Craft and Practice with Jeff Bowles – Characters in Need of Color

Each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.

I’m a big fan of color. Maybe it’s the art lover in me, but I can’t stand boring compositions. A little passionate red, cool and withdrawn blue, yellow to energize, purple to pacify. My stories are always full of color. I design them that way so I don’t get bored in the telling. Attention span of a cocker spaniel, I assure you. I figure if I’m getting bored, my readers don’t stand a chance.

In this edition of Craft and Practice, we’ll look at colorful characters. Where do they come from? How can we more easily create them? Let’s assume you find them preferable to stock characters that are functional but not especially inspired. I’m here to tell you that you don’t need much in terms of preparation. Outlines, character sheets, written histories, throw them all out for the time being. The trick here is to open yourself up, to trust your instincts and your ability to create something sort of magical and unique to your abilities, to your point of view. It’s not so much that preparation can hamper our ideas or dampen our expression of them. This is true some of the time, but not always. It’s more that the tighter we constrict our creativity―that’s constrict rather than channel; one is suppressive by nature and the other is purposefully expressive―the more likely we are to produce wooden and inflexible components.

Your characters don’t want to be inflexible. Trust me on this. They long to be unpredictable, passionate, full of life. Some writers like to work with a net. Perfectly understandable. It’s cleaner and in some sense easier. But I’d like you to consider the possibility that extra work at the conclusion of a writing project is worth more in the long run than an equivalent amount of preparation. The final product is bound to be less like everyone else’s stories and more like your own, and that’s a win in my book.

Let’s run a brief exercise to illustrate the point. Character A asks Character B for something to drink. Character A doesn’t visit other people’s homes very often, so the request doesn’t seem rude or presumptuous. Character B is a friendly sort, charitable in all the ways it matters, and if it’s possible to provide hospitality and comfort to Character A, then that’s precisely what Character B will do. Outcome: Character A gets to drink. Huzzah!

Notice that in just a few brief character descriptions, I’ve told you everything you need to know in order to enjoy the scene. Do you care what Character A’s first car was? Not unless it has direct bearing on the scene at hand. Do you care if your protagonist prefers Pizza Hut to Domino’s? Not as such, because they’re not eating right now. They’re, you know, drinking. What if childhood trauma involving fruit punch makes them thirstier than the average beverage enthusiast? I mean, that may be pertinent information. Put it in and see how it reads. In this way, story serves character, not the other way around. These imaginary folks living rent-free in your head, they might change their spots entirely by the time you’ve written THE END. In fact, we sort of need them to. It’d be damn boring if they didn’t. I’m saying the desired effect is best achieved organically. Think about your standard rising action chart

Notice the trajectory, one smooth line shot straight toward a conclusion. Don’t design your plot or your characters in this manner. Just don’t do it. Trust me, that line reads a whole lot better when it’s perforated, imbalanced, full of ups and downs, at last arriving at that ultimate destination. In real life, human beings do not proceed along a straight trajectory. Great actors know this. They understand innately to respond to moments as they come. One foot in front of the other, not all the feet all over the world all at once.

Imagine going onstage with a dozen pages of notes stapled to your forehead. This scene should be easier to perform because you have at your disposal so much background information. Right? Wrong? Yes? No? How’s your performance? Natural or constricted? I mean really, is that stuff helpful, or is it dead weight? A given scene tells me I should be afraid of snakes. The next one tells me I’m falling in love with someone who owns a lot of snakes. The core of my character remains, but the dictates of motivation, action, and reaction are all over the map. Am I in love with snakes and afraid of love? No, of course not. My name is Character A, and I’ve just been bitten by a rattler. See? No preplanning required.

Here’s another classic scenario for you to consider. You can night drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas without ever seeing further ahead than the thirty feet of illumination provided by your headlights. The road is there, it promises to deposit you at your destination, but even it has no idea what will happen along the way. Maybe you don’t end up in Vegas at all. Maybe your characters have decided they’d rather go to Reno. Are you going to tell them no? They’ve already hit the ATM and booked serviceable lodging!

Thinking of your work in terms of performance is a good habit to cultivate. Just try it. Write a simple scene for which you’ve planned nothing. It’s not important where these characters have been, how much money they have, what their likes and dislikes are. All that matters is the spontaneous influencing the spontaneous. That’s the meaty part, the gold in the gold mine.

Fluff is a chore to read. If you don’t believe me, dig out one of your first serious pieces of writing and tell me how much of it is pertinent and how much ought to be nixed. I know, painful, right? Reminds me of the first piece of honest criticism I ever received, “I only have three problems with this story. The beginning, the middle, and the end.”

The good news about this craft is that there are a million and one ways to skin a cat. I’ll be back with more Craft and Practice next month. No cat-skinning required. See ya!


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!

Love Madness Demon Cover Final

Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!


Want to be sure not to miss any of Craft and Practice with Jeff Bowles segments? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted or follow WtbR on WordPress


Craft and Practice with Jeff Bowles – Throw Away Your Outlines FOREVER!

Craft and Practice

Each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.

My wife recently showed me a new favorite anime series of hers that perfectly illustrates a point I’ve been making about storytelling for years. I didn’t used to like anime all that much, and I’m not sure how you feel about it (if you feel anything about it whatsoever), but like many writers from my part of the globe, I had a certain bias toward a more Westernized approach to storytelling. I didn’t much like the aesthetic of anime, the tropes or the style, but I also wasn’t seeing the big picture. Anime is often judged on its aesthetics, but it should be praised for a preference for bold storylines, creativity, color, imagination, a kind of libertine approach that is no-holds-barred, that exceeds and usually subverts audience expectations.

The truth is there are a million writing advice columns saying it’s a bad idea to head into a writing project without some kind of plan. Sometimes, especially in speculative fiction, copious amounts of planning are advised. Character sheets, outlines, beat sheets, world building tools, map making, story bibles, and a number of other idea-gathering methods are common, and for good reason, I suppose. But in the traditions that gave birth to a medium like anime, form follows function, structure often inhibits form. In other words, rigidity and an unwillingness to let stories guide themselves is at the heart of lots and lots AND LOTS of bad writing.

To produce an animated television show, of course, quite a bit of planning is required. Scripts have to be written, art must be created, there’s a need to hire actors and hold recording sessions, and then post production is always a long process. Large groups of very talented people make this stuff. The animation industry is a machine, one so well-oiled the product itself is viewed and loved all over the globe, regardless of culture or regional storytelling preferences. In contrast, someone who writes fiction or poetry or who dabbles in screenplay, stage production, or even video game writing, is very much a free agent. But I’d like to ask you to throw all that out the window for a moment, because I want to direct your attention toward something crucial. Storytelling can and perhaps should be artful in addition to being solid, confident, and competent. Storytelling, the best kinds of it anyway, should meet and then exceed audience expectations, and I know of one sure-fire way of doing that: be the author who surprises the author.

