Writing | Inspiration from Music


Sometimes I’m asked where my inspiration comes from for my writing. Most of the time, it feels like ideas fly out of the blue. I’ll get a one or two-sentence long concept, jot it down, and then build it up into a more elaborate story. Every so often, I’ll be in the midst of writing a plot outline or perhaps even in the draft itself when I’ll get a song stuck in my head. A handful of times, a particular song has resulted in changes to the story, additions to a story, or wound up fitting the mood so well I developed a mental association between the writing and the music.

It’s been awhile since I posted something, and who am I to deny a sudden inspiration to ramble a bit. Here are some cases where a song has had an effect on my writing, inspired it, or developed a close association to it:


One More Run (Book 1 of The Roadhouse Chronicles)



Nice Shot, Filter

While I was coming up with the opening scene of this novel, a wasteland-weary driver behind the wheel of an electric Dodge Challenger flying down a desert road, the bass line from this song came out of nowhere and got stuck in my head. Add to that, a car-to-motorcycle gunfight, and the song just fit too perfectly to ignore. I wound up titling the chapter “Nice Shot Man” since the song had been playing on loop in my head while writing it. The tempo of the music and even the lyrics fit the scene so well, if I get struck by lightning and this ever becomes a film, I’m going to lobby for it to be the opening track.


It Ain’t Me – Fortunate Son major-to-minor, Chase Holfelder covering CCR

This is a case where I hadn’t been expecting a particular song to influence the story. Usually, I can’t draft with music on because it distracts me. For some reason while writing One More Run, I happened to have YouTube going in the background and this song came up on random. The baleful, minor key got into my head and changed my early conceptions of the Dallas settlement from a typical outpost to a group of surviving US Military still holding it together as if the world hadn’t stopped. The sentiment of the song fits Kevin’s attitude at this point in the story – Someone’s gotta save the world, but it ain’t me. I wound up titling the chapter ‘It ain’t me,’ and added an old man playing the song on a guitar.


A Good Run of Bad Luck, Clint Black

For the Roadhouse Chronicles, despite it being a post-nuclear apocalypse with zombies, something about it made me want to impart a sense of a western to it as well. A friend had recently suggested I listen to some country music (after I said I didn’t hate it, which surprised her). This song wound up getting stuck in my head for a while. During edits, I wound up adding an additional chapter to the end of the book to (hopefully) create a more satisfying ending of the first in this series. This song fit the mood perfectly, and also lent its title to the chapter.


Nine Candles of Deepest Black

Wither, Dream Theater

In the beginning of the story, Paige is severely depressed and struggling to find the energy to even get out of bed to go to school. I didn’t have this song in mind while writing the chapter, but later, when I heard it, it struck me how apropos it was to the story and her mindset at the time. During the blog tour for Nine Candles, one of the participants asked me to put together a playlist of songs, and this one leapt to mind right away.

Secrets, Bevin Hamilton

At one point in the story, a ghost is attempting to communicate with the girls, and does so by causing a computer to turn itself on and start blaring a song. I stumbled across this one while hunting for a song that might be appropriate for a ghost trying to call someone a liar. After sifting among the search results, I clicked on this one. The combination of title, lyrics, and the eerie harpsichord fit the mood so well I decided this to be the song. Alas, Paige doesn’t quite get the message right away.


A Ghost Among Fireflies

The Touch, Stan Bush

Okay, I’m dating myself with this one, but… While writing the short story A Ghost Among Fireflies, which is in my anthology The Far Side of Promise, this song came out of nowhere and lodged in my head. Early in the story, the main character is flying her spaceship into a gauntlet of defense satellites in an effort to reach a quarantined planet. While she’s dodging laser blasts and flying like crazy to keep from getting blown up, I had this song in my head. In this case, the scene made me think of the song, so it’s the inverse of where inspiration came from the song.

Zero Rogue (Awakened #5)


(This book doesn’t yet have a cover)

Aqualung, Jethro Tull

In the fifth book of the Awakened series (which isn’t released yet), Aaron is wandering along and winds up sitting on a bench in the park. That tripped a synapse in my brain which brought this song up. Despite the story being set in 2418, I couldn’t help but work in a few referenced lines (since both characters involved are from London). This too is a case of the scene calling to mind a song, not so much the song inspiring the scene – though it did cause a bit of banter.

Dead Man’s Number

(Book 3 of the Roadhouse Chronicles does not yet have a cover)

Burn – The Cure

In the third book of the Roadhouse Chronicles series, one of the characters gains a measure of victory over someone they’ve been quite angry at for a long time, and as a message, blasts this song in the room while the target of their anger is bleeding out. My head filled with the mental image of the character slow-walking away with this music playing.


Emma and the Silk Thieves

(Book 2 doesn’t have a cover just yet, but here’s the cover for book 1)

Walpurgisnacht, Faun

During the second book in the Tales of Widowswood series, the Feast of Zaravex (a harvest festival) occurs in Emma’s village. Since the image of satyrs features prominently in that holiday (the deity Zaravex is depicted as a satyr), my brain linked the scene to this song and wound up hearing it on loop while writing the festival scene. In this case it’s a matter of synchronicity – the song fit the scene perfectly, but was not the inspiration for it.

Division Zero


Memoria, Unheilig

Finally, an after-the-fact case. A few months after Division Zero #1 released, I stumbled across a German band, Unheilig. Their instrumental track, Memoria, struck me as the most perfect title music to use if Division Zero ever became a TV series. The haunting tech-influenced song captured the essence of the story – a woman dealing with ghosts and spiritual beings in a world overrun with technology.


