Canny Valley Comics Report Card

For those of you who don’t know, Canny Valley is my (Anthony) web comic project. Today marks the six month anniversary since launch and I thought I’d share some of my lessons learned.

Not surprisingly, creating comics is much like any other creative endeavor. I’ll be posting an article soon detailing the basic work flow I use so I won’t go into that here. But suffice it to say that I frequently face some of the same challenges I face with my writing. A blank comic template is just as imposing as a blank page.

I launched the comic with a good friend of mine, Scott Wolf. Scott and I had very a similar sense of humor as well as almost parallel interests. The comic was going to be about gaming and internet culture which was something we both know a lot about. But even as wide a net as those two generic subjects cast, we soon found that our audience was too small. Early comics would reel in only a handful of visitors.


As an artist, I create art for personal enjoyment but like most creators I really wanted other people to enjoy it as well. What fun is it to work so hard on something and no one see it? So I set about learning how to market the site. I wasn’t completely ignorant about this but even with the knowledge I had, I learned a lot from the process.

Initially I posted the comic to the major content driven sites like Reddit and 9gag. We immediately saw a bump in traffic. At the low low price of free, you just could beat this form of advertising. This also allowed me to specifically target groups of people who had interest in the topic of the comic. Still, this method didn’t produce the sort of numbers I wanted and I began to look at other options.

I joined the Project Wonderful network after we published our 30th comic. They require a lively stream of content to participate in their network which really keeps the quality of publishers high. I recommend it to anyone who wants to drive traffic to their site.

At this point I began to see that not all visitors are created equally. When the comic first launched we really had very little archived content so a visitor typically meant only a handful of pageviews if not just one. However, as we built up more and more content I began to see an interesting trend. Visitors from websites like Reddit or 9gag came to view the specific comic they were linked to and then left. On the other hand, visitors that came from other comic sites by clicking an ad would stick around. Often viewing the entire catalog!

This pattern has persisted today. The quality of visitors (measured by pageviews per visit) is much higher with these targeted ads. Advertising on other comics reaps visitors who are interested in consuming comics and that is very valuable.

The comic is averaging about a thousand pageviews a day with some days spiking into the tens of thousands. I think I’m making progress on that front.


As mentioned in Monday’s blog post on the comic site, Scott has departed from Canny Valley. This was a result of the unflinching challenge to constantly create content. This comic, or rather comic creation in general, is my passion. I’m enjoying it more than any creative endeavor I’ve ever been a part of. For Scott, the comic was a fun thing to do and the need for constant creation was eating him alive. My point here is that taking on a task that is simply one deadline after another is not for the faint of heart.

I have yet to miss a comic deadline; though a couple have pushed late into the night. I have to credit Scott’s early involvement for that but the reason that success has persisted is because I was able to internalize the creative process into my daily life.

I’m constantly aware of the need for comics ideas so they frequently come to me when I’m not really trying to think of one at all. In fact, the best ideas typically are inspired this way. Additionally, the actual drawing of the comic is built into my schedule in such a way that it’s automatic. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve gotten to the point where I can knock out a comic in two hours if I stay focused.

I think this internalization is key to keeping something like this going. It’s the same for writers. If writing is part of who you are then you’ll never suffer from lack of writing time. It becomes what you do when you are idle.

That is half the key to success in my mind. Do this, and you’re half-way there.

As I mentioned above. A post specifically about the creative process I use is in the works. So keep your eye out for that and thanks for reading.

The Importance of a Thick Skin

written by David Steffen

This post was originally written up in response to after-story discussion on Dunesteef Episode 108 on their forum, speaking about how to take rejection.

A thick skin doesn’t come naturally. You have to cultivate it. One of the biggest ways that I did this when I started writing fiction is critique forums. My particular favorite is Baen’s Bar. Post some stuff there in the Baen’s Bar Slush, get some feedback, post feedback on other people’s stories. Yeah, the negative comments can be hard to take at first, but you learn to extract the useful parts of them. If you critique enough stuff from other people you can learn to take that cold critical eye and apply it to your own writing, and then when someone comments on your stuff, even when they don’t like it you can decide objectively “Yeah, that makes sense” or “No, that advice is absolute crap”. I wrote up an article a while back suggesting some rules for critiquing and receiving critiques. Some of it has to do with this subject, especially the rule “This Is Your Story”.

I don’t follow Dean Wesley Smith a great deal, but one concept he has that I really found useful is The Race. In that, you keep a score for all the stories you have submitted. 1 point for each short. 3 points for a partial novel manuscript, 8 points for a full manuscript. I mostly submit short stories, but I do have one old dog of a novel I occasionally send out. I have one children’s book going out occasionally that I count for 3 points, on the grounds that it has more monetary potential than a short story but is not as bulky as a novel. I have about 50 stories completed by this time, and I typically keep about 30 of them in submission at any given time, rotating the other ones in as I get rejections. With that and the children’s book, my Score’s hovered around 33 for quite a while, not too bad of a score.