Surprise yourself. Anime is an interesting medium to study because it absolutely loves the element of surprise. I know that in the new show my wife introduced me to, every episode contains a wealth of sea changes that completely redirect the flow of the narrative, creating an experience audiences simply cannot predict from one half-our segment to the next. It’s an intense ride, one that has equivalents in Western storytelling. Stephen King, for instance, is famous for espousing a very seat-of-the-pants approach to writing novels. He’s struck by an interesting what-if scenario, starts writing an introductory scene, establishes some initial paradigms, a few working story dynamics, and then he’s off to the races for the next couple months, having no clue where he’ll end up or how he’ll get there.

It’s worth noting that story synthesis requires the introduction, development, and resolution of disparate elements. For example, if I tell you to write a first chapter including a gun, a nun, an assassin, and a vengeful widow, you’ve got four disparate elements that must follow that exact line: introduction, development, resolution. So let’s say the widow is on a quest to kill the assassin who took the life of her beloved, but her religious convictions lead her to a local church where she gets down on her knees and begs a nun to talk her out of committing the ultimate sin of murder.

Where does the story go in chapter two? Imagine the possibilities, reason out the next most likely scenario to occur, given what’s just happened in chapter one (have to use your reasoning, logical brain for this). Repeat that method throughout approximately thirty or forty chapters, and you’ve got yourself a book. Again, if the author of a great story is surprised while they’re in the process of telling it, the reader is likewise guaranteed a similar reaction. It doesn’t mean you’re a sloppy storyteller. It means you’re willing to take a leap of faith, play jazz a little bit, stretch your abilities and find out in an improvisational way what works and what does not.

As you come up with ideas in the moment, you’re likely to want to check them against a few basic questions: does this concept make sense in context? Would my characters really do this and why? How does this dynamic irrevocably change the narrative, and does it take the story in a direction I’m not prepared to go? Constant alterations, redirection, redactions, and tweaks will be required, and you may also find your finished rough draft is in need of serious inserts, deletions, and edits, but the benefits outweigh the grief. Stories that surprise, that don’t hold the audience’s hand, that respect the audience’s intelligence, that’s what can result.

To return to Stephen King for a moment, there is a preponderance of disappearing, reappearing elements in his stories. Some of his most famous novels set, break, and then reset paradigms constantly and consistently. In The Stand, for instance, notice how a story initially about a small group of disparate and scattered pandemic survivors becomes a tale of strong familial community and then a post-apocalyptic holy battle of good vs. evil. King wrote that book without any planning at all, and whenever he got stuck because, you know, he hadn’t planned anything, he simply did something drastic and unexpected to break paradigms he himself had set. Gathering all the pandemic survivors in Boulder, Colorado and setting them up with good lives isn’t enough. There has to be a traitor in their midst, and if a bomb suddenly goes off and kills some fairly important protagonists, what’s the difference? At least we get some more breathing room to play with that wicked story.

Anime also teaches us paradigms can be created and implemented with the intention of shattering them and reassembling and continuing a story on the fly. Just like, I’m afraid, too much outlining can turn an otherwise well-written book into a predictable mess. Decent surprises telegraphed and ruined, characters that behave irrationally because they were and are slaves to dense, inhibiting structure, it’s a bit of a nightmare. It must be noted that in the professional world, a writer isn’t always given the opportunity to create stories on the fly. Publishers and studio executives, game developers, whoever you’re writing for, they like to be sold on ideas before they see a finished product. Call it an insurance policy. But if by chance you don’t care too much about impressing or working for these folks, if you’re of a more independent disposition, I urge you to try a writing approach that eschews too much planning and allows for absolute spontaneity. You may just be thrilled with the results.

I’ll be back next month for another Craft and Practice. See ya, folks, and thanks for stopping by!


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!

Love Madness Demon Cover Final

Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!


Want to be sure not to miss any of Craft and Practice with Jeff Bowles segments? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted or follow WtbR on WordPress


Craft and Practice with Jeff Bowles – A Matter of Time

Each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.

I’d like to tell you there’s a magic bullet for the writer’s life, that one tip or trick or another will make you successful, skilled, well-known, or whatever else you’re looking for on your individual journey. If that were the case, we’d all be bestsellers and poet laureates, and yet somewhat mystifyingly so…

Why do some people strike out while others hit it big? Why does it seem like so many have to struggle more, or fail more, or publish less? I wish I knew. Then again, I wish it weren’t such a big deal. After all, personal dreams are a wonderful thing, but they don’t often hold up against cold hard reality. That the two sometimes become the same thing is an obvious miracle, but let’s not belabor the point. If you were here for mysticism instead of writing advice, I’d tell you to buy a good quartz crystal and an all-seeing eye pendant. The trick this month, the tip I’m offering, is simply to say that in most scenarios you’ll encounter in your creative career, patience will be a virtue. Because time is always the overriding factor. Always. And time can be a fickle thing.

Sometimes it looks like the long wait from a submission to an acceptance. Or even a rejection to a rewrite. It can also appear as years of struggle to produce a single wonderful piece of writing. If you’ve ever read an advice column that promised the moon, you know how disappointing and damaging unrealistic expectations can be. No matter what your goals are, sometimes accomplishment boils down to luck. That’s simply the nature of the beast. And luck doesn’t often spread evenly, as I’m sure you’ve discovered in your own life.

Then again, sometimes it’s all about the hard work, the sleepless nights. There are very, very few overnight sensations. I’ve seen individual writing dreams come true, up close and personal, and it only ever seems to occur after years and years of battling it out in the trenches. You can look at it in terms of struggle and strife, or you can adopt a more holistic point of view. What I’m suggesting here today is that the prime factor of your eventual success is a matter of time. That’s all.

Time.

Because no amount of talent, drive, dedication, or luck will ever disqualify or surmount one very important point: you have to get from here to there, from A to B. I think it’s important to have goals, especially when you’re just starting out, but you may realize at some point you don’t have as much control of the universe as you thought you did.

