Of jokes and their proper placement

Greetings, programs!

Let’s talk about comedic timing for a bit. I’m not talking about the kind of timing that actors and actresses need to have, in which they deliver their funny lines with sufficient timing that it maximizes comic effect and gets the biggest laugh. I’m more talking about the placement of the joke itself within the story.

You can’t just have a joke any old place. You have to plan these things. If you put a joke in your story’s most emotional moment, it has to be good, and it has to allow for a certain release of the tension of the BIG MOMENT. But I’m not talking about this, either.

What I’m talking about for a minute or two is the joke itself, and when it can happen. Sometimes jokes occur to writers outside of the confines of the story’s timeline, and it’s tempting to throw them in wherever. But you can’t do this. You have to think about a joke, and where it’s going, and why.

Basically, the story itself has to support the joke.

I have a good example here, from the 1987 movie Broadcast News. (This is one of my favorite comedies of all time, by the way.) The movie is about the news division of a television network in the late 80s, and the challenges faced by one producer (Holly Hunter) and one reporter (Albert Brooks) as the times change toward budget cuts and flash over substance. The story isn’t important for the point I’m making, but the relationship between Jane (Hunter) and Aaron (Brooks) is.

These two have been working together for years and have the kind of relationship where they can speak to each other in shorthand, where they can anticipate each other’s thoughts and finish each other’s sentences. They are close enough that it’s amazing that they’re not a couple, a possibility which hasn’t even occurred to Jane until she falls for a new reporter (William Hurt), and has to have things spelled out for her in one of the best declarations of love in a movie ever.

The joke isn’t there either, though.

As the movie progresses, obstacles arise left and right, and it gradually becomes clear that events both internal and external are going to force Jane and Aaron apart. They are going to go different ways professionally, and when they realize that their hearts are simply not going to align anymore, we know that while their friendship might not be specifically ending, it will never be as close as it’s been again.

And then, near one of the film’s last scenes, comes a throwaway joke, a single line, that is very easily overlooked. Blink and you’ll miss it…but everyone I’ve ever known who knows and loves this movie knows this line. Jane calls Aaron and asks if they can meet to talk, and Aaron says this:

“OK. I’ll meet you at the place near the thing where we went that time.”

And she gets it.

This is a great joke and a great line, even though it’s over so quickly, precisely because of where it happens in the movie. If this exchange happens in the first half hour, sure, it might get some laughs, but it wouldn’t be memorable. It wouldn’t be–it wouldn’t feel–true. And that’s what’s great about it: it feels true.

A line like that gives a little hint to us, watching this friendship get slowly pulled apart, that there’s still a little life there, that these two people do still share some kind of connection where they can innately understand one another and comprehend this sort of shorthand that only the very closest of friends can have.

The story supports the joke, which could come any time in the script but which comes when it does because our writer, James L. Brooks, knows exactly where this joke has to come. The joke helps us maintain optimism that Jane and Aaron can still be friends, and the only way the joke can do that is if we’re already invested.

So when you have a joke that serves a specific purpose, you have to be careful about where you put it in your story. Your jokes help create the tone in your story, but your story has to support its jokes too.

And that’s all I have for today. See you around the Galaxy, folks!


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THE WEST WING and storytelling in miniature

Greetings, Programs!

Back in the day, The West Wing was one of my favorite shows. I don’t think it’s aged as well as many, and I’ve found that I have issues with Aaron Sorkin over the years, but still–when the show was at its best, The West Wing was superb. One facet of its success was its approach to storytelling in miniature.

The West Wing was an ensemble show, telling the stories of a large cast of characters as they worked in the White House to run the United States. Ensemble shows (and books) pose their own challenges: which stories do you focus on more than others, what do you do with characters who might not be the actual focus in this episode or chapter as opposed to the next one, and so on. Many times there would be a “main” storyline in an episode, but along the way Aaron Sorkin had to get the other characters into the show somehow. Sometimes they would factor into the episode’s main storyline, other times they wouldn’t.

This, then, posed two problems: First, Sorkin had to make sure that the main storyline in any episode moved along in satisfactory fashion with lesser screen time in which to do that job than a non-ensemble show might have (and he was not always successful at this). Second, he had to ensure that the secondary stories in any episode were satisfying on their own (and he was not always successful at this, either).