One thing that helps is if you can find a way to not put too much anxiety into any single submission. Submitting in bulk really helps this a lot, because if you have only ONE submission out, it’s hard not to obsess over it. You send out one submission, and then when you get one rejection you are back at square one. If you have 30 stories submitted though, a rejection for one is just a scratch on the surface, not that big of a deal. I assume any given submission is a certain rejection, but that I have some chance across the board. Pessimism in specific, optimism in general. :)

And for tracking submissions, I keep an Excel spreadsheet for now. In which I do happen to do some obsessive stats tracking. The way I have it set up the file has gotten ridiculously large and it’s hard to update with new markets. I’m trying to work my way to a database system. I’ve got the basic database tables set up along with some forms to fill them and get simple reports, but I want more complicated stats reports and haven’t figured out how to do those yet in OpenOffice. If anyone wants it you can download a free copy of it at.

And, after that, just perseverence is the only advice I have. When I get one back i just send it out to the next available market I haven’t sent it to and work my way down the line. And just because it’s been around the block a few times doesn’t mean it’s doomed. 1 of my recent stories that I sold for pro rates had been on its 20th submission. And then finally it found that editor for which it was just right.

As part of those obsessive stats, I keep a count of my submission responses, and the number at which I receive rejections. I started submitting in June of 2008. In that time I have had 675 resolved submissions:
489 negative/neutral rejections
167 positive rejections
5 rewrite requests
14 purchase at normal rate (for 8 different stories).

To show how long the stretches were between selling those eight different stories, of those 675 submissions those were numbered #s 126, 129, 210, 232, 572, 591, 599, 626, 637. That gap between 232 and 572 was soooooo long for me!! But I made it, and now have had pretty good luck for the last few months! Here’s hoping my luck continues. As it is, with the sales I’ve made this year, and if the neo-pro markets I’ve sold to get listed by SFWA as pro markets, then I could be eligible to apply for SFWA’s “Active” status around June 2012, which is one of my major milestones I’ve set for myself.

Title Crafting

written by David Steffen

One of the aspects of the craft writing that never seems to get much discussion is the choice of title. Now, certainly there are lots of other things you need to work on, endings, the beginning hook, characterization, so on. And those other things are more likely to affect your chances at making a sale. But titles do matter. At the very least they can be the icing on the cake. At the most they can make the story itself more memorable and thus easier to recommend and discuss (always an important thing). Their value is less obvious and harder to measure.

So, here’s a list of factors when choosing a great title. I’ll give at least one good and bad examples for each. Keep in mind that I’m only commenting on the choice of title, not the story itself. And I’m certainly not proud of every title I’ve created for my own stories. Note, I do also include some movies and video games in these entries, because titles are equally important in those media.

Factors for a Great Title

1. Is it compelling?

When you hear the best titles, they just make you WANT to read the story, even without knowing anything else about them. A story needs to draw you in, but even before you read the opening paragraph, you’re going to see the title in the table of contents of the magazine, or on the spine of the book at a bookstore.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, written by Douglas Adams
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by Michael Gondry
Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, written by Lewis Carroll

Prey, written by Michael Crichton
This is a stock title that doesn’t really tell you anything interesting about the story, a tale of self-modifying nanobot swarms escaped from laboratories. It doesn’t help that a video game came out within a couple years of this with the same title but having no relation whatsoever to the Crichton book, about a Native American alien abductee trying to fight his way off the spacecraft.
The Bride of Frankenstein, written by Mike Resnick
There have been so many Frankenstein’s monster media tie-ins over the years that mentioning “Frankenstein” in the title actually lowers my interest a bit, unless something about it would imply that the setting or details were wildly different than the original. Which this title doesn’t.
The Old Man and the Sea, written by Ernest Hemingway
The title is certainly accurate, but it really does not make me want to read the story.

2. Is it memorable?

When a story really becomes popular, much of the reason for its popularity are word-of-mouth recommendations. To really allow word-of-mouth to do have its full effect, the title needs to be memorable. If you think of the storyline then the title should spring to mind.

Good:Â The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, written by Ted Chiang
The Tell-Tale Heart, written by by Edgar Allen Poe

Bad:Â The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Diplomat, written by Matthew Sanborn Smith
This is a great, hilarious story. But I have a bugger of a time remembering the title because the story doesn’t call this title to mind at all.

