Tag Archives: writing styles

Free e-book for Renegade Chronicles fans

Hence forth, let Sept. 13 be known as Reader Appreciation Day!

As a thank-you to my readers—and in hopes of reaching more—I’ve created a free compendium for The Renegade Chronicles, my fun fantasy saga featuring anti-heroes aplenty.

Cover of "Capricon and Beyond: The Renegade Chronicles Compendium"

Download Capricon and Beyond: The Renegade Chronicles Compendium for FREE here.

Available for Kindle, Nook, and just about any other e-reader you can name, Capricon and Beyond provides an in-depth look at the world of Altaerra—from the island of Capricon to greater Continae to far, foreign shores.

The e-book compiles a variety of resources for those interested in learning more about the people and places that populate The Renegade Chronicles as well as those who want a behind-the-scenes look at my world-building process. The glossary of more than 250 names and terms will serve as a handy quick-reference guide for “visitors.”

Capricon and Beyond also contains a never-before-published prologue for the series, starring “the Stranger.”

Other content includes:

  • Character profiles
  • Maps of Capricon and Western Arabond
  • Historical and cultural notes
  • Sketches drawn by yours truly

Sign up for my newsletter to receive the link to your copy of Capricon and Beyond.

And have a happy Reader Appreciation Day!

New to Altaerra? Learn more about The Renegade Chronicles here.

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Reblog: Pantsers vs. Plotters

Once upon a time, the stories poured from my fingertips.

Back in the early days of my Quest for Publication, I was equipped with naught but a trusty Pilot pen, a five-subject Mead notebook, and a plethora of ideas. Eventually, I upgraded to a keyboard and computer.

After transcribing tome after tome of intertwining fantasy storylines from my neat (read: girly) handwriting to single-spaced Times New Roman, I typed up additional supplemental materials. I sketched out maps, chronicled centuries of history, invented religions, drafted character profiles, and crafted the very rules of the universe.

I was world building, damn it, and every fantasy author worth his sword needs to know his setting inside out.

I wrote this blog post for nyareads.com. Read the entire post here.

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An old short story for Throwback Thursday

Back when I worked in a newsroom, a colleague of mine was wont to say, “Everyone loves old photos.”

A (sneaky) monkey

“In his mind, there was but one rule: survive.”| “Mantelpavian female 2 db”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

While the accuracy of any absolute statement is debatable, I don’t remember readers complaining when the newspaper printed black-and-white photographs. On the contrary, we tended to get positive feedback from folks who then took the opportunity to wax nostalgic about yesteryear.

I believe the Throwback Thursday (#TBT) trend serves as further proof of mankind’s fondness for looking back.

Why do we do it? To remember the Good Ol’ Days, I suppose. To laugh at our questionable taste in fashion. And to take measure of how much has changed.

In the spirit of Throwback Thursday, I’m sharing a very short story I wrote in college. As I reread it, I can’t help but wander through the scenes of my young adulthood, chuckle at my cumbersome loquaciousness and overt penchant for alliteration (OK, some things haven’t changed), and to marvel at how much my style has evolved.

If you want to indulge in a bit of frivolity with me, read on or download a PDF for your e-reader.

Monkeys

By David Michael Williams

The chorus of a popular R&B song rent the morning, ripping me from my blissful slumber. Motor memory launched me from my mattress, across the cluttered hardwood floor, and over to where the alarm radio blasted its musical message at a mind-reeling volume. After turning various knobs and fiddling with a few buttons, the dream-destroying decibels were banished back to the black and brown box.

The bedroom door was open, as it always was. I lived alone and had no need for privacy. Still half asleep, I proceeded into the living room, where I began to search for the remote control in all the usual places. When the clicker could not be found lodged in the recliner or atop the computer desk, I wandered over to the couch.

That’s when I saw it, a baboon regarding me with more than a passing interest. He sat there, perched on the middle couch cushion, following my every movement with those brown eyes of his. Eyes that looked as thought they could have belonged to a person. Eyes that harbored intelligence without the burden of conscience.

I couldn’t move.

