Fan To Writer Part 2: I Wrote A Thing!!!

Welcome to the second part of Fan to Writer, in which writer, editor, and conference organizer Spencer Ellsworth leads us through the various steps on the path to pro writer. From having fun with stories to making pro sales and even some money on your writing, come with us on this road.

Part 2: I Wrote A Thing!!!

Fan to Writer, Stage Two. Go!

To qualify for this stage…

You have a manuscript!

It might be a novel or a short story. It might be all done, or mostly done, or maybe, if you’re one of those who writes out of order, it’s a beginning and ending with no middle.


You ask your friends to read it. Some of them do and some of them love it and encourage you. Others, including family, might say incredibly discouraging things that pierce you to the heart, and you tearfully pull up the document on your computer, about to hit DELETE.

Don’t do that!

Don’t give in to that initial discouragement. Don’t listen to any schmo with an opinion. You need supportive, loving friends at this point. You don’t need a “brutally honest critique” but you do need people who are intelligent readers and ask more of a book than entertainment.

Specifically, you need a writers’ critique group. Or a professional editor. Or both.

Writers’ groups are tricky. Many indie bookstores run open critique groups where anyone in the community can show up with their manuscript. I was in one of these for a while and there were two other people in the group who were wonderful—prolific, very productive, with sharp, intelligent critiques. We’re still friends.

There were also random people showing up to tell us that we didn’t know anything and all science fiction was crap.

One guy showed up for a full year, said negative things about everyone’s story, and only ever brought one short story, the only thing he’d ever finished.

Half the reason I stayed was so I could tell new writers, on the sly, not to listen to him.

This can be true in online groups as well. (See Further Reading below for help finding these.)

Practice saying this: “The only advice I need to take is the advice that rings true.” This may be easy for you, if you have a type-A, go-getter, take-no-prisoners personality. If you’re a born people-pleaser, this will be even harder. You’ll have the instinct to implement every critique, every comment, when only a few of those comments will be right for your story.

In time, someone in your writers’ group will say something that rings that bell. You’ll know it when you feel it. For me, it’s that moment where I say, “oooh, that change would make me love my story more.” That means the speaker is a critique partner to keep. Approach those sorts of people and ask them to join you in a private group. Provide some wine and cheese and cookies at the first few meetings to bribe them. (And save the receipts! That’s tax deductible!)

Professional editors are equally tricky. Almost everyone with an English degree is hanging out their hat as an editor these days, because we live in the era of a “good” economy where no one makes enough. But you shouldn’t go with your friend, your old high school teacher or the shiny ad on Facebook.

If you want to spend that money, go with someone who has worked in publishing, who has an eye for errors and story both, with listed testimonials and professional memberships. Don’t go too cheap—worthwhile editors follow EFA rates. Absolute Write has a good list. Usually, if your editor is a working writer, actively publishing, with an eye to trends and quality in their field, they’re much more likely to give you both good craft advice and good practical advice.

Alternatively, that money would be just as good at a writing workshop and may inspire you more than an edit will. Plus, you’ll make friends and possibly meet other critique partners.

Great. You’ve gotten an edit from a great editor and you’ve found some good critique partners. You’ve ditched the open group for a smaller, private group with people you trust. You’re looking at some local writing conferences and maybe even an audition-only workshop.

What now?

Welcome to the queue. We’re all standing in line.

To advance, you have to keep writing. Start a new novel and work steadily for a year, or finish a short story every few months. Submit to any place that’s reliable. Start with high-paying markets and respectable agents and publishers. If your work bounces off those, submit to reliable smaller markets and small presses. Thicken your skin, have crying sessions with your writers’ group, and keep some Ben & Jerry’s in reserve for the rejections that really hurt. Don’t ever submit to pay-to-publish markets or pay-to-read agents. Those are scams.

Read up on every agent who represents your favorite writers. Anytime you read a book that you love and that is similar to what you’re writing, try to find the agent and editor who put it together. Haunt AgentQuery like a vengeful ghost. Follow the #MSWL and #DVpit hashtags on Twitter—the first is agents and editors asking for their dream projects, and the second is Twitter pitching, in which likes from agents and editors represent open calls to submit the story.

Oh, and get a Twitter account. You might hate Twitter, but the entire publishing industry is on there.

And keep reading! Read everything possible that comes out in your chosen genre, and read everything else that catches your fancy.

Caveat: there are some people who “skip the line.” Stephanie Meyer and Patrick Rothfuss both wrote a good, and more importantly, marketable, first book. They found agents and editors, and sold like crazy until they were hobnobbing with celebrities. They are entirely the exception. Look at Stephen King, George RR Martin, Suzanne Collins—all had years of drudgery before they wrote their hits. Look at 99.966% of all other writers, in fact.

