A Dish Best Served Light

Today we have a guest post by Sonia Orin Lyris, the author of The Seer. Be sure to check out her biography at the end of the post!

Dear reader: how do you like your story prepared? Roasted? Grilled? Lightly poached in white wine with thyme? Do you prefer farm-raised or wild-caught?

We writers with created worlds and involved back-stories have a special challenge to get the reader to consume our story, to relish the taste. How best to do this?

There are so many answers: sensory details, sympathetic characters, compelling dialog, riveting dramatic questions…

Oh, and cats that need saving!

So many ways to get the reader to take a bite and then another and to want more. These all tools work, depending on the story, genre, reader, and so on.

We’ve got a lot to say, we writers. Setting and feel, characters and descriptions — so much to tell! Do we put it all on the plate? Toss on garnishes? Maybe some chocolate sprinkles and a cherry?

Do we need dipping sauces?

It’s so easy to say too much. The finest of dishes are not heaps of every delectable that the chef can lay hands on. The best meals come to our table with focus. Nothing extra. Minimal, even.

For myself, as writer of a created world with a substantial back-story and involved plot, I use this guiding principle:

Honor the reader’s attention.

My job is to fill the reader’s metaphorical mouth with the finest of story flavors, but without being overwhelming. To seduce them into taking a marvelous journey with me, but with ever so light a touch. Delicately. Not by throwing I can everything onto the plate. Just the good stuff.

Certainly my own private notes about world-building, character, and plot are extensive. But in my final narrative, I keep the descriptions of landscape, clothing, food, and so on as minimal and focused as possible. They must be highly relevant, not only to the story, but to the current action from the viewpoint of the POV character.

That is, they must matter. That is, without them, the story would suffer.

Remember in that one book, how you skimmed part of the narrative because it wasn’t all that tasty? Entirely skippable? Like smooshed peas, or aunt Cora’s beet-and-anchovy salad, a narrative you just didn’t want to consume?

Let’s take it off the plate. Out of the story entirely. Because if the reader doesn’t need it, neither does the story.

And just how much can you take out? It’s a worthwhile exercise, and I’m always surprised how much description and back-story I can take out and still have a very fine story. A splendid meal, even!

When I’m doing rewrites and clean-up, I go back to my basic tenet: don’t waste the reader’s time. I focus my story on the most important aspects of the tastes I’m trying to convey.

Then — yes, sometimes with a deep sigh — I take out more.

For me, the story is all about the reader. In my perfect world, my reader falls into my story unimpeded by the words, my book very nearly vanishing in their hands, so that while they’re reading, all they are aware of is the world and characters that I’ve created for them.

And that the cat is happily curled up on a soft cushion by the fireplace, dreaming of chasing wild stories.



author_headshot_mSonia Orin Lyris is the author of The Seer (http://bit.ly/seersaga), a high fantasy novel from Baen Books (http://www.baen.com/). Her published fiction includes fantasy, science fiction, horror, mainstream, and more, and may be found at lyris.org/fiction (http://lyris.org/fiction/). Follow her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/authorlyris/) or Twitter (https://twitter.com/slyris).

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On running out of writing advice

I don’t know how many blog posts I’ve written about writing. We’ve been running the Inkpunks blog for a long time now, and I try hard not to miss my week to post. I’ve been blogging about writing almost as long as I’ve been writing seriously–and I’ve been writing seriously since 2008. In that time, I’ve sold three novels (one of which twice, and both times to companies that had enough financial and management problems that they wound up not publishing the book); I’ve seen two novels get published; I’ve been an editorial assistant, an assistant editor, a managing/associate editor, and a freelance copy editor; I’ve taught middle school writing; I’ve read thousands of short stories in slush piles; I’ve won a Hugo award; I’ve sold thirty+ short stories; I’ve had hundreds of rejections. Two weeks ago, I finally got an agent. You know, I got fired from my day job about two and a half years ago, and since then all I’ve done (besides play with kitties, hang out with my family, and bake these brownies) is write and edit and think about working in genre fiction.

And you know what? I still feel like I’m just getting started. In fact, I feel more humble today than I did however long ago we first started this blog. Writing and the work of publishing is bigger than you’d think it is. It’s about being a creator and a business person and a dreamer and a pragmatist. The more you learn, the more you learn you still need to learn.

All I really know is that you get better by doing it and thinking about it. The wisdom I can offer you today is buy a notebook. Keep track of what you want to write, and keep track of all your brilliant ideas. Talk to yourself about what thwarts your work. Remind yourself about why you like writing. Use your notebook when you need to, and the rest of the time: write.

Put words on the page.

That’s all you really need to do.

