Saturday, March 8, 2014

Standing and Breathing... On my Own, Above the Ashes

Be prepared... this is going to be a LONG one...

So, at this point, I'm not really sure where to begin, so this might end up just a bit chaotic. I know every time
I write one of these things, a LOT has transpired since I last posted. And this time is certainly no exception to that. If anything it's an exception on the opposite end of the spectrum. Late last year, Nightscape Press hit a pretty big bump in the road and that put a lot of my life in flux for lack of a better way to put it. For those of you who keep up with me on Facebook, you know that we moved to a place out in the country rather suddenly. This was a blessing quite much in surprise. But that's not all that important, really. Suffice it to say life is a little less hectic out here and we have a lot more room to breathe and the cost of living is roughly about the same, sometimes cheaper.

And I'm happy to say I've only ever seen so many stars in the night sky in Owen County, Indiana...

Moving on... Early in January, for those of you who are fans of my cyberpunk novella Exit Reality, I released a brand new Ray Garret/Lifeline story titled Self-Aware which may very well end up also being the first chapter to an upcoming Lifeline novel. If you are curious to check it out you can find it on Amazon, on Smashwords, iBooks for the iPad, and it should eventually be available at BN, Kobo, Sony, and all that before too long. So far it's not exactly flown off the shelves, but 99 cent short stories rarely do...


R.I.P. Michele, you will be missed.
We had fully moved in and spent our first night here as a family on New Year's Eve. Some things have taken some adjustment while others have been a huge relief. Balance and all that I suppose. However, late in January we lost two very dear friends.

First, about a week before the end of the month a sweet soul Jen and I only had the pleasure of knowing online who had been a huge supporter of my fiction and Nightscape Press and just generally a wonderful friend, Michele Dotson, went into a coma and passed away. Her efforts to spread the word of my work and her lively moderation of the Kindle Horror Books Facebook group will be sorely missed.

A beautiful voice... silenced forever. R.I.P brother.
Then... on the very last day of January just a month after we moved in to the new place, while still in the process of getting acclimated and settling in, we learned that a very good friend from Indiana, Daniel Jaffke, was murdered. Daniel was a singer/songwriter who I had been friends with for around fifteen years. Way back when I was actively playing in bands, we wrote and sang a song together for one of his old bands. Several years after that we started a small recording project that didn't quite take off. And for years after that we often talked about wanting to make time to work together again. That never happened and now he's gone. I was however lucky enough, the last time I saw him, we stayed up all night talking. I'll be forever grateful for that time. We did a lot of much needed catching up that night. That was back in June or July... Life has a way of really slapping you in the face sometimes.

Daniel and I singing the song we wrote together on stage with his band Steel Trap.

Daniel was the singer for several Indianapolis bands over the years including his most recent band linked from his pic above, Two O'clock Twilight. He was an amazing singer and songwriter and thanks to some lowlife piece of shit, his voice has been forever silenced and that's more of a tragedy than I can truly express. Though I did try, but I'll get to that later in this post.

(Here is a beautiful example of just how amazing a singer Daniel was.)

So, we traveled up to Indiana even though we really couldn't afford to because there was no way I was going to miss his funeral. The trip was hard, the funeral even harder, but a lot of great things happened too. For one, many of Daniel and my mutual friends worked hard before and right up to the funeral putting the word out about what happened to him and that his family was in financial need for the funeral. Via GoFundMe we raised more than enough to pay for the funeral. The amount of support and truly loyal friendship that came out of that was emotionally and mentally overwhelming (in a very bittersweet kind of way). The heartfelt thanks that Daniel's father gave to all of us at the funeral after everyone paid their respects nearly brought me to my knees. It was definitely a tribute to just how loved Daniel was.

But... as they say, and it stings so hard for me to repeat... "life goes on..." So, of course when we returned from the funeral in nearly mid February, a lot of things had piled up. Nightscape Press is in the process of recovering from that bump I talked about earlier. We have a new business partner and editor now and we're excited about that. And for those who don't know already, Mark left the company in October on good terms.

Shortly before we left for the funeral, I finished the final mix on the last track for my second (beyond) full length Escape From Saturn release titled Implosion. Implosion consists of 32 songs; b-sides, outtakes, and demos from 1996 through 2013. With a stiff drink and a dedication to Daniel, I clicked the link to publish the album on Bandcamp. You can listen and/or purchase the album here. The tracks for Implosion as well as 10 Million Ways to Say Goodbye are also available now via the EFS Reverbnation store and very soon 10MWTSG will be releasing in expanded distribution to various distributors. I'll talk more about that as it becomes available in places.

