Something Worth Doing is Worth Doing Well

This refrain comes up again and again when talking to my writer friends (and not always initiated by me): something worth doing is worth doing well. It’s certainly not a controversial idea, though talking about it is not without its risks (as writer myself, I will not be providing examples of poor work to avoid shooting myself in the foot).

Put another way: we as an industry are going cheap, and it shows.

Usually it starts with the cover—bad art, or weak stock photos, with poor typography. If the cover is bad, the inside is often worse—poor layout, weak font choices, text that’s too small to read, or so big you could read it from across the room. The interior art looks fuzzy, or way too dark. Maybe there’s nothing in particular you can put your finger on, but something just isn’t right—very possibly the paper itself is poorly chosen (or left unconsidered).

Overall, you’re left with a feeling of cheapness—and it’s probably true: not enough money and attention has been put into this product.

Like it or not, this lack of detail negatively impacts the stories themselves. Fewer people will buy the book, and some people will be so turned off by the experience that they will set it aside for good. All of this, regardless of the quality of the stories themselves.

It would be easy to lay blame at the feet of self-publishers, but it’s not limited to that world. Poor quality runs throughout all levels of publishing, at least sporadically, from indies to the big names.

The blame for this lies in a few areas.


It’s been said that there’s little money in publishing, and perhaps that’s true. Spending much on something with little chance of seeing it returned doesn’t make too much sense. To create a work of quality, it does take skill (or money to hire that skill). We are at a point where it requires little to no money to produce books, even printed books—from ebooks to print on demand, a publisher does not need to outlay much cash to get a book to a reader and see a return on investment. Unfortunately, this low-budget approach shows all too often.

Too Many Hats

I’m a jack-of-all-trades kind of guy: I have an art background, I work as an illustrator and designer (and animator, and video guy, and…), I’ve done some sound work, I write. I understand there are people (and publishers) out there that can handle the whole shebang and do a fine job of it. The thing is, the vast majority of people can’t, and even those that can generally are not great at everything—I know this, all too intimately. If you’re trying to take it all on, you probably shouldn’t.

Plus, if you are taking on all of the roles, you will generally suffer from tunnel vision, and miss out on glaring problems. As the wearer of all of the hats, you are probably working in a vacuum, and regardless of problems with teams (group think, lowest common denominator results), more people means more eyes on the end result.

Another quick point here: I’m a big believer in using the right tool (or software) for the right job, but just having that tool does not make you a master of it (and mastering it still doesn’t make you a designer).

Quantity vs. Quality

Perhaps this is a flawed perception, but it appears that some go for the shotgun approach: more products offered, more sales. It may be accurate, too—I haven’t looked for research to disprove this notion—but it seems to me that spreading money across fewer books (and thus more per book) would significantly improve the end results, and the financial gains from each. No doubt there’s a tipping point, where a piece goes from appropriately treated to collector’s edition (with a price to match)—but if this is your concern, this article isn’t really aimed at you.

Contrary to what it might sound like, I’m not trying to say “you all suck!” or that I want fewer books around. I love all kinds of books, and I want to see the publishing world do better by delivering better.

There are solutions to these problems, and not all of them require more money spent (though some expectation of investing in a work should be assumed). Educating yourself, spending smarter, hiring the right people, finding others who will give you honest opinions…these are all steps in the right direction.

And these are all planned future posts. Stay tuned.

What Drives Your Fiction?

“The rest of it – and perhaps the best of it – is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”

Stephen King, On Writing


What’s the primary vehicle behind your words?

A sports car, all angry growls and bright headlights screaming in the night?

A sleek roadster, all curves and purrs cruising languid on a Sunday afternoon?

A cozy sedan with air bags, a sunroof, and the best safety ratings in the country?

A tired old junker, barely holding itself together, let alone its own on the road?

There’s a certain headspace writers slip into when creating words and worlds, but there’s another space, a deeper one, that guides the path of those words–the emotional space. Let’s call it the hurt engine.

Some people thrive creatively when their hurt engine is fueled with anger, others work best with a stream of sorrow or happiness, and some can write no matter what emotions are flowing in the real.

