Return of the Return of the Superstars

My plan had been to return home today from the Superstars Writing Seminar, but the thick fog surrounding the Colorado Springs airport had other ideas. Instead I find myself at the Radisson near the airport, forced to spend the evening reading and writing.

I know, I know. A whole orchestra of the world’s smallest violins are playing for me right now.

So, this was my third time at Superstars, a seminar dedicated to the business side of publishing. There are plenty of seminars focusing on craft, but I believe this is the only one that talks purely about business. What’s really cool is that, despite the fact that the last seminar was only nine months ago, nearly half the content was brand new. Publishing is changing that quickly, as  the e-book and self-publishing explosion have forced the entire industry to adapt. I got to hear all about it from established authors, professional editors, and even some successful indie authors.

Some highlights:

VIP Dinner. The idea here is each table consists of five attendees and one panelist. I sat at Kevin J. Anderson’s table this year, and was treated to nearly four hours of talk about publishing, writing, television, dining, and pretty much every other topic under the sun. Kevin’s been in the industry for decades and knows just about everyone. The fact that he’s still so gracious about his time with newbies like me is amazing.  The rest of the group at the table was fantastic too. Hard to beat a night of great food and great company.

Pitching: I decided to practice pitching The Wildfire Crown. I gave Dave Farland the written version and editor Lisa Mangum from Shadow Mountain the oral version. Dave really liked it, Lisa was more skeptical, but they both gave me great feedback and suggested some other approaches that I’m looking forward to trying. One of the key lessons I’ve picked up from all this seminars is that your brilliant novel won’t impress anyone if you can’t give them a reason to start reading it. Hopefully with all this advice I’ll be able to come up with a killer blurb that will sell me a couple million copies (or, you know, more than one at least).

Kobo. Mark Lefebvre from Kobo came back a second time as a guest speaker and raffled off a Kobo Aura HD. Using my tremendous skill at manipulating entropy and randomness, I managed to win the drawing and decided to up the awesomeness-ante by having James Owen draw a dragon on the back (an idea I shamelessly stole from another attendee). The result:

2014-02-07 18.17.28

This post doesn’t even scratch the surface of how cool the seminar is. I had dozens of great conversations and have made new friends.

For any writers reading this blog who want to make a career out of novels, I firmly believe this is the best money you can spend. Check out their website here!






Awesome Books You Should Read

2014 is upon us, no doubt to the dismay of doomsday-prophets everywhere. So far it seems suspiciously similar to 2013, but I imagine it will eventually reveal some surprises.

I’ve got an exciting year ahead of me. I’ve sent The Wildfire Crown off to an editor whom should be starting on it soon. It depends a bit on how much more revision I have to do once he hands me back his comments, but I hope to self-publish the novel this spring (April-ish would be nice). Meanwhile I’m hard at work on a new novel I’m calling The Lanterns of Shadesmere which is theoretically going to be the start of a YA-leaning seven book series. I’ve been hard at work on the first section and got a rough draft of the first third or so done during Christmas break, which revealed a number of plot issues I’m trying to fix. I thought I had them nailed but this weekend they rudely informed I still had work yet to do.  Still, I’m very excited about this book and series, and will share more about it later.

I’m headed to the Superstars Writing Seminar again in a couple weeks. It’ll be great to see old friends again. I also managed to nab a coveted spot in the retreat held by the Writing Excuses authors, Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Taylor. It turns out I got pretty lucky, getting up at 6 am Saturday to go for one of 24 spots that about 200 people were vying for. That’s going to be in Tennessee at the end of September.

I had plenty of time for reading over the holiday, and happened across a number of great books that you all should add to your reading lists.

The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie:

Joe Abercrombie, together with George R.R. Martin, writes what many call the ‘grimdark’ flavor of fantasy. I had tried one of Abercrombie’s stand alones a few years ago and didn’t finish it, mostly due to not liking any of the characters. But I’d seen his debut trilogy recommended enough that I finally decided to give it a try, and am very happy I did. Yes, it’s dark, but not hopelessly so. Abercrombie takes characters that feel like fantasy mainstays – the mysterious old wizard, the barbarian warrior, the spoiled young noble – and makes them fresh again. The characters in this series may be my favorite ensemble ever. My favorite isn’t any of the aforementioned but instead a crippled torturer named Glokta. My guess is you don’t think you’d enjoy reading about such a character, a sentiment I would have shared, but Glokta is one of the most brilliantly compelling characters I’ve ever read. It’s a case-study in how to make a reader sympathize with someone who is nearly amoral.