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Writing Without An Outline

I’m a list maker, goal setter, spreadsheet user and check-off-the-boxes type of person. My latest addiction is Habitica, a free habit building and productivity app that treats your real life like a game. (If that sounds awesome to you, see the note at the end of the post). I assumed because of these traits, the right way for me to approach writing novels was to outline and plan them out ahead of time to the absolute maximum. I love finding world-building questionnaires and lengthy character sheets, until it’s time to fill them out. That doesn’t make sense, does it?

It is true there’s no one right way to write a novel and what works for one person might not work for another. I’ll put that out there as I go on to discuss what I discovered.

I recently read Dean Wesley Smith’s “Writing Into the Dark,” which came in a StoryBundle purchase. I read it out of curiousity, just to see how the other half lives since I thought of myself as a committed follower of the school of outlining. What I didn’t expect was to have his words resonate with something deep inside of me, which, the more I read, the more it crept up to the surface.









Dean Wesley Smith talks about the critical voice versus the creative voice, and says the creative side of our minds “has been trained since we were born, and story has been trained into that creative side since we were first read to by our parents. The creative side loves story.” What holds most writers back is the critical side of our brains. “Outlining comes from,” he writes, “the critical side by the very nature of outlining. So the critical side of our minds outlines a book, then we wonder why the creative side often doesn’t want to follow the outline. The creative side knows story, knows what needs to be in a story.”

He compares writing into the dark to the reading process for the writer. Fun, right? Yet my brain screams out all sorts of protests. I always thought I wasn’t smart enough to write without an outline. My brain couldn’t possibly be trusted to come up with feasible plot points, character transformations, sub plots, twists and all those complicated connecting bits and pieces woven in. Dean Wesley Smith says the “very process of outlining often kills the very complex structure the writer is hoping to achieve.” He even says his “critical brain is not smart enough to put that stuff in. Luckily for me, my creative brain seems smart enough if I get my critical brain out of the way and let it.” Hunh. That’s definitely a different way to look at it.

I always thought my first novel sucked because I didn’t have an outline, or any idea about three act structure, plot, character arc or any of those wonderful things we learn about. I remember it being a blast to write, however. Maybe it sucked because it was a first novel with too little knowledge of writing behind it, not because it wasn’t outlined.

I also have been following the advice of if you think of changing something while you’re writing first draft, make a note of it, but keep going as if you had made that change. This advice is to keep people from not getting that first draft done, however, Dean Wesley Smith says you should go back and make those changes. It is your creative voice, telling you to something needs to be changed, so stay in creative voice and go fix it. “If you write some dumb note to fix it later,” Dean Wesley Smith writes, “you undermine all the wonderful stuff your creative voice is doing.” Yes, my brain screams, this makes sense to me. I always want to go fix the thing, but I’m worried about forward progress with word count and doing things the proper way, so I make my note. By the end of the first draft, I have a huge, daunting list of things to go back and change that really aren’t any fun. This is something I’m definitely going to change.

Of course, writing without an outline is scary. How do you know what to write next if you don’t know where the story is going? “Write the next sentence,” Dean Wesley Smith tells us. “And then write the next sentence.” Simple, right?

Everyone needs to find his or her own path. I’ve realized it’s best when you wander a bit, take in the view and enjoy the process, whether it’s following an outline or not.

*side note on Habitica*

I am in love with Habitica! It’s set up like a role-playing game, where you gain experience for good habits, take hits for bad ones, while working on daily tasks and to-dos. You can join parties (we currently have ten adventurers in our group) and do quests together, all while working on real life tasks. My friend Andrea Westaway of the blog, The Everyday Optimist, hooked me into it with, “I’ve leveled up my sword, and am riding a phoenix with my pet wooly mammoth.” Sold. I was in. If it sounds like fun, I obviously recommend it. Habitica

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A 31st without metrics

While everyone settles down with their top-10 lists and their end of the year wordcount roundups, I’m here to offer you a happy, healthy last day of 2015 without a single data point.

This year, I’m not looking over my lists of submissions. I’m not counting rejections or acceptances, not adding up the number of stories I’ve edited or the pages I’ve written. It’s nice to see other people’s impressive accomplishments, but it’s also nice to focus on what can’t be measured and what might not look so fancy when written down in digits.

Here are some of the things that mattered to me this year:

  • This year I learned to exercise every day. I didn’t lose a single pound, but I learned how to make time for my old carcass, and I’m feeling better because of it.
  • This year, I quit drinking caffeinated coffee. I didn’t accomplish nearly as much as I did the past two years, but then again, I stopped having panic attacks, heart palpitations, insomnia, and even stopped grinding my teeth.
  • This year, I spent more time with my daughter than I ever have before, and we have never had so much fun or enjoyed so many long, meaningful conversations.
  • This year, I spent time with friends almost every week.
  • This year, my husband and I took our first-ever vacation as a couple.

