21-Day Writing Challenge: Day 9 – Finding Balance

Cover Art

Cover Art

As predicted, I did NOT hit my 6k target for today, making today the first day I didn’t reach the goal for words. But that’s OK – I had a 2400 word cushion already built up, which allowed me to take this afternoon and evening and spend a bunch of time seeing friends I hadn’t seen in a while, and spending some extra quality time with Liz.

I still managed 3639 words today, which is excellent. It puts my overall count at 39,037 words to date, or exactly 37 words over my target for where I had to be at this point.

I actually think I’m even more ahead of schedule than that, because I’m pretty sure this story will finish somewhere around 60k words, instead of the 70k I’d originally planned. Which is fine – that will just give me an extra day or two for cleanup and editing. No problem with that!

It’s impossible to stress enough how important it can be to find balance in writing and the rest of your life. I’ve been so hyper-focused on finishing this book that I’ve let some things slide which I ought not to. Things like getting the laundry done in a timely manner. You know, day to day tasks which just have to happen whether you’re writing or not. And getting out of the house and into the world is vital to us as well.

It’s all well and good to start a crazy challenge. Even great if you finish it. I’ve done 26,000 words in a single day before to wrap up a NaNoWriMo where I’d been especially lazy about word count earlier in the month. But it’s useless if you can’t maintain a good pace for the long run. Chris and I may talk about the value of sprints, but writing as a career is much more like a marathon. It’s an endurance event, and it’s about finding ways to make the work happen day after day, week after week, with the weeks flowing into months and years.

More than that, it’s about finding ways to keep the joy in what you’re doing. Because if we grow to hate writing, or see it as just a job, then we might as well be digging ditches instead of telling stories for our rent.

Balance in all things. Even in challenges. Do the work, yes. Find ways to improve your performance, surely. But also remember that it’s supposed to be fun. Storytelling is play. Don’t ever let the joy leak out of it. Do things to help yourself recharge, to rebuild your creative energy. Connect with other real human beings, because its from other people that we learn and grow and absorb new ideas. We connect those dots to create our art. We find the dots to connect by being out in the world and doing things.

As always, you can sign up for email updates on my progress – click the link below to join and follow along. Would love to hear comments, either here or in emails, too!

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21-Day Writing Challenge: Day 8

starship 1-5 kindleShort post today, folks, because it is very late and I am very tired. 😉

Today was my day with the kids. They finished catching up on Supergirl episodes – all three of them love the show now. And then we had an epic D&D game. They’re all playing wizards, at a school for wizards founded in Waterdeep (Forgotten Realms) to help train young people in the proper use of magic after the Time of Troubles. (Which I missed, ’cause I haven’t played D&D in years, but the little I heard about it worked well enough as backstory for this campaign). So most of their adventures are classroom tests. Today was a maze full of traps that I ad-libbed my way through, with a rescue of some classmates from a minotaur at the end. They did a great job working together and had an awesome time.

Geeked from birth, that’s my kids! Raising them right.

Anyway, I didn’t get to writing until late in the evening, and my sprints as a result were more like back to back writing sessions. Managed to get in 3087 words over the course of an hour and a half at the keyboard, which is pretty typical. I also started working on setting up some promotions for “Accord of Honor” – which will be getting a promo period right around the launch of “Accord of Mars”. Push Book 1 up the ranks a little and hopefully in the process help out Book 2!

Total to date is sitting at 35,398, which is well above my target of 33k by this day. That’s a good thing, because I am taking tomorrow afternoon and evening off to go hang with friends, so tomorrow will likely be short a bit from my 6k target.

As always, you can sign up for email updates on my progress – click the link below to join and follow along. Would love to hear comments, either here or in emails, too!

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21-Day Challenge: Day 7

Cover Art

Cover Art

It’s the end fo the first week for the challenge, and another highly productive day of writing! Just finished my last sprint for the day. The grand total: 6223 words today, and 32,311 total for the book.

I’m starting to think this one won’t be as long as the last. Still not sure, as I continue to add chapters as I go. I’ve got at LEAST another 20k words left in the book. Might be as much as 60k total length, but I think the story might simply wrap up shorter than the 70k I’d originally planned, and shorter even than the 67k for Accord of Honor. We shall see. I’m OK with it running a little bit short, but I do want people to feel like they’ve had an enjoyable, sizable read!

