Chatting with the Pros: Interview with science fiction and fantasy author Kevin J. Anderson

chatting with the pros

My guest today on “Chatting with the Pros” is an award winning and best selling author who has written countless novels and over 56 national and international best sellers. A majority of his works fall into the science fiction or fantasy genres, but he writes across many genres. In a recent introduction for “The Big Idea: Kevin J. Anderson“, an article about the latest release in his short fiction collection, Selected Stories, John Scalzi calls him, “one of the most prolific authors working today”, and one look at his immense book list on Amazon would leave no doubt that this is an accurate assessment. (You can find my review of selected stories here). He’s written a lot of books, 56 of which have hit the national and international best seller lists, and he’s been writing for many years, and I’m sure we will find his knowledge and experiences enlightening. Please help me welcome Kevin J. Anderson.


Kaye: You have written at least 56 national or international best sellers. What makes a good story in your mind?

Kevin: People want to read a good story with an exciting/interesting plot, a well-developed setting, and engaging characters. Make it a story you WANT to read, with clear prose and action. I don’t like muddled, glacial-paced stories where the prose is just too precious.

Kaye: Why science fiction and fantasy? Why not western or romance or mystery? What’s the attraction?

Kevin: Well, I’ve also written plenty of mysteries, and some of my work has been set in the old west, and most good stories have a strong romance component (though I don’t write category Romance or Westerns). I like to tell an interesting story, and I move around a lot among genres, even though I am primarily known for science fiction or fantasy.  I grew up in a very mundane small town in rural Wisconsin, and I was captivated by SF/F from an early age, because it showed my imagination what was possible. I wanted to go to exotic places, whether they were filled with aliens or dragons. Science fiction took me to a much wider universe.  (And as a skinny, nerdy kid with glasses and a bad haircut, “romance” wasn’t much of a possibility, so I stuck with spaceships and swords.)

Kaye: You wrote several Star Wars and X-Files novels. Is it difficult to immerse yourself in someone else’s settings and characters enough to pick up a thread and run with it in the same tone and writing style? How do you go about getting yourself into that mindset?

Kevin: It’s no more difficult than trying to immerse yourself in the old west or ancient Japan for a historical. A writer’s job is to absorb the story, characters, voice, and setting. I was already a big fan of Star Wars, Star Trek, X-Files, and Dune, and I enjoyed going to work in those universes. In each instance, I would completely surround myself with the property — whether that meant watching the Star Wars films over and over again, or the episodes of the X-Files, or repeatedly rereading DUNE and its sequels. You pick up the manner of speaking, the “look and feel” of the world, and you make it into your own story.

Kaye: You’ve done several collaborations, including books of the Dune series, with Brian Herbert and the Clockwork books which you collaborated with Neil Peart, drummer for the band Rush. What is the biggest challenge when collaborating on a book?

Kevin: You both need to have the same vision for the book—which means a LOT of talking and brainstorming ahead of time—and you both need the same work ethic (so each partner puts in the same amount of time and effort…a tortoise and hare collaboration will just cause a lot of friction), and you need to be flexible. There’s never only ONE way to write a sentence or describe a scene. I would never want to collaborate with a diva!

Kaye: Do you belong to any writing organizations? If so, which ones? Do you feel your membership in these writing organizations have been helpful in your writing successes? How so?

Kevin: I belong to the Horror Writers Association (and edited three anthologies for them, the BLOOD LITE series), IAMTW (International Association of Media Tie-In Writers), and SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, although some of their recent decisions have made me so upset that I would not renew my membership if I wasn’t already a lifetime member.  The problem with such organizations is that you can become to engrossed in the politics and bickering that you forget your real purpose, which is to WRITE.

KJA Series

Kaye: You’ve written several series, including Saga of the Seven SunsDan Shamble P.I. and the Clockwork books? Are any of your books stand alone? Why do you lean toward series?

Kevin: I’ve written many standalone books. The one I just finished last week, a vampire/serial-killer thriller STAKE, that’s not part of a series. But I like to tell big stories, and once you’ve done all the effort of world building and character building an entire universe, you want to spend some time. To me, a trilogy is perfect — a beginning, middle, and end, with enough room to tell the story and describe the world in all its glory. Pragmatically speaking, it’s a much better decision commercially to build a series, because readers will want more and more, and each new book will help sell copies of previous volumes.  Can you imagine if A.C. Doyle had stopped after writing only one Sherlock Holmes story?

KJA Stand Alones

Kaye: Science fiction authors create whole worlds from their imaginations, often with new languages created in their own minds, and you have created many. How do you go about creating a new language?

Kevin: Hmm, creating languages?  I’m not really a linguist and I don’t know that I’ve developed full languages (though I do use weird words).  I just make up the words by making what seem to be the appropriate sounds, linguistic flavors, scary sounds for monsters or villains, softer or ethereal sounds for pleasant things.  I can’t really explain it more rigorously than that.

Kaye: Your work has won many prestigious awards. Which award are you most proud of? Why?

Kevin: Awards are awards, and it’s nice to have them, but I really prefer READERS. That’s what makes your writing worthwhile. It’s not terribly prestigious, but the award I value most is one I received very early in my career, when I received a trophy with an engraved brass plate and everything, naming me “The Writer with No Future” because I could produce more rejection slips than any other writer at an entire conference. To me, that didn’t mean I was a failure as a writer or that my work was awful—it proved that I was more persistent, that I kept trying, kept getting better, and never gave up.  I still have that trophy.

Kaye: In addition to being an author, you and your wife, Rebecca Moesta, are publishers at Wordfire Press, but originally you were traditionally published. Why the switch to being your own publisher after being traditionally published for so many years?

Kevin: Survival. No choice. The publishing industry has undergone a tremendous upheaval equivalent to the Industrial Revolution, and I could either be a mammal and evolve or stay a dinosaur and go extinct. I am still traditionally published (four books released in 2018, in fact, and a new 3-book contract from Tor Books for an epic fantasy series), but I also have a lot of backlist titles that were out of print and my fans wanted to read them. So I started releasing them myself with all the innovations of new technology.  It’s just another alternative.

Kaye: What does Wordfire press offer as a publisher for other authors?

Kevin: We are nimble and flexible, and we can produce books and get them to market far quicker than a traditional publisher can manage. But when you work with an indie publisher, or if you do it yourself, then you have to do all the work, all aspects of it.  It’s another income stream and another way to get your book in front of your audience.

Kaye: Is Wordfire taking submissions? What type of fiction is Wordfire looking for?

Kevin: Not really, I’m afraid. When we are open, we’re looking for established writers who don’t need their hands held, writers who already have their own platforms, fanbases, and marketing efforts because we have to rely on them to do the work that a whole department at a traditional publisher would do.

Kaye: You recently signed on as an adjunct professor at Western State Colorado University and you are a finalist candidate for the director of their Certificate in Publishing program. What prompted you to venture into the world of academia?

Kevin: Actually, I’m now a full professor and I run their Masters program in Publishing. I will start the first group of MA students this coming summer. There’s a LOT of paperwork and bureaucracy in academia!  I have taught writing and publishing quite often at countless writers’ conferences and conventions, most notably our own Superstars Writing Seminars, which is just hitting its tenth year.  Becoming a professor and teaching at a beautiful university in the Colorado mountains is great, offers a little more stability than freelance writing, and (the bane of all freelancers) it gives me health insurance and benefits I wouldn’t otherwise get.

Kaye: Any writing pet peeves?

Kevin: I don’t like artsy-fartsy stuff, dense prose and opaque plots.  Tell me a great story with a cool setting and interesting characters!

Kaye: Creating characters, developing plot, world building – what is the most challenging part of writing for you?

Kevin: Those are all fun, but if I had to choose I would say I have most difficulty with building rich, fleshed-out characters. Plotting and worldbuilding—that’s what I excel in.

Thanks to Kevin for sharing with us today. He’s given us food for thought with some really great answers. You can find more about Wordfire Press here:  Kevin and his wife, Rebecca Moesta, head up the Superstars Writing Seminars each year in February, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for those interested in learning the business of writing. If you’d like to become a member of the Superstars Tribe, or would just like more information about Superstars, visit the folowing link: Visit the links below to learn more about Kevin J. Anderson and his works.

Amazon Author page:

Wordfire Press:


Join us next month on “Chatting with the Pros”, when I’ll be chatting with romance author Maya Rodale. You can catch the monthly segment “Chatting with the Pros” on the third Monday of every month in 2019, or you can be sure not to any of the great content on Writing to be Read by signing up by email or following on WordPress.

March celebrates Science Fiction and Fantasy

Science Fiction-Fantasy

In March, Writing to be Read celebrates science fiction and fantasy, and everything in between. Science fiction springs from imaginings of what ifs, regarding technological advancements and futuristc worlds and universes, while fantasy fiction involves impossible or improbable events usually involving magic, or magical creatures or objects grounded in myths, legends and folklore of old. Both of these genres takes us to fantasical places and awe readers with amazing feats of courage, and good usually overpowers evil. Both entertain us, and are often addicting. In the current book market, there are many books which fall into a genre that is somewhere in between.

There are more subgenres for both of these genres than a person is able to count, including stories which feature elements of both. When I wrote my thesis proposal for what will one day be my science fantasy series, Playground for the Gods, I was told there was no genre for a story with both science fiction and fantasy elements. But in fact, there is such a genre as science fantasy, and there are many books out there today that fall into it. I recently reviewed one featuring alien life forms and a powerful magic object, Rogue Crystal, by Jordan Elizabeth in last Friday’s post.

As mentioned above, Playground for the Gods was originally proposed as my thesis story. It is a tale of aliens, Atlans, who come to pre-historic Earth when their planet is destroyed, and act as gods and godesses, forming human beliefs about devine matters, and creating the fondation for myths and legends of ancient history. The character names were all chosen from ancient summerian names, and many of the subplots parrellel those same myths and legends, adding new twists. In order to maintain the appearance of gods, they use their advanced technologies to appear magical and all powerful, each one wielding the ability to fall into different personas throughout time, providing basis for all world myths and religions around the globe.

It’s a lot of story, and many said it was too big and couldn’t be done, so I broke it down into four novels, which follow the Atlan through earth’s history to present day, and perhaps even beyond Book 1: The Great Primordial Battle tells the tale of the Atlans arrival on Earth. and tells how the heroine, Innana tries to stop the same Atlans who caused the destruction of their home planet from detroying their new home, as well. All whhile working to find a cure for her sister, Ereshkigal’s wasting desiese which is eating her up from the inside out. This story is curently with my beta reader, although I was hoping she’d have it back to me by now, so I could share my excitement, because it is very close to being publication ready.

Among the great science fiction authors we find familiar names: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Edgar Rice Burroughs.  More recently, we have Robin Wayne Bailey, Richard Bachman, who we all now know is Stephen King, Dean Koontz, John Scalzi and Kevin J. Anderson. (Don’t forget to  catch my interview with Kevin J. Anderson next Monday on “Chatting with the Pros”. You won’t want to miss it.) Fantasy authrs who may come to mind are J.R.R. Tolkien, George R. Martin, J.K. Rowling, R.A. Salvator, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, and Kevin J. Anderson. As you can see, there is some crossover of authors from one genre to the other; there are authors who write in both.

This month, in additon to my interview with K.J.A. and my review of Rogue Crystal, I also have my review of Kevin J. Anderson’s Selected Stories: Science Fiction Volume 2, and an interview with fantasy author Laurel McHargue.  I do hope you’ll drop by.


P.S. Be sure to check out my science fiction time travel short, Last Call, and my dystopian short, “If You’re Happy and You Know It” in the Collapsar Directive science fiction anthology (Zombie Prirates Publishing).

