answering questions

InboxWednesday – Voice Development

Really, it’s Wednesday already? Wow. What happened to Tuesday? Wasn’t I just telling people about having a good Monday? This week is rocketing past.

Here we are again, ready for another blogpost. As we do on Wednesdays we head into the Scrooge McDuck money vault that is my inbox and pick one of the questions asked by you, the people reading my words in this little nook on the internet. And before we go onto the question today, I just want to say thank you – it really means a lot to me that you read this, and it means a lot to me that you keep coming back post after post. Thanks.

Today’s question comes from Erin, who’s writing her first fantasy novel. She asks: “John, I follow a lot of blogs, and many editors and agents talk about the importance of voice. They don’t really say what voice is, they just say that it’s important, as if I’m supposed to know what they mean. No one asks what they mean, and I feel like if I ask, people will think I’m stupid. So, what do they mean? What voice are they talking about? Is it important?

Erin, I’m sorry that the culture on some blogs leaves you feeling like you can’t ask a question without other people calling you stupid. You’re not stupid. And chances are other people have the question too, and they’re just as afraid of being called stupid as you are. So everyone’s waiting for someone else to go first. With that, with that silence, the author assumes everyone knows what they’re talking about, so they don’t stop to define it, and this whole cycle moves from writing topic to writing topic and way too many people are left discouraged and confused. It’s one of the parts of blogging about writing that really irritates me, so let me start off by defining voice.

There are a few types of voice, and they’re all different, but all under the umbrella of “voice” (The way this was taught to me was to think of bread. There are loads of different types of bread – pumpernickel, rye, sourdough – but they’re all breads). It’s a shame people aren’t more clear about which one they mean. I know I’m guilty of it, so I’ll do my best to be as clear as possible.

Narrative voice is how the narrator sounds, and this is a key element in first-person writing, since the exposition comes filtered through one character’s experience and thought. (The technical term is narration-as-thought, if you ever want to sound nerdy while sipping a pinot noir with someone wearing a jacket with elbow patches) A strong narrative voice requires a clear view of the character’s attitude and philosophy, as well as an understanding that first-person is not omnipresent or omniscient, and because of those limitations, you’re only seeing one particular side to a story, with everything expressed to us by a single channel.

One of the first questions I get asked about narrative voice is “what do I do if I’m writing in third person?” Well, there the narrator is invisible, and you don’t want to reveal there to be some disembodied being telling you the story, you just want the facts and ideas presented with omniscience. In that case, narrative voice becomes narrative-as-exposition (man, you are going to impress a lot of people if you go to douchey wine parties), so a clear third-person narrative voice is strong exposition. Strong exposition comes from sentence construction and decision making as to what’s actually in scene, collapsing the barrier between the reader’s imagined presence in the moment and the fact that they’re reading squiggles and symbols on a piece of paper.

You can build a strong narrative voice by working on your decision making skills. If you’re in first person, keep the character in mind. (Note: If you’re looking to build strong characters, check out the FiYoShiMo section on characters.) Put us over their shoulder and lens everything you can through the character’s interests, goals, plans, fears, and thoughts.

In third person, make clear decisions and good word choices. If you mean to say that there’s a rusty pitchfork stuck in Mrs Dickinson’s chest, then there sure as hell was a tragic peasant accident. There’s room for paralysis due to overthinking here, which is another way of saying people can start doubting whether what they’ve got on paper is good enough, so get all your thoughts down on paper and make sure they’re at least clear before you start derailing yourself into “good enough.” (Hint: It’s good enough.)

Authorial voice is how you (the person writing whatever you’re writing) build sentences, employ writing techniques (like frontloading and backloading), and apply grammar and punctuation, so that your work, regardless of genre or series, has a signature unique to you. Maybe you use a lot of metaphors. Maybe you love long radial sentences. Maybe you like every sixth sentence to be a pair of clauses hinged with a comma. Strong authorial voice is not necessarily mastery of sentence structure, so much as it is a decisive broadcast of your style. The voice comes through regardless of whether the text is expositive, narrative, or dialogue. Strong authorial voice is engaging and comforting to some degree, because a reader develops expectations and familiarity.

Building authorial voice is about first having some level of comfort with what you’re doing. For some people that’s going to include a few internal conversations that it’s okay to be a writer, it’s okay to spend time doing writing, and as we’ve talked about previously, it’s okay to tell people that you’re a writer. For other people it’s going to be a permission slip that you can keep with you so that you know the Word Police aren’t three seconds away from kicking down your door and taking away your keyboard. For some people, it’s going to be relief that it’s okay to enjoy doing this activity for themselves on some level, rather than always being the parent on duty or the partner on call. Without that comfort, creativity is sludge in old pipes and you’ll never reach that level of production and enjoyment you talk about wanting.

Once you give yourself permission, authorial voice is built with discipline. Consistent effort applied regularly. Writing frequently. Adding to word counts. More doing and less saying you’re going to do things. Word after word, sentence after sentence. Put your butt in the chair and make the words happen. Marathons are measured in miles, but are won a stride at a time.

You’re not going to master your voice during a first draft. It will take several drafts and likely several books to get truly comfortable and nuanced within your voice, and I encourage you to try out lots of different approaches in writing. More dialogue, less narration, more description, fewer similes, bigger hyperbole … figure out where you sound the most like you while telling the story you want to tell, and then build a sustainable environment by reading in and out of genre, build a support network, stop letting fear of other people dictate whether you’re a good or bad person for making stuff, etc etc.

It’s hard. It sounds hard. It can be frustrating that you’re not “getting it fast enough.” There isn’t a “fast enough.” This is not a drag strip, this is Le Mans. But you can get a handle on your voice and use it well. It just means you actually have to write.

Character voice is how a character sounds or acts or thinks, ideally distinct from other characters due to not just manner of speaking, but also word choice, and content. If you have a character from the backwoods, they’ll sound differently than the upper crust European barony. Character voice is making each character specific and their own. And it’s not just about what they say, it’s also how they act or react to whatever goes on around them. Strong character voice makes character A wholly different and distinguishable from characters B and C.

Developing character voice comes out of really knowing your characters, and really being able to say clearly what makes one character different than another. That might mean something intrinsic like beliefs or fears, or something developed like speaking patterns or vocabulary, but you should be able to distinguish one character from another beyond name and physical description. Removing any one character from a story (assuming they’re not some bit player in the background) should leave an impact on the story you’re telling, and character voice is what’s absent once the character is 86’d.

So why are all these voices important? Because in their own way, they demonstrate the skill of the writer, which in a bigger picture means sales and audience building. I’ve always found it a bit of a pressure-stretch to say that your word choice on page 2, paragraph 4 of your second draft is going to directly influence your sales, and that it can easily freeze people up in anxiety, but there is a point to be made between how clearly and passionately you get your ideas out into the world and how people can therefore enjoy them by handing you money.

We enjoy a strong narrative voice because the story moves along and holds our interest.

We enjoy a strong authorial voice because we like each story and series and the styles therein.

We enjoy a strong character voice because we can project and imagine these adventures and these people having them.

Erin, this all boils down to write more. Write more words. Write more often. Your voice(s) will get developed through consistent disciplined effort. They’re important but not so critical you need to hyperthink your ideas to perfection before you put them on the page. You can be imperfectly perfect and successful and happy on your own terms. Truly.

Just keep writing.

I’ll see you guys at the end of the week. Have a great middle of your week, and happy writing.


