#IWSG: The First Book

This entry is part 11 of 16 in the series Insecure Writer's Support Group

On the first Wednesday of every month, members of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (open to anyone and full of great resources and information for writers) post their answers to a monthly prompt on their blogs.

Authors benefit from getting an insightful prompt for generating more blog content, and IWSG links all respondents, which is a way for writers to discover each other. Pretty neat!

April 5 question – Do you remember writing your first book? What were your thoughts about a career path on writing? Where are you now and how is it working out for you? If you’re at the start of the journey, what are your goals?

I do indeed remember writing my first (and only) book-length work, Red Soil Through Our Fingers. The first draft was written during a July Camp NaNoWriMo in the middle of a summer off, back when I was teaching in Boston. Almost half of that first draft was written in a single weekend, on a mini writing retreat with my wife at the time and another couple. All four of us were then part of the same writer group.

We rented a (questionable) loft apartment above a brotastic surf shop in Wells Beach, took the Amtrak Downeaster up from Noath Station, ate labstah rolls, drank a case of Sam Summah, and wrote basically nonstop while alternating between loft and beach. I pounded out something like 28,000 words of an incredibly shitty first draft in three days, and finished the rest over the next 2-3 weeks. Revision and self-publication took another year.

I have never been able to replicate the experience. Red Soil remains my only completed novel.

At the time, I was wildly optimistic about turning out two more sequels and making it a trilogy, then moving on to a dozen or so other scifi ideas floating in my head. Alas, it was not to be. As I’ve described in other IWSG posts such as Getting Unstuck and The Circle Reforged, it took a long time to get through some Life Journey obstacles and find my way back to writing.

Where am I now? I’ve redefined writing success for myself and set goals that are more about consistency and small wins than pushing for big projects. I’m happy to have completed two short stories since the return, both of which are in circulation; I’ll feel a bit better when one is picked up, I’m sure! I also started (and have since put aside for now) a new scifi novel, and reformed / reconnected with a writing group.

I’ve spent the first few months of the new year focusing on “process work”, and feel as though I’m on the cusp of Something. After spending a lot of time this spring training for two marathons, I’m ready to dive into a new creative endeavor; that many miles doesn’t leave a lot of time for writing… or much of anything else really.

I’m optimistic I’ll be able to complete another novel… someday. Maybe I’ll try another NaNo this summer after the move West…

#IWSG: Working with Cover Artists

This entry is part 10 of 16 in the series Insecure Writer's Support Group

On the first Wednesday of every month, members of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (open to anyone and full of great resources and information for writers) post their answers to a monthly prompt on their blogs.

Authors benefit from getting an insightful prompt for generating more blog content, and IWSG links all respondents, which is a way for writers to discover each other. Pretty neat!

February 1 question – If you are an Indie author, do you make your own covers or purchase them? If you publish trad, how much input do you have about what goes on your cover?

I am an indie author and I love working with indie artists for covers!

Stephanie Hoover did the cover art for my novel Red Soil Through Our Fingers, after an initial “trial run” arrangement in which she did a cover for one of my short stories, Remembering Turinam.

After I got the rights back to Turinam following its publication in the anthology We See A Different Frontier, I wanted to make the story available for free through Smashwords as well as on this website. I asked around for anyone interested in a collaboration and Stephanie responded! I posted to the blog about how our collaboration got started and the value of having a good ebook cover if you’re interested.

Soon after, I put Stephanie on contract to do the cover art for Red Soil. I interviewed Stephanie in the months leading up to the book’s release about that project and her process, which you can also read on this blog.

More recently, I worked with friend and indie artist Trish Revolinsky on the cover art for the short story Anpo: The Dawn. This was a story that I couldn’t place for years, but still wanted to publish. I finally just self-pubbed it, and worked with Tricia for the cover art. I also interviewed Tricia on the process of creating this cover. Though it’s not the only science fiction story in my biblio, it’s certainly the most “spacey” of my covers! I like that.

I’ve also done one cover myself, for the story The Parched Lands. This was a similar situation as with Turinam, wherein I had just had the rights to a published short story reverted to me, and I wanted to distribute it for free on my website and via ebooks. In this case, I used a free service (maybe Canva? I don’t actually remember) to try out the process and see how it worked out.

Overall, I certainly prefer working directly with an indie artist for covers. Not only can I get someone with far more talent than myself to produce the most fundamental advertising piece for the book, the cover, but the interplay of ideas and the joy of working in a creative collaboration are both huge benefits that it is hard to find though other means of acquiring a cover.

