Category Archives: Advice For New Writers

Publishing to Kindle: A Primer

Stephen Case’s story, “Barstone,” appeared in Shimmer #13. It’s about a monster, of sorts. It’s about a romance, of sorts. It’s just plain good storytelling. Stephen joins us here to talk about his new short fiction collection, Trees and Other Wonders, and how he came to publish it.


When I first started writing, I considered self-publishing online. This though was back in the day when the only option would have been my own blog, and then who would have read it and how would I have known whether it was actually any good? The process of writing, submitting, writing, rewriting, learning what to do with loads of rejections, writing some more, and finally working with an editor to get a story into print is, I think, invaluable for an aspiring writer. It was for me a very large (and continuing) part of my education.

But what happens after you get your first stories published? They are read (hurrah!), and they earn you a bit of cash perhaps (huzzah!), and then they are laid gently to rest in an online archive or pile of back issues somewhere. Maybe down the road an anthology will pick one up, if you’re lucky.

I figured this was normal: a long line of hibernating stories that might come out of retirement to appear in collected form when I had written enough to get some publisher’s attention or something. Maybe Gene Wolfe would notice me and take me out to lunch and explain how this all worked and what I needed to do to become the next Ray Bradbury (besides, you know, actually write like Ray Bradbury).

An epiphany moment for me came when reading Hugh Howey’s opinions on electronic publishing on his blog. Howey (whose work I admit I have not read) is a huge proponent of online publishing. What struck me about his argument was the idea that my stories didn’t have to go into some sort of limbo or forced retirement. I could continue to leverage them to expand my readership. Sure, I had a website with links to all the places where my works had appeared, but who was going to follow all those rabbit trails, regardless of the truly delightful places they led? Putting my work together into a collection, a collection that I would maintain control of, seemed the next logical step. Unlike publishing conventionally, my collection wouldn’t have a specified run and then disappear out of print to haunt used bookstores. I could control the pricing, and I could control the content.

So I took the plunge, and here are a few things that I learned along the way. Please note well: I am certainly not claiming to be an expert at this process. My book has been available for less than a month. The process has been a self-education, and as one of my professors used to caution, “All education is an experiment. And most experiments fail.”

Make sure you have all the rights to your content

Usually magazines purchase first-time publishing rights, but sometimes there’s also an exclusivity clause in the contract, a period during which the story cannot appear anywhere else in any form. At the end of that though, it’s still your story, and you can do what you want with it, including putting it in your own collection. If you’re not sure what a contract implies regarding republishing or anthology rights, ask. I found that most editors are happy to explain. Plus, sometimes they might even be willing to bend the letter of the law. One of my stories, for instance, was sold to a market with a twelve-month exclusivity clause. I wanted to include it in my collection before that year had elapsed, so I wrote to the publisher, explained the situation, and asked if I could. They said yes, so my collection did not have to go forward lacking a piece of Lovecraftian horror.

Acknowledge where the story first appeared

There are lots of ways to do this, but you should definitely acknowledge where your story first saw the light of print. You’re thanking those publications that first gave your work a chance, and hopefully you’re directing some of your readers to those markets so the cycle can continue. Before the table of contents I inserted a copyright acknowledgement page with an entry for each story in the collection, noting the year it was originally published and where. Then in the afterword, where I took some time to provide a bit of background on each story, I thanked a few editors in particular who had been especially helpful in my writing journey. Again, the principle here is simple: speculative fiction is a community endeavor.

Format your book for Kindle

This was by far the easiest part of the process. I chose to publish on Kindle because it was free, it was simple, and it made my book instantly available to anyone with a computer. I consulted Building your Book for Kindle, a free download on the Kindle store (also available as PDF) and a guide that shows exactly how to use Word to format your document for conversion to the Kindle platform. My only hiccough was that the version of Word for Mac I was using didn’t have exactly the same menus and features as the version for which these instructions were written. I had to switch to the version of Word on my old PC laptop to get some of the formatting right.

This aspect of things—how incredibly easy it is to publish online—was what originally made this avenue intimidating for me. It’s so simple that anyone can do it, which is why there’s such a glut of content available out there of such widely varying quality. How do you keep your own from getting lost in the morass?