And my writing... has certainly taken a toll. I'm afraid to say that Rising from Ashes: Empire of Blood Book Three still has a little ways to go and will likely not be out until April or May. In the midst of working on RFA, late last year I wrote a 10,000 word novelette titled Through the Mindhole. I recently released it as an Amazon Kindle exclusive that is free to read for Amazon Prime account members. It's a sort of disturbing supernatural, psychological serial killer fairy tale.

I feel very strongly that it's one of the most interesting things I've ever written. And for those of you who use other e-readers than Kindle, as all of my titles are, it is completely DRM free and can easily be converted to other formats. And after this initial exclusive period here in a couple of months I'll be releasing it via Smashwords and all the various other distributors like BN, Kobo, etc.

Meanwhile, I am working on Rising from Ashes and will do my best to still get it out as soon as possible. But I won't apologize for what I could not control. I never wanted to have life get in the way and I certainly didn't want to lose my friends who were very close and dear to me. And the grieving process, for a time there, didn't allow me to do much of anything.

Which brings me back to music... Music has always been the first thing I turn to when life becomes hard to bear. Don't get me wrong, writing has been a huge source of release and helped me to deal with many things in my life, but I recently realized the huge difference between the two. For me... for writing to help me through rough times it requires a lot of work on my part. A lot of digging and tearing and scratching away the surface of something before it truly happens. With music, it's like immediately diving into the source of the pain and anguish.

So while I'll be writing Michele her own personal character in RFA, I did not get the chance to know her in real life nearly as much as Daniel. Daniel's death left a hole in me that left me no choice but to hide away and write music. I wrote the following song for him, called Project the Last (Project as a verb, like to project something outward). Project the Last was the name he had envisioned for the project we had started working on so many years ago and never finished. This was my attempt to express just how truly great of a person was taken from this world so horribly and before his time.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Blood Type: An Anthology of Vampire SF on the Cutting Edge Book Trailer

Pick up your Kindle copy of BLOOD TYPE: AN ANTHOLOGY OF VAMPIRE SF ON THE CUTTING EDGE from Amazon, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, or in the ebook format of your choice directly from Nightscape Press! All proceeds from this anthology go to The Cystic Fibrosis Trust. You can learn more about The CFT and the wonderful things they do at: This lovely video was made by the super talented John Palisano, who also has a fantastic story in the book as well!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Anthologies and ORIGIN OF BLOOD, a new Empire of Blood collection!

Holy shit, this blog is covered in dust... I walk away for one little—okay, more like several months, and you'd think I was dead. But I'm not. I'm still here... I've just been so busy with everything else that posting on my blog seemed like something that could wait. But alas the need to update those few of you who arguably enjoy (or at least tolerate) reading my occasional blog-like blabbering has brought me here yet again. So... What all's going on? Ha! What isn't, I ask you? What isn't!

Anthologies! Anthologies are going on... Three of them to be exact--no, wait, FOUR! Technically even FIVE! Three of which I've managed to slither a story of mine into, and two of which I've taken part in editing. One I've edited all by myself and the other I edited alongside my lovely wife Jennifer Wilson and the infamous Mark C. Scioneaux... So, without further ado, here they are:

Fear the Reaper edited by Joe Mynhardt includes an introduction by Gary McMahon, stories by Rick Hautala, Gary Fry, Joe McKinney, Gary A. Braunbeck, Jeff Strand, Sam Stone, Jeremy C Shipp, Taylor Grant, Stephen Bacon, Rena Mason, Richard Thomas, and many more. It also includes my story, The Death Catcher. Here's a little bit about The Death Catcher:

One day I was sitting around thinking about that old saying about walking out in the rain, “You’ll catch your death.” And I’m a big fan of taking phrases literally or twisting their meaning in some other way, so I visualized someone actually “catching” a death.

What I saw in my mind’s eye was a big ball of light—a spirit—falling down into a deep canyon ending in a black abyss. And I thought, what if there were people out there who were gifted with the ability to dive down there and catch your spirit and therefore “catch your death” and bring you back to life? And as soon as I wrote that first line, “I caught my first death when I was only sixteen,” the rest of the story just came to me. And of course I had no choice but to eventually take one of my characters beyond that deep black abyss itself.
What is fiction if we can’t have a little fun—if we can’t explore a little with it from time to time?