This apprenticeship period, in which you hone your craft, make friends with other people who are honing theirs too, and really dive deep, is a lot of fun. My best writer friends are the people I met in this period. If you thought Stage One was fun, it ain’t nothing next to the heady rush of learning, of experimenting, of jumping happily into the trenches.

Next time, we’ll talk about the slow crawl to journeyman stage.

Further Reading: Are You Looking For A Critique Group Or Partner? Janice Hardy, How To Make The Most of Your Writer’s Workshop, Bernadette Mung, Online Writing Workshop, Thoughts On Writers’ Reading Habits, Dario Ciriello


NaNoWriMo: How to NaNo

How do you write a novel in thirty days?

Damned if I know.

For me, the annual attempt at completing National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, or sometimes NaNo for short) is simultaneously a grand adventure and also an exercise in frustration. And yet, I keep trying, because I enjoy the challenge.

One of the great benefits of a challenge like NaNoWriMo is that it can push someone out of their comfort zone in completely controllable (because they’re the only one calling the shots) but also completely unanticipated ways...if that makes any sense. I mean that as someone participating in NaNoWriMo you learn things about yourself as an author, whether you think about yourself as "an author" or not. And you very well might not! You may have never done NaNo before. But if you’re participating this year, then congratulations, you’re an author now.

I’ve been participating in NaNo since 2012, and I’ve come up with some rules of thumb. This is, I hasten to say, how I work in November. It does not have to be how you work or how anyone else works in November or at any other time. It’s not the most convenient process in the world but it’s mine, and it took me the better part of seven years to figure out that learning how to write regularly is recognizing my own process and how it works, and what my highs and lows are.

Rule #1: Never stop thinking about your plot.

Plots—that is, the problem that the characters are facing—are hard for me. So I’m thinking about them constantly: How does Action A lead to Reaction B, and how does that influence the far-off Consequence Z several thousand words from now? I do this to some extent the rest of the year as well, but giving myself the permission to just think about a single narrative nonstop for thirty days, and immerse myself in it, is amazingly freeing.

Rule #2: Drink with your characters.

Picture yourself and your character in a situation where they’re comfortable, maybe more at ease than normal, and start imagining a conversation between the two of you. This is a technique I like to use when I find myself blocked on a particular character. For me, knowing how a character will believably react in a given scene depends upon knowing the character as a person, on knowing both the big details and the little details.

So get them talking. You might be surprised at what you uncover.

Rule #3: Convince your significant other that writing is more important than they are (temporarily).

Writing is largely a solitary process. The writer needs to concentrate and brainstorm and that’s hard to do when there’s a relationship to tend to as well. It’s only a month; your partner can do without 80 percent of your attentions for a month. (I leave it to actual parents to advise how to do NaNo with children in the mix.)

Rule #4: Write in inappropriate places.

Inspiration strikes at the most awkward of times. In bed. In the shower. On the toilet. Keep a little notebook and a stub of pencil in your pocket or a note-taking app on your phone, and when you get an idea, write it down.

Rule #5: Learn at what word count you’re most likely to run out of steam, and plan accordingly.

Example: I’ve trained myself to bang out scenes of about 500–600 words in the scraps of time I can find on a work day. But that won’t get me very far in thirty days, so I have to write my usual daily words, refuel my brain with caffeine, and then do it again. By the end of the month, my draft is a little incoherent, but it’s met the recommended word count and that’s my goal.

Rule #6: Listen to the voices in your head—no, not those, the other ones.

Your characters will tell you lots of things, about themselves, about the story, about their world. You don’t have to use everything they tell you, but listen to all of it. Do not listen to the voices that tell you to just give up because it’s too hard and your writing sucks and no one’s ever going to want to read this anyway. Of course it sucks; it’s a first draft, that’s its job. Your job is to get that story told.

Rule #7: Remember to hydrate.

And eat. And sleep. And shower. And go outside occasionally. Writers cannot live on words alone.

Rule #8: Sort the bodies out later.

Refer to Rule #6. You’re going to have plot holes and dangling threads and limp dialogue and scenes that go nowhere. Let them. November is for writing, for getting the story out, hopefully from start to finish. Some other month is for going back and stopping all the leaks.

Did you find this list helpful? Did you at least get an idea of what you can do to make your NaNoWriMo experience a little easier? Fantastic! Go write!

