Great Writing — Good Bones

I don’t read or write a lot of poetry. I’m more of a dabbler. However, I know that poetry is important.

Where fiction has all its twisted plots and detailed characters, poetry (at its best) is a distillation of pure emotion. It’s a few precisely chosen words, polished to razor sharpness so they can cut into your soul. Poetry shows sloppy fiction writers like me just how exacting each word can be.

Maggie Smith is a poet I found only recently, but her work exemplifies the things I like best about poetry. I don’t know if Good Bones would have hit me the same way before I had children, but it certainly hits me hard now.

Good Bones

Go read Good Bones, by Maggie Smith, at the Poetry Foundation website.

The Things We Don’t Tell Our Children

It starts with the things we don’t tell our children. Smith talks about the things she keeps from her children four times in seventeen lines. She keeps the things she did and doesn’t want them to know about. She hides that the world is at least half terrible. There’s a quiet desperation there: the world is bad and I’m part of it. I’m terrible too. I’d rather my children not know that.

Why is the world terrible?

“For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.” What an apt metaphor.

“For every loved child, a child broken, bagged, sunk in a lake.” Jesus fucking Christ. No wonder you don’t tell your children. While this is literally hyperbole, figuratively it feels true. If we take everything out there in the world and put it all on the scales of good and evil, does it balance out? An awful lot of the time it feels like it doesn’t.

Selling Something Broken

At the end, there’s a twist: “I’m trying to sell them the world.”

As parents, that’s what we do. Children ask a lot of questions, and all too often they’re asking about why things seem to be so awful. We each have our own internal parenting algorithm, refined over time, to provide information, sometimes truth, sometimes opinion. Maybe even lies, when we feel backed into a corner.

We tell our kids about the world, but we can’t resist “selling” it. We want them to be happy. We want them to make things better, even when we helped cause the problems and failed to clean them up ourselves. We need them to have hope, even when we ourselves don’t have any.

“This place could be beautiful. You could make this place beautiful.”

The Moral of the Story

Every time I read this poem, I change my mind about whether it’s supposed to be hopeful or despairing. Of course, it doesn’t have to be entirely one or the other, but I feel like I ought to be able to suss out an opinion. This is what keeps the oft-derided field of literary criticism alive: that feeling that we need to figure out what the work is “trying” to say.

Ultimately, I think the poem may not have an opinion. It’s just describing the way things are. There might be a lesson in there for us. When you write about something, you don’t have to inject your opinion, positive or negative. Sometimes you can just tell it like it is, a reporter on a made-up world. Leave it to the reader to decide how they should feel about it.

Short Story Advice Roundup

The Short Story Series

This is the end of my short story series, at least for now. If you’re a writer who only writes long-form fiction, I’d like to try one more time to encourage you to at least give short story writing a try. I’m a firm believer that the more techniques and styles you have in your arsenal, the more they all inform each other and add depth to all your writing. Besides, short stories are fun to write and fun to read!

I wanted to wrap things up by pointing you to more short story writing resources. If you want to dig deeper, there are tons of articles. Here are a handful of the ones I’ve found useful.

For an introduction to some of the possibilities of short stories:

What is a Short Story?Reedsy

For important elements of a short story:

How to Build a Short Story from the Ground Up — Chris the Story Reading Ape

For some advice on keeping your short story short:

How to Keep Your Short Story Short — Janice Hardy’s Fiction University

To avoid some common mistakes:

Common Mistakes in Short Story Writing — Chris the Story Reading Ape

To keep the reader interested:

Forget Hooks: How to Pull Readers Through a Short Story by Making Promises and Raising Questions — Janice Hardy’s Fiction University

For writing to a specific length and theme:

Gaining Readers Through Writing Short Stories — Life in the Realm of Fantasy

For an annotated description of the process that goes into a short story:

Writing the Short Story, Part 1: Experimenting — Life in the Realm of Fantasy

For advice on which markets to send your stories:

Submit or Surrender? A Tale of Three Publishers — Aeryn Rudel’s Rejectomancy

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 16

This is part of an ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.

The Times They Are A-Changing

A lot of things are different in this chapter. It starts with a big time jump that is potentially disorienting. God-Speaker is still in the same place, but years have passed. I needed to settle the reader as quickly as possible, so I start the chapter with God-Speaker feeling older. Then he goes out to the village, and we see that things have completely changed.

I also wanted to make sure that I addressed how God-Speaker feels about how his situation has changed. The way he deals with the young hunter in the group of newcomers stands in contrast to his interactions with the hunters in his old tribe. He’s in charge, and he’s comfortable with that.

The way this chapter is told is also different. God-Speaker is more sophisticated. He’s thinking in more complicated ways thanks to his interactions with the voices in the mountain, and this is reflected in the overall language of the chapter. In previous God-Speaker chapters, I used Simple Writer to check for complex language and tone it down. Here, I let myself go a little bit in the opposite direction.

I was initially happy to be done with the simplification, but I decided that God-Speaker would still use more straightforward speech when he’s talking with the newcomers. I did end up using Simple Writer to check those particular pieces of dialogue.