I'm particularly proud of this story. If I had to describe or label it, I would say it's in the vein of cosmic horror. If you get a chance to read it, please do let me know what you thought.

The Best of the Horror Society 2013 edited by Carson Buckingham includes stories by William F. Nolan, Joe McKinney, Mort Castle, L.L. Soares, Jason V Brock, Mercedes M. Yardley, Charles Colyott, Christian A Larsen, Richard Thomas, and many more. It also includes my story The Boy in the Elevator.

The Boy in the Elevator started as a waking dream I had. In it, there was a far-too-quickly descending elevator and inside something very dark and horrible was happening. When I woke up, I immediately started writing this story. It's a story about the secrets people keep, the sins they commit, and a horrific case of supernatural justice. I do hope you'll check it out some time.

Bleed edited by Lori Michelle is a charity anthology contributing all profits to The National Children's Cancer Society and includes stories by Bentley Little, Rick Hautala, William F. Nolan, Joe McKinney, Mort Castle, Benjamin Kane Ethridge, Tim Waggoner, Gene O'Neill, Peter N. Dudar, Jason V Brock, Peter Giglio and SS Michaels, Tracie McBride, Dane Hatchell, Christian A. Larsen, Richard Thomas, Adam Millard, John Palisano, Jay Wilburn, and many more! It also includes my story Dreams of Shadows. Dreams of Shadows is almost a YA-like story about a boy haunted by strange shadows in his dreams. When these shadows touch him, he's stricken with tumors in the real world... and when one of these terrible creatures fully enters the young boy's body, the true horror comes into play.

From the depths of the soul to the depths of hell. From the shadows of your most frightening dreams to the shadows lurking in the corner unseen and waiting. Darkness is painted across the palette of every nightscape.

And it’s waiting for you…

In this new anthology from Nightscape Press, we bring you 24 tales of bitter loss, jaded love, obsession, murder, cannibalism, hauntings, voodoo, black market horrors, demons, leprechauns, zombies, deadly mysteries, and much more! Edited by myself, Jennifer Wilson, and Mark C. Scioneaux, Nightscapes: Volume 1 includes stories from Ray Garton, Lisa Mannetti, Benjamin Kane Ethridge, Lisa Morton, Shane McKenzie, Trent Zelazny, Peter N. Dudar, Jonathan Templar, Peter Giglio, Brad C. Hodson, John Forth, Taylor Grant, Richard Salter, Charles Colyott, Chris Marrs, and many more.

And finally, just released on Devil's Night, October 30th is the Kindle edition of Blood Type: An Anthology of Vampire SF on the Cutting Edge edited by myself. Blood Type will contribute all net proceeds to The Cystic Fibrosis Trust and will include stories by Peter Watts, Mike Resnick, Laird Barron, Stephen Graham Jones, William F. Nolan, Tim Waggoner, Benjamin Kane Ethridge, Michael R. Collings, Jason V Brock, John Palisano, Jonathan Templar, Taylor Grant, and many more including some rather interesting newcomers like Jason Duke and Essel Pratt. The paperback edition will be out soon.

Blood Type: An Anthology of Vampire SF on the Cutting Edge is predominately a collection of stories that represent the most cutting edge science fiction-based vampire fiction. Think SF-based vampire fiction like I Am Legend and Necroscope and how they affected the vampire genre when they were first released. Dark Vampire SF that goes where the genre hasn't before.

It is not just an anthology of hard science fiction, however. This book also contains examples of science fantasy as well as some classic vampire stories including an updated reprint from William F. Nolan.

I'm very excited for this book to finally come out! Weighing in at just over 130,000 words, I believe it includes some of the best fiction I've had the good fortune of editing and I'm so excited to finally share its dark and truly unique contents with you all.

So, there's the anthologies that are out. What else could I possibly have going on, you ask? Well... you may recall the recent Indiegogo fundraiser I held for RISING FROM ASHES: EMPIRE OF BLOOD BOOK THREE. Well, even though I did not manage to fully fund it, I'm still working my ass off toward putting out the third part of my Empire of Blood trilogy early in 2014.

Along with that, one of the perks I offered late in the fundraiser was for a collection of novellas I have planned out called ORIGIN OF BLOOD. Each of these three novellas will touch on a different character in the Empire of Blood world, giving you an origin story of how they came to be who they are. They include THE RISE OF CAESAR, ISHAN THE ANCIENT, and QUEEN OF THE DEAD. I had initially chosen to release each novella individually and collected together and release them  in four separate signed limited hardcover editions ONLY. And for the most part I still intend to do this. But to start with I'll only be releasing the collection. If there is a demand for the individual novellas I will do them too. But let me repeat something here. THESE WILL NOT BE AVAILABLE IN ANY OTHER FORMAT EVER!