I might not have written very many short stories (did I finish anything new? I’m not sure!) or powered through as much slush as I would have liked, but I got enough done. I learned how to say “I’ve done enough today. I can check my email in the morning.” I learned how to set boundaries and prioritize things.

Plus, I learned how to take better care of myself. I realized something this year: I might never be a great writer, but I know I can never be a great writer if I die before I’m forty. And I’ll never be a great writer if I get so sick of putting writing before everything else that I get sick of the job and quit.

And I plan to spend the rest of 2015 celebrating what’s wonderful in my life: my family, my friends, my world, and yes, my commitment to writing. Because the other thing I learned this year is that a little celebration makes everything better.


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NaNoWriMo Recipes

When you’re on a deadline–or doing a big project, like NaNoWriMo–it’s important to keep yourself well-nourished without making a bunch of dirty dishes. You’ll find yourself tempted to order a lot of pizza, but let’s face it, that’s not a good long-term choice. You need power food when you’re creating! Veggies! Fiber-rich grains! Lean proteins!

So here are two of my favorite things to eat when I need quick, healthy food. They’re totally from-scratch, so you can feel virtuous and save money for pizza. 🙂

Basic One-Dish Lentils

This is non-glamorous, but quite tasty!

Over medium heat, warm about half a tablespoon of olive oil in a heavy pot. Smash a clove or two of garlic, mince it up, and add it to the oil. Wash your cutting board and knife–you won’t be needing that shit again. Then stir in one cup of lentils and one cup of rice (jasmine makes your house smell good; brown takes too long to cook with the lentils). Let the rice and lentils toast for a minute while you ready about 3.75 cups of water and find your salt. I like kosher salt, because it’s more yummy. Stir in about a teaspoon of cumin powder and rejoice in the smell. When you’re done sniffing, add the water and about a teaspoon of salt and bring the whole thing to a boil, stirring occasionally. Then reduce heat to low, cover, and relax (or work!) for about ten minutes. At that point, you want to stir in about half a bag of frozen spinach. Let this simmer for about another five minutes. You’ll want to taste the liquid remaining in the pot to see if it tastes salty. If it doesn’t taste like sea water, add some more salt. (Spinach likes salt!) Cook until the lentils and rice are tender.

David Lynch’s Quinoa

This is super-simple. Quinoa is pretty savory, so you don’t really need any beans or tofu to make this satisfying, but if you want a little more texture, some black beans or cannelini beans are nice in this. This recipe is great because you don’t necessarily need to chop anything, so it generates very little mess.

Simmer a cup of quinoa in two cups of salted water. Let it cook for about eight minutes. Stir in broccoli florets (as much as you like) and let it cook for another eight minutes. The broccoli should be tender and most of the water will have been absorbed by the quinoa. Stir in a drizzle of olive oil and half a vegetable bouillon cube. Serve with hot sauce and Bragg’s aminos.

This was the first quinoa dish I ever made. The recipe is included in the extras for the film Inland Empire, and you can actually watch David cook it on this video. (He uses more bouillon, but I think that’s too salty!)

So–what do you like to eat when life gets crazy?

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Writing in a City That’s Not Your Own

I invited Winnipeg writer Chadwick Ginther, author of the Thunder Road Trilogy to guest blog for us and he came up with some great advice for capturing your setting, even if it’s not in your own city. Be sure to check out his bio at the end of the post.


Establishing setting is one of my favourite aspects of writing. Whether it’s the world-building involved in writing a secondary world or trying to capture the soul of an existing city, setting draws the reader into the story, creates its mood, and when done well, helps that story appear real.

Normally, I write stories set in or near my home, or I just make up a city. But my third novel, Too Far Gone, needed be set in a city where I didn’t live. In this case: Edmonton, Alberta Canada. There’s lots of options to do remote research. Google Street View, travel guides, following Twitter feeds from that city, or talking to friends or family who live there. And I did do some of that, but it also didn’t feel like enough. While it might not be an option for everyone, I love to travel where the book is going to be set, and to walk the ground myself. You not only discover things you otherwise might not have, but you get the sights, sounds, and smells down in a way that is otherwise impossible, you also get to put your own stamp on them, instead of regurgitating other people’s ideas of the city.

I’d previously visited Edmonton on book tour, and attended its convention, Pure Spec a couple of times. I knew by that time I wanted to bring the series to Edmonton, so I had a chance to do some preliminary scouting before my big official research trip. I’m glad things worked out that way, as it gave me a plan for the full trip.

