Q & A: How can I start writing again? I graduated with a degree in journalism in 1999. I feel so outdated but I feel like I have a story to tell.

That’s a tough question – you have my sympathy. Like you, I stopped for a while. I got sick, and the drugs really messed with my ability to put pen to paper. I mean, I could write, but it was utter crap.

And then one day I started again. I typically advise writers to avoid fan fiction these days. There’s just too much baggage involved. But I saw something and it really annoyed me. I could write a better scene, a better character… and so I did. I just gave myself permission to do it. I considered it “practice”, nothing serious. Nothing real. But it was good. I really enjoyed it. It reminded me why I started writing in the first place.

THEN… I found Quora. There are so many good questions there! People are asking about things I know. So I started answering questions. Stretching my writing legs, so to speak. Remembering the flow of interacting with an audience, crafting my “writing voice” again. Remembering just how much fun it is to write regularly.

After that starting up a new novel was relatively easy. Bottom line – just get out of your own way. Give yourself permission to do it. Don’t worry if it sucks. In fact, don’t worry about anything. Sit down, zone out, and write.

You can do this. 😉


Q & A: What is the best single piece of advice you could give to an aspiring fiction writer?

Most writers want to write, but at the same time they’re intimidated by the process. Starting a project is so easy! Finishing is nearly impossible. To overcome this, tell everyone you know that you’re writing. Tell your neighbors. Tell your grandparents. Tell your least favorite distant cousin. You know, the one who brings the insufferably perfect Jell-o every Thanksgiving. Most writers start their work with the best of intentions, but then they either get distracted by a shiny or they’re bogged down by details. By telling everyone you’re writing something, especially if you tell them when you’ll be finished by, it gives you incentive to stay focused and to make your writing a priority.

Q & A: If I rewrote Harry Potter with changed names and narration, but still used the same plotlines and worlds, does that still count as plagiarism?

I’m glad you asked! The answer is an extremely qualified “It depends”. You just described two fairly common practices, one of which is (somewhat) socially acceptable, the other is not.

When fans write fiction based in the world they admire or want to be a part of, they’ll often introduce original characters into an established world. If one is writing fan fiction, they acknowledge it is fan fiction based on the work of another author, and do not attempt to profit from said fan fiction then technically it is not plagiarism, even if they include phrases from the original work. The keys to avoiding plagiarism in this instance are profit (or lack thereof) and credit (or lack thereof).

While we’re on the subject of fan fiction, some authors don’t mind it, while others really dislike the practice. So the acceptability factor depends on the author. Most authors discourage fan fiction simply because the time spent writing fan fiction could be used to establish their own stories, characters and worlds, so it’s not a great idea no matter what.

If someone changes the name or point-of-view but otherwise leaves the story alone, they try to earn money (or credit, if they’re writing it for a school project) from this effort and they try to claim it as an original work, then absolutely it’s plagiarism. And considering that they’re working on one of the best known universes in modern fiction, it’s a bit silly besides.

There are two somewhat exceptions to this. For example, right after Star Wars came out Del Rey published a really funky novel called “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye”.

It’s a pretty amazing adventure with Luke, Leia, a fog shrouded planet and Darth Vader. Written by Alan Dean Foster, it has all the trappings of Star Wars except… it never happened. It’s not fan fiction either. It turns out this was sort of a back-up plan just in case Harrison Ford didn’t sign for future films. As time went on Star Wars actually incorporated certain elements into the plot. So even though Alan Dean Foster was working in a world created and owned by Lucasfilm, he was paid to write this at a time when the universe was just being formed and the expanded universe wasn’t even a gleam in George’s eye. Because it was a sanctioned work it’s not considered plagiarism.

The other exception is based on a work that is in the public domain. A good example of this is the book “Wide Sargasso Sea”.

This is the story of Charlotte Bronte’s famous “Jane Eyre”, but told from the point-of-view of one of the supporting characters. The story is (more or less) the same, but the point-of-view and narrative is changed. The story was written in 1966. Had it been written today, I suspect it would have been considered fan fiction and no one would have paid for it. As it was, the book has enjoyed a steady publication history.