This collection will include all three novellas, a short story or two, some handwritten notes, illustrations, other notes and background information, and each will be signed and numbered. As of right now, two of these have been purchased via the Indiegogo campaign. Due to the fact that I may not do the individual editions at all except for special proof editions for Indiegogo contributors, I'm going to do this run on a sliding scale between 100 and 200 copies depending on how many are pre-ordered. Release will be mid to late 2014. But for those who pre-order, I will be including an early e-copy of RISING FROM ASHES: EMPIRE OF BLOOD BOOK THREE before it is available elsewhere, a secret gift, and samples and updates from time to time about ORIGIN OF BLOOD and RISING FROM ASHES during the writing process for both.


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Origins of Blood: Introducing Three New Empire of Blood Novellas!

Have you always wanted to learn more about the characters in the Empire of Blood series? Well, now's your chance. And it's not a chance that everyone will get!

Introducing ORIGINS OF BLOOD. Three brand new "origin" type novellas in the EMPIRE OF BLOOD series including THE RISE OF CAESAR, QUEEN OF THE DEAD, and ISHAN THE ANCIENT. These will be available ONLY in 100-copy limited hardcover runs individually and as a collection. They will not be released via ebook or paperback EVER! You can pre-order them now via donation to the RISING FROM ASHES Indiegogo fundraiser.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Subtle Balance Blog Series: Part 2, Point of View... Well Some of it, At Least

Part two of the SubtleBalance Blog Series was initially meant to be a continuation of Part One and was supposed to include things that myself and others felt also belong on the list of basic elements for crafting fiction. However, when I started to write about the first element that came to mind, I quickly realized it wasn’t quite working out the way I’d planned. In fact, it has become far too long for just one post. So, the following element, Point of View, will be broken up and each POV option will have its own post.

This element is just as important as those listed in Part One in helping to create and maintain the subtle balance—you see what I did there?—required to craft a good piece of fiction. In the name of brevity (which happens to be one aspect I’ll be touching on with one of the forthcoming elements of this series), let’s cut the foreplay and get on with it, shall we?

Point of View: Point of view is basically how you choose to convey a story from the many possible sources you have at your disposal. I think of it sort of like a mode of transportation. When you decide to go to the store from your home, you have many different options as to how you can get yourself from point A (the place where you live) to point B (the store you wish to go to); you could lace up your tennis shoes and walk, you could drive your car (assuming you have one), you could ride a bike (see previous parenthetic aside), put on some rocket skates (really, who doesn’t have a pair of those!), or you could take some form of public transportation (in which I would strongly salute your bravery). When you choose the style of point of view, you’re basically picking the vehicle or mode of transportation for your story to get from point A (your crazy, awesome, creative brain) to point B (your hungry adoring reader’s brain), hopefully without over or under-shooting your destination. Or for that matter crashing right into it and killing a dozen innocent bystanders in the process. Like with modes of transportation, every type of point of view has its pros and cons.

Each of these posts will cover the basic point of view options you can choose to transport your story to the reader along with some commentary about their different good and bad points. Let’s start with…

First Person: First person point of view is essentially telling the story directly from the point of view of one of your characters as if this character is telling the reader the story. For example: “My name is Joey First-Person and this is my story.” Obviously that’s a very dumbed-down example, but I’m sure most of you get the point. Some great classic literature that uses first person point of view would be Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Some recent examples from popular fiction would include Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse southern vampire novels, The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, or Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas books. Many of James Patterson’s novels are also written in first person point of view.

Now, for anyone who still isn’t following, maybe you’ve never come across a book written in first person and therefore I’m going to guess you couldn’t possibly do much reading and should probably stop reading this post and wait for me to talk about the importance—to writers—particularly writers who want to continue to grow in their craft—of reading as much fiction as you can manage to get your greedy hands on.

One of the best things about first person point of view is the degree of intimacy it can create between the reader and the character you’re using to narrate your story. It gives you the chance to go deeper inside the mind and emotions of this character and show their more human side in both positive and negative ways that don’t quite come through as blatantly in third person or omniscient point of view. But it also constrains the writer in a way that is difficult to employ, yet can heighten the sense of tension in your fiction and become hugely rewarding to the writer who executes it well. Because the reader in a sense sees, hears, and to some degree even feels what the viewpoint character does and therefore is also subject to this character’s human sensory limitations as well. With first person point of view, unless your viewpoint character can read people’s minds or know things impossible for humans to know, the reader can only perceive, deduce, and learn from the minimal human sensory information conveyed to them by the character telling the story.

