So you finished NaNoWriMo. Now what?

National Novel Writing Month is a cool idea, and I usually try to participate in some fashion every year. The first (and much different) draft of my first book was written in this time. I’ve never made 50,000 words, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, but I usually do somewhere between 20-30,000, since I find it useful to set these personal targets.

You, however, could have made all sorts of words this month. Maybe you hit that 50,000 word mark, maybe you didn’t, maybe you went farther. It doesn’t really matter where you are in your writing process, the advice below will work for you.

  1. Finish the draft. This is not a foregone conclusion, even if you hit the 50k mark. For most genres, 50,000 words does not a book make. Some industry standards to keep in mind are 100,000 words for a fantasy or science fiction novel, and 75,000 words for a young adult novel. That’s a lot more words. Hopefully you still have more of your outline to write through, but maybe this is a matter of going back through and fleshing out your draft. Your writing process may be something you’re still figuring out, and that’s okay. Just keep in mind that your finished wordcount at the end of NaNoWriMo may not be what the industry is looking for.
  2. Revise. This is probably the most important step in any project. My favorite way to do this, honestly, is to trunk the book for a month or so. Put it somewhere dark and allow it to ferment. When you come back to it, come back with an editor’s eye, not a writer’s. Think about what works and what doesn’t, and start whittling it into shape.
  3. Proofread. Wait, I hear you saying, isn’t proofing part of the revision process? Yes, and no. I always treat my manuscripts to an extra proofing session or three. My revision process focuses on plot, setting, and overall structure of the book. My proofing process focuses at the sentence level. This is where you find your typos, your awkward sentences, your misused words. It’s a vital step, so don’t skip it.
  4. Research. If you’ve done all these things, and done them well, now you are ready to query (if you are going the traditional publishing route) or consider self-publishing. But you don’t want to just launch yourself at either option without considering the merits of both. Read a lot. Remember to read stories from people who have been successful as well as those who have failed. Decide what kind of work you are interested in taking on and assess your own skills critically during this process.
  5. Research some more. If you are going the traditional publishing route, there’s a second bit of research you need to do. You need to figure out who to query, and why they would want your book. I suggest making a spreadsheet to track your queries that’s particular to your manuscript, but you can manage your tracking however you want. Make a goal to submit a certain amount of queries per day or week or month. Structure things so that you can hold yourself accountable. Personalize your queries, but stay professional.
  6. Submit. This is the last step if you’re pursuing a traditional publishing process, and it’s the hardest part. Hitting that send button always feels, to me, as if I’m falling off a building. My heart is up in my throat, my stomach is trying to climb that way, and everything seems too sharp. This is normal. It’s okay to feel anxious about this process. Use the schedule you made and the list to keep the task feeling less personal. Treat yourself to chocolate or something every time you successfully submit. There are a number of tricks, but I suspect you will know what works best for you. 
  7. Forget. Once your queries are out there, forget about them. This is not to say you shouldn’t put an alarm in your calendar or something to remind you to follow up (depending on if that is something that the agent or editor you have queried allows). It means that you should not spend any conscious processing time on it. This is a self-protection skill, honestly, and one that’s hard-earned for me. Submit and forget. When you get good news in your inbox, you’ll be happier for it.

Congratulations on getting through NaNoWriMo, and good luck with your story!


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Falling down the hill

It’s nearly the end of NaNoWriMo and the Thanksgiving season has begun. So far I have attended three Thanksgivings of one stripe or another, and I’m crazy behind on wordcount. I’m convinced that whoever placed NaNo in November did it specifically because they thought only children and college-aged folks would be interested. Adults spend far too much time in November cooking for other people to be able to summon the creative juices to write 50k.

Luckily, I am not writing that much. My NaNo goal was only 20k. I could conceivably do that in four (terrible) days if I had to, and I have already gotten pretty far along so I won’t have to do that to myself. And, despite being behind, there’s good news!

You may have seen this post, so let me explain what this means.

My writing process is sort of strange. As with most people, the process changes from book to book. However, with most stories I hit a moment when things start to cohere. Last weekend, as I was sitting in a restaurant waiting for a friend, I realized that I had finally discovery-written enough that things were starting to come together.