Did you think this was a load of horse crap? Fantastic! Go write! And then come back and tell me how you made NaNo work for you!

Fan To Writer Part 1: Turn Fun into a Book?

Welcome to the first part of Fan to Writer, in which writer, editor, and conference organizer Spencer Ellsworth leads us through the various steps on the path to pro writer. From having fun with stories to making pro sales and even some money on your writing, come with us on this road.

Part 1: Turn Fun into a Book?

Fan to Writer, Stage One. Go!

And the first rule for qualifying at this stage…

You’re not a writer. At least, you don’t think of yourself as one.

Maybe you wrote stuff in high school or college: poetry, plays, a short story or two. But you haven’t really toyed with a story for a long time. Perhaps you got a literature degree and looked at the creative writing majors across the hall with envy. Maybe you run a D&D campaign that is a lot of fun and it’s your sole creative outlet. Maybe you even write some fanfic when you’re feeling adventurous.

You like reading and have an active imagination.

Caveat: anyone who writes fan fiction is indeed a writer. That is a valid form of writing and some of the best stuff I have ever read is fanfic. (Transformers fans HAVE to read James Roberts’ Eugenesis.) However, since this series is focused on becoming a professional working writer, we’re going to include “writing your own original characters” as part of the leap.

You let yourself dream on occasion or you tell your friends, “This D&D campaign would make a great book,” or “I wish this fanfic could be a real novel.” It’s fun for you to write about your favorite show going places it couldn’t go: The Doctor of Doctor Who as a vengeful samurai, maybe. A gay vengeful samurai, even. Maybe you’re gay and Japanese and wish you could see more of yourself in science fiction. Or disabled, or trans, or any unrepresented group in Western media, with its focus on white straight beefcakes. You want to read something no one’s written yet.

Well, why not try writing it?

Like so many passions in life—gardening, music, long-distance running—you are the thing once you do the thing. A gardener gardens. A musician makes music. A runner runs. Anyone who writes is a writer and anyone writing their own original work, with some imagination and hard work, has a good chance of seeing it in print.

Now, you’ll immediately run into the big roadblock: writing is not very conducive to a busy schedule. It requires you to be alone, seriously concentrating, in unforgiving blocks of time.

You must use those blocks of time to write even if the laundry’s piled up and the dishwasher needs to be run again.


How to find that time?

You could try NaNoWriMo—a fun, no-pressure blast of words in a month, with get-together write-ins to help you find time. You’ll find plenty of friends willing to try the month of mad words with you. Although much is made of the 50,000-word goal, few people remember that for someone who doesn’t usually write at all 10,000 words, 20,000 words, or even the halfway point of 25,000 words—that’s a lot!

Are you intimidated by even 10,000 words?

Let’s see if we can get you started. Ask your idea some questions and answer those questions.

Let’s take your gay, vengeful samurai time traveler. Why vengeful? He’s chasing the man who killed his best friend across time. How does he time-travel? It’s got to be something as characteristically samurai as a police box is British. A magical—time katana? Sure. It cuts holes in the time stream, let’s say.

What else? People love romance. Does romance complicate things? He gets distracted by the very sexy Sherlock Holmes in the Victorian period. Oooh, that’s fun.

All that has to take up around 10,000 words. Simple goal.

You may already know what kind of writer you are: someone who likes to plan or someone who likes to fly by the seat of their pants.

This may be because when you’ve written things like term papers in the past, you outlined, laying out the bulk of the story before starting. Or, if your process has always been more intuitive, you know you’ve always just sat down and gone until you stopped. In either case, you can deduce from interrogating your story that in the first scene your samurai’s buddy will be murdered. In the second scene, maybe we’ll see the aftermath—the funeral—and a long hike into the mountains where he finds a dead time traveler and the time-cutting katana. Seems like a natural progression.

You have a goal for your first few weeks of writing: get to the point where he picks up a time sword, cuts the air, and gets a whiff of coal-stinky Victorian England.

What then?

Well, by then you may have hit a little slump, so you can have the sexy detour with Sherlock Holmes. A shameful amount of pro writers throw some sex in when it’s getting boring. No judgment here!

Go from there, asking the questions: “What happens next?” and “Why?” and “How does this get my character closer to their goal, while not making things too easy for them?”

Where did the time traveler come from? How did his friend’s killer flee in time? How’s Sherlock feel about a one-night stand and has he deduced his mysterious lover’s identity?

If that all sounds intimidating, start smaller with short prompt sessions, half-hour timed writing, or producing something like flash fiction or prose poems. See prompts in Further Reading. If you like short, stay with short, and write little scenelets and jokes. If you find you keep having bigger ideas, you’re probably a natural novelist, and NaNoWriMo may be your speed.

