Author Archives: mary

Cause and Effect in Outlines

In the past year I reviewed story pitches for a small publishing house. Prospective writers were asked to provide an outline of their story, including protagonists, antagonist/conflict, and a brief summary of the plot.

Most writers were able to adequately describe their heroes and the challenges they would face, often from villains/enemy characters, sometimes from nature, circumstances, or their own old beliefs. But several writers didn’t show cause and effect in their outlines. Often, these were the same writers who ran into trouble while creating their stories.

“My hero is captured by the enemy king and put in prison, but she escapes…somehow.”

“My hero”s sidekick finds out…somehow…that his ex-boyfriend is in trouble and decides to go help him.”

You’re writing away, following your outline, and you’ve successfully gotten your hero thrown into prison…but now you’re stuck, because you don’t know any way to get her out without resorting to cliches (look! a loose brick in the back of the cell!) implausible coincidences (the guards all get the Spotted Pox and are too sick to pursue her) or power creep/god-moding (it’s fine because my hero is tough enough to beat up all 20 guards at once!)

Meanwhile, your hero’s sidekick is riding to his ex’s rescue, leaving your readers wondering why anyone would put their entire lives on hold to go haring off after a former lover, or how he even knew his ex was in trouble to start with. You’ll explain it later (like, perhaps, when your editor points it out?)

Getting stuck during the writing process, and weak spots in the story, can be avoided if cause and effect are worked into the outline.

“My hero’s sidekick finds out from his ex’s sister, a prison guard at the king’s palace, that his ex has signed on to a dangerous scouting mission. She begs the sidekick to go with him and keep him safe. He agrees, on one condition: his friend (our hero) has been thrown into the king’s dungeon for speaking out against government corruption. If the sister helps him break our hero out of prison, both of them will go to assist her brother.”

In summary, knowing what happens is only half of what you need….you also need to know why and how it happens. If you’ve pre-planned why and how, you’re less likely to get stuck during the writing process. You’re also less likely to feel tempted to resort to cliches, coincidences, and over-powering your characters just to keep the story moving forward. And your manuscript will have a lot fewer weak spots, where a character seems to psychically know some crucial bit of knowledge, or a glitching machine will suddenly start working properly again, or some other event occurs “because the author needed it to” rather than because of any in-story chain of cause and effect.

Fill your outlines with why and how. Show cause and effect–how one event leads into another. You’ll have an easier time writing and end up with a more satisfying story at the end.


Local Cons and Geek Markets

Let’s say you live in an isolated area and you don’t have the money for airfare or gas to travel to a large convention. Or maybe you can’t get more than a day or two off from your day job, and if you want to spend more than an afternoon at the con, that’s just not enough time.

Are small local cons and geek markets worthwhile?

One of the benefits to doing a small local con is that many of them are happy to have another guest. You’re probably not struggling for panel time up against the latest New York Times bestselling author. This means it’s easier for you to get a chance to do readings and panels, even if you’ve only got a couple publications under your belt. Small cons are an excellent place to get comfortable doing readings and panels and build up experience.

A geek market is like a dealer’s room without the convention. It’s typically a more attractive venue than a farmer’s market or flea market for a speculative fiction author, because it’s drawing an audience specifically interested in geeky things–sci fi, fantasy, horror, pop culture and collectibles.

Should you get a table at a local con? This will depend on cost of tables, your budget, and what you hope to get out of the con. If you want to attend lots of panels yourself, consider sharing a table or bringing a friend to watch the table while you’re elsewhere. Other cons allowed me to sell books after readings or during signing periods, which was more cost-effective than a table. Always check with the con staff to be sure you are acting in accordance with convention policy. Small local cons may waive registration fees for panelists, or you may receive a partial or full refund on your admission depending on how many panels you are on. Some of them also offer free snacks or meals for staff, which may include panelists like you.

Should you get a table at a geek market? A writer friend of mine has had great success sharing a table with her friend, an artist and toy collector. She says that a good number of people came to the table to look at the toys and art, but stayed to buy books after she started conversations with them. Sharing a table splits costs and gives everyone involved a chance to take breaks, get food, check out the other tables, etc.

There are a few down sides to small local cons and geek markets. First, there’s less likely to be an opportunity to network with publishers and agents. Secondly, you can never be sure how many books you will sell, so if you’re going to a local con because money is tight, be careful. While there’s lots of things you can do to increase your sales, like talking to congoers, doing readings, and offering incentives like bookmarks or buttons, in the end there’s a certain amount of luck involved. Are the people at the con interested in the theme of the books you’re selling, or are they more interested in spending their money on toys, art, or games? Don’t depend on sales to feed yourself or pay your transportation home; you’ll end up resentful and in a tight pinch if you have a tough day. Instead, my goal is to funnel all profits from books back into my writing somehow–upgrading my computer, buying more stock, travel money for future cons.