This is hard for me to admit (especially as an avowed pantser) but if you’re going to travel for a research trip, you need to have a plan. Otherwise, you’ll just be wasting time and money, and generally speaking, writers don’t have a surplus of either. Know where you want to go—and how to get there. If you’re counting on a friend to show you around, make sure they’ll be available. If you want to speak to experts or locals that aren’t your friends and family, make an appointment.

Before I left for my trip, I tried to think about a high concept for the story, and for my characters. Where would they be at home? Where would they be fish out of water? Pretty much every city has a slogan which can serve as a starting point for a high concept. Edmonton’s slogan was “City of Champions”, entirely fitting for a story where a last stand against a three hundred foot tall giant intent on consuming the world in flames is taking place. I was finishing up the first draft of Too Far Gone at the time of my trip, so I didn’t have everything locked, but I did know most of what I needed for the story, and found some answers to a few plot quandaries while I was there by talking to locals, visiting the Edmonton Archives, and walking the streets.

If you haven’t sorted out your plot before you travel, look for locations that seem to have their own story or character; locations that have action or conflict built in or tie into the themes and threats of your story. Is it scary to be downtown at night? Is your story about corruption? In the public eye, politicians and corruption often go hand in hand. Check out City Hall. Writing about a vampire? You’re probably going to need a cemetery. A plot can be built from research as easily as good research can bring a plot to life.

Reading a bit about the history of a place will inform you why it is the way it is now. You don’t need to list every event that ever happened there down to the day, month and year. How much detail is too much? You don’t need to catalog every neighbourhood or landmark to bring your city to life. A vibrant setting isn’t about ticking off the top ten tourist sights on travel guide. Just sticking the Empire State Building in your book doesn’t mean you’re writing New York, and neither does mentioning the Oilers mean you’re capturing Edmonton.

It is tempting to want to include everything. My initial draft had a lot more of Alberta than just Edmonton, but it was too much. The character conflicts were in Edmonton, and they were essential. The side trips to the Alberta Badlands and Steffanson House (an early Icelandic settlement in Alberta, and a Provincial Heritage site) proved just that—side trips. They were unnecessary diversions to the story, no matter how cool they were to me. Rather than allowing them to slow down the book, I had to cut the scenes. But hey, there’s always more stories to write, and that research is already done!

If you’re a pantser like me, and you only start your research into after you have your story, you only look for what you need to know, but you won’t necessarily find the things you didn’t know you needed. Which is why I like taking the travel option. If you’re doing your research before you think of your story, there’s a different risk: research is seductive, and it feels like you’re doing work, but the real work of a writer is actually writing the book.

To maximize my trip, I decided to set the book during the time of my stay. If it was happening in Edmonton in the third week of August 2014, it was happening in the background of the book. Would I have thought of including the Fringe Festival as background, or the Perseid meteor shower otherwise? Probably not. Having the hero’s fight with a fire giant looming when the city was under the grips of a heatwave may have been out of my control, but I think it really worked.

While I was in Edmonton, I kept a detailed journal of everything I did, saw, and especially what was happening with the weather (relevant when your hero can control the weather but is trying to rem

ain incognito). I bought the local newspaper every day and saved clippings I thought were relevant to characters or plot to seed in as background. Not all of this made it into the text, of course, but it definitely informed my writing.

I took tons of photos for reference, and used them as a slideshow while I wrote. I framed big battle scenes in areas I thought would be dynamic not only visually, but interesting locales, so that even readers that didn’t know the city would care about what was happening. I kept maps. Fantasy loves maps! Even if your story is set in a real city, and there won’t be a map of it at the beginning of your book, maps can be useful. I plotted out a map of the destruction (Cough, cough. Sorry Edmonton) as it was occurring to keep things consistent.

That was my experience writing in a city not my own, I’ll definitely try it again, but now I just hope Edmonton will welcome me back after they see what I’ve done to the place!



Originally from Morden, Manitoba, Chadwick Ginther was fascinated by Norse mythology at an early age. Today, he spins sagas of his own set in the wild spaces of Canada’s western wilderness where surely monsters must exist. Chadwick is a contributor to Quill & Quire, The Winnipeg Review, and Prairie Books NOW. His short fiction has appeared recently in On SpecBeast Within 4: Gears & Growls, and The Exile Book of New Canadian Noir. His first two novels, Thunder Road, and Tombstone Blues, were nominated for the Prix Aurora Award.