Process Notes

For a change of pace, I wrote this entire chapter by hand before typing it up. I’ve hand-written drafts in the past, but this was the first time I’ve done any for Razor Mountain.

I have terrible handwriting, so I’ve gotten used to writing in all-caps for clarity. Unfortunately, this means writing by hand is very slow for me compared to my fairly fast typing speed, and my hand gets worn out. It’s a different experience, and it changes the flow of the process.

Because I’m writing slowly, my perception is that it will read more slowly than it actually does. I have to keep this in mind for pacing. I suspect this might have been a slightly longer chapter if I had typed it from the start instead of writing by hand first. This chapter ended up being short enough and continuous enough that I didn’t feel there was a good place to insert a break, so this was the first chapter in a long while that I’m putting up in a single post.

I had a very detailed outline for this chapter, which made it relatively easy. There were not a lot of problems I had to solve as I went. One of the things that was not in the outline was minor characters. I’m starting to notice that this is a flaw of mine — I often don’t think quite enough about minor characters. I don’t usually give them names in the outline, and I end up having to spend some time thinking through their personalities when I get around to writing the chapter.

Up Next

Next chapter jumps back to Christopher, whose life is about to get even more exciting in more terrible ways.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 16

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

God-Speaker woke in the near-darkness of the cave and tasted the cool air of spring. His body was stiff and sore, despite the mat of soft reeds and layers of furs that made his bed. He sat for a moment and studied his hands. He remembered when they had been young and strong. Now they were gnarled. He felt the years sapping his strength. His skin was thinner and looser. Soon he would need to address that problem, but this morning he had more immediate matters to attend.

A fresh group of migrants had arrived with one of his scouts last night. They had spent the night in the woods at the base of the mountain, as was customary, and they would come up today.

He prepared himself and put on his usual clothes, a finely woven robe dyed in a pattern of deep reds and browns, and trimmed in bright yellow.

The mountain was riddled with caves, and God-Speaker could navigate most of them by touch. Only he and his acolytes were permitted in the deeper areas of the mountain. God-Speaker made his way through a series of chambers until he came to a tall, narrow crack that led to the outside world. He stood for a moment and let the morning sun warm his old bones while his eyes adjusted.

From each of the many cave entrances came a path, maintained by the acolytes. They  were cleared of tree branches and the densest brush, but were no more obvious than any natural game trails or gaps in the foliage, unless you knew where to look. Only secret symbols, carved subtly into the trees, marked the different ways. One of these paths took God-Speaker down to the village.

He knew how the voices in the mountain would look at the village: simple, quaint, and unimpressive. Beneath them. But when he looked with his own eyes, it was a small miracle. It was like a much-expanded version of the winter villages of his youth. The pit houses were larger and sturdier. Already, there was a bustle of activity as people ate their morning meals and got about the business of the day. It smelled of woodfire and roasted fish and the rich pine of the surrounding forest.

When God-Speaker walked through the village, the people paid attention. There were no overt signs, but he felt their glances, and the sound of conversation grew slightly more subdued as he approached. How different from his tribe, his people, who had known him since he was a squalling baby and had witnessed his every weakness and indignity. Those people had gone on, he hoped, to those distant snowless lands he had once glimpsed. At least his scouts had never found them.

No, he thought, this was his tribe now. These were his people. They knew him only as the man who spoke to the gods of the mountain, the man who knew things nobody else knew, the secret knowledge of the spirits. He had brought this community together and created a place where everyone was safe and well-fed.

God-Speaker met his scout and the newcomers in the forest, in a place where the sounds and smells of the village were perceptible, but it could not yet be seen. He always insisted on being the one to bring newcomers into the community.

“God-Speaker!” the scout exclaimed. He was called Swift-Over-Snow,  named because he was small, light, and fast, even in deep winter snow: one of God-Speaker’s best scouts.

“Swift-Over-Snow,” God-Speaker replied, nodding. “I hear you have brought us newcomers.”

“Yes, these are our guests,” Swift-Over-Snow said.

God-Speaker and his scout knew that such guests would almost always accept the invitation to stay, but it was better not to presume. The guests would understand that they brought a food-burden to God-Speaker’s people, in addition to the smoked fish and other gifts that the scouts carried and gave to traveling peoples to entice them to make the journey to the village. The village was daunting to newcomers, and God-Speaker made sure to give them good reasons to stay and see everything he wanted them to see.

“Welcome, honored guests,” God-Speaker said to the newcomers as he looked them over. There were ten of them: five adult men, three women, a baby and a child just old enough to stand on his own feet. They were thin and had no doubt felt hunger this winter, but their eyes were bright and curious. One of them, a young man, showed a hint of defiance in his expression, a refusal to be impressed despite the stories that Swift-Over-Snow had no doubt already imparted.

“I know you have not yet eaten a morning meal,” God-Speaker said. “Come, I want you to eat with us. I will tell you about my people.”

He led them through the trees to the village. Ten more people. He needed more people for his plans. He was eager for everything to move faster, but he would need to temper the growth of the community to ensure that it was stable and strong.

The entrance to the village was carefully prepared—a dense wall of pines with a narrow pathway through. It led into the wide clearing where the pit-houses clustered.