From a larger perspective, I think it’s also useful to remember that indie creatives not thrive on community, but depend on it. As an indie writer myself, I rely on personal connections, relationships formed at cons and other events, and the goodwill of others to take a chance on me and pay me for my work.

Working directly with an indie artist is one way to make a huge impact not only on your own publishing quality, but on the creative community in general. I highly encourage it, and hope to work with more indie artist collaborations for any future publications for which I have some control over the cover art selection.

2022 Year-End Recap

It’s been quite the year!

Back in the Saddle

In 2021, I was just barely starting to dip back into my writing after several years of hiatus. Since then: one new short story (Anpo: The Dawn) published, two new short stories (The Karma of Ponds and The Beyul) completed and in submission circulation among markets, and about 25,000 words of new prose written on a novel project (Rassam’s Eye). In addition, I managed to start a newsletter and help found a new writer’s critique circle. All this while getting married, continuing to get ever busier with a technical management position, and training for my fourth marathon! Not bad.

I’ve also realized that during my writing drought, I was also not reading much either. This year I’ve rediscovered a love for reading that I had forgotten I’d lost. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that published speculative fiction in general has greatly diversified since I last paid attention to it. I’m very excited to continue chipping away at my “Read Like a Writer” book list.

Not Quite What I Hoped

I had hoped for an actual market sale of a short story this year, and perhaps a finished first draft of a new novel. Alas, neither of these goals has materialized – Anpo was a self-pub after withdrawing it from a market that had accepted it three years ago and failed to do anything with it since, and I think I finally need to admit that Rassam’s Eye has floundered. That’s not to say the time and effort were wasted – I still think that novel idea is a good one, which may be resurrected at some point. Alternatively, perhaps even pieces of it can be mined later for something else.

On the short story front, The Karma of Ponds has gotten repeated personal rejections over a year of subbing, most saying it’s a wonderful story that “just doesn’t fit” or “isn’t quite for us” – it has yet to find a buyer. This leads me to believe that it doesn’t need wholesale revision, I just need to find the right market willing to take a chance on a unique structure. The Beyul has just entered the submission dance, so we’ll see. I remain optimistic that both will eventually find a home, I just need to stay persistent.

Getting Unstuck

One of the principles that has helped me get unstuck over the last year and a half has been a commitment to myself that I would always allow myself to write what I felt like writing, regardless of whether it was what I felt I should be writing, so as not to generate new writing career regrets. Among the consequences of this policy, however, has been that word count on longer projects like Rassam’s Eye have suffered at the expense of shorter sketches, to the point where I have honestly lost momentum on the novel ideas. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – it did, after all, get me writing again.

The upside of a more process-based approach to writing has been a greatly expanded range of styles, genres, and topics covered by the writing I do happen to get done. I’ve dabbled in literary fiction, fantasy, and even horror this year in my draft notebooks, whereas in previous years I tended to be solely focused on a a few particular subgenres of science fiction. I’ve also really warmed to the idea of physical notebooks at all – they really do prevent distraction and promote a certain kind of open mind. I think the breadth and experimentation and focus on process rather than product are good for me, and will eventually bear fruit in the long run.

However, in the meanwhile, it does tend to feel as though I’m not making much actual progress. I’d like to FINISH something again, be able to point to a new concrete milestone and say I produced that!

Patience – not one of my strong points.

Goals for 2023

Looking ahead, I’d like to find a way to balance my newly acquired process-centered philosophy with the need to have “small wins” for motivation and a sense of progress. Runner and novelist Haruki Murakami draws many mental connections between his two main pastimes in his memoir that I read this year, and it made me wonder if a distance-running technique often called “mental chunking” might be helpful: 26.2 miles, like a novel, is just too long to think about in it’s entirety while you’re in it – just run the mile you’re in, and the finish will come when it’s time. In other words, focus on smaller goals that can be accomplished sooner.

Writing Goal for 2023: Finish one draft short story or one draft novel chapter per month. Revision 4/1/23: Write at least a page of something every day – prose, poetry, journal, freewrite, research notes, anything. No length or word count requirements, no specific project on genre to adhere to each time, and no quality or “doneness” requirement.

Reading Goal for 2023: Finish six books from my Read Like a Writer list by the end of the year. Format doesn’t matter: ebook, treebook, or audiobook all count.

Creative Life Goal for 2023: Participate in at least one collaborative project with an artist working in a different creative medium by the end of the year. Details left open to avoid closing off opportunities.

#IWSG – Catching Up!