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Guest Post – It’s Supposed to Hurt: Writing Violence that Feels Real

by Mike Buckley

A few years ago, a student of mine asked me to read a novel that she had just finished.  I agreed.  What I knew about my student at the time (Deidre is her name) was that she was a librarian who specialized in collections from the late eighteen hundreds. She struck me as smart, a bit quiet, given to irony and a love for writing about Florence.

Her novel blew my mind right out of my ears.

It didn’t fit with what I knew of Deidre at all.  It was a cold, tactile detective work that took place between Amsterdam and Thatcher’s London, and followed a frighteningly-badass schlub as he tracked down an art thief.  That’s not the part that struck me, of course; it was well-executed, which, knowing Deirdre, I had expected.  But there was a scene in which the detective is cornered near a river and attacked by some corrupt cops.  It was the most honest depiction of violence I had ever encountered.  Just reading it was very much like getting beat up.  It held me and pushed me away in the way that very authentic writing can, and when I finally could put it down, I called Deirdre.

Who the hell are you, anyway? I asked her.

Deirdre laughed it off.  (It turned out that she was a lifelong martial artist, and a year after I read the book she brought a sword to a Science Fiction writing class that I was teaching and showed us all the right way to quickly separate a person from their guts.)

The lesson that stuck with me, though, is that writing about violence is like writing about anything: it’s all context.  Sometimes you need characters to have a quick dust up or you need to toss a side character through a saloon window.  Sometimes you need the violence you’re writing about to be quick and throwaway.

But other times you’ll want to tell the truth.

I remember years and years ago I was reading an interview with Salman Rushdie and he was talking about the difficulty of writing sex scenes.  I was a teenager at the time and completely did not get it.  What’s so hard about writing sex scenes?  They’re all over the place, from movies to billboards.  But as I grew as a writer, I realized that was exactly the problem.  When writing about sex, you’re not just writing about something that completely surrounds us (and most of what is out there is polished and unrealistic and sometimes humiliating) but you’re engaging in a conversation that’s been going on forever.  So the problem with writing sex scenes is to tell the truth with them, to capture the feeling of the whole thing.

Which is exactly the problem when writing about violence.   It’s surrounded by clichés.  We already imagine a square-jawed cowboy cocking an arm back and knocking out a black hat with a single, easy punch.  The black hat is unconscious for just long enough for the hero to kiss the heroine, then ride away on a horse, and when the black hat wakes up, he displays no neurological symptoms of the head trauma he’s just received.  That sort of violence is something that we can pretty easily write. That’s because it isn’t realistic, and it isn’t meant to be.  When you write a bar brawl in such clichéd terms, you’re not putting violence on the page, you’re playing ping pong with familiar signifiers: the punch, the fall, the kiss, the moral victory.

All fine and good, but not honest.

That was the realization I had reading Deirdre’s novel.  The fight scene made me feel overall bad for the detective character as he was desperately stomping toes and biting fingers as the three crooked cops pummeled him, and the scene scared me, and made me feel my mortality a little more closely.  That character got his ass kicked in that scene.  Legitimately.  Not the way it happens in Chandler, and not the way it happens to Bruce Willis in so many of the movies he is in.  Deirdre’s detective lost a fight, and it almost cost him his life.

Since reading that scene, and seeking out others, I’ve put a lot of thought into effective ways to write about violence.  It’s a huge dilemma.  Depictions of violence are often types of arguments that are rooted to the needs of a historical/cultural moment.  (Consider the 2006 film 300.  It seems clear to me that that film was very much about the United States, a nation that was at war on multiple fronts.  It was about our desire to sing songs about the nobility of war, our desire to put a villain like Xerxes in front of a band of Spartans that, for all of the dialogue we hear from them, might as well be Marine Recon.)  But real violence, of course, is an older type of argument.  I’ve spent much of my life studying different types of it.  I’ve wrestled, played Judo, boxed, kickboxed, and practiced Krav Maga and Brazilian Jui Jitsu.

It is unexpected but true that this type of “violence” can be deceptive.  Boxing, kickboxing, jui jitsu—these martial arts are so immersive as to actually be worldviews.  What I mean is that boxers train for a very narrow expression of the larger world of violence.  They fight in a ring, the ropes of which they bounce off of or slide away from; they fight other boxers, who throw only punches (and only punches from the tradition of Western boxing).  When a boxer gets in a street fight, he boxes.  It’s the same for a jui jitsu practitioner.  The craft of this particular combat sports shapes the way the people who practice them see conflict, the way they conceptualize their response to it, and in every sense ends up becoming both their strength and their weakness.  (Krav Maga might be an exception to this, but is definitely a subject for another post.)

