Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Three Thoughts about Writing Rules

Three Thoughts about Writing Rules
By Brad R Cook

Over the course of a writer’s life we’ll run into so many writing rules – it can be overwhelming or at least confusing. It starts in school when English teachers lay out the rules of grammar, and continues on to creative writing classes that show writers how to craft a story, but then it expands, maybe explodes into a myriad of voices, blogs, and books.

Here are three thoughts about writing rules. I love learning from the greats, the authors who have already struggled through the same woes that every writer faces.

1 – Know the Rules before Breaking Them
Breaking the rules is fine, but it’s best to know them before you break them. If you want a prologue, put in a prologue, but understand why prologues are discouraged and ask yourself if this could fit into the story. Don’t like the oxford comma, that’s okay, but then you have to find a way to separate ideas within a sentence. The point is, when you know the rules, you know when it is best to bend them, or break them. We write in a world where smashing convention can lead to greatness, the creation of a classic, but if a writer breaks a hundred rules in single piece it isn’t ground-breaking, it’s seen as amateur.

2 – Read Them All and Adopt the Best
If you want to be a great writer, study the habits of your favorite authors and adopt the best for your routine. Stephen King’s On Writing is a great place to start, and I still follow his rule about adverbs.

Mark Twain famously said, “Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

Kurt Vonnegut said, “Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.”

Maya Angelou said, “The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.

Pixar has 22 Rules of Storytelling, and Neil Gaiman has eight, but Anton Chekhov might have one of my favorite rules, he said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

3 – Take All These Rules with a Grain of Salt
There are so many rules out there that a writer might go insane trying to remember them all. No one is an expert. There is no one way to write. For every rule, there is a successful author who broke it. So study the rules, immolate the greats, but know that at the end of the day writing is personal. Stories are told the way you want them – just understand that some rules make your novel more desirable to an agent or publisher.

Ernest Hemingway said, “There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it's like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”

C.K. Chesterton said, “I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.”

However my point is best made by W. Somerset Maugham who said, “There are three rules for writing a novel, unfortunately no one knows what they are.”

If you’d like to learn more rules of writing, the Write Pack Radio has a couple of episodes that will help you.

I also have written two blog posts on what the great writers have said about writing, find them here.

Do you have a favorite writing rule? Let me know in comments below.

Brad R. Cook, author of the YA steampunk series, The Iron Chronicles, He currently serves as Historian of St. Louis Writers Guild after three and half years as its President. Learn more at, on Twitter @bradrcook, or on his blog Thoughts from Midnight on tumblr

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Ann Leckie: Write the "thing you really, really want to write"

Welcome to Ann Leckie, author of the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning novel Ancillary Justice, the Hugo and Nebula nominated Ancillary Sword, and the forthcoming Ancillary Mercy.

She has also published short stories in Subterranean MagazineStrange Horizons, and Realms of Fantasy. Her story “Hesperia and Glory” was reprinted in Science Fiction: The Best of the Year, 2007 Edition edited by Rich Horton.

Ann has worked as a waitress, a receptionist, a rodman on a land-surveying crew, and a recording engineer. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri.

What do you feel is the key to your success? This is a good question, but difficult to answer. I think that in writing (as in, to be honest, quite a lot of other areas) you can do everything right and still not succeed--or at least, not achieve the things you were hoping for or aiming at. 

I feel like so much, in writing, is beyond a writer's control. You can't predict or control what an editor will respond to, or what readers will embrace. You can't predict what's going to be fashionable this year or next--particularly in book publishing, where it might take you a year to write a book, months (if you're lucky) to sell it, and a year or more between signing the contract and the book being published. By the time your trendy vampire mermaid book hits shelves, it'll probably be passe', and everyone will be chasing after the zombie werewolf market. (Note that in short stories, and possibly self-publishing, where you control the schedule and quite a few writers are making good money by putting out work as fast as they can for an audience that reads a lot, this is not necessarily the case. Still, you never know when the dinosaur elves market (or whatever) is going to collapse.) 