I hated monkeys, secretly feared them. Their very existence is a sick parody of humanity. I knew the little brute, despite his diminutive size, had in him a barbaric strength that could easily overpower my best efforts. In his mind, there was but one rule: survive. No social mores or rules restricted his behavior.

He was capable of anything.

I began to back away slowly, but that only seemed to earn his ire. I recalled that dogs could sense fear in people and wondered if all animals shared this skill. In spite of my growing fear, I took another step backward and practically fell on top of the recliner.

At this point, the deadly primate rose from his crouched position into a more-or-less upright stance. I considered making a break for the apartment’s only exit. How fast could the little bastard be? Would one kick send him reeling into the television, causing it to explode and, at the very least, render the hairy fiend unconscious? Or, would my desperate flailing only provide him a limb to sink his yellowed teeth into?

Monkeys have little concern for personal hygiene. They only groom their fur in order to find insect snacks. This baboon represented everything mankind left behind in climbing up onto the throne in the Animal Kingdom. Humans are at the top of the food-chain. Not only do we possess opposable thumbs, but we have the intelligence and integrity to use our skills responsibly. Homo sapiens are the rightful owners of the planet, the chosen genotype.

I just wish someone would have explained all that to the monkey.

I couldn’t have told him even if I had thought it might do me some good. I couldn’t even manage a scream as he vaulted off of the low-riding couch, long baboon arms swinging, and shrieking like a banshee on a sugar high.

I reached for the nearest weapon—my lava lamp. I always wondered what the mock-magma actually was and whether or not it would burn on contact with skin. Now seemed as good a time as any to find out. The monkey-turned-missile sailed through the air, honing in on his human target. His eyelids all but disappeared as his unfeeling eyes bulged out. A stream of saliva trailed from his lower jaw.

He was probably hungry, as there was no food in my refrigerator.

I swung the lava lamp, bludgeoning the baboon, bashing in the side of his hairy little head. He was too stunned to counterattack, so I pressed my advantage. Dropping the lava lamp, which was unwieldy and hadn’t even shattered, I reached for my left shoe. I had to finish the job. It was Man vs. Beast, and I didn’t intend to let my species down.

As I brought the black shoe down upon his huddled, unmoving body, I went into some sort of frenzy, experiencing a bloodlust that the Neanderthals must have felt as they brandished their clubs against their rivals for survival. By the time I finished, it was 9:52 A.M., and I was in no mood to go to work.

The baboon’s body was an unrecognizable mass of blood, entrails, and dirty hair. I ended up throwing the dripping carcass off my back porch. Then the gravity of the situation hit me all at once. I fell into the recliner, shaking, terrified of the animal I had had to become in order to defeat the baboon.

And what if there was another one tomorrow morning?

Now don’t you dare feel sorry for the monkey. They are not the cute, innocent little creatures you want to believe. They are wild. Dangerous. Capable of anything. But you won’t believe me. You’ll continue to write children’s stories about them, continue to visit the zoo and wave to them. Only when one sneaks up on you, on some unsuspecting Tuesday morning, will you admit your err in judgment. But by then, it might be too late.

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What to do when writing tips contradict

The only constant when it comes to writing advice is inconsistency.

There are times when I wish someone would come up with a template for writing a creative, impactful and commercially successful novel in “Just 10 Easy Steps!” While there are no shortage of textbooks and self-help guides for writers, I fear there’s no one surefire way to become the best writer you can be.

At the end of the day, fiction writing is more art than science.

Since no two minds work precisely the same way, no two writers are going to approach planning, plot structure, character development, research, writing, and editing exactly the same way. A method that works for one author might result in utter failure for another. A customized methodology, then, is key.

Portrait of author Stephen King

Who am I to question the wisdom of Stephen King? Just another writer trying to figure stuff out. | Photo credit: Shane Leonard

In my first post on this blog, I vowed to abstain from stating “absolute rules that govern writing as a craft or business.” Mostly, I didn’t want to come off as arrogant, but there’s a more pragmatic reason for my promise:

There aren’t any absolutes when it comes to writing.

