Category Archives: Writing Tips

Entering the World of Traditional Publishing

Up until now, I’ve focused my writing energies on self-publishing. It’s been fun, and I enjoy it, but I’ve been curious to see how the traditional process actually works. This year, I’m making a more concerted effort to explore the world of agents and publishers and editors, etc.

Why have I done self-publishing up until now? For my writing, I feel it is different. As a cross between the allegory of Narnia and the brutal fantasy of grimdark like Abercrombie and the ideas of freedom and redemption from Braveheart, it didn’t fit a specific market, in my opinion. Perhaps I was wrong, but I wanted the control of the process because that’s what I envisioned. And I heard stories of how in traditional publishing, those visions can be undermined.

Why explore more traditional publishing now? I will probably continue to do so me things as a self-published author, but I feel like I have a couple projects that would connect in certain genres and age groups and therefore have marketing potential. I could be wrong, but you never know until you try.

I’m only getting started, but what are the first steps?

First, I have to have something to shop around. That doesn’t mean a rough draft, and that doesn’t mean a couple chapters. I need to have a revised and edited great idea that is as good as I can get it on my own, as polished as I can get it. Agents and editors will want to change things, surely, but I have to get the book as good as possible before they see it first. I have a great children’s book, The Mouse Who Couldn’t Eat Cheese, and I’m revising The Pack, a YA novel about a teenage girl that finds out she’s a werewolf.

Second, I purchased the Writer’s Market Guide to Agents and Publishers. I got the Children’s one, as well. I got both 2017 versions. These have the most up to date info on agents, their contact info, and what they’re looking for. You can get these from the library, but I like to have my own so I can write in them and make notes. To me, they are worth the investment.

Third, I read through the guides and made notes on agents that might be interested in my work. This takes an enormous amount of time and is plain hard work, detail oriented stuff – how do you contact that agent? what is the format they’re looking for? It answers a lot of questions and it is great information. These guides also have great articles and interviews to read and get inspired and informed.

Fourth, I researched how to format a manuscript, both a novel and a children’s book. Children’s books are a whole different market and format, so that was important. There’s tons of stuff on the internet. I try to get information from the most reliable sources (Writer’s Digest, etc.).

That’s where I am. What’s next? Well, for The Mouse Who Couldn’t Eat Cheese, it is choosing the first wave of agents to query and go for it. For The Pack, I need to get busy on the revisions.

As an aside, another great resource is a conference. I haven’t been to one in a year or so, and that is priority this year. Do research and make sure it is a good conference with real experts in the craft and business, but I’ve learned mounds of info from the ones I’ve attended. It can be overwhelming, but they are extremely helpful.

Here we go.


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Take Time from a Work Before You Edit

Last week, I finally started editing The Pack, a novel I wrote during NaNoWriMo more than a year ago.

At the time, I really liked it, thought it had a lot of potential. A couple people in my writers group and a friend read through it and gave me notes.

Every writer has their personal preference, and it is important to figure out what works for you. It usually takes a couple books to figure it out, by the way, so don’t freak out about mistakes or wasted time and money. We all do it. Learn from it and move on.

For me, I have gotten to the point where I write a rough draft, just make myself write it, get it done, and then I send it out to torture a couple Beta readers, get their feedback. Most of the time, what I’m looking for is story and character related issues, the big picture stuff. I’ll even ask questions AFTER they read it, if I have a sense that certain parts need work.

By the way, if you have a sense certain parts need work, then they probably do. No. They absolutely do.

This takes time. And it should. As an artist, I want immediate feedback. I feel it is awesome because I just gave birth to this thing, and like any parent, the kid is the most beautiful thing in the world. But it is not a kid, and books become great not in the writing but in the revising.

In order to be more objective of my work, I have to take a step back and work on something else. First time, I write it as I see it and experience it; I’m the artist. Second time through, I’m a reader, an editor, looking for anything that can make it better. In order to do that, there has to be enough distance to be at least a little objective in order to slash and burn and rewrite. And the Beta readers help in that process, obviously.

Use that time to write other things, do other writing exercises, explore another project, READ A TON. Live life. Go on a vacation. All of it.

I had two projects to finish before I got back to The Pack – edit and revise and publish Make a God and then write The Fire Reborn rough draft – and I thought they would be done quickly. They weren’t. They both took more time than I had planned.

So I’m back to The Pack, and as I read it now, I realize it needs a great deal of work. I might have to literally rewrite the whole thing. It is good and the idea is great, but the theme and the flow need to be more clear, both more concise and explored in more depth, if that makes sense.