So my feeling is, it's better to focus on the things I can control. And to do work that I, personally, find satisfying, the kind of thing that if I saw it on the bookstore shelf (or in a magazine, or what have you) would make me go "Oh, yeah, that's exactly the kind of thing I want to read!" And then to do that as well as I possibly can.

Of course, I did (and do) want to sell my work, so I kept an eye on what was being talked about and nominated for awards, and I think it's important to have some sense of what's going on in the field, but not in order to imitate, or to try to do the same things everyone else seemed to be doing.

So, on the one hand I don't think there is any particular key to success, in terms of selling a book or it being popular or nominated for awards. On the other hand, I think that my working very hard on what I wanted to do, and making it as much what I wanted it to be as possible, ultimately made it more likely that an editor would be struck by the work, and that readers would respond to it.

When and why did you begin writing? I've actually wanted to be a writer since I was quite young. I did write some things in grade school and high school, but in college I felt like most of the ideas I had were stupid, and of course college takes a lot of brainspace up, even if you have the free time to be writing fiction. 

When I had kids, I discovered very quickly that I could not afford to go back to work--my job didn't pay enough to cover childcare. So I stayed home--and I needed something to do with my mind, and tried a number of things. I did NaNoWriMo, and decided it was time to get serious about the writing thing. 

What is your writing process? Do you follow a regular routine? Do you use pen and paper or computer? Work at home or at the library/Starbucks, etc. I generally use a computer. I can write fiction longhand, but I don't really like to, I find the words flow a bit more easily when I'm typing. I'm pretty sure that at this point I type much faster than I write anyway.

Now, if I'm taking notes, I do that longhand. I have quite a lot of notes, in various notebooks, that often I never do look at again, but writing them down does seem to fix them better in my memory.

These days I work at home more often than not--my husband built me an office in the basement, and it's got all my books and a nice big desk and an ergonomic keyboard that I like very much. But early on, I went every day to Starbucks, to the point that the baristas knew me on sight and what I would order. Working away from home has a big advantage--all the stuff at home that you know you need to do, it can't distract you, you can't say to yourself "I'll just get up for a moment and flip the laundry" and then hours later still be doing things to avoid writing. It's a weird thing, that we want so badly to write and quite possibly would happily leave the laundry for another day if we weren't writing something, but I've found it's very common among writers I know.

Writing away from home also has the advantage of taking you physically away from other family members who might interrupt or distract you. Even if your family is one hundred percent supportive, it can be difficult for people to refrain from talking to you or asking questions or figuring they'll just take one second, no big deal, and blowing your concentration. So if that's a problem for you, setting up a regular time to get a coffee and do some writing can really help a lot.

I started out using a program called Rough Draft, which I liked, but later moved to just working in Word, on a standard manuscript format template. In science fiction and fantasy, at least in short fiction, standard manuscript format is pretty much unchanged from forty or fifty years ago, when it was assumed you'd type your stories physically on a typewriter and there was no choice of fonts, or any formatting beyond adding proofreaders marks to the typed page. So I set my default template to 12pt Courier, double spaced, and underlines for italics, and after a while it just seemed natural to write that way, and it feels weird to compose something in, say, Times New Roman, or single spaced.

These days I use Scrivener for nearly everything. I do export to Word and clean up the formatting, since that's the format my editors can read, and my final version of my stories are all Word docs, which I then usually save as RTF as well. (I have a folder that's just for finished work on submission, and in that a folder for each story, with multiple formats of that final version, usually DOC and RTF, ready for submission. Novels are more complicated, in terms of what's a final version, so I just have a folder for each novel project with various sub folders inside, including one for deprecated drafts. I never delete anything if I can help it.)

In theory I see the kids off to school, load the dishwasher and make myself a cup of tea, and sit down at my desk and write at least 2000 words for that day. In practice, this doesn't always happen. And sometimes I'm not in a writing phase--usually with a project I need to do a fair amount of research before I can even start, and so I substitute going to the library or reading whatever books I've checked out for that morning writing session. Sometimes real life intervenes and there's no helping it. And sometimes I'll be stuck in the middle of a project and really just need to stop and ponder and maybe read some things. This used to bother me quite a bit--I didn't seem to be doing anything productive during those times! But I've come to see them as part of the process, and I couldn't move forward without them, so when they come I figure it's best just to embrace them and try to figure out what it is the back of my mind wants so it can get back to the story.