Here we have one of Sorkin’s secondary stories that works very well. This is from the second season’s Christmas episode, in which the main story is Josh Lyman’s struggles with PTSD after being critically wounded in an assassination attempt on the President some months before. That story has no bearing on this little tale that involves CJ Cregg and her attempts to get to the bottom of an odd incident in which someone, while on a tour of the White House, suddenly had a very emotional response to seeing one of the many paintings on the wall.

This little story unfolds over just two scenes, which combined take less than five minutes. And even so, you have everything you need for a story: character, a problem, some background, and some true wit. Here’s the scene:

What leaps out at me here? Well, we have the trademark Sorkin stuff here: walking-and-talking, fast dialog, and all that. But there’s something here that definitely sparkles, which doesn’t always happen in these Sorkin episodes-within-episodes. There’s the mystery as to why someone would be so emotionally charged after seeing what we’re told is an uninspiring painting, and there’s the fact that the payoff comes pretty quickly. This miniature episode highlights one of Sorkin’s favorite approaches to storytelling: using comedy in the first act to partially conceal the emotional hit in the second (leaving the emotional hit, as he once described it, “hiding in the tall grass”). Here Sorkin only has two scenes to work with and they have to be pretty short, so he doesn’t linger or tarry. There’s nothing here that doesn’t need to be here, which can be one of his problems as a writer. There is also no pious pontification here.

Of course, the scene mostly crackles because of the amazing chemistry between Alison Janney and the wonderful British character actor Paxton Whitehead. The way Janney smiles when Whitehead is referring to the President’s awful taste in art (while taking another shot at her own “taste in accessories” in the process), just the way they converse as if they do this stuff every day. This stuff doesn’t always work well on The West Wing but here it works so well that I almost want a sequel series when CJ Cregg, after leaving the White House, teams up with Bernard Thatch to seek out lost works of art and return them to their original owners. I love this little story right from the opening exchange, which establishes relationship and character in just two lines each:

CJ: How are you doing, Bernard?

BERNARD: I’m not at all well.

CJ: That’s not unusual, is it?


The storytelling lesson here is that sometimes limits can push one to do really good things. Sorkin doesn’t have time in this episode for more with this story than these two scenes, so he gets all the impact that he can from them. It’s really, as Sorkin himself might say, quite something.

And that’s all I have for today. See you ’round the Galaxy!


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2018: You may fire when ready.

Hey all! 2017 is over, and 2018 is here. A bit of looking back and forward is in order.


At first glance 2017 felt like a mixed bag to me, but when I really look harder, I got quite a bit done, even though a lot of it was work that isn’t likely to bear fruit for some time. I posted on this site a lot less than I intended, and I do hope to rectify that in 2018. But, to sum up:

:: I published Amongst the Stars! It’s out now! The first act of the grand adventure that is The Song of Forgotten Stars is complete!

:: I finished a couple of rounds of edits on The Chilling Killing Wind, which I intend to publish sometime in the first half of 2018. I plan to make one more pass through the book soon just to make sure that I’ve got it all the way I want it.

:: I wrote probably one-half of a new science fiction novel tentatively titled Orion’s Huntress, which is set in the same universe as Forgotten Stars but which has nothing at all to do with that story. I ended up back-burnering that story when I realized that a few aspects of it were problematic in various ways that require additional thought. But I started it!

:: I started the first draft of Forgotten Stars IV, whose title is The Savior Worlds. This is my current WIP.

:: I also wrote a nice amount on Byzantium’s Shores, my personal blog. I summed up my favorite pieces from 2017 here, so check that out! There’s also the usual balloon juice on my Tumblr and if you look me up on Goodreads you can see all the stuff I read last year.


So what’s up for the new year? Well!

:: Finishing the first draft of The Savior Worlds. I’m not sure how long I expect this to take, but I’m hoping to be done with it by May.

:: Releasing The Chilling Killing Wind into the world. This will launch a new series for me, about which I’m kind of excited. (OK, a lot excited!)

:: Returning to Orion’s Huntress, once I have a better idea of how it fits together.

:: And finally returning to Lighthouse Boy, the two-part fantasy novel whose first part is already drafted. I’m going to edit the first volume (lightly) and then proceed to drafting the second, before I then go back at some point (almost certainly not until the latter half of 2019) and edit the entire thing.

So that’s where the various writing projects stand for right now. There are also a couple of completed drafts in existence that I need to put through a round of edits (a sequel to Chilling Killing Wind, and a stand-alone supernatural thriller involving a kayaking expedition on a mystical river) which has no real title at this time, but we’re in no hurry.