Deirdre knew this.  Although she practiced Tai Chi, she picked up a knowledge of street fighting from somewhere (I have no idea where it came from, and it scares me a little) and as she wrote the scene in which the detective meets baddies down by the river she knew that it wouldn’t be a boxing match or a sparring session.  My own very limited knowledge of street fighting comes from the usual places.  School and bars, mostly.  I know that street fights are fast and frantic.  They’re more energy than technique.  They’re a contained riot.

But back to writing.  When we’re writing a short story or a novel, whether it’s set on a spaceship or sidewalk, how can we write violent scenes that feel real?  The key is to stay away from easy.  Stay away from heroic.  If it feels expected, or like you’ve seen it before, stay away from it.

When you have a violent scene to write, stay away from the language of sport.  Don’t let your characters jab or hook, unless they’re actually boxing.  Stay away from easy ways of telling the reader how tough your character is: don’t let her feel teeth crack or nosebones shatter under her punches.  Instead, root the way you describe violence to your character’s frame of mind.  Maybe they’re scared (which they probably would be; it’s pretty much the definition of rationality to not want to be punched by someone), and so instead of jabbing and cracking teeth, they panic, thrusting blindly with their hands, not noticing until their antagonist falls to their knees that they have accidentally poked him in the eye.  Have your character shout or throw something.  Have them bite the antagonist’s nose or grab their genitals, all in total panic or violent glee.

The guiding rule for writing convincing violence should be this: it is never beautiful or elegant or transcendent.  (Violent sport might be, but that’s different.  Ronda Rousey’s grappling is certainly beautiful, but it isn’t violence, it’s violent sport.  Its restrictions—read here as rules—make the beauty possible in the same way that the structure of a sonnet makes the beauty of that form possible.  Her grappling is to violence what sonnets are to words.)   When your character is in a rough spot, achieving the feel of desperation, of high stakes, will make the violence feel real.  And then you’ll have what any writer wants: your readers will buy into the reality of what they’re reading.

The fight scene in Deirdre’s novel ends, I think, with the main character jumping into the river.  It’s the only way he can get away from the corrupt cops who are trying to beat him to death, and it’s the best end for a great scene.  Deirdre doesn’t succumb to the temptation to have her hero use his mighty kung fu to tear the three guys apart.  It’s the reason why that scene has stuck with me while so many others have not.

And also the reason why I’ll never make Deirdre mad.


Mike Buckley‘s short fiction has appeared in The Best American Non-Required Reading 2003, The Southern California Review, and numerous times in The Alaska Quarterly Review, as well as in numerous other anthologies.  He has been nominated for various awards, and his debut short story collection, Miniature Men,was released in 2011.   He is a practicing Creative Futurist, using Science Fiction storytelling to improve corporate and government policy.  His Science Fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Abyss and Apex, and Pravic.

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Using open data with Google Earth to visualize your world

We tend to have tunnel vision, seeing only the things directly in front of us. As authors, though, I feel like it’s kind of our duty to break free of that comfort zone and take in everything we can. When we put pen to paper and tell a story, it should be to tell stories that are bigger than ourselves, that are about more than us. And yet, we still fall short, and our readers take notice. 

So, in failure, how do we fail better?

The first step is acknowledging what we don’t know.

We fill in detail the best we can, extrapolating based on our direct experience and filling in the gaps with second-hand, and often inaccurate, information. You’d think, having lived in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City, that I’d know those places, the truth is I only know the area immediately around the places I lived and worked. Everything else is a radiating, ever increasing blur of generality and stereotype. Unless you’ve lived in a neighborhood, you really don’t know how it feels.

What we can do, though, is make informed, educated decisions.

I’ve been working on the fictional version of Chicago that exists in the novel I’m writing. I’ve never lived or worked in Englewood or Wicker Park; driving through and stopping for a burger half a decade ago doesn’t qualify me as any sort of expert. I have found something that, in lieu of first hand information, is a step in the right direction.

Google Earth Pro (now free!) + Open Data

The idea of open data isn’t new, but has been gaining popularity through sites such as Data.gov, and many large cities, such as Chicago and New York, publish their own data as well. These datasets can be anything from a list of points — buildings, intersections, red light cameras, etc — to areas such as neighborhoods and political or school districts. All of that data can be exported and then imported into Google Earth Pro.

Google Earth Pro is like Google Maps on steroids. Zoom in, scroll back and forward through time, or soar over your creation in the built-in flight simulator. I won’t cover the ins and outs of using Google Earth (that would require a follow-up post or three) but there are many tutorials available online and I’m happy to answer specific questions about it in the comments or via email. 

For my novel, there were several pieces of information I was interested in. Crime statistics, police districts, neighborhood demographics (gender, race, income levels), abandoned buildings, public transit, and specific locations I knew I wanted my characters to visit. You can google around to find random maps that have one or two of those things, but not customized the way I wanted it.

