New Writing Partners


Our old cat, Shadow, spends her days sleeping on a heating pad in our living room. She’s nineteen, ancient for a cat; her sister passed away last year. Shadow takes a daily constitutional up and down the stairs, a few trips to the litter and food boxes, makes odd yelping noises, and sleeps.

Salem and Cinders are complete opposites. They appeared a few days ago, fresh from the local rescue, both eleven weeks old. Cinders, the smaller all-black female is the adventurous one. Chasing laser pointers, strings and toes is her bit. Cinders, the larger male “brother” (they’re not related, but sheltered together), is the follower. He jumps at the slightest noise and follows Salem’s lead.

We set them up in our sunroom where I do my morning writing. They are non stop in the morning, each step and piece of furniture new and worthy of exploration. Cinders chases Salem, but Salem wins their wrestling match. They crouch like tigers from National Geographic videos, stalk, then pounce. They are brave fighters… unless they hear a loud noise, or the wind shifts, or a new person enters the room. Then they run under the couch for cover. Salem peeks her head out first to asses the situation; only after she gives the all-clear will Ciders follow.


In our three days together, Salem has worked out how to jump and meow. And nibble at my toes as I write. She’s doing it right now.

They aren’t helping my productivity; I haven’t written more than a few words for my story in the last few days. But they have brought a real energy back into the house, a house that seemed so stale, caught in the endless loop of semi-quarantine life. Everything the kittens try is new, exciting, fresh, full of energy, an endless parade of mistakes, exploration, running full gas. Jumping and missing their target. Belly crawling to re-attack the other one.


I’m not a cat or pet person. I never had pets growing up, nor did any of my friends. And the smell of cat food and litter is still repulsive. But their energy feels like a shot of adrenaline, reasons to get off the couch, be together in a room, share observations about the little tigers stalking and chasing prey on the savanna.

We’re keeping the kittens from the old cat for now, locking them in a separate room. Shadow knows another animal is around, but isn’t inclined to investigate. We don’t know how she will react; we suspect she won’t be amused. I wonder, though, if their kitten magic could rub off. We’ll find out over the next few weeks.

Flow Music

Mont St. Michel

When I write in the morning, I only listen to the sounds of the backyard; birds calling to each other, squirrels clacking over the roof of the sunroom, the distant sound of a train horn. When I want to concentrate, later, I need music.

When I read, the “Classical Studying” channel on Amazon Music works. Familiar songs, well-known classical arrangements with occasional treatments of pop songs. Keeps the background thread in my head mildly entertained.
While writing, I need to engage my monkey mind. The music needs to be a familiar and a little spacey. I’ve heard interviews with authors who listen to the same music every time they write, sometimes creating a playlist per book.

I have two favorites:

The Bends

The Bends, Radiohead. One of my favorite albums of all time, by a band that re-invented itself many times. I have great mixes of their music, but playing The Bends straight through just works. A dreamy, keyboard-heavy sound carries through the songs, reaching a peak in “Black Star”. I used to listen to this while programming for hours each day. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times.

Come With Us

Come With Us, Chemical Brothers. This one is harder to explain. Same backstory; I used to listen to while programming years ago. There are parts of the album where sound will flow from one headphone to another, and stimulates something. Entire songs just fade into the background, consumed unconsciously. And that is the magic of this album.

Current Work Update: Part 2


Crystal Grove is a novella, 2-3x longer than my earlier efforts. Those first stories had one principal character and told in third-person limited. Crystal Grove (CG) has three major characters in a tight arc around each other, also told in third-person limited. There are nine chapters per act, one with each character as narrator. This seemed like a good idea in the planning phase, but I see some issues. Each character doesn’t have the same input into the story; certain chapters are weaker, plot wise, than others. And the timing is tricky. Without planning it this way, the characters hand the story off to each other in actual time. So, Maeve talks to Ken for a chapter, then the next chapter starts with Ken’s thoughts on the conversation. This works most of the time… unless it doesn’t.

Both of the above issues, the rotating narrator and the timeline, speak to the same core concern: consistency. I was unaware it was something writers strove for until reading about it at He, and now that I notice it, a lot of authors try to be very consistent with switching narrators and chapter length. And paragraph length, how the text looks on the page and a ton of other micro considerations. I’m not sure where I will land; I want to be consistent but not at the sake of good content. And plenty of books have inconsistent chapter lengths. I’m using consistency as a learning tool and something to strive for, but won’t kill myself to achieve.