3. Is it evocative?

The memory association between title and story is a two way street. If you hear the title, the story should spring to mind. It helps to avoid cliched phrases, because they already have existing associations. But new variations of cliched phrases can make very evocative titles. Again, this can be very important to promote discussion. If someone asks you if you’ve read Book X, if the title evokes nothing for you there’s less chance of a real discussion happening.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, written by C.S. Lewis
Deus Ex (PC Game), produced by Eidos
This is an example of a common phrase being expressed in a new way. This is part of the phrase “deus ex machina”, literally “god from a machine”, usually used to refer to a last-minute savior that solves an apparently unsolvable problem. The protagonist of this game is a deus ex machina in this sense, but he is also nano-augmented, essentially gaining godlike powers through technology, making him a sort of god from a machine. Truncating the original phrase makes it more distinct, and more brief, packing a lot of meaning into just six letters.

Bad:Â The Bear in the Cable-Knit Sweater, written by Robert T. Jeschonek
The word “bear” is certainly relevant to the story, but the sweater has no real importance. So when I hear this title it leads my associative memory down roads that don’t relate to this story.
Dragons of Autumn Twilight, written by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
This title is just lazy. It tells you that there are dragons in the book, but it’s part of a series called Dragonlance so that is hardly a surprise.

4. Does it match the tone of the story?

Generally, it’s a good idea to have the tone of the title match the tone of the story. A humorous title hints at a humorous story; a dark title hints at a dark story, etc…
There are definitely exceptions to this one. For instance, S. Boyd Taylor’s “Teddy Bears and Tea Parties.” The title is light and childish, but that’s a very dark one. But in that story the mismatch is clearly an intentionally contrasting choice and does well as a title.

Good:Â Just a Couple of Highly Experimental Weapons Tucked Away Behind the Toilet Paper, written by Adam Troy Castro
Extremely long titles tend to give a humorous slant. Funny story, funny title here.
What They Consumed, written by Helmut Finch
Dark story, dark title.

Bad:Â Cloverfield, directed by Matt Reeves

5. Does it keep its promise?

A title shouldn’t write a check that its story can’t cash.

Good:Â Biographical Notes to ‘A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes’, by Benjamin Rosenbaum, written by Benjamin Rosenbaum
Philosophy on a blimp with a character sharing the name of the author in a parallel universe. It matches the title quite well.
Eight Heads in a Duffel Bag, directed by Tom Schulman
I haven’t actually seen this movie, but according to synopses there is actually a duffelbag full of heads. With a title like that, you’ve gotta follow through.
Snakes on a Plane, directed by David R. Ellis
This one’s a late entry to the list, suggested by Marshal. But it was such a good example I couldn’t pass it up.

Bad:Â Evil Robot Monkey, written by Mary Robinette Kowal
For obvious reasons I began reading this story anticipating an evil robot monkey. The story contained no evil, no robot, and no monkey. It’s not that the story was bad, but with that title, anything that didn’t actually fulfill the title is bound to disappoint.
Let Us All Praise Awesome Dinosaurs, written by Leonard Richardson
This story did not make me want to praise dinosaurs, nor did anyone in the story praise any dinosaurs. There were at least dinosaurs in it, though, so it gets partial credit.

6. Is it related to the story’s kernel?

Ideally, a title will relate to the core idea, the kernel, the theme of the story.

Good:Â Friction, written by Will McIntosh
Friction is the number one concern of the protagonist, and is the motivation behind most of his life’s decisions, as well as being a major factor in the climax and the resolution.
The Matrix, directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski

Bad:Â The Gathering Storm, written by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
This does relate to the events of the book as the series approaches its resolution, presumably centered around the Last Battle. The storm does relate to that but is by no means the kernel of this particular book.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, written by Stieg Larson
The girl does indeed have a dragon tattoo. It’s an interesting detail that certainly helps contribute to characterization and gives her an unmistakable feature. But it has pretty much nothing to do with the story’s kernel.

7. Is the meaning of the title clear?

Good:Â Cursed, written by Jeremy C. Shipp
We know from right at the beginning that the protagonist is cursed, and his biggest desire is to remove that curse.
City of Golden Shadow, written by Tad Williams
Again, the primary motivating factor is right in the title.
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, written by Terry Pratchett

Bad:Â Knife of Dreams, written by Robert Jordan
Based on a quote also written by the author. The trouble is that I never remember the meaning of the quote and it doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything. Not only that, but some of the other titles refer to specific objects, such as “Crown of Swords”, and this sounds like another one of those. Add to that the fact that the World of Dreams is a major setting in the series, and it seems pretty clear that this is a magical object. So I kept waiting for that darned knife to show up.
More Full of Weeping Than You Can Understand, written by Rosamund Hudge
I looked this up after listening to the story, it’s pulled from a Yeats poem about Fae changelings. Knowing that, it certainly relates, but that only helps if you know the Yeats quote. That’s the trouble making titles based on quotes, they’re generally only meaningful if you know the quote. I kept waiting for it to make sense while I was reading, and then it never did.
Perilous Seas by Dave Duncan
Much of his Man of His Word series takes place crossing from country to country by ocean. The seas are perilous from time to time, but no more so in this book than the others. All four titles of this series were taken from a passage from The Rubayyat of Omar Khayyam, and seemingly plucked phrases at random from it, though none of them were particularly good titles, with two of them seeming to be entirely unrelated to their book.