Well, there you have the most prominent examples of when music influenced my writing (or synchronized with it). If any other writers happen to read this, drop a comment if you’ve been inspired to write something based on a song.

Happy reading!

Writing | Character Agency


Character Agency

The ‘agency’ of a protagonist character refers to their ability to take action on their own behalf, change the course of the story, and have a tangible effect on the primary plot arc. One of the aspects of creating a compelling character is giving them enough agency to allow readers to root for them. A weak or unmotivated character that floats like a piece of driftwood through what is supposed to be their story is often neither compelling nor entertaining to read about.

For example, a while back I read a story about a man who had recently (and somewhat reluctantly) become a vampire. He, rightly so, had some adjustment pains to this new supernatural world around him, and functioned as if in a fog. Over several violent encounters, he routinely got his ass kicked and had to be saved by the side characters. Most of his dialogue consisted of complaining or lamenting his situation. He rarely made an important decision regarding the story, and the one or two times he did, it ended disastrously. The love interest character had all the agency, made all the decisions, and felt like a far more well-rounded person than the supposed protagonist. In essence, the novel felt like it had been written more about the side character than the main, who drifted along wherever the plot took him without doing much  more than curl up into a ball and hope not to get hurt too much.

As you may expect, I wound up not much caring what happened to him one way or the other, but I got invested in the side characters. The main became forgettable.

A few types of main characters that lack agency include:

The perpetual victim


This is a character who is weak (either physically, mentally, or both) and retreats from any and all conflict. They need to be saved from any situation that presents a challenge or danger, be it having to stand up to an antagonist at the office, a bully at school, or a more extreme situation such as being kidnapped, robbed, or someone trying to kill them.

The perpetual victim never takes control of a situation, frequently whines about why everything happens to them, and is always in need of rescue.

While it’s fine to have a character start off this way, the problem arises when they never develop agency throughout the course of the story. A main who starts off as the perpetual victim, but has an epiphany or awakening of courage/determination can make for a strong protagonist. However, if they remain always in the background, always needing someone else to make the decision, pull their ass out of the fire, and so on, they come off as uninteresting, and the reader will likely reach a point of eye-rolling and lose respect for the character.


The incompetent

This type of character is one who tries to have agency, but never quite manages to achieve it. Everything they try ends in failure, requiring other characters to step in and get things done. Note that in comedic stories (something along the lines of Greatest American Hero) where the failure is a shtick, this is fine. The problem arises when the story is not going for humor and the constant inadequacy of the main character gets cloying. The reader will likely reach a point of ‘oh come on’ with the character.

As with the perpetual victim, if the character’s arc eventually leads them to success/achieving their inner potential, awesome. Alas, if the character reaches the end of the story and still hasn’t done anything for themselves, the book could use some revisions to address their lack of agency.


The marshmallow

This type of character is a blend of weakness and apathy. They lack agency more out of their inability to decide on or do anything, and require other characters to make all the decisions or initiate any actions. A marshmallow’s friend might be threatened, and they’d be content to sit on the couch waiting for someone else to deal with it… taking no action until the side character shows up with ‘hey, we need to go out there and get Bob’s back.’

Outside of comedic intent, the marshmallow’s lack of urgency is a fast track to being uninteresting. Do something to your marshmallow. Shock him or her into action. Yes. Shock your marshmallow – don’t mind the smell. Some burning is normal.

David Victorious Over Goliath Painting by Gabriel Joseph Marie Augustin Ferrier; David Victorious Over Goliath Art Print for sale

David Victorious Over Goliath Painting by Gabriel Joseph Marie Augustin Ferrier

Characters need agency

In short, your protagonist needs to take control (at some point) of their story. No one starts off at the end of their journey, so it’s fine if your protagonist begins the story without agency. The problem arises when they fail to evolve and adapt. A character’s story arc is a journey that you should want the reader to take along with them. If a character is in the same place they are at the end of the book as they started, the boat has been missed.

The most interesting characters learn, grow, and develop strength. Give your characters the agency necessary to be the protagonist of their story; they shouldn’t feel like background elements to someone else’s.


Writing | Point of View


This post is part of Curiosity Quills’ A-Z blogging challenge. Click here to check out the rest!


One of the most important decisions facing a writer when they embark on the creation of a novel is choosing the point of view from which to tell the story. A different point of view can change the entire feel of a story, and a writer should take care to select the option they feel best suits what they are trying to do. Here are some thoughts on different POV options.

First Person

POV_1st person

First person POV allows the reader to experience a story as close as possible. This POV puts the reader smack dab in the character’s head. Sometimes first person is set up like the character is talking directly to the reader, while others an “interview” setup is used. (For example, the main character is recounting the events of the novel to a reporter, or a cop, or some other person… in that end they are ostensibly speaking to that other character.

When a story demands the reader be up close and personal with the main character, first person is the way to go. Be wary of head hopping in first person. If the character narrating the story can’t see, hear, feel, or know something, it shouldn’t be described. For example, if a character is hiding in a dark closet while burglars ransack the house, all the description of what the burglars do should be conveyed by sound. Describe noises that suggest what they might be doing, or share the characters thoughts on what they think the burglars are doing. If the narrator describes the thieves picking through her dresser drawers or trying to work the dial on a combination safe, and she hasn’t opened the closet door to peek at them – it’s an error, as she can’t see them doing it without leaving the closet.

Writing in first person allows the reader to share every emotion, thought, and feeling of the main character while dosing everything liberally with the character’s opinions and attitude. Some stories demand this POV as without the ‘tone’ of the main character’s opinions, they’d come off completely different in feel. The below excerpt is from “The Far Side of Promise,” a short story that demanded I write it in first person.