As I write this, in mid-August 2020, I’m a few chapters away from finishing the first draft. My rule, to date, has been a minimum of 500 words each morning. This goal worked when I was commuting and had to be in the office, but I should have increased it during the quarantine. And been more open to writing later in the day. With a few more words per day, and a rough goal of 1500 words/chapter, I should be complete with a horrible, unreadable first draft in nine-ish days. Which would lead to the following schedule: keep up with the morning writing. Edit 4-5 times per week. This edit, done later in the day, is a “easy” pass at tighter writing. Ignoring plot, consistency, etc., just looking for quick corrections to my most basic writing issues. This way, when I read and edit the acts, I can focus more on the important issues. Then the real fun begins.

Current Work Update

Writing at the Cabin
Writing at the Cabin

This post is a follow-up to my thoughts and struggles with the writing process, found here.
I’m working on a longer piece, titled “Crystal Grove,” — a story about a family in Middletown, NJ that finds and struggles against a force in their new neighborhood.  This will be my longest piece so far; it will either be a novella or short novel in the 50,000 word range.  I’d like to self-publish Crystal Grove, following the well-worn path of offering the first book/act gratis, and charging a low $1.99 for each of the following books.
The inspiration for this work were crystals my wife hung in our backyard in April.  She is studying Reiki; crystals are part of the practice.  Hanging them outside allows them to capture energy from the sun.  My writing room faces the small patch of trees they hung from, so I’d watch them shimmer and glow in the sun each morning.  They seemed especially vibrant in the spring sun, before any leaves sprouted.  I enjoyed watching them capture and reflect the light, and played with an idea about how they would react to the opposite of sunlight, some negative energy.  And I went from there.

While working on my previous short stories, I found I needed to outline.  I previously used a scaled-down version of an online template for Unfair Advantage and went back to it to outline this story.  It was more challenging than expected; basically, I had a vague idea what would happen in each act, but not a firm sense of how the story ends.  I outlined the first book and followed it with my daily morning writing, but the writing lacked cohesion and urgency because I didn’t know where we were ultimately going.  Luckily, I remembered reading (or hearing on a podcast) that one “trick” is to write the ending scene (or, in this case, set of scenes) first.  I did that last week, while on our family Covid 19-summer-vacation to a cabin in the Catskills; now I know how the story ends.  New rule: I have to know how these stories end before I write them.  Else, they just wander.

Another discovery was I don’t find it helpful to add a lot of detail to the outline.  My outline for the first book was ten rows deep and nine columns wide… which seems nice, but I never referred or edited the outline.  For Act 2, I put basic scene information on stickies and arranged them in order.  I already knew how the act ends, so this was straightforward.  When I write these scenes, I lay out the beats to start.

Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel

Highly recommend Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  I heard of the book via Tyler Cowen’s podcast Conversations with Tyler.  It’s a great read; I couldn’t put it down.    I  noticed the craftwork, with the changing perspectives, narration, time shifting and tiebacks.  Not sure if that’s an endorsement or criticism.  I hadn’t noticed it that strongly in other books I’ve read.
The plot involves an airborne disease that wipes out most of humanity and launches the world (we think) into a post-apocalyptic scenario.  Reading this in the spring of 2020 gives the story extra weight.  St. John Mandel include a lot of typical post-apocalyptic elements, but with a unique twist. Groups wander around this ravaged world and encounter danger and violence; but the travelers are a troupe of actors and musicians that perform in each town, called the Traveling Symphony.  When they find untouched houses, they look for costumes for their plays and parts for their instruments, besides cans of beans.  A great riff on the traditional post-apocalyptic story.  Everything gets tied back, and rewards the reader for learning extraneous details.  Recommended.