How do you deal with rejection and/or negative reviewsRejections are hard! So are negative reviews, honestly. But rejections are part of being a writer, and if you're getting reviews at all, that means someone is reading your work. Since I spent several years doing short fiction, I got pretty accustomed to rejections, and they honestly never got any easier, but I got better at handling them. First of all, I made sure that as soon as a story went out on submission, I knew where it would go next, when (not if) it was rejected. So that when the rejection came in, I could just queue up the next submission email, send it off, and then allow myself to sulk a bit.

Reviews, well, there's no next sub involved there. But it's not much different. I might sulk a bit, or complain to my writer friends who understand what it's like, and have their own days when they need me to listen to them and reassure them. And the sting fades after a bit.

I do personally think it's important to acknowledge those feelings. It's normal to feel them, and part of being a writer. And I think it helps, to be able to say, "Yes, I'm feeling hurt because this reviewer dissed my book. But, you know, I've felt this before and it will go away." As bad as it feels, it's not a defining fact of your life, that bad review or that rejection. The bad feeling makes it seem much bigger than it is, but if I name it and sit down to have tea or chocolate or a nice bath or something, I can put it back into its proper proportion.

Do you have any advice for other writers? Always follow the submission guidelines! 

And write the thing that's in you to write, the thing that's yours, the thing you really, really want to write. Take advice, yes, consider whatever critiques or advice you get, but in the end only take the advice you think will make your piece what you want it to be. 

Where can readers find you online? My website is and my books are available pretty much anywhere that sells books--certainly Amazon, B&N, Kobo, indiebound, etc.

ANCILLARY JUSTICE: On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.

Once, she was the Justice of Toren - a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.

Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Guild workshop Aug. 1 previews Law Enforcement Training for the Arts

At the Guild's Aug. 1 workshop, author and police Capt. Chris DiGiuseppi and Sgt. Paul Bastean will provide a sampling of what writers will experience at the Law Enforcement Training for the Arts (LETA) conference. The workshop will be held from 10 a.m. to noon at the Kirkwood Community Center, 111 S. Geyer Road, in Kirkwood. Free for St. Louis Writers Guild members; $5 for nonmembers.

The LETA conference—to be held Sept. 10-13 at Lindenwood University in St. Charles and Ultimate Defense Range in St. Peters--will feature a combination of hands-on, classroom and interactive educational classes to provide writers with an increased knowledge of law enforcement vocabulary, equipment, tactics, weapons, and training. This course features instructors and experts from across public safety and law enforcement, including police, SWAT, FBI, Secret Service, NCIS and other agencies.

Chris is an award-winning author of The Light Bringer, a St. Louis-area best seller and one of the winners of the Missouri Writers’ Guild 2012 Show Me Best Book Award. He and co-author Mike Force based the novel on their real-life experiences. HCI released the second book in the series, The Light Bringer, The Fallen, in 2013, and the third in the trilogy, The Risen, in May 2015.
Undergo Entertainment is scripting a screenplay for the pilot episode of a television series based on The Light Bringer. Chris and Mike are working with Hollywood director and writer Darin Beckstead on the project –
Sgt. Bastean will host the LETA conference and serve as lead instructor at the training center. He became a police officer after graduating the Academy in June 1998. He currently holds the positions of Sergeant over the Special Operations Division, Firearms Instructor and Armorer for the Lake St. Louis Police Department.

In September 2000, Sgt. Bastean started what became the Midwest’s premier training facility, Ultimate Defense Firing Range & Training Center. It is a Nation Shooting Sports Foundation Five-star Facility, and was a finalist for the 2013 NSSF Range of the Year.

Learn more about the St. Louis Writers Guild at

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Three Thoughts about Dystopia

Three Thoughts about Dystopia
By Brad R. Cook

Dystopia has come to dominate Young Adult novels – because they are awesome – but the genre has scooped up everything and labeled it Dystopian. Some I’d label standard sci-fi. If you’re writing the about the next destruction of society, you’re in good company, but here are some of my thoughts, three to be exact, about Dystopia for the next time you sit down to write.

