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Bam! Stories of the Impossible and the Wildly Improbably: Free eBook This Weekend

Luc's writing projects

This weekend I’ll be attending Readercon near Boston, Massachusetts, and while there I’ll be doing a reading of stories from my flash fiction collection Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories. Bam! has been available for Kindle since last year, and the paperback ($11.95) is just coming out now, already available here and scheduled to show up on within the next week or two.

In celebration of all this, Bam! for the Kindle (and all devices that can run the free Kindle viewer, including PCs, Macs, iPads, iPhones, Android devices, etc.) will be available free today through Sunday. Feedback, good or bad, is always welcome. Enjoy!

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How Do You Research Characters and Settings So That They Feel Real?


Old Vermont barns like this one were part of my experience I wanted to use in the setting for my novel of curse-keeping in rural Vermont, Family Skulls (see left sidebar)

I try to limit the number of posts I make on the craft of fiction writing, because while I’ve been seeing some great success in my writing, it’s not as though I’ve written the Great American Novel and hit the bestseller lists, so advice on how to write a story seems like something I should be careful not to give out too much of. However, a reader recently wrote to me saying she was concerned that she might not be able to learn enough about her characters and settings to write a novel that feels real, and asking what kind of research I do when writing fiction to make sure that these elements work. Feeling that I had some useful information on the subject, I replied. Here’s what I wrote:

Based on my own experience and on many discussions with other writers, there seem to be a lot of different approaches to researching character and setting. Some of us just dive right in and either stop to do research as necessary or make notes about what we need to research and just keep writing around the blanks. Personally I’m not a fan of putting in a blank and expecting to fill in with research later, because I think good research can weave itself deeply into the story, but I can’t deny that it works for some good writers.

Using research to make a story work well and feel real isn’t especially difficult, but it does take time and effort.

Approaches for characters
I’d suggest taking different approaches for characters and setting. For characters, unless you’re the kind of person who (like me) likes to try to draw characters out while writing the story, I’d suggest putting down some key information about each major character first. Basic life facts and physical information are important, of course–What are their hair colors? How strong or weak, heavy or light are they? What kinds of medical problems have they had to go through? How tall or short are they? What were their families like as children, and who was in those families? What are their family or living situations like now? How do they get along with family members in the present? How far have they gotten in school? How did they do? What job, if any, do they have?

Even more importantly, though, you can delve into what drives them. I don’t think it’s necessarily important to know what a character’s favorite color is or what that character ate for breakfast unless that’s very meaningful to who they are or to the story–though some writers disagree and feel that this kind of extreme detail is worth gathering. For my money, though, what’s important is what the character desires, what they’re afraid of, what their doubts are, what kinds of situations get under their skin, and that kind of thing.

Strengths and schemas
I often use strengths and schemas, at least informally, to flesh out characters. The 36 strengths outlined by Marcus Buckingham, et al. (see ) are one good way to find out what characters are good at. The 18 early maladaptive schemas from schema therapy (see ) can be used to find at least one major personality flaw for each character. Real people have multiple strengths and usually multiple schemas, though some may be milder than others. Characters don’t necessarily have to be fleshed out with a cocktail of five strengths and three schemas, for instance, unless it’s really necessary to get that deep to figure out what they’ll do.

Have reasons for your choices
One piece of this process that seems essential to me (and that I forgot to mention to my correspondent on the first pass) is that I don’t see any point in coming up with arbitrary choices. I’d advise choosing character details because they grab you, because they make the character more interesting and complex, because they’ll drive the story, or because they make an interesting cocktail with other characteristics. If your character creation process contains steps like “I guess she’ll have been brought up by a single mom, because I know there are a lot of single moms,” then I suspect you won’t get much juice out of that fact of her upbringing. If you say, though, “I guess she’ll have been brought up by a single mom, and the mom was an alcoholic, so my character had to be the parent to her own mom as she was growing up,” or “I guess she’ll have been brought up by a single mom, being told her father was dead, and then in the story her father will show up at some crucial point when she can’t afford to spare any attention to connect with him.” … well, then maybe you’ve got something.

Personally, I tend to try to let characters emerge organically as I write them, and only stop and question myself about them when they’re not already coming alive. However, this approach takes some practice to work well, doesn’t suit everyone, and may not be ideal anyway. My suggestion in regard to how to come up with characters, as with everything else, is to try everything … then spend a few years getting better at the techniques you decided to use and try everything again. Write, grow, repeat.