Design an awesome cover

If you’re publishing a collection of your own previously-published short stories, you want it to stand out. You want it to be clear that its contents set it apart from 95% of the stuff out there because these pieces have already been edited and published before, maybe in professional markets. But how to make this apparent? Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, if you’re a designer), your book is going to be judged by its cover, so spend some time to either design one yourself or find someone to design one for you that looks professional. This was the step that took me longest. I’m cheap and a control freak, so I wanted to do it myself. I did, however, get some very helpful pointers from my friend Ryan Myers, of Helveticards fame, and with his guidance came up with something simple and (I hope) effective.

Promote without being obnoxious

Once your book is online, it can be a steady and growing source of new readers and revenue. You just have to let people know it’s there. Depending on how far you want to take self-promotion, there are hundreds of things you could do. First of all though, you should create an Amazon author’s page. This is where people can learn something about you and where your other books will eventually live. (Here’s mine.) In addition, if any of the magazines you’ve published in have Kindle versions and have listed you as a contributor, you can link them here. This helps you promote the magazines that originally published you, and it may also help those magazines take an interest in promoting you as an author. Plus, links to a $0.99 Kindle edition of a magazine in which one of your stories appears, for instance, can provide a good sample your work for potential purchasers of your collection.

Tell your friends, of course. Use social media (though here’s where the “without being obnoxious” aspect comes in). Link your website, your Amazon author page, your Twitter account, Facebook, etc. so anyone who finds one can easily find the others. When your book is complete, you have the option of downloading a preview file to read on your own Kindle. As far as I know, there’s no problem with sending this file to editors who might be interested in reviewing your book or mentioning it on their respective blogs. And perhaps most exciting: keep writing, and keep selling more of your stories. Now that you’re published and have control of your own book, every time you have a new story appear in print you’ve got a chance to direct readers to your collection through your bio.

Finally, don’t quit your day job (as long as you love your day job)

And as along as your day job gives you plenty of time to write. Because maybe you’ll get rich. But probably you won’t. What you will get though is an opportunity for more readers, and more readers somehow always seems to spur more writing, and that’s definitely what it’s all about.


Stephen Case is a historian of astronomy and author. He is using this guest blog to shamelessly promote his first collection of short stories, Trees and Other Wonders, which is available on the Kindle Store. His website is

Editors, a short field guide

Author Sunny Moraine joins us for a peek into one of the scariest corners of publishing: the writer-editor relationship!


Editors, to the uninitiated, can be worrying and mysterious creatures. I remember the first time I made contact with an editor like it was yesterday. I cautiously approached them about buying a story of mine, and lo and behold: they were interested! Except there was the little matter of some changes to be made. Which of course resulted in panic and potential soul-wounding.

Then I actually looked at the suggested changes and they were no big deal. And they also made the story better.

That was a long time ago and I’ve worked with many editors since. Most of them have been short story editors, but there have been a couple of novellas out of a small e-book publisher specializing mostly in romance, and recently I had the interesting first experience of working with an editor on a novel. I’m not sure what I expected; not, I suppose, for it to be markedly different, and in many ways it wasn’t. But in other ways it was a learning experience – in the sense of reinforcing a lot of what I already knew, more than really bringing anything new to the table.

For anyone who might find what I’ve learned useful, here are my Lessons of the Editors.

Trust your editor

This one is tough. I think it’s the natural inclination of any writer to be very protective of the stuff we’ve written; it’s our baby, it’s precious and special and beautiful, and we have a very Particular Idea of how it should end up looking and what we want for it. But sometimes we don’t see it as clearly as someone else does–anyone, not just an editor, but it’s obviously the editor’s job to see as clearly as possible. And almost every time an editor has come back to me with suggestions for changes, it’s only made the story better. In many cases it’s been the solution to some nagging feeling I had that something somewhere wasn’t quite working.

The novel I mentioned above is Line and Orbit. By the time the first draft was done, it was huge. It was close to 150k words long. It suffered from Novel Bloat like no one’s business. In the second and third drafts, I and my co-author pared it down, but when we finally started working on it with our editor, we discovered it could be pared down even more (it ended up at about 114k words). This included the suggested cuts of some stuff that we really loved. But it was Bloat. It had to go.