Futility was something I had long gotten used to since arriving on Planetoid R1840M. Some nimrod in a fancy suit, impressive office, and ridiculously expensive chair decided to name it ‘Promise’―as in a ‘bright new future with Far Horizon Mining.’ The only thing a day here promised was another fourteen hours of ass busting work extracting Mithrinium ore from an obstinate lump of rock. The surface was mostly hard and brittle as glass, with some large swaths of softer dirt and the occasional patch like driving a seventy-ton collector into a lake of wet baby shit.

Yeah, this is paradise.

That’s what the M stood for, by the way. Mithrinium, the highly volatile metallic salt somehow vital to the process of faster than light travel. I’m no chemist; all I know is the crap is worth a fortune, and the last guy to light up a butt within twenty meters of the stuff is probably back to Earth by now―without a ship. Either way, my ass fell for their bullshit story of a better life. Sure, the money isn’t bad, but it’s all waiting Earthside. Not like there’s anything to spend it on out here in the ass end of nowhere, anyway.

In first person, changing the POV character and staying in first person can confuse the reader. For example, in a nonexistent novel, Chapter 1 is Jenny getting ready to go off on a date with Clark, and Chapter 2 is Clark being all nervous about the upcoming evening. If both chapters are written in first person, it can mess with the reader’s head. After chapter 1, they’re acclimated to thinking of “I” as Jenny and hearing things in her voice. When they hit chapter 2 and they hear “I pace around the house, unable to sit still,” it gets confusing as to who “I” is.

While it is possible to pull off rotating POVs with first person it’s a lot harder to keep the reader from getting lost. (One trick I’ve seen done is to have the main character use first person POV and for chapters where someone else is the POV character, use third limited. That way, if the reader is seeing “I do this” and so on, they know whose head they’re in.

Tension and Mystery: for first person, the reader should not be made aware of things the character isn’t. If they’re heading into a building where a bomb has been planted, the reader is going to be as shocked and surprised as the character when they find it. (Hopefully with enough time to run away, or the story’s going to be short.) Likewise, if the protagonist is investigating a murder, the reader is not going to know who the killer is until the end (and the character solves the mystery – or doesn’t).

Inner monologue: sometimes novels present a character’s inner thoughts as dialogue, letting the reader ‘hear’ the little voice in the character’s mind. This is set off by italics.

Wow, coming here was really stupid of me.

In first person, as the entire narrative is told from the POV of being inside the characters head, inner monologue is attributed to the protagonist by virtue of it being inner monologue. They are not going to hear the mind voice of another person (barring telepathy). There is no need to use dialogue attribution for inner monologue (tacking an “I thought” onto it) as by virtue of it being first person, inner monologue is known to be coming from the narrator character.


Brings the reader right into the character’s head.

High immersion.

Allows dialogue conventions into the narrator voice, as the entire story feels like the main character talking to the reader. Colloquialisms and dialect are usable outside dialogue, and grammar rules take a back seat to the ‘feel’ of the narrative.


The reader can’t be made aware of anything the character doesn’t experience or know.

A frequent tendency to overuse “I,” as in sentences: “I do this. I do that. I see this” and so on.

Everything is presented in the framework of the main character’s personality. If a reader doesn’t like the character’s tone, it can put them off the entire story.

Second Person


Second person is (thankfully) rare in fiction writing, as it can be quite awkward to read. In this POV, the narrative speaks to the reader. “You approach the end of the corridor. Rusty patches mottle the door in front of you where the grey paint has peeled away.”

Perhaps my eighties are showing, but this tense always makes me think of the “choose your own” adventure type novels. This POV is rare in fiction writing and tends to show up more in “self-help” books, how-to manuals, roleplaying game books, and writing of a similar nature.

Tension and mystery: With second person, the narrative is presenting information to the reader as the reader becomes aware of it, so, like first person, nothing the character/reader is unaware of gets presented. Tension originates from wondering what happens next.

Inner Monologue: Considering the protagonist of second person writing is the reader, there likely isn’t much need to even use inner monologue here.


If you can pull this off, you’ve joined a short list of novelists who can.



Prone to overusing ‘you’ in the way that first person can overuse ‘I.’

Third Person (Limited)

POV_3rd person

Limited third person is arguably my preferred POV as a writer. It combines the exclusivity of the POV character’s experience with a wider “camera angle” so to speak. While everything presented to the reader in limited third must remain within the grasp of the protagonist’s knowledge as in first, this POV does not read like the main character is telling their story.

It is a slight step back from first person, one I compare to standing next to the character as the story unfolds (rather than being the character), but still standing right in the scene with them. Here is an example of third limited from my upcoming vampire novel, Chiaroscuro: Forsaken of Heaven.

Devoted to his preparations, Father Antonio Molinari weathered the bumps and sways of a moving coach while attempting to decipher the rather rushed handwriting of Pope Pius IX. The task would’ve been daunting even in stationary surroundings and without the horrors of Vienna still fresh in his mind. Whenever he closed his eyes to sleep, he found himself surrounded by it again: the chill upon his back, the smell of death, and the sound of fear―a pounding heartbeat in his head. His work for the Order of Saint Michael brought him face to face with sights that defied the science of mankind to explain, and the soul to withstand.

When he could no longer tolerate staring at blurry smears masquerading as words, he wiped at his eyes and sighed. Crumbled bits of red and white wax flaked onto his black pants as he rearranged the pile of missives in his lap, a modest parcel of cloth in the facing seat his only traveling companion. Warm air streaming through the window carried the scent of meadow grass and pollen.