There will be periods of droughts and downpours, of veritable writing gluts and creative starvation. And what can you do about it? If you make enough professional allies and friends, you’ll most likely notice that some of them succeed more readily than others. Most people don’t have such fragile egos they can’t stand to see contemporaries and comrades doing better than them. Then again, we writers can be a sensitive and touchy bunch, and truly, it can hurt to watch other people get the things we want. I guess the real question is how much pleasure can we derive from work that doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere. Placing no focus whatsoever on its perceived relative quality. How much do we enjoy doing what we do?

Because I urge you to enjoy it more. Perhaps easier said than done, but there’s great pleasure to be found in the moment-to-moment, the day-to-day. I want you to write like only you can write because only you can write that way. Make sense? I want to hear your individual voice, and I want you to recognize it deserves to be heard.

Time can be your friend as easily as it can be your enemy. I suppose what I’d really like to do is walk up to the next struggling, frustrated writer I see and tap them on the head, ask her or him what the big deal is. Don’t you know your success is only a matter of time? Because that’s the truth, isn’t it? Don’t worry so much about what will or won’t happen. Worry about this scene you’re writing, that sentence you’re tweaking. In other words, focus on what you can control and disregard the rest. Don’t sweat it, because honestly, what’s there to sweat?

The simplicity of my message might offend this writer, because how can I say their success is a matter of time when nothing good or great has happened for them yet? How can I be so casual about the fact they haven’t proved themselves? Writers love to prove themselves. I might direct them to the precepts of Quantum Law, which stipulate that while there is only one you in the here and now, the future holds limitless possibilities for who you’ll become and what you’ll do next. Playing with pretty big odds, actually. Forces quite beyond your ken. Keep your nose to the grindstone, work when you can work, play when it feels right to play, and try to develop a little bit of trust, a little faith in the process and in your ability to do what’s right for you, to be at the right place when and only when it’s the right time.

Cliché and sound advice seem like the same thing sometimes, so don’t fret when I indulge in a certain truism: it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. Fact is fact, my friends. It’s all just a matter of time. I’ll see you next month in Craft and Practice.


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!

Love Madness Demon Cover Final

Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!


Want to be sure not to miss any of Craft and Practice with Jeff Bowles segments? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted or follow WtbR on WordPress


Looking Back on 2020 and Forward to 2021

2020 has been an difficult year for all of us as Covid 19 turned lives upside-down. Here at Writing to be Read and WordCrafter, we saw some great accomplishments, in spite of the fact that my genre theme schedule fell apart half-way through the year on the blog and content was a little more sporadic. I had to figure out how to adjust to my own “new normal”, which life changes brought my way, but they also led me to remember who I am. Now, I’ve analyzed and regrouped, and I’m ready to head into the new year with new ideas and projects.

WordCrafter’s 2020 Virtual Writing Conference

One of the biggest things for WordCrafter was the 2020 Stay in Place Virtual Writing Conference back in April. We ended up with twenty-two distinguished authors, offering live stream and video lectures, and interactive workshops and discussion panels, with free content for the Facebook event and a Zoom platform for the interactive stuff. We had a good turn-out with only a few glitches, and we’re preparing to do it again in 2021.

WordCrafter Press releases in 2020:

Ask the Authors

In April, the Ask the Authors writing anthology was released after two years of compilation. This book is an ultimate writer’s reference with tips and advice from twenty-two authors, and it started right here, from a 2018 blog series of the same name. In November, the print edition of this book, (and all WordCrafter Press books), became available, as well.

Spirits of the West

The Spirits of the West western paranormal anthology resulted from the 2020 WordCrafter Short Fiction Contest, and was released in October. The winning story, “High Desert Rose”, was written by Enid Holden and is included in the anthology. The theme for the 2021 WordCrafter Short Fiction Contest was announced and WordCrafter Press is now taking submissions to be considered for next year’s anthology, Where Spirits Linger.

Hidden Secrets and Last Call

Two of my own books were also released. Last Call and Other Short Fiction is a collection of my short stories, and my paranormal mystery novella, Hidden Secrets, is now available in print on Amazon, but the digital edition can be purchased through other retailers. In the coming year, I will have a story in the Where Spirits Linger anthology, and I’m working on a new book, The Outlaw and the Rockstar which I hope will be ready to release before the end of 2021.

Raise the Tide

WordCrafter Press‘ first stand alone author’s book was released in December, Raise the Tide, a devotional book by James Richards. We also look forward in anticipation to adding the January release of a massive poetry collection by Arthur Rosch, Feral Tenderness, to this list.

Feral Tenderness

Writing to be Read 2020:

We had some great guests on Writing to be Read. On “Chatting with the Pros”, my author guests featured Diana Raab, Amy Cecil, Cherokee Parks, L. Deni Colter, and Kevin J. Anderson. I’m hoping to transform this blog series into a podcast, which can be accessed through the blog, in the coming year, and I hope you all will join me there. Other authors interviewed in 2020 included Mark & Kym Todd, Jade C. Jamison, and Alan Dean Foster. The most viewed interview was with erotic romance author Nicky F. Grant. Interviews fell by the wayside along with the genre themes, but I’m planning to bring back author interviews for 2021, and I’m working on a new blog segment, “The Authors’ Covid Coffee Clache”, which will address issues of the pandemic specific to authors.

Treasuring Poetry

Robbie Cheadle’s poet guests included Sally Cronin, Colleen Chesebro, Victoria Zigler, Sue Vincent, Annette Rochelle Aben, Christy Birmingham, Kevin Morris, Frank Prem, D. Avery, Geoff Le Pard, and Balroop Singh. Of course, each segment on “Treasuring Poetry” are filled with poetry examples and includes a review of the poet’s latest poetry collection.

Growing Bookworms

Robbie Cheadle’s “Growing Bookworms” has great ideas for promoting literacy in children. Topics discussed “Making Learning the Alphabet Fun“, “Reading and Mathematics“, obtaining a balance of parental approval, “Sir Chocolate and the Valentine Toffee Cupid“, the benefits of singing and rhyming verse for children, “Teaching Children to Read“, “Introducing Non-Fiction to Children“, “The Future of Education“, “The Great Roald Dahl“, “Chapter Books vs. Short Stories for Children“, “The Joy of Nursery Rhymes: Twinkle, Twinkle Little Bat“, and “Incorporating Reading into Christmas Activities“. The post with the most views this year was a “Growing Bookworms” post from 2019, “Developing Imagination and Creativity Through Reading“, and in fact, it is also the post with the most all time views.

Words to Live By

On “Words to Live By”, Jeff Bowles offers up his thoughts on writing and life, and writing life. In 2020, he reflected on “The Creator in the Creative“, “The Kid in the Machine”, “Sex, Love, Warfare and Death“, “Fear, Creativity, and that Pesky Pandemic“, “Love in the Time of Covid“, “Be Here Now (Sanity for the Modern Writer), and”Creative Legacy“. The most viewed “Words to Live By” post was “The Big Chill“.

