A Picture is Worth (x) Words

Everyone’s heard the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but does it hold up when you’re actually counting the words?

Among writers, the subject of outlining seems to be a fundamental ongoing process question: to outline or not to outline, and also when, and in how much detail, in what form, and how closely to follow it. For the record, I’m a firm believer in outlining, and tend to make progressively more detailed outlines as a project unfolds. I also tend to sketch various ideas for the scenes I’m working on, and collect photographic references.

Visual references may not be talked about as much as outlining, but I think it’s a great tool, and at the recent Wordcrafters writers conference in Eugene, I noted both Terry Brooks and Elizabeth George talking about the use of visual references in their work. Mine tend to take the form of little maps or sketches of characters, visual details, or dramatic moments. I also look for ideas and take photographs at various locations, and use image searches on the internet.

Today I thought it would be fun to take a look at a few sketches from recent chapter outlines and do the math to figure out how many words a picture is really worth. In most cases there were multiple little sketches per chapter, so I took the number of words in the completed chapter and divided by the number of sketches. Here are a few pictures with their associated word counts.

2014-04-09 09.52.41

481.8 words

2014-04-09 09.54.39

298.4 words

2014-04-09 09.56.57

509 words

2014-04-09 09.57.45

410 words

2014-04-09 09.57.58

679 words

When I averaged everything up it turned out a picture is actually worth about 445.33 words. It was a lot less than a thousand, suggesting that pictures, while incredibly useful, may be slightly overrated. However, this was a very limited study of only a few sketches made by a single writer for a small sample of chapters. More research is needed.

Surely this doodle is worth a thousands words, but I haven’t written the chapter yet.

2014-04-09 09.59.25

*First published on ShadowSpinners, April 2014.

A Strange Habit

writer's deskThere’s a story that Robert E. Howard used to envision the ghost of King Conan behind him, ready to lop off his head with an axe if he didn’t keep writing. Never mind that this is probably an apocryphal story. It’s still a great image, and whatever Howard was doing to get his stories written, it worked!

Work habits are a subject of endless conversation when it comes to the creative process of writers. Numerous books and excellent teachers suggest various methods of accomplishing the noble goal of putting words on a page, and offer plenty of encouragement along the way. The most consistent truth, however, is simply that writing is hard work and the methods for getting that work done vary from writer to writer.

I have a lot of tricks to keep me writing: new locations, graph paper, computer setup, a cup of tea, timed sessions, word counts, and so on. We develop habits, of course, particular to our individual sensibilities. Sometimes these habits become rituals, even obsessions. There’s plenty of room for eccentricities.

Hemingway wrote standing up. Nabokov wrote everything on notecards. Ibsen wrote in the presence of a giant oil painting of his greatest rival. Hugo wrote naked, and had his valet hide his clothes to ensure he wouldn’t go out. The ancient Greek writer Demosthenes accomplished the same thing by shaving one side of his head before beginning to write. The list goes on, from Balzac’s coffee and lucky monk’s robe, to Dickens’ ritualized desk arrangements, from Dumas’ fresh apples to Schiller’s rotten apples.

As it turns out, there’s even some neuroscience to explain why these weird rituals work. Like a Pavlov’s bell, rituals associated with writing may cue creativity and productivity. (See “Why Weird Writing Rituals Work” by Rosanne Bane)

Most of the habits of writers we will never know, because they are done in solitude. But the purpose of some seemingly strange behaviors is almost always the same, and that is to help one engage in the most important habit of all: actually writing.

*First published on ShadowSpinners, June 2013.

A Legacy Dark and Strange

320px-FireFantasy, with all its weirdness and wonders, is the deep root of all fiction. Long before people began to write books, for 50,000 years they huddled around the light of fires, under starry skies, in deep forests, and in the shelter of caves to tell their stories. The impulse of fiction was already there, in the myths and legends that were born among them.

Imagine the kinds of stories they were telling. People knew little or nothing of what lay beyond the horizon. And at night, in the darkness, that circle of knowledge shrank to the dim glow of a campfire, if they were lucky enough to have one. The stars were a mystery, animals were otherworldly, and death was a great enigma. A man or a woman who ventured beyond the horizon, or out in the night, might never return. Those tales must have been dark and strange, filled with adventure, monsters, and magic.