I’m also doing some experimenting with my writing processes this year. Tinkering with process is something that a lot of writers enjoy (at least until they “make it”, or so it seems–successful writers never seem to be as fascinated with process as the aspiring writers are), and I’m trying some new things in an effort to cut down the time I spend in front of a glowing screen. I’ll report more on that as things develop.

As always, I hope to post more frequently in this space, but I’m not going to promise anything. Until then, see you around the galaxy!

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AHHHHHHHH!!! #amwriting #writersofinstagram #writerinoveralls #NaNoWriMo

Late last night, I dragged myself, weary and bloodied, across the NaNoWriMo finish line.

Well, not bloodied, but I was quite tired when I got there…especially since at one point Scrivener had my word count at 50,200 but when I plugged my text into NaNo’s validator, it came back with a result of 49,850. So I had to stay up a bit and do a little extra work to get myself over that line. I could have just done it today, but when I’m that close, I just want to kick it into gear and get it done.

So after three consecutive years of falling short during NaNoWriMo, I’ve resumed winning. Huzzah!!!

What now? Well, I only have about 46,000 words of a book that I’m targeting for around 200,000, so there’s a lot more writing ahead. (Yes, you read that right–46,000 words. Part of my NaNo total is roughly 4500 words of a scene that I eventually realized needed to be scrapped, but for the purposes of NaNoWriMo I never delete scrapped material, I just relocate it because it’s still work I did. I mean, a movie’s deleted scenes still got filmed, so that’s still work that got done.)

I am looking forward to backing off the pedal a bit in terms of writing. Cranking 1700 words a day tends to be my upward limit before my brain starts getting all jangly, and to get that much writing done I have to reduce my reading, which never makes me feel good. I find that when I enter a reading slump, a writing slump inevitably follows because the reading is what fuels the writing. I’ve been reading, but not as much as I would like and I’m happy to get some of that time back.

I’m also hoping to get back to things like updating blogs…but for now, as always….

Because in my head I'm still twelve. #AmWriting #overalls

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Of NaNoWriMo, and other delights

Goodness, I’ve really let this site go fallow, haven’t I? Over three months of radio silence here. That’s not because of any bad developments or anything like that; just that I’ve been plugging along with writing and not really saying much here. I should change that, I think.

But anyway, here’s what’s going on:

  1. I’ve been prepping a lot for NaNoWriMo 2017. For the uninitiated, that’s National Novel Writing Month, set for November when writers the world over, amateurs and professionals and folks in the middle like me alike, all commit to attempting to produce 50,000 words of something in a single month. This will be my sixth year of participation, and I am greatly hoping to post a “win” this year. There’s no shame in not hitting the 50K mark, but I made it both of my first two years and then missed the mark three years in a row. 2015 was a special case, as my writing time for the month was greatly impacted by our six-day trip to New York City for Thanksgiving that year, and 2016…well, let’s just say that certain events in the world that began unfolding in November last year sent me into a massive slump.
  2. Oh, and my project for NaNoWriMo? I’m starting Book IV of The Song of Forgotten Stars, titled The Savior Worlds. I haven’t done any new work in that series in a long time and I’m itching to move onto the next phase of the story. To that end I’ve been planning and…outlining. Yes, outlining. Me, the pantser-to-rule-them-all. Well, if Forgotten Stars is one big story, then the first three books have told the first act. Now I’m entering Act II of the BIG STORY, and as such, I need to have a better idea of what the BIG STORY entails. Hence, planning.
  3. That being the case, I’ve temporarily shelved the project I was working on, Orion’s Huntress, the all-female Firefly-meets-James Bond-in-space thing that I’ve been working on. I have a lot of notes and material put together on that book, so when I return to it, I shouldn’t have too much difficulty getting back into its swing.
  4. Also, I’ve started preparing The Chilling Killing Wind for publication, hopefully to come in December (but, more likely, January). I’ll keep you all posted…including when I put up some sample chapters!
  5. On the subject of NaNoWriMo itself, my usual advice stands, which you can read here. I wouldn’t add much at all to this, except to reiterate: Have fun! NaNoWriMo shouldn’t feel like pressure.

See you around the galaxy, and I promise to check in more frequently!

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On Process

Hey, everyone! Hoping everything is going well. If not, then I hope that your enemies are at least doing less well!