That’s not to say there aren’t valuable tips to share. (I like to think that this blog contains a helpful nugget or two for people careening headlong down the same crazy path I’ve chosen.) And there are plenty of overarching platitudes that seem applicable to most people.

Yet I have to believe that despite how many successful writers have declared, “You must read voraciously in order to become a better writer,” there’s a genius out there somewhere who penned his or her masterpiece in a vacuum.

Anomalies aside, some so-called writing rules outright contradict others. Never was this more apparent to me than during recent email correspondences with a novice writer and prospective member of the Allied Authors of Wisconsin, who sought my perspective on several conflicting pieces of information—including the sage words of one Stephen King.

The article he referenced included excerpts from King’s memoir, On Writing, which I had read and enjoyed many years ago. In the article, King says writers should “write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open.” The article further paraphrases the point: “You should maintain total privacy between you and your work,” while composing the first draft.

This wasn’t the first time the aforementioned aspiring author had encountered advice dissuading him from sharing his partial manuscript with others. And while I can agree that there are some disadvantages to prematurely exposing one’s story to the critics, I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

In “Why writers groups still matter,” I outlined how soliciting feedback from fellow writers can help an author and his or her book. Of course, one could wait until he or she is finished with the first draft before joining a writing workshop, sending it to beta readers, and so forth.

So why not acquiesce to King’s (and many others’) point of view? Here’s what I told my friend via email:

I don’t know if I’d say receiving critiques on your work prior to having finished a first draft is detrimental. I can see pros and cons.

Some pros include getting an early understanding about what the readers are latching onto. If their attention is focused on the right stuff, you know you’re on the right track. If they are getting distracted by minor details (or characters), that gives you some ideas not only for how to revise those first few chapters, but also how to treat such things moving forward.

I will say, however, that I think it’s a mistake to perpetually revise chapters. I’ve seen it happen time and time again where writers can’t get past the first handful of chapters because they’re constantly revising until it’s “perfect.” And getting feedback from alpha readers adds more feedback, so, yeah, there’s a higher chance that a writer will want to revise/redo/rewrite instead of move forward.

At Allied Authors meetings, I take notes on the critiques for every chapter I read. But I never work on those chapters immediately after a meeting. In fact, I don’t review them until I’m ready for Draft 2. (Though I will keep comments in mind in case they are relevant for upcoming/unwritten chapters.) I’m a firm believer that it’s better to get a complete draft done before trying to improve on anything. It’s probably because I’ve seen too many people frustrate themselves by trying to make Chapter 1 flawless before moving on. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that work.

Is a completely MS review preferred? Absolutely. …it’s difficult to critique portions of a novel (due to a lack of context, etc.), but imperfect though they may be, I continue to find value in chapter-by-chapter reviews.

So who is right—Stephen King or I?

Or both?

In actuality, I’m not disagreeing with King on a philosophical level, but the devil is in the details. And even if King and I likely agree that rewriting Chapter 1 ad nauseam is a mistake, there are probably those out there who make it work. Probably, there are folks who never get a second opinion on their manuscript before sending it off to an editor or self-publish it and let the public decide whether it’s worth purchasing.

Writing is a complex activity. What’s ideal for one person might not be remotely achievable by another. (Sorry, Mr. King, but as much as I’d love to knock out a first draft of a novel in three months, real life tends to get in the way.)

Every writer must determine his or her own path from conception to composition. There’s a heck of a lot of alphabet between Point A and Point Z. I suppose the only thing that matters is making it to “The End” without getting lost among all of the warnings along the way.

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Something scary for Halloween: my poetry

I’m not a poet…and don’t I know it.

If that didn’t elicit a groan, then maybe a line or two from “Rain,” a poem I wrote in college, will:

Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry also is scary — albeit in a good way. | Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The city’s underbelly is growling

All around, the rumbling of the buses echoes the thunder in the sky

I hear the mobile beasts around me

As I wait to be eaten and excreted someplace new

Is your brain bleeding yet?