Posted by johnadamus in answering questions, inboxwednesday, living the dream, 0 comments

The Passage of Time In Story

Good morning. Welcome back to the week. The sky is clear, the sun is out, I think today might be worth seizing. So let’s pour ourselves a morning glass of iced tea into our best mug (mine talks about butts) and talk writing, shall we?

Today, I want to talk about time as it is used in a story. Time is one of the most manipulated and relied upon elements of storycraft, because it’s instantly familiar to the audience regardless of genre or any reader specifics. We all know about time, we all have feelings about time, we all know how time works.

And like the other instantly familiar concepts (like emotions or world physics), when it’s done well, the story maintains its cohesion and proceeds as planned. However, when time gets monkeyed with (and I don’t mean as a function of the story, I mean when the author sucks are expressing the passage of time), it can stick out like a sore thumb.

It’s that point I want to address. Time has a lot of story components, some of which I think warrant more explanation and definition, rather than just a blanket statement.

Have you ever defined time? It’s the progression of events in one direction, presumably forward. We have different units of time that we all agree upon (seconds, minutes, centuries), unless the genre calls for a change to them, as may happen in science fiction where a particular planet has a month marked in 41.3 days or something.

There’s something known as baseline time in storytelling, and that’s the idea that there’s the accepted measurement of time in story as the readers have in real life. When a story mentions a day, they mean 24 hours, that sort of thing. This baseline creates familiarity, and keeps the author from having to eat up valuable space in a manuscript laying out the chronological metrics.

There’s something known as assumptive time, which is the basis for Stretch Theory. Assumptive time is the idea that a “moment” where a story beat happens isn’t defined unless the story calls for it. A bomb defusing scene, for instance, has a need for time to matter more than something vague like “And then Sharon went to the grocery store.” because we don’t need to know that Sharon spent 9 minutes and 3 seconds in the store, just that she went there. Stretch Theory is based on assumptive time, and says: A beat stretches  or dilates time as needed in order to present the most complete version of itself. Translated into English, Stretch Theory says things take as long as they need to.

There’s something called narrative time, which is the time that passes during the story as the events of the story happen. Harry Potter, for instance, measures narrative time in an imagined school year, allowing for seasonal changes as well as social change to be factors in-story.

There’s also something known as read time, which is how much time the reader spent in the act of reading, both on a sentence-by-sentence case, but also the bigger scale of how much time the person sat down to read.

When you combine all these things together, you start to see the potential of time as a story element. You want to maximize read time, because more reading is good, and builds audience, is enjoyable and leads potentially to sales, etc etc. You want to use accepted time as a way to keep the reader following along, giving them a frame of reference they can understand, so that they can focus on what you’re talking about (also maximizing read time) and you want to manipulate assumptive time so that you present the most interesting beats and moments in a story.

Let’s do an example as we dig deeper. Suppose we have two people, let’s call them Kerry and Tracy. Assign genders and age as you like, but let’s put these two people in a relationship. Let’s not marry them yet, but let’s say this example is the story of how they met, and concludes with them getting married. Let’s also agree that we’re not going to introduce too much randomness into this example (like there’s no magic spell to make them fall madly in love on a Tuesday and be married Wednesday). Here are two people in a story, regardless of genre, and we’re telling their story.

Time and relationships is tricky, because while yes, I have tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of words I can devote to creating this relationship, there’s a sweet spot as to what’s going to be believable and what isn’t. Take too long, and the reader can grow impatient, assuming the obstacles preventing the relationship’s development aren’t substantial (Tracy not calling Kerry back “just because” is not as substantial as Tracy not calling Kerry back because Tracy is still getting over the loss of their ex due to a tragic playground accident.)

Move too quickly, and the reader won’t believe these characters truly care. (I’m looking at you Les Mis and Twilight). This is due to reader experience almost universally indicating them that outside the world of your story, relationships take time. This is particularly important if we’re going to put some realism in our story, because realism is going to require us to mirror reader experience.

So how do you find the sweet spot?

The good news is that you can look to other story elements to figure it out. A relationship is a symbiosis between people, so it’s important to have a sense of the qualities and shortcomings of each character in the relationship as well as a sense as to how they overlap.

Coming back to Kerry and Tracy, let’s keep Tracy with a problem letting go and a dead ex, and since we’re building a healthy relationship here, we can either give Kerry a skill at letting go, or a comparable issue with relationships, since we want to see the two characters develop together by working on their issues collaboratively as well as individually. Let’s give Kerry different issue, so they’ll have no problem with letting go, but they’ll instead have a problem that Tracy can assist them with.

(This is called “simple symbiosis”, when Character A’s faults play to Character B’s strengths and vice versa.)

But, you ask, how long can this take? Stretch Theory.

Map the expression of the plot and symbiosis across beats, not chapters, and here’s why: Because beats compose chapters, and staying fluid here allows you to let Stretch Theory be an asset and not a bore.

Take the problem at the heart of the story: Tracy and Kerry need to get together, stay together, and get married. If we present this arc as three beats, or even 3 chapters, it’s going to be a very short progression, and its brevity asks a lot of the reader – the less information provided, the more assumptions you’re tasking the reader to make and agree with. (There’s a danger in information saturation, where there’s too much material, but we’ll get to that.)

We can divide this whole relationship into pieces. When slicing, try to end up with even or divisible numbers, because your overall structure benefits with division. (It’s easier to tell a story in 8 parts with 4 two-parters, than a story in seven parts with 1 4-parter and 1 3-parter.)

Here’s Kerry and Tracy’s relationship, divided into thirds, because three act structure.

1. Characters meet
2. Tracy is interested/disinterested in Kerry
3. Kerry is interested/disinterested in Tracy

4. A date is arranged
5. Dates happens
6. Relationship faces difficulty

7. More difficulty
8. Efforts made to overcome difficulties
9. Marriage!

These 9 elements could be scenes, they could be chapters, they could be beats. Right now, this is the story mapping stage, so I’m not concerned yet with word counts for each part, because I’m just putting my ideas on paper. Subsequent development will have my putting word counts to each section, and expanding this very crude outline, likely with dialogue and a breakdown of the moments that interest me: specifically 3, 5, and 6, because those moments are where I can write some really fun stuff and show off my writer skills.

Notice though that there’s no concrete mention of a chronology with graduations. I’m not specifying here how long the 9 steps take. Step 5 must take some bit of time though, because I’ve labeled it as “dates” (plural), so I must have some idea about multiple things that will happen. The unspoken graduation is forward progress, and that’s established in the idea that the sections are meeting, together, marriage. But within the three parts, there’s additional progression baked in, one thing leading to another until we reach our goal.

When we put time into this outline, we start to see a sense of scale and pace. Let’s put together a really simple progression and use the seasons as our chronology. This will turn our outline into this:

1. Characters meet (SPRING)
2. Tracy is interested/disinterested in Kerry (SUMMER)
3. Kerry is interested/disinterested in Tracy (LATE SUMMER)

4. A date is arranged (AUTUMN)
5. Dates happens (AUTUMN TO WINTER)
6. Relationship faces difficulty (WINTER)

7. More difficulty (WINTER)
8. Efforts made to overcome difficulties (END OF WINTER)
9. Marriage! (SPRING)

By partnering our outline with seasons, not only are we giving our story a sense of “how long is this gonna take”, we’re also playing with the assumptions and expectations a reader may have about what the seasons mean to them. Spring is often rebirth, so we end our story with these two people starting a life together with new growth, winter is a dark and miserable time, so we partner it with the rough part of our story.