I’ve been thinking a bit about process lately. That’s something that we “aspiring” writers tend to think a lot about, in my experience. We think about word quotas and what time of day we should work or how many hours we should spend. We think about which word processor to use and which computer or which pen and which ink on which paper or in which journal. And for the most part, that’s fine! Most writers I know aren’t operating under the impression that finding the exact right way to work will suddenly unlock the writerly heavens and let the words flow forth in a torrent. They do, however, want to find the process that leads to the most work getting done with the least stress and obstacles.

Again, that’s fine. Most professional, full-time authors that I know of seem to have fairly settled processes by this point. They know the way they work, and they keep doing it because it works. Published, full-time authors always seem mildly bemused by questions of process, but here’s the thing: it helps to get a glimpse of what the life is like. Many of us are still in the early phase that Stephen King describes in On Writing: balancing a cheap typewriter on our knees (or maybe a piece of wood across our knees) as we tuck ourselves into the corners of our laundry rooms. It’s nice to hear that there is a stage when you have a room of your own, with a desk and a door you can close, into which you can disappear for as long as it takes to produce your 2000 words a day.

This is kind of like that scene in Bull Durham, when Crash Davis describes what it was like to be in the Majors:

I think that’s part of why so many of us like hearing about the processes of those who have “made it”, or at least seeing photos of their workspaces.

There’s something else here, though. It’s also about learning tips and sharing ideas. It’s about sharing bits of process.

In my day job, I do a fair amount of carpentry. Not enough that I consider myself a carpenter, but a decent amount. I often work with guys who are actual carpenters, and one thing I’ve noticed about carpenters over the years–every single one I’ve ever known–is that no matter how good they are, no matter how experienced, they are always excited to see something new. They’ll take a long gander at another carpenter’s toolbox, to see how he organizes it. They’ll notice that another carpenter might be doing something just a little bit differently–marking a piece of wood for cutting, perhaps–and they’ll say, “I should watch her do that because her cuts are always really accurate.” It’s about learning new tricks to do with wood or maybe a new joinery technique: “Hey, my dovetails are never as tight as they should be and yours are always perfect. Mind if I watch?”

I think that’s a big part of why writers are so fascinated about process. It’s the nuts-and-bolts of the job, the actual part of doing the work that doesn’t boil down to character questions or literary techniques. (Don’t get me wrong: we’re keenly interested in that stuff, too!)

Talking process is basically the writers’ version of talking shop.

(A note on my own process: for several years now I’ve been getting up at 5:30 am to make coffee and then write for about 45 minutes or so before I leave for work. Lately I’ve noticed diminishing returns from this practice, so I’ve changed it up the last few weeks: while I still get up at that time, I no longer write at that point in the morning. The laptop stays closed. Instead, I read. Dedicated reading time is every bit as important as dedicated writing time. Reading is part of the job, so building it into my schedule is a good thing. Now, I’ll likely change back to writing once we get to November and NaNoWriMo, but for now I intend to keep up with my morning reading. In the small hours, before it’s light out, when the house is silent and the coffee mug is warm? That’s a great time to get some reading done, folks.)


What I’m working on: With Amongst the Stars out and The Chilling Killing Wind in the hands of a capable beta, I’m back to Orion’s Huntress. I’m currently re-reading the existing material and rewriting a few small bits of it before I return to drafting the rest of the book.

What I’m reading: The Explorers Guild, Vol.1, by John Baird and Kevin Costner. (So far I’m digging this one. It’s a bit of a throwback in terms of writing style, so your mileage may vary. It’s also a gorgeous book with some of the best book design I’ve ever seen. I’ll review it on Goodreads when I’m done but I’m sufficiently jazzed by the book design that I may write a post here just about that.)

Paris: The Secret History, by Andrew Hussey. History book about Paris, but from the viewpoints of the city’s often seedy underbelly. Engaging read thus far.

The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz. I’ve been meaning to read Berlioz’s memoirs for over thirty years. Time to get it done.

The Three Musketeers, Dumas. I love Dumas and I’m re-reading this, with the intent of reading the entire series of books about these iconic heroes.

These last three titles, by the way, are a part of a reading experiment I’m doing wherein I pick a few books that have very short chapters, and then I read a chapter a day from each. In this way it takes a long time to get through a book, I admit, but reading in short bursts is a valuable skill, and in the case of 19th-century novels, it’s a nice way to capture the feeling of serialization that the first readers had.