1 – Dystopia does not equal Post-Apocalyptic
The dystopian market has been saturated with post-apocalyptic literature. Post-Apocalyptic is a breakdown of society and civilization. Dystopia is the breakdown of the idealized, or utopian, society. As an example, 1984 by George Orwell is a dystopian novel but I wouldn’t classify it as post-apocalyptic. Yes, most Post-apocalyptic literature is dystopia, but that doesn’t mean all dystopia is post-apocalyptic.

2 – Modern Dystopia is about Hope
The classic dystopian novels like 1984, or The Handmaid's Tale are warnings to society – stay on course or this horror might happen. The last thing they offer is hope, but the modern dystopia novels like Hunger Games, or Divergent have a central character that embodies hope. These characters carry the promise that the dystopia will end and a utopia will follow. For those who might think the modern dystopia movement is a rebellion against modern society, fear not, these are really stories of hope.

3 – Dystopia is about Breaking Society's Conventions 
The real genius of the modern dystopia is the shattering of ingrained conventions held within our own civilization. In our society a young woman is not encouraged to become a warrior. In fact, the youth of today are taught to ignore the warrior way, but dystopia rips those conventions away and levels the playing field between boys and girls, the young and old. With convention ripped away, a young girl can fight, rise up against society, and lead the world to utopia.

Dystopia will never go away, literature might swing back to utopia stories for awhile, but the idea of the breakdown of society, and shattering of the world around us, will remain a part of literature until it actually happens. Then we’ll all tell utopia stories about Camelot or Star Trek.

Add your thoughts on Dystopia Novels in the comment section.

Want to hear more? Write Pack Radio has an episode about dystopia novels.
Dystopia: What is it Really? ListenHere

Brad R. Cook, author of the YA steampunk series, The Iron Chronicles, He currently serves as Historian of St. Louis Writers Guild after three and half years as its President. Learn more at, on Twitter @bradrcook, or on his blog Thoughts from Midnight on tumblr

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A Sliver of Immortality

A Sliver of Immortality
By Brad R. Cook

Plato once said, “Books are immortal sons deifying their sires.”

Good quote and I like the premise. The thought that my books will live beyond me is comforting – I put a lot of work in them – but knowing people will read my work after I am gone is both joyous and sobering.

Several years ago, as Historian of St. Louis Writers Guild, I lead the Legacy Project. Tasked with discovering the history of the Writers Guild, a team of interns and I scoured the records for any information. Before I arrived, the president and previous historian had learned the names of the founders, some famous members, and few other tidbits, but I was tasked with finding more details. I was a researcher at the time so it was easy to do. Within the year we had discovered all kinds of interesting facts, filled in several gaps in the line of presidents, and I’d even tracked down a lost Tennessee Williams short story that he’d entered in a St. Louis Writers Guild contest.

From census records and other state documents we learned the facts of their lives, who they married, the names of their kids, the occupation of their parents and other sterile information about the six founding members of St. Louis Writers Guild. However, because they were writers, I was able to find not only the facts but through their writing I found something else – their voices.

Through the short stories that ran in the newspapers and magazines of the day I can hear their wit, their slang, the words or phrases they repeated. In the letters to the editor I hear their outrage, the causes that drove them to action. I’ve researched many people before, but I have to admit that I know the founders of St. Louis Writers Guild better than I know most people. They might have lived a century ago, but through their words I know how they sound, what they cared about, their thoughts about the world – I know them. Like an old friend, I haven’t seen in too long.

My books, short stories, articles, and even this blog post will live beyond me. Through the words and phrases I’ve chosen, people of the future will be able to know me – a scary thought. I doubt I’ll be like the pharaohs and still spoken about after millennia have passed, only the truly great writers seem able to defy the places where history is lost and forgotten. But they do exist. I love to read the classics from the Victorian era, or Le Morte D’Arthur written in 1400's by Sir Thomas Malory. Beowulf was written around 900 A.C.E. and Homer’s Iliad is even older. Pluto was right, stories can last forever. 