Oh, you’ll get stuck in places, but you’ll start to work out, in time, how to get unstuck. List seven different ways a scene could go. Leave brackets like this: [Insert graceful transition here] and skip ahead.

Another caveat and another method: You can take a fanfic story and “file the serial numbers off” to make it your own whole-cloth creation. My novel A Red Peace may, uh, have started its life as something that rhymes with Schmar Schmores. Just make sure to change it enough that it supports other new stories in that world, not the original.

And in time… it’s done, it’s alive, it’s yours. You asked the questions, put in the time, wrote the dirty, the clean, the exciting and the expository bits. It’s there on your desk, glowing with promise.

In our next exciting installment, what to do with an actual draft? What role do writers’ groups, paid editors, conferences and workshops play?

Further Reading: 500+ Prompts to Inspire You Right Now, Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas?, NaNoWriMo: How It Works


Writing Contest Finalists!

We wrangled and we read and we processed over 300 entries. It was hard, but we got the list down to ten finalists, and here they are!

  • S Rain Lawrence - Minnesota
  • Douglas Wu - Connecticut
  • Steven Berger - Texas
  • Jamie Adams - Minnesota
  • Sam Tovey, United Kingdom
  • Tiffany Smith - Texas
  • Andrew J. Savage - Japan
  • Rose Wachowski - Virginia
  • Samantha Lynne Sargent - Canada
  • Claire Whitmore, Madison - Wisconsin

Stay tuned for the finalists from the art contests. Winners of both will be announced on November 15.

While you wait, make sure to check out our fall fundraising activity. Your donations and support during this time are how we'll keep our programming going, fund future contests, and bring you exciting new things! Browse our auction, swing by our merch sale, back us on Patreon, or give a direct donation via Paypal.

The Contests Have Closed: The Hunger and the Table

Hey, guess what? We did it! That’s a close on the submission window for Dream Foundry’s first art and writing contests. We had almost 400 submissions total, and our teams are selecting our fabulous finalists. This has been a great experience so far, and I’m looking forward to the results when they arrive.

While we wait, I want to share about why we ran this version of the contests this year. Although we announced the contest as a stretch goal for our Kickstarter, we didn’t wind up funding at that level. We ran the contests anyway. There are many reasons for that, but I’m going to focus on the one I think matters most.

Last November, when the leadership committee met to assess our progress and success so far and establish our goals and plans for 2019, one thing was clear: we were doing well. At that point we’d announced a vision with timelines and goals, we’d done all the hoop-jumping and logistical organizing required to be firmly and formally established, and we were about to launch our first program. About being the key word there. We’d done a lot, all of it important and necessary, but none of it was what we were for. And yet, we were rich in support, well wishes, and people volunteering their time and energy. We’d raised enough money to start strong, mostly because people were hungry for the dreams we were promising.

We looked at the numbers. And the offers. And the plans. There was an opportunity there. That hunger we were seeing? We let it inspire us to be ambitious, and that ambition has been rewarded. Three hundred and ninety-three submissions to a brand new contest from a fairly new organization. That, on its own, is a success. But that’s such a small part of what we’ve seen while we’ve done this.

First, there’s William Ledbetter, who, when asked, dove right in to not only share his experience with writing contest logistics and design, but to spearhead this effort. Then Sara Felix, who just as generously answered when Bill asked her to handle the art side. By the same turn, Rachel Quinlan and Charles Coleman Finlay stepped up when asked to judge. Lisa Rodgers didn’t even wait to be asked, and I’m hoping she enjoys being a judge because otherwise she might think twice before having lunch with me again. Our slush readers? Some volunteered for the job before Dream Foundry had a name or a timeline. That eagerness and enthusiasm, backed by commitment and action, is all over the industry. We jumped on it.

In the process, we found a different hunger.

“Is there an age limit?” youth asked, hungry in a world where there’s a shortage of opportunities for them to be taken seriously as professionals, or potential professionals, and not as children. Adults asked too, people who’ve been busy with lives and work or with careers that delayed their pursuit of their craft beyond the point where anybody says “beginner” and pictures them.

No. No age limit. Come to our table.

“Are there entry fees?” asked people who are used to an ecosystem that feeds on them, at best concentrating resources from many of them to a few, and at worst by actively picking their pockets.

No. No entry fees. Have a snack while you wait.

“Is there a prompt or a theme you have to follow?” asked those who’ve been taught that to pursue their own vision first they have to pay dues to somebody else’s.


