Into the Land of the Great Unknown

When you’re a pantser, someone who writes by the seat of their pants without a formal outline, you’re taking a journey into The Land of the Great Unknown. You never know where a story will lead you, or even how long it’s going to be. Not for sure. I am reminded of that as I write two new stories in the same universe.

The first one, Island of Bones, was about as pantsy as it gets. Late afternoon of Friday, January 3, 2020, I was sitting at my table in the dealer room at Shadowcon, when a fellow writer, Rob Howell, asked if I would like to submit a story for a new anthology for which he was the editor. As I always do, I gave him my default answer, ‘hell yes!’ The only caveat? It was due in a week.


“No sweat!” I told him. ‘What the hell are you thinking?’ is what I said to myself.

So, sitting there at my table until it was time for the next panel, on the spot I started writing. As all pantsers probably know, the process of creating fiction with no prior planning, and doing it successfully, leans far closer to being alchemy than it does skill. It delves deep into the workings of the individual writers’ minds, so the process is never the same from writer to writer. At least, I don’t think it is.

Anyway, for me a story starts with a title. It isn’t absolutely necessary, but the writing goes much faster if I have a title to work from. The story for Rob’s anthology was sword and sorcery fantasy, with a heavy influence from Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan. In other words, it was right up my alley. I already had an award-winning story in need of sequels, and there was a time gap in the ones I had planned. That gap involved a sea voyage, and what goes better with a sea voyage than a bad storm and a mysterious island? Thus I started playing around with titles about storms and islands, and within a minute or so Island of Bones came into my mind. It fit nicely with the story right before, The Demon in the Jewel, and the one after, Beyond the Dead River.

The suggested length was 8k words, with a max of around 12k. So when you’re pantsing, how does that work? How do you plan a story to fit a certain length, without first working out the details?

Beats me. Somehow, it just happens. The first draft of the story wound up around 8,300 words. If you’re a writer, I realize that isn’t particularly useful information, since it isn’t something you can duplicate. But there is a lesson in all of this…I got stuck at about 2,000 words for a day or so. When you pants it, by definition you don’t know exactly the story is going, and sometimes your brain doesn’t fill in the blanks. So what then?

You write whatever words you have to write to keep things moving. It really is that simple, and that hard. See, the key for me is to keep the story moving. Even if you use placeholder prose to do it, keep it going. That’s what I did, I filled in a skeleton of the action and moved past it until I typed The End.

The story wound up at about 10,500 words. In other words, on the edit and re-write, I added 2,200 words in the places where I left placeholder prose. I’m vain enough to think the story is quite good and works well, but whether it is or isn’t, I had wrung every ounce of entertainment from it that I could.

I mentioned two stories at the beginning of this post. The second is The Demon in the Jewel, which is the direct sequel to A Night at the Quay. Demon has been in the works for almost two years. The initial burst got me about 3k words into it, and then…the downside of pantsing. My mind didn’t know where to go with it next. I’d thought it would be between 15-20k words when finished, but my inner self kept shaking off that idea. I got stuck repeatedly because I was consciously trying to force my sub-conscious to do what I told it to do.

Bad idea. When I finally allowed the story to come to me as it wanted, I discovered this wasn’t a novella, as were the previous three stories. It was a novel. So now it’s past 40k words and climbing. I keep getting stuck and I keep writing through it, just putting in placeholder prose until I can type The End, and then go back and edit.

Or let Gunnar do that. Gunnar is the editor/publisher of Dingbat Publishing, my first and still the main publisher of my books. As she has told me many times, my job is to write stories, her job is to do everything else. I get to send her first drafts, if I want to, but that’s a luxury that I’ll leave for a different time.

To sum up, as a pantser I get stuck quite often, because I haven’t planned where things are going. And yet I don’t let it bog me down because I have learned how to force my way through it. I can’t teach you a nifty method for doing this, because I don’t know any. The only advice I have is to force words out of your mind and into the story. Whether they are good or bad doesn’t matter, it’s the act of creating them in the first place that will see you through what some people call ‘writer’s block.’


Obligatory year end blog entry

I always thought that when you reach a certain age, say, your early 60s, you’d begin to slow a bit. Stop and smell the roses, so to speak. Take more trips to warm locales and read more books, visit museums and do all the stuff you once thought sounded boring, back when you could party all and still function the next day. You’d spend your days arguing with the government about all the personal stuff they never had any business getting into in the first place, like social security and medicare, and your grandkids would prop their heads in their hands and pay attention to every old story you told them. Regardless of how many times you repeated the same story, they’d always hang on every word.

When you weren’t arguing with some government bureaucrat, or refilling prescriptions to keep bodily functions running smoothly, maybe you’d play a lot of golf, or maybe you’d go fishing, plant a vegetable garden or tend bees. Maybe your spouse or significant other would shoo you out of the house because you were driving them crazy, or maybe they’d hand you a ‘honey-do’ list longer than your arm. All of those and more, either in full or in part, were what I envisioned life post-kids would be like. What I never, ever thought is that I would be busier than I ever have been in my entire life, and damned glad that I am.