I haven’t quite finished the trilogy, but I suspect the ending won’t exactly be happy. Fortunately a childhood of Stephen King novels has cured me of such hopes, and I’m prepared for whatever gristly spectacle Abercrombie throws at me.

Blood Song by Anthony Ryan

An infamous warrior recalls his childhood where he was torn from his father and given to an order to be trained in battle. The concept here is as familiar as it gets, but man, when it’s done as well as Ryan does it, who cares. Vaelin, the main character, is as compelling and likeable as a character gets, and though there aren’t many surprises, it doesn’t matter, you’ll still be turning the pages as fast as you can. This thing’s got a full five stars on amazon after a ton of reviews. I picked it up after reading a lot of people call it the best fantasy novel they’ve read in years. They’re not wrong.

S by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

Now this is cool. I bought S for my dad for Christmas, then immediately snatched it back to read myself. S is a kind of epistolary novel, though I’d call it a meta-book myself. It consists of the novel Sea of Theseus by V.M. Straka, a fictional author, as well as the notes written in the margin by two fictional characters, Jen and Eric,  who end up passing the book back and forth in a library as they try to determine Straka’s true identity, thus creating a story within a story.

Both the inner story, Straka’s novel, and the outer-story about Jen and Eric, are beautifully done. Doug Dorst recreates the style of older literary novels perfectly while also delivering a compelling story. Jen and Eric come to life through their margin-notes and end up being a very likeable pair. I can’t even imagine the difficulty in putting this project together, but it works beautifully.

For today’s video, a cover of the much-covered Lorde song Royals that you should listen to even if you’re sick of the song:

Superstars 2013

Two weeks ago I was in Colorado Springs, attending the Superstars Writing Seminar. This was my second time attending. I had been looking forward to this trip for a long time – last year’s seminar had been a revelation for me. Among other things, it convinced me to start this blog.

The only way I can describe the experience of attending of Superstars is it’s like your brain being lit on fire. Spending three days in the company of sixty people who all share my passion for writing is remarkably inspiring. Between talks covering every aspect of publishing you can imagine,  I reconnected with old friends and made some new ones.

The second evening of the seminar was the VIP dinner – an opportunity to spend a couple hours with one of the authors at a table with a few other attendees.  Last year, I was at Brandon Sanderson’s table and was treated to a huge amount of information on publishing, editors, and a bunch of stuff that can’t be repeated in public 🙂

This year I ate with James Owen. James astounded me with his talk last year and it was just as good this year. He’s monumentally inspiring; his ability to eloquently describe his approach to things and how he’s overcome a lot of adversity is remarkable. At the end of the dinner he had us all sign a dollar bill and informed us that was good for a stay at the guest room in his personal workshop in Arizona, should we ever want to work in a project in a place designed to foster creativity. I know I’ll be taking him up on that offer as soon as I can.

Tracy Hickman, who wrote the famous Dragonlance novels in the 90s with Margeret Weis, was there, replacing David Farland who had to miss the seminar. Tracy was a remarkable speaker – his answer to the question ‘what writing means to him’ had the room in tears – but more importantly, he was an incredibly nice man. He offered to critique our novel pitches; I managed to stammer out mine and got some great feedback (better yet, he though I did a good job!).

I think the thing that stuck with me most was a quote from Tracy’s talk.  “Why do we write?” He asked. “We write to inspire.” That really resonated with me, because it’s what I hope my writing will do, one day. I know other people’s writing has inspired me; to wonder and to dream, to learn and to read, to write; to be a better person. The heroes in stories might be imaginary but the lessons they teach are not.

If you’re someone who’s serious about writing and wants it to be a career someday, you should go to Superstars next year. They’ll be announcing the dates soon. I know I’ll be there.




2012 was an incredible year for me.

I went to writing seminars and workshops for the first time. I started to produce the first writing I’d consider in the neighborhood of publishable. I did an awesome webshow with my friend Sean. I switched from QA to tech writing at work. Internally, I improved my self-confidence and tried to push myself to new heights. All things I hope to continue in the coming year.

