Fan To Writer Part 3: Beware of Bob And Snake Oil

Welcome to the third 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 3: Beware of Bob And Snake Oil

Fan to Writer, Stage Three! Go!

To qualify for this stage, you must be working hard, submitting multiple manuscripts, and…

Well, you have to be in the grind.

And folks, it is a grind.

You might start to feel, distinctly, that you’re always writing and that your stories are never quite there. It’s human nature to feel that way. Improvement takes time. But you start to fantasize about “skipping the line.” How long can one person be stuck as a journeyman? Your writers’ group hits a slump, or dissolves, and you have to find some new blood for your critiques. Your friends keep asking, “When is your book getting published?” and you keep staring down rejections. Once in a while, you get a nice personalized rejection, or an agent reads your entire book. But it all ends up in the same place: no dice.

You get jealous of friends who score agents, publications, speaking gigs and award nominations. Not ugly jealous—you’re a professional, after all—but it’s a tough feeling to bear. You go to conventions and conferences and you wander off to the parking lot because it’s too painful to hear people talk, over and over and over and over, about their book deals and agents and publications.

It starts to invade the joy of writing.

I was there a few years ago. I sat down every day to crank out a certain number of words, whether or not I hated them—and I often hated them. I had stories piling up rejections and I was always going back to revise them, again and again, not sure I actually understood revision. I knew what George RR Martin meant when he said, “I don’t like writing. I like having written.” Instead of wondering if the famously blocked Martin might be expressing his own issues, I decided that would be my mantra! Sure, it was always fun when I started writing in high school but this was serious work now. I couldn’t expect it to always be fun. I wanted a finished book to put in front of agents and editors and damn it, I didn’t care what it did to my mental health, or my home life, or… or… or…

Then I had a vision.

A vision of Bob.

Bob’s not real. Yet he is more real to me than a lot of people.

Bob is a short guy with a mustache. He wears old, worn clothes because he can’t afford newer ones. He also has loose broken glasses because he doesn’t have insurance.

In my vision, I was passing through the outskirts of Phoenix and asked my old friend Bob to meet up. He told me to come by his house where he just barely paid the rent via some odd jobs. He had a degree and work experience in a paying field but he chose not to have a full-time job “to focus on writing.” He proudly told me that he wrote 5,000 words a day. We chatted for fifteen minutes. I asked about his wife and found out they were divorcing because “she wouldn’t make time for my writing.” Then he cut me off to say, “Sorry, I had a slow day and I still have 3,000 more words to go.”

I woke up sweating.

Bob was in me.

The Bob was coming from inside the house.

I don’t even want a mustache!

Leveling up, getting to the next place in the line—that’s a long, long process, and it goes on into Stage Four and Stage Five. It goes on through learning to write different things, trying various story forms and novels, and failing big. It goes on through raising kids, starting new jobs, treating mental illness, relationship problems, grieving your lost loved ones, moving, getting sober, dieting, and exercising.

Especially once you hang out with other writers, writing can become a strong part of your identity. When that identity is constantly rejected, if that identity can’t get an agent, or, as happens in Stages Four and Five, that identity can’t sell twice to the same magazine or loses the agent… well, that can’t be your full identity. That’s a ticket to Sadnessville.

You have to live in order to write.

You don’t have to cross the Pacific on a raft, or fight in a war, or learn how to wield a 14th-century longsword. That stuff is grist for the mill, yes, but you need to remember to get out, see friends, and take care of your brain when it’s hurting, and sometimes, sometimes, friend, ease up on the writing.

So what did I do, when Bob clawed at the back of my brain?

Once I accepted that I had burned myself out, I joined a band and planted a garden and let the writing lie fallow for a while. I could garden and spend time with my kids. I could play in the band and all it required of me, creatively, was to learn the songs and play them correctly. What a relief!

After about seven months of this, I had an idea.

I started writing, and it was fun again.

Now of course, if you stop writing, you might be afraid you’ll never start again. You might already be in that place, reading this and yelling, “Spencer, I went through this five years ago and I haven’t written a word since!” I can’t speak to your situation, person yelling at your computer, but I would hazard this guess: the situation that made you stop was traumatizing for many reasons and not just the fact that you were frustrated with writing and rejection.