Approaches for settings
For settings, I’d suggest starting with a place you have easy access to if possible and paying close attention to the sights, sounds, smells, and physical experience of being in that place. If that’s not practical, it’s worth digging up photos, videos, articles, or other materials that give you a lot of physical specifics. Writing comes alive when it’s full of fresh, unusual, accurate sensory details–and ideally not just sight and sound, but all the senses. If you go too far with this, it begins to get overwhelming, but one or two good sensory impressions per page really pack a punch.

The facts about a location are easier: you can use Google Maps or Google Earth to find out how things are laid out, look up construction of houses or how an office is furnished, etc. I tend to do a lot of research looking for images and videos, because they give me much more of a feeling of being in a place than a simple description.

A couple of writing books you might really like, in case you haven’t already read them, are Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint and Stephen King’s On Writing. Between the two of them, they can give you a lot of tools, explanations, and confidence.

Photo by Beth M527

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Audio Fiction at Toasted Cake: Tales of the Exiled Letters

Luc's writing projects

This week Toasted Cake, Tina Connolly’s weekly audio fiction broadcast, features two short stories of mine, “A is for Authority” and “B is for Bureauracy.” This is a series that I’d like to see through to completion some day (just 24 to go!), but frankly the stories are a little exhausting to write, so it may take a while. If you listen, you’ll see why.

I’ve been more energetic about sending out my fiction in recent months, and as a result I’ve been selling more stories, including one upcoming one to Nature, certainly the most widely-read and prestigious magazine I could land in this side of the New Yorker.

I’ve also done a long-overdue update of my bibliography here on the site, so that a nearly-complete list of my published short fiction is now available. Some of the stories are available free to read on the Internet; see the page for links.

Note: It’s only just at this moment that I realize why the initials of Tina’s site are T.C. Alas, I am not always quick on the uptake with these clever subtleties!

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When a Failed Story Becomes a Great Story


There are stories that are just not well-conceived, stories that, unless they are completely altered, will never be successful. A story like this might have characters that don’t appeal, events that don’t satisfy, ideas that don’t engage, or they may just never connect emotionally with the reader.

Other stories are rough in early drafts, but with a limited number of changes become very effective. How do you tell the difference? Unfortunately, it’s not easy, and for the most part it’s a problem that’s similar to judging your work in the first place, with similar solutions (see “Your Opinion and Twenty-Five Cents: Judging Your Own Writing“).

Sometimes, though, it can be very hard to have faith that revision can make a big difference. As an example to demonstrate how it can, consider this account from Writers of the Future and Nebula winner Eric James Stone, originally mentioned on the Codex writing group and quoted with permission.

To understand the context, note that we regularly run writing contests on Codex in order to push ourselves, generate new work, and learn from the competition. Weekend Warrior is a yearly event there in which each participant writes a story of 750 words or less from prompts over a 60-hour period.

For 2009 Weekend Warrior, Round 2, I wrote a story I thought it was powerful and might do well in the contest, but I was wrong: 5.35 average [on a scale of 1-10 — Luc], 8th out of 17, closer to the bottom score of the round (4.06) than the top (7.47). It was my lowest point total of the five weeks, so it didn’t even count in my overall score for the contest. That was my biggest flop ever in WW. (I’ve had lower-scoring stories, but I didn’t think they were going to do well in the contest.)

I put it aside for over a year, then deleted three sentences, added ten, and edited seven. That lengthened the story by about 25% and allowed the powerful story that was in my head to come out more clearly. I sent it out and it sold to the first place I sent it [a major pro market — Luc], where it became one of the most-liked stories of all time (at least on their Facebook page): “Buy You a Mockingbird.”

Now, I’m not saying the contest score was wrong — I had not successfully conveyed what I wanted to convey, and I needed to edit the story later in order to make it work. What I’m saying is that sometimes a flop can be turned into a hit.

If you’re interested in Stone’s work, you may want to check out his story collection Rejiggering the Thingamajig.

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What Makes Characters Riveting?


I’ve been thinking about the question of what makes a good fictional character, and the result is this list of ways characters can draw readers’ interests, which I hope you’ll find useful.

There seem to be some basic requirements for characters that aren’t as much about drawing readers to them as about the character being workable at all, things like having flaws, actively pursuing goals, being vulnerable in some way, and being believable (at least in the context of the story). My list below is not so much about these things, which we might consider the character basics, but about the more difficult and touchy job of creating a character that pops off the page or that readers love.

With that said, my fictional success isn’t yet to the point where I can claim that all of my characters do this, so certainly you can take this list with a grain of salt.

So what I came up with when I dug into this question was five categories of things that get and keep readers interested in a character. They aren’t entirely exclusive of one another, but they seem to be helpful categories. They are:

1. sympathy (we like the character)
2. attention (we want to see what the character will do next)
3. entertainment (we enjoy seeing the character in action)
4. admiration (we aspire to be like the character), and
5. identification (we feel like the character reflects ourselves)

It’s likely that there are some other methods or even an entire category or two I’ve missed, but this list should be useful at least as a starting point.