2013’s shaping up to be pretty awesome as well. I’ve been searching for a new apartment for the past few months, in hopes of finding a place that will let me get an awesome big dog. Thanks to Palo Alto realty prices, that’s been rather depressing. I found one place last month that would have been perfect. Turned out, around thirty other people thought it’d be perfect as well, and I didn’t get it.

This past Saturday, I had an appointment to see two apartments over in Menlo Park. It was a long walk to the first one. I was already tired from getting up at 6 am to meet an old college friend. The guy was ten minutes late to a 10:30 appointment, which was stressing me out because I also had an 11:00 appointment and I really hate being late. The guy finally pulls up and gets out. We shake hands and he and asks me if I liked the Michigan weather. I told him I’d just spent the holiday in Michigan and liked it just fine. He laughs and shows me the apartment, which takes about two minutes. It looks good to me – plus, he’s okay with cats and the big dog. I tell him I want it and ask him for a rental application.

He says he can tell I’m a trustworthy guy, and I can have it if I want.

Thirty minutes later, I have a signed lease, a new set of keys, and he’s driving me around Menlo Park, showing me the best places to eat, before stopping at his son’s restaurant and giving me a gift certificate. Sometimes, things just work out.

Writing wise, I’ve got a busy year planned already. I’ll be attending Superstars again in May. This time, it’s in Colorado Springs, and I’ve extended the trip to meet with my parents beforehand to do some sightseeing. In November, I’ll be doing the Writer’s Mastery workshop with David Farland. It’s hard to even describe how much I learned in those two last year, and I look forward to a reprisal this year.

My current project, The Wildfire Crown had a bit of a set-back this holiday, when I realized a number of key plot elements weren’t cooperating. Dealing with those issues has turned out to be a far more painful process than I would like, and puts me a few months behind schedule. Still, better to find out these problems now, than, say, after I’ve sent the manuscript to a dream agent. I’ll blog about the issues at some point – I think there are some good lessons to be learned.

I’m headed to Paris in a couple weeks with my friend Sean and some others. I’ve been once, for a brief stay, about six years ago. Looking forward to getting to know the city a bit better this time.

I hope to get back on track with blogging, I know I fell a bit behind. Thank you all for reading, commentating, encouraging, and critiquing – I appreciate it so much. It’s been a wonderful experience and I hope it continues through another year.


For 2013’s first video, I move away from music to bring you Simon’s Cat, a must-watch for cat-lovers of all kinds 🙂




The Great Debate

One of the tough decisions new writers face is whether or not to self-publish.

I can’t speak for others, but personally, I’ve kept hoping that at some point I’d be given some magical bit of insight which would make the decision easy. “David Farland has to know,” I thought, before I attended his workshop. I figured I’d know by the end of the week which route to go. On the last day, during the final moments of the workshop, Dave had us gather close, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. “The secret,” he said, “is…”

Yeah, I know. In my dreams, etc.

In reality, Dave gave us a lot of information on the topic. So much, in fact, that I would say the decision is now considerably more difficult, not less. You’d think naïve-Tristan-of-last-month would have predicted that, but frankly he was a little slow. Brilliant-Tristan-of-today will never fall into that trap, I promise you that!

Honestly, I’ve been considering the problem for the last two years, devouring as many blog posts / forum threads / interviews on the topic as I can. Here’s where I stand on the two main options:

Traditional publishing

This means going to a publishing company and convincing them to buy my book. Of course, it’s not that simple. First, there’s the question of whether or not to get an agent. That’s hard too – there are arguments for and against agents. I’ve heard very intelligent people argue that you absolutely need to find an agent. Others vehemently believe you shouldn’t get one at all. I think dichotomies like that are a little absurd, as not all agents are created equal. I think if you can find the right agent, someone skilled who believes in your book and is aligned with your career goals, they’d be a big benefit. If you find the wrong agent, it could end up hurting you. How do you tell the difference? Heck if I know. Let’s table the agent discussion for now – I’ll likely continue it in a future post.

The benefits of traditional publishing as I see it is that you get the support of a company full of experts in the field. They’ll do your cover, your editing, your proof-reading. They’ll do some marketing (how much will vary considerably), and perhaps most importantly, they’ll use their existing network to distribute your book to bookstores.