You see, I’m not a pantser, but I’m not a planner either. I’m more of a baker of stories, when it comes down to it. I plan out the ingredients according to the recipe I come up with, and then I start mixing things together. The end-goal remains consistent but sometimes the steps can be malleable. As any good baker knows, there’s usually a point part of the way through where you’re not sure if you’re doing it right. Maybe you didn’t add enough water or milk, and it needs a little more. Maybe you didn’t add enough flour. Whatever it was, you need intuition to take you in that direction, to get you to the perfect consistency of dough or batter.

And once you have that consistency right, the rest of it is just patting and rolling the story into shape.

Anyway, it’s an imperfect metaphor, but I’m living proof that you don’t need to outline 100% or to free-write 100%. I’m pretty sure if I did either the story that would come out would be dead, lacking the spark that makes it worth reading. For this story, I had a clear idea of the two main characters, parts of the setting, and the end I was working towards. I knew the bones. As I have written, I’ve been adding flesh and color in ways that, honestly, often surprise me. The story is beginning to take on a life of its own, and that means I’m doing something right.

Just in time, too, since NaNo is nearly over.


 
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Where are their parents?

The S.O. and I are watching Avatar: The Last Airbender together. It’s a rewatch for me, first time through for him, and we love it a lot. I preface this post with that love, because I’m about to wade into a wide-scale critique of a flaw I find sort of annoying with a lot of YA books using Avatar as our lens. Admittedly Avatar is not a book, but I think it will serve in this instance.

The question that I end up asking myself a lot in young adult books is a pretty straightforward one: where are these children’s parents? And I don’t just mean where physically. The where of a character in a work of fiction, especially one told from the closed perspective of the main character as young adult novels often are, can be metaphysical as well. Specifically, I’m curious about the space that parental figures take up in the psyche of your main character, not just the space they take up in the setting or plot.

Often, writers choose to bypass parental figures in YA because it’s difficult to give a character agency when they have a more dominant figure making choices for them. Perhaps this is why we see so many orphans in young adult and, often, middle grade fiction. But orphaning a character is a lazy way of dealing with the complexity of familial relationships (says a writer who has done it) so I think it’s important to think critically about how it can be approached in a better way. This is one of the things that Avatar is good for looking at in particular. Each of the characters has very unique ways of relating with older relatives in their familial or kin units. There’s such a wide variety of characters from a wide variety of backgrounds that we get a lot of perspective on the different ways that a writer of young adult fiction can tackle this question.

Now let’s look at some of those relationships. Spoilers for Avatar: The Last Airbender.

There are five main characters worth exploring here. The first is the titular character, Aang. Aang provides a unique take on the parenthood approach – we never meet his parents at all. Instead, we learn that Aang’s people sent him to study as a monk (there are apparently no lady monks?) at the Eastern Air Temple. He’s never known a mother or father, but the lead monks serve as his roll models, most specifically Monk Gyatso. We see a very good relationship between these two, before time and circumstance lead to Monk Gyatso’s loss. The grief of that loss, however, continues to drive Aang, and his memories of Gyatso remain an important guide for him as his development continues.

Katara and Sokka, Aang’s closest companions, also have absent parents. In their case, however, they knew both of their parents. Katara witnessed her mother killed by the Fire Nation. Their father went off to war. They were then raised by the grandmother – a person that Katara speaks of often as a source of wisdom and guidance. However, when Aang is found, Katara and Sokka make the choice to go with him without any help from any of the remaining adults of their tribe. They do this with the permission of their tribe members. Later, Katara and Sokka encounter other members of the Southern Water Tribe, including their father, during their quest to defeat the Fire Nation. At these points in time, Katara and Sokka’s father is protective, but expects them to contribute as they are able to the fight. One can infer that the Southern Water Tribe has a strong culture of independence for its teens. Mutual love exists, but does not prohibit Katara, Sokka, or their father from each pursuing their own destinies.