By the way, I give a character for each of the below as an example of that item, but I’m not suggesting that the item in question is the only or even necessarily the primary thing that’s interesting about that particular character, just that the character is an example of that item in action.

* Suffering through something undeserved (Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)
* Makes a sacrifice for someone else’s good (Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities)
* Consistently kind to others even when mistreated (Little Orphan Annie in the Little Orphan Annie comic, etc.)
* Extremely loyal (Sam Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings)
* Highly principled (Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird)
* Not consistently nice, but sometimes willing to put real effort into being kind or friendly (Greg House in the TV series House)

* Mysterious (Lestat in Interview with the Vampire)
* Trying really hard to accomplish something difficult (Hazel in Watership Down)
* Extremely resourceful, whether well-intentioned or not (Tom Sawyer in Tom Sawyer)
* Unique, fascinating, or exotic (Iorek Byrnison, the armored bear in The Golden Compass)
* Very powerful, whether in politics, money, physical prowess, etc. (Darth Vader in Star Wars)

* Eccentric, unpredictable, fun to watch (Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Carribean)
* Willing to say things most people would only think (Sherlock Holmes in the modern movie and TV adaptations–I can’t comment on the originals, not having read them for a long time)
* Witty or intentionally entertaining (Bartimaeus in The Amulet of Samarkand)
* Strongly identifiable and partly–but not entirely–predictable (Homer Simpson in the TV series The Simpsons)

* Great at something (Zorro in various movies)
* Wise or knowledgeable (Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings)
* Unflappable; impossible to keep down (Lyra in The Golden Compass)

* Struggling with issues we can identify with, whether successful or not (Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye)
* Feels like a stand-in for the reader (Bella Swan in Twilight)

Of course, many of the best characters hit multiple points above.

As an exercise, it can be useful to think of a character you love from a book, movie, or television show, consider whether one or more of the above applies strongly to that character, and decide for yourself whether or not that has much to do with why you like the character. Recently I’ve been watching the excellent BBC series Masterpiece: Downton Abbey, and I was interested to realize that as I made this list, various characters from that show popped into my head without me even trying.

A more potent exercise: take a piece of your writing–or even someone else’s writing–in which there’s a character who doesn’t really stand out, and go through this list to find one or two of the above items that you can use to punch the character up. What are your results?

I’d appreciate your comments, additions, protests, and so on.


Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories free on Amazon until 12/15

Luc's writing projects

My flash fiction collection, Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories, is part of an Amazon Kindle promotion and is free just until December 15th: here’s the link.

“It’s not easy to inject an entire world into one scene, but Reid does that time and time again. The characters, whether they live in one sentence or 20, are real people.”
– David Kopaska-Merkel in his review of Bam! on Dreams & Nightmares

“172 fantasy and science fiction, flash stories … each of them short enough to read in a few minutes, each of them rich, well crafted, meaningful.”
– Deborah Walker in her review of Bam! on Skull Salad Reviews

“thanks to this author’s unfettered imagination, quirky sense of humor, and great touch with twist endings, these short stories provide entertaining and often intriguing micro reading experiences. Highly recommended!”

“Bam! is like a magic pocket that is way bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. You reach in and never know what you’re going to pull out.”

“These stories were funny, memorable, meaningful. Dark chocolate, flashes.”

“Some absolute gems hide in here, such as the ingenious and infinitely anthologize-able ‘The Last Log Entries at the Philadelphia Office of the Centers for Happiness Control.'”

– reviews

“Reid’s smart humor and eye for irony are sure to attract plenty of readers, and keep them perusing the collection at their leisure.  The wit he employs in the stories is perfect for setting up the most poignant of stories … because just as you begin to anticipate more humor, the weight of what is being said sort of sneaks up on you.  It makes for a great read.”
– Shelly Bryant, reviewing Bam! at





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Codexian Writing Quotes: James Maxey


Continuing my series of quotes from writers I know through the online writing group Codex, here are some memorable thoughts from James Maxey, author of the Dragon Age trilogy and the superhero novel Nobody Gets the Girl. James’s latest feat, which floored a number of us at Codex, was writing the first draft of a novel (the sequel to Nobody) in a week. The resulting book, Burn Baby Burn, can be read in its first draft form as a series of blog posts on Maxey’s Web site. More on this particular accomplishment will show up in a week or two in my “Brain Hacks for Writers” column on Futurismic.

