Making Painful Edits

Welcome to Part 7 of my Virtual Balticon panel writeup.

It’s hard to cut out scenes or characters that you love, but your story may be better off without them. How do you learn to recognize when something has to go, and how do you reconnect any threads that run through the parts you’re removing?

These are my notes from the titular panel at Virtual Balticon 54. The panelists were: E.C. Ambrose (as moderator), Kim Hargan, Julayne Hughes, Nick Martell, and the writer guest of honor, Wen Spencer.

Editing can be painful. But it doesn’t just hurt the novice, even experienced, award-winning authors can suffer the pain.

Ways of Handling Painful Edits

Nick Martell once cut 100,000 words. Then, he basically rewrote the manuscript. He hated it at the time, but made it better. He doesn’t regret it for a minute.

Julayne Hughes – In her first short story published in an online magazine, there was a beautiful, long description… gorgeous writing and it felt like “just a punch in the stomach” to her when she deleted it. But it sold.

As an editor, she has told authors to cut chapters. She will justify the cut and the authors typically agree with her.

Wen Spencer usually walks around, stomps and screams when she needs to make painful edits.

One example: while on contract, Wen wrote 50k about a slave on a ship. Then, realized the character needed free will. So, turned her into a freelance translator. Then, realized she needed to go over there. So 2 boats, with the character working for the other boat. THEN. Threw that away and started with going off somewhere else. So, rewriting the opening is part of her process.

E.C. Ambrose prefers painful edit notes via email, not live or via phone. (A thought I 100% concur with.)

How to figure out what needs to change in your story

While the big picture can be easy to plan, the details are often where everything goes off the rails.

  • If you’ve gotten a rejection letter with a clear complaint? Start there.
  • If you outline, (and you can outline after your drafts are done), do you want it to be good or bad for the character? Usually, you want to escalate the conflict. You can also try checking your chapter pacing against beat sheets (see: Jami Gold’s great selection)
  • Does the story track? It has to be logical that the character does what they do. Although, there is a difference between what’s happening and what the character knows.
  • Ask your beta readers — one reader might be off the track, but if multiple beta readers are saying the same thing — you’ve got a problem.

Tips for those painful edits

  1. Let it set.
  2. Outline what you ACTUALLY wrote, not what you intended to write and see how that affects the pacing and character development. See if plot lines or side characters are dropped. Etc.
  3. Change the font
  4. Read it out loud (or use an app: naturalReader.com or apple accessibility features)
  5. Check your time-table/travel — don’t hesitate to map it out and use spreadsheets
  6. When making a change, start at the beginning of the scene and work your way through
  7. When cutting a scene, reread the previous chapter and the remaining sequel to make sure it still flows.
    • Note: Just because you cut a scene or setting, doesn’t mean you have to eradicate all mentions of it. Wen once HAD a magic school but left references in as a “we wish we could, it was back in the day”, that way the ruins, etc were still cultural touchstones.
  8. Make sure all your characters are needed and three-dimensional. A lot of times, especially if multiple characters are fulfilling the same role, you can consolidate those characters into one. The more reoccurring characters, the harder it is on the reader. And one shot characters don’t need names.
  9. Sometimes, you’ve gotta take the full draft, use it as a reference, but re-write and reorganize the whole thing from scratch.

No matter if you’re the one deciding to completely revamp your novel, or the suggestion is coming from a beta-reader or editor, it’s hard to set aside the pages and chapters that you spent so long on.

I do tend to overwrite, and from experience, I know that I like the finished product a lot better when I’ve streamlined my story by cutting about a fifth.

A final thought. One of the most nebulous complaints we try to fix as authors is: ‘I just didn’t connect’. While you don’t actually need to have a likable main character, you do need a relatable character. That, plus a clear setting can go a long way toward helping immerse the reader.


Have you struggled with knowing how to fix your writing? How did you figure out what was needed? And how did you fix it? Did it work?

Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back again next Thursday with more writing tips and writerly musings.

Author Spotlight: Scarlet Ingstad

  • a historical fiction and fantasy author who spends most of her time with her nose stuck in a book

Readers! Let’s give a good, hearty welcome to Scarlet Ingstad!

Scarlet Ingstad is a writer who is as obsessed with 18th-century history as she is creating worlds that never existed. When not writing, she can most likely be found on the piazza of Mount Vernon studying the American Revolution and the Golden Age of Piracy.

Scarlet is working on her second master’s degree and teaches online history classes to a group of teens. Scarlet was born in North Carolina but was raised along the coast of Virginia. She now lives right outside Washington D.C., exploring coffee shops, bookstores, and historical sites.