Toph’s parents are controlling assholes. Toph has so much strength – she’s come into her own – but her parents refuse to see that so she runs away. In this way, her storyline mirrors what Aang’s might have been, but without a comforting Monk Gyatso to protect her. Her mother is a non-character, and her father is antagonistic at best, and most of the other adults she has interacted with, including her earthbending instructor, have only their own interests at heart. Accordingly, Toph is a somewhat jaded and conflicted character, and often picks up on the ulterior motives of others well before Aang, Katara and Sokka.

zuko ozai

Zuko has a dad but that father is Ozai, a monster. His mother, Ursa, is absent, and though her absence bought his life that doesn’t replace the hole she left. Iroh is a stand-in parental figure. He’s the main source of parental guidance in the whole show, and serves as a parental figure to several of the characters at different points. Iroh, however, has a pretty hands-off approach to parenting Zuko, perhaps because he understands that Zuko can’t afford to be coddled. His father has marked him clearly as an adult and a target, despite his young age.

A pattern clearly emerges from studying these stories. There can be three types of parental figures: the dead or vanished, the antagonistic, and those who choose to offer only gentle guidance. What is missing here is a more normative parental structure. Iroh comes the closest to fitting into what we would consider a normal parental role, and his relationship with Zuko is still fraught. Avatar therefore becomes a microcosm of the common tropes that repeat in the YA genre.

Perhaps the only way that we can see for kids to have agency in a story is to eliminate the adults that could make the hard choices for them. It is always difficult to capture the complexities of life and the diverse relationships we find in fiction. I personally think Avatar does fairly well in answering the question of where their parents are in ways that feel satisfactory within the world and the narrative. That said, these answers work contextually – that is to say, so many dead or absent mothers and antagonistic or absent fathers would not impress me in a different setting. War has the benefit of destabilizing familial structures, and so the answers that Avatar gives us work.

That said, I admonish every writer of children, in whatever genre or work, to think critically about how to give a child believable agency without entirely destroying their parental relationships – or their parents – especially in ways that are not believable to the story you are telling.

And if someone could give me a good, healthy mother-and-child story, I’m always looking.


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The only way out is through

This past weekend was Labor Day, and therefore I got a long weekend. The S.O. and some friends had planned to go on a hike sometime in late summer or fall, and they invited me along. I was slightly skeptical, but I went. I’m glad I did. But that was a humdinger of a hike, friends.

For those unfamiliar with hiking, there’s a couple of different breeds. You have your dayhikers, which I usually count myself among, casual hikers who go for a particular destination and take their time doing it. They rarely sleep outdoors and often take little in the way of gear, hiking in tennis shoes and leggings, secure in the knowledge that a hot meal and shower is waiting at the end of the day.

Then there are thru-hikers, the hardcore hiking aficionados, sometimes soul-searching, sometimes just walking for the fun of it. If you live off of a major trail like the Appalachian Trail of the Pacific Crest Trail, you have met them, or at least seen them on the side of the road. These are the guys and gals with huge packs the size of their torso, infamous appetites, and a general sun-burned and bug-bitten appearance.

In between these two extremes, you get overnighters.

There’s obviously a lot of variability between going on a hike for a day with a bottle of water and some snacks or your packed lunch and hiking a trail for three months, but a common overnight lives up to its name – one to three nights on the trail. At first glance, a backpacker on an overnight may look a bit like a thru-hiker. The packs are large, for example, and there’s a lot of sweating involved. However, an overnighter is better fed and cleaner, as a rule. That’s not saying a lot at the end of summer, with mud everywhere and sweat pouring from every inch of your skin, but it’s saying something.

This weekend, I spent three nights and three days on the trail. By the end I had over twenty bugbites on my exposed arms, ankles, and throat. I had sweated all the way through my clothes, continually, for three days, and the smell could have literally knocked someone over. My feet were blistered, my joints were aching. When I stood up I had to lean on a stick and waddle until the pain could work its way out enough that I could take a step again. There was a point on that trail where I seriously contemplated lying down and not getting back up. That was about 20 miles in. We went 45 miles, all told, over three days.

I didn’t lie down. I didn’t give up. I did this because there was no other choice. I was 20+ miles by foot from any quick or easy fix. There were no ways out except to hitch up the pack on my back and keep moving. The only way out was through.

When I got home, I got a rejection on a story. There are rejections, and there are rejections – I’m sure, if you write, that you know what I mean. Writing means rejection, and some of them are almost expected. There comes a point when, despite all the work you’ve put in, you know you’re just tossing darts blind. Spinning the wheel of fate. Whatever metaphor you want to use, there’s no control there.

