There is No Finish Line: Momentum for Writers

Welcome to Part 8 of my Virtual Balticon panel writeup.

Experienced writers who have been on the roller coaster for a while know the big secret: you never really “make it.” Just because you’ve sold one book doesn’t mean you’ll sell the next one, and just because you didn’t sell the last one doesn’t mean the next one won’t hit big. Our panel offers tips and strategies for maintaining the will to keep creating.

The titular panel at Virtual Balticon 54 consisted of panelists Joshua Bilmes (as moderator), D.H. Aire, Keith R.A. DeCandido, Scott Edelman, and L. Marie Wood


Of all the panels I hit at Virtual Balticon, this is literally the one I’ve been wrestling with the most. Especially this month, but honestly, everytime I get rejected. I want to look at my work and see what I can do better.

When we talk about momentum for writers, we’re talking about when things are going well, versus productivity grinding to a halt. We’re talking the long term, not the day-to-day grind.

7 Struggles Of Getting Work or Finishing Work

  1. If there’s a deadline, that can be a way to know you’re done
  2. Sometimes you can think you’re done, but your editor sends it back to you
  3. Work often comes in feast or famine — either more than you can handle or crickets
  4. Never give up, never surrender. As long as it’s something you find worth the effort.
    • It took Scott Edelman 44 years to get a piece accepted by Asimov’s, but he kept trying (and getting many of those works published elsewhere).
    • Or, in Joshua Bilmes’s words, “if I saw you trying to get a car unstuck from the ice like that, I’d tell you get get a tow truck.” If you’re stuck on something, maybe it’s time to try something new or get some help.
  5. Decide how much you want to prioritize your writing
    • L. Marie Wood put off starting a family because her career was getting momentum
  6. Rule 1 – never give up your day job. Selling a short story for $25 isn’t gonna pay the bills, (even if you can always resell it when the rights revert.) You need benefits. (At least in the States)
  7. Don’t be a shark in the writing world — online or at conventions. Don’t see people as connections you can use to advance your career — people will always find out if you’re using them. Network — but to make friends. And be willing to help them as much as you ask for help from them.

8 Ways To Keep Your Momentum Up

  1. Allow the first draft to suck
    • Instead of noodling over the first 3 chapters for the rest of your life, accept that the majority of the words are going to be the word “the” anyway.
  2. Have a variety of projects in a variety of stages
    • If writing one story isn’t going well, try a different one — new characters, new settings, new worlds might help
    • If fiction writer brain needs a break, maybe editor brain is good. You can do line edits if you want simple tasks, or revising and re-conceptualizing the whole piece if brainstorming is more where you’re at.
  3. Feed your creativity
    • Read books (in and out of your genre)
    • Watch shows
    • Take a walk and drink in the world around you
  4. If you can’t write what you love, see if you have other stories in you
    • L. Marie Wood writes psychological horror, but it was too close to home when she had kids. Que writer’s block for 9 years. So, she wrote other things – mysteries and gardening and other articles.
  5. When life hits you, it’s okay to pivot
    • For DH Aire, in one year his lease suddenly ended and his father was dying, so he couldn’t write book 5. Instead, he started a novella, so he didn’t have to use as much brain. It ended up at 75k words…
  6. When deadlines won’t move, try to create an outline and get the words out the best you can. Then pray you have time to edit.
  7. Give yourself permission to not be god-like. Stop telling yourself “I’m supposed to write something meaningful. Change the world. Better than anything I’ve ever written before.”  — let it go. It’s a career. You’ll learn from that story how to write a better story. But you need to move on.
    • As Scott Edelman says, he couldn’t have written his favorite story without having written the twenty before it.
  8. The pandemic has been HARD. Be kind to yourself.
    • Joshua Bilmes couldn’t get edits done during March, so he did other stuff. When writing your own work, publishers will often extend a due date, if needed. Just don’t ask this if you don’t have to.

Making It Past Those Make-Or-Break Points

Writing is a tough field. Sharing your dreams and sweat and soul with strangers and hoping for a connection. But, we all have those make-or-break points — often dozens of times — where we have to decide if we’re gonna keep going, or if we’re gonna invest our time on something with maybe a more guaranteed return-on-investment.

For Scott Edelman – He’s still got a dayjob. After writing comics in the 70s, he wanted to write his own stuff and was tired of collaborating. He’ll quit jobs that get in the way of his writing.

For Keith – As a former editor, he saw what worked, what didn’t, and what was overdone. And it gave him connections. But knowing people, while helpful just for pitching, doesn’t mean you can get away with writing things that don’t suck. It can help you know the market and know opportunities coming.

For D.H. Aire, back in ’08/’09, he was unemployed and his marriage was ending. He wondered if he was writing stories good enough to get published. So, he entered one in a little writing.com contest. He won first place and got in an ezine. Then? One of his serialized stories from writing.com got picked up by a small press. Next, he got asked to contribute to an anthology. From writing.com, to the anthology, to the conventions he hits, he’s created his own creative network that encourages him, challenges him, and lets him know where new opportunities arise.

For L. Marie Wood – The convention world is her tribe, but she’s only been back for 2-3 years. During her 9 year drought, she wasn’t here. But? When people would compliment her local paper articles or her students would ask and she could answer everything… Not keeping it to herself helped. Hearing others say that she still had it gave her the confidence to go back to her writing. “You haven’t lost it all, it’s just sleeping”


Writing is one of those things that you can always come back to. Which is part of the attraction and part of the struggle. Only you can decide if the benefits outway the costs.

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.