Scarlet, thanks for agreeing to be here today. Most interviews start off with bios and such, and while I’ll get to that as always, let’s start with the important stuff!

If you could have any pet (real/fantasy/no-allergies/no worries about feeding it) what would it be?

Growing up we had cats, fish, hamsters, and a turtle. But I would have to say, if I could have any pet, it would be a dragon. I am a pretty big Daenerys Targaryen fan, and the thought of having a massive dragon to ride around sounds pretty amazing. Although, I think instead of Drogon, I would probably prefer Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon…he seems like a safer bet. Dragons play a big role in my next fantasy book, so my head is always wrapped around what it would be like to actually “own” one.

You can’t go wrong with Toothless! Once he warms to you. 🙂

What do you write?

I have always written fantasy since I was a child, so for my first novel that’s the genre I selected. It’s the realm I know the most and am the most comfortable with. However, as I started working through this master’s program, I became more confident in the historical fiction genre. I now reside there primarily and am really enjoying the experience.

I started writing when I was very little (about eight years old) and wrote a story about my favorite hockey team, the Washington Capitals. After that, I started dabbling in the world of fanfiction just for fun and to share some of the things I constantly scrawled in my journals. A little over two years ago, I finally felt confident enough to try out the self-publishing route. It’s challenging, but also very rewarding.

I completely understand the childhood draw to fantasy. I’m fascinated by people who love the research and historical fiction as much as you seem to and am thrilled that you’ve found a home there.

What do you like to read?

I read mostly historical texts with some historical fiction and fantasy sprinkled in. Between school and my history interests, I usually have 3 to 4 books going at a time that I switch between for various research purposes. 18th-century revolutions are my favorite subject matter, and I am typically reading about pirates during that era, and the American Revolution. I have started dabbling in the French, Haitian, and Brazilian revolutions as well.

Oh wow, I’ve always been impressed by people who can switch between books, but I’m afraid I’m a serial monogamist when it comes to my reading habits.

Name one commonly accepted piece of writing advice that doesn’t work for you.

Take a break.

I am probably the absolute worst at taking breaks. I have never, in any aspect of my life, known when to put the pen down and breathe.

During the first month of quarantine, I wrote out 75,000 words for my next historical fiction book centered around the Marquis de Lafayette, Benjamin Tallmadge, and Alexander Hamilton. Right after that, I went through two months of intense editing to complete and publish my Anne Bonny novel much earlier than anticipated.

I understand the importance of breaks and how they are needed, but getting me to actually take a break is quite the challenge. Ask any one of my friends or family members. They have stories.

Oh wow! You’re a writing power-house! I waffle between understanding how to take breaks and frustration/eagerness to get to the next stage with whatever project I have on the backburner.

If you can’t get yourself to take a full break, do what I do and hit your to-read pile while your beta-readers or critique partners are sitting on your manuscript.

Name one commonly accepted piece of writing advice that they can pry out of your cold, dead hands.

Stop worrying about being a good writer, just WRITE!

It took me quite some time to accept this piece of advice, but now that I have, I am never letting it go. If there is a story in my head, I need to get it down on paper as fast as possible so as to not lose any details. The formatting, wording, style, flow, and grammar can all be revisited another time. Getting that story from your head onto a page is the most important part. After all, that’s why they make editors, right?

Even if the story is not perfect, even if the plot has holes or frayed edges, it doesn’t matter. That first draft is just about you getting that story out of your head. Furthermore, even when you are ready to publish, don’t stress about who will or will not like your story. Not every book is meant for every person. Getting beyond the “what if they don’t like me” thought process is absolutely vital.

That’s my philosophy as well! You can only get better at writing stories by… writing stories. At some point, you’ve gotta just sit down and write.


Shameless Self-Promotion time!


Debuting this month is: The She-Wolf, based on the true story of the sea-faring pirate, Anne Bonny.

The She-Wolf by [Scarlet Ingstad, Martina Matteucci]

Born as the result of a torrid affair, Anne Cormac is raised by a father who doesn’t want her, and in a world that won’t accept her. Rebellious and angry, Anne flees her father’s home and runs into the arms of James Bonny, a small-time pirate. But James proves to be as problematic as Anne’s father.

Stuck, yet again, by a man who refuses to accept who she is, Anne stumbles across the path of the notorious pirate captain, Jack Rackham: a man who will change her life forever. As Anne struggles to figure out who she truly is, one of Britain’s most successful privateers, Woodes Rogers, begins his quest to rid Nassau of the pirates for good.