Know when to stand your ground

This is arguably tougher, I think, because it involves separating your honest understanding of your own work from your huge, enormous, seriously-important ego. There have been a few editorial suggestions over the years that have put me on the defensive and even irritated me (WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE to suggest that this scene describing the minutiae of space-dinogoat husbandry is unnecessary to the plot) but after a cool-down, I had to concede were correct. But then there have been some others that I honestly knew weren’t good changes.

Quick example: We almost sold Line and Orbit to a well-respected small press that was demanding some pretty major alterations to the fabric of the story. After days of agonizing and flailing and hair-pulling, we decided to walk away. It was hard, because we knew they’d probably do okay by it, but if we’d conceded, we’d have ended up with a very different book than we had. And not, we thought, a better one.

It’s not about you

This is really a continuation/expansion on the two above, but I think it’s a great all-encompassing rule for writing in general. What you produce is you, but it’s not about you. You’re not the most important thing in it. The second that happens, you start to produce less-awesome work, and that’s bad. What matters is how good this thing that comes out of you is, and anything that serves that is ultimately what you should pick up and sprint with, waving it around in the air like a trophy. Because it is one.

Your editor is ideally part of this. You’re partners. You’re Team Whatever The Thing Is What You Wrote. There’s no I in team! There’s also no U in team. Ohhhhh, see what I did there?

So, go team!


Sunny Moraine has published a bunch of short stories in a bunch of places like Shimmer (yay) and Clarkesworld and in the forthcoming anthology We See a Different Frontier. Their first novel Line and Orbit, co-written with Lisa Soem, is available from Samhain Publishing.

The Truth About Rejection Letters

I’m going to tell you one of publishing’s best-kept secrets. It’s time for the truth to come out.

All rejection letters are written by badgers.

This industry protects this sordid secret for countless reasons — not the least of which is the terrible conditions in the industrial rejection factories. Long hours, no pay, unsanitary and and even dangerous conditions.

When I started Shimmer, John Klima took me under his wing and gave me a tour of the factory that Electric Velocipede buys its rejections from.  We had to shout to be heard over the roaring of the machines and the moans of the badgers. “You can never tell anyone about this!” Klima shouted.

Thousands and thousands of badgers, crammed into tiny rooms full of huge machines, darting among the bobbins and levers. I saw one badger get an arm tangled in the machinery. He — or she — was drawn into the machine with a terrible shriek, and disappeared.

The machines didn’t even stop.

Here’s one photo I took with my iPod camera when Klima wasn’t looking.

You can’t tell from this picture, but the stench of a badger factory is intolerable, an acrid miasma of badger feces and despair so thick you can touch it.

I knew there had to be a different way, and I vowed that Shimmer would never participate in the badger-factory rejection system. I vowed to find a better way.

Shimmer‘s rejections are written only by free-range badgers who live in companionable colonies in a wooded preserve. They work less than ten hours a week, and spend the rest of their time digging for juicy organic worms, enjoying the fresh air and sunshine, and frolicking with their friends.

Two of Shimmer’s rejection badgers gambol in their free time

When it’s time for work, the badgers assemble in the back garden. Soft breezes carry the scent of honeysuckle, and dozens of butterflies brighten the soul while pollinating the masses of brilliantly colored flowers. Each badger receives a freshly sharpened quill pen, a pot of ink, and high-quality stationery.

After a period of meditation and yoga asanas for spiritual and physical purification, the badgers begin reading submissions. Each story is considered carefully, and in the unfortunate event that a rejection is necessary, the badgers carefully craft a letter to the author.

A Shimmer rejection badger considers her words


So the next time you get a rejection letter, just remember. Don’t take it personally; it was written by a badger.



Pineapples Everywhere: The Dominoes of Research

I’ve started researching my next story.

Research! On the one hand, wonderful discoveries await you, to help layer realism into your story and its world. On the other, so does a potential time sink. It’s much easier to read the fascinating history of people and places than it is to write, but write we must. How do you know what to research? Where to begin? It can be a tangled web. I had the basics of my story (characters, one arc, minor plights) but didn’t know specifics (location, date, major plights/obstacles), so it was time to delve a little deeper.


