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Category: Just for Writers

Learning from the mistakes of others – 2

Posted in Irritated Reviews, and Just for Writers

Another Irritated Review™, this time for an Historical Scottish Romance work. (No, the unnamed author is not Diana Gabaldon.)

Things not to do when simulating a time period remote from the present…

The sanitary 1300s

Wouldn't catch him bare-chested -- it's cold!
Wouldn't catch him bare-chested — it's cold!

Our heroine has escaped from south of the border into the highlands on horseback.  Considering that probably half the children would have died of disease in childhood, we encounter remarkably few smells, no lice, nary a bit of spoiled food, etc.  Why, it's just like now.

In fact, it's warm in Scotland, see, and apparently free of biting insects, for our hero is bare-chested for his initial (and several later) encounters with the heroine. With his sword slung over his back. All those blisters from the leather sling chafing his bare flesh must be really attractive.  Sort of surprising that he never does anything about it, like put on a shirt.

Dances have a history, too

This is what dancing was in the 1500s, two centuries later
This is what dancing was like in the 1500s, two centuries later

Couple dancing, with men lined up to ask for the next dance weren't really a feature of the 1300s. It would appear that someone read Jane Austen or some derivative Regency romance and assumed those dance settings applied five hundred years earlier.

The best part was when the heroine is taught by the hero how to dance and she carefully counts “1 2 3, 1 2 3” to help remember the steps.  I hate to tell the author, but the waltz is a dance from the late 1700s-early 1800s. (There's that Regency thing again.)  200 years ago, 700 years ago — what's the difference?

Get your hero into trouble, and then make it worse

Posted in Just for Writers, and Plot


Good advice for all adventure writers.

Translation of the Italian:

In the middle of the Indian forest, a man waiting for the train to stop just near the line. Suddenly, a boa attacks its victim, squeezing with its powerful coils. But then a tiger hurls itself upon the huge reptile which wraps, then, even the beast in a stranglehold. A monstrous tangle occurs, meanwhile, along comes the train. The whole tangle winds up bloody and broken by the wheels of the train.

See NeverYetMelted for more details about Achille Bertrame and links to more bloodcurdling illustrations.

Learning from the mistakes of others – 1

Posted in Irritated Reviews, and Just for Writers

We're often blind to our own faults. I find it easier to see problems in the works of other people, especially now that I have a hard time turning off my editorial eye when reading fiction (the downside of being a writer).

I can forgive a few typos, and the occasional fluffs, like a gun that starts as a .22 and ends up as a .357 — these are understandable mistakes.  They're errors of execution, not of understanding.  But there are limits…

Here, for your amusement, are some things I encountered in last night's book which I've sworn never to do myself. I've spared the author name and book title, since the point is not to heap scorn upon the efforts of someone else but to go and avoid these problems myself.

I'll post more of these Irritated Reviews™ from time to time, when sufficiently provoked.

The no-muss-no-fuss death in the family

The tops of the Blue Ridge mountains have no rivers

This thriller is set in the unnamed mountains of North Carolina (presumably the Blue Ridge). Our heroine has returned home, after the recent death of her last parent (no siblings), to her architectural home perched high up in the mountains with a view of chasms.  Her family is one of the founders of the town nearby, and her home has lots of land.

She works for a living, no reference to independent means.  There is no mention of inheritance, estate taxes, or any duties involved in dealing with the death of her mother, other than a funeral.  No mention of property taxes, which would likely be substantial.  Hard to believe she's the last surviving member of her family, or that she can support the house, or that there has been a death of a parent just weeks ago with its necessary financial impacts and unfinished tasks.  Doesn't seem to have any new inherited money or financial responsibilities.  It's a shallow plot device to give her an interesting home, but since it has none of the reality of supporting such a home or the passing of the torch, she operates in an unbelievable financial vacuum.

The river on top of the mountain

The most river you'll see high on a mountain
The most river you'll see high up on a mountain

Her high school boyfriend takes her to a cabin higher up the mountain to reminisce about old times.  It sits along a river, and there's her old canoe.

Now, in my experience, navigable (even if just by canoe) rivers do not appear high up on mountains, even the modest Blue Ridge ones.