Current Writing Process, Pt3

The second part of my feedback loop is on-demand editors at  For the two stories I’ve put out for publication consideration, I did a developmental edit (big thoughts on the piece, what works and doesn’t, overall) followed by a copy edit.  There are other types of edits, but for cost and sanity reasons these seem like the bare minimum.  Now I want to have a relationship with an editor, to have a professional voice to talk through story items and help me become a much stronger writer.
There is a middle ground; alpha and beta readers.  I haven’t approached and friends or family for works in progress, although there are a few avid readers I can ask.  I wanted to be better, tighter, smoother, more creative before I showed the work to people I care about.  But that’s nonsense; creating something and keeping it to yourself is useless.
I also joined a group on Facebook (heaven help me), a forum to ask for beta readers.  The plan now is lean on a set of F&F for alpha reads, then a combo of people on and FB for beta reads.  Then find a developmental editor, hopefully one that I can have multiple passes with (reedsy is one and done).  That’s a lot of feedback.  Neil Gaiman said it best, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
I have two stories in the can.  The first, The Inspector’s Legacy,  was written for Into the Ruins.  I followed the system described above; had the original manuscript critiqued on scribophile and worked in feedback.  After a few rounds, I submitted to a reedsy developmental editor.  His suggestions, like “work on this relationship” or “build up this character” are very tough.  When I submit these pieces to these editors, it reminds me of when I submitted papers in school.  I feel like I’m done, so it seems hard to rip things up and do a major rework.  Another skill that needs work.  Then I put those revisions back on scribophile, then submitted for a copy edit. 
The other story is Unfair Advantage.  Similar journey, and I just got the copy edit back.  I will submit that story, starting this week, to a wide range of publications.  It’s a decent story; most people who read it have a positive reaction.  It doesn’t fit nicely into a genre though.  That’s been an eye opener, and a piece of advice I wish I’d internalized earlier.  Know what audience you’re writing for.  UA is sorta workplace fiction, sorta a thriller, sorta…well, something.  And, it’s an awkward length.  Eight thousand words is long for a short story and short for a novella.  I’m bullish about this story, and might expand it to a two to three part, 30k published work on Amazon.  The part I have done now expand and be an entire act.  The tricky part would be a clever ending, but I’d love to work on that problem.

Current Writing Process, Pt 2

Learning Process:
The amount of writing books is overwhelming.   I stuck to the classics, the one’ recommended again and again.  The first one I read was “Creating Short Fiction”.  It discuses all the elements of a short story.  The most useful part is a breakdown of one of Knight’s stories; line-by-line notes of what he was doing in the story, and why.  Every single element moved the plot along, ratcheted tension, built character, with a regular cadence.  This is my bible.
The other classics are King’s On Writing, Bird by Bird, Draft No. 4, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves..  I’ve picked up a lot from them.  Other, non-standard sources are Hugh Howey’s online (his blog and videos) guidance, The Poet’s Handbook, and reading about famous author’s writing process in The Paris Review.  These sources are helpful; the hard part is to stop reading and do the hard work.
I don’t have trouble sitting down to write; I have trouble trying to improve.  For example, I know I need to develop more of an ear (and fingers) for rhythmic writing; hearing the beats in a sentence and using them. Iambic pentameter.  I don’t have this ear yet, and may explain why I couldn’t stand Shakespeare in high school.  But, I’m willing to go back and try to understand it more.  
My writing isn’t tight.  In fact, when a critiquer said I had a good story but the writing wasn’t tight, I didn’t even know what the term meant.  He was right, though… I am too wordy, use too many filler words, don’t express myself as succinctly as possible.  Recently, another critiquer said never use the word “that”, which kind of blew my mind.  But, I took her suggestion and removed it from my non-dialogue parts in the piece.  And it made the writing better.
One of the first things I learned on this journey is the importance of feedback. I need thoughts on plot, interest, realism/calling bullshit, weak areas, strong parts… and a lot of help on word-smithing.  I didn’t show my first story to anyone until I sent a manuscript to an editor at Reedsy.  He, gently, pointed out all stories need some conflict.  Important, life or death, love, power type conflict.  My original story followed a guy through his day, doing fairly boring things.  I internalized his advice, and the next two stories (The Inspector’s Legacy and Unfair Advantage) had clear plots and conflict.  And came out okay.  The following two stories, though, including my first attempt at a novella length story, are lacking.  There was/is plot and conflict, but just barely.  Not yet.  Made the same mistake with a short story contest I just finished; only 2k words, but I focused so much on the contest ask (show how an incident in the character’s past influences them today) I literally forgot to have something interesting happen in the story.  Right now it’s a flashback by a banker in a meeting.  A real page turner! has been helpful.  The quality of the crit varies; sometimes you get the grammar person, sometimes a gentle reader who just likes the story.  I appreciate the grumpy ones who point out big issues.  One critiquer highlighted every paragraph started with a character’s name and thought the piece read like stage directions.  I’ve never read stage directions, but I’m sure he was 100% correct.  Every paragraph started with Eileen said, Punit looked, Chen whispered.  Yikes.