God-Speaker stepped out through the gap and indicated everything with a sweeping gesture.

“This is our home.”

He watched each of the newcomers as they stepped out. Their eyes widened in surprise or narrowed with worry. The young child clung to his mother’s leg. It would be far more houses and people than they had ever seen in one place.

To the left of the houses was the lumber workshop. To the right were the stone-workers and other craftspeople. The faint crack of rock-on-rock came from somewhere higher up the slope, where his people searched for metal-bearing ores, flint, and other useful resources.

God-Speaker led the newcomers on a path around the pit-houses. The village of strangers was too overwhelming for some when they first arrived. This path let them look without feeling surrounded or trapped.

The people of the village who passed close knew to nod and politely welcome the guests without lingering or staring. God-Speaker had carefully prepared everything about this first experience.

“How do so many people live here?” asked one of the guests. “Do all of these people travel together in the warm season?”

“This will be our home forever,” God-Speaker said. “Some of us may go out a long ways to hunt or fish or find plants for food and medicine, but we always come back to the mountain. The gods of the mountain watch over us. I have learned great wisdom from them. We have all we need here.”

On the far side of the village, the path led to a long row of steps—flat stones set into the steep mountainside. They wound their way up to a wide plateau that had been cleared of debris and edged neatly with rocks. At the center of the space was a long, flat boulder set as a table and already covered with a feast. There were berries, mushrooms, seeds, nuts and edible roots. There was smoked fish, fresh roasted fish, and venison stew. And there was a sort of flatbread made from ground seeds and baked in a simple stone oven.

“Please, sit and eat,” God-Speaker said, indicating simple log seats set around the stone table.

They sat, some still looking uncertain, but enticed by the food. God-Speaker and Swift-Over-Snow sat at one end of the stone table. God-Speaker tore off a chunk of the flatbread.

“This is bread made from seeds, a food my people love. Many like to dip it in the stew, or fill it with meat and vegetables. Do as you like.”

He ate, again watching the newcomers closely as they tried some of the unfamiliar foods. The voices had shown God-Speaker new ways of cooking and processing foods, including this bread, but it would take many years of careful cultivation to grow crops that would be ideal for flour. Still, this was something the newcomers would have never experienced before.

The plateau was built to offer a perfect view of the village and surrounding forest. The smoke of the fires wafted up from the pit-houses, and they could see beyond, over the trees and down into the valley where the river glinted.

The young man looked out over the village as he ate, and God-Speaker could see he was still looking for reasons to be unhappy. It was amazing what God-Speaker could read from eyes and faces by combining what he knew about people with the things he learned from the voices inside the mountain.

“Why are there gods in the mountain?” the young man asked, as though he had heard God-Speaker’s thoughts, “and why do they speak only to you?”

God-Speaker interlaced his fingers.

“Everything in the world has a spirit. Every rock, every tree, every river. But some spirits are stronger than others. The spirits of these mountains are very strong. They shouted out into the world for many seasons, but nobody listened to them. I am strange. I hear the voices of some spirits. When I came this way, long ago, I heard them calling and they guided  me here. I have searched for others who can hear them, but there are very few others, and even they can hear the spirits only faintly.”

“How do you have so much?” asked one of the others. “This was a bad winter. It is hard to feed a few people, but you have so many. And you say you do not travel to hunt in new places.”

“We have not forgotten our old ways, but we have learned new ways too,” God-Speaker said. “I will show you when we are done eating.”

When they had eaten their fill, God-Speaker asked them about themselves.

“You are guests, and welcome to stay for a time before continuing your journey. You will have a place at our fires. If you are tired of walking long paths, know that you are also welcome to stay. You can join us and become

part of our people.

“With so many of us, we find things for everyone to do that match their skills. You may find something new that you are drawn to among the many crafts and skills we practice in the village. Some even become my acolytes and learn to listen to the spirits. For now, though, I want to know what you are good at. What are you named for?”

The young man spoke first.

“I am a hunter. I am called Outruns-the-Deer and Far-Thrown-Spear. But we are our own people. We live as our elders lived. We will not become part of your people.”

God-Speaker kept his expression friendly. “You show the strength of your ancestors.”

Some of the other newcomers looked less certain about how they felt than Outruns-the-Deer. They told God-Speaker of their skill in fishing, knapping flint, and identifying herbs.

Next, God-Speaker led them around the other areas of the village. They saw the weavers making simple cloth and soaking it in dyes. They saw the gardens with young grain grasses, and where root vegetables and raspberry bushes would grow as the weather grew warmer. They saw the cave filled with a thick loam of rotten wood where mushrooms were grown. They even saw the experimental forge where God-Speaker’s people were working to get their fires ever hotter. God-Speaker showed them a handful of little golden nodules coaxed from rock.

Lastly, God-Speaker showed them the caves where his people stored dried meat and berries, smoked fish, firewood, and all the supplies that would see them safely through hard winters.

Outside the storeroom, some of the hunters were meeting, preparing their spears and knives and slings while discussing where in the area to hunt. God-Speaker told them that Outruns-the-Deer was a guest and an expert hunter, and they took the hint, immediately asking for his opinions on hunting in the area. He talked with the hunters while God-Speaker told the others about the foods his people preserved and stored for winter.