Check reader demographics with Yasiv using reverse also-boughts

Posted in Just for Writers

yasiv-booksI've just encountered a tool (new to me) for checking the Amazon “also bought” lists that point back at your books: Yasiv.


I typed in the name of the first book in my first series under Search Category = Books, and was fascinated to see how my readership broke down.

The series, The Hounds of Annwn, is a contemporary fantasy involving a Virginia foxhunter who ends up in the fae otherworld leading the Wild Hunt.  Now, as it happens, I spent several years as a semi-pro photographer following the Virginia hunting scene, so when I published To Carry the Horn, the first book in the series, I had a ready-made audience of foxhunting enthusiasts who already knew me from my photography.

Many of these people have never read fantasy (beyond, say Harry Potter) and bought the series out of horse-related interest.  The people who were already followers of Rita Mae Brown's foxhunting mysteries, with their fantasy elements of talking animals, were especially susceptible.  There weren't any other fantasy readers who bought print editions where I showed up in their “also-boughts.”

I'm a writer of Fantasy and Science Fiction, not a horse or hunting mystery writer, but I chose this first topic as a bit of a crossover to appeal to my built-in audience so that I wouldn't have to start from scratch to build a fantasy audience, figuring my next series would be a more conventional fantasy (which it is).


I already knew that many of the first series readers didn't do ebooks and would be responsible for most of my print sales.  What I didn't fully realize until now was how little connection there was between my print and my ebook audience.

Using Scrivener to Track Loose Ends

Posted in Just for Writers

tangled cat
Loose ends in my first draft novels

I converted to using Scrivener (from Word) more than two years ago and have never regretted it.  It's a wonderful dedicated platform for writing.

Today I want to talk a little about how I use it to track loose ends that I'll want to fix later.  I'll start by talking about Scrivener scenes.

A typical structure for a Scrivener novel project is to organize it by chapters and scenes, with scenes being the smallest unit.  For my purposes, I have created a scene template which I use for each scene that has a Notes structure already in place to help me remember what's important in each scene.Scrivener scene notes template

Once the scene is done, I copy the material above the dashed line into the Synopsis box as a description of the important parts of each scene.  That's what's visible in higher-level views when you're rearranging scene order.

Let's go over each of these items in detail.

  • POV – Identifies the point of view character.  I also have a special Label (above) for scenes by POV character.
  • SUMMARY – A couple of lines about the scene.
  • SPECIAL MENTIONS – anything crucial to the plot, like clues or back stories
  • GOAL OF POV – What the POV is trying to achieve in the scene.
  • CONFLICT OBSTRUCTING – What is standing in the POV's way.
  • STAKES (WHAT-IF FAIL) – What will happen if he fails.
  • FORESHADOW – Explicit foreshadowing of some future event.
  • LOOSE ENDS – Something that needs to be cleaned up.

Of course, not every scene uses all of these notes, but they're a helpful reminder as I plot the scene out — if I don't know what's going on, how can I expect my reader to follow along?

So, what's a loose end?

Focus on what’s important in a story

Posted in Characters, and Just for Writers


You often hear people refer to the fabric of a story or to weaving a plot, but these textile metaphors are maladroit. Stories aren’t flat 2-dimensional objects.

In a piece of cloth, all threads are functional, all must be anchored at each end, and all are necessary for a whole cloth. Stories, on the other hand, are about a person (one or more, human or alien or any sort of thinking/feeling being) who does something. Everything else in the story is background context to help tell the main story.

The story implicit in the (photoshopped) illustration is the fox’s story. Certainly, each hound might have a story to tell, but if you tried to tell them all at once, there’d be no story at all. So every hound’s story must be subordinate to the fox’s to make a proper tale.

A better metaphor is in the domain of optics, in the form of lens focus.

Finding and working with a cover artist

Posted in Just for Writers

(A shortened version of this post was published earlier here.)

A little less than two years ago I started writing my first fantasy novel. It has since grown into a series (The Hounds of Annwn) with four novels, five short stories, and a story collection, and I’m not done with it yet. I found a prolific Russian surrealist artist on the stockphoto sites whose work I admired, and I’ve used her images for all the covers (I have a minor level of competence in Photoshop, enough to design layout, fonts, and framing.) You can see those covers here.