He grasped the red-padded wall when the wheels hit a rough patch. Two lanterns hanging outside the carriage swayed and thumped against the sides. His surroundings pitched and rocked, and the tall grass rushed by, dotted here and there by white sheep and goats. Two teenaged boys and a dog attempted to keep them grouped; the sheep seemed compliant, but the goats went wherever they pleased.

Once the road smoothed, he settled against the plush bench and spread open the letters. The topmost, he had already read four times. A man, Henri Baudin, claimed his daughter suffered the harrowing of Satan. His words were terse, earnest, and packed with desperation. The condition of the paper, worn and refolded, supported the story it had been passed through many hands.

Beneath it laid two replies from local clergy to an inquiry Father Molinari had sent in response to the man’s request. The first, penned by a Father Michaud, claimed the young woman seemed normal to him, and showed little sign of external influence. A deacon from an outlying chapel also wrote to say he believed the woman was only seeking attention. While no one claimed to have witnessed any arguments, the deacon believed she wished to delay or avoid an imminent wedding.

Somehow, the case had been elevated to a bishop who had seen fit to refer it to Molinari’s immediate superior, Cardinal Benedetto.

He’d barely set his bundle down in his room before the summons came.

“No rest for the wicked… or the righteous.” He rubbed fatigue from the bridge of his nose, offering a halfhearted smile at his belongings, as if the lump might answer.

With third limited, it’s possible to change POV among characters, but it should be done in an organized fashion. Ideally, the use of breaks or entire chapters to separate one character’s POV from another. Each section should have a specific character who “owns” the point of view, and the events and thoughts described therein limited to those of the POV character. When something slips in that shouldn’t, like a statement of intention or knowledge the POV character couldn’t possibly be aware of, that’s a “head hop.”

For example, in a chapter where William is the POV character, if he’s talking to a shady character named Carl, and something like this happens:

“Didn’t you tell us the mine would be opened in a week?” asked William.

Carl looked down, chuckling. He needed a few more hours to get the bodies out of there, and couldn’t let anyone – least of all the son of the owner – find them. “Maybe I did, but there’s been an issue with the struts in Shaft C. Inspector’s not lettin’ anyone down there yet. Go on home. I’ll call ya as soon as we get the go-ahead.”

Here, the narrative presents knowledge that is both Carl’s intention (to keep William from going into the mine under false pretenses) as well as knowledge William couldn’t have (there are dead bodies in the mine). In third limited, the above example is a “head hop.” Things should be limited to what William can see or know. However, in omniscient third, the above section would be fine.

Tension and mystery: In third limited, let’s say your protagonist is about to go into a building where the “forces of evil” have planted a bomb. Neither the character nor the reader knows the bomb is there until the character finds it. This creates a sensation of surprise and shock.

Another example of this could be a story about a detective and a killer. Neither the protagonist nor the reader has a clue who the killer is for sure, and every other character they interact with might potentially be the murderer. The reader finds out when the character finds out. Tension comes from not knowing and wondering who it is / trying to figure it out along with the protagonist.

It is possible to present more of a “thriller” than a mystery even in third limited, but it would require a POV shift to show the “bad guy’s” side of things. An alternate chapter where the reader sees out of the killer’s eyes, so the reader knows who the killer is but the protagonist still doesn’t, or the reader gets a POV out of the person planting the bomb before the protagonist shows up at the house.

Inner monologue: Like first person, in third limited, the inner monologue (indicated by italics) represents the current POV character’s mind voice. This inner monologue line appears like dialogue, but in italics, and it does not need dialogue attribution (tags or beats) as it is identified as belonging to the POV character by virtue of it being inner monologue.

For example: [ Coming here was a really stupid idea, he thought. ] is an error as inner monologue in third limited doesn’t need attribution. It’s already attributed to the POV character by virtue of being inner monologue.


Keeps the reader close to the action (though not quite as close as first person).

Useful for stories where multiple POV characters are used in a rotating basis. (Telling multiple stories that intertwine.)

It is a common POV readers are comfortable with.


Lends itself to filtering words. Saw, heard, felt, realized. Filtering (while not an error) lessens immersion and weakens the writing.

May tempt writers into head hopping when the narrative presents things the POV character couldn’t know or experience.

Third Person (Omniscient)


Omniscient third is another step back away from the character. If third limited equates to the reader standing in the scene near the character, omniscient is more like the reader is watching the story on a screen. They’ve been removed from the scene and are no longer limited to the thoughts and experiences of one character at a time.

Many beginning writers gravitate to omniscient narration for various reasons, presumably out of a desire to “show everything” to the reader. Paradoxically, omniscient is more difficult to write well than third limited. A lot of new writers mistake excessive head hopping for writing in omniscient third. There are times when writing done in third limited looks identical to writing done in third omniscient, the difference lies in the nature of the information presented to the reader. It’s a common mistake to set out to write in omniscient third, but produce what is essentially third limited with a ton of head hops. The primary difference lies in being objective versus subjective.

True omniscient third uses an objective perspective where the narrator has no emotional bias or perspective skew in favor of any of the characters. Third limited, by default, is subjective toward the POV character, tinting things with that characters opinions and bias. A poor implementation (where an attempt to write in omni produces head hoppy third person) creates a confusing tangle of rotating subjective perspectives.

The challenge when writing in omniscient (and why I will admit I am not a fan) is the distance it creates between the reader and the characters/action. With the extra layer of separation between characters and reader, creating that feeling of being immersed in the action becomes more difficult. When done well, it allows for complex multi-layered stories, but it’s easy to wind up with a book where the reader never quite gets past that feeling of “staring at words on a page” rather than being in the world.