James is quoted often on Codex, so I’ll be breaking up the large selection of his quotes I put together into two or possibly three posts.

Swagger when you lie.

If the WRATH OF GOD couldn’t make this character give a sh**, I don’t know what might.

The worst novel you ever put onto paper is better than the best novel you are walking around with in your head.

On the other hand, I may be underestimating the appeal of my main character, a homosexual, drug-addicted, Republican, vivisectionist zombie. Sweet merciful Jesus, I wish that last sentence was a joke…

Momentum matters!

I can’t sing, play an instrument, dance, paint, sculpt, or act. So, in my early years, I drifted toward writing as my claim to some sort of creative ability simply because it seemed like the easiest talent to fake.

But a completed novel is always going to be haunted by the novel it might have been.

If you have affection and enthusiasm for your characters, then the readers will follow you into some very dark places.

If you and your partner find yourself co-owners of a project that gets optioned for a motion picture and I hear you complain about it on this forum, I will personally drive to your house and slap you about the head and shoulders with a rubber monkey until my envy is abated. And I can be very, very envious.

If anyone wants to power a time machine, the deadline for the first novel you ever sell from a proposal has amazing time acceleration properties. I can only imagine that committing to a whole series must propel you straight into old age.

My motto is, little by little, the writing gets done.

Is Batman really making the world a better place by wearing his underwear on the outside of his pants and clobbering muggers with boomerangs? I think that having your characters learn the wrong lessons from their private tragedies is the key to making them interesting.

… the key to writing a good novel is to first write a bad novel. You’re just piling clay onto the wheel at this stage. You aren’t spinning the wheel to turn it into something until the second draft.

But, I don’t yell. I write. I turn our presidents and judges and televangelists into dragons and I send heroes (or, more frequently, anti-heroes) out to slay them.

Look, I’ve had it up to here with people dismissing all Yellow-Eyed Beasts from Hell as “evil.” The idea that Judea-Christian labels for morality apply to creatures from the pit is an outdated, human-centric view of the world that I hope we, as a society, are finally outgrowing. Baby-eating and stabbing people with pitchforks may seem taboo to most Americans, but what right to we have to impose our values on the denizens of the underworld?

For me–and I can’t speak for anyone else–my formula was stupid stubbornness. I kept plugging along despite rejection letters and harsh critiques because I was too dumb to understand that I really was no good at what I was doing and it was time to give up and move on to something else.

The one thing you can do is buy a lot of lottery tickets, metaphorically. Every short story you write might be the one that wins you an award. You never know. Any book you write might be the exact book that a publisher is dreaming of publishing. Productivity is key.

If Jesus himself were to tell me the sky is blue, I’d argue the point. I mean, sure, sometimes the sky is blue, but a high percentage of the time it’s black, or gray, or white, or any of the zillion shades of pink or purple you find in the bookends of day.

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Do Introductions Turn Away Readers?


My friend Nancy Fulda‘s collection of science fiction stories, Dead Men Don’t Cry, was recently featured on Why Is My Book Not Selling?, where in addition to comments about the cover and about the title sounding more like detective noir stories than science fiction stories, Vicki (the author of the site) said this:

I was disappointed that the book stared with explanation about the stories. It’s interesting, so I wouldn’t cut it, but I would definitely suggest putting that at the end and starting right away with the strongest story.

This such immediate and powerful sense to me–not just for Nancy’s book, but for most books–that I was surprised I hadn’t come across the idea before. After all, when someone opens a book of short stories, or a novel, or a non-fiction book about ironclads, what they almost certainly are interested in getting is short stories, a novel, or information about ironclads–not the author’s reflections on the importance of the book, the process for coming up with it, gratitude toward dozens of people the reader has never heard of, etc.

I don’t mean that there’s no place for this kind of thing. Personally, I’m often interested in it, but not before I’ve read the main part of the book. I think using afterwords instead of introductions and forewords is a brilliant idea.

Of course, readers can always skip this material–but isn’t there value to a book where, when the reader opens to the first page, there’s something immediately interesting? Further, putting it at the end may get it read more often, as compared with the reader skipping it at the beginning. It also provides the author with a chance to mention some of their other work.

I’ve fallen into the introduction trap myself with my book Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories*. After all, what’s a more interesting start to a book … ?


Of course I enjoy immersing myself in a really good novel, but sometimes there’s not enough time to wallow properly.

Blah blah blah–who cares what the author enjoys, especially before reading any of his work?



Sure, there was some temporary anxiety when they took over Trenton and Allentown to carve out their independent nation of Clowninnia, but it soon settled down into a national joke, a prank on a revolutionary scale, a riffing topic for late-night talk show hosts.

