Tag Archives: Writing


Not much today except that I’m hitting my stride on a new piece that’s been clawing to get out of my brain for a few weeks now.  So, in lieu of a substantial blog post, I’ll leave a little teaser here from the first draft.

It was only for a second as I scrolled down, and when I went back and looked again, it refused to reappear, but for a moment, there was the suggestion of a shape, a distinct outline of something, among the un-data.

(I will probably be wanting a few beta readers in the near future, so if you’re interested, hit me up in the comments or via the tip-line.)


Writing in the Face of Rejection

Recently, over on SFWA’s site, there was posted a column by Tobias S. Buckell on the subject of rejection (something that, as writers, we all must face and face again).  I’m not going to re-hash it for the sake of making this appear to be a more substantial post, but I will say that the column is well worth your time.

I’m not the best one to talk about persevering in the face of rejection, nor can I really talk about writing every day–I haven’t touched any of my stories in what I consider a shamefully long time, certainly not since I moved, maybe not even since I was promoted.  I will say, though, that it is good advice, and that it does make me feel better when I do keep up with my writing.

So, since I’m not really providing you with much in the way of original content of my own, I’ll instead leave you with a picture of a cat.


All for the pageviews.

Two Wheels

My essay about bicycles, my father, and growing up, in roughly that order, is now live at Philadelphia Stories, where it appears in their Spring 2012 issue.

You can read the essay here.


One of the things that tends to be associated with urban fantasy is action/fighting.  If Chekhov is going to show off a gun in the first act, you can be damn sure that it’s going to go off by the third act, and if this is an urban fantasy that you’re talking about, that gun firing is probably going to be intentional.

You’ve probably seen quite a number of action movies with sweet fight scenes in them, and the natural inclination–it was certainly my first inclination when I began writing seriously–is to try to reproduce that sort of carefully-choreographed fight scene in your writing.  The problem with that is that words are not pictures, let alone moving pictures, and it can be hard to translate something you see perfectly well in your head onto the page in such a way that others will see the same things you imagined.

One thing to be sure of, if you have a big fight scene, is to have clear blocking–that is, where everyone important is standing/crouching/lying.  As in the days before it was assumed that you’d be playing D&D with minis, it can be hard to tell readers where everyone is during a fight.  All too often, you may have a character standing in one place, very near an enemy, but readers may imagine that character standing somewhere completely different.  While you’re trying to make your blocking as clear as possible, you must also keep from bogging readers down with information that gets in the way of the action.  You only need to describe the blocking of a scene when it’s very important to know where everyone is; otherwise, you may give broad-stroke information, painting a fight that everyone can imagine without having to tell them “look, here is where the protagonist is, and there are grunts crouched behind barrels here, here, and here.”

As an example, here’s an excerpt from an early draft of an urban fantasy parody that I’m working on:

The sound of the door slamming open was drowned out by the roar of gunfire which accompanied it. The dim warehouse was illuminated by the strobe of muzzle flashes migrating about the floor, going from cover to cover. Sasha had dived behind a huge, disused lathe as soon as she had breached the door, and her Glock chattered out streams of slugs as the thugs shooting at her broke from cover, trying to flank her.

Between bursts, she scanned the room, looking for the shadow of Jack. He had charged in before Sasha was even in cover, his form melting from that of a handsome man and re-coalescing as a large wolf, and he was on a tear. Sasha could only catch flashes of him, but she could hear the results of his work in the screams of the blood-slaves who had been lounging about the warehouse when she and Jack had burst in.

Looking around, Sasha locked her eyes onto the lit window of a small office along one of the warehouse walls. Sasha knew that was where Vladimir’s under-boss, Agrippa, was. She began plotting a route through the room, looking for the shortest distances between pieces of cover. Then, with half a plan in mind as the confidence to make the rest of it up on the fly, she burst from cover, spraying the room with lead for the few seconds that she was in the open.

Crouched behind another piece of heavy machinery, Sasha checked her equipment, noting that she had only a few more loaded clips for her Glock. Holstering the handgun, she unslung the shortened Ithaca pump-action from its place under her trench coat. The next piece of cover was a bit farther away than she had first judged. She peeked around the side of her cover, spotting Jack a dozen yards away, his bare, now-human chest heaving as he crouched, rifle in hand, behind a stack of boxes.

In this example, I’ve communicated all the essential details about the scene without having to give a full layout of the warehouse because readers can imagine what the inside of the warehouse looks like without my telling them every little detail.