The story “Wicked” is similar – a retelling of the Wizard of Oz from the point-of-view of the Witch. Since the original has long since been in public domain there was no legal claim to make against the characters or world, and the story was original enough for the public to embrace it.

I personally have a few ethical qualms about books like “Wicked”, but legally they can not be considered plagiarism. The same can not be said of any take on the world of Harry Potter, to it’s really a moot point. Harry is subject to some of the strongest copy writes in the industry – so really, don’t even try it.

Q & A: Do you have any ideas about some great story starters?

One of my favorite things to do, be it character profile or story prompt, is to focus on a sense. A good trick to draw the attention of your readers is to include what something smells like – it’s the great overlooked detail of writing. So combine these two ideas!

Your main character walks into their home after a hard day at work. Suddenly they stop. Something smells… off.

Quora Top Writer, 2018!

CaptureWell blow me down!  As many of you know I am rather addicted to answering questions on Quora.  I don’t ask many of them, but answering questions is how I relax after a long day spent perpetually perplexed.

Or at least it used to be.  Due to “real life” I’ve not been able to log on much in the last few months, and I’ve missed it.  I’ve been watching my answer-views climb (especially any time I write about my rescue-pup, Ginger) but  I haven’t had the time to give new answers much thought.  At least, until now.  This afternoon I received a happy surprise…


CaptureSo of course I had to scurry off to see if I had a badge.  I do!  Here it is!  I also get a 1 year subscription to the Gray Lady (aka “New York Times”, but that name lacks a certain something-something…) which is very cool.

I’ve won other contests / awards before, but this one is special because it was a complete surprise.  Also, because I really needed something nice to happen right now.  I think this is the wake up call I needed to get back on the horse and remember what’s important – WRITING.  So thank you very much, Mr. Brill!

Q & A: What method do you use to write a novel? Please include some things you like and dislike about your method.

The only “correct” way to write is the way that works best for you. Some write longhand on a tablet. Some outline, draft, outline again, then fill in the blanks. Some write the ending first then work their way toward it. Some write sequentially though I swear I don’t know how they do it! Stephen King begins all his stories with a single thought. “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” For example, for his novella “The Mist” he thought “Wouldn’t it be funny if huge bugs attacked a supermarket?” (yeah, the guy has a warped sense of humor!)

My personal style is to listen. For example, I was walking downtown recently when I saw a street sign at an intersection. I was on 17th street, but the only marker for the cross street was a “one way” sign. And I suddenly heard a voice say “I live at the corner of 17th and One Way.” The voice was middle-aged, female, and quite British. I tried to figure out who said it, why it was important, and what the townsfolk thought about the lady who lived there. It’s one of my best stories!

Oh, also, I don’t really write. Even this answer to you – my fingers write. If I couldn’t type I’m not sure I’d be much of a writer, because most of the time they tell the tales. I sometimes feel as though I’m just along for the ride!

Q & A: How Do I Become a Writer?

Excellent question!  I think many people who aren’t actively involved in the arts are a bit intimidated when they start.  Really, the best way to be a good writer is to be a good reader. And by “good” I mean voracious. Consume books. Devour books. And when you’re not doing that, write.

Second – don’t worry. People will say you can’t do it. You’ll receive that judgey little smirk when you announce you’re writing a novel, followed by the withering down-their-nose stare when they ask how often you’ve been published. Screw ‘em. You aren’t writing for them. I worried myself straight out of a career that way. Don’t be me.

Third – listen to those who have gone before you, but don’t dwell on them. Neil Gaiman offers some nifty advice here (check out the very first thing he says and take it to heart):

FAQs | Advice to Authors

FWIW, my favorite “how to” book is written by Stephen King.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – Wikipedia

Reading that made me feel like I was sitting down with my favorite Uncle. You know, the one who tells all the really cool stories your parents don’t want you to hear. At the same time his advice is clear, direct, and entirely useful.

Along with ditching the worry, don’t stress about getting it right. When I write I turn off both my spell check and my grammar program. If I edit as I write I’ll never finish a page. Don’t worry about “voice”. Don’t worry about “tense”. Don’t worry about format. All that comes later. Until you have something down on paper all you have is an idea.