This might or might not be your cup of tea, but at least it’s a story!

On a related subject, at a workshop back in 2001, Orson Scott Card advised us attending writers to avoid writing prologues. While my personal point of view is that these can occasionally work well (this may or may not match Card’s opinion), I think by and large no prologue is a smart bet. The typical reason for including a prologue is that the author feels there’s information the reader needs to know about before the story starts. However, it seems that readers are rarely interested in studying up on background information in preparation for reading a story that may or may not turn out to interest them. It would be better to start the story right off and hand out information in an engaging way as you go–even though this is much more difficult than just dumping it at the beginning. Alternatively, have the prologue introduce the central conflict early on in a gripping way. Prologues do seem to work well sometimes, but I believe they should prove they can earn their keep by grabbing the reader’s attention, or else they should go.

*Bam! also suffers from a title that advertises only that the stories are very short, something I was originally thinking might be a prime selling point but which I suspect prevents the book from engaging anyone because there’s nothing in that description that suggests the stories might actually be interesting. I hope to rearrange and retitle the book in the near future.

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New Short Flash Fiction Sampler eBook: 17 Stories About the End of the World

eBooks and Publishing

I have a hard time figuring out how the world will end. War? Plague? Alien invasion? Robot insurrection? The gods getting bored? A gentle fade? Cosmic disaster? The possibilities are not only varied, they’re also interesting. If it’s the last day ever, do you reveal your secret crush? What do you do in the last 5 seconds of your life? What if your band’s first good gig ever has been interrupted by the robot insurrection and a little girl wanders into the bar after everyone’s run away in panic–do you give her pineapple juice? These and other questions kept charging my subconscious with stories I needed to write about the end of the world, and 16 such made their way into my book Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories for Kindle and other eReaders.

My new, free, eBook, 17 Stories About the End of the World, offers those 16 plus a new one (“The End”). Well, I say free: you can get it for free on Smashwords or for 99 cents on Amazon (authors aren’t given a way to offer a book for free on Amazon, but if you put it up for a price on Amazon and for free on another eBook site, Amazon will sometimes drop the price to free, though it’s hard to say why that should be the only way to do it).

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Luc’s Desiderata of Titling


Titles can benefit a story in as many as five meaningful ways, only one of which is based on having read the story already. Therefore it tends to be a bad idea to use a title that becomes interesting only after reading the story (e.g. “Charlie”). In no particular order, titles can (and arguably should):

1. Intrigue someone into being curious about the story (“Something Wicked This Way Comes,” The Da Vinci Code).

2. Give the reader an immediate and accurate sense of what kind of story is coming in terms of genre, mood etc. (I, Robot, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

3. Serve as an easily-remembered and easily-communicated label for the book when telling others about it (Dune, The Hobbit). An easily-communicated title is easy to remember, spell, and say, and is strongly connected to the story itself. It stands out: you remember it specifically rather than something like it.

4. Lend a sense of authority or poetry (“To the East, a Bright Star,” The Once and Future King).

5. Be unlikely to be confused with other titles. This particularly makes one-word titles problematic unless the word is extremely unusual (Xenocide).


  • These rules don’t apply in the same way to movies, in part because there are only a very limited number of movies out at a given time and most interested consumers are exposed to a poster and/or trailer for each, making the title less important except for item #3.
  • Also, many very successful books have “broken” these rules, because of course the book itself is more important than the title.
  • And of course it’s debatable how many people will actually be influenced in any way by a title if they don’t have another recommendation for the book. That said, some readers are intrigued by titles, and a title can be the difference between your book being looked at on a shelf or within online search results or disregarded with the all the other books the reader has never heard of.

Many writers, from beginners to established pros, seem to want to come up with titles that cleverly cap off or sum up the story. They’ll write a story about a magical cape and call it “The Cape,” or a story in which the secret is that the protagonist is really dead and call it “Unsettled.” These types of titles often lose the opportunity to ensnare the reader’s interest and advertise what they’re about.

Titles are much more important for books than for short stories, since a person who is browsing for a book online or in a bookstore, or who glimpses the title in a list, has the opportunity to find out about the book and perhaps buy it. Short stories, by contrast, are usually available only in groups within magazines, anthologies, and collections, and so individual titles are unlikely to have much opportunity to attract readers to buy the work.

In terms of learning to write good titles, I highly recommend exercising this part of your brain wherever possible by using good titles for e-mail subjects, forum discussion titles, boring reports you put together for work, etc. It’s a rare situation where anyone will be bothered by you slapping a magnificent title on an otherwise dull report or a quick e-mail, and the more you work to come up with titles the stronger that facility will be.

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