Monthly Archives: January 2016

5 Ways to Punch Writer’s Block in the Face

Let’s imagine writer’s block has a face. Choose a high school bully or the dude who cut you off in traffic the other day. That’s your writer’s block. That’s the nefarious entity that has plugged up all the words. It happens to almost all of us.

(Ignore those writers who say they are never blocked. They are like people who can eat entire cakes and never gain weight. They are exceptions, and extremely aggravating at that.)

So, how do we punch writer’s block in the face? Let’s count the ways. Five ways, to be exact.

1) Figure out why you might be blocked.
Rant about it to a friend. Blog about it. Ponder the matter as you pound your head into the keyboard. Are you stuck on a plot point? Are you just plain exhausted? Are you scared?

If it’s the latter, fear can happen for all sorts of legitimate reasons. Maybe the story is too personal. Maybe you’re overwhelmed by the knowledge of how much this draft sucks. The act of acknowledging that a story scares you will help you to move past that. As they used to say on G.I. Joe, “Knowing is half the battle.”


2) Write through the garbage.
So you wanted to write 2000 words a day. That ain’t happening. Okay. Be easier on yourself. Set a more modest goal so you can inch your way forward. Maybe 200 words. Or 500. Or one new poem a week instead of every day. It’s all about momentum. Progress is progress.

3) Give yourself permission to take a break.
So, how exactly is this “punching writer’s block in the face?” It’s about YOU taking control. YOU make the decision to step back. There’s nothing more frustrating than spinning your wheels–staring at that blank screen, or more likely, Facebook or Twitter as you hate yourself for squandering your writing time.

When I do novel drafts, I always get feedback that my characters need more agency. They need to be in charge, not the plot. Real life people need more agency, too. If the words aren’t flowing, set your own vacation: a day, a week, a month. Whatever you need. Set the work aside and let your mind keep churning over the problem that has you stalled. It amazes me how many writers have figured out plot problems when they are in the shower.


4) Tackle another project.
If you have some publications already, check the contracts and start sending out reprint submissions. If you’re blocked on all your fiction efforts, go to nonfiction: write blog posts or consider submitting some essays to Chicken Soup for the Soul. Yes, really. That’s one of my coping mechanism when the fictional words don’t flow. The pay is great and it’s a book brand that people recognize worldwide.

If that doesn’t appeal to you, immerse yourself in projects away from the computer. Clean the closet at long last (and if you’re like me, you might get some Chicken Soup stories out of it). Organize your computer files. The key thing is to be productive in some way. Because trust me, falling deeper into frustration and depression won’t likely help you to work through writer’s block. Far from it.

5) Help out another writer.
If your block is because of first draft doldrums, plot holes, or various strains of despair from the writing process, it might help for you to read someone else’s early draft. As writers working on our own, it can be lonely. We think we’re the only ones who can write something that sucks this much. Guess what? Other people write sucky drafts, too. This isn’t about schadenfreude; nope, it’s about perspective. It’s refreshing to read a work that is fundamentally flawed but still thoroughly enjoyable. Your story or novel might read like that, too. Sometimes by analyzing someone else’s writing, it gives us insight to our own weaknesses.

If you don’t have a support group of writers for a critique exchange, well… that needs to change. Being a writer is hard; don’t journey alone. I started out exchanging critiques on Online Writers Workshop. If you have at least one pro short story sale or meet other qualifications, you might want to join Codex Writers, which is my online home.

You can punch writer’s block in the face all on your own, but there’s something extra special about having a whole group of writing buddies there to help you spar.

Just remember: you’re a writer, even if the words don’t flow the way you want right now. Be kind to yourself. You’ll make it through.

Clockwork Dagger
Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and a cat the size of a canned ham.

She’s the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER (a 2015 Locus Award finalist for First Novel) and THE CLOCKWORK CROWN from Harper Voyager.

Follow her at and on Twitter at @BethCato.