The The City of Chicago Data Portal offers more sets of data than I could have imagined. Things like the dominant language by neighborhood, or socioeconomics indicators (crowded housing, households below the poverty line, unemployment rates, high school dropout rates, and per capita income). The names, titles, and salaries of city employees. Energy usage. Homeless shelter utilization.

And it should be noted that all of these datasets, while giving you a better understanding of what someone living and/or working in a particular area might experience, is being filtered through our privilege and shouldn’t be used to paint sweeping generalizations about the people who live there. 

Let’s see some examples of a work-in-progress map:

A high level view of Chicago, with important locations highlighted. At this scale, I can see where public transit runs as well as add directions between points to see just how long it would take someone to get somewhere. The red shades here have higher violent crime rates compared to the more affluent green neighborhoods.


From here, I can zoom in to one of my locations, 603 W 63rd street.

Franklin Park

An overhead view shows an ordinary-looking post office, but in this location once stood the World’s Fair Hotel, owned and operated by the notorious serial killer H.H Holmes. The hotel was torn down, and the post office built in its place, but part of the original basement — where some of Holmes performed some of his most gruesome work — still remains.


And at eye level, a very ordinary looking post office.. Street view makes it easy to see what someone visiting a place would see. Google Maps has made that super easy, but Google Earth takes it to a new level. All of these data points, locations and routes can be collated, explored and perhaps best of all, exported and/or printed easily.

Research is complicated, but it’s work that pays off in the long run. We can do better than the pictures in our head, especially when the places we dwell exist in the real world, populated by real people of all shades and creeds. Make them better, make them realistic, and your readers will have more reasons to keep turning the page.

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It is a story of many, but begins with one

laura's eye

Twin Peaks is a sprawling saga of the weird, the dark, and the wonderful. It smashes teen angst and small town politics up against a spiked wall of supernatural evil and serves it up with a strange sense of humor that even today makes me laugh. Despite its short run and disastrous ending, it stands as one of the biggest blasts of magic to ever grace the small screen. (Apparently I really like this show!)

The sheer size of Twin Peaks makes the success of its pilot particularly noteworthy. It’s a double episode, one hour and thirty-three minutes long, and it manages to introduce the viewer to every major character and every convoluted relationship that will shape the first half of the Twin Peaks saga. It also manages to squeeze in glowing shots of the Cascade range, eerily uncomfortable images of ceiling fans, loving frame-filling shots of Sheryl Lee (in roles as the Homecoming queen, the charming daughter, and the Dead Ice Princess), and the beginning of a long-running gag about donuts. By the time you finish watching it, you know you’ve landed in a dangerous place filled with devilish schemes. The pilot is a master class in structuring material for maximum intensity and tightness.

In that first hour, just what you learn about Laura Palmer, the girl whose murder is the epicenter of the Twin Peaks world, is nearly exhausting. We learn who her parents are, who her best friend is, and that she was beloved by her family, school staff, and community alike. We discover that she’s seeing a psychologist without her parents’ knowledge. We learn she has two boyfriends, one the high school quarterback who’s as perfect on the outside as she herself is, and one a sad biker from a broken home. She also does cocaine, reads illicit skin mags (and probably answers the ads), and somehow has $10,000 in a secret safe deposit box. She’s a Janus of utter mystery, both saint and sinner, virgin and whore. David Lynch and Mark Frost pile on character details that would normally take an entire series to discover.

But they don’t stop there. They set up the illicit relationships between two other couples, a plot to bring down the Packard saw mill, and introduce a small neighborhood’s worth of weirdos and nutjobs. There’s a woman with an eye patch with an obsession with drapes. A lady who carries a stick of firewood the way others would cradle a baby. A psychologist with a tiki addiction and a creepy connection to the dead girl. A wife-beating control freak who drives long haul truck. A trouble-making teen with a penchant for sexy vintage wear. A deputy and his bubble-headed girlfriend. And last, but certainly not least, Special Agent Dale Cooper, a law enforcement officer so odd he puts Fox Mulder to shame.  All of them appear fully developed and completely engaging. It would be nearly impossible to introduce all these characters in a short story: there would simply never be enough time to make any of them feel real or believable. But Lynch and Frost bring them all to life in one extended episode.

So, how do they do it? How do they keep the story on pace while introducing the huge cast without ever losing control of the twisted mystery they set up at the beginning?