On Byzantium’s Shores, my Personal Blog:
Box of Dreams, regarding an antique box
On Choosing Happiness, a bit of introspection occasioned by a fully-clothed dip in a stream
Thoughts on Twenty Years of Harry Potter

Have a great week, and I’ll see you around the Galaxy!

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Plans: I got ’em!

I'm setting goals, you guys! #wheeee #amwriting
Well, half of 2017 is in the books! Wow, that sure went fast. So what’s coming down the pike? I’m glad you asked!

1. In terms of book releases, the next project on the horizon is THE CHILLING KILLING WIND, which is the supernatural thriller long code-named GHOSTCOP. I am hoping to release this book in September. This book will launch a series of novels featuring former police detective John Lazarus and his strange encounters with the supernatural. It is currently in the hands of a couple of very capable beta-readers, so we are hopefully on pace!

2. In terms of drafting new books, I am resuming work on ORION’S HUNTRESS, which you’ll recall is a new space opera series set in the same universe as THE SONG OF FORGOTTEN STARS, but with little to no plot overlap. It’s a big galaxy, and all of that. I don’t have a targeted release date for this book yet, but it won’t be until late 2018 at the earliest.

Then I plan to stick to space opera and return to my beloved Princesses and their pilot. It’ll be time to start working on FORGOTTEN STARS IV, for which I’ve already started generating plot notes and such. The next books in the series will form a tighter arc than the first three, so I’ll need to plot things farther out. In fact…gasp!…I’m thinking of outlining these books.

I know. It’s like it’s not even me anymore!

After a draft of FORGOTTEN STARS IV is done, then I plan to return to SEAFLAME!, the fantasy-adventure long code-named THE ADVENTURES OF LIGHTHOUSE BOY. I’ve been waffling on this project because I have Book One drafted, but the whole story is told in two books, so I’ve been trying to figure out if I should draft Book Two before doing any editing, or do an edit of Book One first and then draft the second. I’m leaning strongly to the latter, with both books getting some much more serious editing later on after both are written. SEAFLAME! is basically one very long book that I am splitting in two, and once both are out, it will be done.

I expect that all of this work will take me far into 2018, so after that, who knows? Maybe FORGOTTEN STARS V, maybe a third John Lazarus book.

3. And let’s not forget about editing! The major editing project will be getting THE CHILLING KILLING WIND ready for publication, and I have a draft of THROUGH THE PALE DOOR (the sequel) done, which will require some very heavy lifting. There’s also the afore-mentioned SEAFLAME!, the first book of which will receive a light edit before I draft the second half of the story, and I also have a draft of a supernatural thriller involving a doomed kayaking expedition in the wilds of Alaska. (This last is a one-shot, no series, no sequel.)

So I am not lacking for projects to keep me busy. In fact, I’ve booked myself probably well into 2019 at this point. Yay, me! And, whew.


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At long, long last, the ebooks of AMONGST THE STARS are available!


I do apologize for how long this took. This book’s formatting was quite the hassle in terms of getting it all to render correctly in e-book form. Scrivener is a fantastic piece of software, but the “compiling” part of the job is ZERO fun. In fairness, I’m not really sure how they could make it any better than it is, and there is always some aspect to ANY job that is the pits.

(If you MUST know, this book eschews numbered chapters in favor of “viewpoint” chapters, with each chapter headed by the name of the character whose viewpoint we are now in. If you’ve read George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books, you know how this works. Getting all that to compile correctly, without Scrivener adding chapter numbers, and generating a proper table of contents, was a HUGE pain. But I got it figured out in the end! And I wonder about people who compile even more complex works, in terms of structure within Scrivener where you can have entirely separate scenes to compile into chapters and then into parts and then into novels…yikes!)

But there we have it. The ebooks are here! Huzzah!!

And there will be another announcement toward the end of next week, so hold on to your hats!

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Interviewed! (And a couple of other things)

Hey everyone! I did an interview!

Did you read my interview at TheGeekiverse.com yet? No? Well GO, folks! 😆 #amwriting

The Geekiverse is a cool website, based in Buffalo, that focuses on all manner of geeky stuff, from games to movies to music to books. They’re a neat bunch and I’m excited to be featured on their site. Go check it out!

(Meantime, I hope those of you who are waiting for the e-book of Amongst the Stars will continue to be patient. I’m running into some formatting problems that are giving me fits, specifically with regard to the book’s structure and how it works into a usable Table of Contents. I’ll get it figured out, I promise! More to come on that hopefully later this week.)

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