There is equal danger in bogging down your readers in a blow-by-blow fight scene.  As is the case with slow pieces of dialog, slow, boring blow-by-blow scenes are better summarized.  There are places where blow-by-blow fight scenes work well, but they’re often better avoided.

The folks over at Writing Excuses did an episode on this topic a while back which I recommend.

Breaking the Cliche

In an earlier post, I discussed the difference between how I see urban fantasy and how the world at large generally sees urban fantasy.  A lot of what makes the average urban fantasy is a collection of tropes that at least approach being cliché.  Chicks with leather pants and sawn-off shotguns?  Overplayed.  Sexy vampires and werewolves?  Killed for the next few years by Twilight.

If urban fantasy wants to evolve as a subgenre, it must move beyond these clichés.  This doesn’t mean that there can’t be werewolves or vampires, but they ought to keep their shirts on unless the situation absolutely demands otherwise, and the vampires ought only to sparkle if they’ve been attacked by some variety of glitter elemental.  We, as writers, must push the limits of what urban fantasy is to realize what it can be.

This does not require so radical a change as you might imagine, though.  I’m not suggesting that you or I must completely do away with the basic tropes of urban fantasy; without those tropes it would be a different genre.  What I’m saying is that we must understand which tropes are essential and which ones are cliché.  With that understanding, we can move forward to write more interesting stories which challenge readers to reëxamine their ideas about what urban fantasy is.

Don’t reinvent the wheel–it works well enough–make a more pure wheel.  Build from the foundations that have been laid, but don’t just build another samey-samey block house.  This is our mission, and we have no choice but to accept it.

From Research to Writing

I’ve never been to Chernobyl, Ukraine.  I’ve never even been to Europe.  Did that stop me from setting a story there?  Hell no.

I know that the intent of this blog, as originally stated, is to show off Philadelphia as a prime setting for urban fantasy, but my secondary intention has always been to discuss the craft of writing.  To that end, this post is about going from researching a place to capturing it on the page.

Chernobyl; Pripyat, the adjoining city that housed the Chernobyl workers; and the 30 kilometer Zone of Alienation that surrounds them are the ultimate abandoned places.  You can’t just not go there, staying there too long can kill you, albeit slowly.  I thought that these locations would make the perfect setting for a short story.

The following is an excerpt from the story “Steel Yard,” which I wrote after being inspired by pictures I found of Pripyat and Chernobyl.

The streets of Pripyat were completely quiet, quieter than the streets of a small town in the dead of night. The sun shone down onto the cracked asphalt, nourishing the trees that sprouted here and there that created great rifts in the middle of the road. The stillness among those broken gray Soviet apartment blocks was unnatural. Although I knew that nobody could live here anymore, I imagined that I was being watched through the broken windows of any number of identical concrete buildings.

In the distance, the bright yellow gondolas of the ferris wheel in the city’s center looked incongruous against the trees that had grown undisturbed for almost twenty years. I turned, taking my thoughts from the sort of carefree summer’s day for which the ferris wheel begged. Beyond the endless rows of concrete buildings, the faded red and white cooling tower of Reactor 4 loomed, casting its shadow out in all directions for thirty kilometers.

I didn’t use everything I saw in pictures, and I didn’t see everything that I wrote about in the pictures that I could find.  This is important.  Without artistic license, you and I could only write about the things we knew everything about.  We would only write memoir, and that would be boring (not to say that memoirs are inherently boring, but that it would be boring if that were all that anyone could write).

Place, though, is not sufficient catalyst to write a story.  Place is setting, you need characters to populate your setting, and their interactions should drive your story.  For “Steel Yard,” the catalyst was the Russian Woodpecker, an installation known as Duga-3 by the Soviets, given the NATO code-name Steel Yard.  Duga-3 is an enormous over-the-horizon radar array that was in place to detect U. S. missile launches for a time before it was overtaken by satellite technology and eventually the end of the Cold War.

I won’t give away any of the plot, that would ruin the fun (and I’m still waiting to hear back from a certain prestigious market about “Steel Yard”), but I will give you a few more pictures and another excerpt.

I wondered who would be crazy enough to spend more time in the Zone than they had to. I had only been beyond the fence for half a day, and I already felt uneasy. I remembered seeing wisps of smoke rising through the trees once or twice during my drive, and once I had seen a rutted gravel road going off through the trees; there were still some people living in the area. Although I knew better, images of mutated freaks with five eyes and glowing green skin sprang to mind; I pushed those thoughts aside quickly, and tried to concentrate on where I was going.