We had extra fliers, so I took them around to all the libraries where I am in Chicago. Libraries are great places, full of programs and opportunities to learn and read and practice. Chances to study and discuss. They’re good places to find beginners of all sorts, but especially the arts. It was a small adventure, a tiny side quest in life that would spread the word and let me pop into pockets of community and imagination I wouldn’t necessarily wander into otherwise. What did I find?


By and large, librarians care deeply about their patrons. They have a unique relationship to their needs and hopes, a special opportunity to influence the people they encounter in their professional lives for the better. They respond with a palpable enthusiasm when somebody shows up with fliers and says, “I work with an organization that’s running two contests for beginners. It’s free to enter, and there’s a cash prize. I’d like to make sure people know about it, if that’s okay?”

“No age limit, you said? Can I have two of those?”


“Is it okay if they’ve never done anything like this before?”

Oh definitely, yes.

“Would it be all right to tell that art group that meets here about this?”

Yes. Here, take some bookmarks, too.

When I explain Dream Foundry to people, I present it like this: You know the old adage about the best way to build a movie theater? The one that says you find a good spot for a popcorn stand, then put up the marquee? The contest is our marquee. It’s the thing that lets people know we’re there, gets them excited, and prompts them to come in. The real value in us, though, is the popcorn. That’s the everything else. The community. The support. The content and discussions and model of who we are, what we should do, and what we can expect from our colleagues, peers, and ourselves. We’re the popcorn.

Because it feeds that hunger.

There will be finalists, and that will be fun. Then winners, and that will be exciting. It matters. It’s important. But it’s also the capstone on something that is already succeeding in its mission. Three hundred and ninety-three people showed up to our door.

Welcome. Come in. We’ve got room at the table and we’re serving dinner soon. There’s something for everyone, and a ton of popcorn.

How To Make a Fictional Podcast

I’ve been a long-time fan of radio dramas, serialized fiction, Star Wars audiobooks, and other fantastic types of audio media, so when podcasts Hulk-smashed their way onto the scene in the early 2000s, I was thrilled. I contacted an author and mentor of mine, Nicole Kimberling, and asked if she would be interested in making a podcast. After googling what a podcast was, she signed on. Two years ago I worked with Nicole to make the podcast “Lauren Proves Magic is Real!” A few folks beat us to the chase with full cast recordings, but I think we caught the first wave of fiction podcasts.

I’m going to break down the steps you can take toward creating your own podcast, because if you have a story to tell, there’s someone out there who needs to hear it.

The approach that I would take to creating a serialized fiction podcast starts with breaking it into two parts: the story and the sound engineering.

Part 1: The Story

The story should be written as a script. They fall into the standard types meant to operate without the aid of visual explanations:

Classic Radio Play: A narrator explains the settings, scenes, and any other parts of the story not revealed through dialogue.

Serial Documentary Drama: A self-aware (which means the narrator is aware they’re recording a podcast) story in which the main character is recording a podcast. Normally, the characters investigate something and the plot involves their interviews, experiences, etc.

Theater of the Mind: A dialogue-based podcast without a narrator that relies entirely on soundscapes. Sound effects take the place of visuals. This can rely heavily on clear exposition (which can be corny).

Dear Diary: An audio diary in first person narration, because reasons. Maybe your character hates to write words, or maybe they are just one of those people who constantly take audio notes.

There are ways to merge these ideas. For example, the main character of “Lauren Proves Magic is Real!” was a podcaster who found the field recordings of a supernatural special agent. She then aired them as episodes of the podcast. So the podcast had to be self-aware, and have both narrative and audio diary elements. The self-aware podcast seems to be a popular choice, which might be because it can frequently be styled in a War of the Worlds way. The listener may experience a moment or two early on where they are not sure if the podcast is real or fiction.

It’s important to make the presentation style clear early on, as it will determine how much of the story is told in dialogue and how much of the story is told with audio.

An audio script, like any script, can be made simply with your computer, your typewriter, or some pen and paper. Like any good story, you’ll want a beginning, an inciting incident, a climax, maybe even a twist, and of course an ending. I personally gravitate toward cliff hangers in serial fiction episodes, so fans have something to wonder about

Now that we’ve covered some basic story elements and your imagination can start putting together a story you’d like to tell, let’s cover some of the technical basics and the steps to take if you want your podcast on Apple—‘the people’s platform’—or paid subscription networks like Stitcher.