This is still a lot of fun. I can’t wait to get cracking on the next book after this one is out, honestly. Oh – yeah – I spent part of my downtime today starting to flesh out the major movements of Book 3. So far it looks like it’s going to read a little bit like “The 300” mixing in with chunks of “Star Wars: A New Hope”. It’s going to be fun to write.

I have no idea if there will be a Book 4 yet. 🙂

A week in, and a lot of writing behind me, I am learning more and more about stamina and how it pertains to writing. I’ve spent a LOT of time at the keyboard lately. Today my knees hurt. My elbow aches a little. Aside from the minor body aches (I have been getting up, walking around, and doing light exercise, don’t worry!), there is a general sense of mental exhaustion after a few sprints.

It’s odd. Because my body doesn’t feel tired. But my brain needs a break once in a while. I just finished reading the first book in the “20-Sided Sorceress” series today during one of those breaks – because I find one of the BEST ways to recharge is to read or watch good fiction. (Highly recommend the series if you like urban fantasy, by the way; her protagonist reminds me a lot of Raven in my Raven’s Heart series.)

So if you find yourself starting to get tired and aren’t sure why, try taking a breather. The same way you would if you were working to improve your running endurance, you need to rest sometimes so you don’t burn out or break. Remember that novel writing is a marathon, not a sprint. After this challenge there will still be the next book, and the next, and the one after that. Make sure it stays fun. Writing can be the best thing in the world if you’re loving it, or as much a hell as any other job if you’re not.

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21-Day Challenge: Day 6

MC900434719Today was awesome and productive for me. I hope your day was just as good! I slept in a bit, got up at 9am. I showered and made coffee. Then I went and played on the internet a little, checking messages and reading email. By about 11am I was already cracking in on the story, getting in my first sprints. I took a break for lunch, then back to work again. Sprint – go cruise the forums for a bit – sprint again. Good stuff.

About 3pm I was sitting at a little over 3k words, and went to take a nap.

Up, another sprint, then off to a fish and chips dinner out at a local restaurant with Liz. Back home, enjoying an evening together (she’d been working on midterms for grad school side by side with me while I did my sprints earlier). We watched the latest Supergirl episode (it was OK, but the season has had better episodes – overall a good show though) through Amazon. We don’t do “appointment TV”; just stuff via Amazon and Netflix. We watch programs when we feel like it, not when the networks happen to have them on. Also saves us $100 a month on the cable TV bill…

By about 10:30 she was getting tired and went to go get some sleep while I got back to work. I spent the next hour hammering out another 2400 words or so.

Total for the day: 6679 (target was 6000)

Total for the challenge: 26,088 words (target was 24,000)

Since Chris was talking a little about plotting in his video today, I thought I would share a bit about how I plotted this book as well. I’m actually trying a new technique, roughly cribbed from a book called The Story Grid. Which is excellent. It’s SO good, in fact, that I think it should be considered a “must read” for fiction writers.

Anyway, in The Story Grid the author talks about the structure of plot. He works from a three Act structure, breaking the Acts down into sections of action. Each section then gets broken down into scenes, which can then be further refined into beats.

I didn’t go into that much detail in this outline. What I did do was break down the Acts into sections. He calls Act One the “Beginning Hook”. Act Two is the “Middle Build”. And Act Three is the “Ending Payoff”. All makes sense, right? This stuff is straight out of Aristotle. We all learned this in English 101.

But then he breaks each Act down into five stages: Inciting Incident, Complications, Crisis, Climax, and Resolution. What was interesting to me is that he uses the same five stages for each Act. (He’s not alone in this. If you’ve read McKee’s “Story”, you’ll see some similar thoughts there.) The core idea is that each Act is itself a mini-story, a microcosm of the overall story. And that each scene is ALSO a story in itself, with rising action and some sort of climax or “turn” at the end.

It’s good stuff. Read the book. 😉

Anyway, Accord of Mars has two first person POVs, same as Accord of Honor. Two major storylines which intertwine. I built the plot by creating a Ulysses template broken down into fifteen chunks – one per section for all three Acts – for each POV, or thirty in all. Then I filled in the details. Thomas is the primary POV, and is getting a lot more words, so I broke some of his stages down into two chapters. I merged a few of Nicholas’ (the father’s) stages as well – two stages in a single scene can work in some cases. As I’ve been writing, even more of Thomas’ stages are being broken into two or more chapters, which is fine. But the major moments of the story were right there on the outline before I started writing a word.