But this still doesn’t tell you enough about how long this should be. Even if we add in word count, like this:

1. Characters meet (SPRING) (5k)
2. Tracy is interested/disinterested in Kerry (SUMMER) (4k)
3. Kerry is interested/disinterested in Tracy (LATE SUMMER) (4k)

4. A date is arranged (AUTUMN) (4k)
5. Dates happens (AUTUMN TO WINTER) (10k)
6. Relationship faces difficulty (WINTER) (5k)

7. More difficulty (WINTER) (2k)
8. Efforts made to overcome difficulties (END OF WINTER) (6k)
9. Marriage! (SPRING) (5k)

word count isn’t an indicator of time passing within a story. I can spend a thousand words in the present tense while describing the contents of a suitcase and never advance narrative time forward, though reader time passes, because human reading is not instantaneous.

Story believability is not a function of narrative time. Many adventures take place over an unspecified number of days, often without characters doing anything outside of the specific adventure (Hi, first season of 24, where Jack Bauer doesn’t stop to pee). For our Kerry and Tracy relationship, we’re not counting on time doing the heavy lifting of broadcasting our idea. Time is there, but it’s a support structure: the actual events and character growth relative to those events are what’s going to make this relationship feel realistic.

(For the people still looking to get incredibly crunchy and prickly over time, I’d like to point out that the montage, flash forward, and scene transitions all show time as a malleable narrative factor if that’s the story’s need.)

Go back to our outline, and look at item 5, where there are multiple dates happening. We’ll likely have to subdivide that time into its constituent date components of planning, executing, resolving, and the repeating those phases for each date. Additionally the successes and failures stack, so that date 4 is predicated on date 3 going well, and over the course these dates we’ll also escalate the attraction and presumably throw these characters into bed together, likely after they laugh while getting caught in the rain after one too many margaritas at happy hour … or something.

I point these dates out because each date is important, but not the timing of each date. One date might be seeing a movie, written out in two or three sentences, despite the movie consuming 2 hours of narrative time. The total read time for that date? Depending on how long it takes to read the paragraph, so … seconds? Our seconds translate into their hours.

Time is malleable, and we buy into its progress not because we micromanage it, but because we use it to buttress our developmental efforts.

There isn’t a clear formula where you plug in variables for number of characters or word count and get the precise amount of narrative time necessary. In two words (“Years later…“) I can advance time a non-specific amount, even though I give you an indicator of its vector when I use later, suggesting that time has advanced, so likely Kerry or Tracy has an eyepatch or scar or cybernetic limb in the dystopia spawned from in an alternate timestream only visible to Kerry while dreaming after a date night when they stayed up too late playing a very aggressive game of Uno.

The amount of information I use to distribute the the progress and growth of characters is not always proportional to the importance of the thing the character does in order to grow. Yes, it might take years to master an ancient martial art, but I can turn Tracy into a warrior within less than a dozen words: Tracy eventually mastered Fighting Hippo Style.

Let’s wrap today by taking our outline and putting it into a paragraph breakdown. We’ll include the 9 steps parenthetically.

Tracy and Kerry meet (1) at the corporate mixer for new employees of The Job Corporation. Both Tracy and Kerry were hired by Gary, and both of them develop a friendly relationship after some initial professional competition (2 and 3). When their individual dates bail/were secretly killed by Gary, Tracy and Kerry agree to go out together (4), and eventually see more and more of each other (5), though Tracy’s rigid martial arts training that started after their ex was killed by a rogue jungle gym and Kerry’s inability to avoid office drama, keep their relationship somewhat unstable (6).

Gary institutes more corporate changes in his bid for power, and the Tracy/Kerry relationship hits its lowest point (7), when Kerry is kidnapped by Gary’s robot army and Tracy must use their martial arts training to rescue the person of their dreams (8). With Gary ultimately defeated, the couple reunites and moves forward with their lives (9).

Framed like that, time becomes an afterthought rather than a panic engine. This story will develop at the pace it needs to, because we see the whole map, and we’re not just faffing around when we want our characters to grow/change along a particular arc.

My many thanks to my client ZA Maxfield for suggesting this topic. I’ll see you on Wednesday, when we’ll grab a question out of the inbox.

Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in answering questions, by request, character stuff, living the dream, 0 comments

InboxWednesday – Sentence Length and Grammar

Good morning everyone, hope the Wednesday you’re facing down the barrel of isn’t too terrible.

Like we do every Wednesday, let’s reach into the inbox and pull out a question about writing or publishing. Remember, if you have a question and want it answered, write me an email. Even if I don’t answer your question on the blog, I will write you back and answer your question. I promise.

Today’s question comes from Pete, who asks:

John, you’ve talked before about how important it is to vary your sentences. I get that, but what about grammar. How do you make that work? How long is too long? How many long sentences can I get away with? Should my action scenes have fewer long sentences because they’re supposed to be quick? What do I do?

Okay Pete, you’ve asked a lot of great questions. I want to start though not at the top of the list, but in the middle, if you’ll let me.

Whenever I see “can I get away with” when we’re talking writing, I think about the idea of something being transgressive, like we’re sneaking a file inside a cake or we’re telling the substitute teacher that we’re encouraged not to pay attention – that there are established rules and we have to keep our rule-breaking a secret, so that someone else doesn’t find out what we’re up to.

But there isn’t a “someone else” here Pete, unless you mean that you’re afraid of the collective “other people” judge you for writing a thing they’re reading … or are you saying that if you write too many long sentences people will give up on your book, that they’ve already paid for, and you’ll lose their potential future sales on other books you read?

Okay, Pete, that’s a pretty ambitious fear. First it assumes you’re going to get published (which you totally should pursue), then it assumes you’re going to publish multiple things (which you totally should do), then it assumes that your developed audience (something you should have) will abandon you at the first sign of a long sentence. That last part doesn’t speak too highly of how you think about this audience – that they will turn on you just as soon as praise you, and that’s not really accurate. It’s not over sentence length that an author loses the reader, it’s a combination of factors … but that discussion comes later. Right now, that manuscript isn’t finished, so let’s steer back on course.

You don’t abandon grammar entirely. You don’t abandon the sentence’s job of delivering ideas into the reader’s head. You do however experiment with how the sentence does its job. A fragment, although a no-no in some grammar contexts, can accurately convey information. Really. (see what just happened there?) Whereas a long sentence, full of clauses that twist and turn, carrying the reader towards a seemingly tremendous end can be a revelation as a break from short, punchy, almost yelling-at-you text.

I can expand on these ideas further with a sports analogy if you’ll indulge me. In hockey, for instance, players try to score goals while the opposing team’s defenders and goalie try and stop them. The player on offense has many ways to attempt to score points, so long as they hit the puck with a stick, and the puck goes into the net. They can do this with a slapshot, a wrist shot, a quick tap-in, a deflection, even an errant pass that takes a lucky turn or bounce.

Likewise, as a writer, you have many tools at your disposal to deliver your ideas (get your puck in the net). You can use long sentences (slap shots), short sentences (wrist shots), fragments (tap-ins), a variety of clauses (deflections and bouncing pucks). You are not without options, and each of those options has its roots in the principles of good grammar.

Recall too that “good” is not synonymous with “perfect” (or so my therapist reminds me), so grammar doesn’t have to be flawless to be accurate, understandable or enjoyed. The maxim in writing is: When you understand the rule, you can break the rule.