Despite having written between one and two million words to date, only a handful of them were spent in pursuit of poetry.  And whenever I did venture from the comfort zone of fiction, it was typically because a teacher assigned it.

That’s how “Triumvirate”—a three-part poem exploring body, mind, and soul as self-governing entities—came to be. “Triumvirate” is one of my better ones, I think, despite its rhyming, sing-songy nature. Here’s an excerpt from the Mind section (stanza?):

Liaison and foe of Body and Soul,

As real as face-numbing wind;

Tainted by reason, encouraged by spirit

Baffled by blessing and sin.

Not stellar, sure, but it didn’t have you contemplating suicide, I hope.

The aforementioned “Rain,” on the other hand, was a tongue-in-cheek attempt to capture something very mundane in a melodramatic manner. I don’t think it was a serious attempt at poetry.  At least I hope not.

Confession: I don’t understand poetry.  I never have.  As a child, I didn’t gravitate toward Shel Silverstein’s collections at the library.  I just never understood what the fuss was about.  And that attitude didn’t change as I got older and studied them as part of junior high, high school, and college curricula.

Oh sure, some poems could be clever or funny or haunting, but they always struck me as somehow…unsubstantial.  A treat for the tongue, perhaps, but not the hardy nourishment one gets from digging into, say, a novel.

I suppose I’ve always craved story…

Oh, I know poems can tell a story.  But so many of them don’t seem to.  Or maybe I’m simply too obtuse to grasp the hidden narrative lurking elusively between the lines.  More likely, I’ve been approaching them all wrong, coming to poetry with the same expectations as I do prose.

Maybe poems aren’t meant to be mysteries that can be unraveled by reason.  Maybe ambiguity of meaning can be an asset, not a flaw.  Maybe getting the reader to simply feel something is a worthy goal in of itself.

Of course, poetry is a very broad term, and I’d be lying if I said that the genre doesn’t appeal to me unilaterally.  Epic poems, for instance, combine the creative use of language usually associated with poetry with a plain-faced plot.  In fact, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, a Middle English poem that explores the climax of the Arthurian legend, motivated me to write an alliterative poem called “Solitude”—the name of which was inspired by another old poem, “The Wanderer.”

In my humble opinion, the best poetry contains something of a story, and the best fiction borrows from the eloquence and expressiveness of poetry.  It doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario. Artistic turns of phrase, the rhythm and flow of sentences, attention to sensory details—the finer trappings of poetry certainly can (and perhaps should) be transposed to prose.

At some point I might pick up that book of E.E. Cummings’ poems off our family bookshelf, but I doubt I’ll spend any serious time composing poetry of my own.

So rather than subject you to any more tortured verses authored by my own hand, I’ll end this post by sharing this delightful (if disturbing) poem penned many years ago by someone in my family who’s had more practice with the genre: Kate Williams, my mother. It’s one of my favorites:

Be Kind to Your Brainless Friends,
They Might Have Ants in Their Heads

One night when I was sleeping, but not in my bed,
millions of little black ants got into my head.
They crept in through my ears, my nose, and my eyes
while I lie sleeping under the summer sky.

They chomped, they chewed, they nibbled, they crunched,
they ate my brain like it was their lunch.
Now my brain is gone and I have instead,
little black ants living inside my head.

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The ‘cons’ of writing collaborations

Whenever I imagine my future novels sitting on a bookshelf, I see my full name on the spine.

Mine and mine alone.

Ever since I decided to stop being a mere dabbler and strategically strive to write publishable stories—so many years ago—one thing has remained true: I’ve been on my own.

Don’t get me wrong.  I do have a support system, which includes friends and family members who have been fans since before anyone had any right to be, fellow writers who help me to steer clear of plot pitfalls and characterization crises, and casual acquaintances who express (feign?) interest when I wax enthusiastic about my literary life.

I also have an agent to help and advise me on the business side of things.  Someday, I hope to count an editor and other publishing professionals within my circle of assistance.

But as far as weaving a strong narrative from the first word to the final phrase, that burden falls entirely to me.