Library of Congress
New Orleans farmers market, 1936 (Library of Congress)

Research always starts innocently enough. When I couldn’t decide on a location (and rolling a die to pick a time zone didn’t help me narrow as much I’d hoped), Shimmer publisher Beth randomly said “New Orleans!” My brain perked up at that. Mardi Gras would be a perfect tie in for this story with its pageantry and deceit. I narrowed the timeframe by stealing the era Beth is using in an upcoming project: the 1930s. Randomly, I picked 1936, but based on other things I’ve done already in this fictional universe, it ties in perfectly: poverty, wanderlust, people looking for better lives but not always daring to hope for them.

Finding a map of New Orleans around that time proved a challenge. What I found along the way were pictures of the farmers’ markets, and these markets were often filled with nuns and pineapples. (The nuns weren’t for sale (I don’t think)).

In my image search, scans of census reports came up. I realized they would be another fantastic source of period information (and would also contain lots of gorgeous penmanship). Census reports contain names, ages, races, house value, education level, where the person’s parents came from (often immigrants), professions, and much more. Census reports are an ideal snapshot of a time frame, a wonderful springboard.


When I mentioned to Beth that the moon would be in its new phase during this Mardi Gras, she wondered if I’ve developed a sense of what to research over the years. What comes up that makes me say say “oh, better check the moon”? It’s dominoes.

Since I was working with Mardi Gras, I wanted to know how the week stretched out, and when exactly Fat Tuesday/Ash Wednesday fell. This led me to a calendar of February 1936, a calendar which also showed moon phases, and I thought “hey, new moon, dark nights, fantastic.” It plays right in. Wondering how the city was lain out–where to put one of my main characters so they don’t draw undue attention–led me to wondering where my train can go, which meant I needed to know railways, which meant I also wanted to know what else was around the city for other atmosphere  (cotton warehouses, distilleries!).


I wish I could say I have a constant Spidey-sense when it comes to knowing what to research. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you have to leap in and see where it takes you. This story was not going to involve nuns or pineapples, but now probably will. When you research, one thing often leads to another. You are shown a path you didn’t expect.

But like all tools, it shouldn’t be abused. It’s easy to spend hours and hours reading documents, admiring photos, getting lost on those paths. Part of being a writer is knowing when you’ve amassed enough information and are ready to write. Don’t let the research consume the story. As you leap into your research, sometimes you also have to leap into the story and see where it takes you.

Even if that means nuns, census reports, lots and lots of pineapples.

Links to help you leap in:

Census data – track down readable copy!

The Library of Congress is filled with amazing things. It’s like a curio shop sometimes,  but doesn’t have everything–you may yet need to visit a library and employ that wonderful tool called a librarian.

Census Reports give you a snapshot of a specific time and place, its people and how they lived.

Sometimes I just wander to the Solar System Scope because it exists. If you are writing science fiction based in our solar system, this is the ultimate tour and exploration tool.

Generate a Random Wikipedia Page can be a fantastic place to start if you don’t already have a start point. Whatever comes up, turn it into a story, or keep clicking until you find something that will shore up what you’re already working on.

If you’re writing in a historical time period, Online Etymology Dictionary will help you learn when phrases and words came into use. It can also illuminate things you never knew, like “baleen” which I looked up for another story (early 14c., “whalebone,” from O.Fr. balaine (12c.) “whale, whalebone,” from L. ballaena, from Gk. phallaina “whale” (apparently related to phallos “swollen penis,” probably because of a whale’s shape).


A Shimmer Primer

It’s possible that Shimmer is a new market to you. It’s equally possible Shimmer is a beloved market to you. Either way, welcome! This entry is intended to help you rock your submissions to us, by giving you the insider information you crave!

Shimmer is unique

Shimmer is unlike any other publication out there. When you read widely enough, that’s probably true of any publication–a story that may be well suited for one magazine is likely not as well suited for another. Beth recently told me that Shimmer is like the song “Hallelujah.” Cold and broken, but there’s still that glimmer of hope somewhere. If you haven’t grabbed an issue of Shimmer, I encourage you to do so (and issue ten is still available online to read for free). You can also check out our other online content, to get a taste of what else we have published.