Audio Recording Gear Land:

Microphones: How many mics you’ll need depends on how many characters will be speaking to each other in a single scene. I started with three mics and got to a point later on when we needed eight—for one scene. I’m not gonna lie: Mics can be expensive, depending on the sound quality you need. However, you can certainly start with cheap microphones, even gaming microphones that come with a desktop PC. You can also occasionally find microphones at secondhand stores. A classic mic that gives you a lot of bang for your buck is the MXL 990. The standard stage mic, SM58, will work too, as well as the standard stage instrument mic, the SM57.

USB interface: This is a little box into which you can plug a fancy microphone and then the box plugs with a USB cable to the computer USB driver. There’s a large variety, but here are some I’ve used: focus rite, m-audio usb, and audiobox.

Software: There’s a lot of audio programs out there. Your computer may already have one, like GarageBand. There’s also free audio editing software, like Audacity. I’ve also heard good things about Reason, and Ableton Lite. Your audio software will be where you record your story and track over track, and sound edit your story. You’ll record your dialogue using the power of acting, and the friends you can convince to act with you. Take your time to experiment with settings and be open to feedback. Eventually, you will become familiar with your software and be able to produce content very quickly.

There are a few workarounds for the creative person working with a very small budget. There are a series of apps for smartphones that are decent for recording and sound-mixing. If you want to start small, nothing is stopping you. You have the power to write, record, and mix on the device you are likely reading this article on.

Sounds & Music

Theme Songs: All good podcasts have a theme song. It can sometimes include clips of the dialogue cut out and edited like a movie commercial or be an original theme. Theme songs are a fantastic opportunity to collaborate with another like-minded creative. Find a musician friend and offer to use their music or ask them to write some. It’s hard to be vulnerable during the beginning of a creative process, but having a musician that you like on your team is really going to be worth it as you move forward in producing.

There are many opportunities to play music in a fictional podcast. There’s music that plays in cafes, music that denotes the passage of time, music from a car radio, music that sets a location. As much of this as you can get originally created, the better. But also there are a ton of resources online for both music and sound effects. I use for sound effects and small bits of royalty-free music.

There will inevitably be times where you need a sound effect that isn’t on the internet. I’ve had to create sound effects by recording myself running up and down stairs while knocking things over, dropping plates, scraping a razor against a bowl, hitting an iron railroad nail tied to a fishing string, etc. Be creative. You already can record. Ask yourself what’s in the room around you that makes a sound that could enhance your story.

Hosting: Once you have recorded several episodes and are committed to a release date, you’ll need to acquire a site on the internet. It can be a simple free Wix site or Squarespace. The only real requirement you need is for the site to be able to hold an RSS feed, which is where you will drag the mp3s of your project. Then you’ll either pay a third-party site like Podbean, or hop over to Apple podcast and submit your podcast for review. If it passes muster with the strange robots that review things, then bang! You’re live. It’s time to hit that share button and plead for likes on your social media.

The best advice I can give anyone about to make a fictional podcast is start small, pick a release schedule, and meet that release schedule every week. That means being prepared and not waiting until the last minute to do anything. Enjoy yourself! You’re about to embark on the fairly unexplored medium of fictional storytelling, a genre that is still being formed. I’m excited to hear what you make.

Contests Close Oct. 13- Submit Now!

There’s something interesting about firsts. They’re fresh. Powerful for setting precedents, and fragile for being new and inexperienced. Easy to mark because every first creates a transition point of before and after. There’s a magic to first-ness, and like most magic, that brings power, but also risk.

Tally your firsts. The first tooth you lost. The first time you rode a bike. The first story you told. The first sketch you drew. Line them up, collect them together, and you’ll have a kind of self-portrait. It won’t be complete. We’re more than our firsts. But the firsts we have are a bit like the corners on a puzzle, the anchor points that we can use to find the shape of the rest.

Dream Foundry has had a lot of firsts, and we’ve got a lot more to come. Right now, though, we’re in the final stretch of a biggie: our first contest. This is the first time we’re nearing the end of a submission window. Soon, we’ll be announcing contest finalists, for the first time. Then granting prizes to our first winners. Thanking and lauding our first judges. Congratulating everyone who was part of our first cohort of submitters. Soon.

But first, there’s you. Have you had your first sale? Excellent, and congratulations! Get ready to help us cheer on the contest entrants. If you haven’t, though? If that first is still in your future, then you need to hurry. You’re running out of time. There’s only a few days left. Submit. Let me be the first to say, we’re looking forward to seeing your work.

My Tetris-Inspired Task List

As creatives, we have to be able to get things done. Often there’s no one waiting, no one who even knows what we are creating, let alone to care when it is finished. I love to-do lists and goal setting and productivity hacks. However, I’ve struggled for a long time with repetitive tasks that I need to do every day or most days, even though I really don’t want to.