In terms of money, although the royalty rates are low (about 10% on a hardcover, less on trade paperbacks), you get an advance, which means money up front. If you establish yourself with a few novels that sell well, you might get to the point where you get paid based on a proposal or outline rather than having to wait till after you’ve written the novel.

There are other drawbacks. Contracts for new authors are not friendly. You won’t be able to sign without giving up your e-rights, for one. Other unpleasant provisions you may run into have been covered in depth by Dean Wesley Smith – I’d refer you to his blog if you want to read more about such provisions.

You give up control on other things too, such as cover art. Dave told us some scary stories about covers and how damaging a bad cover can be. Brandon Sanderson’s first Mistborn book had a bad cover and underperformed for a while, till his agent forced the publisher to change it. Sales quadrupled.

Big publishing companies are big, slow corporations who have not reacted quickly (or, in my opinion, well) to the rapid changes in publishing brought on by e-books. By giving them your rights, in some sense you are beholden to their decisions, and if they make bad ones and go down, your books go down with them.


The clear benefit here (for me, anyway) is control. Without any big mean company telling you what to do, you get to make all the decisions yourself! Cover art, editing, proof-reading, formatting, marketing, even the decision as to when the novel is ready, all fall on your shoulders. Even better, if you publish through Amazon, you get a 70% royalty rate on everything you sell.

That sounds great – so great, in fact, that hundreds of thousands of novels will get self-published on Amazon this year.

Which means to succeed, you have to figure out how to make readers choose your novel out of that seemingly endless sea of books.

How do you do that? Some people think marketing is the key. Others argue that marketing isn’t nearly as useful as writing the next book. There is a lot of information, much of it contradictory. The only thing people can seem to agree on is that things are changing so quickly, that the situation may be completely different a year from now.

Another thing to consider is the lack of gate-keepers. On one hand, that means you don’t have to wait for an agent or editor to decide your book is ‘good enough’. On the other hand, this means a lot of self-published books aren’t very good. It’s created a stigma which hurts the self-published books which are as high quality as their traditional published counterparts. Breaking through that stigma is a challenge self-published authors have to face.

No Easy Answers

The real theme here is uncertainty, not just among newbies but among professionals. The authors at SuperStars all agreed that no one knew where publishing would be in five years. There’s a fear that print publishing may be going extinct, replaced almost entirely by e-publishing, but no one knows for certain, and print publishing has survived big changes in the past.

Now, with all this in mind, at the workshop Dave still recommended pursuing traditional publishing over self-publishing if you can get a sufficiently large advance (he threw out the number $40,000). Print sales are still going strong, and there’s still a lot of money to be made by getting your novel in book-stores all over the country. Not to say this is impossible via self-publishing, but you’ll have to figure out how to do it on your own.

As to my decision?

I’m leaning toward traditional publishing. With a full-time job, I’m not sure I want to commit the time to doing all the non-writing tasks self-publishing would demand.  Still, there’s a lot I like about the concept of self-publishing, so I’ll be keeping an open mind about it as the time to make my decision comes.

Either way, the decision isn’t clear cut, and that’s okay. There’s no easy paths in this industry, but the only true way to fail is to stop, and I’m determined to keep forging forth. Besides, if I stopped, Gare will be sad, and what type of horrible person would want a dog to cry?  🙂

Workshop Trip Report, Part Two

(Check out Part One here)

Tuesday,  8/28

Tuesday started with a lengthier discussion on editing and storytelling, before diving into another critique. The comments Dave made here mirrored the ones he gave me –more setting, more characterization. The need for a more developed setting ended up being a common theme throughout pretty much all the critiques.

That afternoon we critiqued an extremely well written YA urban fantasy with a fun main character and a type of magic I hadn’t seen before. I thought the writing was smooth and the story solid. One way the group suggested to help strengthen the main character’s conflict was to kill his mother – or, more precisely, to make it so his mother’s dead. That added an extra layer to the character’s tension with his father, which is what the first chapter centered on.

In the evening I sent Dave the scene I’d written the previous night where I’d try to apply some of his comments, and got back a thumbs up from him. I also worked on a dilemma scene (our assignment for the night), realizing that I had a couple good dilemma’s early on and hadn’t really fleshed either of them out.