This supposes though that you know the rule. And “know” in this context refers to the ability to demonstrate following it. Write some really strong sentences, throw in a fragment and see what happens. In this way, the rules become guidelines, templates, and assumptions available for your use to educe your own voice and idea.

Sentence length is one tool for developing ideas. How many you use is going to vary, but overuse slows momentum, as the reader will take longer to get through the sentence, particularly when the word choice or punctuation make the lines dense and difficult to parse.

A different problem bubbles up when the long sentence is dialogue, as it can seem very jarring and almost monologue-y to have someone speaking in great paragraphs during a scene where perhaps long conversation does not make sense (the building is blowing up all around her, yet she wants to discourse about the state of the produce cartel.)

But there are cases when long sentences are useful. Establishing scenes, laying out detailed descriptions, anywhere you can take similar information and spread it out as a setup for things to come, all are fertile for longer sentences.

Of course, this means we’ve all agreed on how long “long” is. And there’s no answer to that. If we agree that long sentences have multiple clauses, then we have to try and come to a consensus on how many clauses we’re talking about. And if we pick a number like 4, are we saying that sentences with 3 dependent clauses aren’t long? It’s a rabbit hole of overthinking.

And Pete, that’s the heart of this issue. Overthinking the delivery system of ideas in order to ensure “the best success” is a great way to end up with a very weak delivery system at all, because everything ends up critiqued and examined and questioned rather than trusted and tested. (This is the same sort of argument I make when we talk about editing while you work.)

Long sentences are not some rare power held by a few while the rest of the writing peasantry has to make due with word scraps to get their ideas out. It’s just another tool in the toolbox, use it as you think you need to. And if you think you’re not using it correctly, ask for help. In time you’ll figure out what works best for you, and it’ll be better than some pat answer, because it will be tailored to you, which is ideal.

Thanks for your question Pete, it was a good one.

See you all later this week for more blogging goodness. Happy writing.



Posted by johnadamus in answering questions, inboxwednesday, living the dream, 0 comments

BonusInbox – Writing & Focus

Good morning. We’re going to deviate from what I had planned for today’s blogpost (you’ll see that on Monday), because I wanted to bring you an extra question and answer from the inbox. It’s an important question, and honestly, I think it’s got elements that need to be discussed more often, so I’m going to do that along with my answer.

Today’s question comes from PJ:

This is a difficult question to ask because like the problem itself, it’s rather complex. I have an issue with over plotting and too many characters. I get to the middle or even the end of a first draft and realize I’ve packed way too much into one story. Which seems a simple enough issue to deal with; just edit it down. My real problem is the thought process I go through that leads me to these messes.
I think the writing itself is okay and that makes it even more frustrating. I have stories to share but it’s like I can’t settle my brain down enough to get one finished. My mind wanders, my attention span is a tad bit short and I’m on a few different medications that make me a little foggy. So with all that and the desire to just get a well-written story out there I get extremely overwhelmed.
Now I’ve written with & without outlines. Both methods fly off course, just one a little less than the other. So I guess my question is should I just admit to myself that being a writer just isn’t going to work? Is it possible to have the skills to tell a story with a mind that is incapable of keeping it on track? Or is there a way to settle myself down and salvage these stories?
On a personal level I’ve lived with a lot of health issues both physical and mental throughout my life and it’s sad to say but I’ve gotten used to wanting to do something but either my body or mind won’t let me. I was hoping this wasn’t one of those and I really don’t want to quit. I just don’t know what to do or when someone in this situation should just throw in the towel.

There’s a lot to unpack here PJ, so let’s go a chunk at a time.

“Too Much”
There’s always caution to be taken when we start tossing around “too” when we’re getting creative. Because the more “too” we spread around, the more judgmental we’re being of our work, and by extension, ourselves. Granted, there’s some wisdom in seeing that you’ve put too much in, so other people may agree with you once they read  it, but there’s still that risk that maybe you’re being overcritical and there isn’t actually too much. Holding yourself back, overthinking the process is a great way to breed frustration about the process, which can lead you to doing less and less of it over time.

Did you write too much, PJ? I don’t know. But your frustration is palpable in the question you wrote. My answer there is get someone to read it. A beta reader, someone who isn’t going to be biased in your favor, someone who you haven’t said, “Hey I think there’s too much in this story, give it a read?” and have instead said, “Could you read this for me?”

Over-plotting, Too Many Characters
Let’s suppose we have a popular television show. Let’s call it “Contest of Chairs.” And on our show we have, oh I don’t know, 180 characters. Sure, we’ll kill off a third of them, leaving us 120. Since we can’t have too many plots, let’s find a nice divisible number for 120, like 5. With 5 plots, that’s 24 characters to a plot.

Wait, you say, this television show is serial, so we can split these five plots over, I don’t know, 50 episodes. So let’s do some math.

50 episodes * 60 minutes to an hour = 3000 minutes
3000 minutes / 5 plots = 600 minutes per each of 5 plots

600 minutes / 24 characters per plot = 25 minutes per character per plot

So over the course of 6 seasons, each character per plot gets 24 minutes of narrative focus, according to my crude math. That’s about 4 minutes per plot per character per season.

Conclusion: Too many characters. Too little time spent focusing on them diffuses the story arc, making it hard for an audience member to do anything other than stay on top the show. The onus is on them to do whatever possible not to skip or miss an airing, and not be confused, because this story train is a-running, and we got not time to be slowly down.

Don’t confuse complexity of plot or character quantity for any mark of quality. Some of the movies collectively loved and appreciated don’t have many featured characters. Do you know why? Because too many characters makes it hard to follow along. And when you get into trying to distinguish Sal from Salvatore from Sally from Sal Jr, you’re doing yourself no great service as a writer.

You don’t need more characters, you need to focus more on the characters you do have.

As for plot? As we learned in FiYoShiMo, plot is a conflict that the character(s) effort to change, and as a result, change themselves. The more complex it is, the more you’re requiring the reader to follow along, and making it harder for them to do so.

I get it, you don’t want to be boring. You don’t want to be like all the other books on the shelf. You want to stand out. Let the quality of what you do be the thing that puts a spotlight on your work. How well you tell a plot, even if it’s “simple”, says way more about your craft than whatever the plot is.

What this tells me PJ, is way more about you as a writer than the specifics of your writing. Whether it’s fantasy or sci fi or Regency romance or who knows what, what your question tells me is that there’s an element of frustration and self-doubt floating around. I don’t know if you’ve asked yourself why you have to make things so big and twisty, and maybe you’ve often chalked it up to, “That’s just how I think of these things…”, but before you answer, this is going to segue us to our next section.

Schedule and Focus
Let me draw back the magic writer curtain. No matter what author you want to talk about, no matter the era they live in, no matter the genre they produce, the single greatest unifying trait, the strand that ties all writers together is that they write. Whether that’s foolscap and ink, typewriter, Macbook Air, dictation to a secretary, or even interpretative dance, a writer writes. And looks for opportunities to keep writing.

You’re on the right track with outlines, and good for you for trying them out, but the downside to an outline is that they can be just as complex as the MS they support.

But PJ, there’s no magic bullet. There’s no one solution to put in place so that all anyone needs to do is outline in this one particular way, and then write paragraphs of a certain length, then draft a certain number of times. There just isn’t.