Come on! The world needs your novel, or whatever the heck it is you’re writing. Speaking of which, one of my favorite motivations is National Novel Writing Month (aka Nanowrimo).

National Novel Writing Month

It happens every November but don’t fret. Even if you’re past the date (or too early, it really depends on your point-of-view) you’ll still find an active community of writers there. It’s great for encouragement.

One last thing. Writer’s block. It hits us all. Perhaps that’s why you were asking in the first place. If you’re still wondering how to write, what to write, when to write… do this. Snag your favorite pen, tablet, journal or word processor. Write this sentence:

“I can’t write.”

Write it out again.

“I can’t write. I can’t write.”

Try a few more. Seriously.

“I can’t write. I can’t write. I can’t write! And there’s this crazy American chick who just told me to write this stupid phrase when I really wanted to flirt with this amazing British actor. But here I am writing this stupid phrase anyway. So there, are you HAPPY NOW? Crazy American chick? I can’t write I can’t write I can’t write! I. Can’t WRITE!!!”

Congratulations. You just wrote. Not only that, you have the basis of a character! He’s talking to you. Listen to him. Write him down. In the end that’s really who you’re writing for. Your characters need a voice. Now, this one has one. Go get ‘em!

Air Force Jargon for Civilians

USAFI grew up in the twilight world of the Military Brat.  I wasn’t in the military myself, but because I was raised in that culture I have far more in common with them than I do with civilians.  40 years later I frequently pepper my speech with things I heard my father say when I was a kid.

When you’re writing about the military don’t forget that it casts a very long shadow.  There’s two sets of acronyms.  The first is the most common,  used by active duty personnel while at work.  It includes very specific terms to describe a weapon, a base, a plane etc. – you can find a ton of lists like this for all branches.

I’ve tried to focus on the second set, which is either used by active duty personnel when they’re off duty / off base, or by people who associate with active duty personnel (parent, spouse, child etc.).  Rather than describing a specific weapon or machine, the majority of phrases in the second set are situational (“SNAFU” is a great personal favorite).

warning_MCGPlease keep in mind a few truths about military speech – strong language is a given, and the phrases are often extremely misogynisticI’ve done my best to avoid the latter, but if you’re writing in a military environment be aware it’s just par for the course. Even females will use anti-female terms if applied to someone who is thought to be weaker than themselves. For example “BIB” would be the “Bitch in Back”. It can refer to a female copilot or to a whiny / weak male copilot while on base.  Off base “BIB” might describe a nagging wife, girlfriend, mother or daughter.

Edit:  My darlin’ Father added clarification to a few of these – thanks Dad!

ACC – for example, this is one that Dad clarified.  I grew up in the era of TAC/SAC (see below).  The last base Dad was stationed at was Langley Field in Virginia.  As of 1992 TAC/SAC merged to become Air Combat Command, which is one of the 10 major commands in the USAF.  Wow.  No more TAC/SAC?  The horror!!  Anyway, if your story is set before 1992 use TAC/SAC.  After – use ACC and carry on.

AFU – All fucked up – pronounced “Alpha Foxtrot Uniform”

AWOL – Absent Without Leave.  Civilian application = someone who isn’t home / where they ought to be when they said they’d be.

penguinBag of Balls / Penguin – a plane that’s always broken. Civilian application – a lemon.  When calling about a car in the shop, it might be: “How’s the Penguin?” “Tango Uniform”.

Barn – hangar. Hangars can be used for many things, so for example a “barn dance” is any recreational gathering held for a lot of people in an unused hangar

BFE – ‘Bum Fuck Egypt.’ Refers to a remote base. In civilian speak, it means “middle of nowhere”

BLQ / BOQ – Bachelor Living Quarters / Bachelor Officer Quarters – this one’s important! This is where most of the cute and available guys are concentrated, also where the majority of trouble starts (either there or the O Club)

Bingo – very low / close to zero, usually applied to fuel level. Bingo Fuel = just enough fuel to get home.  Though when used by civilians in casual conversation it could be “out of gas” as well.