When they left the storehouse and the hunters, Outruns-the-Deer was still quiet and kept his expression neutral, but he held himself differently after being consulted as an equal.

“Will you take us to these spirits of the mountain?” Outruns-the-Deer asked.

The other newcomers looked shocked and worried. These were spiritual matters, and not to be trivialized. Even Swift-Over-Snow looked at God-Speaker uncertainly.

God-Speaker only smiled.

“That is a place where only my people may go. Even among us, it is a holy place, not to be entered without care and understanding.”

There was a moment where God-Speaker and Outruns-the-Deer locked eyes. God-Speaker sensed that the young man might be looking for some sort of confrontation. Discomfort rippled through the rest of the group.

Outruns-the-Deer was the one to waver and look away. The tension dissipated.

“Still,” God-Speaker said, “It is not for me to say who might be close to the spirits. If any of you choose to stay, you may find that you come to hear them, in time.”

With the tour of the village concluded, God-Speaker left Swift-Over-Snow to show the guests to the pit-houses reserved for them while they decided to leave or join the village. God-Speaker thought it was likely that this group would stay, even Outruns-the-Deer. He was the sort who had to make a show of being convinced, but God-Speaker saw his interest in the spirits, and the change in his disposition after talking to the hunters. Besides, he wouldn’t leave if most of the others wanted to stay.

Whether this group stayed or went, the village would continue to grow. There would be other weary travelers making the hard journey through the mountains.

As he left the village, God-Speaker took a different path through the trees and up the slope. His knees ached. He felt death as a lurking presence, always close at hand. Ever since Makes-Medicine had died in his arms, he had felt it, but it was closer than ever now.

He entered the mountain by another opening in the rock and made his way deeper inside. The whisper of the voices was faint at first, but it grew as he went deeper.

He knew what needed to be done. The voices spoke to him of their empires and their endless rule. They told him how to overcome the specter of death and be reborn into immortality. He knew how. The only question was whether he could do it.

Soon, he thought. Soon he could show his people something truly amazing: his own rebirth.

He just had to do it before his body gave out.


Reference Desk #15 — Duotrope vs. Submission Grinder

The Short Story Series

It’s the ultimate crossover event! Today we have a continuation of my short story series, as well as my Reference Desk series detailing useful tools for writers. Get ready for a battle of publication catalogues and a submission tracker showdown!

Finding the right place to submit your short fiction isn’t trivial. Back in the olden days, you might have to subscribe to an actual dead-tree trade journal just to have a somewhat up-to-date list of publications. These days, the internet gives us some easier options.

The two most popular submission tools for short fiction writers are Duotrope and Submission Grinder. Both of them are designed to help you find markets for your stories and track your submissions. Today, I’ll be comparing some of the different features between these two tools to give you a better idea of which one you might want to use.


Let’s get this out of the way up front. Duotrope is a paid service. After a 7-day free trial, it costs $5/month or $50/year. Submission Grinder is completely free to use, although they have numerous options to donate.

If you don’t want to pay or can’t afford it, Submission Grinder is the tool for you.


Duotrope maintains listings of publishers of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and visual art. It also lists literary agents for fiction writers. Submission Grinder maintains fiction and poetry listings.

At the time of writing, Duotrope lists 5,027 fiction markets. They claim that they keep their listings accurate and up-to-date by checking each active listing for changes about once a month. They also run more thorough check twice a year, contacting the editors or agents if anything appears to be inaccurate or if there are signs that the market may be dead or on hiatus. (Websites not being updated is honestly a pretty big problem with small markets.)

At the time of writing, the Submission Grinder has 2,669 listings for fiction and poetry. It’s not entirely clear from the webpage how the listings are kept updated, although there are links for users to suggest a new market listing or suggest a correction, so it seems to be mostly crowdsourced.

Submission Tracking

Both tools let you

  • Add stories to your tracker
  • Add submissions for a story
  • Mark a submission as accepted, rejected, or no response
  • Track and search personal statistics
  • Track deadlines

Both tools also aggregate the statistics across their user base. This allows them to show information like what percentage of submissions are accepted or rejected by a specific market. They both have anonymized feeds of recent activity.

Duotrope has a plethora of statistics*, including the markets that are fastest and slowest to respond, and those that are most or least likely to accept (or even respond!)

*Note: you can see the list, but not the actual statistics, without a subscription

Additional Features

  • Both tools have an optional newsletter with new listings and other publishing news.
  • Duotrope has transcripts from hundreds of editor and literary agent interviews—possibly useful for getting a better idea of what your favorite market is looking for, or just general good practices.
  • Duotrope has some basic guides for writers, especially around submitting your work. It also has guides to using their various tools.


Honestly, both of these tools get the job done. They make it easy to search a lot of different markets, and to track your submissions as you send them out.

Overall, I do find Duotrope to be a little bit nicer. It has a few more features and a little more polish, but that’s to be expected when they have a subscription fee. If you don’t mind spending the money, I think Duotrope is good value for the cost.