Of the five novels I’ve written in as many years, the earliest two were penned when my hurt engine lived up to the name and was, in truth, running on overdrive. The words flowed and the stories poured out, like the perfect mix of gasoline and air through a carburetor. I wrote the first draft of the first novel in forty days and two weeks later started the second. Thirty days later, that first draft was done, too.

Unfortunately, both novels needed heavy-duty edits/rewrites because while the words were driven by hurt, they were twisted by it too. Had I perhaps edited the first novel before penning the second, I might have realized what I’d done wrong. Live and learn, right?

Imagine my surprise when I started the next novel and the words didn’t have the same flow. It didn’t take long to figure out why. My hurt engine was running on a different fuel. I won’t lie, I missed the rush. Instead of zipping along at 95, I was stuck on 50. But I finished the novel nonetheless. The story is cleaner, but I’m a pantser, not a plotter, so my first drafts always have a bit of rust on their edges. My motto is “first draft is for story, second draft is for pretty.”

Sometimes the hurt engine doesn’t affect productivity, but it changes the flavor of the prose. I can tell what was fueling my hurt engine in my fiction by the word choices I make, by the staccato rhythm or the lyrical quality of the sentences.

I’ve since learned that I can trick the hurt engine when needed. I’ve written a story that required a certain taste of sorrow, and even though I wasn’t feeling sad at that moment, I pulled the necessary fuel from a memory and poured that into the story instead.

I’ve also learned how to set things on literary cruise control by swallowing the emotional fuel. The hurt engine becomes a quiet place of numbness. And yes, I can tell what stories I’ve written in that place, too.

Last year I wrote the most deeply personal short story I’ve ever written. I had to dig deep into a place I don’t like for the fuel, but the story is probably my strongest work ever. It sold quickly and well, but no, I’m not going to tell you which story it is.

The only stone in my tire is anger. I can’t write when I’m angry. At all. Sure, I can fire off an expletive-filled email, no problem, but fiction? Impossible. Fortunately, my anger burns bright and hot and then fades. I might still be angry, but the rage fuel tank is empty. And then I get back to work.

So what about you? What fuels your hurt engine? Do you escape your emotions when you write or do you let the emotions paint your words? Do you get blocked when you’re not in the thick of your preferred emotional space?

Try changing your fuel and let’s go for a drive.



Last month I had made up my mind to not accept any new projects for a while. I wanted a break. It had been a rough summer and I was burnt out. I had a few obligations I was wrapping up and then I just wanted to step back and read a book. Then, as happens, I got an offer I could not refuse, so I’m actually now busier than ever. It’s a good thing—a great thing, really, but I realize I still need to re-evaluate stuff. It has me thinking a lot about how to do this creative life thing long term, how to take on a good amount of work while keeping my balance.

There is this romanticised image of the dedicated artist that I’ve held up as my ideal: the creative individual sacrificing everything for their art. Times past when I got a huge ASAP project I put everything else in my life on hold while I dove in and swam up stream to the finish. But I think if I’m going to make this be a long term thing in my life, I have to make the time to take the dog for a walk to the park. To help my kid with his homework. To be present for my partner (who takes a good deal of the load at home when I have a heavy project bearing down). I need to make sure I’m getting enough sleep. Plus, I signed up for another marathon, so I need to make sure I am getting the necessary exercise to prepare for that. I have wondered if things like training for a marathon are luxuries (ha ha) I can no longer afford, but I’ve learned how much I need those physical outlets for my mental health, so I’m keeping them on the table.

If it’s not obvious by now, I am a work-a-holic, more comfortable with a task than with socializing. So I need to pay special attention to taking care of my friendships and my loved ones. The other night, we went to dinner and a movie with friends and it was hard for me to turn off the radio station in the back of my head, telling me I shouldn’t be there, that I should be at home working. My online life is reduced to retweeting an occasional thing of interest and liking a few status updates. I miss my online life. It’s a balancing act I’m still figuring out.