There is an element of fantasy in all fiction, an attempt to imagine and understand something beyond ourselves: another person, another life, another world. Modern stories are born from that same original impulse, to weave tales, to entertain, to educate, to warn, and to find meaning in the world and in the often extraordinary experiences of our lives. I like to think my stories can be traced back to the mythic structures and weird tales that started it all, stories woven from the threads of an ancient dream.

Although our horizon has grown wider in a way, there is always an edge, without and within, beyond which dwell things unknown. The unknown is far greater than the known, and that is where horror lives. It lurks in the darkness beyond our meager campfires.

*First published on ShadowSpinners, May 2013.

Geography for Worldbuilding and Fantasy Maps

crusoeWhether you’re creating a setting for a novel, story, or game, it’s a good idea to think about some basic geography, so things make sense … for the most part anyway. I consulted a geologist about some basic guidelines for the geography of imaginary worlds. Of course, there are always anomalies, and fantastical explanations for unusual features or even entire worlds, but if you want your world to be vaguely earth-like, these simple guidelines may help in your worldbuilding:

  1. Large mountains almost always occur in ranges.
  2. Rivers flow from mountains and hills down into bigger rivers or open bodies of water.
  3. Forest can occur almost anywhere there is sufficient water for trees.
  4. Grasslands and hills can occur almost anywhere.
  5. Swamps, marshes, and lakes occur in flat areas with a lot of water.
  6. Canyons are carved out by rivers or streams.
  7. Major deserts are a regional function of the trade winds, but small deserts often form inland, on the far side of mountain ranges.
  8. Springs and oases can occur almost anywhere.
  9. Volcanoes occur in chains or regions of vulcanism. This usually happens closer to coastlines or islands.
  10. Glaciers, like water, flow downhill, and glaciated areas tend to have broad U-shaped valleys.
  11. Towns and cities need a source of fresh water. Larger cities often occur on trade routes.
  12. If you’re looking at huge timescales and you want some billion year old ruins, the centers of continents tend to be the oldest geologic areas.

New Year of Writing

2013 is starting to sink in and I am gearing up for an exciting year of writing. First and foremost among my projects is writing Book Three of The Three Earths, a fantasy trilogy I have been working on for a long time. I’m very excited about finishing this epic story and getting it in the hands of more readers. I’m committed to finishing the draft this year, which will make next year very exciting as well.

I’m also hoping to get some more short stories written. Notably some more horror stories set in Auxerre, Wisconsin, and perhaps another sword story set in Nara. I have some ideas for some fantasy stories as well, and who know what else will come up.

I’ll be continuing with my independent publishing projects as well. After some small technical glitches, Elements of Chess will soon be available again. Next up, I’ll be making available some of my previously published short stories as Kindle ebooks. Other formats will likely follow, so if you read something other than a Kindle, let me know what formats you want.

Lastly, I am working on some roleplaying game projects that will soon be in the initial playtesting phase. I’ll make announcements about those soon. For now I can say one is an OSR compatible variation on classic fantasy roleplaying, with a few modern and a few original elements. The other is an original system designed to be highly adaptable to any setting and for easy use with adventure modules from any system.

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Reading eBooks

I was slow adopter when it came to ebooks, but just bought an ebook copy of The Weird and am quickly reaching a point where I prefer an ebook to a paper book (pbook?). I have an older Kindle and an iPad. Simply put, it’s far more convenient to be reading something on my iPad, which I always have with me, than to worry about toting a paperback around.

The arguments against ebooks, mostly rooted in sentimentalism or fear, have already died down. There’s no doubt that ebook reading is on the rise, and I can’t help but think that ebooks will continue to gain popularity, especially as reading technologies rapidly improve.

Personally, I love that I can have a whole library with me without carrying an extra load, and that I can read in the dark with a backlit screen. I like not having to hold a book open, and the ability to instantly look up words is nice as well. However, I still can’t take my iPad in the bathtub, which remains a sticking point.