I often grumble about filtering and how it lessens immersion. Omniscient narration is another type of removal from the action. In third limited, filtering makes the reader feel like they’re watching the story happen on a screen rather than being in there with the character. Omniscient narration also feels like the story is happening on the screen. Filtering inside omniscient narration is like having the television on in the other room and all the reader’s getting is the audio. (For more information on filtering check out: https://www.matthewcoxbooks.com/wordpress/2014/03/28/writing-on-filtering/ )

Tension and Mystery: with omniscient, the narration contains all sorts of information from a “top down” view that the character doesn’t know. Rather than take the reader along while the bomber plants the bomb, the narrative may simply use a device like “Bob walked into the house, unaware that Dave planted two pounds of C4 in the basement on a six minute timer.”

In omniscient writing, the tension comes from knowing things the protagonist doesn’t, and watching them careen toward the apparent disaster they’re blithely unaware of. Also, the narrative is free to add deeper and deeper bits of information that the character has no way to know. For example, the narrative might mention something that the previous owner of the house did fifty years ago before the protagonist was born, and a long-standing feud between them and some corporation. Another example: Consider a scene where characters miraculously survive, say, a train crash. The narrative may tell us that the empty lot their train car rolled through once contained a house destroyed in a tornado… and the only reason it remained an empty lot (and didn’t have another building there which would’ve killed the characters) was that the insurance company continued fighting the claim.

Inner monologue: in omniscient third, the reader is never “in anyone’s head” specifically, so inner monologue needs attribution like other dialogue, as it has no default POV.

Man, coming here was a damn stupid idea, thought Ronald.


Allows the author to show things to the reader that the protagonist does not know. Also allows showing things that no characters know.

Useful in stories where the inner thoughts and feelings of multiple characters need to be shown to the reader often within the same chapter, and scene breaks / POV shifts would be too numerous or clumsy otherwise.


May lend itself to long swaths of exposition that interrupt the flow of a scene as unnecessary details are presented.

Low immersion. The reader is not brought as close into the story as other POVs.

More difficult to pull off well than other POVs. Easy to mistake third limited with head hops for omniscient.


I once read something in third person present tense, and never quite managed to pierce that feeling that “I am reading a book” versus being part of the story. Third present sounded like I’d had the auditory captioning turned on for a TV show, a voice-over narrator describing what the character did. I suppose it didn’t help that the writer made consistent use of short, choppy sentences:

Bill sits at his desk. Bill turns on the computer. The screen lights up. Bill opens a program and starts typing. The phone rings. Bill picks up the phone.

Most of the book read like that, and it didn’t do much for me.

Other than that, the choice of past or present tense is a style decision. First person present (I walk to the window and look down at my parents unloading the car.) vs past (I walked to the window and looked down at my parents as they unloaded the car.) doesn’t have as much of an impact on the feel of the story as the decision between first or third person. The most important thing to do with tense is to ensure consistency. Be careful not to drift back and forth from one tense to another, especially if you are trying something new (present tense) that you aren’t used to writing in.

Tense can also be used for effect, such as a story wherein the “real time” events are narrated in present tense while frequent flashbacks are written in past tense. In this way, tense can provide a subtle clue to the reader to reinforce that the flashback parts are in the past.

Choose Wisely

When you’re planning out a story, take some time to consider what point of view will help the most. Is it important to keep the reader in the dark along with the character? (Choose first or third limited). Is it vital that the reader knows what everyone is thinking at all times? (Choose omniscient and put on a helmet). Are you writing a manual, guidebook, or doing something quirky? (Consider second but be wary).

Happy writing!


Interview | Tiffany Hoffman – FicFest writer’s contest


Greetings all,

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Tiffany Hoffman, a writerly friend of mine, who is running a new writer’s contest called #FicFest. The aim is to bring manuscripts and literary agents together with writing submissions from five categories: Children’s Books, Middle Grade, Young Adult, New Adult, and Adult.

Manuscripts will go through a few rounds of voting and be filtered down to an equal number of finalists in each category (so there isn’t a glut of YA for example). From the finalists, a pool of (I think the last count was nineteen) literary agents will be requesting partials and/or fulls.

The contest is looking for complete manuscripts (not manuscripts in need of editing / polish). Think of it like submitting your work to an agent directly, only with a wider net of a contest instead of the single fishing line of a query.

From the details, it looks like forty-five manuscripts will be considered finalists (nine of each category). Agents will be requesting partials/fulls for any of the finalist manuscripts that pique their interest.

This seems to be a great opportunity to get your work in front of agents looking for writing in your genre. Entries aren’t open yet, but keep your eye on this site for more details:




  • Tell us a little about how FicFest got started. What inspired you to put this together?

For the New Year, I posted a blog with my 2016 goals. One of those goals was to start my own writing contest. I’ve been entering contests such as PitchWars and such for the last fews years, but I really wanted to design the type of contest I knew I’d enter myself.

  • Up and coming authors are no doubt going to be quite grateful for this opportunity. Who or what convinced you to deal with the burden of managing something like this?

I remember my first contest, which was Brenda Drake’s Pitch Wars in 2014. Through the process of submission, a fellow writer and I launch a webshow called ‘Whiskey, Wine, and Writing’. We interviewed the PitchWars mentors and the creator of the contest, and one of the underlying reasons they all participated each year was because of the joy in helping another writer realize their dream of signing with an agent and moving to publication.

In late 2015, I opened my own freelance editing business called Deep Water Editorial Services, and as I worked with clients, I realized how much I really loved helping other writers better their work and move toward their dreams. #FicFest is a fun way to keep doing that. To give other writers feedback and help get their manuscripts in front of the agents who can help make their publishing dreams come true.

  • If FicFest had a “mission statement,” what would it be?