The emotions involved and the amount of work are daunting. This tests whether or not you’re a writer. Most people don’t finish one book. Even fewer people have the courage and discipline to get through the revision process. And all that happens before you get to an editor and possibly publishing, depending on your venue.

Take breaks but get back to it. If the idea is good enough, the book is worth the effort you put into it.


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Rivalry Week and Making it Personal

iron-bowlI love sports. I was raised to play different sports and I downloaded a love for watching them on TV from my Dad.

I remember well Steelers championship games, NBA championship series between the Celtics and the Lakers, tennis matches between MacEnroe and Lendel, and the Olympics every four years, which I was grateful to share with my children this summer. I am old enough to have actually watched ABC’s Wild World of Sports and cringing when the dude on skis wipes out down the ramp. I learned to play sports, basketball and tennis especially, but loved watching and sharing those events with friends and family.

I learned to love my own teams – the Atlanta Braves, the Falcons, the Hawks, the San Antonio Spurs – along with my college football favorites, Alabama.

If you love to watch sports like me, then you know what I mean when I talk about the power of rivalry. Watching the Bulls of the 90’s go against the Knicks or Miami, or watching Sampras go against Agassi, or the Braves gearing up for the Indians or the Yankees. Television stations advertise these rivalries. There’s history. There’s drama. There’s something more than just another game.

Nowhere is this more consistent than with college football teams. Rivalries among pro teams come and go, usually due to one or another team getting worse or losing star players. But college football is about loyalty beyond stars. College teams have “programs.” And when we have two teams in the same state or a neighboring state, the stakes are raised. Even with two teams that have no shot at being in any bowl or championship, it will be on national TV and people will watch it.

This past week was rivalry week in college football. More underdogs win in these games than usual because it’s more than a game. They get bragging rights. They remember when they lost. They look forward to THIS game every year, whether it’s Michigan and Ohio St. or Louisville and Kentucky, people will watch and care. Alabama and Auburn meet and call it “the Iron Bowl.” These games are sellouts because they are personal.

What does this have to do with writing?

When we write our stories, we must learn how to raise the stakes and make it personal. Think about the cliche cop show or movie where the trailer dude says, “now it’s personal,” in that gruff voice.

How do you make it personal in your story? Good writers take their main characters and put them in situations where they are personally invested or at risk somehow. There are a myriad of ways to do it – is their life at risk? their marriage? a loved one? their career? The goal of the main character has to mean something personal to him or her or the readers will care less.

We want to read about passionate people who fight for high stakes. Not for pride or personal power, but for universal, understandable, or noble purposes. We can relate to it when it is personal. The fight against the Empire becomes personal for Luke when he understands his father was “betrayed” by Darth Vader and then sees Obi Wan die … and then understands Vader is his dad and Leia is his sister … Frodo wants to save his peaceful and tranquil home, his people, from the encroachment of the evil Sauron, so he agrees to take the ring because there’s no one else. Personal stakes are raised on the journey.

These are common and familiar examples, but any book that connects with people will have this dynamic. The journey for the main character will mean everything to him or her. And to make it a “page turner,” sometimes two huge, personal desires come into conflict with each other.

As we craft your story, make sure that this is clear to the reader. Even if it is unclear to the main character, it must be clear to the reader, or we lose them.


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The Grief of Finishing a Draft

dragon175k words … good Lord, that was difficult.

Last week I finished the rough draft of The Fire Reborn. This is the third book in my Chronicles of Eres series, and the last in the trilogy arc of Caleb’s story.

This was the most difficult book I’ve ever written.

I like to write 2k words a day, average, and finish the rough draft in three months. I’ve done this with the last three drafts I’ve written (The Pack was written in a month for NaNoWriMo … somewhat of an exception).

I began this draft on 4.12.16. In May. I finished on 11.11.16. That’s right at 6 months. Why so long?

A few practical reasons. First, my wife and I bought a house. Along with feeling like I gave up my cool Rock n’ Roll card forever, I barely wrote for a month. All available and unavailable moments were consumed with loan applications, looking at houses, negotiations once we found one, packing, moving, etc.

Oh, and second, I went to Guatemala on a missions trip. Took some time out of the schedule.

Third, my wife and I and some close friends started a local church. Looking for places to meet and all the emotional energy getting to the Sunday meeting was exhausting.