In that space though, you have freedom, and I think it’s a double-edged sword. Yes, you can go about creating this MS in a dozen billion million different ways, but that can also be paralyzing. Like looking at a closet and not knowing what to wear, but knowing you need to put on something. Like looking at an open fridge and not knowing what you want to eat, but knowing that if you don’t eat, a tiny muse will appear in your office and insist you eat because otherwise you get grumpy and then you’re way less fun to talk to (I may have said too much there, PJ).

Couple that with whatever anxiety, shame, frustration, and anger you’re feeling about being foggy and having some expectation of success (see next section), and it’s little surprise to me that you’re often discouraged. It’s entirely possible for you to write, and write well, with whatever meds and attention span you have. It’s gonna require some discipline and you’re gonna have to challenge yourself, but you can do it.

Smaller successes queue just as nicely as larger ones, although we seem to value them less. We prize getting a promotion at work as being “better” than being able to walk up and down a flight of stairs. We tout qualifying for a mortgage over the sheer fact that last Wednesday you got out of bed. Just because we don’t put it in a Facebook status update or a tweet doesn’t mean it’s not worth celebrating (says the guy who shuffles when he walks and occasionally feels like there’s a conga line of blue whales on his chest). Give yourself credit for the small stuff as well as the large stuff. It’s not small or large, it’s just stuff.

So when you sit down to work, work in small chunks, as your attention span allows. Is that five minutes an hour? 3 minutes a day? Two words at a time? 46 minutes straight? Whatever your attention span, make the most of it. And then, give yourself a fucking break. You just put words on the page, stop judging them, and be proud that you did it. You can hash out if they stay or go when you finish writing and start revising. Play to your strengths.

PJ, a big part of your question seems to be about expectations. That you need X Y and Z elements to happen in certain ways in order to be successful, and if you don’t write this, or do that, or submit here, or whatever then … what exactly? Does the world end? Are you going to smash your keyboard on the cliffs? Rigidity in expectation can be a killer.

If your goal is to get published traditionally, so long as someone signs you and the terms are amenable, are you going to quibble over the name on the letterhead? If your goal is to sell a certain number of books, are you going to be upset if it takes more than a week? Especially if the number is large and has a comma in it?

There are many ways to skin the success cat, but holding on too tightly to the idea that there’s only ONE way to have “success” (I’m making airquotes because I mean success in a broad sense), is a great way to never be satisfied and keep those fires of self-doubt and not-good-enoughness burning.

This is also a great way to keep blaming yourself and feeling bad for having attention issues and being on meds for them. I don’t know if that’s what you’re doing, but if you are, I gotta say, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. It doesn’t make you less of a person or a creator if you gotta go take a pill for something. You’re not a bad person for needing meds. I’m sorry they make you foggy, but you’re still capable, so long as you play to strengths and don’t give up.

Find your goal. Boil it way the hell down. Is it to be a published author? Is it to just have a complete story that someone will buy?

And then start questioning it. Would you feel like less of a writer if you serialized the story? Or if you recorded it as audio? Or paired with, I dunno, a theater troupe to perform the first four paragraphs?

How you measure that success is going to often provoke the frustration. Don’t live up to some standard or bar that you’ve set, and you can easily drive yourself to feeling like you should quit. But you shouldn’t. Because you didn’t “fail.” You did something, you wrote, you produced something on a given day, and sometimes it’s just gotta be good enough, because you’re always good enough, whether you wrote 1 word or 10,000.

So What Do You Do?
Start small. Way small. Set tiny goals that you can demolish. Set goals that you can demolish where you can accomplish multiple goals then reward yourself.

When you map out the story, don’t limit yourself to just an outline. Try note cards. Try audio notes. Try visual diagrams.

And keep it small. Write out your characters. Read about plot. Go slow, stay organized.

Maybe this video will help.




Keep going.


I’ll see you guys Monday. It looks to be a good weekend here at Castle Adamus. There are things to read and new shows to feast upon. Have a great time doing what and whoever it is you do.

Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in answering questions, believe in yourself, living the dream, 0 comments

InboxWednesday -Racing, Reviews, and Respect

In case you missed it Monday, the survey (still free, still anonymous) about editing and coaching is up. If you could take a minute or two and fill it out, I’d really appreciate it. Check it out right here.

Welcome to the middle of your week. We’ve made it this far, I think we can get through. I don’t know why we’d want to put noses to grindstones, that seems like a great way to end up like Voldemort or Skeletor, so how about we instead jump into the inbox and answer some questions?

John, I’ve been trying to finish this MS for 4 years, ever since my daughter went into school, and have days to myself when the house isn’t a wreck. I’m writing a little nearly every day, but it’s so discouraging seeing other people talking on social media about how they’re querying manuscripts they wrote and revised in half the time. What am I doing wrong? – Danielle

Danielle, you’re not doing anything wrong. I’ll say that again, you’re not doing anything wrong. Publishing (like so many other things in this world) isn’t a sprint with a gold medal on the line. There’s no bonus prize award for speed. There’s no achievement you unlock for writing a novel in less than thirty drafts. Writing is meritocratic, meaning the good work goes forward, and the duds don’t (even though all work teaches us stuff).

I know what you’re talking about. That sense of near-failure or struggle that you’re taking so long to do something that other people seem to do in the blinks of a few eyes, and then to top it off they talk about all the other good things going on in their lives and you start wondering if you’re doing anything right at all because you’re not done writing AND your kids just spilled juice on the rug AND your spouse forgot to get the eggs AND you’re supposed to be out of the house within the next 10 minutes. Yeah, it’s a maelstrom of suck, or at least you keep telling yourself it is, so long as you lens everything through whether or not that manuscript is complete.

But, Danielle, you are not your manuscript. You are not your rejection letters. You are not your to-be-done text file of ideas. You are not your Pinterest boards and daydreams.

You’re a whole person, and the only one driving you to compare your manuscript to someone else’s is … you. The reader over there? They don’t care how many drafts it took you. They’re not aware that you wrote chapter 23 while you were sick with flu and ran to the bathroom every six sentences. They just want the book. And since they’ve made it this far in life without your book, I’m pretty sure they’ll be happy to wait for the thing they didn’t realize they would enjoy.

What I’m saying is this – make the  best manuscript you can Danielle. Be bold and fearless and take risks. Put your guts on the page. Write as best you can, when you can. Don’t fall prey to the comparisons about other writers. You’re not other writers, and they’re not you.

Write your story. Finish your story. Keep going.

Hi John! I just got my first book published last year, and the first months of reviews were positive. And for a while, I would run into people who read the book, and they really liked it. But now it’s been nearly a year, and the reviews have slowed down, and I started getting a few negative ones. What do I do? Is this normal? – C.

Hi C. Congratulations on getting your first book published, and I’m glad to hear the reviews have been positive. Yes, what you’re experiencing is typical. There’s a great surge up front, and then things cool off. There are a couple reasons for this.

First, that initial surge probably had some promotion behind it. You were tweeting about it, you were blogging about it, you had friends talking about it when it first came out. It was a new experience, and there was a rush behind it. After a bit of time, it’s no longer as new.

Second, there’s something called “initial push and conversion” which is the immediate reach you have to audience, with a little bit of extension. What that means in English is this: how many people can you directly talk to about your book, and how many of those people will go pick up your book, read it, AND review it. I have 1520 Twitter followers, so while I can reach that many people, I can’t control all 1520 to read my blog, nor can I many all or any of them share what I post with their friends. That’s a lot of people who have the potential to read the blog, but I can’t go to each of their houses and make them not only read, but also comment. Past those 1520 people, my blog is just out there in the wild, so some element of the traffic is based on people googling stuff or just stumbling upon it.