What goes around

As I said before a bad title doesn’t mean it’s a bad story and probably doesn’t have much to do with editorial selection. Lest anyone complain about me picking on other writers’ titles, I’ll pick on my own a bit as well.

To date I’ve seen four of my stories published, so I’ll comment on them here for each of the categories I’ve listed. I would comment on others, but I enter some contests like Writers of the Future where anonymity of stories is mandatory, so I don’t want to risk losing eligibility on those stories. I’ll give each of them a score from 1-10, 10 being the highest, 1 being lowest, 5 being average.

The Disconnected

An SF story set in a future where phone dependence has grown to such a degree that everyone is attached to phone symbiotes after being born. This story centers around those who have been disconnected from their phones (once disconnected you cannot be reconnected).

1. Compelling? 6
2. Memorable? 6
Funny story: I set up a Google Alert search for this story, and for months I kept getting hits that said “Jesus Loves the Disconnected”. Good to know that he’s a fan.
3. Evocative? 3
“Disconnected” is simply too common a word to be extremely evocative.
4. Tone? 4
Story is darker than the title.
5. Keeps promise? N/A
It doesn’t really promise anything with the title
6. Story kernel? 10
7. Clear meaning? 10

The Utility of Love

A horror retelling of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It begins with Dorothy’s house landing in Munchkinland, but the Tin Man here is very different than the original book’s version, truly compassionless.

1. Compelling? 10
2. Memorable? 10
3. Evocative? 10
4. Tone? 7

The cold, calculating of “utility” matches well the Tin Man’s cold manner of thinking. But Dorothy would likely not agree that the tone is right.
5. Keeps its promise? N/A
Doesn’t really promise anything with the title.
6. Story Kernel? 10
7. Clear meaning? 10

What Makes You Tick

A flash story about an alien autopsy from the point of view of the alien.

1. Compelling? 2
It’s too cliched a phrase to be terribly compelling.
2. Memorable? 5
I think the meaning is clear, so hopefully the title is at least somewhat memorable.
3. Evocative? 1
Again, cliched phrases do not work well for this aspect. There are too many associations for the phrase already.
4. Tone? 10
5. Keeps its promise? N/A
Doesn’t really promise anything with the title.
6. Story Kernel? 7
It’s definitely centered around the story kernel but I’m not sure how clear that association is.
7. Clear meaning? 8

Turning Back the Clock

A man comes home to find his wife killed by robbers. He has an hour to cross the Time Zone boundary and literally turn back time to prevent her death.

1. Compelling? 1
Way too cliched to be compelling.
2. Memorable? 9
3. Evocative? 1
Again, way too cliched.
4. Tone? 2
The tone doesn’t do much to convey the sense of urgency.
5. Keeps its promise? 7
Story Kernel? 10
The title is the protagonist’s driving motivation.
7. Clear meaning? 10

Through Another’s Eyes: The Narrative Lens

written by David Steffen

The most compelling stories draw the reader in, leaving the body in a trance, as you immerse completely into a character’s mind. This is the biggest advantage that books hold over movies. A movie can show us a story, but even the best movies maintain a certain distance–you see the story through the eye of the camera, not the eyes of the character.

Movies have their own advantages, particularly for speculative fiction. A complex fantasy city can be shown in a matter of seconds, which might take chapters of drawn-out prose to describe in detail. Subtle facial expressions are presented without interpretation so that the watcher can interpret in any way they wish. The cinematic view can vary so that battlefields or other large-scale scene can be seen from far above without a character to carry us there.

Emulating film in writing is an easy trap to fall into, especially for beginning writers. Cinematic writing is characterized by overly long descriptions of complex settings and impartial narration as though attempting to show what a camera would see. But to write fiction in this manner is to sell yourself short. No one can portray a story in a film-like manner as well as film itself can. It’s like trying to write a story with French words using English grammar, it just doesn’t work. I’m not saying you can’t tell about the same story, the same characters, the same events as you could show in the movie. But you need to use different methods to reach its full potential.