So are geek markets worth it? The cost of the table is the major factor. Make sure you can afford the table fee even if sales are disappointing. This will be easier if more than one person is sharing a table, or if you’re selling other merchandise besides just books.

Are small local cons worth it? If you are new to conventions, absolutely. You can gain experience and get comfortable with pitching your work, doing panels, reading for an audience, and learning to sell in a smaller setting for far less cost. If you can’t afford time or cost to attend a big con, a small local con can keep you “in the rhythm” of putting yourself out there.

If you’re an experienced congoer, ask yourself whether you’re giving up something else in order to go to the local con. If you’re jetlagged from a big con the weekend before, overextending yourself and getting sick probably isn’t worth it. Rest, family time and writing time are important too. If you’d just be sitting around bored, though, take a day and connect with your local community.

Getting Off The Treadmill

Ironically, following a piece of “good advice” left me unable to write for months.

That good advice was Write Every Day.

So I did. I set what I thought was a reasonable goal: 2,000 words. On a good day, I can write twice that. Even on an average day, 3,000 isn’t that hard. I decided that every day, no matter what, I’d write 2K words.

So I wrote, even if I was tired. I wrote, even if I was a little sick. I wrote, even if I had to break prior plans because I hadn’t gotten my day’s writing done before it was time to go. I wrote, even if I was writing incoherent garbage I’d delete the next day.

Then life began to trip me up.

We’d planned a trip for the weekend. That’s 2K for Friday, 2K for Saturday and 2K for Sunday that has to be done before we leave on Friday. I managed it, but when I got home, my “a little sick” became “a lot sick” and I spent the day unable to sit up and write. That meant the next day I was under the gun to write 4K words to make up for what I’d missed. I started staying up later and later, saying no to more and more activities, skipping more and more meals, trying to catch up for words I’d missed, or get enough done in advance to do activities planned weeks in advance. I gave up more and more interests to save time for writing, until writing was the only thing I did.

Soon the schedule I’d made in the hopes of keeping momentum ended up getting away from me, mowing me over, and hammering me into the ground.

By the time I gave it up, I was sick long-term, and when I recovered, I had to focus on making up the time lost from my day jobs. In the end, I think I lost about three months of writing time because I’d tried to keep momentum.

The moral of the story was for me to build in time off. If I’m treating writing as a full-time job, I work five days a week–not seven. That way I don’t have to do extra work in advance to go on a weekend outing, and if I’m sick one day, I don’t have to worry about making it up so long as I make that day one of my two “days off.” I don’t sacrifice cooking and eating time for writing: no more convenience junk food or skipped meals. I also don’t sacrifice sleep.

Ironically, I’ve found myself gettting more work done by taking two days per week off. 10K words a week is still a novel’s worth every three months. I’m in better health, in better mood, and producing better quality work–no more sitting at the typewriter hammering out garbage just to get the 2K done so I can sleep at last. I’ve found a goal that’s achievable, repeatable, and long-term sustainable.

So to me, momentum doesn’t mean writing every day. It means finding your rhythm that you can sustain long-term, without sacrificing your physical health, your mental well-being, your connection with friends and family, and the other interests that enrich your life.


Have you been swimming in Fossil Lake?

Be careful if you do. There’s something in the water…

…and it’s got teeth.

The first two Fossil Lake anthologies explored the beautiful horrors of Fossil Lake. The third, Unicornado!, mixed fantasy, disasters, and terror. Now, for the fourth, we’re back at the Lake and it’s now hosting some very toothy critters in its depths.

Sharkasaurus! draws inspiration from monster movies, Jaws, and Jurassic Park to take on our fears of what lives in the dark water. Proving that gory and funny aren’t necessarily opposites, my story, How to Make a Monster, puts a new twist on the old mad-scientist character so often responsible for The Brain That Terrorized The City…

A female academic, taking the fall for ethics violations, moves to the tropics and tries to rebuild her life to the tune of Jimmy Buffett songs. But when the land sharks start mawing down on tourists, and her old co-worker shows up to track down who’s responsible, this mad scientist has to say, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em….

Plus thirty-six other weird works of fiction prose and poetry.

You can catch your own Sharkasaurus in print on Amazon or in ebook on Smashwords.