The corridors in the bunker all looked the same, only occasionally differentiated from one another by indecipherable strings of Cyrillic characters that I tried to keep straight in my head in preparation for my eventual exit. For every time that I had been thankful for the simple uniformity of Soviet design in the outside world, I now cursed the confusion that it was causing within the confines of the dingy bunker. Every time that I thought I was making some progress, I found myself at another dead end.

So what did I actually do for this story?  Much of the plot planted itself in my mind at the very start, brought on when I first learned about the Russian Woodpecker.  From there, I spent a lot of time reading everything that I could find about the array,  looking at lots of pictures, researching related subjects (Wikipedia may not be the best for academic research papers, but it’s more than good enough for me as a writer, and points me in the right direction for the information I can’t find with my own simple searches), and watching TV shows about the area, all the time keeping an open notebook at hand so that I could jot down any ideas that came to me during my research.  I kept a lot of pictures on hand while I was writing so that I could best capture an area I have never been to, and I often spent as much time looking at pictures as I did writing a particular scene.

Some Things NOT to Do

In addition to avoiding bad moons, here are some other things to avoid doing in your writing.

Avoid Tom-Swifties/Said-Book-isms.  These are those exciting dialog tags that you were probably taught to use in grade school because “said” and “asked” are boring.  Your dialog should indicate mood without having to use “he screamed,” or “she whimpered.”  If, in taking these out, your dialog stops working, you need to reevaluate your dialog.  The one exception is that you may use fancy dialog tags if the mood of the speaker is contrary to the mood of what is being said.  “Thank you,” she snarled.

Don’t use adverbs.  In general, if you must use an adverb, you’re using the wrong verb.  Strengthen your verb and the adverb will become unnecessary.  Instead of “walked quietly,” use “tip-toed” or “crept.”  Some editors will cross out all of your adverbs as they read, while others are more lenient.  Avoiding adverbs will, in general, make your work stronger.

Don’t be “The Eye of Argon.” Just don’t.  If you can read this without seeing any problems with it, you need help.  If you can read it out loud with a straight face, find a science fiction convention; you can win a drinking game that way.  Do read “The Eye of Argon,” though, for it’s one of the best lessons on what not to do as a writer.

Examining the Why

An important thing to do in your writing, no matter what you write, is to examine why the events of your story are taking place.  Is it just because the plot dictates that it is so?  Is it because of characters interacting as they naturally would?  Whatever the reason, you, as the writer, need to know.  Whether or not you tell readers is entirely up to you.  In some cases, you don’t have to tell readers directly; your story should show readers the why without your having to go out of your way to spell it out.  Your characters should show readers the whys of their interactions through their personalities, and if they don’t, you should go back and revise to strengthen your characters so that they do.  Setting, on the other hand, is a bit more difficult.

One of the questions that I always ask myself when I’m writing an urban fantasy is “why is this world the way it is?”  This is also a question that I ask myself when I’m reading urban fantasies by other writers.  It’s a question that I ask pretty much every time that I write or read.  Sometimes, the answer is unimportant.  I wrote a novelette about two people and a computer, and the why of the setting almost didn’t matter, for the whole of the story was about the interactions of these characters with each other, rather than with the world.  On the other hand, I’ve written several stories about a paranormal investigator living in Philadelphia in the 1970s, and I’ve spent many hours coming up with a compelling why for the magic in the world that seemingly only he can see.

You shouldn’t stress yourself too much about the why, though.  It can be something as simple as “there has always been magic in the world, but most beings with magical abilities try to stay incognito.”  This is a gross oversimplification, but this is how the world works in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books.  Certainly he goes more into it, establishing a governing body for all things supernatural, but at the heart of it, it’s pretty simple.  Lovecraft does something similar, establishing his mythos throughout much of the body of his work.  Certainly in the case of Lovecraft there are instances where the mythos does not explain what’s going on, but readers don’t come out of a story still wondering why the events that take place in the story take place.

Knowing the why gives your writing confidence, and that confidence will come through to readers, even if you don’t show it to them.  Once, one of my alpha-readers asked me why my paranormal investigator character could see the things that he sees.  My answer was a sheepish “I don’t know,” and that made me go back and think about his history.  You don’t have to show readers your whole hand, or at least not all at once, but if you know the whys of your story, they’ll come through in your writing and leave readers more satisfied.

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