Most of the time, I prefer it that way.  I work at my own pace, focus on whichever priority ranks highest at the moment, and deal with each and every consequence as I choose.  When I fail, I have no one else to blame; when I succeed, there are no other egos with which to share the boost.  For good or for ill, it’s my story.

I answer to no one.  In these subsets of reality, I get to play god.

All that changed unexpectedly when was still in college and met a fellow English major at a pizza joint near campus.  We both had a penchant for sword-and-sorcery fantasy.  Each of us had our own novels in the works.  Yet we thought it would be fun to try to build a new world together.  We came to that lunch meeting with a few notes from a prior conversation and decided to map out a few storylines, the magic system, some mythology, and our central characters.

The plan was for each of us to develop his own plot that would eventually intertwine with the other’s before the book was through.  Bouncing ideas off of another writer and commiserating about obstacles that have tripped up in the past was a breath of fresh air to someone who had spent so much of his writing time sitting squarely in front of a computer screen.

There I was—away from keyboard, out in the real world, creating something with the help of a second brain.

Sadly, the project fizzled almost immediately thereafter.  I went back to my apartment to crank out the beginnings of a complicated, half-immortal anti-hero.  I even wrote a chapter that introduced a group of odd (obligatory?) traveling companions.  But I haven’t touched that project since then because, in the end, it was only half mine.  I had no interest in writing the other guy’s side of the story, which left me with a partial, underdeveloped plot.  The magical realm of Elkinra was ruined ’ere it ever truly lived.

Fortunately, I still had a solo work-in-progress on which to focus.  So I returned to a book that was one hundred percent mine.  The experience left me feeling a little annoyed and completely convinced that writing collaborations were for suckers.  I didn’t need anyone tripping me up or distracting me from a world that would exist as long as I wanted it to.

Onward.  Full speed ahead.  Alone.

At least until my wife offhandedly broached the notion of our writing a children’s book together.

Back when we had two small children, it was easy to put her off.  Later, I half-heartedly committed to it—but on the condition that we wait until after I got to a good place in my current (real?) writing project.  Years passed, and I finally ran out of excuses.  Harboring more than a little skepticism, I was ready to get it over with—prepared for a repeat trip down the sad, short cul-de-sac that is collaborative writing.

I won’t lie: There were some growing pains.  When you’re used to playing god, it’s not easy to invite another person into the pantheon.  Our approaches were very different, in no small part because I had a pre-established approach.  Whereas she had dabbled in writing on and off throughout the years, I was the novelist in the family.

Of course, neither of us knew much about writing a children’s novel.

The first lesson I had to learn was to let go.  Even though I prefer to create an outline before jumping into the first draft, we had only a couple of chats in the way of preparation before starting Chapter 1.  Likewise, I resisted the urge to create character profiles.  In short, this chronic planner took a turn for the spontaneous.

What started out as a one-sided war for control—from major plot points to minor word choices—eventually became a smattering of sporadic battles for bigger-picture issues.  I didn’t really have a choice except to tone it down.  Without compromise, we never would have gotten anywhere.

Co-writing the first draft of The Pajamazon Amazon vs. The Goofers Twofers forced me to reevaluate what I knew about writing—and what I thought I knew about collaborating.  The chapter book started out as a side project, at best a diversion from my more “serious writing.”

If nothing ever comes of it, so be it, I had thought.  At least we can say we tried…

Now as we embark on the editing phase of the project—and as the collaboration takes on new facets with our seven-year-old daughter assigned as illustrator and our five-year-old son serving as a “beta reader”—I realize that not only has sharing the reigns with another writer made this manuscript better, but also it has made writing itself a lot more fun.

I expect I’ll always work alone on most of my novels, but there is something undeniably liberating about having the chance to share success and blame alike with someone else.  This collaboration also means I have more time to share one of my favorite pastimes with someone I care deeply about, transcending beyond our former reader/writer relationship.

What started as a dubious experiment—from my pessimistic perspective, anyway—has become a worthwhile writing exercise that might prove to be a publishable work in its own right.  Now when I think of my future books on the shelf, I wouldn’t be the least bit disappointed if I saw another name—my wife’s name—next to mine.