Sometimes, however, you get your hopes up. You’re so damn sure that this story, this one, it’s meant to be with this market. They will love this. This will be your sale, guaranteed. And it isn’t. And they don’t love it. And the form letter comes in the mail. The trail is still stretching on forever. You have not reached the shelter. You have not found a summit. There’s only forward, forward, forward, up the mountain.

I do have a choice about giving up on submissions. In some ways, that makes it harder than being on the trail. But I don’t think I can ever stop writing, whether I want to or not. So perhaps it’s not so different in the end.

Hitch up the pack. Keep moving.


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A work-life balance, also trees

Authors are human, and most of us are barely chipping away at things. I know that’s what it has felt like for me for a long time – that no matter how fast I write, I can’t write fast enough.

Last week, I took the week off of the dayjob and off of writing. It’s the first time I’ve had a full vacation for…..you know, I really don’t know the last time I wasn’t doing one of those things. In April, I went on “vacation” but that meant flying across the country for a writing workshop. In November, once more, “vacation” meant flying myself to Texas for a conference. There were some delightful moments and experiences packed in there, but none of those substitute for rest.

And rest is definitely something we need. Without it, we start losing focus.

Ironically, I’m not good at resting. Even though I didn’t have any writing or working planned, I still spent a good chunk of my week off doing chores. When we bought the house last September – another vacation that doesn’t quite count, where I took three days off of the dayjob to paint walls and move – the lot featured large swathes of invasive volunteer trees. They were quick-growing elms that have come over from China or somewhere. The trees are beautiful when they get big, but boy do they get big. The biggest one I’ve seen was at least 50 feet tall – a large canopy tree for sure. It took several days for our neighbors to have that one taken out after a storm split it down the middle, luckily missing their house.

So these are not the trees we wanted growing in the yard, obviously. Don’t get me wrong, I love trees. But most of our backyard is already taken up with a large, established maple, an ailing scarlet oak, and a lovely black walnut. There is no room for invasive elms in that picture.

While there are still a few volunteers that were too big for me to take out with the tools I had, I’m happy to say I have mostly cleared the small forest that had popped up. You may be surprised to hear that I’m happy about that. I did mourn the trees, who were doing the best they could. But I have plans. Specifically, plans for shorter bushes and medium sized trees that can produce buckets of delicious fruit. I’ve already procured elderberry and haskap starters. My goal was to plant those last week, but unfortunately the only things I got into the ground were two dwarf peach trees. I’m hopeful they survive the winter.

As you can see, I’m not good at resting. But sometimes rest just looks like doing something different – changing things up. For the first time in a long time, I got a lovely idea for a story last week and felt excited. So I must have done something right. I scribbled down the outlines of that story in a notebook and spent most of a day tasting it on my tongue. Then I went back to digging.

There’s never enough time to write all the stories. There’s never enough time to rest, either. Sometimes, you have to simply decide to make the time you need.


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Photo by Markus Spiske (temporausch.com) from Pexels.

Daughter of Madness: logistics edition

Hey everyone! It’s been a while since I’ve posted directly here. For those keeping track, we’re a little over halfway through the blog tour. I’ll be officially back here with your weekly Friday post in July. July 27th to be exact. But since I had some thoughts to share, I thought I’d check in to do a quick rundown of the publishing process for Daughter of Madness.

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Continue reading “Daughter of Madness: logistics edition”

Maximizing your writing time

I received a comment a few weeks back about how to best maximize your writing time. If you only have a half hour to an hour a day to work on things, this can be a real challenge for making any headway on your manuscript. Here are some things that work for me. As always with writing advice, your miles may vary.