This entry is part 9 of 16 in the series Insecure Writer's Support Group

On the first Wednesday of every month, members of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (open to anyone and full of great resources and information for writers) post their answers to a monthly prompt on their blogs.

Authors benefit from getting an insightful prompt for generating more blog content, and IWSG links all respondents, which is a way for writers to discover each other. Pretty neat!

December 7 question – It’s holiday time! Are the holidays a time to catch up or fall behind on writer goals?

The holidays are absolutely a time to catch up on writing goals. I say this every year, but… it’s been a busy year. Getting married, a honeymoon, lots of personal and work travel, a Ragnar Trail and now training for a marathon… I’ve had a hard time prioritizing or even finding time for writing lately. I’m looking forward to the holidays as a chance to take a break from the normal routine and schedule and spend some quality time with my notebooks.

In years past, I would have set a concrete holiday goal, such as “I will have 10,000 words by the end of December!” I’ve come to realize that such goals often create unnecessary pressure, and often result in half-finished junk that I never end up following up on.

This holiday season, my writing goal is to simply fill one page in my notebook per day, with no restriction on whether it is word-count prose, hastily jotted down notes, a mini scene that has nothing to do with anything else, or even a sketch of some aspect of a creative idea. I need to get back in touch with my creative spirit. I expect that grace and coaxing are bound to work better than hammers and roared accountability.

#IWSG – What’s Great About SciFi

This entry is part 8 of 16 in the series Insecure Writer's Support Group

On the first Wednesday of every month, members of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (open to anyone and full of great resources and information for writers) post their answers to a monthly prompt on their blogs.

Authors benefit from getting an insightful prompt for generating more blog content, and IWSG links all respondents, which is a way for writers to discover each other. Pretty neat!

October 5 question – What do you consider the best characteristics of your favorite genre?

I’m definitely a science fiction fan! It’s a tired phrase, but I really do believe that the best aspect of the genre is the focus on the “what if”. Through imagination of other worlds, times, places, and even modes of being, science fiction is able to run “controlled thought experiments” on everything from human relationships to how we structure society to the nature of the universe and time itself.

Further, I think science fiction is able to explore and explicate certain sociopolitical issues in the “real world” in a different way, by providing some measure of distance from triggering hot-buttons and politicized contexts that may come with loaded personal and societal baggage. (Example: N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy deeply explores, among many other things, the institutions of slavery and apartheid – without ever explicitly referring or directly replicating institutional instances of such in the real world.)

I also believe science fiction is a deeply needed genre especially in the now. In her widely-shared speech at the National Book Awards, one of my favorite authors, Ursula K LeGuin, shared this view:

“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.”

-Ursula K. LeGuin, 2014

I just love that phrase: “realists of a larger reality”. It’s a quality I look for when I read, and strive to aspire to when I write.

#IWSG – Writing for Readers?

This entry is part 7 of 16 in the series Insecure Writer's Support Group

On the first Wednesday of every month, members of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (open to anyone and full of great resources and information for writers) post their answers to a monthly prompt on their blogs.

Authors benefit from getting an insightful prompt for generating more blog content, and IWSG links all respondents, which is a way for writers to discover each other. Pretty neat!

August 3 question – When you set out to write a story, do you try to be more original or do you try to give readers what they want?

I think this is a hard question for me to answer, because I’m not sure I make an intentional effort at either.

I’m not explicitly setting out to be “original” in the sense of creating something new, groundbreaking, innovative, unique for the genre. Neither do I first consider what is marketable or what readers’ preferences might be. I just… write what comes to me. Maybe that’s the intent of the first option?

If by “readers” the question would include “editors” then the answer is most certainly yes, especially so in later drafts. When just setting out to write a story though, the answer is mixed. Sometimes, I am writing to a specific prompt or theme that has been provided; in fact, all of my market-published short stories have been for themed issues or anthologies. Is that “giving readers what they want”?

Perhaps I’m overthinking the question. Zooming out.

I write for the sake of creativity, exploring themes, worlds, and characters that interest me, and to express ideas that I find hard to get across in any other medium. If readers happen to like it and maybe even buy something to help me recover costs, hey that’s great; but I don’t think of my writing life as a business, nor my writing output as a product. In that sense, I choose “original”.

Reading Like a Writer – My (First-Cut) ‘MFA’ Book List

I’ve been reading Gabriela Pereira’s book and website entitled The DIY MFA. Her advice to writers looking to homeroll their own MFA-like experience is divided into three parts: Write With Focus, Read With Purpose, and Build Your Community.