And I knew what the major stages had to be, because I had a great story structure to work with.

It’s a pretty cool system. You might think it was limiting to work this way (that was one concern I had), but I didn’t find it so. I’ve done totally outline-free books sometimes, too, and others with only the barest of outlines. This is more structured than I usually go, but as a result the story feels very strong, very tightly woven.

Will I use it next time? I might. We’ll see. Oh yes, the other thing I did today? I fleshed out the three major movements for Accord Book Three. I already had the first one down, but now I know the entire major arc, and it’s going to be a great story.

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21-Day Novel: Day 5

Coffee break novelist
Today and yesterday were serious tests of the whole “Coffee Break Novelist” theory of writing.

When I wrote that book, the tl;dr of the idea (although of course I think it IS worth reading!) was that writing ISN’T something that requires huge blocks of time to accomplish. You can slip bits of writing in between the rest of your life and be a productive novelist. Even a highly productive one. Chris Fox – the inspiration for the whole 21-day novel challenge – might be a full-time writer now. But he wasn’t always. He used to slip his writing in during his commute to and from work, working on a laptop.

In the time he had.

And that’s what it’s all about, for those of us who are not full time (yet!).

If we wait for a day when we’re going to have great big blocks of uninterrupted time, that novel really WILL take years to complete. And frankly, if it takes most novelists 10+ novels before they can go full time, and if a rapid release pace (at least a few books a year) is what works for most full-timers, those of us aiming for full-time simply can’t afford to wait for the moments when “the time is right”.

When I made my schedule for this challenge, I blocked in ZERO words for Thursdays. That’s because every Thursday I wake up around 6am, get to work by 7am, and don’t leave work until almost midnight. I’m a nurse, working on a very busy sub-acute unit. I don’t have a lot of time for writing while I am on the job, and that’s a 17 hour work day.

But yesterday I still managed to sneak in 1500 words by writing on my breaks. Which put me about 1400 words ahead of my goal for the challenge.

Today I only had a nine hour work day. I fit in about an hour of writing before work, and then wrote during a break again. Got in 3017 words for the day, putting my challenge total at 19,409 words. I’m still 1400 ahead of schedule.

That doesn’t mean I get to rest, though. The next two days are “days off”: and I plan to write about 6000 words each day. I’m into Act 2 of the book, things are starting to rocket along, and the pace is picking up.

Some of you reading this are following along on the challenge, which is awesome. Some of you aren’t, but I think most of you are working on some sort of book or you likely wouldn’t be here. (Unless you loved Accord of Honor and are desperately waiting for the sequel – in which case, hang on, ’cause it’s coming soon!)

Start looking at your life and instead of thinking about how busy you are, try to figure out spaces that you can slot a 15 or 20-minute writing period into. Even if you’re not a fast typist – I can get in 800 words in a good twenty-minute sprint, but not everyone can – writing just 200 words a day adds up to a 70k novel a year. Fit in two short 200 word sprints a day, and you’re up to two novels a year.

Novels are not about huge blocks. We write them the same way you eat an elephant: one bite (one sprint!) at a time.

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21-Day Novel: Day 4

MC900446058Day 4 was one of those days that was all about “writing the novel you want in the time you have”, folks. Today I really WAS a “Coffee Break Novelist”.

I was up a few minutes after 6am. Got dressed, made coffee, grabbed a Kind bar and was off to work. At work at 7am, and left a few minutes before midnight. It was a LONG day. I knew going into this challenge that getting any words in on Thursdays was going to be tough, which is why when I did my daily plan I set the word goal for each Thursday at zero words. ANYTHING I can do on a Thursday in terms of writing is just gravy.

Despite the work hours, I do get two short breaks. During my break times, I managed to get in some words. Because even when it’s a long day, doing even a small bit of work on your project makes things seem that much better. Forward progress, even when things are rough, is vital to our mental well-being. In fact, the lift and feeling of accomplishment I get from working during those hard spots is far greater and more satisfying than what I feel when it’s easy.