  1. Leaving myself notes. For our first trick, let’s look at the easiest one. I often find myself with only a short chunk of time for writing, and a lot that I want to get on the page. One of the easiest ways to make sure I know exactly where to pick up is to leave myself a note, especially if I am working in a notebook. You’ll often see odd bits of marginalia in my notebooks. They could be thoughts that I’m working out about later in the book, but just as often they are notes about what a scene is supposed to be or do according to where I am where inspiration strikes. Then I can go back and fill that in at my leisure.
  2. Using smaller chunks of time for editing. Another tactic that I find useful is to use the smaller chunks of time that I have for writing-related activities for editing. This may seem a little counterintuitive if your focus is to get words on the page, but there are a couple of advantages here. If you reserve the larger chunks of writing time for the harder work of coming up with new words, then you make more progress on your manuscript or other project more quickly. And editing (at least line editing) something that is pretty far along is really a more rote exercise. It’s a lot easier to do if you are not actually in the flow of reading – in other words, shorter blocks of editing time for line edits and proofing actually help you find errors, in my experience.
  3. Stopping in the middle of things. One of the most common pieces of writing advice out there is to stop in the middle of things. In other words, don’t finish a writing session at the end of a chapter. Finish it while you still have momentum. That momentum will carry you through the beginning of your next writing session more quickly. You’ll spend less time trying to figure out what happens next in the story and more time writing – helpful if you only have a short chunk of time to begin with.
  4. Outlining larger projects. One of the things that I most often tell beginning writers is that it’s important to outline. I don’t do full outlines like a lot of folks – that is to say, my outlines actually look like outlines, usually, with very general information and scenes sort of grouped together, at least until I get further along in a project. But for long projects, and even for short stories, it’s important to have an idea of where the story is going before you sit down at the keyboard. This piece of advice is a lot like number 1 on this list, but involves a little more time and planning in advance.
  5. Putting myself in the headspace with music. There are a lot of pieces that go into writing that aren’t actually writing. One of those is daydreaming. I find that there are a lot of times during the day when I can safely daydream about a bit of world-building or a character motivation without having to stop another task I am working on. One of the things that helps me with that is to listen to a playlist inspired by whatever I am working on. This is also a great way to get yourself in the right headspace as you go into a writing session, since it helps bring up the same thoughts and emotions you were having when you were brainstorming before.
  6. Keeping things in the cloud. One of my best tips for the person who has a tight schedule is to keep all of your writing in a cloud server. This is something I’ve only recently started doing, and I’m so glad that I have. It serves two functions – first, I don’t have to worry about my computer crashing and me losing everything I’ve ever worked on, because it’s backed up in the cloud. Second, I can literally work on something anywhere, even if I get slammed with an idea when I have no pen or paper. I even got a portable keyboard for when I’m on lunch. I still love writing in notebooks, but it definitely saves time not to have to type everything up and gives me more flexibility with note taking, etc.
  7. Eating while writing/editing. One of the big things that I do is use my lunch to write or edit. I’ve been a bit bad about this the past few weeks, but typically I use my eating time for writing. This is the one block of time that I know I will get – everyone has to eat – so if I make sure to make time for reading, writing, or editing during this stretch then it helps balance all of the rest of my needs for time later in the day. It’s not ideal, but if you’re pressed it’s better than nothing. And food helps me think.

That’s all the advice I have for you today! I hope it helps in your quest!


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The best thing I learned at MystiCon

I go to conventions to spread the word about my existence, sure, but I also go to conventions to learn. (And to meet awesome people, but that is a side benefit to the utility, even if it is a very important one.) This year, I had a number of great experiences – being on an all woman panel was one, I enjoyed that immensely – but the most meaningful learning I did was as moderator on the very last panel of my time there, Epic Scale Fiction.

As might be imagined, I focused most of my questions on the “scale” piece of this topic – that is, how to expand a story. And the most obvious method of expanding a story that’s already out there is to write a new story (or a continuation of a story) in the same world. I’ll admit my bias – writing a sequel has been a totally different affair for me than writing an original story, with a whole new set of skills that I needed to acquire. Check on any of my posts which contain progress updates on Daughter of Madness and you will see what I’m talking about. But I didn’t have the language to articulate what, exactly, I’d done wrong with my second book in the Creation Saga the first time around, and what, exactly, I was doing right with the rewrites.

(As an aside, I have gotten deep into edits and heard back from beta readers and guys, I am very confident that you are going to love Daughter of Madness. I’m also very hopeful to have an official release date soon.)

I now have that language, thanks to the panelists. A sequel still involves changing the status quo. You sequel starts in that shift, just as your original novel did. It’s not just a continuation of the prior story. Something must change for each of your characters. So:

  • Change the status quo
  • Your sequel is not a continuation of the old story, it’s something new
  • Each book should be a story unto itself

When I started writing Daughter of Madness, I was trying to continue the story that I was telling in Mother of Creation. This is where I went wrong, and this is why two thirds of the book got chopped and rewritten. I had a solid thread on Liana’s story, with drastic changes to her new normal in the offing, but I just expected the other characters to keep doing what they had been doing and honestly? I was bored. I was bored writing it, and it showed, and it didn’t make any sense at all. Everything was bad.