A last practical issue was the length of the book. I wrote The Pack in a month because it was 80k words. Still a feat, but it was all one story in first person and brought to a close. The Fire Reborn is more than twice as long and part of a much larger world with several different characters and stories coming together in an epic fashion that takes more thought and planning to keep a good pace and yet cover the story I needed to cover.

As an emotional issue, this book was difficult to write, emotionally, especially the last half of it. I was bringing characters to the end of their arc, several of them. Some of them died, but all of them came full circle in their development. It took me more time and effort to get into the writing zone and mood because of the emotional toil each scene seemed to take as journeys ended. I wanted and needed to write … but at the same time, I didn’t want to write. I didn’t want it to be over. Weird, huh?

And I haven’t even talked about crazy schedules and normal writer’s block type stuff. It’s all in there, too.

But I finished, and while I was overjoyed that it was done (and I felt it was great and epic and cool), I got into grief mode, too.

I poured myself into this draft for six months. Half a year. Thinking and working on the draft, trying to get it finished, was a habit. It was a huge part of my life, these characters, their story. And now it’s done.

Silly to grieve, I know. And I’ve grieved drafts before, but none like this. None this personal. None this real. None this deeply.

Now the real work begins. The editing, the revision, the proof reading. But there’s also the grief.

And you know what? That’s how it should be. As writers, why would we spend months on a project (it will be more like a year total before it’s all done) if we aren’t emotionally invested? We don’t write for the money or the fame or chicks (or dudes). If you want those things, be a rock star. We write because we want to pour our soul into something and see it live. We want to create and have impact on others like they’ve had impact on us. And that is an emotional thing first, before any other ideas or causes are expressed. First, it is emotional.

So as silly as it is, it is real, and I’ll grieve.

And then I’ll create again.



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On the Power of Story

We are writers because we love story. Stories impact us to the degree where we, for whatever reason, seek to impact others in the same way.

And yet I wonder how much we understand the power of story. I know some people who are not “writer” and yet they seem to understand the power of story more than anyone. Others seek to be “writers” and yet ignore the story happening all around them.

In order to become a great writer, we must understand that great writing is not in how we place words on a page. It is not in structure or formula or word count or voice or tone. All of those things are important and have their place, but what matters is story. We read on for two reasons above all others – we care about the characters and want to know what happens next.

It is interesting when people tell me that they cry during a part of a book I’ve written. While I’m not purporting to be an expert, I know that those rare occasions happen because the reader cared about the character and then what happened to them in the story, the action involved.

If we agree this is the case, that story trumps everything, then we must pay attention to the stories all around us. Ask people questions and then listen. Ask more questions to keep the story going that someone is telling you. This is not easy.

The perfect people to begin with are the young and the old. Don’t believe me? Start talking with a child about their life. Some are more talkative than others, but you’ll find that most or all will tell you everything about their short life as if it is epic. To them, it is.

And that should teach us something about writing.

We don’t listen to the older generation for a myriad of reasons. But ask them questions that lead to a story. How did you meet your wife? Who was the love of your life? What are some of the things you most regret? These are personal stories, but I guarantee you’ll grow closer than you realize with these older people and they will tell you. You will find wisdom and context beyond your realm of knowledge. This, also, should teach us about writing.

And guess what? We make some amazing friends in the process.

I was in line for a concert last night, and I struck up a conversation with a gentleman and his daughter behind me. The connection point was the love of the band we were about to see, but in asking questions, I was able to hear about how he’s lived and grown and gotten to the point in his life now. I won’t write his story as a book, but I did get to a place where I understood a stranger better and that helps me as I tell stories from different points of view.

Stories humanize us. They connect us. They explain things, good or ill, and all of that is why we love them and pay money to read or watch them. If we pay attention to the people all around us every day, we will learn more about how powerful story can be. And then we can tell powerful stories.


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What Hamilton can Teach Us as Writers

hamilton2Hamilton. It’s the thing. Like, it reminds me of the old SNL commercial where the hypnotist got done with people and they said his show was “better than Cats. I’d see it again and again” in a monotone voice.

But seriously, the music to the show is amazing. After hearing a few people rave about it, I checked it out and have enjoyed it. There is a ton of music, and I admit I haven’t seen the actual musical yet. But there is something Hamilton can teach us as writers.

When talking with people about Hamilton, they’ve asked me to explain the music. What’s so good about it? I say it is unique. You have to hear it.

Oh, I could go into details. It is epic and storytelling and gospel and hip hop and clever rhymes about the life of a man and the American Revolution. But for the sake of this post, let’s keep it at this:

It is unique. You have to hear it.