Current Writing Process, Pt 1

Morning Writing

*I wanted to document where I am in the “writing journey”, what I’ve done and how I’m feeling. *

My goals have grown over the past six months.  Originally, I wanted to publish one story.  Or, more exactly, create a story that was publishable.  Writing a short story about a futuristic world seemed very reasonable.  With Creating Short Fiction as my guide, I tried write like a pantser.  The piece was a disaster; it had a mildly interesting character in a near-future world.  But no coherent plot, or tension, or believable secondary characters.  And the writing was loose,  the opposite of tight, very loose.  When I wrote that first story, I hadn’t even heard of “tight writing”.
Now, I want to be a better writer, a better storyteller, a creator of worlds and characters.  To write honestly and without fear.  And share these stories and worlds others.  I don’t have illusions of grandeur; my conservative goal is for a hundred people to read my stuff, not counting friends and family. 
We are coming out of the Great Quarantine of 2020 (or at least trying).  When I started, I still had my old routine; commuting to the city four days a week, working from home one day a week.  My daily goal was to write five hundred words every morning.  I did this four to five times a week but there were days when I couldn’t find the time.  Starting in March, however, I’ve been writing every morning.  Haven’t missed one day.  Now, the routine is an entry in the 5-minute journal, then my 3 pages of longhand Morning Pages.  After the journaling, I meditate for 20-30 minutes, make a carafe of French Press coffee (from Monmouth County’s own Fair Mountain Roasters) and sit in the sunroom with my iPad to write.
This is the 500 words-don’t-worry-if-it’s-any-good part.  Some days it flows; some days 500 words takes a full hour.   I considered increasing this count, maybe to 750 or 1000, but I read an interview with Hemingway (a fantastic interview, done by George Plimpton for the Paris Review-Hemingway is cranky but still discusses interesting stuff) where he writes for four to five hours every morning, first thing… but only puts out  5-600 words.  I’m not obsessed with word counts, but that was eye opening.  He puts a lot more thought into what he writes than I do.  I’m not Hemingway, though, and I never will be.  I can strive to be like Hugh Howey; his work is excellent, an expert at a world building, good plots, good enough characters, rhythmic wording… but it’s not literary or high end. 
Then I edit.  I dump the first edit into the ProWriter tool, which finds my obvious issues.  After cleaning and tightening it a bit, I read it again like a reader.  This is where the real editing happens.  My attitude toward these sessions makes all the difference; if I think the piece is good before I start, I see the flaws, the horrible writing, the tremendous gaps in character development.  If I think it’s terrible going in, I am usually drawn to the better parts.  I enjoy the tinkering part of editing; tightening, cutting ruthlessly, etc.  Making big changes, like committing to rewriting entire scenes or chapters, or even trying to work something into an existing passage, is very hard.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

David Mitchell

TLDR; Great read.  An immersive books, requiring fifty pages to settle into this world and the Dutch names.
I picked up “The Thousand Autumns..” after Hugh Howey referred to it here.  Howey’s recommendation focused on Mitchell’s use of sound and smell to set a scene.   Based in Dejima, a Dutch trading settlement outside of Nagasaki at the turn of the nineteenth century, “The Thousand Autumns” features an immersive plot, remarkable characters and brilliant descriptions.  One can imagine the streets and buildings of Dejima and the formalized Japanese settings.  The first chapters of the book require patience, between the Dutch and Japanese names and customs. This is only the second Mitchell book I’ve read.  The other was Ghostwritten, also excellent.  
Highly recommended, immersive, memorable. 


Which way to the transition area?   I guide my bike with one hand, the other clutches a race packet.  Which race is this again?  What distance?  Follow the other athletes in sweatshirts and unflattering lycra across the asphalt parking lot. A man with a prodigious beer belly and bullhorn barks at the stream of people,  “…body markings…allowed to enter transition…” Look at left shoulder.  88 written sloppily on upper arm in black magic marker.  The adolescent girls at the entrance to the corral nod as I pass.  