And even if The Pajamazon Amazon doesn’t become the Harry Potter of chapter books, I’m confident this writing collaboration will have a happy ending.

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Is ‘finger exercises’ metaphor a stretch?

An old man once stopped at a rummage sale I was holding and asked, “Who’s the writer?”

He held in his hand an old copy of “Writer’s Market,” one of the only books we were selling (since my wife and I are book hoarders).  The outdated tome, which may or may not have been priced at a quarter, served as an apt icebreaker.  It turned out that along with being an ardent rummager, Tom was a writer himself and a published author to boot.

Early in our friendship, he offered to take a look at my fiction.  That could have spelled doom, as my skin was not quite so thick back then, but in the end, I appreciated his efforts to critique a style of writing well outside of his comfort zone.  (To this day, Tom can’t abide science fiction or fantasy.  In fact, “I liked it; I just didn’t understand it” is an all-too-common mantra of his.)

Despite a great age difference and the genre barrier, we’ve always gotten along very well.  However, something he said in those early days stuck in my craw, and I haven’t been able to forget it since—as is evidenced by the name of this blog:

“Anything before one million words is just finger exercises.”

I took some umbrage at that.  After all, I had already written four novels.  None of them had caught the eye of an agent, let alone an editor, but nobody wants to think the many, many hours spent slopping one’s soul onto the page are nothing more than “finger exercises.”

So what did I do?  Well, if Tom, an accomplished author, thought a writer didn’t earn his chops until the one million-word mark, I wanted to check my score.  I added up the word count for the various drafts of my full manuscripts, short stories, world-building notes, and anything else related to my sword-and-sorcery fantasy endeavors.

1,067,784 words.

Not one to gloat, I waited until the next time Tom’s “finger exercises” comment surfaced.  Alas, no golden lights shone down from the heavens.  Determining that exact number and deducing I had reached the one million-word milestone had not changed much of anything—not in my eyes, Tom’s eyes, or the world’s eyes.

So is there any truth in the “finger exercises” theory?

Just because nothing magical happens at one million words doesn’t mean Tom wasn’t right on a fundamental level.  Every writer thinks his or her early stuff is amazing.  Little do we know, in our dabbling days, that what ends up on the page cannot hope to compare to the perfect and pristine counterpart that resides in the novice’s mind.  Upon typing “The End” of that first novel, we might even imagine ourselves strutting up Mount Olympus, manuscript in hand, to stand beside such literary deities as Dickens, Faulkner, Shakespeare, and King.

Like the parent of an ugly baby, a young writer is blind to the glaring flaws.  Words get repeated throughout a paragraph—sometimes even in the same sentence.  Passive voice rears its ugly head.  Subplots meander meaninglessly.  One-dimensional characters are lucky if they manage to cast a shadow.  Dialogue is stiff and awkward.  Punctuation is appalling.

Tom was right: A writer needs to get the garbage out of the way.  You won’t learn unless you fail.  You can’t develop your voice without using a lot of words.  Maybe one million of them.

That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions.  There are the success stories of writers whose first novels become bestsellers.  Some of us will catch our stride well before one million words.  Others will make it to two million words and still struggle.

Perhaps the lesson is that everyone starts at the beginning.  Determination, raw talent, and a strong support system will see a writer through the dabbler stage.  A support system that, ideally, includes other talented writers.

Writers like old Tom.

Whether my early manuscripts are salvageable or not remains to be seen.  Truth be told, I don’t hold any hard feelings over Tom’s “finger exercises” line.  In fact, he probably paid that twenty-something fantasist more credit than he was due back at that rummage sale.  And even if he had implied I still had a lot to learn, he’s more than made up for it with what he wrote in a recent email:

“It would seem you’ve now passed the one million word proviso I specified early on in our writing friendship.  Your tone, the authority of the prose is strong evidence of this.  Not to mention the great flow.  You have an established voice now.”

When put like that, one million words is a small price to pay for improvement.

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