I like to imagine prose as a narrative lens that allows you to see through the eyes of the character. And not just see, but to experience what they experience. Using this method, every description, every beat, every line of narration is an opportunity to characterize your point of view character.

To illustrate what I mean, I’ll describe a scene, and show how the narrative lens can be used to good effect. Imagine a Medieval time period, with an opening scene at a grand ball in a palace. All the royalty are decked out in garish attire, women with hairdos three feet tall, elaborate frilly dresses with padded rumps. The men’s clothes are nearly as elaborate as the women’s. The palace is richly decorated with marble pillars, satin curtains, and a great dome that rises high above their heads.

In a film, all of this would be given to the viewer in just a few images, and the scene would be shown in an identical way no matter who the point-of-view character is. After a few seconds it could get right on to the characters and the story. That’s the greatest strength of film, the ability to convey a complex setting in just a few moments.

How would it be described in writing, using the narrative lens? Well, that all depends who the character is. No character will notice every detail of the setting or the people around them. They will notice only a subset, but the choice of what subset serves as characterization. I’ll describe what each character sees and you can guess what role they might play.

Sarah barely describes the hall at all, mentioning a marble pillar only in passing as she’s watching someone move through the crowd and disappear behind it. She notes the scent of her wine as she scans the crowd. She notes women wearing the latest fashions, and those wearing clothes laughably out-of-date. The servers are invisible to her, though she may take a glass of wine from time to time, it will come to her hand with no mention of the server’s appearance. ÂWhen she speaks to people, she not only hears what they say, but the political undercurrents, a flip of the eyelashes that mark a veiled insult. She focuses most of her attention on minute behaviors of others and herself, and understands the significance behind each of them. A street urchin bumps into her, and she only looks at him for a moment, notes his smell, and then he disappears from her notice again. ÂShe ignores him after that, absorbing herself in examining her dress for stains the urchin might have left.

Louis can’t stop staring up at the ceiling, which is so tall he’s surprised there aren’t any clouds hanging under the roof. He smells hundreds of kinds of food, a few familiar, most of them entirely strange. The marble pillars fascinate him, the swirling patterns through the stone. He stares openly at a dress’s rump padding and can’t help but laugh. He looks servers in the eye. He sees a man with a grandly trimmed mustache and wonders if his dad has ever had a mustache like that. The shininess of polished shoes fascinates him.

Godric enters the hall. He notes the hall, but only to point out that the furnishings aren’t as nice as the palace he was at last week. He notes the quality and size of gemstones in the ladies’ jewelry. He notes the number of windows and their height from the floor. Unlike the duchess, he notices the pillars. Unlike the urchin, he doesn’t care about the swirling patterns in the stone, but considers the spacing and thickness, the way the shadows would pool when lit by just a few torches. He notes the hardness of a man’s eyes and the confidence of his stance. He notices servers’ entrances, the quality of the candlesticks, and the number of armed guards.

The woman is a duchess, the boy a street urchin, and the man an accomplished thief. Notice how the details of what each person described served to hint at their roles before any description of their clothing or their occupation was given. Note also, that if you exchanged some of the descriptions in each section, it would seem out of place. If the thief notes that the ruffles on a woman’s dress are an outdated style, then that would seem odd. Perhaps he’s a strange thief who is actually interested in ladies’ fashion, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but to keep the point of view tight, this has to be a conscious choice by the writer. It shouldn’t be included merely because the writer wants to show off his knowledge about fashions of that era, but because the character himself would notice it.

If that’s too extreme of an example, with too archetypal characters, consider a modern scene. A husband is doing the dishes when he’s confronted by his wife. She accuses him of cheating on her.

From her point of view:

Susan frowned. “Tell me the truth.”

Tom pulled a handful of silverware out of the sink. Drying them one by one, he stacked them in the drawer. “The truth is… complicated.”

Notice the lengthy description of his silverware drying and putting away. She’s noting his every move, because every moment he doesn’t respond only implicates him further. Every word in those sentences, which translate to some delay in the reader’s mind, is another line of evidence to her, so she’s watching every tiny detail.

From his point of view:

How could she know? He’d been so careful, only calling from pay phones, bringing an extra shirt to the office in case of lipstick stains, going to the gym after work to give him an excuse to shower. She couldn’t know. She couldn’t, and that was that.

Notice he doesn’t mention the silverware at all. He’s at the moment of the accusation, and his mind is racing, trying to mentally assemble what evidence she might have against him. His hands are moving of their own volition. He’s not aware of them, so he can’t mention them.

Also, the space of the description is of utmost importance. Long passages give the sense to the reader of a passage of time, regardless if that was the writer’s intent. If a scene is described in excruciating detail, then not only should the character himself be interested in that detail, he should also have the time to describe what he’s seeing.