BX – Base Exchange – it’s sort of like the base Walmart. The entire family would use this one easily.  This is “PX” in the Army.

Clusterfuck – this one is commonly used by civilians, but in the military it usually refers to one of two specific events – either the superior officer really screwed up, resulting in mission failure / punishment for all, or a woman is involved. (sorry, sad but true usage)

Commissary – that’s the base grocery store. Here’s some info on the BX / Commisary places a military spouse / family would know about.

Snoopy flying on his dog houseDipsy Doodle – this is when a pilot climbs to altitude, then suddenly dives for quick acceleration – usually to go supersonic. I include this one because any kid who hears it adores the term, and they’ll use it for all sorts of things. My brother and I called pill bugs “Dipsy Doodles” later shortened to “Doodle Bugs” just for the hell of it.  The last time I heard it, a guy with a motorcycle was describing riding on a very hilly road so fast that his butt left the seat a few times.

DOE – Date of Enlistment – this is important for any number of reasons – most have to do with pay or when you get out. This is one of the terms a spouse would be very aware of.

PatchAAF.0000.AAF.ArmyAirForceCadetSchoolDoolie – A freshman attending the USAFA.

Doolie Lookout – usually a balcony or other place where a parent can spy on a couple out on a date

Double Aught Dark – midnight (fwiw, “aught” sounds like “ought” with a sort of flat “ah” sound at the beginning)

FRED – Fucking Ridiculous Economic Disaster – It has a specific usage for military personnel, but for a military family / spouse this term can have some very creative usage.

FUBAR – Fucked Up Beyond All Reason

GMT – Greenwich Mean Time (see “Zulu”)

Grub Steak – this isn’t always present, but on several of the bases I was at, it’s sort of a military 7-11. Without Slurpies.

HUAW – Hurry Up and Wait

keep-it-simple-stupid-3KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid – never said aloud, but written in notes

NCO – Non-commissioned Officer – this is often a source of confusion outside military families.

O Club – Officer’s club – imagine a strange hybrid of a really run down country club and a bank.

OIC – Officer in Command – often a nickname applied to a military spouse

OTS – Officer Training School – this is different from Basic, just for officers.

PICNIC – Problem In Chair, Not In Computer; Used by help desk personnel to indicate user ignorance. This is the military version of PIBKAC (problem is between keyboard and chair – in other words, the user)

RTB – Return To Base – civilian application, “Go home”

SAC – Strategic Air Command – big rivalry with TAC.  Use this term if your story is set before 1992.

SNAFU – Situation Normal All Fucked Up

TAC – Tactical Air Command – big rivalry with SAC.  Use this term if your story is set before 1992.

TDY – Temporary Duty. This is when someone is assigned to another base short-term – say a couple of weeks, maybe for specialized training. One of the most common phrases I heard growing up.

Tango Uniform = “Tits Up” = “it’s broken” civilian application “How’s the car?” “Tango Uniform” (you’d say “tits up” if not in mixed company, in other words if your superior or children aren’t present – used by mixed genders around mixed genders)

USAFA – this wouldn’t actually be used or spoken by anyone normally, but it’s the official abbreviation of the United States Air Force Academy. If you have a character referring to it, they’d say “the Academy”, “The Zoo” (most common) or maybe even “C Springs”, but this is how they’d write it, and know what they’re talking about.

Zoo – Nickname for the Air Force Academy, home of the Doolie

Zulu – Standardized clock setting where all military clocks are set to the same time – usually corresponds with GMT

Also, if you’re writing military, be sure to know your phonetic alphabet! You wouldn’t say something like ATB – you’d say Alpha Tango Bravo.

Writing Is a “Risky, Humiliating Endeavor”?

insecureThe New York Times recently published an “Opinionator” entitled “Writing is a Risky, Humiliating Endeavor”. In it, the author describes how his ex-wife unfriended him for what she considered an unflattering portrait of her in his book. He goes on to confess various insecurities about his writing, how it will be received, his fear of offending anyone. A friend of his called him in a panic – people had been talking about her online after being published.