Tabletop Fantasy Roleplaying Renewed

I’ve been having a lot of fun playing and reading up on roleplaying games. After a childhood spent playing D&D Basic/Expert, Gamma World, Top Secret, and Call of Cthulu, I left gaming for a long time once high school hit.

Since I largely missed all the editions of D&D after 1st, there’s been a lot to catch up on. And it’s an interesting time in the history of the game, with its current owners preparing to launch yet another edition, and various third parties launching their own versions and competing systems, massive tomes like Dungeon Crawl Classics and streamlined games like Swords and Wizardry, Basic Fantasy, and Labyrinth Lord that harken back to the orgins of the game. And Pathfinder, it seems, is the new industry juggernaut.

All of these systems, I think, can claim the same heritage and authenticy as the game that still bears the name Dungeons and Dragons. Enough of the classic game has been released and reworked under the Open Gaming License created by Wizards of the Coast to make the essense of the game, if not its name, legally accessable to any developer.

And that’s a great thing! Many people have their own opinions about how an ideal system might work, and what sort of world you would create with that game. Even as a kid I was always tweaking the rules. So as a writer, and somebody who loves stories, logic, and fantasy, it was almost inevitable that I started writing my own version of the game. No announcements yet, but its definitely grown into a full scale project. Stay tuned for more.

Plain Text for Writers, Part III: A Quick Guide to Working with Plain Text

So you’ve decided to use plain text in your writing endeavors. It’s a great choice. You’ll be able to read your files on any device and they will never become obsolete or unreadable by the next generation of word processors. Best of all, the simplicity of plain text will help focus your creative efforts.

For the most part, plain text could not be easier to work with, but there are a few things you will want to know. What are some good text editors? Can I use features like spell check, copy/paste, and search/replace? How do I format plain text manuscripts for submission or publication?

Word processors are able to save and read plain text but they’re really designed for formatting. To enjoy the beauty and simplicity of plain text, a text editor is the tool of choice. Text editors are programs designed to work with plain text. Your computer probably already has a simple text editor. Windows has Notepad and Macs have TextEdit. These programs are fast and easy to use, but lack sophisticated features, like word count and spell check, that writers have grown accustomed to.

Many text editors are designed with computer programmers in mind. However, with a little searching, you can find text editors that are ideally suited writing. Some of them are free. My favorites are Q10 and NoteTab Pro. Q10 is a full screen, bare bones editor, while NoteTab Pro has a powerful, feature rich environment. They both allow for spellchecks, wordcounts, copy/paste, search/replace, and other features very helpful to writers. If you’re working on an iPad or even an iPhone, I recommend Nebulous.

One of the keys to working with plain text manuscripts is understanding that each paragraph is technically a single line, and will appear so without an active word wrapping feature. Across platforms, Windows, Macs, and Unix, have traditionally used different control codes to indicate linebreaks, LF (linefeed), CR (carriage return), or both. Most modern text editors deal with this seamlessly, but should you find a document created on one platform suddenly doesn’t have line breaks on another, this is probably why. Don’t panic. The problem is easily remedied using the save options in most modern text editors.

Eventually, you will want to learn how to convert your plain text manuscripts into standard manuscript format for submissions or into formatted documents for publishing. It’s relatively easy using the formatting features of a word processor. The exact procedure, of course, will vary depending on your intended output and what word processor you’re using. However, the following step by step guide will show you how to convert a plain text manuscript into standard manuscript format using MS WORD. Even for a novel, this only takes about 1 minute once you understand the steps.

1. Copy your entire text document and paste it into MS WORD.

2. Set your margins to 1″.

3. Select all, and set Font to 12 pt. Courier New or Times New Roman.

4. Select all, right click to get paragraph settings, and set line space to “double” and special indent to “first line” at .5″.

5. To remove extra spaces between paragraphs, use the replace feature to replace “^p^p” with “^p”.

6. To format for italics, use the replace feature again. Check the box “use wildcards” and replace “_*_” with nothing but formatting: underline. (Note, for publication you will want to format for actual italics.)