Third, it’s always tough to get readers to leave reviews. That’s not the book’s fault, that’s a combination of factors like assuming someone else will do it so they don’t have to, the perceived amount of time it would take to do more than just click on a number of stars, and the amount of time it would take to sign into a website people may use all the time anyway. And while it’s great that Mary from Anchorage gave the book 5 stars, you’re hoping that Mary takes a few minutes to put some words down along with her 5 stars, so that people read the review and want to buy the book.

The funny part is where you may struggle to have people write lengthy praise, you may have no trouble getting them to bomb your book, especially if it somehow pisses in their cornflakes, upsets their apple cart, or challenges their previously held thoughts. Oh, how the heavens shall tremble when you make a character a race other than what they’re expecting. Oh, how the world shall fall asunder when two characters of the same gender decide they want to go hang out without pants on.

Yes, I should say here, I am a believer in the idea that even bad press is press, and you can use this to your advantage (without the horseshit of generating your own controversy so you can play the victim though, I have no patience for it, and if you want that, there are plenty of websites where you can go for that experience) with sharp marketing copy like “Come check out the book everyone says is ruining all of mankind because two ladies go out for latte.” or “Do you agree with X number of reviewers that anthropomorphic hot dog aliens are the worst thing ever since ‘we let the gays marry’?” But that’s just me, and maybe your preferred response to bookcritic4lyfe88 is to get your ice cream and beer on.

What you do is this – keep writing. Go make that next book, tell that next story, don’t lose yourself to tending the garden of reviews when you have so many other seeds to plant and watch bloom. Just keep going.

Hey John, love the blog. Glad to hear you’re recovering from surgery and I’m happy to see you posting again. I’m not sure you’re going to answer this email, but I wanted to tell you that I’ve taken the plunge and starting writing. I’m a SAHM, so I squeeze my writing in during irregular hours when I’m not being a chauffeur or referee between two kids. My husband has started working from home two days a week, but I’m having trouble convincing them that I’m seriously trying to write. Any tips? – Allison

Allison, thanks for the question. Yes, I have some tips.

First, one of the things that you need to look at are those “irregular” hours. Yeah, I know, kids can throw a wrench in a lot of routines sometimes, but that’s not always the norm is it? Sometimes, yes, there are just regular downtimes and a sort of unspoken schedule. Spend a few days really trying to figure out what that schedule is and write it down.

If your kids are both in bed and asleep by 8:30 (I’m making times up here), and your husband is happily content doing his own thing by then too, then you’ve got let’s say 8:30 to 10pm to yourself. Explain to your husband (always start with the adults) that you’re going to make a habit out of writing from 8:30 to 9:15 (again, I’m making up times Allison), and that during that time, you want to keep the distractions to a minimum. Now I don’t know what you consider a distraction, maybe you want him to yell at the Xbox a little less loudly, or when the kids pop up because of whatever reason, you send them to see your husband first before you. Yeah, there might be some grumbling, there always is when a status quo changes, but if you stick to it, people will come around.

You deserve the opportunity to have your time and interests respected. But the other people around you aren’t going to know what’s up without you putting down a boundary and enforcing it. Sure, some distractions are going to require your intervention, and that is going to cut into that writing schedule, but by and large, you can set up a schedule and stick to it, so long as you ride out that initial anxiety you have that people will freak out because you’re going to go be creative. It’s worth pointing out that you don’t know how they’re going to react until you start, so start, and trust the people around you to be supportive. You’re good enough to respect yourself and be respected by others.


If you have a question you want to see answered on #inboxwednesday, send me an email. Yes, I really do read them all.

Go create. We’ll talk Friday.



Posted by johnadamus in answering questions, HAM, help me out, inboxwednesday, living the dream, 0 comments

InboxWednesday -Epilogues, Prologues, and Immediate Series

It’s Wednesday, so pull on your waders and let’s head out into the inbox and see what we can find. Today we’ve got 3 questions: 2 about writing technique, and 1 about a publishing concept. Remember, if you have a question about anything writing, publishing, story, or really anything, you can get it answered on InboxWednesday, you just need to ask it.

I’ve written a dystopic MG love story set fifteen years after the melting of the ice caps. It’s sort of like Castaway meets When Harry Met Sally, […] if there were cannibals and pontoons. It’s nearly complete at 190k, I’m just writing the ending now. Any thoughts on an epilogue? – Mark

Hi Mark. Thanks for writing in. Before we talk epilogue, I want to point out that you’ve written 190,000 words, and that’s before you’ve written an ending. It’s possible that your ending could take your MS over 200,000 words. There’s an older rule that says anything over 110,000 qualifies as an “epic” novel. Ulysses is 265,222 words. Order of the Phoenix is 257,045.

I’m calling your attention to it because you’ve identified your work as MG, and middle grade generally falls between the 22,000 – 55,000 word range because it’s aimed at tweens. Even upper middle grade fiction is about 40,000 – 55,000, so be careful that the size of your story doesn’t do you in.

But that wasn’t what you asked me.

An epilogue is “the final chapter at the end of the story that reveals the fate of the characters that may or may nor occur some time after the novel’s events and possibly hint at sequels or loose ends.” Now whether you interpret “final” to be the last chapter you write after you write the chapter where you resolve the plot or whether it’s just the last chapter in the book, that’s up to you. However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you need to advance time after you resolve plot so you can Harry Potter-style fill us in on our now-older protagonists. You don’t.

It’s okay to have some stories just end with a satisfying conclusion. Yes, even with the loose ends from chapter 12 still untucked. Yes, even without hinting that you’re going to crank out 6 other books with this main character. Sometimes a book is a single book, and that’s okay.

I’m not a fan of epilogues just for the sake of adding a nice smile and sigh at the end of an already satisfying story. It’s always struck me as sort of indulgent, maybe even a little flash and smug to have the need to keep demonstrating how talented an author is by giving an extra portion of character and content when we’ve already been sated.

So, Mark, my answer to you is tread carefully. How much resolution do you think is necessary? How much would a reader think necessary? Get the MS out to a beta reader and see how they feel with the story’s conclusion. (And seriously take a look at the word count, please.)

John, I’ve got a 46,350 word fantasy novel that I’m about to query, but I’m thinking I need a prologue, because a lot of books I’ve read this month all had them. Do I need a prologue? – Elise

When I wrote the first draft of this answer, I was sort of in a mood, so I said, “Take some of Mark’s words and add them to your MS”, but that’s kind of a dick answer, so instead I’ll mention that 46k is on the lean side for fantasy novels (most in the genre range from 90k to 110k), but there are a lot of venues who want novellas, which range from 20k to 52k usually. Now I don’t know where you’re querying, but you might want to look at calling it a novella and finding novella specific resources if you’re not getting much novel traction.

The prologue you asked about is an opening to a story that “establishes setting and gives background details.” In fantasy and science fiction, the prologue doesn’t feature the characters we’ll follow for the other chapters. Time is a factor, some prologues take place prior to the main story (as in Lord of the Rings, when you learn about Isildur and Agent Smith in the war), or they involve lesser characters who are just around for a few pages to set up the fact that we’re on a distant planet in a remote solar system and today’s taco day.

There’s no reason why you can’t do that world building in the beginning of the story. And frankly, even with a prologue, you’ll often need to do more building and setup in addition to whatever’s in the prologue if you do write one. And no, you can’t fit all the worldbuilding and setting into the prologue and expect the reader to understand it all before you get into the substance of the story.

