls of food, then scarfed more after coming inside, then she napped on the couch. No sign of Snowdrop but if she made it, I think he probably did too. Hopefully he’ll show soon. TYG would be heartbroken if she never saw him again; I’d be disappointed too, though not as much.

(Below, a shot of Wisp cuddling a toy — technically TYG just stuck it under her paws while she slept but it’s still adorable, isn’t it?)Other than that panic, this was a good week for writing, though putting in 30 hours on personal projects is really exhausting by this time on Friday. Taking scheduled breaks would help but I continue to have a bad habit of forging ahead when things are going well, then wondering why I’m losing steam later.

I was on the backup list to read at my Zoom writing group this week but I lucked out and two writers ahead of me dropped out. I finally read the ending of Obolus to the group and to my surprise, they loved it — I’d been feeling much less confident in the twists of the story. Their critique did, however, point out some problems which was good too: I knew something was off but couldn’t quite pin it down. I rewrote the story Wednesday and I think it’s done, except for a final hard-copy edit later this month.

I finished rewriting the first five chapters of Impossible Takes a Little Longer and I’m delighted how much they’ve improved. Of course, this is the part of the book I’ve worked on most; we’ll see how I do once I get into the newer sections. I also got a little over 3,000 words done on Let No Man Put Asunder. That’s definitely becoming harder going as I continue the shift from “protagonists run, fight when they have to” to something different.

I spent a lot of time looking at local bookstores that might consider doing some sort of event for when 19-Infinity comes out and I’m not sure I’m a good fit for any of them. More frustratingly, I’d gathered a long list of book blogs to ask for reviews of the book, plus a few to solicit for Undead Sexist Cliches. All but a couple are “too busy, no new reviews!” and the ones that didn’t flatly rule it out are “maybe, possibly, sort of” at best.  Come to think of it, I had similar problems with Questionable Minds; I wonder how other authors manage it?

I read a couple more Doc Savage novels, The Polar Treasure and Pirate of the Pacific for my Doc Savage reference book (tentatively titled Savage Adventures or something of the sort). I don’t think I’ll be blogging about them, though I might change my mind on the second book.

Not a bad week of work, even if it was unproductive on the PR front. Oh, I also submitted a story and had two more posts on Atomic Junk Shop, one on DC’s Human Target and one on some interesting DC issues of late 1966.

Oh, and today while TYG was at the hair salon I had to walk the pups in a drenching downpour. You can tell how drenching it was by looking at Plushie.#SFWApro. Cover by Kemp Ward, all rights remain with me.

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First quarter of 2023 done!

To my surprise, I’m not feeling the usual sense of “where did the time go?” I guess when I’m doing fiction and personal nonfiction full-time, rather than the usual business and finance articles, I feel I’ve filled the unforgiving minutes with 60 seconds worth of distance run (as Kipling puts it). Even if the last week of March hasn’t been so satisfying.

TYG’s schedule this week was insane so I’ve been taking care of the dogs for even longer than I normally do when she’s busy. As the weather dipped back into the cold again, Wisp sometimes came in, which made it more complicated: if she sits in my lap, Trixie expects equal amounts of petting so I don’t even have one hand free.

While I didn’t have to get up to care for Plushie’s diarrhea, I woke up one night because some tech problem set off the work alarm on TYG’s phone, then I couldn’t get back to sleep. Next night Trixie woke TYG up and while she was in the kitchen, her making coffee woke me up (not her fault, the spare bedroom’s right over the kitchen and I sleep light). So I’m pretty zonked. I’ve had to spend much of the week doing work that wasn’t overly creative because I simply wasn’t awake enough.

That said, I did get a fair amount done, starting with our income taxes. My first draft, so to speak, had us owing three grand and change; turns out I carried over the wrong figure from one form to my 1040 so the bill is much more reasonable. W00t! Always proofread your work, people!

I solicited some beta readers for Oh the Places You’ll Go which means postponing publication by a month, possibly more if they find problems that need serious rewriting. But the feedback won’t hurt, particularly on whether I do a good job with a heavily gay, one-third black cast. The title when it goes live will be Oh the Places You’ll Go (Not the Doctor Seuss Book) just in case the Seuss estate gets PO’d.