You have to work through that trauma.

And it’s hard to realize that writing doesn’t need to be linked to that other trauma, no matter how closely they are associated.

(I know. I also went through that! And it was worth the money I spent on therapy.)

If you’ve felt blocked for ages, try just setting some time aside to write, several times a week, and when you do that, start with something new and small. Remember that it’s fun, and like a pickup soccer game, the fun doesn’t have to be more than a couple of hours a week. Drop word count goals, finished story goals, submission goals, and just pick some blocks of time to write… anything.

Two more things: as you may have guessed from Bob’s failed relationship, somewhere in here, those who are in relationships need to have a long talk with their partners. If you’re lucky, they will be supportive of your work. Sometimes a supportive partner wrecks their own health in favor of the writer. Don’t let a people-pleaser burn themselves out on kids, jobs, and bills while you happily jaunt off to conferences and retreats.

On the other side of the coin, you might have a partner who resents any time away at workshops and writers’ groups, who belittles your pro aspirations as a “hobby.” That’s harder. It exposes cracks in the relationship in general. You need to have a good long talk with that kind of partner, sometimes as part of couples counseling, until they understand how important this is.

Final warning about this stage: you’ve now reached the place where snake-oil salesmen hunt. As Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, said, “In the self-pub gold rush, more money will be made in author services than book sales.” Anyone with a little capital can start a tiny press, a contest, and charge people a bunch of money to stick their books up on Kindle. Pay them money and they’ll edit your book, put it out, and charge you even more for Amazon reviews.

Some tough advice: if your book does not attract an agent or editor’s attention, it likely is just not as good as it needs to be for publication.

Self-pub included.

Now, if agents and editors are telling you, “This is great and with some work I could have sold it but X subgenre is dead right now,” or, “This is so weird and bonkers that I can’t take it because I don’t know how to sell it,” or some variation of this is good enough to be published but, then you should go to self-pub. Or go to self-pub if you prefer control over the whole process, including cover, flap copy, and distribution. But self-publishing is not the answer to a book you can’t sell, because if you or an agent can’t sell it, that means that readers aren’t buying.

In the next stage, we’ll explore what changes and what doesn’t when glorious, glorious publication arrives!

For now, beware of Bob and snake oil.

Further Reading: Money, Fame, Notoriety: What Are We Self-Publishing For? Kameron Hurley, Misunderstanding “Write What You Know,” Harrison Demchick


So You're Going to Viable Paradise

Editor’s Note: In this article, Cislyn Smith, one of the cofounders of Dream Foundry, writes about her experience applying to and then attending Viable Paradise. For all those commercial sci-fi and fantasy writers out there: Viable Paradise is a one-week residential workshop on Martha’s Vineyard. What I enjoyed about this article was how Cislyn employed her prose skills, the same skills she worked on developing at VP, to draw readers into what the experience of attending this workshop was really like.

For me, December isn’t only the time of year when I stare analytically at my Christmas tree, wondering if it really is as pretty as I think it is, but also a time when I sum up what I’ve done with my time and what my next steps might be—in my journey as a writer and as a person. For many, those next steps involve workshops. If you are considering a workshop…read on!

Step zero: Decide

This can be a revelation, a momentary decision, or the culmination of many different people asking you: "So when are you going to Viable Paradise?" and "Have you applied for this year?" over a weekend.

Step one: Select a Piece

You can't write long. This is a truth you're well convinced of. For your application piece, you chose your very longest story, convinced it needed to be cut by at least 50 percent, but you had no idea which half of the words to remove.

Step two: Apply

The application involves paying a fee, picking a writing sample to go with your application, and writing a cover letter.

There are no bonus points for sending in the application on the last day. There are also no bonus points for waiting until the last moment because you have pneumonia and you don't know how words work anymore and it's hard to think of what to say when you're wheezing.

Get a friend to help you. That's not cheating, honest.

There should be bonus points, though. There really should be.

Step three: Wait

This is the part where you will probably convince yourself that you didn't get in. That's fine. There's a good chance you didn't, and there's always next year, and that's fine.