Mind Fields

With Art Rosch’s “Mind Fields”, you never know what the topic will be, but in 2020, they included “T.V. Addicts Annonymous“, “Nightmare with Tracphone“, “The Power of Villians in Story Telling“, “The Big Grief or Computer Wipe-Out“, “The Air in the Sky“, “Obsession: Craving Flashlights“, “Curvature: An Essay on Discernment“. The most view “Mind Fields” post was “Am I Real“.

Super Heroes and Supervillains

In May, Jeff Bowles took over the spotlight as he took over the Super Heroes and Super Villians theme, with a look at “The History and Evolution of Comic Books“, “The Rise of the Comic Book Film“, “DC Comics Gets Animated“, “D.C. Comics vs. Marvel – Rivalry and Inspiration“, and a celebratory posts for comic books and super heroes, “Look Up in the Sky!

Craft and Practice

Also in May, Jeff introduced a new blog series “Craft and Practice”, filled with great writing advice, which covered topics such as “The Revision Process“, “To Self-publish or Not to Self-publish“, “Writing for Catharthis“, “Story Synthesis: The Ultimate Tool in the Tool Kit“, “To Comma or Not to Comma“, “The Odds and Ends of Worldbuilding“, and “What’s the use of Trunk Novels“. The most viewed “Craft and Practice” post was “Should You Write Every Day?“.

Jeff’s Movie Reviews

Jeff’s Movie Reviews” covered The Invisible Man, Birds of Prey“, Hamilton on Disney+, Bill and Ted Face the Music, The Trial of the Chicago 7, The Queen’s Gambit, and The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. The most viewed movie review post was for 1917.

Arthur’s Visual Media Reviews

“Art’s Visual Media Reviews” covered Homeland, Better Call Saul, 13 Reasons Why, Just Mercy, 13 Reasons Why (the later seasons), a critique of Marvel movies, and The Secret: Dare to Dream, but the most viewed review was a life review in “My Life with Jazz“. Unfortunately, “Arthur’s Visual Media Reviews” will not be appearing in 2021, but Art’s “Mind Fields” will be appearing twice a month.

My book reviews included Missing: Murder Suspected: True Crime Stories Brought to Life, by Austin Stone On Being a Dictator, by Kevin J. Anderson and Martin L. Shoemaker; Saint, by Amy Cecil; Heat: Book 1, by Jade C. Jamison; Old One Eyed Pete, by Loretta Miles Toleffson; Death Wind, by Travis Heermann and Jim Pinto; Severed Wings, by Steven-Elliot Altman; X Marks the Spot, an anthology of pirate fantasy tales edited by Lisa Mangum; Indominable, by J.B. Garner; Echo One, by Mercedes Lacky, Denis K. Lee, Cody Martin, and Veronica Giguere; the audio edition of Shadow Blade, by Chris Barili; Love/Madness/Demon, by Jeff Bowles; In the Shadow of the Clouds, by Jordan Elizabeth; Keeper of the Winds, by Jenna Solitaire with Russle Davis; Inspirational Visions oracle cards, by Judy Mastrangelo; The Freedom Conspiracy by Nathan B. Dodge; Disappeared, by Lucienne Diver; Fool’s Gold Rush, by Tim Baker; Terminal Sequence, by Dan Alatorre; Gunslinger, by Edward J. Knight; and Clay House, by Jordan Elizabeth. The top viewed review was Hold Your Fire, an anthology edited by Lisa Mangum.

Judging the Spurs

I was also honored to be a judge for the Writers of America’s Spur Awards and I reviewed my top six picks, and the winner of the western romance category, The Yeggman’s Apprentice, by C.K. Crigger. These were the best of the best, and I was honored to be given the opportunity to read and review them.

WordCrafter Book Blog Tours

Also, in 2021 Writing to be Read will be a host for the WordCrafter Book Blog Tours, so we’ll be keeping you up to date on several new releases as they come out. Robbie Cheadle will bring us a new blog series on nursery rhymes and fairytales, “Dark Origins”, and I plan to bring in a new series, “Writer at Work”, which will talk about different issues that writers face. Subscribe to this blog with one of the buttons in the upper right-hand corner to be sure not to miss this great new content or the tried and true content of continuing series on Writing to be Read in the coming year.

Dark Origins

Happy New Year and Happy Writing!

From Writing to be Read and WordCrafter

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Craft and Practice with Jeff Bowles – What’s the Use of Trunk Novels?

Craft and Practice

Each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.

Everything old is new again.

Trunk novels. Everyone’s heard of them. Heck, odds are some of you have one or two lying around. Personally, I’ve got three. Three and a half, if you count a couple false starts from back when I was in my late teens and early twenties. I recently dug one out and started reading and editing it a bit, just to see if there’s a viable release opportunity for me in it.

I’m kind of a modernist when it comes to publishing. My background is in lots of short story publications, but when it’s come to book-length work, I’ve always gone the direct route and published things myself. The good news this year is that I’m already ahead of schedule on the next book I’m writing, which means I’ve got more than enough time to try and polish this older book, see if I can turn it into something presentable. It’ll take some time. Let’s face it, there’s not much in writing that can’t be improved or sharpened in some fashion. And it’s a trunk novel, which means I chose to hide it away for a reason.

That term, trunk novel, it’s got a slightly negative connotation, hasn’t it? It would seem to imply that if a book were any good, it would’ve gotten published rather than collected dust in some old trunk, either in reality or in the newfangled digital sense. This book I’m looking at, I wrote it about thirteen years ago. That’s kind if astounding, really. I also happen to have written it at a time my writing gifts were still in the soft-boiled state.

Although I do find the material worthwhile to pursue after a fashion, I just wasn’t a very good writer back then. That’s par for the course, if you ask me. So what are you to do if you’ve got some old book you’d like to resurrect, but the writing isn’t up to your present standards?

Well, I say do the hard work and chip away at it, bit by bit, until it looks a little better. Grab the opinions of a few beta readers, and then chip away at it again. The focus for me has been in shortening and cutting. Lots and lots and lots of cutting. I was a pretty verbose writer, so I expect to cut something like 30,000 to 40,000 words from a manuscript originally in the 120,000 word range. But you might have a very different task. Maybe you’ve got to make additions, or perhaps you’ll have to rewrite whole sections of it.