The section that has been most helpful to me so far as been the second. Pereira recommended approach is summarized in her blog post called “Essential Reading List: Must-Read Books for Your Writing Library“, in which she describes four categories of books that can inform a writer’s work: Competitors, Contextuals, Contemporaries, and Classics.

I went through her recommended exercise as described in her book, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it actually did help me structure my to-read list, and lead me to discover many books I hadn’t read but probably should.

If I could think of a book I already knew of that fit a category, I put it in, whether I had read it yet or not, and whether it was already in another category or not. Otherwise, I spent some time researching what might fit. My first cut is shared here, with have-read books in strike-through. Edit: I’ve also decided to update this list over time. Maybe someday it will deserve a page.

There’s some clear patterns in the whole. Firstly, I should probably be reading everything Kim Stanley Robinson, Ursula K. LeGuin, N.K. Jemison, and Alastair Reynolds ever wrote, with perhaps Anne Leckie and Iain M. Banks as high-value points in the mix as well. Secondly, a few books — like Jemison’s The Fifth Season and Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire appear on multiple lists, and probably should be bumped way up on my priority list.

Time to get to work!

Competitive Titles

Books/stories that “compete” directly with the stories you are actively trying to write. Same genre and category as your work(s) in progress and cover similar themes or subject matter.

This category was difficult, since I have many varied projects in progress and the list could grow rapidly out of control. I focused on science fiction, and particularly on my novel-in-progress, Rassam’s Eye as the anchor point.

Short Fiction Magazines:

  • Asimov’s Science Fiction
  • Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

Ecological SFF:

  • Forty Signs of Rain, Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Three Californias, Kim Stanley Robinson
  • A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Dune, Frank Hebert
  • Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer
  • The Crystal World, J.G. Ballard

Sociological / Political / Spiritual :

  • The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemison
  • The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler
  • Hyperion, Dan Simmons
  • Dune, Frank Hebert
  • Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds
  • The Unbroken, C.L. Clark
  • The Word for World is Forest, Ursula K. LeGuin

Contemporary Space Opera with overlapping themes of political intrigue, ethnic identity, colonization

  • A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine
  • Ancillary Justice, Anne Leckie
  • The Quiet War, Paul McAuley
  • Blue Remembered Earth, Alastair Reynolds
  • Surface Detail, Iain M. Banks

Contextual Titles

All the books that put your current project(s) into context. This includes references and research materials. These contextual books might have a similar theme or subject matter as your own but fall in a different genre, or target a different group of readers. You might also read contextual books that use a particular storytelling technique, even though in terms of subject it is completely different from your own book.

  • The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin
  • The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • The Nakesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
  • The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  • Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
  • Barkskins, Annie Proulx
  • Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
  • Blue Skinned Gods, S.J. Sindu
  • Zenogenesis, Octavia E. Butler
  • Green Grass, Running Water, Thomas King
  • Gods of Jade and Shadow, Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  • The Unbroken, C.L. Clark
  • The Overstory, Richard Powers
  • The Devourers, Indrapramit Das

Contemporary Titles

Read a few recently published (within the last three years) books in your chosen genre each year. Be aware of new trends in the genre, the broader conversation around these works, and how they are marketed to the current audience of genre readers.

Note: I was most surprised by this category, specifically in how out-of-touch I’ve become with the genre. Of the Hugo and Nebula finalists for best novel in the last three years that looked interesting, I’ve read exactly none of them. Damn.

  • A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine
  • A Master of Djinn, Djeli Clark
  • Network Effect, Martha Wells
  • Gods of Jade and Shadow, Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  • Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir
  • The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemison
  • The City We Became, N.K. Jemison
  • The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal
  • Project Hail Mary, Andy Weir
  • The Unbroken, C.L. Clark
  • Black Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse
  • The Poppy War, R.F. Kuang


Genre dependent, but you need to know what the founding assumptions and touchstones are of the genre(s) you’ve chosen to write in. You can’t (effectively) break what you don’t know, and you can’t reach readers who speak a language you don’t understand. You need to be able to get into the headspace of a genre to affect it.

I assembled this list using a rough merger/overlap of a few online lists (NPR Books, Goodreads, etc) of the best Science-Fiction novels of all time. I have not yet done the same with Fantasy. I seem to have done fairly well here so far, but some work left to do!