We like cover letters

Strange, right? But just as you wouldn’t shove a manuscript into an editor’s hand at a convention, we don’t like to be faced with only a stack of stories to read. We want to know who you are, what you’re about. Have you published? Let us know. It’s equally okay if you haven’t–we all started there, it’s not a barrier to getting where you want to go. But say hello. Tell us the word count of your story. (Including your word count is especially useful as we put an issue together–if I need a 1000 word story to fill  specific space, you want me to know your story is 1000 words.) There are plenty of cover letter primers on the Internet, but I’m going to point you toward Grá’s, which is clear and concise.

One story at a time, one publication at a time

Shimmer does not accept multiple submissions or simultaneous submissions. We like to see one story from you at a time, so we can properly consider it. We want to be the only publication reading it at that time, so we don’t discover it has sold elsewhere when we’re ready to buy it. I didn’t think I would experience that, but I did and it was crappy to lose a story that way when our guidelines ask authors not to do it. It makes us wary of future submissions from you.

Be original

There are no new ideas, so the saying goes. I don’t believe that, but I do believe there are some ideas that are continually recycled. Unicorns, mermaids, muses, devils, and werewolf detectives. We see a lot of these. I’m not going to discourage you from writing such stories–I would never tell someone not to write something–but I am going to encourage you to be original and inventive when you do. If you can approach an old idea in a new way, we will love you.

Be respectful

Shimmer publishes speculative fiction. That doesn’t give you a license to be racist, misogynistic, or homophobic in your writing. Catherynne M. Valente wrote an excellent piece on this for us and I’m going to link it here, because anything I say will pale in comparison to the truths she lays out.

“Picking apart one’s own assumptions and personal narratives is uncomfortable, unpleasant, difficult duty–but that’s no excuse. Just like learning where the commas go (and where they don’t), this is simply part of the work of being a writer. It is not optional. It is not an elective.

The bottom line

In this business, submitting stories is about making a good impression of yourself, it’s about establishing relationships, and making the editor’s job as easy as it can be. Help us say yes to your stories.

Related: check our full guidelines for fiction, for word counts, formatting tips, query procedures, and payment info! We are so excited you’re here!

The Easy (and Sneaky) Way to Overcome Writer’s Block

So you’re stuck with your writing. You should be off writing the next chapter in your novel, but instead you find yourself screwing around on the internet or scrubbing the grout in the bathroom (or starting a magazine) – anything to avoid writing.

You know that this is unreasonable. You’ve read about writer’s block, and read a thousand logical ways to get past it. You know that there’s nothing personal about rejection, that you’ll never get anywhere without persistence, that you have to believe in yourself, that no art is perfect, that you only improve by taking risks and learning. You know how to find support and you know how to find inspiration and you know how to manage your time.

You know all this, and more. So why the hell aren’t you writing?

Good news: it’s not because you’re lazy or broken or not a “real writer.”

The Real Reason You’re Not Writingby Stock Gallery

You’re not writing because, despite all those lovely logical things you know, the most primitive part of your brain is afraid. It has nothing whatsoever to do with logic, and attempting to solve the problem with logic isn’t going to get you anywhere.

It’s called the flight or fight response. When it kicks in, the sympathetic nervous system takes over and your brain actually stops listening to logic. This can be a good thing: if you are being stalked by a giant robot with death lasers in its eyes, you don’t have time to think. You need to react instantly.

However, it’s not so useful when you’re trying to write a novel. You need to find a way out of the flight or fight response, so that you can listen to reason again. You need to find a way to let your parasympathetic nervous system, which controls rest, balance out the freak-out actions of the sympathetic nervous system.

Luckily, that’s easy.

Just Breathe

I’m going to share a breathing exercise I learned in yoga. Alternate nostril breathing is a great way to balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

As you get more comfortable with this practice, you can work on deepening and lengthening your breathing – but don’t worry about that to start out. Just breathe at a comfortable pace.

1. Sit up comfortably. Curl your middle and index fingers in toward your palm. Put your thumb beside your right nostril, and your ring finger and pinky by your left nostril.