Now, does that mean the reader can only figure out what the viewpoint character can? Absolutely not. I think it’s fair to say that some, maybe even many readers often pick up on clues the viewpoint character doesn’t notice at all. But that’s true of all viewpoints to some degree. One of the most important things imperative for the writer to maintain tension is managing to keep as many secrets as possible. At least until the time comes to reveal them. In a big way, maintaining tension is a lot like playing poker against your reader and knowing when to bluff and when to play your cards.

In other words, building tension requires you to gradually reveal your secrets little by little every now and then in order to keep pulling the reader along. That, in essence, is tension. I like to think of it like the reader is the rabbit and the secrets of the story are collectively one BIG ASS CARROT™ that the writer pulls along. Every once in a while, the writer lets the rabbit catch up and get a tasty little nibble from the BIG ASS CARROT™, further compelling the rabbit (the reader) to keep pursuing the BIG ASS CARROT™ (aka keep reading the story—Oh my God, what happens next???) until the entire thing is gone right down to the very last satisfying bite.

How does using first person point of view constrain the writer in such a way that actually helps to add tension to the story, you ask? Well, how about some examples. The first thing that comes to mind for me is character motivations. This can be any character including the very character who’s telling the story. Let’s say there’s a character in the story who is always mean to everyone but at the same time is often quick to be nice to your main character—and your character doesn’t quite understand why. Because the reader only sees this other character from the viewpoint character’s point of view, the only clues they are able to pick up on come from the information provided by that character’s five senses through the filter of their own biases, motivations, and/or withheld information.

Which brings me to another aspect of first person POV to further complicate things. Nowhere in the laws of viewpoint is there a rule that says you can trust that the viewpoint character is telling you the truth! The viewpoint character in first person point of view can actually be made to lie to the reader. This is called an unreliable narrator. Any narrator can be unreliable, be they first person, second person (rare and complex as that can be), third person, or omniscient, but I personally think this technique is most effective with first person POV. Because, instead of trying to produce tension, the writer is usually using an unreliable narrator as another way to hide information or as a means to trick the reader into believing one thing in order to reveal something contrary or hidden later on. This is often used to add some kind of twist in the story usually toward the end. And, of course, the more intimate a relationship that forms between the reader and the first person viewpoint character, the less likely the reader will see it coming, the more devastating the betrayal will be, and therefore the more effective the twist will end up. I would give you an example but that would risk spoiling a good book or story and if there’s one thing I truly hate in this world, it’s spoilers!

But getting back to those other characters. The ones you can only see through your viewpoint character’s eyes. Those sneaky, tricky, hard-to-decipher, keep-to-themselves other characters—the secret keepers—the ones who know something your viewpoint character—and possibly your reader—doesn’t. The bastards! Why do they do the things they do? What do they know that Joey First-Person doesn’t? What are they hiding, damn them! [DEEP BREATH] Alluding to ambiguous motivations, loyalties, and/or acquired information from your non-viewpoint characters is a great way to not only heighten the tension in any story, but to also add realism that readers will appreciate.

A great example of this is the character of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series (which might I add is written in mostly third person limited point of view which we’ll come to in a later post). Throughout the story, tension is built based on the fact that Harry never quite knows whether he should trust Snape. And this actually grows—rather brilliantly—into a major plot point of the series in the last two books.

But character ambiguity doesn’t always have to be a major plot point. It can be used to varying degrees in all kinds of different ways to add tension or even more simply and sometimes far more importantly make the writer have to get off his big fat butt and show the reader what that character is thinking and feeling via simple cues of human body language or telling slips in dialogue, or all kinds of subtle ways in which we all—as human beings—can recognize… if we’re paying attention. And if our reader isn’t bored, they’re likely doing just that.

At the same time a lot of this character ambiguity can also be accomplished by using a third person limited point of view, the most popular viewpoint in modern fiction. But we’ll go more into that when we get to that post. One of the downsides to first person is that not everyone likes it. I’ve seen review after review where readers have complained about books being written in first person. I suppose the reason for this is that some people prefer a more formal detached narrator. Personally, as a reader, I myself don’t care what viewpoint you use, so long as you use it well and it fits the story. But who cares what I think? Readers have their own opinion and they don’t likely give a damn what anyone else’s is when they’re flipping through the pages of a novel or short story, etc.