I think our mission is to provide a fair and equal contest to all writers were one category does not over power another, giving every finalists an equal chance to get request from agents, and giving agents a real diverse spread to request from.

  • How did you get the interest of agents to participate in something like this?

When we started looking for agents, I thought it was going to be hard getting them to participate. We wrote a letter to request agent participation which not only invited the agent to join but explained to them what #FicFest was, when the agent round was, and why this contest would be a good one for them to participate in. Then we waited. Within a week the confirmations started coming in.

The agents were just as eager to join as we were to host this contest. As of right now, we have 19 literary agents confirmed to participate in our agent round, and I’m thinking that number may very well go up before July.

  • Who is FicFest for? (Who should be looking to submit entries?)

This is the beautiful thing about #FicFest. The only category we are NOT accepting is non-fiction. Every other category and genre is welcome. We accept Picture Books, Middle Grade, Young Adult, New Adult and Adult. EVERY genre is welcome as well. From contemporary to erotica. Our goal is to host a contest that gives a fair chance to each of the five categories, and every genre.

  • Can you shed a little light on how the vetting process works? I.e. how does a story go from being submitted to advancing to the next round and eventually to finalist status?

The submission process is fairly easy. While, I can’t lay out what material must be submitting at this time, (The official submission guidelines will go live on my blog on March 20th), I can say that to submit, each person will have to send in a submission email with all the required material during the submission window, which is 12:00 AM EST on April 24th until 11:59 PM EST on April 25th.

Once the submission window closes; the #FicFest mentor teams will spend the next week reading through submissions and choosing their finalists and alternates. There are three teams for each category. Each team will be choosing three finalists to advance to the agent round, and one alternate. This means that there will be a total of 15 alternates and 45 manuscripts that move to the agent round. On May 4, 2016, we will announce the finalists and alternates via my blog and they will then begin working with their mentor teams to get their manuscripts ready for the agent round in July!

  • Is there anything that authors should not send in for this contest?

Unfinished manuscripts. Our mentor teams will be working with a total of 4 manuscripts (3 finalists and one alternate) and they only have 8 weeks for revisions before the agent round. If the manuscript isn’t as polished and query ready as the author can get it, there is just no way it will be ready in the 8 weeks before the agent round. So, before submitting, writers should make sure that they are submitting a polished manuscript.

Do not submit a first draft, and do not submit a manuscript that you’re not finished writing. We also will not take any manuscript that has already been a finalist in another 2016 contest. If you were a finalist for Sun vs Snow this year, for example, do not submit the same manuscript to #FicFest. And lastly, we won’t accept any manuscript that has previously been slef-published.

  • I noticed one of the categories is “Children’s Books.” Are you looking for books with completed illustrations or the manuscript itself in this category?

Both. Many Picture Book writers already work with illustrators, or are illustrators. We will accept those that have illustrations and those that do not.

  • When the time comes, how do authors send in manuscripts? Is there an email address or a website they should be looking for?

All submissions for the contest will be emailed to us at ficfest (at) gmail (dot) com.


FicFest Schedule:

March 20, 2016 @ 12:00 PM EST

Guidelines & Theme Reveal


March 27, 2016 @ 7:00 PM EST

Meet the Team Leads & Their Members!


April 3, 2016 @ 6:00 PM EST

Agent List Announced


April 17, 2016 @ 7:00 PM EST – 10:00 PM EST

Q & A with Team Leads & Host


April 24, 2016 @ 12:00 AM EST – April 25, 2016 @ 11:59 PM EST



April 26, 2016 – May 3, 2016

Teams will choose their finalists/alternate


May 4, 2016 @ 10:00 AM EST

Finalists/Alternate Reveal


May 5, 2016 – June 30, 2016



July 8, 2016 @ 12:00 AM EST – July 14, 2014 @ 11:59 PM EST

Agent Round

Writing | Dialogue Errors


Dialogue can be one of the hardest things to do for some writers and feel effortless for others, but one thing is true for every novel: Great dialogue has the power to make a mediocre story shine, and poor dialogue can make a great story crash and burn. A novel can have the most epic plot in the world, but if a reader can’t keep a straight face whenever the characters open their mouths, it’s going to be a memorable read (and not for the right reasons).

Perfect grammar abounds

I’ve edited or proofread some manuscripts where every character (from wealthy to street kid) spoke with perfect and complete grammar, each sentence formed to the letter of the grammarian’s bible. Despite being technically correct, this is not how people talk. It reads stiff and stilted, and you can almost picture the characters as high school students snoring their way through a drama class reading while holding the script in their hands. It’s most noticeable as a problem when a character who is supposed to have had no formal education is whipping out sentences that sound like an Oxford English scholar.

Of course it isn’t necessary to load every character’s dialogue up with slang and poor grammar, but when your entire cast sounds like they all have a masters in English literature, it’s going to ring false to the reader.


People are different. Another problem I see from time to time is dialogue that has no sense of identity to it. A story where every character sounds the same gets tired fast. If you can pick out any ten random lines of dialogue, and the lack of personality in the words makes them easily able to have come from any character in the story, something is wrong.

Think about co-workers or friends around you. Do any of them have ways of speaking unique to them? A word or phrase they use all the time that’s odd, a piece of home-made slang they picked up as a kid? Some people say “that’s cool” a lot, others use the F bomb like a piece of punctuation, even when they’re not upset.

Consider how your character’s background shapes the way they talk. Similar to the ‘perfect grammar’ issue, a reader ought to be able to feel who belongs to dialogue by the way the words are arranged and used.