The Revision Chronicles: 5 Ways to Trim Your Stories

So, I love revision. I love talking about revision. And I’m going to try a series this year discussing some of my favorite revision tips.

This month’s topic: When and what to trim.shears

Does your critique group always tell you your stories feel bloated? Do your stories keep ballooning past the word count that short story markets are looking for, even when you try to stay short? And sure, some of us are just naturally epic novelists. But even epic novelists might look for places to trim.

Here are some things to look for:

  1. Repetition of information. Ask yourself what the purpose of each scene is. If you have two scenes that are both there to point out that the protagonist hates her father, try it with one.
  2. Repetition of place. If you find your characters are circling around between a couple different settings, see if you can find a more elegant and concise way to streamline the plot. That circling can make your short story feel stagnant–it’s not moving forward if it keeps coming back.
  3. Details matter. Are all your details the right ones? If you want us to believe your protagonist is a loner, don’t show us the one night when he happens to run into all his friends at the bar. And especially in SF, it’s important to use exactly the right worldbuilding details. Trim misleading information that doesn’t serve the story.
  4. Where does the story begin? Are you a pantser? Did you write a bunch of stuff with no outline, hoping to eventually find the plot? This is fine, but now cut out all the stuff where you were wandering around looking for the story. Maybe your story really starts on page 7, when something actually happens.
  5. Cut, cut, cut. As an exercise, try lopping off 20% of your word count. (Keep the old version!) Read through and see what you don’t miss. Put back what you do. I find this very . . . focusing.


As always, these are suggestions which may or may not work for the particular story you are trying to tell. I remember one of my stories (Turning the Apples) originally clocked in at 5000 words. I thought it was done. But then I wanted to submit it to a 4000 word market. So first I tried to cut it down to 4500. Great. Then I tried to cut it down to 4000. NO DICE. But I achieved a much tighter 4500 word story out of the process.

Til’ next time! (I guess I can’t help signing off my articles like it’s a Toasted Cake episode.) This has been (dum dum dum!) The Revision Chronicles. 


Some Thoughts on Curation and Awards, Also Who’s Reading What

I’m taking a break from SF Linguistics this month (in part because I’m heading up to Boston this weekend where I’ll be doing a linguistics panels and I don’t want to peak too soon, and in part because this other topic has been weighing on me), because I want to talk about time. Alas, I don’t mean in the typical way that authors do (pacing) or as some SF authors do (traveling forward or backwards in it), but rather in how none of us ever have enough of the stuff.

Specifically, in my case at least, I don’t have enough time to read, let alone read as broadly as I’d like. Nowadays, I tend to focus almost exclusively on novels (okay, maybe some novellas), because that’s mostly what I’m writing. As a result, not only am I utterly ignorant of the short fiction markets, I don’t tend to read a lot of short fiction period.

Which makes things especially tricky around this time of the year when various folks are looking at the nominations for various upcoming awards (Nebula, Campbell, Hugo, to name a few) with various degrees and blends of hope, expectation, and anticipation.

Which brings me to one of my favorite hobby horses: Curation.

And while there’s no shortage of reviews in book blogs and magazines and even SFWA’s own suggested reading list (all of which, I should admit in full disclosure have been really nice to me in recent weeks), if I don’t have enough reading time for fiction then surely I’m not going to read commentary about that fiction. I need something more personal and serendipitous. In a word, colleagues.

I can’t begin to tell you how much I rely on input from my fellow authors regarding others’ fiction. While there’s no shortage of writers who are focused on blowing their own horns in social media, there’s likewise a plethora of them who trumpet other books and stories that bowled them over and left them gobsmacked. And, to the extent that past experience has shown me that my own likes and dislikes align (to a greater or lesser degree) with any particular trumpeting author, this is a godsend!

I try to read 50 books each year (or so it says on my Goodreads page), but from mid-November to the end of January I read things that other authors bring to my attention. And when I’m done, I have a pretty good idea what I’m going to put down on the various awards nominations ballots.