One last thing about first person viewpoint that makes it a tricky point of view to work with. You always have to write your prose in character—at all times (unless of course you make use of multiple points of view—and now I’ve just gone and made this confusing, haven’t I? Oh, well, sorry! We’ll talk about that one soon enough). Take the classic example I used earlier Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. Keyes not only stays in character quite brilliantly via prose, spelling, and grammatical nuances completely believable to his viewpoint character, but he even goes as far as to use this technique to show the incredible changes that Charlie Gordon (Daniel’s protagonist and viewpoint character in the book) goes through from the beginning of this brilliant little emotional science fiction book to its resonant, tear-jerking, hugely impactful ending (see The Subtle Balance Part 1 for more on endings).

Speaking of endings…

That pretty much wraps it up for this first post on point of view. Stay tuned for my continuing posts on point of view in the Subtle Balance series: The Subtle Balance Part 3: Point of View Continued in which I’ll be writing about second person point of view, Part 4: More Point of View in which we’ll cover both third person and omniscient points of view and Part 5: Yes, We’re Still Talking about Point of View in which I’ll discuss how tense comes into play in all the various points of view and some other final thoughts on the subject. Coming soon…

Friday, August 2, 2013

Introducing the RISING FROM ASHES Indiegogo Fundraiser!!!

 Look what we have here. Not only did I make a complete ass of myself making the video for this fundraiser, but I had a lot of fun doing it as well. There's a ton of great perks here for both long time Empire of Blood fans and new readers too! Everything from ebook versions of the first two books for a fraction of the cost on Amazon to signed personalized paperback and limited hardcovers to omnibus editions of the entire trilogy to interactive perks like naming a vampire or Foederati soldier in RISING FROM ASHES to the grand daddy perks of them all: signed and personalized original printed manuscripts including EXIT REALITY, an early draft of my unpublished novella THE NESTING PLACE, and SHINING IN CRIMSON itself. That one comes complete with red ink from my editor!

And I'm possibly going to be adding more if I think of anything. I'd like to make this one big extravaganza of a party! And I think for some of you the biggest perk of all would be that if I get funded for this, I'll be able to focus enough time and energy into writing RISING FROM ASHES that I'll be able to publish it as soon as early January! So, check it out, share it with your friends and all the other various animals and inanimate objects I mention on the video! Consider donating. And remember it's just started. It'll be up there until the end of September... BUT, only one of each of the manuscript perks is available!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Subtle Balance Blog Series: Part 1, The Basic Elements of Crafting a Fictional Story

This is the first piece of a larger puzzle I intend to put together on the craft of writing. I do not intend, by writing this, to try and pronounce myself as an expert by any means. What I do intend to accomplish with these little posts is something helpful for writers in all stages of the game. This particular piece is more for the new writer. Many writers often feel very insecure when they first begin to seek out the wheels and cogs that come together to make good writing. And often they have no idea where to look for answers. This is my attempt to help some of them out. The following are some of the most basic elements of what makes a good fictional story. I would be stupid to assume I’ve covered them all. But hopefully I’ve covered the most important to start with. Feel free to comment if you feel I’ve left any out.

  • Plot: Plot = story. Something has to happen. And if you hope to have any chance of keeping any readers, that something should probably be interesting. A family of four sitting and watching TV or anybody’s daily routine where nothing out of the ordinary or nothing that causes the character any tension happens does not designate a plot. Some kind of tension is necessary, be it mysterious tension, romantic tension, daily life tension, horrific tension, etc. All good fiction that keeps readers reading requires some kind of tension to pull them along. And the character has to work toward resolving that tension in order to give a plot its most basic foundation.

  • Prose: Well written, clean, inviting, and readable prose (or writing). I suppose you could say “well written” speaks for itself, but I’d be inclined to disagree. It takes some writers years to learn modern techniques of good writing. And there are a lot of reasons for this.

1. Not everyone agrees on what is good writing. Styles are often different. So while there may be a predominant mainstream when it comes to what sells popular fiction, that example no more simplifies defining good writing than popular cinema simplifies defining good film-making. Tastes vary.

2. Due to the complexity and nature of subjectivity to the craft, many great writers refuse to publicly pass on what they have learned while many other writers tackle the subject either prematurely or from very particular subjective points of view. To be clear: I would go as far as to say that there is no book on earth that can teach you, from point A to Z, exactly how to write well. Many books will give you hints and clues, and many authors will tell you what works for them, but no two writers are exactly the same and neither will their methods be. That’s not to say there aren’t good teachers or good books out there. There are, but no one can learn to write well by merely reading or learning about it. It takes an interactive approach that combines learning and doing.