Put in 1500 words on the novel on Day 4. I’m at about 16,392 words, or about 1400 ahead of schedule!

21-Day Novel Day 3: The myth of the first draft

bigstock-Alarm-clock-standing-on-stack--52359475Theme music for the day: Avatar (go James Horner!)

Word count for today: 6370 words in roughly three hours of typing (not including breaks between sprints). No dictation today.

I didn’t really get going until almost 11, and then spent several hours doing sprint – break – sprint – break. The trick, of course, is to keep the sprints longer and the breaks shorter. It’s something I am still working on…! I write about 700-800 words in a 20-25 minute sprint. In theory, if I could get in two such sprints an hour and keep it up for four hours (with about 15 minutes of rest in each hour), I could hit totals of 6000 words a day easily. Instead I wrote – with breaks – from about 11am until 2pm. Then I was out to an appointment, and didn’t get home until about 5pm. I made dinner for Liz and I, and watched an episode of a TV show (Amazon – we don’t do “appointment television” in this house, we watch on OUR schedule, thanks!) over dinner. Had a nice chat afterwards with Liz.

Then it was back to work. About two hours and several sprints later, I had my final count. Pretty happy with that for the day. It puts my total so far for the challenge at 14,892 words. Not bad for three day’s work! By my original goal, I should have been at about 15,000 by today, so I am just about exactly on target.

Tomorrow is a work day. I get up at 6am, I’m at work by 7am, and I don’t leave work until 11:30 at the earliest. Sometimes midnight. I might be able to pull off a sprint over dinner, but it will be short even if I can. There’s a good reason why that plan I made back on Day 0 showed ZERO words for every Thursday.

People seemed to enjoy my talking about the dictation woes and solutions yesterday, so I thought I would pass along a few other thoughts today. I’d like to mention one controversial topic on the practice of writing – and that’s on the quality of the first draft.

The First Draft Myth

“Just get it down”, we’re told. “You can’t fix an unwritten manuscript” is the common wisdom. And – for the beginner – it’s very good advice. Writing any draft is a challenge when you’ve never finished a book before. But for the experienced writer, it can be a sloppy practice that hurts you in the long run. When I do my sprints, I correct as I go. I fix misspelled words. I catch grammar errors before they happen. I have been known to realize I needed to add something in the previous scene when I was partway through a scene, and I’ll go back and add it if I can do so quickly. I just count those few extra words into the wordcount for that sprint.

The result is that my first drafts are very clean. Do they still need an edit? Sure. Stuff slips through. Everyone misses a few bits here and there. But when I write 800 words of a first draft, experience has shown me that post-edits those words will mostly be the same in the final. In fact, my changes run 2% or less between first draft and final.

I suppose part of it stems from my childhood. I wrote my first story at age seven on a manual typewriter my mom gave me. I loved that typewriter, and I used it for years afterward. And nothing makes you want to write clean first drafts like having to retype the entire thing to make corrections!

An utterly clean first draft – a draft which is identical to the final, published work – is not something I can do. It’s sort of the Holy Grail for me when it comes to drafting, though. I don’t allow myself to make mistakes “knowing I can fix them later”. I work in every session to create the best prose I possibly can, right then, right there. Could I maybe be a bit faster if I didn’t worry about the quality so much?

Sure. But then I’d be adding a ton more time on the back end. And editing in line changes – changing the prose, rather than just correcting errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation – means altering your story when you’re in critical-brain mode, rather than creative-storytelling mode. In my experience, the work we produce in the former mindset tends to be more stilted, less powerful, less dramatic. And once you drop into critical-corrections mode, it can be hard to know when to stop. I know some writers who revise five, ten, fifteen or more times. And each time they complete a new revision the story becomes a little less unique, a little less special.

I’m not saying don’t edit. I’m not saying never make corrections. And for newer writers, even a developmental editor can be solid gold – a good one will teach you much about how to tell better stories.

But I feel that the goal toward which we ought to aspire is the clean draft. The first telling of the story which is also the last. We might never reach that goal; but coming as close as one can is a wonderful thing.