Submission Grinder feels a little more like a community project, crowdsourcing market info and relying on donations. Maintaining a popular tool site takes work, and based on their Patreon, I think Submission Grinder is powered more by love than money.

If you have a story or two that you’re looking to send out, you should definitely try out one of these services. It will make it a lot easier to find ideal markets and keep track of what gets sent where.

Storytelling Class — Scenes

Every once in a while, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This time, our topic was scenes.

We always start with two questions: What did we read and write recently?

What Did We Read?

I’ve recently been reading the Maus graphic novels, the Timeshift anthology of time-related sci-fi, and Mort (a Terry Pratchet Discrworld novel) at bedtime with the kids.

Freya has been reading the first Wheel of Time book. She said it was a little slow at first, but she’s enjoying it now that she’s halfway through.

What Did We Write?

I’ve only been writing Razor Mountain recently, and trying to get ahead on blog posts. Freya hasn’t written any more of her book recently, but she has been writing poetry, including one about all the many fragrances of bath bombs.

What’s In a Scene?

Today’s topic was the structure of scenes. A scene is the smallest “unit” that we typically break stories into. A short story might have only a couple scenes, while a novel can have dozens or hundreds.

The beginning and end of a scene are often delineated physically on the page with a line break, chapter break, or asterisks and similar markers. However, it takes more than that to make a scene feel cohesive. There are a few different tools that can help a scene feel like a single unit of story: setting, characters, and theme.


A scene is typically a section of the story that occurs entirely in one setting. In this case, I use “setting” fairly broadly. It can refer to a specific location or a specific time period. Most of the time, a scene will take place in one location and cover a specific, contiguous period of time. For example, two people meet in a coffee shop, have a conversation, and then leave.

In some cases, some characters may enter or exit in the middle of the scene, or the scene may start in the middle of the action, with the characters already in their places. In these cases, it’s usually the static setting that holds the scene together. All the action happens in the same place, over a specific span of time.

You can think of this in terms of a stage play. The scenery for the scene is ready and the lights come up. Are the characters already on the stage? Do they enter or exit during the scene? Eventually the scene ends and the lights go down so the props can be replaced and a new scene can start.


It’s also possible for a scene to move across multiple locations (in time or space) or take place in multiple locations simultaneously.

For example, in visual media like TV, film and comics, it’s common to have a “split screen” scene where a narrator in one location (in space or time) narrates action set in a different location. This lets the writer play with juxtapositions or relationships between the narration and the action. Imagine a scene where a person talks about falling in love while a montage of scenes with the happy couple flash by. Then imagine how the mood changes if the character is instead talking about slowly falling out of love.

In a plot like a heist, there might be a single scene that jumps between several bank robbers in different areas of a bank, each one carrying out their part of the bigger plan. Everything is happening at the same time, or in sequence, but in many different locations.

Fuzzy Edges

While most scenes have an obvious beginning and end, not every scene is so clearly delineated. One scene may blend into another. Often, this takes the form of “zooming in” or “zooming out,” and may involve a change of perspective.

For example, the opening of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy begins with a description of our galaxy, the evolution of the human race, and the problems that beset us. Then it “zooms in” to one woman in particular, who has an important revelation. Then, because it’s Douglas Adams, we are told that the story isn’t about this woman at all. It’s about a terrible, stupid catastrophe and the book called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Then, at the start of the next chapter, it does the same thing, zooming in on the protagonist’s house, and eventually the protagonist himself.

This example shows nicely that this sort of zooming out can happen in location (zooming from outside the galaxy to a particular café in Rickmansworth) but also in time (across the entire evolution of humanity to the modern day).

“Zooming” can also encapsulate a change in the level of specificity, where the author glosses over less important details until reaching a place and moment in time where the details are important. This is often done for the sake of continuity. A character might spend one scene talking with a friend, then have to drive across town to speak to another friend. The drive isn’t very interesting. So the author describes the first conversation in detail over several pages. A short paragraph describes the uneventful drive, and then there are several more pages of detail for the second conversation.


These aspects of location and character are the logistics of a scene. The level of zoom or specificity are stylistic choices. But there is one other thing that can affect whether a scene feels satisfying and complete: the theme or arc of the scene.

Each scene needs to have some purpose in the larger story, and oftentimes scenes fulfill several purposes at once. They could provide new information to the characters or the reader. They could show some change in the character, perhaps resolving a goal or revealing a new goal. They could create or resolve a mystery. They need to drive the story forward in some way.

One of the more common challenges in fiction is when the logistics of the story require things to happen, but those things don’t actually feel like they’re furthering the story. They are like the character driving across town between important conversations.

It’s easy to make a whole scene out of these kinds of unsatisfying story beats, and the scene will inevitably be a dull one. Sometimes these scenes can be cut completely. Other times they can be replaced with a little bit of connective tissue, like the zoom-in or a quick, summarizing description of the necessary action. Sometimes, by looking at the larger picture, you’ll find that the story can be tweaked so the boring part isn’t needed at all.

Class Dismissed

That’s all for this class. We’ve been doing fewer of these little “classes” over summer, since…well, we’re outside and enjoying the warm weather while we can. I do have at least one more planned though, before school is back in session and our schedules get busy.