Step four: Doubt Reality

Getting in is somehow more confusing and more exciting and more social than expected. All of a sudden you are part of a community. All of a sudden strangers are congratulating you and your social media has exploded. This is an omen of things to come. Hold on to that community feeling.

Step five: Unnecessary Preparations

It really isn't required to read a book or story by each and every one of the instructors. Really. And yet…

Step six: Logistics

This is the time for a spreadsheet. If one of your classmates hasn't made one yet, do it yourself and share it with the class. Getting to the island is a chore. Figuring out who to room with and in what type of room is also tricky—be aware of your own personal space limitations and requirements and try to balance that with financial concerns. Spreadsheeeeeeet.

This is also the time to communicate with the staff about personal stuff that might come up. Like a death in the family less than a week before the workshop. Just, you know, stuff.

Step seven: Pack

You can't possibly pack that jellyfish costume. No, really. It doesn't fit. Even though the lovely people on Twitter have told you to take it.

You can, perhaps, pack the supplies necessary to make a new smaller one, though, as a gift to the staff. Just so long as the fabric glue doesn't leak too badly in your suitcase.

Oh, you should also pack clothes and stuff. Sure. Right. And books for the instructors to sign! Also, yarn!

Step eight: Arrive

Somehow, miraculously, you arrive when you expect to. Staff members wait on the dock to meet you, and then a trip to a grocery store where you will buy too much food (They're going to feed you. Why are you buying so many eggs?) and then to the inn where you will get settled in. There are people to match to names now and also a name tag that you will not take off in public for the next week. Nervous laughter. Questions. Conversation. Unpacking.

Step nine: Work

Every day will involve reading, critiquing, leaving notes for your fellow classmates. You will attend lectures and take notes and one-on-one sessions and take more notes and optional lunch sessions and take notes while also taking bites of sandwich. There are dawn walks and there are craft discussions and there is a story to write on short notice and with difficult constraints.

Somehow, you fit it all in. Well, almost all. Those dawn walks are awfully early.

Step ten: Play

It's a good thing you brought that yarn, because your hands need something to do other than take notes and hyperbolic crochet scrubbies are the perfect way to keep them occupied. And there are music sessions in the evenings. One of your roommates has perfect pitch, and one of the instructors is playing the harp, and there is a small percussion frog being passed around. When it all gets to be too much you can step outside and look up at the stars or walk down to the beach and just breathe. Everyone makes sure you have just the right amount of space—not too much, not too little.

Also, there are honest-to-goodness glow-in-the-dark jellyfish under a cloudless sky filled with shooting stars, followed by hot chocolate and music. And making a jellyfish hat for the staff was, actually, a good idea. Even if the fabric glue did leak in your suitcase.

Step ten: Connect

Do not be afraid to ask questions, to give honest feedback, to make friends. Go to dinner with your classmates the one night the staff doesn't feed you. Write together in the common room until very late to meet your story deadline. Lament, as a group, the ridiculous constraints for the story you're writing. Throw hyperbolic scrubbies at random people during breaks. Play games. Break into spontaneous renditions of songs from Disney musicals.

Much thanks to VP Staff Member David Twiddy for use of this image.
Much thanks to VP Staff Member David Twiddy for use of this image.

Step eleven: Epiphany

You turned in your story last night, and while it's not perfect, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It's fine. You wake yourself up early enough to actually go on a dawn walk convinced you need to take out that second POV character, and panic because it doesn't work.

You came here to learn how to write long. You've been writing long this whole time and cutting it down by far too much.

Heck, this article is over word count already, and it's not even fiction.

Yeah. Maybe length isn't the problem. Also, don't edit the story. It's fine, for now.

Step twelve: Synthesize

Leaving the island—that little bubble of community and in-jokes (They're really not a cult!) and space for writing and thinking about writing—is hard. Getting back into any semblance of a normal routine is even harder, especially with all the personal stuff that's waiting for you. And you're going to wonder: Why am I not writing more? I did this workshop and I learned so much. I leveled up! Where are all my words?

Be patient. They're there. Lurking, like jellyfish under the water. Give them time to surface. Let all the feedback and ideas sink in and change you. Metamorphosis is seldom sudden, no matter what the stories say.

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!