Like epilogues, I don’t think you need a prologue every time, and especially not every time you dive into the SF/F waters. Often I read an MS with a prologue that sets up there being a prophecy and a single character fated to create massive story upheaval. Sometimes prologues are a few pages where the nigh immortal badguy sets up his reign of terror that will span generations. What I’m saying Elise, is that prologues often cover the same well-walked ground, and they can be mighty dull.

The solution? If you’re going to prologue, go with the amuse-bouche approach. Give us a little world building so we see how you work your craft. You don’t necessarily have to tease the plot, you don’t have to tease the characters, but take a few pages to show your writing chops in the created world-space and vibe of your story. make it a place where you show your technique, giving us an appealing entry point to the more specific story.

Good luck Elise.

John, what’s an immediate series? I read about it on a message board and didn’t understand what it was. – Karen

Karen, an immediate series is an old idea made new, but it didn’t always have that name. A long time ago, a lot of publication was done serially, with monthly installments showing up in periodicals like Collier’s or Black Mask, depending on genre. This episodic breakdown was good for publishers since it meant readers had to buy issue after issue or subscribe to follow a story from start to finish. It was also good for writers, in that it called for stories to be divisible into publishable chunks, and that work on craft helped form the foundations for how we produce stories today.

Serialization often focused on chapters. The immediate series focuses on more than chapters, often looking at novellas or near-novellas in length, that can be quickly published with very little lag time (because they were already written, it’s just a matter of getting them out the door). For instance, you may write 3 novellas about anthropomorphic samurai appliances and then self-publish one every 21 days in the Spring.

It’s about taking a shotgun approach to the reader’s shelf – get a lot of material out there, so that there are a lot of purchasing options, which can build an audience and financial base.

Doing that is not bad or wrong Karen, it’s one of many perfectly feasible approaches to publishing and marketing. For some people, it works, thanks to the strength of the first book, or the series premise. For some, it’s just emetic, you deluge the reader maybe too hastily and the books aren’t as strong, so a reader can skip any of the 15 you throw out there and you don’t build that audience or base.

Hope that answered your question Karen, thanks for it.


Looking at the inbox today, I think Friday’s post might be about MS length, which is sort of a contentious topic, but it’s worth weighing in on. See you then.


Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in answering questions, inboxwednesday, living the dream, the craft of writing, 0 comments

InboxWednesday on Thursday – MS Prep

Hey everyone, hope you’re doing well. My apologies for the altered schedule in blogposts, many things work and otherwise have been afoot, and I prefer to be able to blog at length, rather than on a set schedule. It doesn’t do either of us any good to go short in our discussions.

InboxWednesday is designed to get you answers to questions that I don’t normally answer on the blog, on topics ranging from storycraft to development to today’s topic, manuscript preparation. If you have a question, ask it. There are no stupid questions. Or find me on Twitter for regular bouts of writing tweets.

Today’s question comes from Luke.

John, I’ve finished my MS, do I need to do anything before I start querying?

Luke, first of all, congratulations on finishing the manuscript. That’s not the easiest thing to do in the world, and you should take a minute or 90 and go celebrate. Have cake. Watch cartoons. Do something fun.

And then when you’re done getting your I’m-done groove on, here’s what you do with that finished MS.

Make sure it’s finished. No, seriously, make sure it’s all done. No notes in the margin, no half-written paragraphs or sentences. Make sure you’ve got all the chapters all into 1 document. Get someone to read it and see if they think it’s done. Not good, not nice. Just see if it’s a full story with a beginning, middle, end, conflict, and resolution. Oh, and make sure it has characters. What I’m saying Luke, is that you’re going to query a complete manuscript so that you don’t have to use vital words in your query mentioning that it’s a complete manuscript. So, get it all in one file, all in place.

Check your spelling and punctuation. I know, it’s 2016 and we have smartphones and heated toilet seats, but would you believe that there are people who don’t spellcheck a document before sending it somewhere? I mean, in Word, you press one key. It’s not a perfect flawless spellcheck, but it’s at least something. You’re trying to get someone to give you a contract for your work, take the extra however many minutes to make sure you spelled “obvious” correctly on page 16.  Likewise, make sure you’ve ended sentences with punctuation, and that you’ve got quotation marks where they’re supposed to be. It’s important. Little touches at this point make all the difference.

Get it read, or better, get it read AND edited. Before we go all query-happy, you’re going to want to talk to other humans about what you’ve done. (Okay I realize that makes it sound like I’m comparing your MS to that time I watched a kid named Joey light a firecracker and throw it into a pile of dry leaves, but you know what I mean) I’m talking about getting people to read it. Competent people who aren’t super-biased. So yes, your partner, spouse, kids, occasional sex partner, dogwalker, and pizza delivery guy can read your MS, but they’ve got a vested interest in saying nice things to you. Go find people who don’t have to worry about upsetting you. Where? Social media that isn’t your family-only Facebook page. I like Twitter. Or websites like this one.

Better still, get readers and go find a freelance editor. Someone who can professionally poke your MS with sticks and other tools to get it into the best shape possible. No Luke, it’s not frivolous. Yes, I know you just ran spellcheck. But spellcheck isn’t going to be able to point out that you have no conflict past chapter 4. Or that you started called one character by another character’s name about halfway through the story. An editor is a resource you should strongly consider making use of. I’m one. Here’s another. Here’s another. Here’s another. Yes, you’re going to pay for the help, but as I’ve said, it’s the difference between trying to fix a leaky roof by yourself versus hiring the roof guy.

Format it for submission. Let’s suppose you wrote this MS in Scrivener. You’re going to need to Export it (Ctrl + Shift + X) to a file type that’s specified in the submission guidelines. Maybe that’s a PDF. Maybe that’s a Read-only docx. Maybe that’s pasted into the body of an email. Whatever the case, make sure you prepare a version of the MS for that. If it’s email, make sure pasting it won’t throw the spacing all to hell. If it’s a PDF or docx, make sure the margins are where they’re supposed to be, and that the font is appropriate. If the guidelines say use a sans serif font at size 12, do it. Following directions is important, Luke.

Doublecheck your submission guidelines and relevant info. One of the fastest ways to get rejected is to send the query you meant for Person A to Person B (or worse Persons B-Q en masse). I know I just said format the file correctly, but this is past that. If say, you’re submitting to Publisher X, make sure you do what Publisher X wants done. Yes, I know, it’s hella annoying to have to do all these things over and over with just a little variation – Publisher X wants it one way, Agent F wants it another way, Agent D wants something else – but for as much as it’s a test to see if you can follow directions, it’s part of the process to see if you give a damn about what you’re doing. So many people get just as far as you have Luke, and then balk at this last step. You already did the hard part, this is just tiny organizing. You can do this.

Send it out without being super outcome dependent. Okay, here’s the challenge. You just spent however long getting this story out of your head. You did a lot. You really want to get that book out into the world. You want to have people give you money. You want to see people like your work. You want your agent to arrange the foreign movie deal. Whatever your endgame, there’s a chance it’s not going to happen. Or if it does happen, it might not happen the way you’ve been picturing it when you’re supposed to be at your dayjob. I know you’ve got many eggs in that basket, or many baskets counting on the eggs in that one basket, but I really have to stress that whatever happens it’s going to be okay. You get rejected, you make the changes you need to, you try again. You get knocked down, you get back up. Your dream isn’t stupid, it’s just hard to accomplish. Which is why you have to keep working so hard. Don’t give up Luke.