Soon, Anne finds herself facing the British Empire head-on in a battle, not only for freedom for the pirates of Nassau but for her very life.


My first book I published is the YA fantasy Krekania.

Lydall Barron is stuck in a marriage pact between her kingdom and the neighboring kingdom of Westland. For decades the tradition of marrying a lord or lady of Westland maintained a peace treaty between the lands and aided in avoiding another catastrophic war. But for Lydall, it feels like a prison order. Desperate to escape her fate, Lydall flees Histair on the back of her stallion and races off into the highlands. Lost and confused, they stumble upon an unusual looking stone in the center of a clearing.

Curious, she reaches out a hand and touches the stone…and instantly Lydall is transported to a land much unlike her own: Krekania, the last land of magic. A world full of creatures like winged-wolves, unicorns, elves, firefoxes, and even mermaids, Krekania is a flourishing oasis for all who possess magic. Lydall is swept away by the glowing plants and beautiful landscape, but soon learns that something else also calls Krekania home…and that not all magic is good.

To save the last land of magic, Lydall must become what Krekania needs most: The Woman of Fire. Five elves, one Queen, and one human must fight together and overcome their past, or all will be lost. The Woman of Fire Shall Rise.


I plan to write a sequel to Krekania down the road as well!

My current project is a 2-part historical fiction series about the Marquis de Lafayette, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Tallmadge. The first book will be called We the Sons and the second We the Fathers. A young French aristocrat, poor Caribbean immigrant, and the son of a pastor — follow their journeys from when they first join the American Revolution through to the formation of America’s government.

Check Scarlet Ingstad out across the web!

Amazon | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

Science Fiction Has Always Been Political

Here’s Part 6 of my Virtual Balticon panel notes.

Throughout the history of science fiction and fantasy, creators have used the opportunity for imaginative storytelling to explore issues of their day. From the Twilight Zone to Alien Nation to Mass Effect, what are ways that genre stories have explored the concerns of the world in which they were made?

These are my notes from the titular panel at Virtual Balticon 54. The panelists were: James Mendez Hodes (as moderator), Mary Fan, Arkady Martine, Ada Palmer, and Sarah Pinsker.

Now, while we can’t go into all the ways politics have been interwoven with science-fiction because that would be a doctoral thesis, there is a lot we can discuss.

Why Use Fiction?

Censors don’t vet “unserious media” nearly as much as they should. Science fiction and fantasy in novels, comics, or even video games can often slip past the filters.

The Panelists Discuss Their Approach To The Political

  • Mary Fan never meant to make her writing political, but that’s how it came out. Plus, as an asian minority in the states, her stuff often gets filtered through that lens — both in her writing process and in the interpretation — even when that’s not what she intended.
  • James Mendez Hodes reminds us that the ability to appear apolitical is a privilege.
    • i.e. When your life experience doesn’t match mainstream media, every way in which you are different ends up getting coated with a political brush.
  • Arkady Martine avoids politics online.
  • Ada Palmer has friends who vet comments and reviews before she sees them, because her work IS so political.

Some people have so much damage and sore spots, that they can’t read stuff that go anywhere near a subject because it’s too personal. And that’s okay. That can inform what they write, what they read, and can explain why some people lash out after reading a novel.

Things To Watch For When You’re Writing SF (or Fantasy)

There are a lot of things built into the genre, and tropes people often end up following without making it a conscious decision. They’re not bad, but they’re done a lot. You should try to contemplate why you’re using these tropes and what story you’re telling.

  • Check for imperialism
  • US supremacy
  • Do you default to a western society?
  • Is your fantasy defaulting to an anti-populist, pseudo monarchy?
  • Check your SF for consistent tech vocabulary, astronomy details, & imperialism.
  • Check your fantasy for magic consistency and feudalism
  • What are the generational relationships like? The western nuclear family has only been a thing for a brief period.
  • You can be regressive and still say powerful stuff. It depends if you’re leaning in as “those were the days” or pointing out the flaws.

Publishing itself tends to view things with a Western lens. We’re looking for individualism. The pro-active individual. And that’s cultural baggage and a political choice, even if we don’t think about it.

When you go to do your research, newer history doesn’t whitewash as much, and fills in stuff that used to be skipped.

Avoiding the ‘Afterschool Special’ Approach

All too often, when writers have a message or theme they want to imbue their story with, they worry that the audience won’t get it. So? They clobber them over the head with the message.