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World Building: It’s all in the details

Ask the Authors (Round 2)

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The world your story is is set in controls the possibilities for the characters and events in your story. This is more obvious in science fiction or fantasy perhaps, where magic or advanced technologies are the norm and are to be expected, but there is world building involved in others genres as well. every story has rules which may limit what can and can’t happen. And in every story, it is the author who creates the world and determines the rules, and it is the author’s job to clue readers in to what that world is like and what those rules are.

This may be easier with stories set in a reality that reflects the world we live in and are familiar with, because then readers may know most of the world, but it is still the author’s job to paint a picture with his or her words in order to allow reader’s a clear vision of their world. You would think in nonfiction this world we are familiar with, but it may be a setting we haven’t been to, or it might be from past times which are unfamiliar, so nonfiction authors must find ways to convey their story world clearly, too.

How exactly we, as authors, go about that may vary, but it is a task we are all faced with. Readers are allowed a glimpse into the story world through the details provided, including sensory details that make an unfamiliar world seem more real and help familiar worlds to ring more true. Dialog between characters is another tool that helps readers to buy in to the story and emerse themselves in the story world, but it’s one that may be difficult to get right.

Today, our Ask the Authors panel members will be discussing how they build and portray their story worlds, real or imagined. Our panel members this week include DeAnna Knippling, Lilly Rayman, Mark Shaw, Ashley Fontainne, RA Winter, Jordan Elizabeth, Tom Johnson, Cynthia Vespia and Amy Cecil. Let’s find out what works for them and what doesn’t.

Do you prefer to set your stories in the real world or one which you’ve created?

DeAnna Knippling
deannak I am generally terrible at creating entirely separate worlds, although I’ve had some really helpful tips lately, and I have a book planned pending more research into 18th-century Russia.  I’m much better at taking the real world, adding some odd element, and extrapolating from there.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman My main series – The Unexpected Trilogy is set in the real world, yet with paranormal characters. Yet I have a work in progress that is set in a world that I have created.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne Real world. Sometimes that requires an extensive amount of research yet using realistic settings gives the story a relatable connection to the readers.

RA Winter

RA Winter I love to write magical realism.  Taking the real world and bringing in those little details that take your breath away just gives me the chills as I write.  In my older series, I  brought in a realm we can’t see or touch but know are there.  The spirits who surround my MC’s with love or nefarious tendencies were fun to write. In my new series, I take the reader to the underworld and Olympus to meet the Greek gods.  I’ve read Dante’s Inferno, the Illiad, the Odyssey and I’ve read some Plato. They don’t all agree on the details so I rework characters for my own purpose.  You just have to stay consistent with your details.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I prefer worlds I’ve created.  There is more freedom to allow the story to take you where it will.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture One that I have created, but I want my world based on reality to some degree. Okay, SF really has no holds barred when we use telepathy, teleportation, time travel, and FTL because those have not been accomplished yet, and probably never will. But if I set my story in the 25th century I’m not going to have cell phones and iPads, either. Our technology will be far past those devices by then, and I get riled when I read a futuristic novel set a million years in the future and the main character pulls out a cell phone or iPad! Please, try to come up with something fresh.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy The real world is easier to write about, especially if I’ve actually been to the location. But creating worlds is half the fun. So I like to do both. Real world with fictional locations. For instance, in my novel Lucky Sevens it takes place in Las Vegas where I really grew up but the majority of the story is set within the fictional hotel/casino Saints & Sinners which I created specifically for the book.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I use a little of both.  I take real places, real locations and set my story there, adding to them to fit into the story.

In fiction, even this world we live in becomes a physical backdrop for your story. Whether created from this reality or from your author’s mind, we must still help readers to visualize our story world.
How do you paint a picture for the reader so they can visualize your character’s physical environment?
DeAnna Knippling
 A lot of opinionated sense detail from my POV characters. They don’t just see a library full of books, they’re like, “Shame about the old Victorian haunted house’s library, with its thousands of stinking, mold-spotted, water-logged, mouse-eaten tomes.”
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I drop small elements of the physical backdrop into the prose of my story, it’s another element of avoiding information overload or boring word filling. When the backdrop becomes a part of the story in a descriptive sense, it helps you avoid boring the reader, allowing them to paint the picture in their mind’s eye as to the backdrop. Here’s an example from one of my current works in progress – this is the opening sentences of the story “Miracle In The Dust” and Australian setting:

The track stretched out before them, disappearing into the horizon like a red thread cutting through the scrub that undulated either side of the dirt road. Travis sighed at the bull-dust cloud that bloomed behind their horse truck in the side-mirror. It had been a dry winter, and it was shaping up to be a long hot dry summer.

Hopefully the reader can see what I can see, an arid landscape of red dust across the Australian outback with scrubby bushes that dot the rolling plains of a large stretch of land, and a bumpy dirt road.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne One of my favorite techniques is to just close my eyes and let my imagination immerse me inside the story, taking in all the smells, sounds, visuals and emotional responses of the characters in a particular scene.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I like to drop in descriptions here and there.  I try not to overwhelm the reader with thick paragraphs.  I’ve found it flows more smoothly if I add tidbits as the story progresses

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Hopefully, we will always have forests, oceans, and mountains. We can just give them different names and locations. The same for cities. Maybe moving sidewalks, dining tables in restaurants that float above the floor. Music that enchants instead of rocks. There is so much the author can do to build his world.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy That’s part of being a good writer. Its your job to take the image you see in your mind and paint it on the page with your verbiage so that the reader sees the same picture. It’s like coloring a picture. I used to really like to do the central image in the coloring books when I was little and I often left the background unfinished. But when I took the time to color in the rest of the picture it made it pop so much better. It was alot more visual.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil With using a real location to start with, I have real locations that I can work with to make my descriptions.  For example, in one of my books, it’s set in a town in Pennsylvania called Edinboro.  This town has a small resort community around a lake.  The house are not relatively large, but my main character has a mansion on this lake.  I found pictures on the internet of the house I was looking for and described the house from those pictures.

When creating fictional worlds, anything is possible, but only if you, the author make it so. The author controls what is and isn’t possible in their fictional world, and it is our job to clue the readers into these things.
How do you portray the rules of the world, beliefs and preferences of characters?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak Ah! The rules!  A lot of writers give me the “are you insane?” look when I tell them that they have to set out the story’s rules at the beginning of a story.  I’ve done this multiple ways, including literally writing out the rules.  A good, practical, low-key way to set out the rules is to tell the reader the POV character’s goals and expectations, noting the rules as things to be wary of as they attempt to achieve their goals.  “I knew I had to overcome the wizard, but the way my magic didn’t work from sunset to dawn was going to be a problem.”  Another way is to tuck the rules into the description of the setting.  “The gas lamps flickered and the heavy fog erased everything more than a hundred feet away.  Mocking voices called out, ‘Two shillings for a love-potion, only lasts until dawn! Two more shillings for a girl to stare at while you drink it!'”  There’s your magic system, embedded right into the world as part of the setting.
Understanding the world helps readers to buy into the story, allowing them to suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in the story. The events in the story don’t have to be possible in real life, but they do have to be possible in the world of the story in order to be believable. Have you ever had a reader catch an inconsistency in your story because a character did something that violated the rules of the world which you created?
My errors tend to be of a different nature!  I almost always forget that readers bring assumptions to stories, especially ones based on Earthly settings, and that if I’m not going to use that assumption, I’m going to have to stress that I’m not using it.  I had an orphan chimneysweep in a Victorian story who was a teenager, and a reader was upset that they weren’t, like, six.  Because Victorian orphan chimneysweeps should be six.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman In my only experience of world building I actually have an overlapping of the real world with my new world, via magic allowing for the main character to hop through the realms. The information that a reader needs about what my world and how it operates is provided in conversation when the main character first learns about the extra realm, and then when she finds herself in the new realm and has a conversation with a resident of the new realm who explains in conversation about the realm. Of course, this dialogue is broken up with some action and movement between the characters so that it doesn’t become an overload of static dialogue.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan Again, I add in little bits.  The hardest thing can be keeping true to your rules and not bending them as the story continues.  I keep a notebook next to me of rules and beliefs to make sure I stick to them throughout.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Usually this has something to do with the plot. A world of telepaths, and the necessary laws that might govern invading someone else’s mind. Or a world where one race has this ability and another doesn’t. This could cause conflicts between races.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy I set those rules in my initial outline of the story and then I may or may not follow them depending on the direction the story is going in. I’m a big believer in breaking rules but not without a good reason.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I normally go with what’s acceptable in that time period.  I write historical and contemporary, so I usually don’t veer away from the beliefs and preferences of that time.

Understanding the world helps readers to buy into the story, allowing them to suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in the story. The events in the story don’t have to be possible in real life, but they do have to be possible in the world of the story in order to be believable.

Have you ever had a reader catch an inconsistency in your story because a character did something that violated the rules of the world which you created?

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman No, I haven’t had anyone complain about anything that has happened in any of my stories. So far, all my published stories are built in this world with the supernatural being an element of the story, but I always try not to get too crazy with what my characters can or cannot do, to provide that element of “this could really happen!”

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan It has happened once or twice.  I’ve wanted to hug the reader.  “Thank you for catching that!  I’m going to make a note for the next release.  Also – why aren’t you my critique partner?!”

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture In my novel, Three Go Back, the mode of transportation is teleportation machines. Fossil fuel vehicles have long been replaced by these machines, and there is no longer need for fossil fuel. However, one of my characters is an old man, a professor of astronomy, who maintains a small jet. I left myself open with this, but no one seemed to question it. If fossil fuels are no longer needed, how does the professor keep fuel for his jet? I would have questioned it in someone else’s novel (LOL).

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy No, I’m very good at keeping my characters in check. I’ve had readers point out some elements that didn’t fit in some of my earlier work. For instance, I wrote about stainless steel in a historical and they noted it would not have been invented yet in the time period I was writing about. We all make mistakes. I’ve read alot of very well known authors who don’t remain consistent to the story or their characters and it becomes a let down. I try my best not to do that because it can ruin the story.

Some authors draw maps of the fictional worlds they create to help readers follow the events of the story.
Have you ever used this technique? What other techniques have you used to help readers visualize your world?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak Ech, as I’ve said, I’m terrible at creating other worlds, so I don’t usually need to draw maps–although I do tend to use a lot of map research, so I can keep things clear for myself.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I haven’t drawn any maps since I played at writing when I was 14 years old, and that was more for my own use to remember where my world was based. In my writing now, as a published author, I try to use descriptive prose to help the reader to visualise backdrop, whether it be here on earth or in a world of my own creation.

Ashley Fontainne
Ashley Fontainne I have not, yet think it is a magnificent idea!
Jordan Elizabeth
Jordan I did have official maps for my original stories, but the publisher chose not to use them.  Now I just use a notebook and sketch a layout.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture I’ve never drawn a map of my worlds, but they would have probably helped in many cases. Usually the setting is a jungle or desert, and the characters must avoid a volcano or keep from getting lost in a desert. But would a map really help. Perhaps they can merely guide themselves by reading the stars and travelling north or south, east or west. However, when authors include a map, I do refer to it when following the adventure.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy I drew a map once for a fantasy I was working on but I never actually used it. I use description to set the table of the scene and trust that my readers can visualize it from the cues I am giving them.