3. Which brings us to number three. Learning to write well is a huge commitment that requires a great amount of determination and willingness to experiment as well as an insatiable thirst for reading and writing. Many people who decide one day, “Hey, I want to be a writer,” will never have enough determination to make the kind of commitment to the craft that is required.

  • The Hook: The Hook is the first sentence or group of sentences of your story, novella, or novel when crafted to hook the reader. Not all great books have a hook within the first paragraph per se and I would go as far as to say a hook is not always necessary. Really great writers are able to hook most of their readers purely through the power of their prose, voice, or characters. But many will argue with me, and understandably so, that today’s reader is easily distracted and has far too many choices on their real or virtual bookshelf to risk losing them on the first page. And this is true. Many readers—myself included—get distracted and jump from book to book.

Although that can happen for many reasons (i.e. sometimes it’s just not what the reader is in the mood for, or this particular reader inherently doesn’t like some element of the story and never will, or the book just isn’t interesting enough in general), having a hook at the beginning of your book certainly can’t hurt. For short stories I would say a first sentence hook is damn near necessary. A hook is accomplished in many ways. Many people insist on starting with action or in the middle of an intense situation that started prior to the beginning of the story. This can work if it’s not done just for its own sake. But to say it’s the only way to create a hook is ridiculous. Hooks can be created with action, mystery, intrigue, odd sentences that don’t fully make sense without reading further, great dialogue, or countless other ways. It all comes down to imagination. A hook at its most basic explanation is a line or more that makes the reader want to read more. The possibilities for how to execute such a thing are endless.

  • Believable Characters in Believable Situations: Now right there it sounds like I just took the idea of genre (especially speculative fiction) and pissed all over it when it comes to what’s essential for crafting fiction. But this is not the case at all. Readers of genre and speculative fiction set aside a degree of belief when they read. It’s no different than when you read something fictional based on the real world. Even though you don’t actually believe what you’re reading is happening right now before you, you still, in some way, believe what you’re reading is something (more or less) true in some sense. And this is usually due to several important factors:

1. Relatable characters the reader can identify with and therefore empathize with. When you read about a character, like meeting people in real life, you instantly look for traits and features about them that are similar and different to your own. And many of us have a number of traits that we feel highly about almost unanimously in society. For instance, many of us especially think highly of someone who is kind or helpful to others. Heroes, for example. People who sacrifice their time or what’s important to them for others. Those who are smart, attractive, funny, do good deeds, etc. And these are wonderful traits to use but combining too many of them can be overkill. And at the same time, believability is even more important. If you relate to a character but you don’t find them believable, what’s the good in that? Will you bother to keep reading about them? Probably not. And what’s the most believable thing that people have, that everyone has, that anyone can relate to? Some kind of flaw or flaws. Everyone has them. Some of them are endearing. Some… not so much. Many, however, are very relatable to others. So a balance is necessary. Good, believable, relatable characters have good and bad traits.

2. Rules. Unless you’re writing bizarro fiction, rules are very important. With real world fiction like literary or any other kind of non-speculative fiction, the rules are already obvious. The rules of physics, the rules of common sense, and every day life are the rules that your story will need to follow in order to be believable. As for speculative fiction like fantasy, science fiction, or horror, the rules are what you make them. But they have to be created and once they’re created and established, they have to be followed in order to be able to keep your situations believable. Any time you sit down to read fiction you have to do what’s called “suspending disbelief.” When you suspend disbelief you tell yourself, “What I’m reading right now is fiction and I know that but I’m going to believe it on some level as I read so I can enjoy this story.” But once the reader makes this decision, which we all subconsciously make every time we open a book of fiction, it’s no longer their responsibility to keep suspending disbelief. It is the writer’s. When a reader stops reading because they don’t find the story believable enough it is usually because the writer has done something to distract them or to remind them that they are, in fact, reading. One of the biggest causes of this is when a writer breaks the rules of their story. Another that’s probably far more responsible is poor writing and/or writing that points out something that takes away from what I like to call “immersion.” Suffice it to say that immersion is that feeling of reading and being fully immersed in the fictional world you are reading about. I’ll talk more about immersion in a later post.