Wednesday, 8/29

In the morning we read our Dilemma scenes, before moving into a discussion on storytelling. This was probably the most enlightening session of the entire workshop. It exposed another mental ‘mistake’ I was making, in imagining that the storytelling aspect of things was artistic magic. Apparently I just don’t learn – storytelling can be analyzed, broken down, and studied, just liked anything else. The main difference with storytelling and other things is so few people, even published authors, have tried to do so. Fortunately for us, Dave is an expert at doing exactly that. I’ll cover more about this topic in a future blog post.

Today’s critiques included an intricately plotted historical thriller / time-travel story and a very unique sci-fi novel. After class sessions I ended up chatting with people all afternoon till dinner. After dinner we came back to watch the Hunger Games as a group, with Dave offering analysis of the film both during and after.

One of the topics that we had discussed in the morning was the idea of resonance in stories. Things can resonate with you personally, or with other things in the genre. For example, in the Hunger Games, the capital city’s soldiers are dressed to remind the viewer of storm troopers; Katniss, with her bow and warrior-woman like persona reminds us of the Greek goddess Artemis; President Snow, with a snow white beard, conspiring with the Games director Seneca, with a red suit and sharp black goatee, remind us of God and the Devil.

Dave argues that resonance is one of the keys to making your novel or film blockbusters. It’s something I’d never thought of before, and will be considering both in my current story and future projects.

Thursday 8/30

Today we talked about editing passes and critiqued three novels; a fantasy about were-dragons, a science fiction piece about troops training to be admitted into an elite program; and a contemporary fantasy.  There was some discussion about character names in the first two pieces, which got me thinking what makes a good character name and not. One of the issues people had was with a main character named Del, cast as a young cadet. Del is considered an ‘old fashioned’ name by a lot of people, so a number of people argued it might be appropriate to find a ‘younger’ sounding name.

I admit to not thinking enough about my names, though when I asked the group they seemed okay with mine. Makes you wonder how much of a difference in reader enjoyment a name can make.

The evening’s assignment was to write an argument scene. I found one argument with Gare and Eonhar that I thought was kind of timid, and rewrote it so there ends up being a lot of unresolved tension in the end. The rewritten scene ends up being one of the favorite I’ve ever written – it really dug into the inner pain that both characters feel, in a way I hadn’t managed to reach before. My fingers were shaking while typing it, and my voice shook while reading it in class the next day. It’s pretty cool when you can manage an emotional response like that from yourself with your own writing.

Friday 8/31

The final day ended with some more talk of editing, the final two critiques (a fantasy inspired by the Cinderella tale and a really sweet urban fantasy that is kind of a lighter version of the Dresden files), and time for questions.  After that we gathered for a group photo, and that was that.

After the workshop ended a few of us gathered for dinner at a Hibachi grill. I’d never done one before, so that was a cool experience, and the food was very good.

Overall, I learned an enormous amount, not to mention made friendships and connections I hope will last a lifetime. I feel energized and ready to take my writing to the next level, and more certain than ever that one day I’ll be successful at it.

Workshop Trip Report, Part One

I got back home yesterday from David Farland’s Novel Revision workshop, where I spent a week with ten other writers in Saint George, Utah, critiquing each other’s stories and absorbing a truly gargantuan amount of knowledge.

For those unfamiliar, David Farland (real name David Wolverton) is the best-selling author of the Rune Lords series, plus a bunch of others. His recent YA novel Nightingale has won a bunch of awards. He’s been teaching writing and running workshops for over ten years, and taught authors like Brandon Sanderson and Stephanie Meyers when they were first starting out.

The focus of the workshop was to take our novels and improve them, even if they were already very good. Dave read and critiqued the first hundred pages and the outlines, while the entire class was given the first twenty pages and the outlines to do a group critique.

I received the other samples in early August. It was intimidating – they were all very good. Some seemed to me that they could pretty much be published as is. I started to ask myself if I was ready, if I was crazy to think I was at this level yet. That started a bit of a self-doubt cycle which hurt my writing this month.

It was nice to hear at the workshop that most other people had the same thing happen to them. It just serves as another reminder that most of the battles we fight when we’re doing stuff like this are internal. Self-doubt isn’t always a bad thing, but it should never interfere with your productivity.