Let’s face it: just writing something, anything, and showing it to the world, is to risk ridicule and shame. What if it is bad? What if no one wants to read it, publish it? What if I can’t even finish the thing? Every time I begin a book, a story, even a fresh page, I have a sense that it might go horribly wrong.”

At first I thought the piece was satire, a little comedy bit about papering the walls with rejection slips. It dawned on me about 2/3 of the way through the article that he was sincere. He really cringes at the thought of people judging him through his work.

3v1vhlThis is tough for me to wrap my mind around. Before I ever wrote a word I knew the horror stories told by Stephen King and William Golding. Not “The Stand” or “Lord of the Flies”, but rather the dozens of rejection letters they received before gaining the attention of a publisher. JK Rowling approached bankruptcy before “Harry Potter” became an international bestseller. Before the advent of the form letter, many rejection slips came with a personal warning. Zane Grey was told he had no business being a writer and to give up. Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) was assured he was just too weird to ever succeed.

As I mulled these statistics I remembered something else. Robin Williams. When I heard about his death it hit me as though I lost a personal friend. When I heard it was suicide, a part of me just started crying. It’s still crying.

The public reacted pretty much as one would expect. The first wave was of loss, sadness, pure grief. But the moment the news came out that it was suicide, the “social sneer” started to raise it’s head. Instead of “how horrible” I started seeing stories about how weak he was, how selfish. How could he do that to his public? To his family? What had started as a tragedy devolved into a character flaw.

I did what I always do when I’m mad. I wrote about it. I even submitted a shorter version to my local paper. To consider suicide an act of selfish weakness is to completely, thoroughly, utterly lack the slightest understanding of mental illness. This conclusion lacks empathy, compassion and…


David Gordon, author of the above article, I offer my apology. In my determination to become published, I have indeed forgotten the kind of personal risk that’s involved. I’ve armor plated my emotions these days when it comes to my writing. I take constructive criticism with a grain of salt and cheerfully feed flames to my Charmander. Maybe it’s just that I’ve fought so many personal battles over my health that I can afford to be a bit blaze if people reject my writing. No matter.

anne+frankTo you, David, and to every insecure writer out there I say this – we’re all in this together. The people who aspire to create for a living are already setting themselves apart from the “norm”. Most people can’t imagine how we do what we do. David, you say you used to cringe if someone described writing as “brave”. First responders are indeed very brave people. But so are writers, artists and anyone who would try to create something from nothing for a living, then offer it for consumption to the general public. Yes, those same people who can’t imagine how we do what we do.

It’s a scary, scary world, David. I’m not even sure why. There’s a way to tell someone “no” with kindness, to encourage them even while rejecting their efforts. Then there’s the fan who told me they wanted to give one of my stories the MST3K treatment, in a sincere desire to “help me improve”. Funny? Maybe. Constructive? No.

David, you’re published. I’m not. Your opinion piece ran in the bloody New York Times! In the world of profit and loss you’re already worlds ahead of me. But even more, even with all that insecurity, you still have the guts to go out there and just do it.

Thank you, David, not only for the inspiration, but for the best perspective check I’ve had in a long time.

And now… a motivational message.

Today is February 16th, which means that those of us who are participating in Febnowrimo have just hit our halfway point.  I volunteered to offer the midway motivational message.  So here it is!

 Neil Gaiman says...

Neil Gaiman says…

My original goal was just like November – 50,000 words.  This averages to 1,667 words per day. THEN reality came to call.  Drear Mundania stomped in, tracked mud all over my carpet and put its grimy feet up on my couch.  I’ve just passed 17,000 words and there’s little hope I’ll make my original goal.  I’m feeling the weight of a lot of unexpected pressures right now.  Maybe I’ll just quit.

give up

Oh, heck no.  Not going to happen.

We can start with cliché.  Anything worth doing is worth doing well.  However, if that isn’t working, fine.  Don’t stand on perfection.  Don’t worry about the world or what they think.  Just WRITE.


Writing grows as you do.  Your idea will take shape around you.  The key to it all is to start, and not to stop until it’s done.