One of the questions in part 1 had to do with creating setting for places we’ve never been, which of course, encompasses all science fiction or fantasy worlds, as well as most speculative fiction worlds. Some panel members said they do a lot of online research of real settings they’ve never been to, but how many of you have explored real places which are similar to your fictional world, experiencing the sensory details in order to write them down?
Anyone explore physical locations in the flesh in order to get the details right when writing about a real location?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak When I can do this, I love it, but I can’t often afford to do so.  I’ll sometimes write stories set somewhere I’ve gone or planned to go, just because I can get deeper into the location.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman My Australiana setting is based off personal experience. My husband and I have travelled through Outback Queensland, and I intimately know the smell of the dry earth, or the smell of burning sap of a Eucalyptus gum tree in the scorching temperatures of Australia. And there is nothing more beautiful than the smell of rain hitting the dirt after an extended long period of dry. Having that sensory understanding helps an author to provide a detailed description that can pull the reader into the story for themselves. For other stories where the setting isn’t a location I have experienced, I scroll through the internet, researching the flora and fauna, going through images to get an idea of where my story is set.

Ashley Fontainne
Ashley Fontainne Once. When researching the real life mystery of the disappearance of famed Arkansas attorney Maude Crawford for Blood Loss, I went to her home in Camden, Arkansas, along with my mother (and co-author). The current owners of the home graciously allowed us to tour the residence and even take pictures. It was an amazing experience and allowed us to convey minute, specific details in the story we otherwise would have to invent.
RA Winter
RA Winter For locations, I use google maps while on the treadmill.  It’s a wonderful resource, as if the internet.  I’ve lived in five different countries, visited many others and have lived all over the US.  If I’m writing about someplace I’ve never been, I’ll ask people who’ve been there to read over my work before I publish it.  In one series, I wrote about a fictional city in Kansas.  It was a farm, which I grew up on one of those, so it was easy putting it in another state that I thought was beautiful driving through.
Jordan Elizabeth
Jordan Unfortunately, no, but I love to travel.  I haven’t done much traveling since my son was born.  I’m hoping to start back up in a few years.  I love to write about places I’ve been to.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture I’ve been all over the world so can usually describe the places I’ve been in good detail – at least during the period I was there. And I can tell when an author has never been where s/he is writing about. Encyclopedias and postcards give you the colorful aspects of a foreign locale, but if you don’t know the culture or customs you’ll get it all wrong. During the pulp era authors usually wrote about areas they had travelled – China, Japan, Europe, etc. But the men’s adventure writers of the 1970s and later seldom left their home town, and were writing about Africa, Turkey, and Cairo, as well as other foreign lands with no real knowledge of the places, and most of it was terrible. But publishers were publishing, and readers were eating it up. How many western writers have actually rode a horse? Or could saddle a horse if necessary? Writing about a location is the same thing, you need to know what you’re writing about. Someone once said that if you read about a mesa in Louis L’Amour’s novel, you can go there and find it.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy I don’t have the liberty to go traveling about like some of the big name authors do. But if I could I would because it lends more realism to the story if you know the secrets of a place because you’ve actually been there, not just from reading about it or seeing pictures and video. For instance I remember every bit of trips to Hawaii and Italy so I may set some future novels in these locales.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil Yes, absolutely.  I would have to say that the majority of my books are set in locations that I have been to.

Do you plan out your world or build as you go and see what happens?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak See what happens, with a stack of books and maps at my side!
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I generally find that my world builds for me as I write.

Jordan Elizabeth
Jordan I have a general idea, but I build as I go. The story takes me where it takes me.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture I build as I go

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy I write as I go. Particularly when I’m writing an adventure fantasy piece I just move the story along to where it needs to go and then clean it up later in editing. The only time I really kept track of locations in my world was writing the sequels to Demon Hunter titled Demon Huntress. Because I was revisiting this world I already created I wanted to have my characters revisit places that I had written about in great detail during the original trilogy. That meant going back in to my previous work and finding out all I needed to know about these places.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil Build as I go, with the actual place as a start.

What tools or methods do you use to keep track of all the details of your world?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak I have a details sheet with names, dates, and locations.  I keep it pretty simple.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I read back through what I need to. I’m terrible at keeping notes, I lose anything I do make, so it’s easier to simply read back if I need to confirm a minor detail.

RA Winter

RA Winter I keep a series bible.  Every character’s physical, mental, plot bits, etc are kept tucked safely inside.  I also use it for descriptions and will keep house plans, pictures of objects, models and the descriptions I’ve used.  It’s essential in any story for keeping your facts straight.
Jordan Elizabeth
Jordan I have a notebook full of information.  I used to create a PowerPoint for each story because I am obsessed with using PowerPoint.  That meant a lot of slides to click through.  A notebook is easier…but less fun.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Notes are very important.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy I don’t do anything special to keep track. If I need to know what I said about a place before I just go back into the novel and reread what I wrote already.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil All those are kept in my story boards, where I outline the story by chapter.  Locations are put in there so that everything stays consistent.

Sensory Details

How do you pick the right sensory details for your story?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak I slip into character.  Almost every character can see things, but different people have different experiences of how their senses interact with the world.  I have a musician character who hears things more than I do.  I have a character with synaethesia who tastes colors and auras.  Some characters are texture characters, they feel things with their hands.  Others do a lot of smell.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I just want to say before I start answering, that I found these sensory questions the hardest to answer. For me, this sort of detail comes instinctively to me, and to answer these questions I had to think very hard about what I actually do in my writing to provide the answers to these questions.

I always ask myself what the main aim of the story is. The whole feel I want from the story influences which sensory details that I would concentrate on. Referencing back to my Australiana story Miracle In The Dust, the weather in itself is a main driving force behind some of the story. The sensory details I concentrate on is not only the weather itself, but the effects of the weather on the landscape. There needs to be a sense of desperation to the beginning of the story that allows for the miracle that I have planned to shine through.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I think about somewhere I’ve been in real life that is similar.  What did I smell?  Could I taste the air?  What did I feel?

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Knowledge helps. Imaginations also helps. Knowing which way water flows from the Great Lakes if your story is set in that area. What is the best fish to eat in Canada. Hint, they don’t eat mud cat.

What kind of sight details might be important in a story?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak Ones that are almost painfully specific, rather than generalized.  You can’t write every visual detail, but the ones you pick should lean toward the specific.  A shirt isn’t “red,” it’s “fire-engine red.”  A tree isn’t a “tree,” it’s a “contentedly conical Douglas fir.”
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Again, anything that helps to emphasis the main goal of the story, details that help building the right tension or feeling that will only improve the story and help to immerse the reader into the story. Moving back to my earlier answer where I shared with you the opening lines of Miracle In The Dust, and I referenced the cloud of bull-dust that billowed behind the truck. It’s a visual element that anyone who lives in outback or regional Australia takes for granted as being an every day element of life, yet it’s an integral visual element that helps me create depth into my story.

What methods do you use to add sound details to your stories?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak I have the sound occur and make sure characters react to it.  That whole thing where you read, “Susan heard the sound of a pin drop” is for the birds.  “A pin dropped on the wood floor, bouncing several times.  Susan flinched, pulling up her feet” is much better.  Likewise any other sense.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Descriptive words. Adding the sound in as a tension builder or a climax to a scene, for example when there is a gun shot is it a short sharp crack in a bar, or a long drawn out echo across the land. Here is an example of how I used sound within my writing in An Unexpected Bonding:

Rance watched in disbelief as the young man turned and watched the approach of the wolf. He must be stunned to stand there as the wolf launched in the air.

He squeezed his finger.


The shot resounded across the land.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I try not to write out the sounds.  That seems too much like a comic book to me.  (I love comic books, by the way, but its not the feel I want for my novels.)

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Let me show you instead: From Pangaea: Eden’s Planet:

The outer wave struck the giant ship with incredible force.
Suddenly, they could see nothing but ebony blackness in the view screen, and then the ship began to shake and vibrate violently as waves of immense energy tossed the Galileo Two from side to side like a small boat in a hurricane. The controls fought them, and the machinery whined like a screaming Banshee on a dark, moonless night. Warning lights flickered, dimmed, went out, came back on with a flash, and then repeated the sequence like a floundering fish out of water.

Someone screamed, but it was impossible to tell whether it had been a man or a woman. The safety harnesses held everyone safely in their seats, but a few loose objects had been lying near some of the computers, and these went flying through the small cabin, colliding with seats, computer panels, and sometimes—an unprotected hand or head.

Lightning bolts of pure energy sparked and crisscrossed the tornado-like funnel in a spider-web of violent beauty, at the far end appeared to be a gaping monster’s mouth. But the plasma would not let them go, tossing them around like the prey of some monstrous space creature.

In what ways have you incorporated touch details into your writing?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak At first I had characters look at textures and note them, or touch things, but lately I’ve been adding elements that the character really has a reaction to, like the feeling that it’s cold and one’s sweater isn’t warm enough, or the touch of a spiderwebs that you’ve brushed off but can’t stop checking to make sure.  Someone who has to clean a milkshake off a barnwood door is going to have a distinct opinion about the texture!
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman As a romance writer touch is such an important factor in creating a sensory moment for the readers to feel as if they are as intimately a part of the scene themselves.
Touch isn’t just about a intimate moment, but something as simple as providing more descriptive imagery for a wolf, such as when a character sinks their fingers into the soft thickness of the wolf’s neck.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I enjoy describing the ground or clothes.  Usually I’m describing the ground because the character just fell!  I tend to abuse my characters.

How do you factor in taste and smell details?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak My characters are always eating something, for one, maybe because I’m often at the computer writing and wondering when it’s time for lunch. Sometimes I have to have them smell things with a strong taste associated with them, like “chocolate chip cookies.”  Smell is easier.  I always wonder how people can write without it; people have such emotional reactions to smell that smell is almost a writer shortcut that you can abuse at will.  You don’t even have to be specific with smell details.  All you have to do is say, “the smell of sewage” and people the world over will be like, “Got it.”
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Where ever it has an impact on the depth of the story, such as during a meal, providing a description that is “mouth-watering” and makes the reader want to actually be eating that meal as well. Of course, taste and smell doesn’t have to be pleasant. If you think about a thriller or a murder mystery story, discovering a crime scene can be filled with smells that are so offensive they end up having a taste element as well.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I write about smell a lot, but taste not so much.  I’m going to make a note here to work on that.

I love adding in scents.  You don’t get a lot of that in stories.  Even if the reader can’t actually smell it (because its a paper book or e-reader), they can remember what a flower smells like…or a field after a rain storm.

Many of your readers have been to or even lived in locations where your stories are set, so they are able to relate when you get the details right, but if you get something wrong, it’s almost guaranteed that somebody will catch it and let you know about it.
Have you ever had a reader tell you that you missed the mark with a certain detail?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak Not yet!  Fingers crossed.
Lilly Rayman
L Rayman Nope, I haven’t. I’ve been fairly lucky that I have been able to create stories the evoke memories of being there for readers that do have experience of my locations.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne One reviewer mentioned no one from California would ever refer to the state as “Cali” as one of the characters in Blood Ties did, which I found humorous. I grew up in Orange County, as did my mother, and we still have relatives there who use the expression. Another reviewer gave low marks for Whispered Pain because the story takes place in Arkansas, in the winter, during a freak snow storm. The person actually wrote they “researched weather patterns” online and it “never snows in Arkansas” which still makes me laugh. I have lived in Arkansas for over thirty years and experienced many snow and ice storms. I am sure the folks working for insurance companies processing thousands upon thousands of storm damage claims would agree with me!

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan Yes!  They usually do it nicely, but I have had some people rip me to shreds over the setting of COGLING.  The setting is a fantasy kingdom.  The main character is living in a dusty, dirty city, and she must travel through the woods into the swamp to save her brother.  I’ve had people send me the rudest emails about how I missed the mark on describing London or England in general.  Um, it isn’t London or England.  I’m not sure why I get so much hate mail about that because I clearly state the names of the city and country in the text.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture No, but I do it all the time, so get it right and you won’t hear from me.