Here’s the run-down:

Sunday, 8/26

I arrived at Saint George via a shuttle from the Las Vegas airport. The highway took us through the north-west corner of Arizona and wound through a beautiful canyon for about ten miles, before opening up as we hit Utah into red rocks and ridges, with just enough green to keep you from thinking you’re in the desert. It reminded me a lot of Flagstaff, though the hundred degree heat made enjoying the landscape a bit harder.

The shuttle deposited me at the Ramada Inn, where the workshop was to be held. After so many vacations to touristy places, it was nice to go somewhere more laid back. I grabbed dinner, then headed to my room to review the manuscripts and try to prepare myself – I was going to be the second person critiqued. I admit I didn’t sleep well that night.

Monday, 8/27

I grabbed breakfast at the hotel and met Nancy, a writer whom I’d previously met at SuperStars. It was nice to see a familiar face, so we chatted for a while before heading into the board room. The workshop started at 9. We spent the morning getting to know each other, then Dave talked briefly about the plan for the week. Right after that we headed into the first critique.

One of the reasons I was nervous about going second is I thought the person going first was the strongest writer in the group. Her urban fantasy story was wonderfully written, engaging, and did a nice job of putting a new twist on the standard Greek gods trope. The format of the group critique was each other attendee got three minutes to give their take, then Dave would give a longer critique. After the author was welcome to ask questions, which sometimes turned into discussions.

I was impressed by how professional everyone was, at both giving and receiving critiques. Even when they didn’t like something, it was clear that the comments were meant to be constructive. In the case of the first manuscript, much of the discussion turned to the short prologue, and whether it needed to be there. At first the group thought it could be cut, but after some ideas were tossed around, it was clear the prologue could be strengthened and add a lot to the story.

I was up after lunch, and as usual, my nervousness was unfounded. The comments were useful and constructive, and mostly centered around areas I knew were weak, namely the setting. The good news was most people really enjoyed my story and were eager to know what else was in store for Gare. One guy didn’t like the non-human PoV, but I knew going in I was going to lose a certain percentage of readers, and that was a good reminder that you can’t please everyone.

Dave’s critique, on the other hand, was revelatory.

He pointed out a bunch of things I already knew, but he made one over-arcing comment which shocked me (in a good way): he said the second fifty pages were substantially stronger than the first fifty.

It shocked me, because going in, I would have bet you money on it being the opposite. I was wrong, and the reason I was wrong is interesting. The second fifty pages were part of a section I’d been struggling on for months. I’m not even sure how many times I did full and partial iterations on those pages – probably at least six. I’ve got reams of discarded scenes that didn’t work. I struggled with it so much, that I simply assumed the result still had issues. Whereas, the first fifty pages, I’d done only two versions of. Not that I thought it was perfect – but I’d thought it was solid enough that I should focus my attention elsewhere.

The problem with my first fifty pages was that it was underwritten. I’d neglected a number of conflicts that I shouldn’t have, which would give the story itself far more depth. There were a few scenes I sketched out, in attempt to show time passing until the next big story event. At one point, I had Gare observe that he was bored. Dave kindly pointed out that when your main character is saying he’s bored, you as the writer need to seriously consider whether the reader will be bored as well.

I’d also neglected the setting (a known problem), and got some suggestions as to how to fix that. Setting ended up being a weakness for pretty much all of us at the workshop, so it was nice to get feedback there.

He also pointed out a number of smaller issues, and marked up the manuscript itself, showing me where I can cut words and where I can make the writing stronger.

Even with those issues, Dave  said he very much enjoyed the story, and as an editor, would want to see the full manuscript. Talking with the other’s afterward, I got the same impression from most of them.

It feels good that I was able to put something out that could be publishable – it feels great to know that I can make it a heck of a lot better. Publishable isn’t the end-all of quality.

I had a one-on-one dinner with Dave that night, where we talked more about the critiques, as well as what my goals were and my general plan. He gave me some pointers and told some awesome stories about a crazy friend of his, who got caught up in one of the end-of-the-world UFO cults.

That night, I spent a few hours writing, putting together a new scene that focused on bringing my setting and descriptions to life. By the time I got to bed, I was exhausted, but I went to sleep happy.

I’ll finish this up next week. Thanks for reading, all, and enjoy the long weekend!