Some tasks are easy because they have an immediate result: I do the dishes because I need the kitchen clean and ready for me to cook again. But it’s hard to see results for long-term things like exercise and flossing, and even if I do see results, it’s hard not to feel demotivated that these are forever things, which I will never be finished with. These tend not to be creative tasks but instead mundane, real-world problems that we all have to deal with in order to keep up our health and our happiness.

But I wasn’t >doing these things. I clearly needed something more inspiring than a daily checklist that repeats forever. I found it when a friend sent me an image of a bullet journal featuring a page of “Adultris.”
Adultris is a popular name given to a notebook game based on Tetris, which has gained some popularity as a habit tracker. I immediately realized that this would be perfect to help me with all those repetitive tasks I was happily avoiding.

How to create a Tetris-Inspired Task List 


  • graph paper or a printer
  • multicolored pens or pencils (minimum seven colors)
  • a set of tasks

I find it easier to print a sheet of graph paper than to use a notebook, partially because then it can just fly around my desk instead of being trapped between covers but also so I can create the perfect pattern/size for my game, which takes some experimentation.

You can generate a PDF and print it at

For this example, I used 0.8 cm squares at 35 across by 25 down on A4 landscape paper. Be aware that although large squares sound great in terms of finishing a game quickly, you can end up spending more time coloring than you do getting things done, and that’s clearly not the plan!

Now you split your page into two areas, where the right side receives a border to mark the gameplay area and the left side is your list of shapes and tasks. I like to leave more space on the left side so I can put the shape positions in, which helps remind me which way they turn, rather than waste time rotating them in my head when I should be placing my shape and moving on to the next task.

One thing to think about is which shapes you like the best, and to associate them with the tasks that you like the least. My game is focused on the seven original Tetris shapes (Tetriminos) but I’ve seen people repeat them or add additional shapes in order to expand it.
Here’s my sheet:


Note that it’s not perfect nor is it even very pretty. It’s fast and functional: I do not want to feel like setting up my next task list will take half a day.

I have seven repetitive tasks: one for each shape. I also have one wildcard, which is a shape of my choice. For those with a number (15 minutes or 1,000 words), I can repeat the task multiple times in a day for extra shapes. If I’m close to finishing a line, this can motivate me to put extra effort in, but I have to be careful not to apply this to things that I might spend too long on (for example, I can walk for hours, so exercise is a one-a-day thing, with a minimum of 10,000 steps).

The wildcard allows me to pick a shape. I color these in a different color so I can see at a glance if there are too many of any one task, which means I need to think about making it more difficult for the next game.

I write rules on the back of the sheet: for example, the 10,000-step minimum or a set list for my reading challenge (reading the Dream Foundry blog doesn’t count!). I also note things for the next game as I think about them, to stop myself from starting a new one every time I want to tweak something.

And finally, I list my rewards on the back in big letters. You can have one reward for finishing a game, or a set of smaller rewards for every five to ten lines, which I find more motivating, because I can’t help wanting to finish a line. My rewards range from buying music on iTunes, to treating myself to a special breakfast, to downloading a new fun book. At the end of the game, I win a day off… and then it is time to start the next one!

Thoughts on the Dream Foundry Writer's Contest

Every successful writer has their beginning story and it usually involves a long and difficult struggle. Yes, some exceptionally talented writers have had quick triumphs, where not only do they sell their first submitted story to a big name publisher, but also sometimes win awards. Even these rare cases of what look like overnight success usually only come after the writer has quietly toiled away for years, polishing their work and perfecting their style before feeling it was good enough to show to the world. For most writers, it is an even longer journey, through a confusing, depressing, and often overwhelming alien environment.

In a very real sense, the deck is stacked against beginning writers. When sending their submissions to the top publishers, they must compete—for the already too few open slots—with long-time pros, award winners, and big names in the business that often get an automatic read or bump from the slush pile. Then their reply is usually a form rejection that gives them no feedback about why their story didn't make the cut. It is grueling, lonely, and demoralizing. The good news is that nearly every successful writer you can think of has been in this same dark wilderness, and made it through.

While determination and a sometimes-irrational refusal to give up are probably the primary forces behind a writer's success, there can also be other contributing factors. Luck, being prepared to take advantage of opportunities, a community, and a helping hand from other writers can all help beginners. We here at the Dream Foundry can't give you the determination or the luck, but we do strive to give you the community and the helping hand. This contest (and hopefully future contests) is designed to reward the hard work and dedication of beginning writers.

