More About Organisms

Last week I wrote about “The Young Person’s Guide to the Organism”, a novella that appears in my contribution to the Bundoran Buddies Science Fiction StoryBundle. (By the way, that bundle is still available: $20 for a dozen amazing science fiction e-books!)

In this post, I’m going to talk about two more pieces I contributed to the bundle: a pair of stories I wrote on request for my long-time friend, Julie Czerneda.

Julie has edited/co-edited a number of great story anthologies. On several occasions, she ran into last-minute troubles when one of her planned contributors couldn’t deliver a story on time. Julie asked me if I could whip off stories to fill the gap…and since I love tight-deadline challenges, I said yes.

The first time was for an anthology called Mythspring. The idea for the book was that each story should be inspired by some actual piece of Canadian folklore: a legend or myth that would serve as the basis for the story. I said, “Okay,” and went to the library to search for reference material.

I came home with Colombo’s Book of Marvels by John Robert Colombo. Colombo is a long-time folklorist (as well as a poet and quotation collector), so I figured I could count on him to provide me with useful material.

I was right…but the book gave me far too much: dozens of interesting legends. How could I choose just one? Instead, I sort of chose them all. The result was a story called “All The Cool Monsters At Once” in which legendary monsters from all across Canada suddenly crawl out of lakes, emerge from the woods, or drop from the sky for reasons unknown. It turned into my own personal love story for Canada: the ending always brings a tear to my eye.

The second time Julie asked me to write a story on short notice, it was for an anthology called Space, Inc. The book dealt with what jobs would look like in the future—strange science fictional jobs. Since I was rushed for time, I couldn’t do a ton of inventive world-building, so writing a traditional story would have been difficult. Instead, I decided to write a bunch of snippets: vignettes showing a range of future jobs.

But there’s a problem with vignettes. Even if each of them is fine, they need to be tied together with an overall story arc or the reader won’t get a satisfying beginning, middle and end. How could I make such an arc? I started to think of how other writers had done it, and I immediately came up with Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.

I love Invisible Cities. It’s full of mind-boggling ideas. It takes its style from Marco Polo’s original travel journals, wherein he described his journeys to and from China back in the thirteenth century. Polo wrote short descriptions of all the strange things he saw. Calvino uses the same technique, describing increasingly weird cities, and framing it all as conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. The frame tale gives the story its arc and holds everything together.

I shamelessly copied the format (just as Calvino had shamelessly copied Marco Polo). But just to jazz around a bit more, I based each of the vignettes on the Buddhist Eight-Fold Path. As one does. Hence was born “The Eight-Fold Career Path”, one of the oddest things I’ve ever written. (But someday I’ll talk about “Axial Axioms”, another thing I wrote for Julie on short notice. What if Lao Tsu invented complex numbers, Aesop invented combinatorics, the prophet Daniel invented trigonometry…)


Just released: the Bundoran Buddies Science Fiction StoryBundle! This bundle of 12 ebooks contains work by such luminaries as Robert J. Sawyer, Madeline Ashby, Tanya Huff, and yours truly!

A bit of background: Bundoran Press is a science fiction publishing house run by my friend Hayden Trenholm. Hayden organized this bundle as a way to raise Bundoran’s public profile, as well as to provide an easy and affordable way for readers to buy a dozen great books.

My contribution to the bundle is a set of stories grouped under the title ORGANISMS. The central piece is a novella called “The Young Person’s Guide to the Organism”. It’s one of my favorite pieces of writing for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that it’s the first published League of Peoples story.

The subtitle of the novella is “Variations and Fugue on a Classical Theme”. So let me briefly get all artsy and explain what that means.

You might be aware of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, a piece of music by Benjamin Britten. The piece introduces the various instruments of a symphony orchestra by presenting a theme and variations. First, the whole orchestra plays a melody by Henry Purcell (that’s the theme). Then the flute and piccolo play a variation of the theme; then the oboes play another variation; then the clarinets; and so on, through all the woodwinds, then the strings, then the brass, then percussion. The final section of the piece is a fugue which starts with the flute and piccolo again, then adds the oboes on top, then the clarinets on top of that, and so on until the whole orchestra is playing the fugue together…after which the brass section blasts out the original theme over top of everything else.

The piece itself is well worth listening to. There are several versions on YouTube, so if you’re interested, have a look.

What I did was write a novella with the same structure. The “theme” of my story is First Contact—a classic sf theme indeed. The plot begins with a gigantic alien organism entering our solar system and slowly proceeding toward the sun. Each section of the story is about someone’s experience of making contact with the organism, as told to a “young person”. (In many sections, a parent is telling one or more of their children about this amazing thing the parent saw.) The final part of the novella (the “fugue”) consists of brief snippets when all the “young people” have their own moments of first contact with the organism, eventually culminating in humanity making first contact with the League of Peoples.