Effective Dialog

Dialog tags can be helpful in identifying who is speaking in the story. Good dialog tags should be almost invisible, so the reader brushes right over them, but still knows who is talking.
Do you prefer to use dialog tags, or do you find them a hindrance? If you don’t use dialog tags, how do you let the reader know who the speaker is?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak I use dialog tags.  I’ll use a more distinct dialog tag when I want to bring the reader’s attention to something–usually when the character is lying or there some other subtext but that’s really rare; I’ll usually handle it in the dialog itself.  Generally I stick with the “he said” pattern.  I would like to note that putting a dialog tag at the end of a sentence if the reader will really not be clear on who is speaking is lame.  Put it at the beginning.  The reader should have zero words of going, “But who is talking?!?” in a normal scene.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture If your characterization is good, you don’t need a lot of dialog tags. But when you have four or five people speaking, you’d best use tags.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy That’s tricky. I hate alot of “he said” and “she said” type of stuff. Writing dialogue is one of my strongest attributes as a writer so I just let it flow naturally using tags if I find I need to.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I use too many dialog tags and have diligently working to replace them with an action.

Do you feel that dialog tags beyond the basic ones like ‘said’ and ‘asked’ can be distracting and draw away from the story?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak “Which is sometimes exactly what you want,” the dowager countess snapped.  “Some stories ought to be drawn away from, they are so terribly written.”
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I tried to avoid the basic he said / she said dialogue tags. I do like to use some sort of description to identify the speaker, even if it is as simple as an action that someone does as they speak. It makes for a scene that moves along without being static and identifies the speaker.

RA Winter

RA Winter Action tags work well and serve a dual purpose of bringing the action closer to the reader.  A write just has to be careful that the action tag dedicated to the person speaking.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I use some dialogue tags.  I like to describe what’s going on instead.  Its a great opportunity to add in a smell or texture, or something the speaker is seeing.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture I’ve only known a few authors who are good with dialog. The rest of us struggle with it, and I don’t think tags that go beyond “said” and “asked” are all that distracting.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I do. That is why I try to avoid them.

Dialog should be believable, in that it is realistic of something that not only a real person might say, but something that your character would say. I’ve found though, that if you use a piece of dialog that occurred in real life, many feel it is not realistic.
How do you write believable dialog which reads smoothly?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak The same way you write an accent:  accurately like 20% of the time, suggestive of accuracy rather than actually, um, like, accurate.  But I’d like to note that the process of learning to write believable dialog generally starts with sitting down at a coffee shop and writing down what people actually say.  Writers tend to start out with a problem of forcing characters to say useful things in a direct fashion that sounds stilted.  In real life, people talk around what they want and feel and replace it with small talk.  High fantasy writers and hard sci-fi writers are the worst!  I’ve judged some contests, and I’m always coming across writers who have Big Things to Say and who can’t handle the polite nothings that are required in order to get to the point of communicating.  I want to see a high fantasy novel where the heroes talk to the villagers about the weather and they come away knowing that that Evil Sorcerer has been there because the wheat looks scraggly from all the damp.  Or a sci-fi epic where people are like, “So how about them Bears?”  Of course in the future people will still follow professional sports, duh.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I try to write dialogue as I would speak, and ensure that all speech is contracted, meaning people doing in real life don’t say “do not” they say “don’t”. I also try and write appropriate slang into my dialogue for the characters background.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne As I mentioned before, when I am in full writing mode, I try to close my eyes and watch the story unfold as though viewing a movie. From there, I write what I see, which includes the dialog between the characters.

RA Winter

RA Winter Cut anything that isn’t necessary, it slows down the reader.  Don’t do the phone conversation of “Hello?”  “Hi, is so-and-so there?”  “Who’s calling please?”  “Oh, it’s Mr. Jones.”  Why?  Don’t.  It’s boring.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I repeat it out loud to myself.  If it sounds good, I leave it.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Again, I’ve only known a few writers that could write good dialog, Warren Murphy and Dan Cushman. The rest o us struggle.

Cynthia Vespia
colorheadshot - Copy I disagree. As a writer I spend alot of time listening to people talk and I pick up subtle nuances that stick with me so when I go to write I deliver a more realistic aspect to a character because of those bits and pieces. When it gets forced is when you start trying to write in accents. I say just mention that someone has a specific accent and write the dialogue as you would for anyone else. Alot of choppy words will just get confusing. I know it worked in alot of classic novels but hey…I’m not in that caliber yet!
Amy Cecil
Amy Cecil I act out the dialog as I’m writing it.

You write about real people and places. How do you assure that the cultural and physical settings are true to the story? 
Mark Shaw
MarkAtSFTS (1) Don’t mess with that much. More interested in primary source information about my main subject and those who make the story compelling.
Do you ever actually visit the places you write about?
Mark Shaw
MarkAtSFTS (1) Yes, for both The Reporter Who Knew Too Much and the upcoming Denial of Justice, I visited New York City. Actually went to locations where Dorothy Kilgallen frequented including my sitting next to the table at P. J. Clarke’s where she sat on the last night of her life.
Much of the writing you do is about people and places of the past.
When writing about historical places, how do you find and work in the details to make it authentic?
Mark Shaw
MarkAtSFTS (1) Use only primary sources but again, the subject is the story, not so much the historical places.
As you can see, there are many approaches to drawing readers into our worlds, whether real or imagined. At times the approach may depend on what genre we are writing in. Certainly, my approach to creating and portraying Delilah, which is a western and required historical research for accuracy and visiting certain locations to get the details right, is quite different from my approach in portraying my science fantasy world for my Playground for the Gods series, which explored myths and legends of old using landscapes mostly created in my head. But even when writing about real places, such as in nonfiction, the author must find ways to draw readers into the story, and add those special touches which bring the setting to life is one way to do that. This information can be conveyed by using dialog between characters to help readers learn what we need them to know, or through sensory details that make the setting seem more real.
I want to thank our author panel members for sharing their ideas and techniques with us. I hope you’ll pick and choose the ideas that work for you. And I hope you’ll join us next Monday, when our author panel will discuss writing action scenes and pacing.

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Songs of Earth: A Teller’s Tale

Songs of the Earth


The title is Songs of  Earth: A Teller’s Tale, and the author, Eugene W. Cundiff is a story teller in following with the best of the tradition. A well-crafted science fiction post-apocalyptic story, with excellent world building, this book keeps the pages turning. Cundiff captures the imagination and doesn’t let go. I didn’t want to put it down.

Songs of  Earth is a tale of an abandoned civilization, left by the Mongers, those who came before them, to fend for themselves in a harsh environment as best they could. On Luna, Elisheva is a Teller’s apprentice until the terraforming technology that enables their existence quits and she is sent with a group of Miners, a Marshall and an Engineer, on a journey into the wastelands, from which no one ever returns, to attempt repairs. In thier quest to save thier people, they uncover the secrets the Mongers never intended them to discover and travel much farther than any of them ever imagined they would have to repair the damaged machinery. And they solve the mystery of what happened to those who went into the wasteland before them, including Elisheva’s brother, but they aren’t the answers Elisheva had hoped to find.

Songs of Earth follows story telling traditions in exquisite form. I give it five quills.


Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read in exchange for ARCs. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.

Ask the Authors: Final Answers

Books and Coffee

We’ve reached the final segment of Ask the Authors, which will bring our series to a close. This has been a fun series and we’ve covered a lot in regards to writing. In this segment, our panel members will answer follow-up questions for each segment and wrap things up, so let’s get started. We’ll skip over the introductory segment, as there are really no follow-up questions as to the panel members identity, but if you missed that one, you really should pop in and check it out.  Our panel had a great line up, with DeAnna Knippling, Chris Dibella, Carol Riggs, Cynthia Vespia, Tim Baker, Janet Garber, Art Rosch, Margareth Stewart, Chris Barili and Jordan Elizabeth.

I want to thank each and every one of our panel members for their participation. This blog is a labor of love for me, which means I can’t pay for guest posts, etc… The time and energy each author took to respond to all of my, sometimes lengthy and open ended questions is greatly appreciated. When asked if they would be up for another round in the fall, many said yes, so it looks like we have another round of Ask the Authors still to look forward to.

Our first segment takes A Look at the Writing Process, where each of our panel members found different things most challenging, from sharing and allowing yourself to be vulnerable, to self confidence, to marketing and finding readers, to the actual act of writing. The process is never the same for any two authors. Some prefer to write without distractions, while others like to write with music or other things going on in the background. Many authors like to write in public places, such as coffee shops, while others like Tim Baker find this too cliche or just need their privacy for writing, like Carol Riggs. We approach our writing in different ways, as well. While Janet Garber writes in vigenettes, Cynthia Vespia writes her first drafts by hand, and authors like DeAnna Knippling just let the characters go and see what happens, and most of our panel members are morning writers, like Chris Barili. Most of our panel members claim to lean toward character driven stories, but I’m with Cynthia Vespia in thinking that all stories must be a little of both. Most, like Art Rosch and Chris DiBella say the titles of their books just come to them, usually before actual writing begins, while the book is still in the design stage. Be sure to check it out and see what each of our panel members’ best pieces of advise for upcoming authors.

The follow up question for this segment is: What are your top five writing rules for success?

Cynthia Vespia: 

1. Write what you want, don’t follow the trends

2. Characterization is key

3. Have fun with world building

4. Think outside the box

5. And of course show don’t tell

Chris Barili

1. Learn your craft. Whether through college studies, mentorship, reading a lot, whatever. Learn what makes good stories.
2. Learn the business of your craft. All the writing in the world does you no good if you don’t know how to get it sold.
3. Find your writing tribe. A support crew of fellow writers is crucial for keeping you going.
4. Submit. Everywhere. You don’t get published if you’re not submitting.
5. Get your ass in the seat and do the work. Don’t wait for the stupid inspiration fairy or muse to sit on your shoulder and whisper bullshit in your ears. Write. Then write some more.

Janet Garber: 

1. Jot down phrases and ideas when inspiration hits no matter where you are.

2. Work on making the language sing.

3. Submit like crazy

4. Don’t take rejections personally. Just move on.

5. Don’t ever give up!


Art Rosch: 

One, be yourself.  Write to please yourself.  There is no other way to achieve authenticity other than to make your writing a means of exploring yourself, your humanity and the nature of your life experience.

If you’re writing fiction you need a great villain.  Nothing propels a story like a character that you hate, someone whom you want to see brought to justice.  I pay special attention to writing my villains.

Write with feeling or your readers will not feel anything.  Emotion is the fuel of story.  Be a storyteller, engage readers with plots that invoke high stakes.  The ultimate investment in a story can be the life or death of the characters, or the survival of a society, or the triumph of a civilization.  All the elements of story break down into conflicts of virtue versus destruction.  What makes a story interesting, however, is when it’s difficult to tell who is good and who is evil.  Things aren’t always simple.

A good book has three attributes.  It should be entertaining, informative and inspiring.  I can loosely define inspiration as the evocation of insight.  Insight feels good and you know when a writer provokes an understanding of the human condition.

That’s not exactly five rules, but it’s an overview of things I put in my writing.

Tim Baker: I really only have one rule…keep writing. If you want to be succesful as a writer you have to keep writing. Not only is it the best way to hone your skills, but the more you write, the more chance you have of being succesful.

Chris DiBella: I don’t have any rules for writing “success” because the term success will vary from person to person. What works for me may not work for other writers, and vice versa. There are a million blogs posting the same 5 to 10 rules for how to be a writer, but none of them seem to be putting out any books themselves, so why take advice from someone who isn’t successful doing what they are trying to tell you to do? There’s no secret magic formula, but you can’t be successful if you don’t write… just go write.