Reblog — How to Be a Professional Author… — Chuck Wendig

Alright, the full title of today’s reblog is “How to Be a Professional Author and Not Die Screaming and Starving in a Lightless Abyss.” Hyperbole is Wendig’s brand. This is also a two-for-one deal, because Chuck takes as his inspiration Heather Demetrios’ Medium post, “How to Lose a Third of a Million Dollars Without Even Trying.”

Heather was a debut author who had some success early on, and made the mistake of assuming that would equate to the authorial equivalent of a steady paycheck. She found out the hard way that one or two big advances do not necessarily mean that subsequent novels will fetch the same amount of money, especially for new authors.

Most authors write for the joy of the art. Unfortunately, if you also want to make a living with your art, business savvy becomes a significant concern. Most professional authors make a fairly modest income, and it doesn’t come in the form of twice-monthly paychecks or health insurance.

Demetrios advice comes in the form of a list of regrets, in the hopes that other authors won’t make the same mistakes she did. Wendig adds his own rambling advice as a successful professional writer with quite a few years’ experience.

I feel deeply for the writer, because this shit we do comes with no real map. No creative map, no story map, no industry map, no money map. “HERE IS A BUNCH OF MONEY,” a sinister shadowy figure says in an alley. “IN SIX MONTHS, WE WILL EXTRACT FROM YOU A BOOK, AND THEN THE DEAL IS COMPLETE.” And then the shadowy figure is gone, and all you’re left with is the crisp smell of burning paper and a mysterious whisper in the well of your ear that says, “deckle edge.”

But, the good news is, there exist answers to a lot of these conundrums, and so I’m going to do some painting-with-shotguns here and try to broad-stroke some thoughts and answers about the challenges this writer faced in her Authorial Journey.

Read the rest over at Wendig’s blog, TerribleMinds…

Submitting Short Stories

The Short Story Series

Make Sure It’s Ready

Writing a brilliant short story isn’t enough. When it comes time to submit, you’re in a competition with every other author who’s submitting to the same magazine, anthology or contest. And often, that’s hundreds of other people—hundreds of other stories—you’re going up against. Make sure to seek out critique and make revisions. Polish that story until it shines.

If your story is accepted, an editor may certainly ask for changes, but you still need to show your very best work up front if you want to get that far. Editors and readers are looking for any excuse to reject your story to whittle down that huge pile of submissions. Don’t give them an easy excuse like typos or sloppy grammar.

Where to Submit

The first thing you need when submitting a short story is someplace to submit to. Hopefully you’ve been reading short stories, because this is a great way to do field research on publications in your chosen genre(s). The publishing landscape is ever-shifting, but it’s a good idea to read widely to get a sense of who the heavy hitters are.

For example, as someone who writes a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, I know that The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction And Fact, and Asimov’s Science Fiction are three of the biggest speculative fiction magazines. They’ve been around for decades and pay professional rates for short stories. There is a prestige to getting published by them. However, there are a number of other magazines and websites that are popular and pay well, and an even larger number of smaller magazines and websites that often fill specific niches and tend to pay less.

Ultimately, what you want to do is understand your options and match your story to the places with the best chance of accepting it. The best way to do that is to read some sample stories and look at the submission guidelines.

Submission Guidelines

Most actively publishing magazines, open contests, and anthologies with open submissions will post submission guidelines on their website. Submission guidelines are just the publisher’s description of what kinds of submissions they want, and how they want to receive them.

Tools like Duotrope and Submission Grinder collect the submission guidelines of many different publications and make them easier to search, so these can be a real boon. However, they sometimes take a while to add new publications, remove defunct ones, or update guidelines that have changed. Always, always, always double-check the publication’s website, and follow those guidelines if there’s any discrepancy.

Submission guidelines typically have some subset of the following:

  • Genres, Subgenres or Topics – A description of the kind of stories the editors like. This can be very broad (“hard science fiction”) or considerably more specific (“steampunk,” “stories related to climate change”). Contests and anthologies often have a theme, and even big magazines will sometimes have “theme issues.”
  • Word Count – Most publications have hard limits on the size of story they will accept. They might also note the size of story that they prefer, even if they occasionally accept larger submissions.
  • Submission Windows – Anthologies and contests always have cutoffs, because they eventually have to publish or judge. Some magazines only accept submissions at certain times.
  • Pay Rate – Legitimate publishers say up-front how much they will pay. This is often a rate like X cents per word, although you will sometimes see a flat payment per story/poem. What counts as a “professional rate” is often decided by your genre’s professional organization. For example, the SFWA currently considers 8¢/word to be the minimum for sci-fi and fantasy.
  • Form and Formatting – Some publications only accept stories sent as Word documents to an email address. Others have a form directly on their website for submission. They may specify a specific font, font size, or line spacing. These may sound pedantic, but they’re designed to make it as easy as possible for the editors to wade through a sea of submissions. You do not want to be the person who makes an editor’s life a little more difficult.
  • Response Time – Submitting stories is slow! Most publishers take weeks or months to respond to a submission. Patience is a virtue, but if you wait for the specified response time and don’t get anything, you should feel free to reach out to the publisher, or move on and submit that story somewhere else.
  • Other Stuff – Submission guidelines may also say whether a publication accepts simultaneous submissions (sending one story to multiple publications at the same time), multiple submissions (sending several stories to the same publication at the same time) or reprints and translations. As a rule, don’t send any of these things unless it’s explicitly allowed.