So let’s just say that the story is structurally ambitious. It dates back to 1992 and I’m sure there are a ton of things I’d change if I ever decided to rewrite it…but I’m still quite fond of the story and am glad to see it get some new exposure.

And that’s just one of the stories in ORGANISMS, which is just one book in the bundle! Maybe in the next few days, I talk about more of the stories in the book.

Financial Advice for Writers

Few writers make a lot of money. Many writers make a little money. But however much or little you make (or even if you haven’t made any money at all as yet), let me offer some advice.




Seriously, accountants serve two extremely useful functions:

  1. They can save you money.
  2. They keep you out of trouble with the tax collectors.

For example, a good accountant will tell you what expenses you can and can’t deduct from any income you receive. Deducting valid expenses is good: you pay less tax on whatever is left over. Deducting non-valid expenses is bad: if the tax agency finds out, you could be in serious trouble. (See All Capone.)

Now it’s true that consulting an accountant may cost money. If you have no income from writing, maybe it’s too early for you to go to that expense. But it’s never too soon to start keeping track of your finances. Here’s what I’d recommend for anyone who hopes to make money from writing some day:

Starting right now, keep every scrap of paperwork that might possibly be relevant to your writing.
In particular, keep receipts for expenses. You don’t have to get fancy; I used to just have a plastic freezer bag labelled with the year, and I put every receipt inside. Also keep any paperwork from household expenses—eventually you’ll want to claim the expenses in connection with having a home office, so now is the time to get into the habit of keeping relevant records. If receipts are purely digital (e.g. charges emailed to you), consider printing them out so that you have a hardcopy record.
Keep a spreadsheet (e.g. in Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets) recording income and expenses.
When recording an expense, separate the cost of the item from any sales tax paid on top, and record both. Try to be consistent in the terms you use. For example, don’t use “Printer paper” for one purchase and “Paper for the printer” for another. You want to be able to sort your data so that lines for similar expenses are all collected together. By the way, you should also use a spreadsheet to record mileage and/or other car expenses related to your writing.

The point here is to develop good habits of record keeping sooner rather than later. The more you record, the more information you have. You can see how much you’re spending on your writing, and that knowledge may be useful.

BUT…eventually, talk to an accountant. They’ll tell you if your jurisdiction requires that you keep records in a particular format. They’ll tell you which of the expenses you’ve recorded are actually deductible. They’ll tell you how long you need to keep receipts. And much else beside.

So tl;dr: start keeping receipts and records now. It’s good practice. Consult an accountant as soon as you can justify the expense, and definitely as soon as you make any income.

(By the way, I have a friend who’s an accountant and she says she doesn’t charge for initial consultations. She’d rather help potential clients keep proper records right from the start than to go through the hassle of trying to clean things up later on. You may or may not find someone who’ll talk to you for free, but I suspect a lot of accountants won’t charge very much for an initial get-together. For them, it’s a good investment of their time to avoid headaches later on…and accountants love good investments.)

Sharing: November 18, 2018

More things I like:

Book-: The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
Tharp is a long-time dancer and choreographer, and this is her book about the creative process. As the title suggests, she recommends developing the habit of being creative, and she offers numerous ways to improve your creative process. I first read this book many years ago; now, as I’m rereading it, my creative juices have started bubbling fiercely.
Newsletter: Orbital Operations by Warren Ellis
I think of Warren Ellis as a comic book writer, but he also writes novels, screenplays, and a heck of a good weekly newsletter. Every posting talks about books that I’ve never heard of but immediately want to read. His Morning, Computer blog is also well worth following.
App: Freedom
Freedom is an internet blocker, available for most operating systems. I use it on both my iPad and my Windows desktop. Freedom helps you avoid indulging your vices; I have it set up to prevent me from reading Twitter when I’m supposed to be writing, and from playing solitaire anytime after 10:30 at night. In other words, Freedom has willpower when I don’t. It lets me work and sleep when I want to, despite the addictive nature of the web.

How I Write: Forays

After several past postings on how I write a novel, we’ve reached the point where I can actually start writing. At this point I have:

It’s now time to start some real writing.

I begin with forays into the story. Usually this means writing the first ten pages or so a bunch of times. I want something that has the right chemistry: specifically a tone of voice that will sustain my interest for the months it will take me to write the first draft.

After all, if I get bored, I’ll have trouble finishing…and of course, if I get bored, readers will too. So I need to find a voice that grabs my attention. If I’ll be writing from multiple points of view, I need to find multiple voices that catch my ear.