But since we’re not to the end of the January quite yet, I thought you might find it interesting to hear from some other folks. With that in mind, I fired off an email to about a dozen authors this morning asking them one question: “What are you currently reading?” Here are some of the replies:

Tom Doyle, fantasy novelist, is reading Roddy Doyle’s The Guts and comments “Lead character from The Commitments turning 50 and finding out he has cancer, by an author named Doyle. What’s not to like?”

Walter Jon Williams, aka The Master of Plot, is reading the works of E.R. Eddison. He also took the time to note: “Eddison’s work completely annnihilates modern fantasy conventions of character, language, and worldbuilding: but then his work predate those conventions, and Eddison made up his own rules as he went along. Eddison’s work is so different from that of contemporary fantasists that it seems not musty and old, but precedent-shattering and new.”

Dave Galanter, Star Trek author, is reading Ace Atkins’s Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby.

Fellow anthropomorphic Tor author Daniel Polansky is reading collected essays of Montagine as he wanders around Africa.

The multi-tasking Elizabeth Bear tells me she’s reading a book on geometry and algebra; an Australian 1920s period mystery titled Murder in Montparnasse by Kerry Greenwood; Ian Tregillis’ The Mechanical, which is clockpunk alternate history; Caitlin R. Kiernan’sThe Drowning Girl, a genre-busting masterpiece that could probably be loosely defined as a modern New England literary psychological horror novel; and Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings, which is a fantasy of fallen angels set in an alternate Paris. Phew!

Howard Tayler, Hugo award winning cartoonist, is reading The D&D 5th Edition Players Handbook.

Gregory Frost, literary fantasist, is reading Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone (as well as Clarion applicants’ submission stories, and short stories that he might end up using in his course at Swarthmore).

Author Aaron Rosenberg, (and my fellow classmate from a long ago workshop with James Gunn), is reading Last Song Before Night by fellow Tor Class of 2015 novelist Ilana C. Myer.

Mike Allen, anthologist and poet, is reading She Walks in Shadows, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles.

Recent debut novelist Matthew Kressel is reading The Best of Lucius Shepard.

And speaking of recent debuts, Megan E. O’Keefe is reading Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor.

Mike McPhail (one third of the newly formed eSpecBooks) is reading Terry Pratchett’s las published work, The Shepherd’s Crown.

My old friend Walter H. Hunt may be trying to impress me when he says he’s reading Stephen Brumwell’s Paths of Glory: The Life and Death of General James Wolfe.

Novelist and photographer Sally Grotta tells me she recently came across “my threadbare childhood copy of When We Were Very Young by A. A. Milne. I asked my mother to read it to me so many times when I was young that she could recite the poems verbatim for the rest of her life. Now that the book is in my hand once more, I can’t put it down. Instead, I stopped the task at hand and I’m losing myself in the innocent rhythms, charming tales and memories of unconditional love.”

Michael Jan Friedman, author, editor, and all around mensch, informs me he is reading something called Barsk: Thge Elephants’ Graveyard, which he describes as “a highly original and whimsically wise tome.” Huh. Go figure.

Personally, I think it’s fascinating to see what other authors are reading, knowing that at some level, those other books are getting into their heads and influencing (or at least coloring) what they’re going to write next. Fun stuff!

As for me, I recently started the aforementioned Matthew Kressel’s King of Shards.

Which of course begs the question, what are you reading?

Perilous PaulineWelcome back, fiction-friends! You’re just in time: hard-pressed heroes have written in, and veteran ‘protagony aunt’ Perilous Pauline is here to dispense her own brand of silver-age wisdom. Add your own advice in the comments below!