2. Close off your left nostril. Inhale through your right.

3. Now close off your right nostril and open the left.

4. Inhale and exhale through the left nostril.

5. Close the left and open the right.

6. Inhale and exhale through the right nostril.

Ten or twenty breaths like this should make you feel noticeably calmer – but you can keep going as long as you want.

Now try some of that logic on yourself. Or maybe you’re calm enough now to just start writing.

Bonus! Another Sneaky Brain and Breath Trick

While you were practicing alternate nostril breathing, which nostril seemed more constricted? The difference may be subtle or obvious, but when you pay attention, you’ll notice it.

If the right nostril was more blocked, this is a great time for creativity.

If your left nostril was more blocked, this is a better time to balance your checkbook or update your submission tracking spreadsheet.  


Because: one hemisphere of your brain is dominant at a time. This actually switches every 90 minutes (or every 3 hours, in some sources). It’s a lot easier to write when the right hemisphere of your brain is dominant.

The dominant side of your brain has more blood in it. There’s also more blood in the nostril on that side of your head, and this constricts your breathing a little.

Try it!

I’d love to hear how these techniques work for you. And if mind/body tools like these are right up your alley, check out my other venture, Shivamonster.

Writing Wounded

Just write.

That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? That’s what we’ve trained ourselves to do. It’s what we tell people when they come to us, saying “I’ve always wanted to be a writer” or “I can never get past a first chapter.” We tell them, “Just write. All you have to do is sit down and write.” Then, usually, they hem and haw and walk off, while we’re left thinking that they don’t really get it.

Or maybe that’s not you. But that’s me. I’ve always been good at getting a first draft out—locking that inner editor in a room and knocking out a word count. No problem. If I got stuck, I would either set that particular scene aside—and the answer would hit me later—or I would steamroll through it, no matter how awkward it felt, determined to fix it in the next draft. Sure, it would take more coaxing to get to revisions, but the first draft? That was cake.

Then, I broke my back. In four places. (I’m a “go big or go home” kinda girl.) Writing became harder. No, scratch that—writing became horrid. While the front of my brain was in story and setting and plot and plans, the back of my brain was constantly chanting mybackhurtsmybackhurtsmybackhurts. I’d take Advil and reposition myself and try to focus, but in every quiet second, between every thought, that chant came through. Like I’d left the radio on low and promptly misplaced it.

The pain affected my day job, too, since I also write for a living. I asked my boss to move me to something more technical (which ended up being editing) because simple writing tasks were taking three times longer than they should have. It’s not a big deal, I told myself. It’ll heal soon enough, and I’ll be back in the game.

That was in August 2011. It’s presently the tail end of June 2012, and this blog post is the first prose I have written in months. I had surgery in January (I’m now a cyborg, by the way), and kept waiting for the drive to come back. Or maybe just the inkling. Or, at the very least, to not feel dread and disdain at the very thought of actually making words happen.

Injury does certain things to your brain. It did several things to mine—it made me afraid, for one. As August grew into September grew into October, I became more afraid  that the pain would never stop. That I would never feel normal again. I was afraid that I would never achieve my full range of motion, that I’d never not have to wear a back brace or walk with a cane, that I’d never be able to focus on my job.

I tried to deny that fear, because I wanted to be above it—and most of the time I could be. But every day, it would sneak in a little more. As I grew more afraid, I grew angrier. Angry for letting myself be afraid, angry at my situation, angry that I couldn’t even pick up my own fucking cane when I inevitably knocked it to the ground. (What was I, helpless? I’d been self-sufficient for a number of years—what was this “I can’t perform a simple task” crap?)

The toxic combination of fear and anger affected everything, including the relationship I was in at the time and my writing. Or rather, the way I thought about my writing. It was just another thing I couldn’t do, like standing up without wincing or emptying my own dishwasher. Another thing I was supposed to be able to do.

The simple act of writing this blog is a step for me, because I am writing. I am making words happen for the first time in months. The anger and the fear have drained away, and I’m left with the underlying confidence that I like to believe is at the core of my person.