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21-Day Novel: Day 2

Dragon_BadgeToday began with a long series of frustrations. I’m trying to learn to use Dragon Dictate (for Mac) as I go here. My words per hour (WPH) on Dragon have only been about 1400-1600 so far, or about 450-550 words per 20 minute sprint. Those are CLEAN words though – I have been dictating into my Macbook, so I clean up the text as I go.

It’s still much slower than I type, which is about 2000 WPH, sometimes as high as 2500 WPH (in 20-30 minute sprints). But I am working on it. If I can get clean Dragon output at a rate that exceeds my typing output (and some folks claim they can hit 4k-5k WPH with Dragon Dictate), then I’ll be thrilled.

Talking a story instead of typing it is a very different experience. But I’m learning to flow back and forth from one to the other very easily. No, that wasn’t the trouble. The problem was, I upgraded to the newest version of Dragon Dictate. Which meant my profile is messed up. Dictation was adding extra characters after each phrase in Ulysses. My microphone simply refused to function at ALL in the Mac Text window or MS Word. And overall, I spent a very frustrating hour and a half getting in 450 words, fighting with Dragon every step of the way.

Then I called it quits on that. Instead I went online looking for a Windows tablet I could use. Find a nice 8″ tablet, load the Windows version (which is NOT buggy – they are different frameworks, and the Mac version is very “beta” compared to the Windows one, sadly), and go. Partway through this search I recalled that I had messed with the trial for the new iOS dictation app from Nuance (the makers of Dragon). It’s a monthly subscription fee, but it had worked pretty well on my phone. Would it work on my iPad mini?

Tested, tried it out a bit – and it worked. Well, in fact. I’m very impressed with the software. There were a few hiccups, but overall it was a good experience, and I was back up to making 1600 WPH again in my first sprint (some 600 words). I tried a couple more sprints with it, with about the same results. It’s gonna take some practice to get up to speed, but now I can just use my iPad mini (which makes reading the text and editing as I go much easier than my iPhone) for dictation. Which means I can plunk myself down on the sofa and dictate. Or wherever.

I shifted gears back to typing at that point, because I was far enough behind that I needed the speed boost to catch up. By dinner time I was up to about 4500 words. Went to a dinner out, then back home and back to work again. Plugged in 2000 more words. Total for today? 6506, putting my grand total up to 8522 for the challenge.

Incidentally, that’s the most words I’ve written in a single day in over a year. Feeling good. 😉

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I’ll be back tomorrow with more news, and some thoughts on perfect first drafts.

21-Day Novel: Day 1

I knew today was going to be a slow start, and – no shock – it was. I’ve only finished 2000 words so far today. Mondays are my “kids day” – the day my children and I spend hanging out and having fun. Today consisted of: going with the kids to look at my new apartment together; playing with them in the playground down the street from the new apartment; lunch and Supergirl episodes (the twin girls, both 9, especially adore the show); then an afternoon of D&D with them. Yup, raising them right: outdoor play, superheroes, and fantasy roleplay!

Then dinner, and I finally got to work around 8pm or so. I hit the keys and got in some words, then rewarded myself by finishing the cover art for the book.

My word count target for today was 3000 words. I’ve done up a day by day schedule to try to stay on track – because I’ve got kids, and a full-time job, so some days I am going to have a lot of time – and others I will have next to none at all. Here’s the schedule I worked out:

Start 2/22
Publish 3/13
Writing Targets:
Monday 2/22: kids – 3000
Tuesday 23: 6000
Wednesday 24: 6000
Thursday 25: work – 0
Friday 26: work – 3000
Saturday 27: 6000
Sunday 28: 6000
Monday 29: kids – 3000
Tuesday 3/1: 6000
Wednesday 3/2: 6000
Thursday 3/3: work – 0
Friday 3/4: work – 3000
Saturday 3/5: work – 3500
Sunday 3/6: work – 3500
Monday 3/7: kids – 3000
Tuesday 3/8: 6000
Wednesday 3/9: 6000
Thursday 3/10: work – 0
Friday 3/11: work – Edits
Saturday 3/12: Edits
Sunday 3/13: Edits and publish
Calling it quits for the day at 2000 words means I’m about a thousand behind where I wanted to be today. I have a choice: I can stay up later, or I can get up early and get cracking early – bust out those extra words right off the bat. Which is the plan right now.
On the flip side, I DID finish the cover art, which was another piece of the puzzle the needed to be finished before I could publish. That took over an hour to wrap up – some tricky bits for getting the art just right. Here it is:

Far-out planets in a space against stars. "Elements of this image furnished by NASA"

I’d love to hear thoughts on the art. One comment I got on the cover for “Accord of Honor” was that the cover wasn’t really as dynamic as it could have been. This one has that in spades. Big ships, shooting, explosions… I think it’s one of my better jobs. It’s retouched photos and images which have been licensed, but there was a LOT of retouching and merging of art involved, as well as a few unique flairs.