Are spot assigned?  Do they do that at this race?  Choose a spot on the edge of a pathway, midway across the corral.  Which way is bike in, bike out?  Ah, it doesn’t matter. Don’t feel very aggressive today.  Legs heavy, mind foggy.  Maybe a caffeinated GU would help. Did I do the pre-race routine with the little optimizations, the easy bike spin, the quick run?  This wetsuit feels heavy, swim cap tight, sand cool.  Shoulder to shoulder with thirty men, restlessly shuffling feet.  Stare out at a bright orange sun above curling waves.  What distance is this race?  Is this warmup or start?  An air horn sounds.  High step, high step, high step, dive under the wave.  Still shallow, high step, high step, high step, dive.  Deeper now, swim, a man bouncing off my hip.  Thud.  This fucker won’t give me space.  Under a wave, lost my friend.  Sight to the buoy, it came up quick.  

Turning at the buoy.  Water is calm, flat.  Stroke, breathe, stroke, breathe.  Breath to one side, need to keep the shore in sight.  Distracting to breathe on both sides and see the endless ocean under an orange sun.  Must be July for a sun like that.  Stroke, stroke.  It feels good, strong.  Meditative.  Must not be pushing hard enough.  Sight.  Where is the next buoy?  Where is my wife?  She said we needed to change, to break out of our rut.  We agreed to change. 

That must be the last buoy.  I can see swimmers turning left and heading to shore.  The water is flat.  Will I do a fancy ninety-degree turn around the buoy, like I saw in that YouTube video?  Or just pop my head up and hurl my body toward shore.  Hands hit the gravelly surface.  Keep swimming even though you can stand, gain those seconds.  Swim past the suckers that stand too early.  Can’t extend arm anymore, stand. Lightheaded.  Run out of the murky pond, pull off my goggles and cap with one motion.  Run, run past the fast swimmers who can’t move on land.  Zip wetsuit to waist, run, run.  The more running, the better.  A long path, packed dirt with roots, through scrubby pines.  Wives and kids, cowbells and signs for dad’s line the pathway.  Sweatshirts and steaming coffee, to fend off the cool of the fall morning.  Where are my kids?  Farther down?  Maybe they are waiting for me at transition.

Hop on one foot.  The stubborn wetsuit sticks like glue to my ankle.  I thought it was an Orca?  This says Roka.  Grab a pointed helmet.  On the bike, pedal hard.  Did my kids see me?  Did I slap Brendan’s hand in transition?  Is he still in preschool?  Pass, pass, pass.  Scary guy with a seven-grand bike setup grunts past.  What is my wattage?  Do I hold 250, 260?  What was my last FTP test?  Pedal, pedal, pass.  Pedal, pedal, sip.  Pedal, pedal, pass.  Another guy cranks past, maybe eight k worth of kit.  I’ll see you on the run.  How long until then?  I hope Maura holds a sign for me; she wants to race one day.  But she is little now.  

Man waving in street.  Half this way, Olympic and sprint that way.  Oh.  What race is this again?  

Run now.  Did I nail the transition?  Aggressive into dismount, feet on top of shoes, coming in hot?  Running hard and tossing bike, slipping on sneaks with stretchy laces and Vaseline?  Stride and pace feel good, shoulders back.  Did I see Kim at transition?  Did she look angry, were the kids cranky?  Did they have to walk far from the car?  Run, run, push, push.  Hard for the first half mile then hold.  No one else pushes hard this early, pass, pass, pass.  Look down, Garneau top, DeSoto shorts, New Balance shoes.  Did I finally get a sponsor?  No, paid full retail, I sponsor them.

Run on the sandy Pine Barren trail.  Pass the woman in the pro kit, squatting in the middle of trail.  Swerve and avoid the deep puddle, when did it rain?  Turn the corner onto a boardwalk, full of people.  They scream and cheer as I turn.  Wait.  No, they scream and cheer for the woman behind me.  Everyone cheers for first woman, no one for the eighth man.  I see a parking lot; men with race numbers, walking with medals around their neck.  The final stretch.  Sprint, sprint, pass that guy stopping to grab his kid.  Do they announce names?  Yes, and places.

In the car.  Bike in rear view, number flapping in the wind.  I’m in a sweatshirt and I smell like swamp, ocean, sunscreen and wet sneaker.  Did I stay for awards?  Did I make the podium?  Age group?  The car is empty, just an empty cup from the morning coffee, a baggie that held a peanut butter sandwich.  Where am I going?  Is there anyone at home?