Hope I’ve answered the question. Have I missed anything? Should I tell Luke to start drinking heavily? Let me know in the comments or come find me on Twitter.

See you guys tomorrow for a rousing discussion of how not everyone is going to like you … or me … or each other … tomorrow we’re going to talk about reception.


Happy writing.


Posted by johnadamus in answering questions, inboxwednesday, living the dream, 0 comments

Bringing Back The Johnversation

A long time back, I thought I’d take over the world by putting up a lot of Youtube videos. It would have worked, if I put up a lot of Youtube videos.

But the Johnversation, which is really what I call any audio or video I produce, is back.

And today, we talk writer’s block. Check this out.



Okay, there’s supposed to be an embedded player here, but because I truly believe WordPress is designed to be as difficult as possible when you need it to be easy, I’m going to just link you to the page where you can click the play button. I really wish all the “paste this on your website” coding was actually easy to use.

Here’s the link to the Johnversation. I’m sorry I’m not savvy nor patient enough to get it to load. Oh also, Soundcloud can suck moldy lemons for telling me the only way I could use their service is to pay some absurd subscription fee, even though I don’t put up more than a file or two a month.

If you want to download today’s Johnversation, here’s the link.

See you in 2 days for #InboxWednesday.

Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in answering questions, audio post, johnversation, living the dream, 0 comments

InboxWednesday – Query Responses & Series-itis

Welcome to #InboxWednesday, where I plumb my inbox and answer questions from writers. Want your question answered? Leave me a message, and you’ll find yourself in a future #InboxWednesday.

Today’s questions come from Mark in Georgia (the state, not the country), and Aimee in Okinawa.

John, I’m querying my science fiction novel, and I’m getting rejected quite a bit. I think I’m up to 17 or 18 rejections in the last 9 months. It’s very discouraging. Some of the queries explain a little about what isn’t working in my MS, and some are form letters that aren’t personal at all. At times, both really piss me off. It’s tiring to query and fail over and over. Is there something I should be doing when I get a rejection to help my chances? I just want my book published. — Mark

Oh hai Mark. First, good job finishing a novel. And I’m sorry to hear that you’re getting rejected, but also not sorry to hear it. Not because I never want to see your novel on a shelf, but because rejection is part of the process, a part that’s as important as revision or finishing that last chapter or writing that seventh chapter.

Rejection teaches us the critical skills of courage and determination. And much like Hercules Mulligan, the goal is to get back up when knocked down. Rejection sucks, because it’s evidence that you’re not done, but rejection is also proof that you’re trying. I know that’s not very comforting right now, but you’re doing hard stuff and you should keep doing hard stuff.

Not all responses to query letters are equal. Depending on where you send your MS, you might get a lengthy response breaking down plenty of key points. You might get a form letter. You might get a form letter with your name spelled wrong. You might get nothing. You might get a hastily written rejection where you get just a little information to go on. Who knows. There’s no set template for query letters from publisher to publisher, though internally many people within one publisher have the same responder.

Some of these will piss you off, and some more than others. They’re not designed to make you hate writing and the publishing industry, but that’s often what happens: people get enough rejections, they blame the whole system, they stop trying. Don’t do that, Mark.

Let’s talk sports metaphor for a minute. We’re playing basketball. We’re trying to score points. With good technique, you can sail that orange sphere through the net with ease, from practically anywhere around the basket. Layup, slam dunk, three-pointer. Now if I throw the ball like a shotput, it’s not likely to score. We’re both playing basketball, we’re both being serious about it, but our approach to scoring isn’t the same. You, with good technique, are having a way better time playing this game, while I’m over here getting discouraged and want the punt this ball across the room.

I wouldn’t blame the ball or the net or the hoop for my inability to score, and you shouldn’t blame publishing for “not getting your genius.” It’s the technique, Mark, how you’re trying to get your ball (the MS) into the basket (published). Try a whole new query. Try different approaches. Take a look at FiYoShiMo Days 28 and 29, or here.

To help you with those rejections, I made you a chart:
DO read the letter to see if there’s any info in it that can help you going forward.
DO write a polite, concise thank you to the person who sent you the rejection.
DON’T get on social media to threaten or harass the person who sent you the rejection.
DON’T write a hateful response telling anyone to go fuck themselves.

Yeah, I know, it’s super tough to be okay or pleasant or civil in the face of having your novel rejected. It’s hard to be nice when someone you don’t know just said that what you’ve been working on isn’t good enough. The problem is though, they didn’t say the novel isn’t good enough. Reading your query set a tone and gave them an impression where they didn’t want to dig into your MS. That’s what makes the query important – it’s the bridge to the MS.

Keep trying Mark. It took time to write your MS, it takes time to query. Try new approaches. Try new publishers. Hustle.


John, I’m writing a story about a rock band. There are four main characters. They’re working small clubs and getting underpaid right now but they’ll eventually get a record deal. The problem is that while I’m writing about that, I keep thinking about this other story I want to tell with the same characters. And then I start thinking that if I’ve got these two stories, this is a series, which means I need to change how I query this, right? I know I’m not even done writing yet, but I need to have all these ducks in a row, right? Help! — Aimee

Aimee, slow down. Pump the brakes. You’re not done writing, so finishing the writing is going to be the first thing you do. Don’t worry about querying. Don’t think about a series. Write the story.

The whole I-have-one-story-and-then-another-pops-into-my-head is something I see a lot. And it’s great. It’s exciting. It’s fun. It needs to be steered and controlled a bit.

Start by asking if this second thing you’re picturing or excited about is a complete story unto itself, or is it a scene? If it’s a complete story unto itself, then write it down, but then put it to one side. Yeah, I know, it’s way exciting, but you’re already writing a thing that you were excited about … at least you were excited about A when B showed up.

If this is a scene, can you incorporate it somewhere into what you’re already writing? Maybe it will work, maybe it’s just this creative thing in your head, a musing about characters doing stuff that helped get your mental juices flowing. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s good when that happens.

But not every idea is the seed of a series. Not every idea is strong enough to germinate into a whole book by itself, and no, you shouldn’t treat every idea like it’s the impending game-changing creation. Sometimes ideas are half cooked and ill conceived, like those late night infomercials. Who thought that a ladle shaped spatula was a good idea? And how is wrapping your crotch in buttnoodles that vibrate going to tone your thighs and rear end?

It comes down to decision making. Unlike the cat with the laser pointer, or the baby and jangly keys, we possess the ability to funnel our attention and effort elsewhere, focusing in on what we’re doing while ooh-I-just-got-a-new-email-and-Twitter-updated-and-I-need-to-youtube-how-to-make-Trello-work-and-I-need-to-make-phonecalls-and-then-I-have-to-write-this-story-about-vikings-with-robots-and-this-other-story-about-writers-who-fight-the-undead-because-OMG-writing-is-good happens.

One word at a time, one sentence at a time, one piece of writing at a time. Make the decision(s) as to what does or doesn’t go into what you’re writing. You can always trim it out later. Not everything is going to be a keeper. And not everything should be.

Keep writing Aimee. You got this.

See you guys Friday for more bloggity goodness.

Hey, did you know that I have openings to edit your work? Or to help you finish it? Or to help you start it? Let’s talk about how we can make awesome stuff happen together.

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Happy writing.


Posted by johnadamus in answering questions, inboxwednesday, living the dream, 0 comments