I’m not one of those writers who believes my characters actually exist. I know the characters are just inside my head. At the same time, when I write from a character’s viewpoint, I’m giving free rein to some specific part of my psyche. I’m putting myself into a particular frame of mind and seeing what comes out. I want the result to be organic, without other parts of my brain trying to horn in on the act.

So I need to find a voice that ignites emotional sparks. It has to be someone who can face what’s going to happen and react in engaging ways. The character will be affected by the needs of the story and the character arcs I’ve envisioned…but the arcs I’ve made at this point are all provisional. If a character goes in other directions, that’s great. That’s part of what “being organic” means. And hey, if it all goes off the rails, I can always rewrite the darn thing.

So I write the first few pages numerous times. Five? Ten? More? And I usually write it all longhand, because writing with a pen makes my brain go slow and feel around for what’s waiting to come out.

Eventually, something clicks. When that happens, I know it. I’ve found the spark: the way into the story.

Then all I have to do is write the first draft.

[Map of forays during the Age of Discovery by Universalis [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons]

How I Write: Set-Pieces

Once I have the keel of a book, it’s time to build the story around it. I do that with a sequence of set-pieces.

In Hollywood, a set-piece is a block of action: a car chase perhaps, or a meet cute (where two people who will eventually become lovers meet in an unusual way, often leading to an initial clash of personalities). But when I’m writing, I use the term more loosely. I think of a set-piece as a sequence of one or more scenes that all take place in the same general setting.

For example, the initial set-piece for They Promised Me The Gun Wasn’t Loaded is a block of scenes all taking place at Waterloo Regional Airport. In the final version of the book, the lead character (named Jools) moves between various places in the airport—from a plane to the tarmac, to a luxury lounge, to a baggage handling area, then back to the lounge—but my initial plan for the book just said AIRPORT.

My plan also had a list of things that should take place at the airport. I wanted to introduce Jools and her world for people who hadn’t read Book 1, and to demonstrate various aspects of her character and her abilities. I also wanted to introduce several new characters, re-introduce old ones, and hint at major players in the action to come. I definitely wanted to show the super-weapon that everyone will be fighting over throughout the book (as specified in the keel). Finally, I wanted a superpowered fight that would cause mega-damage, because what’s the point of writing about superheroes without mass destruction?

My initial plan didn’t have a lot of detail or a through-line of the action. It was just a list, pretty much unsorted, of people and points that should be covered before Jools left the airport. The list included a lot of cool stuff I might throw in (as generated during brainstorming). However, I didn’t cast anything in stone, and there was quite a lot of hand-waving.

For example, the book features a modern day Robin Hood and his gang: they may be villains or not, but they want their hands on the super-weapon. So my plan called for one of Robin’s gang to appear at the airport and try to steal the weapon. However, I didn’t bother deciding what the would-be thief was like. I could come up with that later. Maybe some other set-piece would require a particular type of “Merry Man” and I could backfill the same character into the airport action. Or I could leave things undecided and dream up someone entertaining during the actual writing.

I like to leave openings like that in my plans. If I nail down too much in advance, writing the book becomes boring and forced.

So the first set-piece was AIRPORT. I continued on with the other set-pieces of the book, each placed in a different setting, to ensure an appropriate degree of variety during the course of the novel. (Other set-pieces included UNIVERSITY LAB, MEMORIAL SERVICE, and several different blocks of action in SHERWOOD FOREST. Read the book and find out how it all goes together!)

But let me point out that my initial plans for set-pieces are mainly external. For each set-piece I want a setting, a few plot elements, and which characters may be present. But I don’t think about the internal aspects of characters. I leave that for the next phase of planning: establishing character development arcs. I’ll talk about those next time.

[The photo of the airport and airplane is of RGIA Airport in Hyderabad, India. It was taken by Abhinay6597 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, from Wikimedia Commons. It is definitely not Waterloo Regional Airport.]

How I Write: Brainstorming

How do I start a book or a short story? Let me share a little.

Every story starts with a seed: something that catches my attention and won’t let go. It may be an image, a character idea, a plot concept, or something else. The main requirement is that it seems fertile enough to dig into in more detail.

How do I dig? I get some paper and I scribble down anything that I might be able to connect to the seed. For example, let’s say I get a cool idea about aliens showing up on Earth. I’d start scribbling down images, plot tricks, characters, etc. about alien arrivals: probably all the things I’d like to see in such a book, but that other books haven’t done (or at least haven’t done well).

This is similar to a mind map except that I’m not a very visual person, and at this stage, I don’t care about connections between concepts. Basically, I’m just making a huge list of elements I might throw in. This process has elements of a Rorschach test, since it’s “This makes me think of that” but I don’t care. All I want is several pages of stuff that I can draw upon as needed.