The best dialogue carries a sense of personality, bringing the words to life as though they came from a real person, not a thought construct in some author’s mind. One technique is to make use of dialect-izing the words, illustrating a phonetic pronunciation. Be careful with this though as taking it too far can vary from being offensive (if it trips a stereotype) to indecipherable (if the dialect is laid on too thick). Another way is to use normal spelling, but use odd word order, which matches regional modes of speaking or conveys a sense of a less formal education.

Slang also plays a strong part in lending personality to a character when it is appropriate for them, further letting the reader into the world that character came from.

Overused phrases / beats

Repetition stands out to readers, and this also holds true for dialogue. If you find characters saying the same things over and over, or using the same dialogue beats (such as shaking the head, nodding, shrugging) constantly, change them. If every time a character speaks, there’s a head shake involved, it’s going to stand out to the reader. If another character can’t seem to open their mouth without nodding along with the words… that’s also a problem.

Be wary of nodding and shrugging, as they are particularly overused dialogue beats.

Inappropriate slang

If you’re writing a story set during the American Civil War, having a character say “oops, my bad” is going to come off as fake as Trump’s hair. A character’s dialogue needs to be authentic to the time period and setting that the story happens in (unless you’re writing a farce and using the dichotomy for comedic effect).

This, of course, requires a little research into slang terms or turns of phrase, to determine when they came in to popular use. Also, bear in mind that each time period has its own set of slang phrases that have fallen out of disuse. Words like “gadzooks” for example, which sound old-timey and anachronistic now were once used the way modern people say “OMG.”

Before sending a manuscript off to your beta readers (and hopefully before it gets sent to an agent or publisher) make sure the terms your characters use are appropriate to their setting. Nothing breaks a reader’s immersion quite as much as something like a character supposedly in Victorian England saying, “Yo, this is bogus man.”

Plastic words

Dialogue is an excellent tool to carry the emotion of your characters off the page and into the reader’s mind. Consider a characters mental and emotional state when crafting their dialogue, and try to avoid lines that sound “canned” or “cheesy.” If your character walks in on someone murdering their wife/husband and comes off sounding like they’re in a piece of 1950s pulp― “You’re an evil, evil man, Mr. Burroughs, and I’ll not stand for it any longer!”―and you’re not writing 1950s pulp, re-evaluate the “naturalness” of their words.

If you’re writing teenagers or children and they sound like a fifty year old librarian, something’s not quite right. Of course it’s possible for one kid in the high school to be awkward and stilted – “I do not think we should do this. If we get caught, we will be in a lot of trouble.” – but when all the teens sound like this, it ruins the mood. Injecting emotion and personality into the dialogue will help keep your characters sounding like real people.

One trick that can help is to read your dialogue out loud and see if you feel like a tool saying it. (For those introverted authors, feel free to do this behind two locked doors with the lights off and earplugs in your cat, but do it.) If you read it out loud and think: Damn, no one in real life would ever talk like this, chances are, the dialogue needs some tweaking.

Inauthentic dialogue that comes off plastic pulls the reader out of the world you’re trying to create and (if the examples are bad enough) can result in unintentional humor.


Double tagging

This is a mechanical error with dialogue that I’ve been seeing quite a bit of lately. The double-tag is when a dialogue paragraph has multiple attributions, which are unnecessary. Dialogue attribution is the means by which an author tells the reader who belongs to the dialogue. By convention, dialogue within the same paragraph belongs to the same character, so only one attribution is needed in the paragraph.

Dialogue attribution takes three forms:

Tags: Tags are saidisms like “Bill said” or “Jane yelled” or “Ed whispered.”

“I’ll meet you there at six,” said Mary.

Commas are used to separate dialogue tags from the dialogue.

Beats: Beats are action snippets that allow ‘stage direction’ into the dialogue to keep action going on while characters talk.


Gene flicked the safety off and raised the Glock. “Look here you son of a bitch, I ain’t gonna say this again.”

Periods separate beats from dialogue in this case, but sometimes the beat can come in the middle of a sentence. When the action does not interrupt the dialogue, it is separated by emdashes as so:

“Just so we’re all clear on this”―James clicked the remote, switching the presentation to the next slide―”I expect all of you to be willing to pitch in the extra hours this’ll take.”

If the action beat interrupts the dialogue, one dash (inside the quotes) is used to show the cutoff, then the dialogue may or may not continue after:

“Looks like we’re going to be late. Where is―” Kate jumped at a sudden explosion out back. “What the hell was that?”

Context: The third method to attribute dialogue is context tagging. This can be done in a few different ways. First, the way the dialogue sounds could belong to a specific character’s speaking style, that is obvious enough to tell the reader who is talking:

“I ain’ seen nuffin ‘aike dis afore.”

Or, the dialogue could be a direct answer to a question or a direct response to other dialogue addressing the character by name:

“Bill, where’s that damn USB stick?” asked Dave.

“Hell if I know.” (This line is indicated to be Bill speaking because it’s a direct answer, and the previous line addresses Bill by name.)

Another way to context-tag dialogue is if the dialogue only makes sense from one character. For example, if there are three characters in a scene, and only one of them is pregnant, a line of dialogue talking about feeling a painful contraction would only make sense coming from the pregnant character.

The problem: So that brings me back to the error of double tagging. Once dialogue has been attributed to a character, the reader knows that all the dialogue in the same paragraph is supposed to come from the same character, so an error like this is not needed:

Hank brought the pickup to a stop by the broken fence post, and got out. “Damn things are gettin’ bolder by the week,” he said.

Here, the dialogue is initially attributed by the action beat of Hank parking his truck. The “he said” at the end doesn’t do anything but increase the word count of the manuscript by 2. Avoid using “he said” or “she said” as “periods,” “stops,” or “pauses” in dialogue, that’s not what the tag is for. One dialogue attribution per paragraph is all that’s needed (and it is not necessary to hard-attribute every single paragraph of dialogue).