Carol Riggs: 

1. There ARE no rules.

2. Everyone writes lousy first drafts; get the words down on the page and learn to revise.

3. Always have other people check your work for inconsistencies, grammar, punctuation, etc.

4. If you truly love to write, never give up!

5. Not everyone will love your book; it’s subjective and there’s no way your writing will speak to every single person.

Margareth Stewart: 

1. Write. Don´t stop.

2. Don´t copy anyone else. Find your own voice.

3. Craft your stories.

4. Be humble. Be proud.

5. Keep it up.

P.S. Just write if you have something to tell, and then forget about it all. I don´t believe so much that we can predict success though we need to do our best for it. I see authors who might be famous, and they might not be the best ones, or even the most influential ones, or the ones that are still going to be recalled a century from now. I would rather quote Jorge Amado and say that writing is like living: 

“The world is like that – incomprehensible and full of surprises.” Jorge Amado – Brazilian Author. 

Jordan Elizabeth:

  1. Never give up on your dreams.
  2. Write what you know.  Write a book that you would want to read.
  3. Don’t write a shocking scene just for the shock value.
  4. Don’t write in a genre just because its selling; write in that genre because you’re passionate about it.

DeAnna Knippling:

1. Read.
2. Study what you read.
3. Practice what you study.
4. Get what you practice published.
5. Honor the people who read what you published.

The second segment was on Character Development. Many of our author panel develop characters from real people and composites of people they know, or at least give them realistic qualities and flaws to make them feel more human, easier to identify with, and most admit to having a little of themselves in their characters. Chris DiBella, Jordan Elizabeth, Janet Garber and Art Rosch even offer up real life examples. None of them openly admited to creating characters from archetypes, but I maintain that all characters fit into archetypes, whether the author does it consciously or not. Chris Barili offers his method of character development using a character triangle to determine what the character’s motivation is, what the character’s fear or flaw is, and what it is the character truly needs. It is clear that for all of our panel members and myself, our characters often come alive and take over what happens on the page, surprising even their creators at times. While Art Rosch and DeAnna Knippling like to take a more psychological approach to character development, authors like Tim Baker use life observation to ‘keep it real’. And I don’t think any of the panel members would disagree with Carol Riggs when she stated, “The more rich development you can give to a character, the more the reader can identify with them.” After all, that is what we’re striving for – characters that readers can relate and identify with.


The follow-up question for this segment: How do you evoke emotion in your readers?

Cynthia Vespia: This is one of the most important parts of storytelling, and one of my favorite parts as well. Developing characters that readers resonate with is what stirs emotion. If they can see part of themselves in the character they will gravitate towards them more and that makes them care what happens to them in the end.

Chris Barili: You do that by creating a character they empathize with, then killing him or her, usually. No, wait. That’s the George Martin approach. Seriously–build a character about whom readers care, then put them in situations where they are threatened.

Janet Garber: This is admittedly not always easy. I concentrate on creating relatable and sympathetic characters.

Art Rosch: If you write with feeling your audience will respond with feeling.   Fiction is mostly about overcoming obstacles.  You cause your heroes to act bravely and unselfishly and your villains to act with malice and manipulation.  If you create a lovable hero, (that is, someone with flaws who intends to do a positive thing) your readers will respond. I don’t know if emotion can be taught.  Writing is a very psychological pursuit, and our emotions are unpredictable and all but uncontrollable.  So…be a psychologist.

Tim Baker: By giving my characters real emotion and letting the reader see it. Whatever emotion the characters are feeling in a particuklar scene I try to have them think and react the way any of us would (as much as allowable for the story anyway).

Chris DiBella: I just try to make my characters as real as possible and hopefully my readers like them enough to care about what happens to them.

Carol Riggs: I write in first person for (what I think is) the most close, personal experience. I also try to include a lot of sensory images—smell, taste, sounds, and sights to make things more real. With crying and sobbing and sad emotions, often less is more; otherwise it starts feeling melodramatic. And if the character is going through general experiences the reader can relate to (betrayal, loss, anger at a friend or parent) that helps make an emotional connection.

Jordan Elizabeth:  I rely on my own experiences when writing.  Many of the emotions I write about are ones that I have experienced, so I’m able to write from the heart.  If its a funny scene, then I’m laughing out loud.  If its a sad scene, I have tears drenching my cheeks.

DeAnna Knippling: One of my pet peeves is when an author is obviously playing for my emotions rather than letting the combination of plot, character, etc., do the work in a more logically consistent fashion.  You’ve seen it every time a beloved character gets wiped out and it really doesn’t affect the narrative, other than to “inspire” the rest of the characters to carry on or set the grounds for “anything could happen!!!!!!!”

If I want a reader to cry, I better have already wept bitter tears over the manuscript as I was writing it.

Our third segment was on Action and Dialog. While all authors want dialog that flows smooth and sounds realistic, different authors take different approaches to the task. While most of our panel members agree that listening to people and being able to hear the dialog spoken in your head are great ways to approach this, Carol Riggs offers the really great advice to read your work aloud, and Art Rosch offers the advice that dialog should always serve a purpose, rather than being just a space filler. In true life, we tend to talk just to hear ourselves sometimes. In writing, that sort of thing just takes up space on the page and the only purpose it may serve is to bore the reader, and of course, we don’t want that. Achieving a balance between action and dialog seems to come natural for many of our panel members claim the only trick or secret is to keep the story moving and not let it get too bogged down with details. Tell readers what they need to know, but keep things moving. If you missed this segment, be sure to drop in and check it out, because it features excerpts of dialog scenes from authors Chris Barili, Janet Garber, DeAnna Knippling, Cynthia Vespia, Tim Baker, Art Rosch and Margareth Stewart.

The following is a reader comment left regarding Dialog. While a couple of our panel members replied directly in the comments, DeAnna Knippling’s reply seemed spot on to me and I wanted to include it here.

Reader Ken Hughs said:

Lots of excellent advice there.

I’m always on the lookout for ways to analyze dialogue a bit deeper than that. For instance:

Who talks more? Does she say a lot on her favorite subject (an expert, or just concerned about it) and less on other things, or is she nervous or social enough to chime in a little after everything– or so full of herself she does both?

How organized are his sentences? A longer sentence can mean he has a more complex complete thought, unless it’s a run-on; several short sentences could each mean new thoughts still coming in behind the last ones. Or the most eloquent person might be the one with the simple line that says it all.

Adjectives and adverbs? Someone passionate, or more in tune with their senses, is more likely to pile on the modifiers, while others are plainer-spoken. Similes and metaphors take this even further– if you can keep someone from becoming cliche about using their job or background to compare things too.

DeAnna Knipling: It sounds like the commenter, Ken Hughes, is doing some good things with pacing.  Huzzah!  Once you get past the point of being able to make dialogue that sounds natural and gets the point across in a scene, the next step is to start working on the pacing of the dialogue–and all the issues Mr. Hughes mentioned are relevant there.

To back up a bit for writers who aren’t quite down in the weeds of studying pacing yet:

  • Pacing is the art of connecting content (what you’re writing about) to form (the layout of the little black marks on the page, for writers).  When the word lengths and patterns, sentence lengths and patterns, scene lengths and patterns all line up with the meaning of the story somehow, the story is “paced well.”  Pacing is about building your story like a woodworker, choosing your material and construction techniques to fit the final purpose of the project.  Any element of a story can have pacing.
  • Each character’s dialogue will also have its own pacing, just as Mr. Hughes says, and it should depend on the nature of the character.
  • The examples that Mr. Hughes gives are excellent examples of what to consider with pacing dialogue.
  • I’d like to add that anything that you add between pieces of dialogue also reflects the pacing of the dialogue, so if you have chunks of description between bits of dialogue, the reader will take them as pauses in the conversation, or as the POV character’s mind wandering during the conversation.
If you can handle the things Mr. Hughes brings up, you’ll be doing well indeed 🙂

Mr. Hughes and DeAnna bring up another issue here, which we haven’t really touched on.


Naturally my follow-up question is:What methods do you find effective in controlling your pacing?

Cynthia Vespia: I don’t. I just write what comes to me.

Chris Barili: I don’t know. I just go with what the characters are feeling, I guess. Their tension tells me how to pace a scene.

Janet Garber: Ah. You must make every scene count. Have it lead readers somewhere, to the destination you intend.

Art Rosch: I’ve watched a thousand Samurai movies.  They’re great for offering templates for action sequences.  Samurai didn’t waste effort in useless display and they were completely focused on surviving the next duel or battle. Unless you’re writing about super-heroes your characters need to operate within reasonable physical parameters.  I act out movements and gestures at my chair in front of my computer.  Does this look reasonable?  Can my characters do this-and-that?

In my novel Confessions Of An Honest Man, I have a 70 page battle sequence that takes place in Afghanistan.  It’s a much admired passage with editors and readers. It has an arc, or several arcs.  There’s the build-up to an initial confrontation.  A mini-climax occurs early in the scene.  But it doesn’t end there.  A greater threat appears unexpectedly and my hero must cope with expanded dangers.  Each time a resolution seems to occur another and greater threat appears.  The point of this sequence is that my hero learns things about himself, learns that he has more courage than he thought. There’s outer action but there’s also my hero’s thoughts and emotions as the scene(s) unfold.  This pendulum between action and a character’s inner dialogue offers a means of pacing.

Tim Baker: When writing action I try to write only the action. By this I mean if I’m writing an action packed scene I don’t stray away from the action with anything that will slow the reader down. I want the reader to be able to be in the action.

Chris DiBella: I’ve never thought about trying to control my pacing. When I get to action scenes, I just try to write them in a way where I’m describing enough that it paints a picture for my readers. I don’t have a formula for how many pages an action scene should be. I just write them until I feel it’s time to move on with the story.

Carol Riggs: I try to keep some sort of tension, question, or compelling forward movement on every page, whether internal for the characters or external to them. I use cliffhanger-type chapter endings to keep the reader turning pages. It’s also important not to rush the “big moments”—sometimes the pace needs to be drawn out on powerful scenes to heighten the impact or emotions. In an action scene, short punchy sentences help move the pacing along.

Margareth Stewart: Word count and daily targets; otherwise, it does not flow. Sometimes, I feel like I am a General to myself: “for instance, no chocolate if I don´t finish 2.500 word count today”, and there it goes. Other times, I need to be a little more flexible because things do happen in between word counting, not with the plot or story itself, but in terms of living – ordinary living – bills to pay, a tire to fix, and so on. Another good and productive management is during November Writing. Besides that, I use the same method for editing – this week I have to review 50 pages and by the way I am late, so I will have to do extra work at the weekend. Therefore, I have told my kids, we can only go to the cinema if I can complete the goal before Sunday. By the way, that´s another point about being a writer, we feel quite weird and funny.

Jordan Elizabeth: I tend to just write, write, write.  I don’t plan my stories ahead; I just go off a basic plot idea in my mind.  Pacing falls naturally into place.

In our third segment, our author panel members discussed Setting,  where author Carol Riggs suggests basing fictional worlds on real life places as a good method of world building, and travel for authors is recommended in order to expand on their true life experiences that shine through in their writing, although most of our panel members have written about places they have never been or don’t really exist, like Jordan Elizabeth, who writes YA fantasy. DeAnna Knippling loves to write about Victorian England, and all agree that sensory details should be added to make the setting feel more real. This segment also features setting excerpts from Cynthia Vespia, Art Rosch, Chris Barili, DeAnna Knippling and Janet Garber. (Strangely enough, I just realized I gave no follow-up question for this segment, although we could do a whole series on world building and setting. Wow!)