Rachel A. Marks - Darkness BrutalDear Pauline,

I guess I’ll just come right out and say it; I’m a homeless kid who can see demons. It sucks. Like, huge suck. It’s also super vital, since the demons are after my little sister. I have to focus on keeping her safe from these creatures that only I can see. The thing is . . . I met this girl—yeah I know, I sound like a lame-ass—but there’s just something about her. This crazy way my whole being reacts to her, to her soul. She’s not my type, not at all. She’s so clean, and good. And she actually seems to be normal, despite a possible demon problem of her own. Maybe I should help her. Because what are these weird gifts any good for if I can’t use them to help others, right? Plus, I could use a little normal in my life. Of course, in my life I’d likely turn her “normal” into horror—I’m probably a jerk to even contemplate all this.

So, yeah, this is my problem. It’s fucking ridiculous to think about girls when I’ve got demons chasing me, but I’m seventeen and what can I say? Hormones.

Lost in Los Angeles

Okay, LiLA – let me get this straight. You’re living rough, the walls are bleeding, and the only thing harder to come by than a good night’s sleep is a shower. But despite all that, there’s a nice girl interested in you, and the feeling is mutual. And that’s a problem?

Well, I suppose I can understand it. It can feel selfish to fantasize about hand-holding and hair-smelling when you’re trying to keep your kid sister from disappearing into the television. But here’s the thing, champ, and you might want to sit down for this. This girl of yours? Is a rational human being who can decide for herself how deep down your hellspawned rabbit-hole she wants to go – and she’s also an extra pair of eyes and hands and a brain that’s probably working better than yours. It’s good that you’re concerned about helping her, but let’s take a big self-interested step back and think about what she can do for you – because frankly, you sound like you need all the help you can get.

R.L. King - Stone and a Hard PlaceDear Pauline,

On the surface, things are going fairly well for me: I’ve got a good job, people tell me I’m decently attractive and charming (albeit a bit too sarcastic for my own good), and American women go mad for my British accent (honestly, I think it’s a superpower). Convincing them to go out with me isn’t the difficult part. Invariably, we have a lovely time—she’s happy, I’m happy. But then it starts: the extradimensional horrors popping out at inconvenient times. The evil mages seeking revenge who simply can’t wait until I’m alone. The Things Man Was Not Meant to Know who turn up and cause trouble when I’m trying to make a good impression. Next thing I know, she’s giving me those sideways looks and refusing to return my calls. What can I do to convince potential love interests to look past the oddness and see the real me?

A Bit More Love, A Bit Less Craft

Here’s a thought exercise for you, BML/BLC: why do offices always have those rules against employees dating each other? Well, I’ll tell you: because the employees will do it every chance they get. Right now, I guarantee you that somewhere on the outskirts of Pensacola, a desperately boring pair of insurance underwriters are going at it like lust-addled rabbits in the mailroom. A romance born of beauty, charm, and the Queen’s English? Hardly. All they needed was a shared love of actuarial tables and two cups of bad coffee.

So rather than wooing these delicate daisies of yours and then trying to break the supernatural news gently, why not look for someone who’s already working in your department, so to speak? You sound like quite the catch, but I’m sure you’re not the only one keeping the world from collapsing into chaos and horror. Next time you’re on the clock, take the time to introduce yourself to a fellow exorcist, or maybe a nice young levelheaded survivor – right after you save her from the abyssal fiend, of course. You know what I always say: there’s no better aphrodisiac than a pair of train-tracks and a dashingly punctual gentleman!

R.D. Ferguson - Mistress of VisionDear Pauline,

Hi, I’m a twelve-years-old girl. My younger brother and I were escaping from off-world aliens when we got separated; he was doing stupid stuff as usual or we would have gotten away clean. Then a volcano erupted and bonded an alien shape-shifter’s personality to mine. It’s tough enough for me to understand myself without having thirty-thousand years of alien memories thumb-tacked to the back of my brain. I can’t go to my folks because they will be mad that I misplaced my brother. I can’t talk to my old friends because I don’t think they will like the new me. I’m really confused, or as the Vanhem Pi say, “Croset-eh-jurain.” Oops, when did I learn to speak Vanhem Pi? Who are the Vanhem Pi? What should I do?
Living at Cross-Purposes