If there are only two characters in a scene, an attribution is needed only once every couple of lines to keep the reader from getting lost. If there are more characters involved in the conversation, more tags can be necessary so the reader doesn’t get lost as to who is speaking―but there is never a reason to tack on an extra ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ on dialogue already attributed.

(One example from an edit I worked on had an action beat as well as three “he saids” in the same paragraph.)

Memorable Characters

In short, dialogue is a great way to make memorable, believable characters. It’s also an easy way to make ridiculous characters if your dialogue is not handled with the care it demands. Try to picture a particular voice in your mind and hear the character speaking. Then, say their lines out loud and see if they sound “natural.” Last, avoid re-using the same beats and phrases repeatedly, and make sure if your character uses a slang term, that the term existed in their time period.

Happy writing!



Writing | Outlining


It’s been a little over a week since I posted, so I figure it’s about time. The mental dart I threw at the wall landed on outlining, so I’ll ramble on a bit about my process. A bit over twenty years ago, I took my first stab at trying to write something that I hadn’t been ordered to write by a teacher. I’d been into role-playing games for quite some time by then, and the crux of that (aside from number-mashy combat) is developing characters and storylines.

Concept image of a lost and confused signpost against a blue cloudy sky.

So, way back when, I made the synaptic leap to go from telling on-the-fly stories to writing one down. The attempt wound up meandering for a few dozen pages and collapsing. Some writers are adept at sitting down with an idea or two in their head and just typing willy nilly until they have a novel in front of them. (The good ones can even establish a cohesive plot while doing this; the rest keep content editors employed.)

Alas, I do not count myself among that type of writer, at least, not for novel length. A couple of my short stories worked that way though. For anything with length or (as I tend to prefer) some intricacies of plot, I found myself getting lost. Unlike Wymore, I couldn’t just light a goat on fire and follow it to the end of a story. (Perhaps it’s ‘Pick on Wymore day,’ perhaps I’m infringing on Defendi’s schtick, but the goat is still screaming so I’m doing it anyway.)

screaming goat

When I finally got around to trying again I decided I wasn’t going to run around in circles following smoldering hoof prints in the grass. I wound up building an outline that served as a backbone from which to hang the story I wanted to tell. (Granted, as most writers may or may not be willing to confess, that book wound up being monolithic – over 400k words… and still hasn’t seen the light of day. Hell, I’ve been afraid to look at it myself for years.)


But, it broke the wall.

Outlining for me has become de rigueur. Usually I’ll spend a few days randomly throwing plot nuggets on paper in the form of a sentence or two. Scenes for character development, plot turns, major events as well as minor, all drop into an Excel sheet in no particular order. Once I feel like I’ve dumped enough clay on the wheel, I start moving stuff around into an order that makes sense to me. Sometimes I’ll add more at this point; oh, who am I kidding – I always do.

With everything sorted into order, next comes chapter names. I’m not sure why that stuck with me, but I’m fond of them! (And no amount of burning goats will change that.)


So, now I’ve got an outline full of named chapter blurbs. These chapter segments vary from 500 words of detail to something as simple as ‘fight with demon here.’ (That was the chapter outline for Division Zero, Lex De Mortuis where Kirsten gets attacked by the demon in the abandoned skyscraper.)

This is not to say that the outline is immutable or iron-clad. Often, as I am writing the story out, something will occur to me or the characters will go off and do something that makes more sense than what I’d initially conceived. When this happens, I change stuff. I suppose to that regard, my writing style could be called a hybrid of outlining and ‘pantsing,’ with a heavier lean toward the outline.

The most significant example of a change occurred while I was writing Prophet of the Badlands. This is book one of a six-part series, and I had a general idea of how I wanted things to go for the entire series while writing Prophet. I got the idea to do that as a series at the same time I got the idea for Division Zero. Since Division Zero was a simpler story (one main character versus 5 + multiple antagonists) I decided to write it first. All the while I wrote Division Zero, it felt as though Althea (MC of Prophet) was standing behind me, arms crossed, foot tapping, asking me ‘is it my turn yet’ every fifteen minutes.

Property Andrew Hefter

Property Andrew Hefter

Once I finished Division Zero 1 and began the querying process to get it published, I started on Prophet. This is a story about a girl with powers of healing in a blasted wasteland where medical technology is nonexistent. Naturally, she’s a valuable commodity. Althea is almost inhumanly sweet and tolerates a level of mistreatment that would break most people’s will. Throughout it all, she focuses on her desire to help people regardless of what they do to her. The story is about her finding courage.

Initially, she is quiet, timid, and afraid of how people will react if she uses her ‘other’ abilities to protect herself. At about the 55% (rough estimate) mark, the outline called for something to happen. (Pardon the vagary here; I’m trying not to spoil for those who haven’t read it.) At the time I outlined it, it made sense to me―a temporary reprieve at a particular place before the cycle of being grabbed by others looking to exploit her abilities continued.

However, Althea had other plans. She formed a strong emotional connection to another character that I had not anticipated. When it came time for the outlined event to occur, she put her foot down and refused. Considering primary story arc involved her evolution from a meek and timid “All I want to do is help people no matter how mean they are” person to having the inner strength to stand up for herself, I couldn’t say no.

So, the outline changed.

And the entire series changed course because of it.

I’m not trying to say that outlining is better than pantsing. For me, it is―but a writer has to do what works for them. Especially with complex plots, I need to have an idea of where I’m heading or I’m going to get lost on the way.

Probably a good point for me to cease rambling before the goat explodes.

exploding goat

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