Our fourth segment covered the topic of Publishing, which many authors opt to do themselves these days. Our panel members were a nice blend of traditional, small press and self-published authors, with three strictly self-published authors: Art RoschChris DiBella, and DeAnna Knippling; one author who is strictly small press: Jordan Elizabeth; and five who have done a hybrid combination of small press and self-publishing in one form or another: Cynthia VespiaMargareth Stewart, Tim Baker, and three authors who have done a combination of traditional and self-publishing: Janet GarberChris Barili, and Carol Riggs. Together, they bring their own experiences to the table to talk about the pros and cons of each publishing venue.

I have two follow-up questions for this segment: 

Are your books available in print or digital format, or both? Why?

Cynthia Vespia: Both. Because I like to have my work available in as many formats as possible to appeal to different readers. Next I’ll do audio books.

Chris Barili: Both. And why wouldn’t you do it that way? You’re robbing yourself of readers if you ignore one medium.

Janet Garber: My books are in print and in digital form and the first traditionally purchased book is on audiotape as well.

Art Rosch: I need to emphasize a huge fact with regard to the whole publishing venture.  It takes money to market books.  I don’t have money, I’m living on a fixed income.  I started my enterprise by going to and e-publishing three of my books.  I did the same at Amazon.  An author can publish digitally for free.  I designed my own book covers, using my stock of personal photography and my skills in Photoshop. Such as they are.

I am now about to turn my novel, Confessions Of An Honest Man into a paperback on Amazon.  I have no illusions about getting sales.  I just want to have a physical object, MY BOOK, in my hands and have it be available to people in my environment.

Tim Baker: My books are available in print, digital and audio (not all of them are currently available in audio, but the ones that aren’t are in production.) The reason why is simple…give more options to people and increase your chances of being read.

Chris DiBella: Both. There are still people out there (somewhere) who like to read physical copies of books.

Carol Riggs: All my books are available in both print and digital formats. This is important, because some readers prefer print and some prefer digital.

Jordan Elizabeth:  Both (except for Kistishi Island.  I have to sell 500 ebooks before it will be in print).  I like having a combination of formats.  Some people prefer print and some prefer ebook.  I’ve heard from a lot of readers that they have to use ebooks because of eyesight problems.  Print books are great for book signings.

DeAnna Knippling: Yes and yes.  See writing rule #5.  I really ought to be working on audio as well.  Readers should be able to read conveniently.

Which publishing platforms do you use? Which do you recommend? Why?

Cynthia Vespia: I’m focused on Amazon at the moment because that’s where the majority of buyers/readers go. I’ve also used Smashwords and Barnes and Noble for digital.

Chris Barili: Amazon and Smashwords for my self-published stuff. I prefer Smashwords because they distribute to a bunch of other retailers, saving me time.

Janet Garber: I used and was satisfied with their speed and the look of the final product.

Art Rosch: I think Smashwords is great.  There’s all the support and information you need.  Amazon is, of course, the giant, but as with everything in digital publishing, it’s all automated.

Tim Baker: I use CreateSpace, Kindle Direct Publishing and ACX (for audio). Since those are the ones I use – those would be the ones I recommend.

Chris DiBella: I use Amazon and CreateSpace. It’s easy to set up and get my books out to potential readers from those sites.

Carol Riggs: Three of my books are traditionally published, and the publishers distribute in various ways (Entangled Teen uses Macmillan, for instance). For self-publishing, I use CreateSpace and Amazon KDP; it’s relatively easy to release a book on these platforms.

Jordan Eizabeth: My publishers use Ingram and CreateSpace.  I can’t speak to the ease of use.

DeAnna Knippling: It’s not so much which ones, as how you decide which ones to use.  I’m starting to look at these things as, “How does this company treat its readers?  Are the readers happy with the experience?”  Another good set of questions is, “How does this company treat its writers?  Does it pay them promptly? Does it have good reporting?  Do they have good avenues for books that aren’t bestsellers to reach readers? Is the damn site hard to use?”

I’ve dropped a number of publishing platforms that don’t adhere to these things, or at least stopped using them directly, but approach them through other distributors.  [Cough] Barnes & Noble [Cough]

Our fifth segment of Ask the Authors covered the topic of Genre Differences. Again, we had a nice mix for this topic. Among our author panel members we had: Jordan Elizabeth, who writes YA Fantasy and Steampunk; Carol Riggs, who writes both Fantasy and Science Fiction; Tim Baker, who writes crime action adventure novels; Cynthia Vespia, who writes speculative fiction for adults and teens; and those who dabble a little in all of them: Janet Garber, Chris Barili and DeAnna Knippling. They discuss the use of tropes when writing in the different genres, and also the differences in the creative process, the different types of research required, and the differences in audience and marketing. No follow-up questinos for this segment.

In the sixth segment, our author panel discusses The Business of Writing. According to Jordan Elizabeth and Carol Riggs, marketing can make or break you in the world of writing, and in today’s digital world, much or all of those duties fall upon the author, requiring us to treat writing not only as a job or a passion, but as a business. Today’s author may be responsible for everything about their book, from writing the book, to editing and cover art, to publishing, to marketing and promotion, and everything in between. While many of these tasks can be hired out, not all authors can afford to do so. I didn’t have any follow-up for this segment, mainly because the next two segments were follow-up to this.

For the seventh segment of Ask the Authors, our author panel discusses the many ways there are to Building an Reader Platform.  Most of our panel members prefer face-to-face events, over online activities, but it seems they continue to use the Internet and social media to promote their books, feeling that both are needed. Some panel members come up with some very creative ideas, like Tim Baker, who had a tire cover made for the spare on his Jeep with his logo on it, or Chris DiBella, who had customized tee-shirts made telling the world that he is their next favorite author. Who knows? It might work.

Book Reviews

The follow-up question for this segment is: What methods have you found successful for obtaining reviews?

Cynthia Vespia: Asking. I ask other writers, or I seek out bloggers who do reviews.

Janet Garber: Approaching authors who write in a similar humorous fashion; writing reviews myself as a pay-it-forward tactic; bugging people who enjoyed the book.

Art Rosch: I completely suck at this and it’s my own fault.  I must have social media halitosis.  There are billions of people who don’t know about me.  I’ve been hammering at this for many years and haven’t cracked the code yet.  I do recommend one author-marketing guru (among the many who haunt my email inbox).  That’s Mark Dawson.  He refunded my money long after the expiration date for one of his courses and he didn’t have to.  He teaches at a good pace and he has much to offer to authors who want to market independently.

Tim Baker: I haven’t found a successful way to get reviews. People generally don’t like to write them. I’ve done everything from blog posts, social media requests and even offered to include people in a book if they wrote enough reviews. It’s the thing I find most discouraging about writing.

Chris DiBella: I don’t like to hound people for reviews. There are some authors who post constantly about it, and I find it annoying. We all want reviews, but it seems some authors will only ask for reviews from people they know will give them a favorable review. I simply do not like that approach. The way I look at it is the reviews will come in time – or maybe not. They’re nice to get, but I don’t stress about it. I also have my own little rule of thumb of not to trust any book with less than 15 reviews of all 5-stars (unless there’s some bad reviews in there too). Anyone can get 15 friends or family members to write a good review. It’s that first bad review I usually trust the most. Same goes for my books. My first bad review was actually pretty spot-on with the critique. She liked the story, but drilled me on editing. No friends or family members would have left a review like that. I pulled the book and re-edited it. Of course it sucks to get bad reviews, but they can be turned into a positive. And for the love of everything you consider holy, please stop arguing with readers who give you a bad review. Let your fans battle it out for you.

Carol Riggs: My publishers used NetGalley for obtaining reviewers from bloggers. A newsletter also works decently for requesting reviews. I try not to ask for reviews too much, however, because it’s off-putting. Either a reader will leave you a review or he/she won’t. No one should be obligated; an author doesn’t get honest reviews that way anyway.

Jordan Elizabeth: Author friends have told me they have good luck when posting free books on Facebook in exchange for reviews.  I haven’t had luck that way.  I usually reach out to bloggers.  Most of the time, they are willing to review.

Just a note: I also see the other side of this issue, as I do honest reviews in exchange for ARCs right here on Writing to be Read. The problem I’ve run into is that since I’m supplied with a free copy, at times Amazon will not aknowledge my reviews because they can’t verify the sale. I imagine those exchanging reviews on Facebook might run into the same type of issues. So, even if you can give away some e-copies in exchange for a review, there is no gaurantee that Amazon will acknowledge it.

DeAnna Knippling: Asking nicely.  I was using Instafreebie for a while, but I think that exhausted its readers fairly quickly, because it was mostly a platform for trading newsletter subscribers, not a sustainable model.  What new readers was Instafreebie bringing to the table?  Not as many as the authors themselves had brought.  I did well by it, but I think that was a matter of getting in at the right moment and not “what a great site for reviews!”

I think your best bet is to treat reviews like a pyramid.  At the base, write good books and make it easy for readers to read more.  Next level, make it easy for your newsletter subscribers to get review copies.  I have an ARC list.  Up from that, whatever social media sites you’re on, keep an eye out for ways to attract reviews OR newsletter subscribers.  At the top of the pile is a review that will be seen widely, a review on a radio show or in a newspaper, things like that.  Go for it when you see it.  But be more loyal to your base of writing good books and making them easy for readers to read them.

Don’t put all your eggs in a basket that’s essentially just moving piles of email addresses around, or reviews that you have to pay for (and that Amazon will delete as soon as they get a chance), begging for reviews from your writer-friends (which screws up your also boughts something fierce), or whatever short-term solution everyone is chasing at the moment.  Play the long game, take advantage of what you can when you can, then drop back into your long game.
Believe me, I know how freaking slow this all goes.


In the last segment, our author panel members discussed many of the issues involved in Book Marketing and Promotion. This is a big topic for many authors, including me, because unlike writing, it does not come natural to us. It is such a big issue that a couple of our panel members, DeAnna Knippling and Janet Garber, bowed out of this segment, rather than express the frustration of not having the answers. But those panel members who did participate had some insightful things to share. They talk about their favorite social media sites for promotion, marketing and giveaway sites, marketing platforms, the effectiveness of author websites and blogs, newletters, press releases and interviews. Be sure and catch this segment, or you’ll never know why Chris DiBella’s mother is his greatest marketing tool.

Book Sale

The follow-up question for this segment is: Many of you said in last week’s segment that you preferred face to face events over Internet and social media marketing and that you found face to face marketing to be more effective. What type of face to face events have you found to be effective?

Cynthia Vespia: The reason conferences don’t work is because there are waaaayyyy too many writers all vying for attention at these things. Also, the majority of the writer conferences only alot 1-2 days for signings and sales that are usually only a few hours long. That is not enough time to make a dent in sales or really do any type of networking with your readers, especially when there are so many other authors there doing the same thing. Some of the more popular ones get all the attention. So imagine you’re a little fish in a sea of whales…how do you get noticed? I’ve run into some very bad etiquette at some of these things before, as well. The guy next to me would skate every sale I tried to make by talking over me and offering a free book. How do you compete with free? You don’t.

So the face-to-face events I prefer are my own individual signings, smaller book fairs, or (and I hate to mention this because it was a well guarded secret before) but I do the comic conventions and they work the best. Plus, they’re alot more fun.

Chris Barili: I’ve found genre cons to be MUCH more effective at selling books and gaining followers than writing conferences, and if you think about it, it makes sense. A genre con is full of fans of whatever genre you like. They’re LOOKING for genre stories. At a writers conference, writers are there looking to SELL stories.

Janet Garber: I find book fairs and readings most enjoyable as I get a chance to speak with the potential readers. Being a guest at a book club meeting is great too because you hear your characters discussed as if they were real people and you learn what readers liked and didn’t like.

