Category: writing advice

Rust, Writer’s Block, or General Malaise?

I’ve been really struggling with writing lately, and I’m not entirely sure why. That is, it hasn’t exactly come out of nowhere, and I know a number of factors are in play, but I can’t quite pin down how to solve this.

Obviously, a global pandemic hasn’t made life any easier for me, from a creativity perspective. While Brandon might have used the at home time to write another 5 books, I’ve had to worry about any number of things that have taken a lot of my attention to get through. These range from “renovate my kitchen” to “try to make sure everyone who works for me keeps their job” to “help my kids navigate COVID school successfully,” not to mention the strain it’s all taken on me personally. There’s been a lot to handle.

Despite all off that, I was still able to plow forward and finish an entire book that will actually be published, and I’m very proud of that. I was on track for most of the pandemic, writing and revising for all I was worth. But then I finished that book, and I decided to take some time off, figuring it was well-deserved (and it was), but it took me longer to get going again than I’d anticipated. And when I did, I was back in “what should I write” mode.

Figuring that out proved more difficult than I initially assumed it would be. I was well into a revision of a steampunk book that I really enjoyed, but it felt like such a departure from the books I had that were selling, that I decided in the end to set it aside and work on something more horror-oriented. For the next while, I was fleshing out a book that I really liked the concept of. I had an outline ready to go and I was already writing prose, but it just . . . wasn’t working for me. It felt too forced, and I didn’t like it.

So I went back to the drawing board, and I came up with yet another idea. This one, right in line with the historical thrillers I’ve been writing lately. I’ve done a fair bit of research into it, and I’ve got the plot mostly worked out (at least to begin with), but now that it’s time to start diving into the writing, I’m having to really push myself to get through my 1,000 words each day. Typically I can get that done in around 45 minutes. Right now, it’s been more like twice that.

So I’m left wondering why. I don’t think it’s the topic this time, because I genuinely am interested in it. Some of it is definitely because writing the beginning of a book is hard, since I still don’t know the characters all that well, and writing the beginning of a historical novel is even harder, as there’s all sorts of research that needs to be done. Some of it has to be because I’m out of practice. It’s been so long since I’ve written first draft material, and that takes a different skill set than editing and revising. Some it is probably still from dealing with the aftermath of all this pandemic garbage, as well as the rest of everything going on in the world.

That said, even discovering why it’s happening doesn’t really do much for me in terms of fixing it. My approach for the last while has been to just keep barreling forward, hoping that once I get into a real groove, it’ll all start working well again. Something else that I’ve done the past few days is jumped ahead about 1/3 of the way into the book, to a part of the plot that I’m much more confident about. That’s helped a fair bit. It can be hard to get a really good beginning of a book. You’ve got to introduce characters, conflict, and setting, all while trying to keep things as riveting as possible. I’m hoping once I’m on firmer footing, the beginning will be a smoother process.

Anyway. It’s helped to try and think this through on paper some. When I write it down like this, it doesn’t seem nearly as dire. I’ve probably lost about two months of writing, which isn’t nothing. (We’re talking around 50,000 words, so I’d be about halfway done with the book by now.) But the book isn’t sold, so it’s not on deadline, and the good news is that I think the topic’s going to work well. There are plenty (plenty) of books I’ve written that haven’t gone anywhere, so it’s not like I’ve lost that much in the grand scheme of things.

But if you’re also going through some rough times, take this as a reminder that many of us are, and that’s okay.

Thanks for reading.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

On Good vs. Great Reviews

The reviews are beginning to trickle in on Goodreads for my next book (Don’t Go to Sleep, coming in August). And The Perfect Place to Die has the most reviews (by far) of any of my books to date. (730 ratings, compared to Vodník in second place, with 295.) And I’mm going to start out this discussion with the big disclaimer that I know many authors generally just avoid looking at reviews of their books. As someone who actively reviews what he watches and reads, I can’t help myself. I want to see what people think about my books, and I’d love to improve them when I can.

But as I think through the reviews I’ve given and the ones I’ve received, I’ve somehow grown less focused on hoping for only 5 star reviews. Don’t get me wrong: I love to read raves of my writing, and to see that I really created something that people loved. But at the same time, more and more I’m paying attention to the experience people say they had with the book. There are two different reviews of Don’t Go to Sleep already that talk about how they liked that both books were on the same theme: Historical murder with a slight twist of the fantastical. This harkens back to an earlier post, where I talked about how I was going to lean into horror more purposefully as a writer. One of my friends noted in a response to that post that the more specific you can be in the “space” you occupy, the more you can snowball into more success.

The more I’ve thought about that, the more that makes sense. (Which is why my current work in progress is (you guessed it) another historical murder with a slight twist of the fantastical.)