  1. No character is introduced on their own. Every character is given someone else in the scene to riff off of. Dale Cooper appears alone in his car, but he is recording a message to his secretary. In the first scene of the episode, Josie Packard sits in her bedroom with no one to talk to, but she can hear the sounds of Pete Martell going about his morning, and her expressive face responds to them. Only Audrey Horne starts her day alone, but she has a chauffeur to ignore and sends sly glances back at the hotel to warn us that she’s planning something no good for the people inside. Every character is introduced in a way that exposes them in action and in relation to someone else. It’s tremendously effective, because it sets up both character and tension right away.
  2. Every character is given a response to Laura Palmer’s death. Even the characters who aren’t suspects or closely tied to the victim are presented in a way that adds dimension to the mystery. Twin Peaks is a small town: everyone has something to say about the situation. This keeps the action focused, even while introducing a really large cast of characters. As the Log Lady warns us, it is a story of many, but it begins with one.
  3. It satisfies the viewer with a constant stream of answers. The writers build the viewers’ trust by introducing a question and then answering it shortly after. Who is the dead girl on the beach? Boom: next scene–it’s Laura Palmer. If Bobby’s not at football practice, where is he? Bang: in a minute we see him at the Double R Diner, prepping Shelley Johnson for a little pre-homeroom loving. Frost and Lynch wind us up with mini-mysteries and comfort us with the answers. There’s no attempt to string the viewer along, and that leaves them plenty of rope to hang us with later on in the series.

That trust is a vital part of the show’s success. Lynch and Frost wind up taking their viewers to some of the weirdest situations ever put on television. They advertised a mystery show and delivered a psychedelic walk through the human psyche and the history of evil, and people went with them and loved it, because from the very beginning, they knew they could trust the writers to scratch the itches the show stirred up.

Anyone can write like that. All you need to do is ground your openings in full-fledged characters that are fully engaged in their world. Give everyone and everything a role to play in the situation you’ve created. And never, ever let your readers down.

It probably won’t hurt to have a few mentions of coffee and cherry pie.


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Sketchpunks: a guest post from Fran Wilde

Fran Wilde is a longtime friend of the Inkpunks and a fellow fountain pen junkie. And she also writes cool books about a  kickass mom! Needless to say, it’s a delight to have her here on the blog.


Last August, I stood in a corner of Westminster Abbey — near Newton’s grave — while my family walked around the tombs. They were following a self-guided tour that snaked through the entire church, listening to the recording tell them where poets and kings rested.

Every once in a while, a tourist would break away from the line and come over to see what I — standing so still in an out-of-the-way corner — was doing. The tourist would peer over my shoulder, make a small sound, and either stand beside me and watch for a few moments, or walk away whispering things like: “that’s not very good.”

Fran's sketch at Westminster Abbey.

Fran’s sketch at Westminster Abbey.

It didn’t matter what they whispered. I was happy, sketching. I didn’t care whether what I’d drawn was good or not. Nor that my fingers were smudged with ink and pencil. The act of capturing one tiny part of Westminster Abbey in shadow and line by looking closely, then translating that with my hands and a pen, left me energized and calm.

Sketching is a lifelong habit. I have dozens of half-finished notebooks with sketches from near and far. When I was younger, I drew something every day, more often than I wrote. I worked on drawings over a period of weeks, much like I write stories now. When I traveled, I brought watercolors and a box of pencils with me. I still do.

I usually stand to draw, because I was taught it was more respectful. I ask permission. I work quickly. I stay out of the way.

Over time, my sketches have become rougher and less practiced. They’re more about the action than the product. Sketching lets me stand still and look. It helps me work out problems. It’s almost the exact opposite of writing. On those days when I’m bashing around a plot problem, I often pull out my pen and sketch. Sometimes drawing lines and hatch marks and focusing on light and shadow gives me an answer no amount of rough drafting could.

A peek at Fran's sketchbook.

Fran’s sketches: windows, arches, borders.

That’s true with several sketches I did while writing Updraft. For those, I sketched from imagination, and at least one was done while on a train to New York. I sketched my version of a knife fight in a wind tunnel. I sketched the city above the clouds for scale.  I drew a rough map. I played with frames and borders.

These days, I’m sketching different things toward the same goal: discovering parts of the whole through line and shadow.

They’re not professional drawings. They don’t have to be. But the sketches are something I made while I was thinking about Updraft.

Beautiful bookplates for pre-orders of UPDRAFT.

A bit ago — and I guess this is the official announcement for this piece of book swag — I made four of my sketches into bookplates. I did it so that I could send something personal to people who pre-order Updraft: a signed and dated sketch, made when I was writing the book.

Meantime, I’m making some more sketches. For later.

Fran Wilde’s first novel, Updraft, debuts from Tor on September 1, 2015. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and at franwilde.net, as well as sketching on the train, in the park, and near the entrance of various old buildings.

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