As the contest coordinator, I'm hoping to use my experience running other contests to make this one as fair and successful as possible. Many more advanced and experienced writers have helped me, and now I'm glad to have that opportunity to help others in their journey in this small way. So thank you to all the first readers and Dream Foundry volunteers who have made the contest possible and good luck to all the beginning writers who enter.

Selecting Workshops

Writing workshops can be the best part of a nascent writing career. You get to know other new writers who understand your starry-eyed ramblings and your labored explanations of your book. You meet working writers, glean their wisdom, and sometimes hang out with publishing professionals! You can work on a pitch, or a piece that is workshopped in a critique group, and receive invaluable feedback.

Yet all those perks can also make the workshop awful. A vicious, badly moderated critique group can leave you in tears. If a publishing professional doesn’t articulate themselves well, you could get your heart broken and see your work as unsaleable. (Note: nothing is truly unsaleable in publishing.)

So how do you pick one?

Because there are quite a lot!

(That list isn’t even comprehensive, but it’s a good place to start.)

I have been involved with three local workshops near my home in Bellingham, Washington: the Clarion West Summer Workshop, the Chuckanut Writers Conference, and the Cascade Writers Three-Day Workshop.

They’re very different. Chuckanut is huge, with a lot of A-list writers who have penned bestsellers. It takes up most of a community college and a couple of meeting rooms at a bookstore. Chuckanut is also likely to be aimed at a beginning writer or a writer mostly focused on craft. Programming shows that the majority of classes are about particular elements of craft and sometimes resemble literary discussions like what one would see in a lit class.

Cascade is smaller, cheaper, more intimate, and packed with writers who have sold books recently. Cascade is also, as you can tell by looking at the guests, entirely science fiction-focused, while Chuckanut reaches across genres. Cascade has fewer than fifty people and thus greater access to working agents and editors, so it is a great bet for people trying to break in with a finished science fiction manuscript.

Clarion West is one of the most famous workshops in science fiction. Unlike the others, which last three days, it lasts *gasp* six weeks. Each week is dedicated to writing one short story, and is taught by major writers. And it’s big news. It has local parties, ancillary one-day workshops, special guests, and it’s actually pretty cheap for six weeks of room and board and teaching. But it’s clearly the most expensive in associated costs, because you’ll be taking six weeks off work.

Which one?

There are three factors to take into account: 1) your goals as a writer, 2) the time you have available, and 3) the cost.

In the case of 1, a semi-pro writer with a published manuscript might benefit from something like Cascade: small, with face-to-face groups. It’s small enough to get face time with working publishing professionals and will only require three days off work, depending on travel.

If you’re just struggling to finish a project, something the size of Chuckanut might be a better bet for the wide array of craft topics.

And if you’re determined to hone your craft, to be the best writer you can be, and to level up, Clarion West, or its cousins Clarion San Diego and Odyssey, could be great. This is especially true if you are unemployed, or have the summer off—and more so if you can score one of their scholarships. (If not, Viable Paradise, at one week, and Taos Toolbox, at two, are pretty good by-audition-only options.)

You’ll notice that none of those workshops are particularly focused on self-publishing. There are good conferences for that—the 20 Books to 50k symposium springs to mind—but as I haven’t delved into that realm, I can’t speak to it. You do have to be careful with the number of services being sold to self-publishers. Always remember, in self-pub, the advice of Smashwords founder Mark Coker: “In the self-pub gold rush, more money will be made in author services than book sales.”

Self-published books succeed for the same reasons traditionally published books do. They’re good, and they have a solid marketing push. Anyone selling you a no-fail money method and promising you the moon… *insert sound of oily snake.*

It may be that your money could be better spent on a professional editor. In that case, establish their bona fides just like you would with a conference. Your editor should be working in the field, ideally a working publishing writer who has some experience with publications or an editor who has worked with a major house. Absolute Write has a good section of listed editors.

But there are major pointers for conferences. A good conference doesn’t just mean good craft. It means you’ll make good friends. As I said, you’ll sit down with people and share in their stories and their loves and talk books and shared writer frustrations.

Whatever conference you end up at, bright-eyed, coffee-loaded, with a fresh notebook in hand…have fun! Grab a drink, coffee, or lunch with other writers. Go to the game nights, the write-ins, and the restaurant next door. Participate in the open mic (but don’t go over your time). The conference will bless your craft, but the friends will bless your whole life.

Further reading: 30 Fantastic Writers Conferences For Authors, Bloggers & Freelancers