I’ve been a writer for going on fifty years. My first (unpublished, thank God!) novel was finished in 1986, but it wasn’t until 30 years later than my first book came out, the one that started my diversion from a semi-sedentary life into an even more sedentary one, Standing The Final Watch, The Last Brigade, Book 1. Since then I’ve sold somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 books, in all formats.

None of that happened because I’m such a great writer. It happened because I’m lucky enough to have amazing friends and family in my corner, without whose support it could never have happened.

Next weekend, the first weekend in January of 2020, I will attend my first convention as Guest of Honor, SHADOWCON. It’s gonna be epic, not because of me, but because of the awesome people running it. In February I’m going to Colorado Springs for SUPERSTARS, a conference featuring some of the top writers in science fiction and fantasy teaching others how they became successful, and how to improve your craft. March will be MIDSOUTHCON, where I will again be a panelist and have a table in the dealer room.

In 2019 I was lucky enough to attend LIBERTYCON, and got up at 6 am on a Saturday to get a spot in the June, 2020, convention. If you know me at all, you know how nearly impossible that is for me. The convention sold all 750 spots out in 29 minutes and 9 seconds. I hope to get a spot at the 20booksto50k conference in November of 2020, but that’s not a guarantee yet.

See what I mean? Sedentary.

In March of 2019, my novella The Hairy Man, A Story in the World of the Last Brigade, was First Runnerup for the Darrell Award, and in October it won the Imadjinn Award. Jurassic Jail, The Time Wars Book 1, was First Runnerup for the Imadjinn Award. For me, and I suspect for every writer, awards are confirmation that others appreciate what you’re doing and the way you’re doing it. They help alleviate that voice in your head that whispers “this sucks” about everything you write.

August of 2019 saw Jurassic Jail as part of my first bundle with Science Fiction Writers of America. It sold close to 1,000 copies in three weeks. I could never have dreamed of such a thing even a year ago.

In 2019 I published one long novel, Standing Before Hell’s GateThe Last Brigade, Book 4, one novella, The Nameless, Task Force Zombie 1, four novelettes, Kill Me When You Can, Hit World #1; Shoot First, Hit World #2 (with Larry Hoy); The Sting of Fate and Grinning Soul (with my writing mentor Thomas Lyon Russell), a Time Wars short story, Tail Gunner Joe, and my non-fiction magnum opus, Killing Hitler’s Reich, The Battle for Austria, 1945. I cannot conceive that I will ever write a book with more long-lasting impact than that one.

Already written and scheduled or contracted for in 2020 are novella Hitler a la Mode (on pre-order now); novelette The Granite Man (in the Cthulu Universe!); novelette The Moles of Vienna, A Story in the World of the Last Brigade; novelette The River of Walking Spirits, A Story in the World of the Last Brigade; novelette Nalusa Malaya, A Story in the World of The Last Brigade, novellette Drumsticks Along the Mohawk and novelette Roland the Headless Mecha Driver, my first entry into the magnificent Four Horsemen Universe.

I have publicly vowed to try writing 1,000,000 words in 2020. For many writers that’s a drop in output, but for me, with all of my hand problems, it will be quite a challenge.

Novels already in various stages of writing and planned for release in 2020 include my first full length book in the Four Horsemen Universe, with the working title of High Mountain Hunters; Standing In Righteous Rage, The Last Brigade Book 5; Cretaceous Kill, The Time Wars Book 2 (with J. Gunnar Grey); The Demon in the Jewel, Sharp Steel & High Adventure 4; Ghosts of the Coast, an alternate history of the Battle of France, 1940, and Not Enough Bullets, a Task Force Zombie novel.

Novels planned for next year, but not yet begun, include Standing Among The Tombstones, The Last Brigade Book 6. Out For Blood, Task Force Zombie 2 will likely be a novella, as will Beyond The Dead River, Sharp Steel & High Adventure 5. On the horizon, but highly unlikely in 2020, are The Dragons of Anthar, Sharp Steel & High Adventure 6 and Dark Time, The Time Wars 3. I also have a sequel to High Mountain Hunters forming in my mind, but not yet planned or gotten permission to attempt.

As if that doesn’t sound like enough, in the non-fiction realm I’m planning on finishing Killing Hitler’s Reich, The Battle for Velikiye Luki, 1942-43; Unsuck Your Writing Career, What I’ve Learned; Essays on the War for Southern Independence and, should I somehow run out of things to write, there are further projects already in the works.

Four years ago today, December 31, 2015, I had the first draft of the longest novel I’d ever attempted, totaling about 175,000 words. I had no idea what to do next, absolutely no clue about the publishing industry of the 21st Century, no website, no Amazon author accounts, no twitter account or contacts anywhere in any genre. I literally had no concept of what to do next.