I gave some thought to rewriting Love That Moves the Sun based on editorial feedback and started the next draft of Impossible Takes a Little Longer.  I got another draft of Inherit the Howling Night (which is not going to be the title, even though I like it) done. And I spent a lot more time than I wanted on formatting 19-Infinity and Oh the Places You’ll Go. The Draft2Digital formatting system wants to turn all the subheads — like the dates when stories bounce back and forth in time — into chapter headings. Their support team is very helpful — unlike many tech companies, they provide easy access to real people — but it appears there is no easy solution given what I want to do (I’ll detail it at some later date, perhaps).Oh, and I posted at Atomic Junk Shop about DC comics house ads in 1966. Some, like the humorous approach to the Inferior Five above or the Superman below worked great.Others, as you can see at the link, were painful attempts to talk to kids in their own hip language.

Now, as to the first quarter, I took a look at my year’s goals and they’re going well, except for the money (and that’s still better than I initially anticipated). I wanted to write at least 240,000 words of fiction this year and I already have a third of that done. I’ve finished three shorts — my 2023 goal was six — and I’ve submitted to 14 markets (my goal for the first quarter was six), though with no sales. I’m making steady progress toward other goals. On the personal side, I signed up for Medicare and had a great birthday.

Here’s to keeping things going well in Q2!

#SFWApro. Cover by J. Winslow Mortimer, first ad by Joe Orlando, second by Curt Swan. All rights remain with current holders.

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Considering how it started, this week went quite well

When TYG and I got back from our madcap Mensa weekend we picked up the dogs from doggy boarding, then I made chili (quick, easy, tasty — perfect for the end of a long day driving). I’d already planned to take Monday off so that if the dogs, Wisp or Snowdrop wanted some extra attention after our absence I’d have no conflicting obligations. That proved fortunate because Sunday night, Plushie came down with the every-two-hours squirtling diarrhea.

As TYG has a less forgiving boss than I do, I took point on walking him and spent most of Monday in a daze. I tried taking naps during the day but invariably Wisp would start demanding to come in or Plushie would suddenly discover it was time for a new squirtle. He stabilized Monday night thank goodness, then Tuesday TYG took him to the vet. They found nothing; we brought him in for an ultrasound Thursday but haven ‘t heard the results. While we’d love to know why he’s had this problem more than once this year, we’re relieved they didn’t find cancerous lumps in his stomach or anything like that. If diarrheal 1AM walkies are the trade-off for keeping him around, so be it.  But for the moment he’s back to normal potty hours and solid poops.

Oh, here’s a look at him after the ultrasound. He’s so sensitive to pain (“A sensitive boy” as they put it at the vet’s), they drugged him to be comfortably numb. He remained stoned the rest of the evening.I was quite exhausted the rest of the week. Coupled with the cats spending time in the morning, I wound up not getting any exercise done; my diet was none too healthy too. Work, though, went pretty well

First up, I finished the revised Mage’s Masquerade and it looks good. I started looking for markets without any success so far though I did stumble across markets for Bleeding Blue and Fiddler’s Black. Both are now out.

I also put in work on The Cheap Assassin and have at least a working idea of the story/character arc (it’s a character-centric story). At this point, however, it’s heavy on talk rather than action. I need to find a way to have something happen besides exposition. I’ve had that problem before; it’s fixable.

I put in a couple of thousand words on Let No Man Put Asunder which gives me the 10,000 I wanted for this month. I may do more next week but there are other projects I can concentrate on. I also spent some time planning the next draft of Impossible Takes a Little Longer. I’ve realized KC needs to be a lot more intense from the first chapter; I can see how to do it.

I also worked getting the manuscripts for 19-Infinity and Oh the Places You’ll Go ready for self-publishing. That included sending the latter story out for beta-reading. I have a cover image for it as well; hopefully I can have it out and for sale by the end of April.

And over at Atomic Junk Shop I look at the impact of Steve Ditko leaving Marvel plus a couple of stories I just like. Over at Con-Tinual’s YouTube channel, I’m one of the panelist discussing mythological tropes.#SFWApro. Have a great weekend everyone. Cover by Jack Kirby, all rights remain with current holder.

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