The truth is, if you really still believe in the story, you should be willing to do just about anything to give it a fair shot. And look, you have so many more publication options in the year 2021 than you had in decades past. The traditional route continues to be the preferred option for just about everybody out there, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be the case. Reviving an old work, hiring an editor, a book designer and cover illustrator, or doing your best with some or all of these duties yourself, it can be a very gratifying way of letting the world see something that likely would have never come up for air otherwise.

I’ve always thought hidden art is the worst kind. An alternative to publishing a more polished version of old material outright, of course, would be cannibalizing it for spare parts. This can be a really effective tool for future story development. Maybe the trunk novel has a second life in it. Is it possible it contains ideas or even entire passages or chapters you could lift out and use somewhere else? Sometimes being a writer under the gun is the same thing as being a Frankenstein-like doctor, assembling narrative monsters from bits here and bobs there.

Or, and let’s be perfectly frank about this possibility, maybe you’ll find the trunk novel needs to stay in the trunk. No problem with this. Perhaps it was meant to be. At least you know for sure now. The time I’ve taken to look at my thirteen-year-old manuscript has been well spent. So far, I haven’t seen anything too objectionable, nothing that can’t be fixed. Is it possible this kind of retreading takes more effort than simply drafting up a new story from scratch? Potentially, but again, it comes down to how much you like the work and how much you think it deserves to be seen.

That’s it for this month’s craft and practice, everyone. Until next month.


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!

Love Madness Demon Cover Final

Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!


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Craft and Practice with Jeff Bowles – Should You Write Every Day?

Craft and Practice

Each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.

The cure for common burnout?

I’m not a long-haul writer. I’ve tried to live by the adage a writer should write every day, and to be perfectly frank, there are monasteries in the world that live by less draconian standards. My best writing gets done when I work in spurts, crank out a project of one kind or another, take a break of weeks or even months, and then get back at it feeling refreshed.

By traditional standards, this is a pretty lazy and dysfunctional way to go about it. These things were determined long ago by the writing powers that be, and as far as they were ever concerned, it’s a bad idea to rest on your laurels when you could be mass-communicating incredible beauty and truth.

Milage varies on that last point, of course. Because after all, how can we communicate much of anything when we’re dog tired and in need of a rest?

If you’re like me, keeping up with a daily, monthly, yearly word count is hard work. For sure, being a writer is hard work anyway, so if we can make our jobs easier, even just a little bit, I think we owe it to ourselves to do so. But be warned, the advice which follows is not for the faint of heart. If the idea of going long-term without putting any words down sends you into an apoplectic fit, maybe stick to the way you’ve always done things.

I do, however, think you’ll find my method of working allows for much more personal freedom than the long-standing tradition of writing till you drop. Yes, you may get less done in a year. That is a distinct possibility. But do you want to know something funny? When polled, most writers who also work a typical nine-to-five job say they wish they had more time, and that if they did have more time, they’d produce far more writing.

But what if some of those writers are wrong? What if, somewhat counter-intuitively, more free time on our hands doesn’t always equal a higher rate of production? The thing about being an author of any kind is that it requires incredible creative and intellectual energy to pull off on a regular basis. Yes, taking breaks might damage your output. Then again, it may just boost it. You may also find that the quality of your writing improves the more slack you cut yourself.

I’m big on cutting writers slack. I think it’s incredibly important, and in my experience, most of us are simply too hard on ourselves. That’s really why my writing habits have developed this way. By nature, I’m hard on myself, which means if I don’t take breaks every now and then, I’m liable to tear myself down instead of fostering a mental attitude that helps me build myself up.

Now, the first thing to realize is that taking a break from your writing means your skills will not atrophy so much as cool down a little. Writing is not unlike riding a bike. You never forget how to do it. But let’s say you take a five-month hiatus, simply because you’re feeling worn out or you’ve got more important things going on in your life—happens all the time. After that five months, you might return to the craft a bit dismayed at your apparent lack of talent. Whatever you’re working on needs to be rewritten from page one, and it’s all because you took the lazy advice of that awful Bowles guy.

One key thing, of course, is that I never said to quit entirely. If you know you’ll be taking a siesta, if you can schedule that in for yourself, why not also schedule in some light exercises so you don’t feel like a total louse?

For instance, I write for this blog three times a month even when I’m not writing a book. Producing content for the internet is a great way to keep your skills in tip-top shape. You could also work on a short (and I do mean short) story or two, or in the very least, engage in some weekly finger exercises. It doesn’t really matter so long as you don’t miss the point. Rest, recuperation. This is the point.

Conversely, and this is always a good idea, you could increase your reading load. The worst kept secret of the craft is that reading a lot tends to make us better writers. And the good news is it doesn’t really matter what we read. The basic engagement of our minds in this way seems to keep our intellectual and communicative abilities primed. Reading’s good for you. It keeps the stupid at bay (it is to be hoped). Honestly, you should be doing it anyway, and if you’re not…

Another piece of advice I can offer is to decrease your writing load rather than to cut it off altogether. For a little while at least, try transforming your 2,000 word-per-day average into something more like 500 words-per-day. That’s not a bad count-up when averaged out over an entire year. If you could write a scant 500 words per day, you’d end up cranking out about 15,000 words in a month. That’s the equivalent of a novel or two in a year, and the best thing about it is that 500 words per day means you’re only writing for about an hour or so, half an hour if you’re quick. That doesn’t sound too daunting, does it? If you’re feeling burned out, this might be just what the doctor ordered.

And the truth of it is people do get burned out, fed up, exhausted, and all sorts of other tired-sounding descriptors that equal one thing: you’re a human being, not a machine. If you’re struggling with your work right now, if you’re having issues with confidence or anxiety or anything of the sort, try slowing down. Trust me on this, don’t even fret, your desire to write will return in all its power and glory, and then you’ll be ready to crank out another masterpiece.

You’ve got a masterpiece or two lurking inside you, right? That’s what I thought. Happy writing, everyone. Or perhaps I should wish you a happy vacation. I’ll be back with more Craft and Practice next month.


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!

Love Madness Demon Cover Final

Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!


Want to be sure not to miss any of Craft and Practice with Jeff Bowles segments? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted or follow WtbR on WordPress


Craft and Practice with Jeff Bowles – The Odds and Ends of Worldbuilding

Craft and Practice

Each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.

How Well Can You Play Jazz?

In the grand scheme of things, there are some elements of storytelling that make a larger impact than others. Character, point of view, scene, dialogue, these are all textual, the brass nuts and bolts your readers will engage with directly. Then there are elements of craft that are more supportive, behind-the-scenes, the framework and scaffolding that keep your story together.