So snag your little sliver of immortality. Write something worth reading in some long distant future, pay attention to the words you choose, or the phrases you turn. You never know who will come along and prolong your book’s life a little bit more.

We are not immortal, but through our words, we reach further into the future than our lives ever could. 

Brad R. Cook, author of the YA Steampunk Series The Iron Chronicles. He is a contributor to The Writers Lens and Write Pack Radio. He currently serves as Historian of St. Louis Writers Guild after three and half years as its President. Learn more about his books and endeavors at or on Twitter @bradrcook Follow my blog Thoughts from Midnight on tumblr

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Three Phases of the Soul-Crushing Edit

Three Phases of a Soul-Crushing Edit
By Brad R. Cook

I was warned about them. I’d seen the posts on twitter and heard the groans from my friends who are authors. The Soul-Crushing Edit. Is it me or is everything in this business looming over with the potential to crush us? Hunger Games has nothing on the publishing industry.

When I got the edits for Iron Horsemen, my steampunk novel released by Treehouse Publishing Group last December, I was so happy. Then I kept reading, so much red, sooo much red, with lines, sooo many lines, and comments, sooo many comments.

Now I'm waiting for the edits on Iron Zulu, the sequel due for release this November. Screw winter, the red marks are coming...

The Soul-Crushing Edit is the right and proper stomping of your sweet pristine manuscript by the editor of a publishing house. It’s editing not with an axe or a scalpel, but with a hammer – we work for months or years on these manuscripts and then *!SMASH!* our beautiful glass sculpture is shattered. I think they use Mjolnir. 

Pssst, so as not to frighten you… there’s a happy ending. Because the editor takes those shattered pieces and make a gorgeous stained-glass window. Something better than was there before.

Here they are the three phases all writers go through upon receiving the soul-crushing edits.

1 – Anger
Common reaction: “But that line was everything to my whole book and you just cut it out. Not only the sentence, but the paragraph, and what… the whole scene???!!!!
Every word of my baby (manuscript) was pristine in its perfectness, all you had to do was rubber stamp it and print it, right, right… change what… never…”
It’s at this point that we gather up our arguments like a political debater and get ready to write that scathing email – may I suggest not emailing until you’ve gone through all the phases of the soul-crushing edit process.

2 – Bargaining
Common Reaction: “I’ll show them. I’ll rewrite the rewrite and edit my line back in. Ha. Maniacal Laugh. Then spend the next two hours rewriting half a page. Sit back contented as the sentence is back in the book. All is right in the universe.

3 – Acceptance
Common Reaction: “Hmmm.” Stare at screen, scratch head, hold chin, sit back, and repeat.
Reread – makes no sense. Reread the rewrite.
Send a note to the editor inquiring about why they made that change. Realize this theme was dealt with in the previous chapter. The story doesn’t need this scene. Reread editors original edit – “Well, it does flow better.” Hit accept.

Sadly, the world will never know the genius of that line.

Result, the book is better than it was. As authors by the time the book is ready to print we can no longer see the flaws, our minds fill in the missing details, and gloss over the dangling plot lines. The editor comes with fresh eyes, they have experience with books, this isn’t like your family telling you its great. This is hard hitting advice meant to improve the reader’s experience.

As a warning I must report that it can go the other way. An editor can completely miss the point of a scene. They might not see your intention, but that’s why the editing process is a back and forth. The point is never to take down, insult, or destroy the author or the work. Edits are about making it the best it can be.

The Soul-Crushing Edits can’t be avoided. There will always be more red than expected. But that’s a good thing, it’s better to catch it now, than after it goes to print. So to the editors who went through Iron Horsemen, and those that will read Iron Zulu – thank you! 

Brad R. Cook, author of the YA Steampunk Series The Iron Chronicles. He is a contributor to The Writers Lens and Write Pack Radio. He currently serves as Historian of St. Louis Writers Guild after three and half years as its President. Learn more about his books and endeavors at or on Twitter @bradrcook Follow my blog Thoughts from Midnight on tumblr