There are authors out there I love. I’ve reviewed many of their books on Goodreads, and many of those reviews aren’t 5 stars. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like the book, and it doesn’t even necessarily mean I didn’t love it. A 5 star review, for me, is a book that was just absolutely fantastic. But I can enjoy a 4 star book almost as much. Depending on the person’s review scale, I could see some people giving a book 3 stars and still recommending it to others.

Because that’s the real thing I want, ultimately. I want people to read my books and want to read more and tell their friends to check them out. A couple of those three star reviews for Don’t Go to Sleep specifically say they enjoyed the book and would read more from me in the same vein. Would I rather all my reviews were five star? Sure, but only for the people who hop on Goodreads, check the overall rating, and then decide whether to read the book or not.

(Admittedly, I will do this when I come across a book I haven’t heard of. I’ll see what my friends on Goodreads have said, and I’ll scan through some of the reviews. The total number does carry some weight, but it’s not the sole deciding factor, obviously.)

Anyway–that’s all I have time right now for a post. Hopefully it makes sense. (And should you ever want to review any of my books, you’re always welcome. Wink wink.)

Have a good Thursday!

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Current Writing Weakness

As I’m working on my latest book, I’ve discovered an area that I still need a lot of work on to improve. I’ve got plenty of practice dealing with a limited number of characters, but when it comes to having a whole slew of characters in the same place, I just haven’t done that enough to get any real experience with it.

When you look at my books thus far, they almost never have a huge crowd in a scene at the same time. When they do, that huge crowd is almost dealt with as a single entity. “The crowd,” as opposed to individuals within the crowd.

Some of this is because I’ve always tried to keep things clear in my writing, and it felt like once I got beyond a couple of characters, it got difficult to tell people apart. I’ve seen this happen in other people’s writing, and I didn’t want to have it happen in mine. The correct solution to this isn’t to just avoid writing large groups ever, but rather to get better at the skill in question.

For example, I’m about 10,000 words into my next book. This part is centered around a class bus ride with about 45 people on the bus. I was hitting all the action beats I wanted to in terms of the main character’s experience, but when I got to the end of the 10,000 words and looked back on it, all I really had was the main character on a bus with a bunch of faceless people. Sure, I’d added names to about five of them, but there was almost no personality given to any of them.

I was on a fair number of school bus rides growing up, and I know for a fact that they’re affected somehow by social interactions. People I liked. People who irritated me. People who I avoided. Loud people. Shy people. By having so many faceless people on the bus, it made everything feel much less lived in.

So I’m trying to fix that, but as I do I’m reminded again and again why I’ve avoided doing this for so long. Since I’m starting the book with this bus scene, I’m having to do many different things at the same time. I have to introduce the main character and conflict and setting, but now I also have to shoehorn a host of other established characters at the same time.

Thankfully, I’m not the only person to ever try to do this. I’m rereading The Wheel of Time right now, and it deals with a whole slew of characters. I’ve been looking for the ways Robert Jordan introduces them in a way that feels natural, especially since I never really felt overwhelmed by all those characters when I was reading the books through the first time. (And he has a *lot* of characters.)

So far, it seems he gives a brief overview of a room when a character enters. He establishes who’s there, what they look like, and a brief mention of their personality. Then he makes sure to follow that through by having those people reinforce their description by behaving the way he said they did. This isn’t rocket science, I realize, and it might seem very straightforward to many/most of you. But when you’re trying to keep your word count down while doing all of the above . . .

It can get pretty complex. At least it has to me. Here’s hoping that with some concentrated effort, I can get a hang of it. I really like the concept of this book, but I’m going to need to have a larger cast (simply because so many of them are going to die by the end . . . )

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Leaning Into Horror

Over the fall, I had a chance to go talk to some author friends when I was at FanX. Among other topics, I asked what suggestions they had for ways I could improve my writing from a career standpoint. My fourth book is coming out in August. Is there anything I could do that would help me build on successes and start getting more books published?

The biggest takeaway I got came from (surprise surprise) Brandon, who basically said I’ve been hopping around too much from a genre perspective. I’ve written contemporary fantasy, steampunk, historical thriller, dystopian science fiction, and more. And I’ve written middle grade, young adult, and adult, all within the last five years. He pointed out that with a track record like that, it would be difficult to get readers to follow me from one book to the next. It’s not like I’ve gotten to the point that I’ve got fans who will read whatever I write. (Well, other than you. I know you will read whatever I write. I mean everyone else.)

So his advice boiled down to simply picking an age group and genre, and sticking to it for a while. Let a fan of one book be able to follow me to the next, and find more of what they like.

I realize this probably seems obvious to you, but it’s very different from my whole approach to writing up until now. I’ve always hopped around on purpose. I’ve been in “try something different, so you can get better at writing” mode for so long now, I hadn’t even though to consider switching things up. This made sense when I was just starting out as a writer, and still trying to get published. It’s the same reason I never wrote sequels. Why write a second book if you don’t know if the first book will sell? Why write in the same genre if you’ve already done that before?