When we create something, its uniqueness is greater than the sum of its parts. We will steal. It is part of the process. There are different genres and approaches and voices, and while none of those individually may be nothing new, how we combine and develop each of the parts of our creation is what will make it unique. How we do it in your individual way, creating something that hasn’t been done before, that is what we do to make it unique. And when we do it well, we get the desired result.

It is unique. You have to hear/watch/read it.

In other words, I could explain what it is like, but the whole of it isn’t like anything else.

That is what Hamilton has done. And what we, as writers and creators, must strive for. There will be haters. There will be copycats. What is the last Broadway musical that has caught the attention of the world like this? It will change the course of Broadway musicals. There will be hacks who try to repeat the success through copying what they think it was, usually driven by producers who are ready to make tons of money. Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. But they won’t be paying attention to what the true success was.

Here’s what we should copy – create something that hasn’t been done like that before. That is a broad directive, but it should be. How we combine aspects and genres and messages and themes is an individual journey. And we may fail, but let us fail trying to accomplish that.

It is unique. You have to check it out.


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On Word Count

wordsI love to tell stories.

I mean, that’s not so bad, right? When I was young, I just wrote the story. But at some point, you start measuring your work. A story is one page or two. Or maybe twenty or thirty pages.

When you begin to “study” writing, no matter what type of storytelling, you begin to talk more about word count. Deal with editors, and you will talk about it in depth. “How many words is it?” “I feel you should cut 2k words, at least.” “You should add 20k words to this novel.” (I know, it might surprise you to know I’ve been told that, if you’ve ever read one of my works.)

There are a great deal of details involved, and for us artsy types, we hate it. And we especially despise the limiting nature of titles – a novel is 70k, a novella is 40k, a short story is …. You get the picture.

Agents and writing books and seminars will tell you the same thing. Write the book you want. Be real. Be original. But here are the rules of publishing. Of course there are. There are rules for everything, and every writing book and seminar that does it well is able to do this – tell a group of people who’s very existence is to break rules how to follow them. It is a tall order, I assure you.

We are told that for a first book, an agent or a publisher will want it to be 80k words or less or whatever. But we all want to write a book longer than that.

It is not easier for those like me who self-publish. If I write an epic fantasy, my books will cost more than others based on simple mathematics and economics. More ink, paper, weight … more words means it costs more.

I cut A LOT out of The Living Stone. I was proud to keep it as short as I did, for an epic fantasy. My Twilight of the Gods books are shorter, by design, as was the Pack. But The Blades of War was longer, at 14ok, and I’ll be lucky to keep The Fire Reborn at 150k.

To writing seminars, these are too long. But as I look at the genre, they are below average in length, so I’m not too worried. The Fire Reborn might need to hit 160, to tell the story that needs to be told.

To give you an idea of the length of the books you are familiar with, here is a great link I found.

Suffice it to say, even if I get The Fire Reborn to 160k, it’s just over half of the first Song of Ice and Fire book, Game of Thrones. Gone with the Wind is almost 300k words. Didn’t seem to hurt it.

The goal is to tell the story that needs to be told. Don’t drag it out, but don’t rush it, either. Do what it takes to make it a good read that leads to a satisfying conclusion. Yes, you will have to cut mercilessly, but sometimes a better pace means adding, not to explain but to show. If that takes 5k words or 5ook, you’ll have an engaging story and get fans.


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No Tears in the Writer …

gollumNo tears in the writer … no tears in the reader. – Robert Frost

It is ironic that the last post on here was “writing when you don’t feel like it” back in February and now it is April before I’m getting back to a blog post …

I struggled over the last couple months with editing one project (Make a God … coming soon) and writing the rough draft of a children’s book. that and the simple busy-ness of life somehow meant that I didn’t keep up with the blog. No excuses, though. I have to learn how to keep it going even when it gets really busy and difficult.

The children’s book was a real struggle. I knew it would be a huge challenge, and it was. It was a challenge for me for two reasons. First, I had never written a children’s book before, and from what I’d read, they are more difficult to write than novels. Great. Second, it wasn’t completely my idea. I was, in part, doing it for a friend’s amazing charity organization. It was her idea, and while I helped develop it, writing from someone else’s passion, trying to connect it with your own, can also be difficult. You know, because writing a children’s book wasn’t difficult enough already.