Eventually I transcribe this list into Evernote, which is where I keep most of my writing notes. (I’ll talk about note-keeping in some future post.) I’ll also sit down with a plain old word processor and write about the ideas. This is essentially talking to myself about the ideas, except that I write them down. The notes tend to be on the order of, “I could do this…and maybe there’d be a character like this…” Et cetera.

This is all just wrestling with possibilities, not actual concrete planning. What I could do, not what I will do. I’m getting a feel for the territory. And I don’t want to censor myself at all. Good ideas, bad ideas, who cares? Get them out of my head and down on paper. Later on, I can be choosy, but not yet.

Inevitably, some of this stuff will be cliché, but no problem. I want to get the clichés out of my system, so I write them all down too. Now is not the time to be critical.

So that’s how I start creating a story. In some future post, I’ll talk about the next phase: deciding whether I’ll actually write the story and if so, what will be its heart.

[Photo of pen and paper by Mushki Brichta [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, from Wikimedia Commons]

How Do You Spend Your Time?

Recently, I started keeping track of how I spend my time. I don’t use a fancy app—I had a look at a few and quickly knew that I’d never use them. They required way too much work to set up. Besides, I don’t always carry around electronics. Life is better without being tethered to a phone or a tablet.

Instead, I keep my time records on index cards. I write a line every time I start something new, as in:

4:12—writing blog on time tracking

That’s all I need…because the point of this isn’t to come up with any sophisticated analysis of exactly how long it takes me to write 1000 words or edit 10 pages of someone else’s manuscript. The point is to understand what I’m doing.

First, how do I really spend my day? Am I putting in a reasonable number of hours? Or are there huge gaps when I’m not doing much of anything? I don’t begrudge myself relaxation time, but if hours at a time are disappearing and I can’t say where they went, that’s not good.

So now I’m keeping track. As I’ve said, I use index cards to record when I start new activities. One index card is usually enough for a whole day, and that gives me a picture of what I do. How long do I spend getting ready to work in the morning? How long do I take on breaks? How much time do I actually spend when I walk to the library and back?

Then, every morning, while I’m planning my day, I transcribe my times into a notebook. Really, this is just copying the times from the index card; it takes three minutes at most. But if I see that I frittered away a lot of time on the previous day, it orients me to use my time better today: less time spent disappearing down the many rabbit holes available on the internet.

It’s simple, but so far it’s working. I’m spending less and less time in black holes, and more time on things I actually choose to do. Let me emphasize that I’m not using this to beat myself up or to eliminate stuff like playing video games. Taking time for fun is important. The point is to notice if I’m spinning my wheels on stuff I wouldn’t actually choose to do if I thought things through.

So I’m reading more, and playing less computer solitaire. Go me! Less black hole time is good.

Sharing: August 26, 2018

More things I’ve liked recently:

Article: Ray Bradbury’s Greatest Writing Advice
Many interesting quotations from Ray Bradbury about writing and writing technique. Unlike many SF writers of his generation, Bradbury loved to talk about writing and the writing process. I don’t agree with everything he says in the article, but it’s all good food for thought.
Book: Starless by Jacqueline Carey
I’ve loved Carey’s work since Kushiel’s Dart, and I plowed straight through Starless at top speed. Starless is the first book set in a world where almost all the gods were cast down to earth for challenging the king of heaven. This has left the sky without stars and Earth with a ton of gods who’ve each adopted relatively small groups of people as their followers. Excellent world-building and many endearing characters, as well as an interesting story. I don’t know if there are more books to come, but the world offers plenty to explore.
Movie: Your Name
An animated movie from Japan. Two teenagers find themselves waking up in each other’s bodies every other day or so. The girl lives in a small mountain town, while the boy lives in Tokyo. Naturally, they have difficulties coping with the swaps (and with trying to “improve” each other’s lives)…but just when you think you know how the movie is going to go, there’s a twist that redirects everything. Hugely popular in Japan, and well worth watching for anyone anywhere.

Patreon Posts

I just sent out my first post to Patreon patrons. It’s taken me a while to figure out what special thing I can add to these posts, but I think I’ve finally come up with something good.

I have a great concept for a story titled Miracles & Wonders. The story is comprised of small sections, each of which is relatively self-contained. There’s just one problem: I, uhh, haven’t figured out how to end the story yet.

So I’ve decided to send out one section a month, in the hope that by the time I exhaust all the sections I’ve planned and/or written, I’ll come up with a suitable ending. If not…well, okay, my Patreon peeps will at least find out that stories don’t always work out.

So by signing up for my Patreon, you get to watch a story in progress. I hope you find the process interesting.