  1. Read older science-fiction fantasy — their outdated ideas and mores will be easier to spot and can help you evaluate how your writing might be seen by future generations.
  2. Make your story about the people. Don’t preach.
  3. Try to make sure your characters have a vested interest in the political process.
    • i.e. Maybe the society kills all second born or something
  4. Know your audience
    • Different tropes naturally fit different genres. You can skip some of the explanation if the genre is used to those tropes.
      • Such as racism in Lovecraftian Horror.
      • In manga, you can have a conversation about gender at the 202 level, but with a different audience, it’s going to need to be 101 or 401.

Recommended Books and Media:

  • Ancestral Night and Carnival by Elizabeth Bear
  • Zadig and Micromégas by Voltaire
  • Gargoyles, The Animated Series
  • Star Wars
  • Hunger Games – it did something new, showing that what was done vs what was real in a way that had only really been done in Korean dramas. Now it’s a trope, BECAUSE of its success.
  • The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette)

Closing Thoughts

I can’t avoid politics, It’s written on my face. – Mary Fan

Every choice we make is political. – Sarah Pinsker

Everyone is embedded in a political culture. – Arkady Martine


Remember to question your assumptions, evaluate your instinctive choices, and explore new worlds and new ideas.

Intro To Self-Publishing

So you have a story and you want to publish it yourself. Let’s talk about how to get started, how to get noticed, and when you should pay a professional.

The panelists for the titular panel at Virtual Balticon 54 were: Kim Hargan (as moderator), Jean Cooper, Keith Hughes, Lee Moyer, and Cerece Rennie Murphy.

Where Did Self-Publishing Come From?

Back in the olden-days, self-publishing wasn’t the do-it-yourself thing it is today. The only options used to be traditional publishing or vanity presses, where you gave them money to print your book.

Buyer-beware: vanity presses are still a thing. If you’re looking at a small-publisher, make sure they’re not asking for money upfront.

Now, especially with the advent of publish-on-demand and ebooks, self-publication has taken off.

And while the unregulated self-publish market has plenty of probably-wasn’t-ready-to-publish offerings, it’s also been a great place for quality authors as well.

Why Writers Self-Publish

Every writer’s journey is different, and when you look into it, their reasons are personal and multitude. But, some of the most common reasons writers go with self-publication are:

  1. They couldn’t find an agent or publisher — for whatever reason
  2. They write for a niche market
  3. They wanted more control over the finished product
  4. The book was already published and they’re switching formats

The 2 Most Important Tips For Self-Publishing

  1. You. Need. An. Editor.

    When you read your own work, you know so well what it’s supposed to say, that it can be easy to overlook small errors. Word, Grammerly, and The Hemmingway App can only do so much.

    If you want a professional product, pay up.

    Plus, they can do some googling and make sure that you’re not naming your character after some obscure sex act in a foreign country.
  2. You need a good cover artist

    I know, I know, you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover. But? We all do.

    A cover can let you know what genre and which subgenre you’re reading. If you misrepresent that? You’re gonna end up with 1-star reviews because you’ve attracted the wrong audience. Plus? A poorly-done photoshopped cover makes people think of the un-edited, published-too-soon works that they’ve regretted reading.

    Sure, you could save the money, but you’ll very likely need to invest just as much or more into marketing, to make up for the sales your cover has lost you.

    While you’ll have a lot of artistic control when you hire your own artist, remember this, publishing houses usually keep the writers far away from the artists because, like it or not, the writer is usually WRONG about what the art should look like.

    Sometimes it’s best to tell the artist about the book and see what they come up with.

Ways To Market Your Self-Publishing Book

You can’t get in stores as easy as a publisher, how do you get them out there? It is a LOT of work to sell books.

  1. Online
    1. Facebook
      1. Ads
      1. live readings (1 week out, diff section on launch day)
    2. twitter
    3. instagram
    4. book bub (esp, book 2&3)
    5. Email friends/colleagues/mailing list
  2. For live events
    1. Tables at conventions
    2. Readings/Autograph sessions – if paired with other people or in busy areas
    3. bookmarks/business cards
      • Different cards for different audiences/sales approaches
      • Different cards for agents/publishers vs readers
      • Nothing on the back for wealthy customers, shiny card with the cover on the back for fans
  3. Everywhere
    1. Networking.

      Be happy to make connections.

      If someone is looking for a book and yours isn’t a great fit? Suggest other people’s work if it’s a better fit for what people are looking for. Those people — both the ones you recommend to and those whose work you recommended are a lot more likely to suggest your works to friends/family who might be the right audience for you.

      If you’re an introvert at a convention? Get there early and introduce yourself to the tables around you. Let them know if you’re new — to tabling in general or that con in specific. Be open to advice. So many people in this industry are welcoming and will be happy to welcome you.