Worldbuilding falls into this latter category. No matter what you do as a storyteller, regardless of genre or narrative intent, you will have to build worlds for your characters to inhabit. If you’re a genre writer (sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc.) odds are you’re in need of more of this scaffolding than, say, a writer of contemporary adult fiction, or really, anything set in a non-magical or non-hyper-technological world.

For instance, if I want to write a family drama set in Waco, Texas, I can most likely get away with using my imagination. A gas station in Texas is the same as a gas station here in my home state of Colorado. A bar is a bar, a home is a home, a restaurant is a restaurant. Now, if I I’m a very skilled and enterprising writer, I might actually travel out to Waco, especially if I’ve never been there before. I might walk the streets, soak in the ambience, listen to how the locals talk, how they interact with each other. Nice, right? Conversely, I could do it the lazy way and just use Google Maps. You know, worldbuilding for slugs.

Don’t worry, there’s no judgement here. I’m slug number one. Anything worth doing is worth doing the easy way, or so my habitual procrastination always tells me. Still, you may find it difficult to easily jot off scene details when your story is set on an intergalactic space station, or in a magical realm full of wizards and dragons, or perhaps in a unique and genre-bending setting heretofore unimagined by non-writing mortals. Like dragons tearing ass through awesome space stations. Bestseller material. I’m sure of it.

As with everything, novice writers tend to lean on advice found on the internet or in books on craft published thirty years ago. Take it from your local writing advice guy, there’s nothing wrong with that. We all need instructors, examples, positive influences to look up to, no matter how experienced we become. Worldbuilding advice from certain genre masters includes meticulous research, lots of thinking and planning, note-taking, mapmaking, character family lineage, alien astronomy, mythical world histories, languages built on complete working syntax and sentence structures.

And far be it for me to second-guess the masters. However, it must be noted that even they aren’t huge on taking their own advice. I once had a professor who picked the brain of Fantasy author George R.R. Martin on this very subject. When asked how it was he built such engrossing, immediately present and lush worlds, Martin didn’t rattle off dry advice like, “I draw up detailed maps,” or, “I don’t write a single word until I have the look and feel of every fork and every knife placed on each house dining hall table.”

Nope. It seems the creator of the Game of Thrones series likes to wing it. He said, simply enough, that if he wanted a character to have a fork in her hand, he’d describe it on-the-fly and then move on to the next thing. Dialogue, for instance, which can convey information about a world in subtle yet effective ways. He’d then need to describe a goblet or a roaring fireplace into which his character could spit the unwanted rind of a piece of old cheese. Was there a history behind that fireplace? Yeah, maybe. And in this way, his worlds build themselves automatically. In other words, for him the process is organic, unrehearsed, true to the spirit of conjuring stuff from fairy dust and raw intuition.

Not to suggest Martin eschews preparation in every case, because I’m sure he doesn’t. Never start a book without thinking about it at least a little. You know not to do that, right? Stephen King offers similar advice to Martin’s in his seminal autobiography/writing manual, On Writing.

“Description should begin in the writer’s imagination and finish in the reader’s.”

By which he means an economy of words and ideas is our best friend. After all, we don’t write fiction to glorify our own intellects. At least not all of us do. We write to entertain, edify, enlighten, shock, or otherwise affect our readers. Let them participate. Don’t overburden them with extraneous fluff.

Generally speaking, I don’t do much worldbuilding. Some writers come to see it as a crutch, but I don’t think that’s true. It’s a matter of comfort and personal style. There are many highly skilled authors who do take the time to establish their working narrative milieus in exacting detail before committing them to an initial draft. I can’t fault them for this. I’ll just say that for the majority of us, especially those of us who are just starting out, all that detail can become a liability. What’s to stop us from using it—all of it—to create infodumps of mythic proportions? You know what an infodump is, don’t you? It’s when a writer loses confidence and shoves a pile of overcooked world down my throat.

“Look! There’s story here! Don’t choke on my custom third-age elf lore, please. I made it just for you.”

It’s okay to play jazz a little bit, throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. You never known what your narrative needs until it asks you directly. Trust me on this. Ever overprepare for a job interview? Caught off guard by unexpected questions, flustered now, rattling off hyperbole and corporate nonsense instead of real knowledge acquired through years of experience. Too much worldbuilding can become a mess precisely because we think we know what to expect yet never seem to.

Sometimes we fall into a rut and overprepare because it’s easier than the actual writing. It’s a different animal, playing with your characters in real terms. Everything you do up to that point is academic and therefor inert. Besides, improvisation as an author’s best friend. You may find over the course of your career it’s your saving grace. You’ve got instincts. I say use them. The best stories ever told have had an organic, unaffected, natural quality, don’t you find? Besides which, I like Jazz. It’s surprising, fresh, sometimes complicated, but never boring. Unless you like Country, and if that’s the case, I need you to stop reading this blog post and go develop a decent sense of music.

Joking. Only joking.

Well, that’s about it for Craft and Practice this month, folks. Drop me a line in the comments section below. Are you a meticulous worldbuilder? Do you find that a more improvisational approach is best? In November, we’ll take a look at a sister topic, character development. See you then!


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!

Love Madness Demon Cover Final

Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!


Want to be sure not to miss any of Craft and Practice with Jeff Bowles segments? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted or follow WtbR on WordPress


Craft and Practice with Jeff Bowles – To Comma or not to Comma

Craft and Practice

Each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.

To Comma or not to Comma

Basic rules of grammar and punctuation aside, I find that many writers, regardless of experience or education, have a hard time with commas. Oh sure, most people breeze right through them, place them wherever they figure they ought to go. It can’t be that hard. Readers know better than to pick apart our comma usage. Aside from periods, commas are the most common punctuation mark we make. If anything, semicolons are a lot scarier, right? I mean, how the heck do we even use semicolons?

Here’s how.

A semi-colon, in its most common usage, is properly deployed between two completely independent yet related clauses. Commas, on the other hand, have a wide variety of applications. Connecting ideas, creating lists, separating dialogue and dialogue tags, and let’s not forget the old Oxford comma, which confuses and infuriates people left, right, and sideways.

Don’t worry. This isn’t going to be a boring post dedicated to the rules of the English language. The truth of the matter is that schools and writing programs all over the world place more emphasis on basic mechanics than they do on style. And why is that? Because style is more or less unteachable, and in developing our unique voices as writers, we often learn to break the rules as soon as the authorities that be teach them to us.