“Just write” is simultaneously great and terrible advice. It’s fantastic when you know you’re just stalling (“no, really, just one more episode of Dr. Who, and then it’s straight to work”), but when you’re trying and failing and trying and failing, the surety of the words can convince you that you’re not a “real writer” anymore. Particularly when you’re the one doing the pushing. I wanted to want to write—I had this strange desire for a desire that is hard to describe or even really explain. I wanted to enjoy it again, not loathe it or fear it. I wanted to just push past it, but I really couldn’t.

What I did instead was something completely new to me. I’d bought a ukulele in February for fun, and about a month later, I surprised myself by writing a few songs—something I’d never really done before. Even though I still couldn’t write prose, it turned out I could write plenty of songs about the issues that weighed heaviest on my mind. It was sort of like setting a journal to music, and it was exactly what I needed to keep my head in the game. I think that’s what it takes—even when you’re so far away from your own writing: if you can stay connected to any kind of creativity, you have a pretty good chance of coming back around eventually to what you really mean to be doing—the way you really mean to be writing.

Everyone is different, of course, and my reactions to injury may not be yours. At the end of the day, though, whether or not you’re going to call yourself a writer has a lot to do with how willing you are to give it up. If you’re still fighting for your craft—even in ways you may not recognize as fighting—then you’re probably not out yet.

Turns out, it’ll take more than a broken back to stop me. What will it take for you?


For my recent trip to Portland (the Oregon, not the Maine), I had a short mental list of things I wanted to do. Powell’s, Voodoo Doughnuts, a glimpse of the coastline. The thing I wanted to do most, I didn’t get to do. I was hoping that a trip to the coast would inspire me to finally figure out a story that has been on the back burner for quite some time now. It involves that coastline, time travel, and the hope of a better future if we can just figure out how to send ourselves the right message.

Multnomah Falls, by E. Catherine Tobler

I was hungry for the coast, for water and rocks and landscapes I don’t have at home, but the days fell together differently than I’d hoped and we didn’t reach the coast. Still, something unexpected happened which gave me water and rocks and new landscapes. An unplanned excursion to Multnomah Falls took my breath away–and helped anchor my current novel’s voice in my head.

Multnomah Falls was nothing I expected. Didn’t expect to go there and once there, didn’t expect to find such beauty and inspiration on what seems to be nothing more than the side of a highway. Beyond the parking lot and through a tunnel beneath the highway, the world changes. It opens up into a space of soft greenery and a trickle of a river over smooth stones. Farther on, a six hundred and eleven foot waterfall spills.

To view the falls from the base is staggering. It’s the best place to contemplate the entire height. At the very least, you will also want to hike up the trail, to reach the Benson Footbridge (1914) where the mist of the falls can smudge your glasses and trickle into your shirt collar. I think you can hike even beyond that, but we called it good at the footbridge.

The air was cool up there, and wet. Moss grows on everything, even the stones. Standing on the bridge, pieces of my novel began to assemble themselves in my head. Though one piece of that novel is unrelated to water and falls, it still said “hello, here’s how I actually work, now go write me.” Through my camera lens, I saw my heroine in her watery environment, trying to reconnect with it even as I tried to connect with my fiction.

Unplanned, unexpected. When my mind was given a detour, it found the right path anyhow, and offered up exactly what I needed–even though I didn’t know I needed it. Maybe it’s not about sending ourselves the right message after all; it’s about letting the right message find us. Anne Lamott tells us we aren’t blocked when we stumble in our writing, but that we need to refill the well. Rather than trying to control how that well refills and checking things off a pre-made list like a boss, let yourself stay open to opportunities that may arise.

Where are you going this summer? Wherever it is, I hope you find yourself detoured in one way or another. Don’t frown or fuss; you may well find something you need on that path.

Writing in Ray Bradbury’s Shadow: Write1Sub1

Shimmer author Milo James Fowler joins us this week, to talk about the writing challenge he created, thanks to Ray Bradbury.


What makes someone a literary legend? Does he have to live long enough to see his work become popular? Outlive his critics? For many writers in the past, a true fan base only developed posthumously.