The point of all of this is to encourage others never to quit pursuit of your dreams, no matter what happens. For my fellow writers, I revel in every success you achieve and find inspiration from you. The list of amazing people I’ve met in the past four years is too long to list here, but nearly all of them are new to writing within the past five years. It really is a brave new world out there. Go get you some.



Writing goals for 2020

You can’t say that I overwhelm you with blog entries, now can you?

Among other things in 2020 I need to find a really good, really reliable cover artist. Not that I have much self-publishing to do, but even so it would be great to know someone.

For year 2020 my daily writing goal will be 3,000 words. That may seem like a lot, but many writers I admire would consider that a bad day. Given the arthritis in my hands, however, I have to be realistic about what I can accomplish. I also have something weird called Cubital Tunnel Syndrome that limits me.

3,000 words a day will equal about a million for next year, and that seems pretty darned good to me.

Keep in mind that the more non-fiction I write, the more that daily average plummets. Research intensive projects might only progress by 500 words a day, and yet have taken eight hours to produce.

Nevertheless, here’s my intended schedule. See if there’s something you like in the works.

The Last Brigade Books 5 and 6 – Standing In Righteous Rage and Standing Among The Tombstones, The Showdown Trilogy Books 2 and 3. These should equal no more than 300k words. One in Spring, one late Fall. 300,ooo words.

The Demon in the Jewel, Sharp Steel and High Adventure Four – Hoping to finish this before the end of 2019, but if not allotting 20k words to finish it next year. 320,000 words.

Cretaceous Kill, The Time Wars Book 2, with J. Gunnar Grey. First quarter of the year. Currently at 19k words, probably top out around 80k. If I do half that’s 30k, so let’s add that number to get us up to 350,000 words.

Not Enough Bullets, Task Force Zombie Book 2. Currently at 19,600 words. Want this out by mid-year, between the two Last Brigade books. Probably another 80k word maximum, so let’s add 60k to the total.  410,000 words.

Killing Hitler’s Reich, The Battle for Velikiye Luki 1942-1943. Non-fiction and needs a LOT of further research. This will slow things down. But currently at a whopping 69k words. This will end up around 125k, probably, so I’m adding 56k to the total allocation. 466,000 words.

Anonymous SF novel in an existing universe that I can’t reveal yet. VERY EXCITING stuff. Haven’t started, will require some research and reading. 80k words, aiming for mid-year. 546,000 words.

Those are the high priority books for next year, not in a particular order. Once those are done, these will come next.

Beyond the Dead River, Sharp Steel and High Adventure 5. Projecting this as a novella at 30k words. 576,000 words.

The Dragons of Anthar, Sharp Steel and High Adventure 6. This is a novel, probably in the 100k words range. 676,000 words.

Dark Time, The Time Wars Book 3. A novel, call it 80k. 756,000 words.

Kill Me If You Will, Hit World 3. Novelette, perhaps a novella. Probably 9k words. 765,000 words.

Double Down, Hit World 4. Novella, 15k words. 780,000 words.

Last Brigade world short story for an anthology of same. 10k words. 790,000 words.

Unsuck Your Book Career: What I’ve Learned. Sequel to Unsuck Your Book. Guessing at 30k. 820,000 words.

Ten opportunity short stories. I’m reserving time to write up to 10 stories for anthologies I might be invited into. Alternately, this could be a 100k word novel or multiple novellas. 920,000 words.

Ghost of the Coast. Alternate World War II history novel. Most likely 100k words. 1,020,000 words.

There…now that wasn’t so hard now was it?

I must be out of my mind.


My first story bundle!

14 books from 15 SFWA authors, and you name the price!

SFWA stands for Science Fiction Writers of America, an organization of professional writers. This bundle is endorsed by SFWA for its outstanding quality, and my Imadjinn Award finalist novel Jurassic Jail is included!

Check this out while there’s still time!

Death to Spammers!

When I first set up this website more than three years ago it was my first experience with doing so. Being a person who wants to interact with my readers, and who takes any and all criticism seriously, I tried to make it easy to ask me questions or leave me comments.

Silly me.

I put up a Feedback form but never realized that was a separate entity than Comments. Then, about a month ago, a new statistic showed up on the website’s dashboard showing some 52,000 Feedback posts. What the heck? As it turns out, it was (nearly) all spam.

What kind of people are so pathetic they bombard websites with that much spam? Anyway, I could have simply deleted them all. That would have the fastest thing to do, but in a spot check I found a legitimate post from a reader. Anyone who knows me knows that it’s not in my DNA to throw out the good with the bad, so over the past month I have looked at every one of those 52k posts to ensure that a real one didn’t get deleted along with the spam.

There were 59 actual posts. And if you are one of those people then please understand what happened, and know that I am going to personally answer each and every one of you. You matter more to me than I can ever express.

Because of these parasites I have deleted the feedback feature, but you can still leave a comment with the added bonus (warning?) that I will read it and reply.