Consider a scene where our hero clashes swords with enemy fighters. He takes down an enemy warrior and happens to catch a glimpse of Gorlack, the enemy commander. Gorlack is eight feet tall, with a ring through his nose, and six arms. The battlefield is a spray of blood from his ceaseless slaughter. His armor is decorated with human skulls, many of them marked where they’ve been gnawed by teeth. In the eyes of each skull, a gemstone. In each hand, a deadly weapon. Gorlack arches his back and gives a bellow of rage before returning to the carnage.

If they’re really on a crowded battlefield full of enemy soldiers, then this passage suggests that the hero has been standing there gawking for quite some time, probably half a minute or more, and he’s lucky he hasn’t been stabbed through the back by now. To keep the narrative lens firmly in place, this description would have to be shortened significantly, and perhaps split across several paragraphs as he steals glances at Gorlack while he fights enemy soldiers.

If you’re struggling with fitting characterization in a story, or you’re afraid the narration is too dry, give the narrative lens a try. A writer’s toolbox always has room for one more technique.

Great writing websites…

<This has previously been printed on my personal blog:>

As an aspiring writer I find the internet to be an extremely valuable tool as well as a colossal drain on my writing time. There are fantastic resources available to new writers that quite frankly I would not have survived without. On the other hand, even these great resources can be an excuse not to write. I’ve listed the links to each website or tool that I have used in my short journey as a writer. I hope you find them useful but I caution you to only use what you need at the moment.

No matter how much you read about writing, nothing can replace the value of putting words to the page and nothing you read on the internet will improve your writing more than simply practicing the craft of writing. So use these resources but use them when you can’t be writing.


Writer blogs are a dime a dozen and the quality and experience ranges from the unknown aspirant right up to the prolific professional. There is something to take from each of the blogs I have listed. Gain inspiration from the unknown pups and gain motivation from the old dogs.

Dean Wesley Smith is a prolific writer who has written and edited dozens of novels. He also has donated an inordinate amount of his time and efforts to shepherding new writers along the path to success.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch is another great writer who has given a great deal back to the aspirant community. She blogs about her own writing along with tips on writing and marketing. In particular, check out here Freelancer’s Survival Guide posts.

David Farland is another outstanding author. His Runelord books are one of my favorite epic fantasy series of all time. His blog is mostly fan service but he offers a great semi-daily email with writing and marketing tips for new writers call the Kick in the Pants. Check it out!

Diabolical Plots is a great website by an aspirant writer who is just started to poke his head through the professionally published ceiling. David Steffen has writing advice and tips as well as movie reviews and interviews of major players in the genre fiction industry.

Brad R. Torgersen is another aspirant who I believe is on the verge of making the jump to pro writer. His blog details his journey, successes and failures, as he strives to make that elusive first sale.

Marketing Tools

Ask any long time pro and they will tell you that writing the stories is only half the fight to becoming a great writer. Some might say it isn’t even half. You also must know how to get your stories/novels in front of the right person so it can be purchased. There are a few online tools that are extremely valuable for any writer who is about to send out their manuscript. is another useful site for finding markets. There is a lot of additional content here as well that might be useful as you begin to learn your craft. Careful though, it’s easy to get lost in this one.


For many of us there simply isn’t a good local writers group to find peers who can help you on your way. Starting a writers group can be a tough task and will likely only serve to suck even more life from your personal writing time. Not to mention the fact that these small groups are often looked down upon by pros as more of a hindrance than a springboard to success. So we turn online to large writers groups that hopefully don’t suffer from too much drama.

Hatrack River Writers Workshop was started by Orson Scott Card but he is not directly affiliated with the group. You will never see him on the board, at least I haven’t. Instead it is run by the mysterious Shy who must be obeyed. Some know her has Kathleen Dalton Woodbury. This is a great bunch of aspiring writers who will welcome you with open arms. Participation isn’t directly monitored so you can come and go as you please. But like anything worth doing, you will only get out what you put in.

Whoever started Online Writers Workshop must not have had much imagination left the day they came up with the name for this website but what they did have was the forethought to put together a good set of rules to make an online writers workshop hum. OWW is a great workshop for new writers. There are strict participation requirements but they should be easy to manage for any serious writer.

Critters Workshop is an entirely automated writer’s workshop. Every week the system mails out a new set of stories to all of the members and they are then critiqued and posted to the site. Like OWW there are participation requirements but also like OWW they should be no problem for anyone who is truly interested in improving their prose.

There is no doubt hundreds of good writing websites out there and I’m sure I have left out several of the best. Please feel free to add your suggestions via the comments.