There is a standard format for short stories, and the incredibly detailed visual guides on William Shunn’s website have become the go-to place for writers to find them. Remember, the specific instructions within a publication’s submission guidelines should always be followed first. If the instructions aren’t specific on a particular point or leave something out, you can default to Shunn’s recommendations.

Submission Considerations

When you first finish a short story, there will probably be a number of publications that fit your story. The next step is to decide which of them to submit to first.

Consider starting with the best pay or highest prestige. Sure, I’m less likely to have my story accepted by Analog than a smaller magazine, but if they do accept it, I’m getting an excellent pay rate, and a really nice publication credit. If they reject it, I can always send it out to another.

There are other approaches, however. If you’ve found several potential publishers who accept simultaneous submissions, you can send your story to all of them at once. Simultaneous submission can really speed up the submission process, where you’re often waiting weeks or even months for a reply.

If one or more of your potential publishers has a submission window, you may want to submit to them while it’s open. If they reject it, you can submit to the others at any time.

Tracking Submissions

When you’re submitting your first short story, it may seem silly to talk about tracking your submissions. After all, it’s your baby, your pride and joy, and that publisher will surely love it. And even if it gets rejected, it’s not that hard to keep track of one story.

The truth is that writing and submitting short stories is a grind. Statistically, most publishers don’t take simultaneous submissions, it usually takes weeks to get a response, and most stories don’t find a home on their first submission. If you’re going to write short stories, you’re likely to end up with multiple short stories out for submission at once. Possibly a lot of them. You’re going to get rejections. And you’re going to have to keep writing.

Tracking your submissions ensures you know what stories are currently out, who has already looked at them, and who’s looking at them now. You’ll want to track the expected response time so you know when to check your spam folder, send a query, or give up and send to another publisher. You may want to make a list of the publications you’re interested in sending a particular story. You might also find it a useful place to track acceptances and payments (don’t forget those taxes!)

If you want to do your own tracking, Excel spreadsheets and Google Docs are infinitely flexible, and as long as you’re willing to put in the effort, you can craft exactly what you want. Alternatively, both Duotrope and the Submission Grinder have built-in submission tracking, and tracking your statistics in those systems helps to build statistics that can be useful to everyone.


The hard part of the short story grind is the rejection. Nobody likes pouring their heart and soul into a story, only to be told that it’s not good enough. Unfortunately, the simple math of publishing is that there are far more stories being submitted than there are slots for publication. The majority of stories are never published.

The way to fight that math is to craft the best story you can, and then submit as much as you can. More (good) stories and more submissions raise your odds. You will need to build up the fortitude to be rejected over and over again and keep on going.

It’s also important to note that not all rejections are created equal. There are a few different kinds:

  • Form rejections – These are most common. The story didn’t pique the interest of the publication.
  • Higher-tier rejections – These may still be form rejections, but they usually mention that the editors were interested, or that they considered the story but ultimately didn’t find a spot for it. Some publications have multiple tiers of readers, and the story didn’t get all the way to the top.
  • Personalized rejections – These are rare and valuable. They are specific to you and your story, and explain in more detail why the story didn’t quite make the cut. If you’re lucky, they may suggest improvements or invite you to submit more work to this publisher.

While all rejection may seem bad, it’s a great sign to receive any personalized feedback from a publication. These people are constantly wading through the slush pile of submissions and working on tight deadlines, so they only spend time on a personalized response when they really like something. Unfortunately, due to the complexities of publishing, they may really like your story and still not be able to publish it. Take it as a win, and move on.

More Advice

Finally, I’m going to point you to Aeryn Rudel’s new author starter kit.

Rudel is an incredibly prolific short story writer who tries to make 100 short story submissions every year. His blog is a great general resource when it comes to writing and submitting stories, and his monthly recaps show just how much rejection even a successful author has to power through.


At this point in the Short Story Series, we’ve been through all the basics of writing short stories. I’ll probably still have one or two more articles, but you know enough to get started. If you haven’t done it before, it may seem daunting to write a short story and send it off to a publisher. Great! The best way to gain experience is to try it.

Once your story is submitted you can forget about it for a few weeks and write something new. It’s the authorial circle of life. Don’t give up, and keep writing.

State of the Blog — Aug 2022

Dang y’all! Somehow it has been two years since I started this blog. It’s honestly hard to believe.

One of the key tenets of this blog is an open writing process. I’ve brought that to my serial novel, Razor Mountain, with my development journals, and I bring it to the blogging process with these “state of the blog” posts every six months or so.


  • Years blogging: 2
  • Total Posts: ~250
  • Total Followers: 87
  • Monthly Views: ~375 (average over last 3 months)

I do my best to not worry too much about visitors, views, and all the other bloggy statistics, but I do keep an eye on them. In the past six months, I really have nothing to complain about as far as the graphs and numbers. I don’t pay much attention to the totals. I’m small by most standards. All I really look for is growth, and the blog has been growing steadily. It took until this May to hit 2,000 total views, and a couple weeks ago I hit 3,000 total views.