3. Great dialogue. Great dialogue is a sort of balance. Each character has to have their own style of talking. Some similar, but there still has to be some variation. If all your characters talk exactly the same your dialogue will be dry and unbelievable for sure. And always following the rules of grammar too strictly will also make your dialogue much too stiff. If one particular character talks that way, then that makes sense. It can tell you a lot about them, but it’s something that should be unique to that character or a small number of characters per story. Yet, at the same time, making your dialogue too much like conversation and droning on and on about daily things can end up boring the reader. So the trick is to find the right balance between how people really talk and what’s important to the story. It’s not an easy balance to learn. And it can be different due to style. No one can really teach it fully to another person by explaining it. Great dialogue can be learned by listening to how people talk, reading the work of great writers, practicing continuously by writing your own dialogue often, learning to understand what’s important to each story as you write it, and developing your own style.

  • A Strong Understanding of, and Infatuation with, Language and Grammar: Poor language and bad grammar form together another example of what can knock a reader right out of suspension of disbelief. Constant typos, bad grammar for no good reason (modern writing tends to bend the rules of grammar often but should only be done for good reasons), heavy or clunky language (using a very large and complicated word when a much shorter/simpler one will work, using too many unnecessary words, repetitive words/phrases, confusing language, etc.), or poorly used punctuation. This element is fairly self-explanatory, but I know a few writers who still struggle with it. Especially the “infatuation” part. They struggle because they don’t want to take the time to learn how to better understand grammar, spelling, etc. They choose to decide that their editors or beta readers, or friends/family, and even readers can do all the work of compensating for their lack of understanding and infatuation with language and grammar and their stories (and editors/readers) suffer for it! Eventually all writers who struggle with this and have enough determination to overcome it will do so. But until they do, they only hold themselves back. I mean, imagine a mechanic who hates tools! Or a professional pilot who has a phobia of flying. These things make just as much sense as a writer who doesn’t understand and cherish language and grammar.

  • A Strong Satisfying Ending: Every piece of fiction needs one, right? But how do you explain how to write a good ending to any story? For that matter, how do you write a good ending? I don’t think this is something anyone can teach. There are many different kinds of endings. The twist ending, the happy ending, the sad or tragic ending, the scary ending, the bleak ending, the bittersweet ending, the cliffhanger ending… the list goes on and on. Every story has its own “right” ending and many “wrong” endings unique to itself. But there are some elements predominant in good endings. Here’s three that can help make your ending great when used properly:

1.      Resonance. Resonance is that feeling like déjà vu you get when you finish a story. That feeling like all the pieces fit together or at least some particularly profound pieces did. This technique is almost always great. But it requires the story to have a sort of theme and/or parallel or contrasting element established early on. Resonance is probably one of the hardest rabbits to pull out of a writer’s bag of tricks. It is so ingrained in the story itself that to explain its inner workings would require examples and many more words than this entire blog post. Suffice it to say, resonance is not usually accomplished in a first draft. It typically requires a lot of analysis of the story as a whole and part by part—what Stephen King calls “Seeing the forest for the trees”—combined with anywhere from light to heavy revision to achieve the full effect successfully.

2.      Change. The most obvious thing about plot is that it should bring about change in the end. This can be a change in the main character, changes in all the characters, their setting, or any number of possibilities. It is almost always necessary in any good story for someone or something important to be completely and utterly changed in some form by the end of the tale.

3.      Emotional impact. Emotional impact is not always necessary, but when it is and it’s handled well, it can leave a reader in tears and eagerly awaiting your next work of fiction. Many readers know what I’m talking about here. When a book or story makes you cry, it’s a good bet you won’t soon (if ever) forget it. And the best thing you can accomplish as a writer is leaving a profound impression on your reader. Emotional impact can also be brought about with resonance. Some would say the two are the same, but I would argue that either one can be achieved without the other and therefore are not mutually exclusive.

I hope you enjoyed this post. It was in no way meant to be an exhaustive list, however, more of a simple beginner’s list for those who would seek it. I know that, for me, when I first started taking my writing seriously I would have benefited greatly by finding a post like this to explain some of the more basic elements. And I also won’t pretend for one second that this is a full clear explanation of all of these elements. As I said before. I don’t think anyone has or ever will. I do hope, though, that I’ve accomplished something helpful that might allow some writers to move forward in their journey. So, by all means, feel free to add to my list or argue with it by commenting or sending me an email at That’s it for this first edition of The Subtle Balance. Click here to read the next installment: The Subtle Balance Blog Series: Part 2 Point of View... Well, Some of it at Least.