I do what I normally do. I read up on. That’s the Mooney way. I read books about writing children’s books. I read a ton of new children’s books. I found lists of the best children’s books online and got them from the library. I brainstormed and tried to get the shape of the story in my head. How do I give kids awareness of a disease without being preachy? How do I still connect with the emotion of the reality of the struggle with that disease?

It was getting close, and one day, I had this headache, and after getting some work done and downing some ibuprofen, I decided to try and write the outline for the story.

After the outline, I felt … let’s write this thing. Feeling inspired despite the headache, I did it. I wrote it.

And as I came to the end, I cried. As I wrote the ending, I actually shed a couple tears.

That’s when I knew it was good.

And when I read it for my wife and kids, my wife had a tear in her eye.

Maybe I’ve got something with this.

And as I shared it with a few others, the emotional connection was there with misty and puppy dog eyes.

In the end, I’ll have to revise it a little, add a sentence here or there, organize the pages (important in a children’s book) and then see what we do with it. Hopefully get it published.

As we write, it must connect with us emotionally. That can be vulnerable and scary. Formulas and tropes are fun but predictable. When we infuse our stories with things that connect with us emotionally, there will be others that connect with it, as well.

This goes with other aspects as well. Do you love your characters? Even the villains? I mean, do you really love them? Not as a copy of another popular character but because he/she is real and you care what happens to them. Every reader won’t connect with the story or character, but way more will.


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Writing When You Don’t Feel Like It

hard workAt some point, our passion becomes A JOB.

I mean, if we want to get good at it at all, we have to work at it. And when we work at it, it feels like a job.

I’m brainstorming and working on the ideas for a children’s book. And it might be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write. Right now, it is work. Hard work. And at some point, we don’t feel like working hard.

The growing entitlement of our culture desires the results without the work. It isn’t everyone, but ask any teacher that has worked over the last twenty years and the cultural shift is real. But the facts of life aren’t shaken by a cultural shift. It still takes hard work to be good at something, even the things we are passionate about.

Whether working through “writer’s block” or editing or revising or pushing ourselves on a new project, it is hard work. It isn’t FUN. And so we don’t want to do it.

Learning the discipline of writing when we don’t feel like it, when the words don’t naturally flow, when the creative juices seem dry, is important. It takes hard work.

The secret is this – the more we push ourselves to work at something when we don’t “feel like it,” the more we see the reward in the end. That’s how you learn the discipline.

Because I can guarantee you this, no matter how awesome something is, no matter how passionate you are about it, no matter how much you love it, at some point we have to work at it when we don’t feel like it.


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Suggested Books on Writing (Part 1)

I promised some suggestions of books to read if you’re an author or you would like to write. I’m going to give two this week and two next week. These two are for authors who haven’t read anything relating to writing. And I know that sounds weird, but I know of many who have self-published or handed me their manuscripts to read and when I ask, they haven’t read anything to do with writing.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting these books as if I’m a super successful author that knows everything. I’m still learning like everyone. I read a newer book on writing last month and learned a couple new things. It takes practice to get to great writing. But we must practice writing well to get to great writing, and these books, in my opinion, pointed me in the right direction.

king on writingOn Writing – A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King.

Stephen King gets a bad rap among some authors, and I’m not totally sure why. I don’t always like how he brings a story to resolution (IT being the primary example of this), but most of the Dark Tower series is borderline genius, and Drawing of the Three is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I read everything he wrote up until a decade ago and still read a few of his new ones. Under the Dome and 11/22/63 are both great reads, however bad the TV shows were or will be.

On Writing is not a “how to write” book. It is a “how to be a writer” book. If you know anything about reality, then identity is the foundation of everything. And King literally gives his story on what living as an author has meant to him and his perspective on the craft. It is a writing “classic” now, and I’ve read it a couple times. Never disappoints. And by the way, you don’t have to have read anything he’s written to appreciate the book. It will inspire you.


card character viewpointCharacters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card.

Orson Scott Card is another of my favorite writers, mainly his Ender books. Anything in that world he created is a great book. Ender’s Game is a bonafide classic.

Unlike On Writing, this is a “how to write” book. And it covers two of the major parts of writing a novel that beginning authors struggle with – building a great character that is a real person and writing from a consistent and specific point of view within a scene.

Most published books I read (and again, from last weeks post, I read a ton) are told from third person limited or first person point of view. Most first manuscripts I read from authors are in a random type of third person omniscient. Characters and Viewpoint helps with some of the nuts and bolts to help keep voice, character, and perspective consistent in ways that draw readers in.


That’s it for this week. I’ll share two more next week.


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