One Post to Rule Them All?

One interesting statistic that has become apparent over the last few months is that I have a single post that has out-performed all the others, by a considerable margin.

Great Writing Can You Say Hero? is a post from about a year ago. I had intended to start a series of posts talking about some of my favorite pieces, but I’m distractable, and I’ve never written another of these posts. Views for this post have steadily increased over the past few months, to the point where now they account for about 50% of the views I get every single day!

It’s important to note that I did not intend or expect this. I just wrote a post, and hoped (as I always do) that it would be interesting for others. This particular post hit a search algorithm sweet spot.

You see, there is a steady flow of people looking for Junod’s story about Mr. Rogers, and not very many search results on Google. Because of this, my post shows up near the top of results for several similar searches. This traffic is almost entirely driven by Google.

This is a potent illustration of the power of search engines to drive traffic. This is why people spend so much effort chasing SEO. However, the million dollar question is whether this traffic is actually good for me. I just happen to be capturing views in search of something else. On the other hand, the more people who read the blog, the more likely that some of them will be interested and come back.

The next six months will be interesting, because I’m also seeing search engine-driven traffic on a couple other posts on a much smaller scale. We’ll see if these other posts start to grow in a similar way.

The Long Tail

Even setting aside the search engine traffic, I’ve now reached a point where the post of the day is usually not the primary driver of traffic. On days when I post something new, it is almost always out-performed by a random assortment of my past articles.

This is why so much advice for “content creators” boils down to “keep making a steady stream of new stuff.” On rare occasions, you’ll make an outlier that performs better than most of your other stuff, but you’ll also create a large body of work that collectively draws in a bunch of people over time.

Looking Back and Setting Goals

These six-month reviews are partly about looking back, and partly about re-evaluating what I’m trying to achieve.

Looking back, I feel like I’ve really hit my stride. I have a steady rhythm of alternating weeks: Razor Mountain episodes and a development journal one week, then two writing-related posts and a reblog the following week. Every once in a while I skip a post. I’m not a robot. And I no longer worry about maintaining a perfect schedule.

I usually have a backlog of ideas for posts. Sometimes I do a series on a topic, sometimes I do one-offs. I’ve become a lot more comfortable with off-the-cuff posts and less editing. I’ve also become a lot less stressed about throwing my work onto the internet where everyone can see it. (There will probably always be a little pang of stress about that, but I think that’s probably healthy.)

My goals right now are:

  • Finish Razor Mountain
  • Write a couple of short stories alongside the novel
  • Write more, and especially write more fiction
  • Think about what’s next for the blog after Razor Mountain

See You Next Time

That’s all I’ve got for this two-year blogoversary. Thanks for reading, and we’ll check back in six months.

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 15

This is part of an ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.


This was a slow and painful one.

I started writing this chapter three weeks ago. I wrote a couple paragraphs, then it sat. I write a couple lines of dialogue, then it sat some more. I felt that vague guilt that I should be writing, but I went and did something else. I even wrote some other things, but I just couldn’t seem to get back to the chapter I was putting off.

Then I had to ask myself, is this because I’m in a mood where I don’t want to write this thing, or is there something wrong with my outline or my plan? Is there something blocking me that I need to figure out to make this easier?

In this case, my outline had Christopher talking with this group of people (who I think of collectively as “the exiles”), but didn’t have any detail around what they would talk about. I hadn’t thought through what mysteries I could advance here, or what new mysteries needed to be defined. So I spent some time thinking about that, and soon enough I was able to write.

Sometimes, the hardest part about overcoming a block is realizing you have one, and identifying what the actual problem is. I find that it often comes down to whether I have enough information to start. There are always some things that I end up deciding or changing as I write, but I need enough confidence in the scene I’m embarking on to get started.


After all this time with Christopher having no dialogue, this chapter was almost entirely dialogue. I tried to use these conversations to flesh out the secondary characters and reveal more information. I also wanted to reenforce the idea that Christopher still doesn’t entirely know what’s going on, and his situation may not actually be improving.

You can think about dialogue as a form of conflict, with each character trying to direct it a certain way, trying to get the information they want, and sometimes trying to make things more difficult for their conversational partners. That framework worked well here, because both the exiles and Christopher have a lot of questions, while the exiles are hesitant to reveal too much to Christopher. Amaranth, as a sort of outsider among outsiders, is Christopher’s only foot in the door.

While the exiles’ reticence makes sense within the story and the situation they’re in, it’s also useful to me, because it allows me to limit how much I reveal about what exactly is going on. If we find out too much in the middle of the book, there won’t be as much drive for us to keep going to the end.

I’m finding that one of the challenges as I get into the middle of the book is walking that line of revealing new things, but not revealing too much. In some ways, the beginning of this kind of story is easy: just pose a lot of interesting questions. The end will be the real fun, revealing all the answers. But the middle is tough because it needs a little bit of both to keep the story going.

Up Next

Next chapter, we jump back to God-Speaker, where I’ll need to lay out the structure of his chapters for the entirety of Act II.