Then I listened to Kameron Hurley talking about the need to throw out part of her book on her Twitter. I realized I could do that. And I started over. I started telling a new kind of story for each of my characters. One where the setting was more or less the same, often, but the stakes had changed, either internally or externally. I muddled towards the answer that the panelists so concisely gave me.

Everyone approaches sequels differently. The level of backstory required, the way that you orient the reader to the characters, changes from person to person. I very much want people to read the first book before they read the second. They are installments in the same broad arc. But they still should be able to stand on their own enough that if I as a reader came back to this series after a long time, I would be able to orient myself and still be engaged. And the only way that can happen is if the story in the second book is just as gripping and engaging, in its own way, as the story in the first. It can’t be a repetition of what has gone before, though some of the same themes and conflicts may be present.

In a way, I’m glad I had to learn things the hard way. Even if I had heard someone say those very words before, I don’t know that I would have recognized it in application to my own work. Even if I had, I don’t know that the book I would have written would have been as truthful as this one, because if I had finished Daughter of Madness sooner I would have lacked the experiences I needed to make it sing. But I am glad I know the lesson now, and I wanted to pass it on to you, in case you ever find yourself in the same boat.


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Writing Excuses: retrofitting structure

Writing Excuses is one of the only podcasts I listen to. I like to explain it to my friends thusly: “THEY JUST KEPT TALKING AND I WANTED THEM TO GET TO THE POINT.” My friends usually roll their eyes.

Most podcasts are about an hour long and make me want to tear out my hair. One, two, or occasionally three people will ramble on about some subject or another for the whole duration. It makes me want to eat hearts. I become Baba Yaga in the wood. I whirl about and grab the reins of my chicken hut and ride into the sunset.

Honestly, I hate podcasts. If I want to be talked at by people, I’ll go to work at my dayjob. Otherwise I’m just as happy to read a book. I guarantee I can read faster than you talk.

That said, I love Writing Excuses. What’s interesting about this podcast is that it is a) exclusively focused on writing and writing techniques, b) really short, which makes me happy, and c) is in a conversational format that allows for insight. All of the participants (regularly, the podcast includes Dan Wells, Mary Robinette-Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, and Howard Johnson) come from diverse parts of the writing world. They have experience teaching the craft, but very different opinions about some parts of it. It’s not two people in an echo chamber, nor is it a boring interview. It’s a group of people having healthy conversation (albeit probably somewhat rehearsed) about what techniques they use to make their writing good.

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Gushing is now over, I swear.

Recently, I was listening to an episode from Season 12 entitled “Retrofitting Structure into a First Draft.” I always have a hard time with determining where a first draft begins and a zero draft or second draft ends. The finals are easy to clarify, mostly, but for the purposes of this podcast I think it’s healthy to disregard the “First Draft” moniker. Instead, the conversation is about retrofitting structure of your draft when you know something is broken.

Case in point: a few years ago now (wow, how time flies) I finished what I affectionately call The Zombie Book at a time when many were saying that the zombie genre was dead. Putting aside whether or not a genre can die, this book was my favorite thing. I loved it deeply. Nothing I have written since has filled me with quite as much joy, actually, at least of the maniacal kind. The main character is a rather unstable middle-aged woman who could easily be a supervillain but somehow finds herself helping out with a ragtag band of people saving the world from an apocalypse that’s sort of their fault. It was lots of fun to write, and I still hold out hopes that it will find a home in a publishing house somewhere. I hear zombies and their ilk are making a comeback. A resurrection, even.

Bad humor aside, I loved this book. I hated the ending. It felt like a good ending in that it set up some things for a sequel. It brought some of the various plots I had been playing with to a solid close and opened up some new ones. Sequel material, in other words. Perfect. But it didn’t jive. It didn’t quite feel right.

Listening to this episode of Writing Excuses helped me to figure out exactly why that was. I didn’t quite keep my promises to my readers. There was a tonal shift.

In any case, I’m very excited to perform the activity in this podcast and fix that problem. Hopefully listening to this episode will give you some insight as well.

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