Self-publishing is a brave choice and a tough road to walk. Best of luck finding your audience to all my writer friends — no matter who publishes you and when.


Obviously, I’m not self-published. Please! Share your experiences and tips and references if you have any! I’d love to share them.


Thanks for reading. If you found this post helpful, share it with your friends, feel free to subscribe to my newsletter if you’d like to get these posts in your inbox, and I’ll be back again next week, with more writing tips and writerly musings.

Tips for Writing Combat: Where Do You Focus?

Here’s Part 4 of my VirtualBalticon panel notes.

Even veterans and long-time practitioners can have problems writing fights that are both compelling and realistic; how is someone new supposed to keep up? We’ll discuss getting experience with the weapons you’re writing about, how to handle pacing in brawls, skirmishes, and battles, and how to keep the tension high when your protagonists have to survive.

These are my notes from the titular panel at Virtual Balticon 54. The panelists were: James Mendez Hodes (as moderator), Jeanne Adams, Ken Schrader, and Ryan Van Loan.

Ways to decide which details to focus on

Who is the character?

  • A new fighter
    • Focuses on scary things: the knife, the big guy, the gun
    • Is surprised by combat: how much their hand hurts after throwing a punch, how loud the gunshot is, the feel of the other person’s gut
  • A trained fighter
    • Notices small details
    • Can analyze their opponent, at least, before they get into things
    • Sometimes, time kinda slows for them

What type of scene are you showing?

  • In Hollywood:
    • Every move works (for the main character), every punch hits, every dodge works. Unless the plot needs it not to.
  • In real life
    • People don’t move as expected, and you’re mostly left just trying to react as the situation keeps changing

What’s the character’s flaw?

  • When the character is in combat, they’re usually dealing with a weakness
    • Are they in the fight because they won’t back down or have to instigate?
    • Is the weakness going to cause them to lose?
    • Do they overcome their weakness to win the fight?

What is the scene’s purpose?

The scene needs to either:

  • reveal something new about the character
  • move the plot forward
  • raise the stakes

The best scenes do all of these things.

[Note from other panels: Don’t have the bad-guy hurting babies/women just to show they’re bad. It’s cliche, overdone, and could be done far more subtly, with just as much impact.]

Tips for Writing Combat

  1. Use visceral details
    • You can keeping them to what the main
      character is feeling, they don’t even need to be graphic, just their physical/emotional reactions to the fight
    • Focus on the sensory details
      • Emotions – anger, fear, panic
      • Smells and Sounds
      • Feelings – texture, pain, loss of sensation
  2. Walk it through
    • Sit down with a friend/family member to make sure it tracks or just plain act it out.
  3. Make sure they’re hurting after the fight
    • If you get in a hand-to-hand fight, you’re going to be hurting the next day. You’re going to be tired after 30 seconds, exhausted after 3 minutes, and your adrenaline is gonna crash hard when you’re safe.
    • Note: The Indiana jones movie got a shout out for actually SHOWING him bruised and battered after a fist fight.
  4. Being in the military doesn’t make you an expert at every fighting style
    • Basic is more intro to what you will have to train
    • Most military is only taught some hand-to-hand basics, the rest is personal choice.
  5. Fighters have limits — especially during war
    • To paraphrase Ryan Van Loan, “Everyone has a cup, and if it overflows, you break. If someone can help or give you a break, you can recover.
    • In other words, this is why we give soldiers respite, why we rotate them off the front lines. And why so many have trouble transferring back to civilian life.

Researching and Writing What You Don’t Know

I write fantasy, so I’m not a proponent of ‘write what you know.’ But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your research.

War (throughout the ages) in media:

  • Restrepo – an Iraqi war documentary
  • Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War – by Karl Marlantes
    • An in-depth look at what it’s like to go to war
  • The History Channel – some of their stuff
  • Legion Versus Phalanx: The Epic Struggle for Infantry Supremacy in the Ancient World – by Myke Cole
  • Shadiversary on Youtube
  • “‘We Have Always Fought‘: Challenging the ‘WomenCattle and Slaves‘ Narrative” – essay by Kameron Hurley

Other Ways To Research Fight Scenes

  • Beta-readers
  • Ask people who fight in the style you’re writing
  • Read fight scenes — study the pacing

Some of the panelists favorite books for fight scenes

  • Dune – by Frank Herbert, especially the ending
  • Wheel of Time: The Dragon Reborn – by Robert Jordan

Remember, when writing combat, it’s not about the guts and glory, it’s about the story and the characters.

Any tips or tricks you like to use? Anything I missed? Let me know in the comments below.