Off to bed now. Tomorrow is going to be a busy day. I’ve got 7000 words to write, and I haven’t done that many words in a single day in quite a while. I’ll be busting them out.

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21 Day Novel Challenge

Accord of HonorI know this guy.

His name is Chris Fox. Chris has written some good books – both fiction and nonfiction. His nonfiction is about…drumroll…fiction writing, and his stuff is really good. Chris published a couple of books on writing which have been somewhat controversial – one called 5000 Words Per Hour, and the more recent release Write to Market. He took some heat for the first one because it suggests ways that writers can be more productive, building up their speed and writing new work more swiftly. He’s being questioned on the second because it suggests learning what readers enjoy reading, and then writing something based on that knowledge – which calls into question the whole concept of writing as art versus writing as entertainment. I believe – and Chris does too – that it can be both.

He’s putting his ideas to the test in a 21-day challenge (click here to read all about it!). Starting on February 22nd, he will begin writing a book, which will be about 70,000 words when he is done. He’s going to write it in about two weeks, edit it, pay someone to proof it, and then publish it on or about March 13th.

This is, needless to say, incredibly cool. I love seeing people do things like this. So I asked him if he minded if I tagged along. He was thrilled at the idea of having other writers run alongside him on this challenge.

So as of tomorrow, I will ALSO be launching my own 21-Day Writing Challenge.

I’ll be producing the next book in the Accord series: Accord of Mars. The outline is finished. And if Chris and I are right, this is going to be a hell of a book. “The Old Man and the Sea” was written in about the same time-frame, and while I am NOT Hemingway, the evidence suggests that the faster we write, the more we are able to drop into flow state. The net result is that fast writing also tends to produce better quality writing, at least for most people.

I know a lot of people are looking forward to the sequel of Accord of Honor. I’m excited that I’ll be able to share it with you so very soon.

One last thing. There’s a key difference between Chris’s challenge and mine. Chris is proving HIS books. I’m proving his AND mine. See, I wrote a book about writing, too: The Coffee Break Novelist. It’s about writing in the time you have, while in the middle of a busy life.

Chris does this full time. I work full time in a day job, and write on the side. I’m also getting ready to move, and will probably be moving into a new apartment the same day as the book launches. I have kids who I spend time with too – my Mondays are mostly an all-day kid day. We all have lives – but it IS possible to write anyway.

I’ll be putting into practice every single technique I developed and wrote about in my book. I firmly believe that it IS possible to write rapidly while you’re still in the middle of a busy life. I work 16 hours a day every Thursday, for example – so while Chris is getting in 5000 words every Thursday, I will be lucky to finish any words at all on those days. I’ll be fitting in words on quick breaks at work, or in the morning before I leave the house at 6:30 AM. (I generally don’t get home until after midnight, so any words after I got home would count for the next day!)

It’s going to be tough to get the work out at the speed required for this challenge in the time I have. I’ll do it by making the most of every minute that isn’t already locked in for something vital. And I’ll be updating you as I go. You can sign up for email updates too – click the link below to join and follow along.

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Chris told me the other day to “get my game face on”. I laughed and told him “this IS my game face!” I write with the same attitude I have when I toss on forty pounds of medieval armor and go hit people with swords: laughing, smiling, enjoying every moment of the rush. This is going to be fun.

Kevin McLaughlin

Kevin McLaughlin


When not practicing hobbies which include sailing, constructing medieval armor, and swinging swords at his friends, Kevin McLaughlin can usually be found in his home near Boston. Kevin’s award-winning short fiction is now available in digital form at all major ebook retailers. His urban fantasies “By Darkness Revealed” and “Ashes Ascendant” are available in ebook and print. His latest effort, the STARSHIP series, is ongoing.