Not so with Ray Bradbury. Novels, short stories, poetry, plays—his body of work is loved the world over. But once upon a time, he was just a struggling young writer in love with the craft. He wrote a short story every week, polished it up, and submitted it to a magazine. Rejection letters flooded in, mainly due to his prolific submissions. But there were also acceptances along the way, and they inspired Bradbury to keep doing what he loved: telling stories as only he could.

Seeing him at the Escondido library in the fall of 2009 was a surreal experience I’ll never forget. He spoke about being a “lover of life,” and that, for him, writing was always a labor of love. He told us that night, “If you can write one short story a week—doesn’t matter what the quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing. At the end of the year, you have 52 short stories, and I defy you to write 52 bad ones. Can’t be done.”

A year later, a reader commented on my blog that I seemed to be announcing a short story publication every month. I responded by saying that compared to Bradbury, I was nowhere near as prolific, but that someday I hoped to follow in his footsteps.

“Someday” turned out to be 2011.

It was time to take the proverbial bull by the horns and see if I could do it: write and submit a new story every week. And since misery and joy both love company, I decided to invite fellow writers Simon Kewin and Stephen V. Ramey along for the ride. Thus, Write1Sub1 was born. Now with over three hundred participants this year, we’re still going strong, and I can honestly say I’ve grown as a writer because of this challenge.

W1S1 has forced me to take my writing seriously and carve out a chunk of time for it every day. It’s also taught me how to deal with a deadline—how to write fast and revise slow, and to get my work off the hard drive and into an editor’s inbox. Along the way, I’ve created some of my best work. “Soulless in His Sight,” appearing in Shimmer #15, is one example from Write1Sub1 Week 9 last year. It’s a story I’m proud of, but it’s just one of 52 that wouldn’t exist without this challenge and our supportive community of writers.

Thank you, Mr. Bradbury, for inspiring us. You told us it could be done, and you were right

Be a Drag (Queen)

Beth and I have been talking–a lot–about drag queens. We discovered we both love RuPaul’s Drag Race to distraction – and we’ve been applying the show’s timeless lessons to the rest of our lives. So here’s what drag queens have taught us about writing.

1. Be confident

You can tell a confident writer from sentence one. They know where the story is going and will hold you firmly by the hand as they show you all the marvelous things. The confident writer strides much as the confident queen, certain that she will not trip on the hem of her gown or twist a heel. Is that spotlight in your eye? Stay focused on the way it must be setting off the glitter in your eyeliner! Chin up, fingers on the keys. Go.

2. Learn the skills

Those bitches who don’t know how to sew are screwed.

Every craft has a skillset, whether it be mastering a sexy walk in high heels or learning the proper placement of a semicolon. Read a book or two on the skills; learn the rules (yes, you betta work!) so you can know exactly how to break them and still look fabulous doing so.

3. Tuck your junk

We told you above to learn the skills: now complete the illusion by making it look effortless. Just as a drag queen tucks, and shaves, and makes sure the silver lame gets trimmed properly before she hits the main stage, writers need to refine their work to really make it shine. Did you spell-check? Do the sentences flow? Is everything in the story really necessary, or do you need to murder some of your darlings? When you’re ready to share your work, be clean, be tucked, be fierce! (Ref: point one.)

4. It’s not enough to be pretty

No matter how pretty that final draft is, it’s not enough. It needs to be a good story, told with passion. It needs fresh, strong ideas. It needs to touch our hearts. Lead us to a strange new country with your words, and make us fall in love with it.

5. Commit wholeheartedly to your own extraordinary vision

Your vision won’t be right for everyone. What was she thinking–all that silver lamé fabric lookin’ like crumpled tin foil exploding from a trash can… (What was she thinking, a blog post about what drag queens taught them about writing…)

But that’s okay. Because the thing is, wholehearted commitment is stunningly compelling. The best queens make even the most ridiculous outfits look magical, simply by their commitment to their vision.

I wrote a while back about that insane blue jay who comes to visit. He struts his stuff like any drag queen would, even on the uneven fence edge. He trusts, he commits, he throws his whole self in. Do the same with your vision.

Put the bass in your walk

Ultimately we’re all just lip synching for our lives. Good luck, and don’t fuck it up.


Stock image from Becs_Stock on deviantArt