Carol Riggs: I personally like/prefer book fairs or festivals over bookstore signings, because they’re more informal. I feel less “on the spot,” and I don’t have to make a microphone presentation. Instead, I can conversationally chat with people who come up to my book table. It feels more like a relationship that way, instead of a “buy my book” spiel. For instance, last summer (as well as this coming summer) I will be participating in the Lane County Fair in Eugene, Oregon, with a book table. Last fall I was also part of the Literacy for Libraries author event in Eugene, and I enjoyed schmoozing with fellow authors and with the crowd who wandered through the building. Sometimes authors can band together and create their own events at libraries and bookstores; it’s less intimidating than going it solo. The purpose of these events aren’t to sell as many books as you can, but rather get to know your readers and get your name out there—that’s an important marketing tip that a seasoned author shared with me.

Jordan Elizabeth: I prefer craft shows and library events.  The crowds are manageable, and as I write young adult, many teenagers and children come with their parents.  Parents and grandparents are also eager to buy gifts.  Because these events are smaller than most conferences, you’re able to have a one-on-one conversation.  You get to really understand what types of books these people read and you can gear them toward the book like might like the best.

DeAnna Knippling: Some people are great salespeople.  I am not.  That’s not some kind of subtle insult or anything.  I’m learning.  But I’ve always found networking more valuable to me than selling per se.  If a sale comes out of it, great.  And I’m not like, “Here’s my business card, call me!”  To me, a face to face event means that people are far more likely to put their hair down and tell me things.  Interesting things.  Gossip.  Rumors.  Scandalous lies!  And I love connecting other people and providing a safe place to talk.  I have a SF/F/H writer group, the Colorado Tesla Writers, that is basically just a Facebook page and a monthly meal for people to hang out and feel like Real Writers(tm) and let our hair down.  That’s it.  I’m not sure what it’s effective at, but people tell me that it is, so I keep doing it.

To wrap up this last segment, I want to thank our panel members for the great writing rules. If you create characters who are not only realistic, but who the readers can identify and empathize with, and if you write with emotion which comes from your soul, you can evoke in your readers and make them care about your characters and your story. And while pacing is important and can be controlled with tension, conflict, action and dialog, most of our author panel don’t consciously write with pacing in mind, but rather it seems to come naturally. Also, we may need to pace ourselves to get the story out, as well as controlling the pacing of the story itself.

It does make sense to offer your books in as many formats as possible, because readers aren’t all the same. Amazon and Smashwords appear to be the favorite for digital publishing and CreateSpace was preferred for print publishing, although I believe they have made some changes and now Amazon is also providing print books as an option, so that may change.

Reviews are an author’s calling card these days, and it seems the best way to get them is to ask, whether in a newsletter, in person, or in the book itself, but it’s best not to be pushy. Genre conventions, book fairs and festivals, book signings, and library events are the preferred face to face events to make connections with readers. 

Well, it’s time to bring our time with our Ask the Authors panel members to a close. I do hope we’ve provided some helpful information and advice for all you authors out there, and maybe even made you smile once or twice. Thank you all for joining us. Be sure to watch for round two, this fall, where we will have several of these panel members back, as well as inviting other authors to join our panel. The best way to be sure not to miss out on this and all the other great content here on Writing to be Read is to sign up for email notification of follow me on WordPress. I hope you all will drop in frequently.

Next Monday, on Writing to be Read, I’ll be interviewing author Mark Shaw, who has optioned his book, The Reporter Who Knew Too Much, for film. Something all authors dream of and some actually get the opportunity to do. How exciting. We’ll also be talking about his new book, Courage in the Face of Evil, which is to be release in June. Don’t miss it!

I want to extend a big thank you to our panel members, Carol Riggs, Tim Baker, Jordan Elizabeth, DeAnna Knippling, Chris DiBella, Art Rosch, Janet Garber, Margareth Stewart, Chris Barili, and Cynthia Vespia. You guys and gals were a great panel and together we created a great Ask the Authors series. I feel it was very successful and I had a lot of fun with it. I hope all of you did, too. Until next time.



Ask the Authors: Setting



In today’s installment of Ask the Authors, the panel will talk about setting and world building. Setting is one of the three basic elements of story, but one that is often overlooked. We spend hours plotting and developing characters, but it is important for us to give just as much attention to our settings. Through our writing, we can take readers to places both real and imagined. As authors, it is our job to paint a clear picture for our readers with our words, whether taking them to real locations requiring accurate descriptions or to whole worlds that spring from our creative imaginations, which need to be illustrated to come alive for them. Setting is important because readers must be able to immerse themselves within the world of the story for total buy-in. If readers don’t buy into our world, past, present or future, real or created, they aren’t going to read very far. Our job is to allow them to believe, and setting may be a starting point to do that.

What tools or strategies do you use in world building for your stories?

Carol Riggs: Sometimes it’s helpful to base even a fantasy or sci-fi novel on a real place or photo, then branch out from there. I use Google maps a lot (my latest novel is set around St. Louis, MO), where I can visually see where things are, and can often zoom into a street view of where I want to be. Awesome! I research places online; living with technology makes writing so much easier.

World locations

When the setting is a real one, whether past, present or future, knowledge of the location is necessary to describe in a way that readers familiar with the area, so research is necessary. Having experienced a location first hand can make it easier to visualize ourselves, and relate that vision clearly for our readers. Authors who write about their hometown or other locations they know quite well, are following the age old advice to write what you know, and it may pay off for them, if it helps provide a clear vision for the story setting.

Have you ever had places that you travel to end up in your books?

DeAnna Knippling: It’s usually the reverse.  I write about someplace and then try to travel there.  I totally geek out about seeing what my character saw.
Jordan Elizabeth: All the time!  I based Secrets of Bennett Hall after my visit to Hyde Hall near Cooperstown, NY.
Janet Garber: What I love most about writing and travel is that every experience, good or bad, can be woven into a story, used to enrich a setting. Nothing is wasted. My experiences living abroad (outside the U.S.) definitely have enriched my writing and given me incalculable insight into “foreiAgn” cultures. My next novel takes place in Mexico and in France and I was able to write about the locations with a specificity impossible to someone who had not lived in these countries.
Cynthia Vespia: In a way, yes. I was traveling to Alcatraz in San Francisco for a trip and at the same time I was in the middle of writing my thriller Sins and Virtues which opens with an escape from a maximum security prison. While I was at Alcatraz I went inside one of the cells to take a picture, as you do, and I swear something in there followed me home. When I returned to my novel I started seeing images inside my head of an attempted prison break from Alcatraz. The images were clear as day, and seen through the eyes of a middle-aged man. My character was a young female so it wasn’t just a case of a really good imagination coming to life…this felt like something else entirely. I felt this other presence through the duration of writing Sins and Virtues and it only left when I completed the book. True story.
Chris Barili: Of course. In fact, if I’m writing in the real world, I try to set things in places I have been, and preferably places I know well. Even when I’m writing in a fictional world or universe, though, the setting takes on elements of the places I’ve been, cultures I’ve experienced, and so on.  B.T. Clearwater’s current work-in-progress takes place in Denver, as did Smothered.  
Carol Riggs: I haven’t ever traveled anywhere exotic, unusual, or outside the U.S., but for instance I’ve been to (and lived on) the Oregon coast, so a few of my novels are set there. I’ve been to L.A.; one of my novels is set there but a futuristic version of it. Most of my novels are fantasy or sci-fi, so they are otherworldly and not set in real places anyway.
Art Rosch: Travel is good for writers.  Meeting other people is good for writers.  Any experience that engages the writer with the world is good for writers.  What would we write about if all we we did was hide out in our little cubbyholes and watched TV or played video games?
Fantasy Lake
In many cases however, we are called by our stories to write about places we haven’t been and are not familiar with. Although first hand experience is preferable, it is sometimes necessary to research a location without physically visiting it. Such research can lend a feel of authenticity to your story, if your research is thorough and you select details that enhance your story.
In a story we are often asked to create images for the reader of places we may not have experienced ourselves. When have you had to do that?
DeAnna Knippling: All the time.  Google maps is my friend.
Jordan Elizabeth: Most of my books require that because I write fantasy.  I like to imagine there is magic all around us, so that helps me in describing what the magic is like.
Janet Garber: When I write speculative fiction, short stories, obviously I have to make up and populate an alien world. I try to have as much fun as possible; in fact I label this “silly sci-fi.” A forthcoming story in Spectacle Magazine, entitled Seapocalypse, is about a fed-up seahorse who doesn’t like the division of labor in his household. “Shishkosh” (Newtown Literary and Tigershark) tells the story of an earthling of the future who crash lands on a very strange planet.
Cynthia Vespia: My fantasy series Demon Hunter is set in medieval times in places that didn’t really exist. That’s the fun of writing fantasy or sci-fi, or even some contemporary settings. You get to make up what it looks like. In that case, I generally will draw from places that I have been and embellish them with whatever I need to move the scene. If it happens to be a place that exists in reality that I haven’t been to then I will research it online. For instance, one of my early works had a meeting at a place called Musso & Frank in Hollywood. It is a very well known restaurant but I have never actually been there. Because it is so well known I wanted it to be described the right way, so I did my due diligence and researched the hell out of it!
Chris Barili: The entire Hell’s Butcher series so far has consisted of settings I haven’t actually seen, from Creede, CO to places in Maryland and Virginia. And not only were they PLACES I’ve never been, but during times I did not experience. So I had to immerse myself in research to get the right flavor for setting, both physical and culturally.
Carol Riggs: Yes, a lot! I write fantasy and sci-fi, so I love using my imagination to make up new places and experiences. Stories set on other planets, or even a world similar to Earth—but with magic or an unusual twist added. Fantasy novels in general tend to be set in a kind of medieval-flavored setting, more primitive with castles and huts/cottages and what not.
Sometimes it’s helpful to base even a fantasy or sci-fi novel on a real place or photo, then branch out from there. I use Google maps a lot (my latest novel is set around St. Louis, MO), where I can visually see where things are, and can often zoom into a street view of where I want to be. Awesome! I research places online; living with technology makes writing so much easier.
What are your favorite settings to write about?
DeAnna Knippling: Victorian England and parts abroad.  I love writing crime…and these people were criminals, pretty much just top to bottom.  But a close second is America during the Roaring 20s.
According to, there are four methods for revealing setting: through motion, letting your setting unfold as your character moves through the scene; through your character’s experience, or what he or she knows, which may be a good reason to use multiple POVs to show how different characters see their surroundings; through your character’s feelings, similar to using the character’s experience, letting his or her mood influence how readers see the setting, or through the senses and the use of sensory detail.
Summer Beach
I think we all reveal setting through motion, even when we’re not doing it intentionally, but I think the last is most effective. While not all readers will relate to the experiences your character has had, or whatever has put your character into such an angry mood, all readers can relate to sensory information, so they are more likely to form an accurate mental picture from the details of sight, taste, touch, sound and smell. Let’s see if our panel members agree.
What kind of details do you like to add to create a mental picture of setting for your reader?
DeAnna Knippling: Smell.  Food.  Texture…temperature.  Weather.
Jordan Elizabeth: I love smell.  Sometimes we take smell for granted in real life, but adding a smell to a story can really bring it to life.
Janet Garber: The gold standard: appeals to the senses.
Cynthia Vespia: I always remember to include the 5 senses. It rounds out a better picture if you can get a real feel for the place that isn’t just a visual painting from your mind but also has depth and reality to it.
Chris Barili: I tend to be a minimalist. Until I’m not. I try to use as many of the senses as possible, without stretching or forcing it, and I like metaphorical description. “The hills lay like slumbering beasts in the distance.” Things like that to paint a picture for the reader.
Carol Riggs: I like to add sensory images, like smells or sounds. I also think it helps a reader get a better picture of what a place is like if there is a comparison added. For instance, if a set of buildings are arranged in a horseshoe shape. I tend to be a minimalist as far as setting. I myself get bored when reading a description if it wanders on past one paragraph, and my rough “rule” for my own description is to keep it to three sentences. Any more than a short paragraph seems overdone (if not interspersed with action or dialogue).
Would you like to share a brief excerpt from one of your best setting descriptions?
DeAnna Knippling: I’m not sure about “best” but here’s one:

There was an armchair sitting at right angles to the wheelchair; he sat in it, and the receptionist set the tray in front of them, then poured.  The teacups had saucers to them, and delicate gold spoons in case you wanted to stir sugar into your tea.  Not a single rattle.

