Terror Bolt

Random writing prompt found online: “The wizard’s terror bolt lances overhead.”

Whoever called battles “firefights” really knew what they were talking about. And this was the mother of all firefights. Lightning flashed in jagged, random directions. Fireballs streaked across the sky, leaving trails of smoke. Beams of laser-like light stabbed from one end of the heavens to the other. Staccato missile fire slashed dashed lines through the maelstrom. And then, cutting a wide purple swath across it all, the wizard’s terror bolt lanced overhead.

Instantly, the firefight stopped, the purple glow fading to the inky starlight of nighttime. Visually, the chaos had turned to peaceful darkness. But the cacophony of explosions and weapons fire transformed to the equally loud sounds of screaming and shouting. On the ground, the combatants ran every which way, suddenly swerving into new directions, terrified, whenever their paths threatened to cross. Intending to sway the course of battle for his side, the wizard had inadvertently leveled the playing field by instilling equal measures of terror on both sides.

He looked down on the confusion, shrugged his shoulders. While the anarchy playing out on the battlefield could be characterized as anything but peaceful, he had in fact created a temporary peace. Everyone was possessed by abject terror, but at least they weren’t fighting and killing each other anymore. If nothing else, it bought him some time to tinker with the battle plan and ready a new spell.

One that he would be sure to target more accurately this time.

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The Starry Night

Freewriting from the first writing prompt I found with a random Google search: “What painting would you like to step into?”

I couldn’t believe my eyes.

In my life, I’ve been lucky enough to witness a great many celestial wonders. On a camping trip in northern Minnesota, I watched aurora borealis greens and golds and pinks swirl across the sky like psychedelic cream poured into a cup of black tea. As a teenager, I saw shooting stars streak across the night sky at a rate of thousands per hour, a true meteor storm that comes only once every several decades. And rarity of rarities, I’ll never forget that black night in the middle of the afternoon when I stood in the shadow of the moon during a total solar eclipse.

But this? Fantastic whirpools, rivers, waves of light cascading across the midnight blue sky. Currents and eddies flowing with and against each other. And the moon—O swollen moon, an overripe lemon that would burst if only you could touch it. A blinding crescent, shining out and piercing your soul, floating above like a benevolent Eye of Sauron.

I picked my way down the broken hillside, itself glowing a dull but eldritch blue, magical-by-association via reflection from the otherworldly heavens. I looked for my house in the town below. There it was, like a cerulean Jack-o-lantern, a welcoming yellow light leaking out the front window to contrast the blue raining down from above. Next to it, the church dominated the landscape, its steeple poking the sky like a syringe, taking a sample from the cold-blooded firmament.

The path below me grew rough and unstable, scree threatening to give way under my feet. Reluctantly drawing my gaze away from the wonders above, I chose each footstep carefully, looking for the best purchase in the dim light.

It was then I saw the trail of blood. In the blue light, it looked black as tar, but the pattern of fat droplets and splatterings left no doubt what it was. Staying put amongst the loose gravel, I followed the blood with my eyes as it led off the trail to a small rocky ledge. Despite the precariousness of my position, I gingerly stepped off the trail and made my way onto the ledge.

And there, in a black tarry pool, it lay: a man’s ear, still wet with blood.


Becoming a Landlord

I don’t really have a writing problem. I have a plotting problem. Make me sit down and write for an hour, I can usually kick-start myself and write something. But whether it’s a coherent part of something bigger, or just a thousand words of gibberish, is often debatable. So often I simply don’t write, because I feel (rightly or not) that it’s a waste of time if I’m not progressing toward a finished product.

I’ve always been a “pantser”—a writer who writes by the seat of his pants, rather than in adherence to an outline. I’ve completed two feature-length screenplays and a handful of short stories that way. And it’s hard. Yes, you can walk around the entire planet, but how much harder on yourself do you make it by abandoning map and compass?

So as I prep to write my first novel, I’m finally outlining first. (I should say, “as I prep to finish my first novel; I’ve “pantsed” half of one already, an approach on which I blame its stalled and unfinished nature.) One outlining technique I’ve found useful so far is a nuts-and-bolts method of taking total target word count and breaking it down by average word count of scenes. This gives me a total target number of scenes, which I can further organize by act. This way, I have a good general idea of how many scenes I need to write to get to point A, point B and so on. And the target word count per scene gives me a goal for each writing session.

Here are a couple of articles I found useful for this approach:

Plotting a Novel By the Numbers (Live Write Breathe)

How Long Should a Scene in a Novel Be? (BeKindRewrite)

I look at it this way: I’m a landlord, and I’m building a furnished apartment building that I want fully occupied. How can I get there if I don’t know how many rooms I have to furnish or how many tenants I need to fill the place?


Max Barry’s 15 Ways to Write a Novel

Yes, this is yet another post with writing advice from Max Barry. Before this week, I’d never heard of him, and now I’ve written three blog postings to share his words of writing wisdom.

There are as many ways to write as there are writers, so your success as a writer depends on finding your way to write, the one that works best for you. There’s the quota approach espoused by NaNoWriMo, the pantser plan (or lack thereof), the retreat routine and many more.

I found this list of 15 ways to write a novel by Barry inspiring. Is there any one single method that will work for me? Unlikely, and perhaps not for you either. But whether or not these ways will work for you, they’ll get you thinking about what will get you to the last page.

For my part, I’m thinking one approach is to spend 15 weeks writing a novel, spending a week at a time using each of these 15 methods. If nothing else, it’ll help me figure out which one(s) work(s) best for me.


Kill Your Abominations

If you’ve read much about the craft of writing, you’ve surely heard the phrase “kill your darlings,” variously attributed to William Faulkner, Stephen King and even Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.

But author Max Barry has much better advice: kill your bad ideas, those abominations you never should have given birth to in the first place. If you’re blocked, if your writing isn’t flowing, if it feels like hard work, it’s probably because you’re writing a crappy idea that you should immediately throw out.

Read Barry’s excellent advice here: It’s not me, it’s you


How to Write a Great Science Fiction Novel in 7 Easy Steps

That title misleads in so many ways:

  • As if any “how to” can guide you to write anything that’s “great.” You either have it in you, or you don’t.
  • As if following seven easy steps can lead you to writing a novel, regardless of whether it’s great, or science fiction, or both (or neither).
  • That any steps that might guide you to write a novel would really be “easy.”
  • That following said steps, if they indeed helped you write a science fiction novel, would make your novel great.
  • That you really have to follow seven steps to write a novel. (You only need three: “1. Write. 2. Keep writing until you’re done. 3. Stop writing.”)

Having said all that, these 7 easy steps from Max Barry are awesome, because they strip away the fear, the insecurity, the sheer crushing weight that the prospect of writing a novel inspires. Steps 1, 2 and 3 are all about the basic tools you’ll need, the all-important step 4 is about JUST DOING IT—with the excellent sub-steps 4(a) and 4(b) helping you to get through it. Skip the remaining steps until you need them.

You’re still here? Go read the steps, and then go write!


Proper Manuscript Formatting

Making sure your manuscript is formatted properly is not optional. Submitting your work without following accepted formatting guidelines is like going to a job interview in your pajamas—without showering.

Trouble is, there are a wide variety of such guidelines living out in the wild on the web. Some are too general, others offer conflicting advice, still others are so difficult to digest that they offer little practical usefulness.

So as a public service to other writers out there, I wanted to share these excellent manuscript formatting guidelines by William Shunn. Not only do they cover the basics (use of monospace font like Courier, underlines instead of italics, what to put on the title page), they also present the information in the form of a manuscript—which is a perfect way to show as well as tell (as every good author should do).