I’m starting a new fantasy series now (The Affinities of Magic) and I know I’m not going to find a similar artist for the covers off the stockphoto sites, so this time I decided to commission cover art. It’s been a fun learning experience, and I couldn’t be happier with the results.

Starting up the learning curve

Like everyone, I started by asking for recommendations, and I sure got a lot of them. Unfortunately, almost none of them were in my genre (Fantasy), and there’s little that an excellent artist who specializes in photorealistic Romance shots can do to help me.

GENRE is the first and most important consideration. The purpose of a good cover is to (1) help the reader understand at a glance what genre the book is in, and (2) make the reader want to find out more (that’s where “quality” comes into play).
You need to know what the rules of covers for your genre are, so that you can signal appropriately to your potential readers. First step? Look at what other books in your genre look like. (See the above picture of a bunch of Fantasy books from Amazon – I added one of my older books as a comparison for legibility of Authorname. Click on this image or any other to see a bigger version.)

Fantasy as a genre tends toward illustrated covers instead of photo montage, though the ubiquity of stock photos is causing more photo-based covers to be created. One way to scream “Fantasy” is to use an illustration.

Pre-made covers and stock photo sites are therefore not good places to look for this genre, though suitable for others. I wanted an illustrator, and I was going to have to go it alone, learning as I went along. And I had a budget to consider…

A habit of old words

Posted in Just for Writers

A great many writers (perhaps most) have known they wanted to be writers all their lives, scribbling away in childhood, until finally some breakthrough brought writing to the forefront and they began completing and publishing their work.

Many musicians work in mathematics or
          computer-related fields

But not all of us…

I have an intellectual background in mathematics, which (indirectly) led to a career first as a programmer and then as an IT executive in a number of startup software and computer consulting firms for almost 40 years. But, like many math-types, I also had a competing fascination with music, languages, and the visual arts. Everything, in fact, except writing.

As I've said elsewhere, it's all Tolkien's fault. I was a high-volume, indiscriminant, and rapacious reader as a child (still am), never going to grade school with fewer than half a dozen paperbacks to get me through classes, with a strong focus on science fiction and such fantasy as was available in the early 60s. My encounter with Tolkien when his first American editions and then the “authorized” editions came out in paperback, in early high school, gave me a sudden and immediate focus. In brief, I'm the sort of person who reread the Appendices obsessively, trying to understand why his hints at deep history worked so well, how he had built a world with so much consistent detail and background that resonated so effectively with his readers.

Siefried kills Fafnir (Nibelungenlied)
Siegfried kills Fafnir (Nibelungenlied)

As a musician, I was already very familiar with the British traditional ballads (the Folk Revival was underway and I discovered Francis James Child at about this time). Tolkien and books about him spurred my reading toward the older traditional literature of all kinds, both the sort that were the subjects of his scholarship (Beowulf and the Old & Middle English corpus) and its relatives like the Nibelungenlied, the northern sagas and the eddas, the Matter of Britain (King Arthur, the Grail), the Matter of France (Roland)) as well as the classics (Homer, et alia) and even, eventually, some of the Indian ancient poetry, the Rigveda, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata (has anyone ever read the whole thing?).

I spent much of high school devouring everything I could find in this area, assisted by new releases in paperback of many of these works, as well as the scholarship that illuminated them, most especially on the topic of oral-formulaic poetry, where subject matter, linguistic form, performance requirements, and emotional power intersected so wonderfully. The traditional ballads (most of them) are the last hurrah of oral-formulaic poetry in northern Europe, and as a singer I could easily recognize the utility of the oral-formulaic process in performance, substituting equivalent phrases for ones imperfectly remembered in the heat of performance, or seeing fragmentary epithet phrases fossilized in absurd contexts (e.g., in the ballad/broadsheet of “Creeping Jane”, the racehorse lifts up her “lily-white hoof”, as any heroine would lift a “lily-white hand” — a convenient metrical phrase).