For instance, check out this classic line from Charles Dickens:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

We’ve got all the makings of a terrible run-on sentence here, haven’t we? How’d he get away with it? If the grammar authorities were in charge, he wouldn’t have. Grammarly tells me it’s okay Dickens wrote his classic introduction to A Tale of Two Cities in such a manner because Dickens often used rambling language to satirize long-winded speakers of his time. I think that’s nonsense. Dickens wrote like this because it was his style. And no one was going to criticize him because he was Charles Dickens. Will anyone criticize you for similar crimes, real or imagined? Maybe it’s time to find out.

If you’re planning on being an indie writer, or if you already are one, recognize you have potentially earned yourself a bit more freedom in this playing field. You can toss out commas till the cows come home, and no one will bother you about it. Well, maybe sometimes they will. If, however, you’d like to publish via a more traditional route, get ready for some intense editing, because your comma usage doth rain like flash storms on the Serengeti.

Are you a stickler for form? Or do believe rules are meant to be broken? I have to admit, I’m kind of on the fence on this one myself. I do hate to see a misused comma, but I’m also cognizant of the fact that the written word is our ultimate tool for communication, and that for it to remain relevant in today’s fevered world, it needs to reach people on an individualized level. That means there’s room for all types of writing, all styles, as many variations as there are working writers in the world. I’m thinking more of a glorious rainbow than a unified, boring color-scape in which no piece of writing stands above another.

In a now famous interview with Oprah, author Cormac McCarthy took to task the basic institution, tradition, and prescription of punctuation.

“I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it,” McCarthy said. “I mean, if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate.”

And how do we feel about that? Surely, our teachers and professors would’ve torn our earliest writings to shreds for ignoring quotation marks, colons, semicolons, dashes. You’re going to find a hundred articles on how to use this and not to use that. Very few so-called authorities will council you to write in a broken and unusual manner like your favorite poet does.

Regardless of where you come down, you have to admit a certain disconnect between what we teach our kids about writing and the actual job done by actual writers. Thanks to the invention of online communication, we’ve raised a generation of kids who struggle with grammar and punctuation anyway. I envision a future in which writing is a terribly fluid, wonderfully flawed thing. Is it better to know the rules before you break them? Yes, I think so. But I also believe the game should never be played exclusively by people who know the rules. That’s elitism, a facet of our creative nature that ruins more great work than it helps.

Writing in the modern world is not meant for the few. Thank God for that. Anyone with the desire now has the ability, more or less. Your voice deserves to be heard as much as mine. If I didn’t believe in that, I also wouldn’t believe in things like Democracy, term limits for our elected officials, and a world free enough it hasn’t outlawed pizza yet.

Let us pray the grammar police are never put in charge of pizza.

Keep your chin up, keep studying those rules, especially if you’re new to writing or publishing. But if you find your writing is flawed, know you’re in terrific company. How about that intro to a Tale of Two Cities, huh? Better than a warm glass of milk and a comfy blankey.


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!

Love Madness Demon Cover Final

Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!


Want to be sure not to miss any of Craft and Practice with Jeff Bowles segments? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted or follow WtbR on WordPress


Craft and Practice with Jeff Bowles – Story Synthesis: The Ultimate Tool in the Toolkit

Craft and Practice

Each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.

The Ultimate Tool in the Toolkit

Remember when you were a kid and you had to lie to your parents? Maybe you trashed the house while they were away, dented the passenger-side door of their new car, or perhaps you can go back even farther with me and you remember drawing with crayons on the wall or stealing the last cookie from the cookie jar.

Whatever you did, I’ll bet you had to tell one heck of a story to get out of trouble. Maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t. Odds are, if you told a real whopper, they grounded you for a week. Too many details, or maybe too few. Too many working components you couldn’t keep track of, or maybe you introduced logic gaps and they picked the damn thing apart on you, literary-critic-style. The key all along would’ve been balance, believability mixed with a healthy dose of surprise. And boy were they surprised. What lovely colors you added to their wall.

As storytellers, we often do something similar, draw all over the walls and then spin an incredible yarn about it. Although, if you feel the need to call us liars, remember that the preferred technical term is “professional liars”. Story synthesis relies on your reasoning skills, ability to drive a narrative in fun and creative ways, and your talent for convincing your readers everything happened just like you said.

Story synthesis applies to every level of the storytelling process, from brainstorming and outlining to drafting and revisions. It applies to character histories, plot details, scene details, dialogue choices, and you must believe me when I tell you this, if you can’t synthesize spare parts on the fly in an organic, natural, and logical manner, you’ll leave your readers cold, and no one wants cold readers, now do they? In very real terms, story synthesis is the most important tool in the toolkit, one not every author has developed to its full potential.

It’s a bit of a magic act, a spell you’ve got to cast on yourself. It happens while you’re writing, which of course means it must be at least somewhat subliminal and unconscious. What we’re really talking about here, though, is completion and resonance. Do all the different parts of your story add up? Do they make sense in context? Does anything come out of left field? Or conversely, is your story just too milk toast?

Story synthesis isn’t hard as such, because your brain synthesizes concepts from disparate elements all day long anyway. It does, however, require a bit of practice to do well, especially if you’re writing a long-form story, like a novel. Much as a spider would, your job as an author is to take all the loose threads you’ve spun and collect them together into a coherent web. This is why it’s usually a bad idea to abandon a project and then pick it up again later. Those threads might be lost on you. The process by which you were synthesizing the narrative died an untimely death, and now you can’t pick your way through and reassemble it, at least not in the same manner.

Story emerges from character, unless you’re outlining too heavily, in which case story emerges from, well, an outline. What’s the difference? In one scenario, it appears to the reader that your characters are making their own choices. In the other, it’s clear you’ve rigged the deck, and that the whole experience is artificial. In my experience, people who rely too heavily on outlines doubt their ability to synthesize story in a natural way. Either that or they think outlining will save them time and effort. As Stephen King once said, “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.”

At any one moment in the process, ask yourself what your characters want and how, reasonably so, they can go about getting it. The rest will flow from that, though not effortlessly, so don’t get it twisted. Maybe you’ve written yourself into a corner. A common enough situation. And though you’ve had a general plan all along, something ended up rushed and malformed. You may need to go off the rails to land back on your feet. So to speak. I say blow the whole thing to pieces. Do something to really shake yourself loose. You’ve got to navigate your own twisting waterways with grace, or put another way, all those balls you’ve tossed into the air? They’d better be in your hands and not on the floor by the end of your routine.