What should you do? I’ll tell you what you should do – you march back to that volcano right this minute and get your brother back! And what were you doing playing with aliens anyway? No, don’t tell me – this is more of that Mr. Spock parenting, I’m sure. Well, you listen to me: nice young ladies don’t speak in tongues, and they don’t let their little brother get eaten by Venusian tentacloids, either. Now you have a good head on your shoulders, so I expect you to use it (and whatever’s living in it) to go do the right thing. And when you get home, tell your parents that you need an old priest, a young priest, and some responsible supervision. There’s a good girl!


Do you have a SFF book out in the world? Does your hero need a little help? Have them write to Perilous Pauline, c/o tex at!

A Few of my Favorite Things: 5 Ways for Writers to Spend Those Gift Cards

’tis the season for spending all of those holiday gift cards you’ve received from well-meaning folks who just didn’t know quite what to give their favorite writing-relative.  If you’re in a quandary about how to apply $25 to best support your writing career, here are some ideas.  And yes, I have made the guess that most of those gift cards are from book sellers. . .

A few of my favorite titles for writers.

A few of my favorite titles for writers.

Pick up a Best-seller

There’s probably a book in your genre that everyone’s been talking about, and which sounds like the kind of thing that would appeal to your readership–or vice versa–but which you’ve been avoiding, or haven’t made the time to read.  Reading the current hits in your genre, with an analytical eye, can help you to think about why that work appeals to readers, what that author is doing right, and what you can learn from their success.  Audio books are great for analyzing overall plot, pacing and development, while print books can help you examine style and look at how the writer builds scene and character on a word and sentence level.

Grab Some Cool Non-fiction

Find a title that sounds really interesting, that hits your sweet-spot.  Maybe this is a book you’ve been avoiding because it seems indulgent–right now, you are focusing on a novel about space-faring squid, and this book about rainforest insects is just a distraction.  But the rainforest bugs might be what you need to know about next, or give you some ah-ha moment that inspires your squid.  The most promising ideas often come from the conjunction of unexpected things.  Reward yourself with something fun and exciting to learn, and you will likely reap the benefit in new ideas.

Study up on a Craft Area

Okay, I am a writing how-to junkie, I admit it.  Reading how-to books helps me to keep in mind the stuff I already know about my craft, and remember to apply it to whatever I am writing.  For the intersection of character and plot, check out Goal, Motivation and Conflict (GMC) by Debra Dixon.  For plot and structure, look at Save The Cat, by Blake Snyder.  For  some exercises at a more advanced level from most writing books, try Between the Lines:  master the subtle elements of fiction writing, by Jessica Page Morrell.   And lastly, if you want to have fun with it, try How Not to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Newman, which features “excerpts” from some truly terrible work–sure to make you feel better about your own!

Or Delve into the Business

When I was a different kind of entrepreneur, one of my business coaches made the distinction between working *in* your business (ie, in this case, actually writing a book or story) and working *on* your business:  developing the skills that will make you successful beyond simply producing the product.  Invest your holiday stash on learning more about how to manage the business of being a writer, whether that is maintaining your own website, indie publishing, or marketing your books.   This type of book becomes obsolete pretty quickly, so I’m not going to give you titles, but I suggest starting with the work of some great writing business bloggers, like Kristine Katherine Rusch, or Chuck Wendig.  If you want to amp up your productivity as a writer, then go for Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K for some great tips on how to make the most of your writing time.

And if That All Sounds like Work

Try a memoir of the writing life.  Many, many authors have written them, in any genre imaginable.  Sometimes, it helps to know that other writers, even those we now revere, have struggled, too.  Steven King’s On Writing is perhaps the most famous contemporary genre example, but Jane Yolen, Terry Brooks, and Elizabeth George have all written books about the writing life which contain some fun, and some insight.

And above all else, have a creative and productive New Year!