Interesting advice…

<This has previously been printed on my personal blog:>

When I first started this writing thing I often read that it was a lonely craft. So many people wrote about how they felt like no one really wanted them to succeed and that if they did succeed, no one would notice. I thought this was interesting but dispatched it as not my problem. Well it has become my problem. Maybe it’s just me but I feel that more and more, no one around me really cares about my writing. It is frustrating.

Sam Hidaka over at JBU linked to an interesting, albeit old, blog post by Nancy Fulda.

Lately I’ve felt my writing is worse than it was when I started. I’ve noticed boring characters, plot holes and questionable prose more and more frequently, so much so that I’ve been somewhat lax in my eagerness to write. I’ve still knocked out a short story per week but my zeal has been somewhat tarnished. There is no worse feeling than busting your tail to get better at something and finding evidence that you are doing just the opposite.

Nancy seems to think that this is actually a good thing. Read her blog post to learn how she thinks that as we improve at something we may feel like we are getting worse because we are learning to better recognize the mistakes that we make. Nancy has an interesting blog with lots of helpful bits of information and inspiration.

Now I just have to work on recognizing how to fix those mistakes that I can see so readily now.

“Beats” in dialog

Just like “he said”/”she said”, beats can be used to good effect as speaker attributions. A beat is an action or description in the middle of dailog in a story. But both can be used too often, and in the case of beats, beats that are too generic can get old fast.

Unique mannerisms are less likely to get old. nods and smiles have their place, but if someone is nodding/smiling/scowling after every single line, it may be too much. If no one ever has any facial expressions, that’s probably not enough.
Keep in mind, if the dialogue is between just two people, you don’t need an attribution after every line. You can assume that the speakers are alternating, in which case you can have 3 or 4 (short) dialogue paragraphs with no attribution and it can flow very smoothly.

To me, beats serve three main purposes:
1. attribution: lets you know who is saying what.
2. characterization: actions speak louder than words, this can betray a lie, show nervous habits, convey more subtle communication between characters, any number of other things.
3. pacing. A longer beat conveys a longer moment of time between speech.

An example of beats used for pacing:
Alice glared at Tom and slapped the countertop with her hand. “Tell me what you know.”
Tom didn’t look up from the dishwater. “I can’t.”
“You can’t? That’s baloney and you know it. This is important. You could save her life.”
He rinsed a handful of silverware and set it in the drainer with a clatter. “It’s not that simple.”
“What’s not simple?”

Once Alice and Tom start talking, she has no beats because she doesn’t hesitate. As soon as he speaks to her, she has a response. She’s very upset at Tom, and she isn’t pulling her punches.
Tom, on the other hand has beats before both of his lines, and long ones at that. The beats slow down his responses, giving the impression of hesitation without actually saying “he hesitated”. The second beat is longer than the first, implying a longer hesitation. His words make it clear he doesn’t want to talk, and his actions support that by slowing his pace.
In this case the particular actions aren’t even that important. Are clean dishes vital to the story? Probably not. He’s fixating on them, using them to try to delay the conversation.

Also, a related point about point of view. To me, I want to see the story through the eyes of the character using the prose as a lens. What I mean by that is that so many things, down to scene descriptions, and in this case, beats, are opportunities to characterize.
In the case of my example dialogue, whoever is the protagonist notices Tom’s actions in close detail during the argument. Let’s say Alice is the protagonist. She notices when he sets the handful of silverware down because she’s eager to continue the argument and she’s frustrated at his hesitation. If she was just asking how his day was, she might not be scrutinizing every detail of his dishwashing. In that case I might have used different things for beats, something appropriate to the occasion.

Cinematic Descriptions

A common trait I’ve noticed in many stories written by many people who’ve never written before (and I wasn’t exempt, I wrote my share of these)–cinematic descriptions. Movies have an advantage in a certain way: you get descriptions for free. In just a moment you can show a scene that would take pages and pages to describe adequately in words. The stories I like the best use the narration as a filter to see through the eyes of the protagonist.

I think the reason many beginners try to write that way is that they want to describe the scene exactly as they see it, to make sure the reader sees exactly what they do. But a reader doesn’t HAVE to see the same things as the writer. Each reader brings a little something of their own when reading the story. It’s sort of like never stepping in the same river twice.

Trying to imitate cinema in prose rarely works very well, IMO. Prose can never imitate cinema well in this respect, and concentrating on this weakens the other aspects that prose can be better at. Cinema allows you to watch amazing events happen, but well-written prose allows you to experience it. Instead of describing every detail of a scene, describe only those details that the protagonist would actually notice. Several birds with one stone that way, characterization and description, as well as pacing. A person walks into a building they’ve never been in before–what do they see? A warrior might note the number of guards and their weapons, their level of alertness, and so on, in order to judge the military preparedness of the castle as a whole. A thief might note the number of windows, count the candlesticks, shadowy corners. An aristocrat would notice the material and cut of other people’s clothing, to judge their relative social worth, might note the furnishings as a measure of status but would be very unlikely to note the servants at all. A peasant who’d never been in a castle at all would be overwhelmed, noting fragments of everything but not quite understanding the relative importance of one versus another. If all of these things were described by the same person, then you 1. probably spent so much time describing it all that the pace has been totally killed. 2. have lost an opportunity at characterization, because describing everything is as bad for differentiating character as describing nothing.