Don’t be afraid. Some of the best writing you’ll ever produce will be wholly unexpected. Be the trapeze artist, the reed in the wind. Be willing to exert a little nonchalant flexibility when you feel most worried all your herculean efforts have gone up in smoke. The synthesis of your tale into something readable and engaging begins when you relinquish a little control and trust your creativity and rational mind. Because really, it requires both.

Synthesis in this context applies most especially to story climaxes, the worst of the worst, the hardest to pull off. Sure, beginnings are tricky, and middles are a tough nut to crack, but the endings, oh, the endings. I’d like you to imagine a pot of boiling stew. Now imagine your readers watched you cook this amazing stew from start to finish. They watched you cut up the veggies and meat, saw you season everything and stand at the stove for hours, stirring and tweaking. They’re even aware you’ve been taste testing, which is important because it means they trust that you at least find the flavor remarkable.

But let’s say that stew wasn’t synthesized properly. Maybe you were working off a recipe and failed to notice it needed certain improvements, or maybe it just came to you and you rushed the chopping and cutting. Potato pieces the size of peas. Celery stocks that may as well be whole. If dinner doesn’t go well, it hardly matters what you think you did or how well you think you did it. I mean just look. You left a whole pile of carrots sitting on the cutting board. Why didn’t you throw those in? And that beef broth you only used half of? It probably explains why your stew tastes like wet cardboard.

You see? Good story synthesis means combining all of your disparate and seemingly unconnected ingredients together creatively, confidently, logically. In fact, if you do find yourself in no man’s land over a piece of fiction, get excited, because it means you’ve got the opportunity to pull off something truly magical. As you’re writing, keep track of everything you still have to pay off. You know what a payoff is, right? If someone mentions a mountain in Chapter One and we never see its summit, not even by Chapter Forty, that’s not a good payoff. You might even keep a list running so you miss not a single opportunity to pull one more good thread together.

Like the man said, “Not all who wander are lost.” I urge you to get lost in your writing this month. Check and see that this particular superpower is performing at peak levels. And remember, good story synthesis isn’t about shock and awe, not necessarily. It’s about balance, inevitability, structural harmony. Plus tons of shock and awe. You wouldn’t want people to get bored, now would you? I’ll be back in September with more Craft and Practice. Good hunting, everybody.


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!

Love Madness Demon Cover Final

Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!


Want to be sure not to miss any of Craft and Practice with Jeff bowles segments? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted or follow WtbR on WordPress


Craft and Practice with Jeff Bowles – Writing for Catharsis

Craft and Practice

The third Wednesday of each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.

Writing for Catharsis

Writing is a hard enough gig without the existence of one persistent, unceasing fact: things change, nothing lasts, and all things pass away. You could make a decent mantra out of that, couldn’t you? I mean it’s true enough I don’t even really have to repeat it. I will though. Several times, in fact, because I’d like to impress upon you the urgency of a world in desperate need of good, personal, dare I say it, emotional storytellers.

This month’s Craft and Practice will be a little different. We’re going to talk about our feelings. Wait! Don’t click off! You can’t run from them any more than I can. Things change, nothing lasts, all things pass away. And if you and your incredible writing superpowers are needed anywhere in the world, it’s quite possible they’re needed at home most of all.

You see, people can recognize the transience of life without too much effort, but they’re either too locked into their own experiential tangents to do anything about it, or they simply keep their stories to themselves. Writers don’t have that luxury, and nor should we be afforded it. It’s our job to comment, profile, report, extol, condemn, codify, decode. If not for everyone living today and for a hundred generations beyond, then at least for ourselves, right here and now. What does this all boil down to? We can write about all the crazy stuff that happens to us and call it catharsis. Neat, huh?

I recently released a novel called Love/Madness/Demon. It deals, in part, with a psychotic episode I experienced four or five years ago. Now at that time I didn’t know or understand what was happening to me. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, I urge you seek qualified help, because once I was able to do so, once a true diagnosis came my way, things slowly began to turn around for me. But I knew as I started recovering that what I’d gone through—what I’d put my loved ones through—it constituted serious traumatic territory, and I also knew that it might make me feel better to write about it someday.

It did. That’s the long and short of it. Moreover, spending sufficient time with my story as a finished manuscript tended to help even more. I had to tread, retread, and re-retread the same ground again and again. The worst moments of the ordeal tended to lose their hold on me. Now writing as catharsis implies you’ve repressed or buried something. Some people haven’t done anything of the sort, though I’d wager that to one degree or another, the vast majority of us have. This is life, after all, the greatest bare-knuckled, knock-down cage match of them all. If you’ve taken a few lumps in recent years, you aren’t alone.

I think it’s best to approach cathartic writing from a place of complete honesty. What are you doing it for otherwise? And realistically, you’ve got endless literary modes available to you. I chose fiction because it’s what I’m most comfortable with, but maybe you prefer poetry or nonfiction.

Nonfiction may be the best way to approach the craft for the sake of healing because you can just write the truth as it seemed to you. Now, you may have to wrestle with legalities, ditto with fiction, but I tend to believe most of the advice given to writers about these things are of the overblown, cover-one’s-own-ass variety. Can you write about things that really happened to you? Of course you can. Who says you can’t? What you can’t do is drag someone’s name through the mud in the process, but I’ve got a good feeling about you. You’re not interested in hurting others with your writing. You’re a paragon of humility and moral excellence. I mean, I can just tell by looking at you. What a punim.

I hurt after my psychotic break. A lot of people around me did. Because I was delusional, because I didn’t understand what was happening to me, I lashed out frequently and did things it’s taken me a lot of time to try and get over.

But your experience with cathartic writing will be wholly different. I hope and pray you haven’t got any major traumas in your direct experience. But if you have, and if you’re lucky enough to have been given an aptitude for the written word, I highly suggest putting your emotional self on the line and trying to do a little self-evaluation and self-nurturing. Even if you intend on never letting another soul read it, the initial intimacy and privacy of the act are paramount. I’d never suggest a person try to write their pain away rather than seek the help of a licensed professional, but I’ve found that a good therapy program lines up very well with cathartic writing. In fact, there were times in my recovery I didn’t have the ability to engage in counseling, so the writing of Love/Madness/Demon was even more crucial to me.

I feel better now. I don’t feel perfect. In fact, I still have a lot of bad days. But it was worth it to me to at least try to alleviate some of the pressures of everything I’d gone through. Maybe you can do the same for yourself. I hope you can. Things change, nothing lasts, all things pass away. It’s sort of a very painful time for many people out there. Writing about what ails us? There are worse ways to cope.


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!

Love Madness Demon Cover Final

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