The room smelled of flowers, not the sickly-sweet artificial scent of “flowers” but green things, growing things.  Roses, maybe, not the kind that you got at the flower shops but the real ones that used to grow along the sides of the road with bees swarming around them, back when you got more than a handful of bees in the summertime.

The tea smelled faintly of tea, which always struck Frank not smelling like anything at all.  He liked the smell of coffee better.  Coffee smelled good, even when you knew it was going to be terrible.  Alice leaned forward a little.  The way she moved made Frank think she was in a lot of pain.

“Can I get that for you?”

“Thank you, dear, if you would.”

Janet Garber: From In a Tizzy:

Spinning in a 360 degree circle, arms raised like a little girl, I could view impossibly fluffy clouds touching down on the horizon and two magnificent volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Citlaltépetl, their views unobstructed by skyscrapers, highways, power lines or telephone cables. So this is what the sky looks like! I spun and spun, it was all sublime.

I was the darling novia, outfitted in a dazzling white Mexican blouse festooned with brightly colored embroidered flowers and sporting faded blue jeans with two sexy patches I’d sewn on to hide a rip, two fish swimming in the neighborhood of my crotch. I wore my yellow work boots and pinned my signature long hair up, off my neck, as a concession to the blazing sun.

I sat on the grass in the sun shunning sunglasses and hat since I never burn—all I ever get are more freckles—and I watched Pierre play soccer with his scientist colleagues.  Game over, he sauntered over to me—I watched him slowly cross the field, swinging his arms—so sexy and smiling and seductive and . . .short?

“I never noticed,” I confided that afternoon, “but you’re rather short.” How could I have missed that?

“What are you saying, Foolish Talking Bird?” He laughed and pulled me in for a kiss. “I’m at least 170 cm.”

I pushed him away and looked around; our friends made a show of turning their heads in the other direction. “No, you’re not, Skinny Little Laughing Skeleton.” I mocked. “You liar, you!”

By way of answer, he lifted me and swung me around until I was breathless. Taking my hand he ran with me across the fields to our dusty little car. As we approached, I looked at him questioningly. “No more lessons for you, Lady. You’ve been a bad girl.”  Well, during our previous lesson on driving standard shift, I had jumped out of the car three times, slamming the door each time. He’d done the same. Either I was hopeless or he was a bad teacher. The latter is unlikely judging by his popularity with the physics staff and the students. “Oh, please, one more chance to strip the gears!” I cried out. [©2017 janet garber, from WIP novel]

Cynthia Vespia: Here is a scene from Karma, Book 1 in the Silke Butters Superhero Series

She didn’t even wait for the van to come to a full stop before she raced out the door. Her feet just glanced the pavement as she hopped over the curb and rushed in through the sliding glass doors.

Los Angeles Memorial bustled with activity. People loitered in the waiting area anxious for their turn to be called. Silke weaved between the lot of them and made her way to the reception desk.

Her voice was frantic as she asked for Maki’s room number. The receptionist tried to tell her to wait while she finished a phone call. She attempted to disregard the fact that Silke’s very best friend, who was more like a sister than Honey, was lying in a hospital bed clinging to life. She wanted Silke to wait her turn before going in to possibly see her friend for the very last time.

Silke was done waiting. She slammed her fists down on top of the desk, sending papers into the air. The impact also proceeded to pull sparks from her hands that ran over the receptionist desk directly into the phone. It sparked and popped in the nurse’s hand, forcing her to drop it and turn her attention to Silke.

It happened again. Some type of spark emitted from her own hands. She felt it before when facing off against Rostov. At that time, she felt powerful as she could drop the much larger assailant. Now she attacked a poor nurse just doing her job. What was happening?



Chris Barili: This is from the opening scene of Smothered:

The old Victorian didn’t just sit on the street. It didn’t hunch, stand, rest, or exist. Instead, it loomed, seeming to lean out over the front sidewalk to intimidate passersby. The porch’s white rail gleamed like a sadistic grin, slashing through the pallor of the gray shingle siding, while dark windows stared like half-lidded eyes, their smoke-stained shades still in the half-drawn position they’d been in the last time human life had occupied the house nearly a year before.

The houses around it sported fresh coats of paint, most in bright, almost garish colors popular when they were built over a century ago. All had lush, green lawns and flower boxes bursting with color, not drab gray-green weed forests with wilted, long-dead skeletons of flowers. The house also lacked the bright Memorial Day banners, flags, and window trimmings of its neighbors, making it the only unpatriotic house on the block.

Carol Riggs: This excerpt is from THE BODY INSTITUTE (p. 284 paperback).

All human sounds cut off as the door closes. Cool air clings to my skin like clammy hands. A whirring, sucking noise of machinery fills the room, which smells odd, a sort of musty grease scent mingled with antiseptic.

Glow sticks hang by the door. Leo grabs one, activates it with a crack, and aims it down an aisle. Rows and rows of coffin-shaped capsules occupy the room, stacked three high like drawers in a macabre-style dresser. They make up a maze of walls a little taller than my head.


Art Rosch: Below is a descriptive passage from THE GODS OF THE GIFT, my first mature science fiction novel.


The Gods of The Gift on Smashwords

 “Chapter Six

The View From Castle Strobe

            Strobe, the castle of Prince Vizmir Borgomak, was the size of a small city.  An irregular wall surrounded it, made from materials that showed its antiquity.  Old stone ramparts supported later materials of brick, concrete, rammed earth and plasticene.  There were many gates, old and new.  Some were operated by winches and slid upward on squeaking chains.  Others opened by remote control, slid smoothly into recesses.  The castle had not required military defense in thousands of years.  The old arrow slits and catapult ramps had been converted into modern verandas and scenic windows. 

            The castle had eighty seven towers, each topped with a distinctive dome or minaret. Some were shaped like simple onions, pointed at the top, round and tapering at the sides.  Others had two or three flattened ovoids pushed together and topped with sharp spires. Yet others were slab sided triangles with cat-walks latticed onto their steeples. The designs on these towers were made with paint, gilding, mosaic tiles and filigree.  Color schemes were numerous and bizarre.  One large tower near the castle’s center was the shape of a tulip bulb with a flattened top.  It was decorated with blue and white triangles, alternating side by side, one triangle upright, the other pointing downward, and the triangles changed size according to the placement on the tapering shape of the spire.  Another tower was spiraled in red stipples, like a confection.  Yet another was painted as a tree against the sky, twisting gnarled branches weaving their way up the sides of the facade against the cerulean backdrop.

            There was no sense of unity to the structure.  It seemed as though the parts had been pushed together from a book of tourist architecture, showpiece images gleaned from cultures all across the galaxy.  Walls ran from one tower to another, and there were so many that the walls collided, forming useless closed yards, odd pens with little doors, dried up gardens that had been forgotten and walled off.  Some yards contained human skeletons or bones of animals and fallen birds. No two towers were the same height, or the same color.  Windows of synthglass shone in various elevations, many adorned with balconies.  Force fields protected these balconies from the intense heat of this hemisphere of the planet, which was also called Strobe.  On this hot afternoon, flags like the tongues of  snakes hung listlessly, without a breeze to sniff. At the base of the megalith, shops huddled against the castle walls, wares of many kinds were sold and traded.  Spices and electronic devices rested in adjacent stalls where their proprietors sat on stools and smoked from water pipes.  Half a mile beyond the perimeter of the castle, agriculture on an industrial scale was being practiced.  Vast fields of tall, slender plants drank from the arms of rotating sprinklers.  The plantations surrounded Castle Strobe, vanishing to the horizon in neatly planted circles.  The plants were blooming.  Each purple stalk held three or four gaudy flowers of mauve, chartreuse and orange.  The odor of a billion flowers, sweet and cloying like toffee, penetrated the skin and clothing of thousands of robiot workers, whose nervous systems were impervious to the effect of the plant.  This potent botanical was called Somniferum Cannabino Papaverum Vizmeria.  Its name in ordinary vernacular was Futufu.  It had many other names.”

This vision of the castle was inspired by the sight of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square.  The cathedral is such a bizarre and colorful structure that it casts a spell over me.  In the novel, Castle Strobe is the home of a demented drug lord.  It reflects his chaotic character, his undisciplined extravagance.  This is but one of many settings that I devised in THE GODS OF THE GIFT.  I had absolute freedom to practice world building in “Gods” because there was no realistic counterpart to our own world.  I could create anything. In my latest, yet unpublished book, The Shadow Storm, I’ve had to constrain myself with a far more familiar setting  Here I had to draw a map of the planet Freeth before I began anything else.  The setting of Shadow Storm resembles our own world on the eve of World War One.  I was stimulated to write the book by the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.  I applied a maxim, that is, “Geography Is Destiny” to create a setting that was completely different from our home planet yet reminiscent of it in almost every way.  Thus the work on the map was of primary importance.  I had to foresee battles that would have global consequences.  I had to think like a military master-mind and work out the ways in which armies would be thwarted by towering mountain ranges and navies would be directed towards the control of strategic waterways.

Mountain Retreat

In many genres, especially fantasy or science fiction, stories take us into fictional worlds which spring from the depths of our imaginations, which serve as the settings for our stories. In film, there is the luxury of visual images and through sometimes elaborate sets, and in more modern times digital imaging, we are able to bring a world to life for viewers. But in fiction, we must use our words to draw those pictures mentally for our readers through action and character. It is a different medium, but it is no less challenging to create a world through the written word.

Would you like to share some thoughts on world building?

Art Rosch: World building is intriguing because it challenges me to devise new religions, new societies, new terrain and all of these factors feed into the nature and behavior of my characters.  They are people of their time and place, and this time, this place, has only a peripheral relation to our own world and the people and events that have transpired here.  The Shadow Storm is about preparing for a global war, one that will sweep the book’s characters into violent and unusual events.  I have the warm gut feeling that I’ve written a fine book.  I hope I’ll be stimulated to continue its sequel and prequel.  That depends on whether I can find readers.  Ain’t that a bitch?  Our literary landscape is so bloated with writers and their books that it’s hard to get traction.

Every day I get emails from marketing gurus promising to show me how to do book releases that will get 100+ reviews on the day of release and earn me a seven figure income.  I think, perhaps, that the marketing gurus may be earning seven figure incomes from gullible writers, but the rest of us are confined by our own economic state.  Unless we too have seven figure incomes we won’t be able to invest in enough marketing to earn seven figure income from our books.  Is this Catch-23?

Sensory detail are a favorite for revealing setting amoung our panel members. How ever you chose to reveal setting, be sure you’ve done the needed research, whether that means traveling to the physical location or researching remotely, to be able to form a clear and accurate mental picture for your readers. Remember when dealing with real locations, that there will be readers out there who are familiar with the locations and they may be quick to point out any inconsistencies.

I think our panelists have given up some food for thought when it comes to setting and workd building. Be sure to catch next week’s installment, when Ask the Authors will talk about publishing. If you have a question you’ve always wanted answered, but it’s not covered in the post on that topic, or if our panel’s answers have stirred new questions within you, pose your query in the comments. Make note if it is directed toward a specific author. Questions will be directed to the general panel unless otherwise specified. Then, in the final post for the series, I will present your questions and the responses I recieved from panel members.

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