I think that was a fine approach for . . . ten years or ago. Maybe more. But once I was actually managing to get some things published, it no longer really applied. And so I’ve decided to try to switch things up and be more consistent for once.

In this case, that means leaning into the books that are actually selling right now. Historical serial killer thrillers is a bit narrow for this, I think. At least, it felt too narrow when I was trying to come up with a new project. So instead, I’m going with the general “Horror” genre, instead. It’s important to note that this isn’t something I’m doing to settle. It’s not that I don’t like writing horror books. On the contrary: I’m a fan of the genre, and I read fairly widely in it. The thing is, I don’t really look at horror as all that different from fantasy. The rule sets can overlap a great deal, but much of what I’ve written has already skewed toward the darker side of things. The difference now is that I’m going to purposefully lean into that.

This also means that I’ve essentially put the rest of my projects on pause. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t get much writing done in December and November. It wasn’t that I wasn’t liking my works in progress. It’s just that they didn’t fit with this new approach, no matter how I might try to figure out a way to make them work.

I think I’ve got a new project selected, and I’m in the middle of plotting it now. Most importantly, I’m excited to be writing again. We’ll see how this goes.

In the meantime, I believe I’ll be able to share the cover of DON’T GO TO SLEEP with you tomorrow. Stay tuned . . .

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

A Few College Essay Tips

Tomas is in the middle of writing his college application essays, and as I’ve been going over them, it reminded me of a number of basics I think would help most people in the same boat. And since I assume many of my friends might be in the same boat, I thought I’d jot some of the ideas down here. As with any writing tips, take them or leave them. It’s up to you. Writing’s different for everyone, and some things work for some people and don’t work for others. That said, I’ve done a fair bit of writing and a fair bit of revising, so I’d like to think I have some experience in the area.

First off, I think the topic selection is huge. In many ways, I think most essay prompts are traps. Students are asked to write about a time they failed or a time they learned something important, and they inevitably want to go to the times that stick out first in their minds. That usually boils down to experiences that end up falling into the same categories. The Big Game is a great example. Students will write about the game or race or match that they ended up winning or losing, and then try to shoehorn as much meaning and Learning Experiences into it as possible. Hollywood is to blame for a lot of this, since it’s become such a well-established trope.

But think about it this way: a university can have thousands upon thousands of applicants. That means admissions staff are reading a whole ton of essays. Once you’ve read enough Big Game essays, they all start to blend together. There’s just not a ton of variation in what can happen in sports. They mean a lot to the people who are personally invested in them, but if you’re not? It’s hard to connect. That isn’t to say it can’t be done, but it’s very difficult to do well, and even more difficult to make your particular essay stand out.

So instead of going with the first topic that comes to mind, I encourage applicants to take the time to really think about things that have had a big impact in their lives. Events or activities that have a lot of meaning. Many times it’s the small things that change us the most, and the great thing about those small things is there’s a whole lot more variety in them. The time you went camping and almost fell off a cliff. The time you tripped in the middle of a marching band performance and crumpled your trombone. Tell a story like that, and you’ll both stand out because of the topic, and you’ll give a much better example of who you are as a person.

Next, there’s the time old adage of “show don’t tell.” If I tell you that I love my wife, it doesn’t mean much to you, even if it means a lot to me. On the other hand, if I talk about some of the specific things I’ve done that show that love, you will likely walk away thinking, “Man. He loves his wife.” Easier example: which is more impactful? “I hate carrots,” or “Every time I smell stewed carrots, I can’t eat for the next five hours.” When you read the second, not only do you understand the writer hates carrots, but you understand just how much he hates them.

This trickles down to all levels of an application essay. Read over what you’ve written, and mark down every time you’re telling something. Making a statement that someone who doesn’t know you would have no way of knowing. Remember: the application staff *don’t* know you, and when you make an unsupported claim, it’s easy to doubt it. “He says he loves his wife, but does he really?” You can get away with a few instances of telling, but not many. Use them wisely, and typically only after you’ve done enough showing to justify them.

Related to this is the recommendation to be specific. Provide specific examples of things, not generalized statements. If you’re going to talk about how hard football was at the beginning, talk about a specific time that exemplifies this. How it felt. Who was there. Where it was. You obviously don’t need a ton of details (since word count matters), but a few good specifics help ground the rest of the essay.

Finally, remember the real reason for the essays. They’re there to supplement the rest of your application. Don’t waste the opportunity by repeating something that’s already in your application elsewhere. You’re looking to give the applications committee more reasons to decide they need to have you come there. Vary the topics so you’re not saying the same thing in two different places.

Anyway. Pulling it all off can be tricky. I’m not here to say it isn’t. Doing all of this and making it fit the word length takes a lot of hard work. (Especially for BYU’s applications. 2,000 characters per essay? Are they insane??) But if you take your time and do multiple drafts, it’s very doable.

Good luck!

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

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