  • 1984, George Orwell
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke
  • Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller
  • Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke
  • The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K Dick
  • Dune, Frank Hebert
  • Farenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
  • The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
  • Foundation, Isaac Asimov
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
  • I, Robot, Isaac Asimov
  • The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein
  • Neuromancer, William Gibson
  • Ringworld, Larry Niven
  • Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
  • Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein

#IWSG – Book Worlds

This entry is part 6 of 16 in the series Insecure Writer's Support Group

On the first Wednesday of every month, members of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (open to anyone and full of great resources and information for writers) post their answers to a monthly prompt on their blogs.

Authors benefit from getting an insightful prompt for generating more blog content, and IWSG links all respondents, which is a way for writers to discover each other. Pretty neat!

July 6 question – If you could live in any book world, which one would you choose?

Oooo great question.

The easy answer that comes to mind would be the Culture, a post-scarcity civilization in the universe of Iain M. Banks’s science fiction series by the same name. The idea that humans finally figure out how to make technology work for us and not against us (or to exploit each other for profit), to create a society in which most to all preventable suffering is eliminated, is highly appealing.

Of course, who wouldn’t want to live in such a setting?

I think the more interesting answer for me might be Earthsea, the setting for Ursula K. LeGuin’s YA fantasy series featuring the wizard Ged. I love the diversity of its terrain, people, and societies, and all the more so because it is nautical in flavor. There’s something about ships and sailing that automatically sets of associations of high adventure and intriguing quests on mysterious islands!

I don’t think I’d choose any of the worlds my own stories set in! That probably says something… The exception might be the planet Iskaria from my novel-in-progress, Rassam’s Eye. I think I’d also enjoy a subset of the world that will form the setting for a trio of novellas I have planned…

Education and Intelligence

One of my favorite podcasts, Hidden Brain, recently released an episode called “Why You’re Smarter Than You Think” which stirred some powerful feelings for me. The interview is with Scott Barry Kaufman, someone who was labeled “backward” as a child and sent through special education programs, but later became a widely respected psychologist on intelligence, working with some of the most prestigious universities in the world.

The episode is a rational and emotional look into how we choose to measure and label “intelligence”, and more particularly how these labels then go on to affect students’ lives from the time they are very young, often becoming self-fulfilling.

The extended problem is then, those who happened to have the qualities to succeed through these artificial filters generally go on to be successful in a society built around them, and naturally harbor the belief that the system must be fair because it worked well for them. And since they generally have the power in the society they were successful in, they both directly and indirectly contribute to reinforcing the system for another generation.

I saw some of these effects first-hand when I taught in an urban public high school in Boston, full time for five years. I don’t think I’ve ever yet been able to fully process and explain the personal transformation and revolution in my worldview that these experiences affected in me. I hope to be able to over time through my writing, but that might be awhile.

In the meanwhile, the tip of the iceberg likely lies embedded in two short stories I wrote during that time period: Remembering Turinam (and my accompanying essay on linguistic colonization) and The Parched Lands. I suppose that’s a start.

Refugees, Language, and the Meaning of ‘America’

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to hear Pulitzer Prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen speak at the College of William and Mary for the 2022 McSwain-Walker Lecture. His talk was entitled “Refugees, Language, and the Meaning of ‘America’“. Nguyen wrote the novel The Sympathizer, and was also a guest on my favorite podcast, Throughline, in the episode entitled All Wars Are Fought Twice (worth a listen… or maybe two!).

I took away so many insights from Dr. Nguyen’s talk, in which he – a Vietnamese American – referred to being “split in two” by the duality of how the Vietnam War is remembered by Vietnamese and by Americans, and finding himself in neither narrative. Both vantage points, he remarked, “want to believe only in their own humanity.”

The persistent anchoring in our own constructed memories and shared narratives about nation, identity, and what constitutes ‘us’ and ‘them’, and then the conflict which occurs when these constructs collide against the views of others, are persistent motifs in Nguyen’s fiction and lectures.

The feeling of being caught between two worlds but part of neither, and yet craving earnestly to be “wholly inside” in Nguyen’s terms, is a primary inner conflict for one of the main characters in my novel in progress, tentatively entitled Rassam’s Eye. Nimasha Vaas grew up on a highly technologically advanced planet in the neurally-augmented Dharumi Hegemony. She returns to the remote backwater planet on which she was born, Iskaria, while the build up to an interstellar war threatens to close in around her.

It was an inspiration and an honor to have the opportunity to listen to and meet Dr. Nguyen. I have not yet read his book; but now that I have a signed copy, I might have to bump it higher on my list! I will say, the Throughline episode I linked above is a great one, and one I’ve listened to at least twice. I’d strongly recommend it as an access point to Nguyen’s perspective and ideas.