Something else I’m working on: letting go of my fear of failure, the horror that I won’t be good enough. Here’s an interview with comic writer Kelly Sue Deconnick that’s worth listening to for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that right in the middle of it (at 33:24 minutes in to be precise), she says this about deadlines: “the month is going to come regardless of if you are ready, and sometimes you will not get it as all-together as you hoped, but you move on and do better next time.” That really gave me pause. It reminded me of something that artist Donato Giancola told us at the Illustrations Masters Class this past spring, something I’m paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of: “Occasionally, I have turned in less than top quality work. I am not proud of that. But it happens. You then keep working so that next time is better.” Those two comments made an impression on me, not as an excuse to do less than stellar work, but as a reminder that sometimes you are on your game, sometimes you are not, and you don’t let that keep you from moving forward.

So that’s what I’m trying to do. Work hard. Keep breathing. Find the right balance. Take care of my loved ones. Be a bit more gentle with myself. Stuff like that. I hope this all makes sense—I am writing it on my lunch break before I dive back into that offer I could not refuse.

So here, if you’re interested, a few people who have said it a bit more eloquently:  Lillian Cohen-Moore discusses how to deal with burn out. Then, Damian Walters-Grintalis talks about writing when you are broken and John Nakamura Remy talk about how he learned to stop worrying and love his goals. Finally, Amy Sundburg discusses priorities and social media.

Okay, that’s all. Time to get back to work.

Finding Inspiration in the Low Places

The other day Galen and I were taking about art, and I raised a point about finding inspiration not only in great art but also in bad. She readily agreed, and stated that she’s almost more inspired by bad art than other things. See, in great art it can be difficult to appreciate all of its wonderfulness—individual aspects of genius are lost in the overall transformative experience of the work. You just know it’s great. But in bad art, every wart is apparent and you immediately see all of the things you would do differently.

Bad art inspires you to make something better. The same can be said about writing.

Before I get too far into this point, let me state that you need examples of greatness from which to learn. If you want to be a great artist, you need to look at the masters. If you want to be a great writer, you need to read great works of literature. Let these be your teachers—it is, after all, how they learned. But if you only ever use them as your guides it’s possible you may feel overwhelmed—how can you ever be good enough? And, worse, is there any point in trying?

These are defeatist thoughts, something we all suffer from at times. This is where exposure to weaker, poorly-crafted works come into play—they actively inspire you to try harder, to do better.

With a work of art, there are a number of components that make up the piece—composition, color, value, line or stroke quality, variation of scale, etc. Often when something is poorly done none of these aspects are handled well. Even still, the overall idea usually comes through—you get the intent, and you (if you’re an artist) see how you could do it better, or at least improve certain elements.

Written work is no different. A great many elements go into crafting a piece of writing—pacing, plot, character development, tone, word choice and sentence structure, etc. Again, when poorly done many of these elements fail, but the intent is usually obvious—and, as a writer, you see how you would have handled it differently. You may not be the best writer, but you know you could do better than this.

Additionally, when you look at enough bad work you start seeing patterns of common failures, things many people do poorly—and things you can learn to avoid yourself.

Here is where getting involved with slush* can be quite useful. Up until a week ago I had never read through a slush pile. While I was familiar with the process through peers (and reading about it), knowing about something and experiencing it directly are two different things. This has been very educational. Certainly there has been some wonderful submissions—really impressive work—along with the not-so-good, but there are also lots of interesting works which succeed in some ways and don’t in others—these perhaps are the most inspiring. The promise of—maybe not a great story but a good, well crafted piece—is there just begging to get out, if only the story was paced better, or the characters had more depth. Sometimes the failures are general sloppiness—a poorly edited manuscript, or a piece that received no proofing at all. These are fixable things, and seeing them so glaringly in another’s work will help me identify them in my own efforts.

At a minimum, I’ll come away with the idea that I could do better than most of the stories in this slush pile. I might be wrong, but at least I’m inspired to try—and sometimes that’s enough.

*The point of reading slush is to help craft a great anthology or magazine, but there is this added benefit of learning from others’ errors. I think every writer should experience this at some point in their career.