Also, using the amount of description for pacing is a useful tool. A thief running from guards in hot pursuit is going to notice much less than a thief casing a potential target. This might seem obvious, but I’ve critiqued a lot of stories that halt in the middle of an epic battle to describe a scene or describe backstory, so when this happens I picture the character standing in one place and staring into the depths of his memory. Oddly, these stories never end with his reverie being interrupted by a sword through the gut.

Article: Submitting to Literary Magazines 101: Professionalism

Topic discussing a blog post: Submitting to Literary Magazines 101: Professionalism.

I came across this link on Facebook, and followed it out of curiosity to see what they had to say about the “rules” of submitting to literary magazines. Interestingly, what Pat Bertram claims are the rules of the submitting to literary violate what is common knowledge for speculative fiction magazines. Listed below I listed the major differences I noticed. “Literary” refers to the comments entered by Vince Gotera (though he may not speak for the entire genre, he speaks as though he does).

1. Cover letter
Literary: The cover letter should be entertaining and chatty–no publication history. This one surprises me. After all, editors have a lot of work to do, right? Wouldn’t they rather get down to business instead of reading a chatty cover letter that has no bearing on the submission itself?
Spec Fic: Bare bones, only what’s useful, publication history if you have one, otherwise just a title and word count.

2. Font
Literary: Use Times New Roman because it’s easier to read. Do NOT use typewriter fonts like Courier.
Spec Fic: The industry standard manuscript format is Courier. The reasoning I’ve heard is that it’s easier to estimate the space require to print the story with a monospaced font.

3. Pen names
Literary: frowned-upon, though the reasoning seemed more opinion than based on any sound reasoning.
Spec Fic: use them if you want, why should the editor care?

This raises a couple questions for me:
1. what do you do when you submit to a magazine that considers itself both literary and spec fic?
2. Does this guy actually speak for the whole industry?

Revision Methods

An open question for everyone: what method do you use for revisions before you decide something is ready to be submitted?

1. Rough Draft. Write the first draft as fast as it will come out. Details may not be consistent between beginning and end, some of the scenes may not flow correctly into one another, some major continuity errors might exist, as well as grammar and spelling errors. I try not to edit too much at this stage, as it makes the whole process take many times longer. But this draft has an attempt at a beginning, an attempt at an end, and some series of (perhaps disjoint) scenes that lead to the end.
2. Continuity Revision. Read through everything, looking for inconsistencies. Cut unnecessary scenes and resolved conflicting information. Make sure the scenes make sense in the order that they’re in there and that the action moves logically from beginning to end. When this draft is done, I have a story that makes sense, but is maybe not very easy to read.
3. Flow Revision. I read through again, looking for ways to improve the flow of the story. This includes adding beats to dialog to adjust pacing, adding some scene descriptions, trying to convey the emotions the character is feeling in each section, and looking for awkward sentences. Try to get the minute details of the beginning and end just right.
4. Recital Revision. I read it outloud (or at least under my breath). No matter how hard I work on the earlier revisions, I always catch errors here. This makes it much much easier to find awkward sentences, subtle grammar errors, and minor mistakes.
5. Give to First Readers. I give it to a few people whose critiquing opinions I trust. Exactly who I give it to depends on who I’ve been interacting more with lately, who I’ve read stories for (I prefer to trade rather than one-sided critiques) etc… I read the critiques as they roll in and mark comments into the draft document so they’re easy to look at later.
6. Post-Reader Revision. I carefully consider all the comments that my First Readers make. I never use all of them, but I’ll think very hard about which ones I agree with, and will make the changes as I think are necessary.
7. Post-Reader Recital Revision. Another outloud read to catch any mistakes I may have added.
8. Send it out!
9. If I get a form rejection, I go back to step 8.
10. If I get a personal rejection with some ideas why they didn’t accept it I go back to step 6.

Lately my rate of completing new stories has been very low. My current work in progress (a retelling of the Wizard of Oz) has taken a long, long time, much longer than I’m used to. I’ve been working on it for nearly 3 weeks, and I’m now about halfway through stage 2. Stage 1 took most of that time, partly because it was just a really long story, and partly because I’ve been very busy with the end of the semester approaching.