7. Now, to remove the underscoring used to indicate italics in the text file, replace “_” with nothing.

8. To center your section breaks, replace “#” with “#” with formatting: center, no indent.

9. Insert page numbers in the upper right, with no numbering on page 1.

10. Click inside your page 1 header. Type your contact information in the upper left and your word count in the upper right.

11. Click inside your page 2 header. Click right before your page number and type “your last name / title / “.

12. Finally, select your title and byline. In the paragraph settings, center the alignment and choose no indent.

That’s it. Your plain text manuscript should now conform to standard manuscript format and be ready to submit to any number of markets. Additionally, by altering these steps a little, you can format manuscripts for publication. Hope you enjoy working with plain text as much as I do. Best of luck in all your writing endeavors!

Plain Text for Writers, Part I: An Argument for the Use of Plain Text

Plain Text for Writers, Part II: A Proposal for a Plain Text Manuscript Format

Additional Information:




Renaissance of Role Playing

Recently I rediscovered the wonders of fantasy role playing games. I bought the Pathfinder Beginner Box on a whim at Christmas, remembering fondly my years of playing Dungeons and Dragons when I was a kid. There’s something deeply appealing about role playing games. They are, at their heart, a form of collective story telling. The characters and the tales created through the game rarely fail to fire the imagination.

I spent a good portion of my childhood playing D&D. We played the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set as a family game around the kitchen table. My dad was the Dungeon Master for that first campaign. My mom was a thief, my brother a wizard, and I was a fighter. In the years that followed, I spent hours lying on the floor making detailed dungeon maps on pads of graph paper, reading the books, studying tables, copying artwork, and playing long rambling adventures with my brother, filled with deadly monsters, secret doors, and fabulous treasures.

In those early days, I didn’t know much about crafting stories (or the undead for that matter), but years of working on the craft have made writing and running adventures that much more exciting and fun. I’m currently working on a 12 part full-blown campaign featuring characters of already storied proportions. The first installment, “Shadow of the Necromancer”, is finished and play-tested. The fist section of the second installment, “The Great Goblin Invasion”, is written and we’ll be playing it this weekend. Polish up your polyhedral dice. I can’t wait!

Plain Text for Writers, Part II: A Proposal for a Plain Text Manuscript Format

Writers and editors rely on manuscript format as a common ground for reading and preparing texts for publication. Unfortunately in today’s world of electronic submissions, each individual market sometimes demands a different format for their manuscripts, complicating the submissions and editing process for writers and editors alike.

There is a Standard Manuscript Format, and most editors at least conform to this standard. However, Standard Manuscript Format is in some ways a relic of the typewriter. Although there is good rationale behind all its features, the necessity for complex formatting and file compatibility can be an issue.

A Plain Text Manuscript Format would have advantages for both writers and editors. In addition to simplicity, universal compatibility, and superior archiving, a plain text manuscript presents several other advantages. The file can be easily viewed in any preferred font, transfered to an e-book reader, pasted into the body of an email, and formatted for electronic or print publication.

A Plain Text Manuscript Format can be considered universal because it can be created or read on any computer with virtually any software. It can even be accessed from a command prompt, created on a typewriter or handwritten in a notebook. The features of the proposed format are outlined in the example below. Please note: this is a proposal only, and a suggestion for writers who wish to use plain text for their personal composition, editing, and file storage. If you are submitting a manuscript for publication, you should always follow the editor’s guidelines for manuscript formatting.

Joe Writer
4 Contact Info
City, NY 10010
(212) 555-5555

200 words


by Joe Writer

At the top of the file should be the writer’s name and contact information. Two lines below that, the estimated word count. Four lines below that, the title in all caps. Two lines below that, the byline.The body of the manuscript should start four lines below the byline.

All text should be left justified with no indentation. Add an empty line between paragraphs for readability. Each paragraph should represent a single line of text. Word wrapping will make the text readable and printable. To add an extra line for a section break insert the number symbol like so:


To indicate italics, text should be surrounded by underscore marks. For example you might mention a magazine, such as _Asimov’s_ or _The New Yorker_. This will make it easy to search for italicised text and replace with italics for actual publication.

Use only a single space after punctuation. This will keep the text clean and consistent. A double space is not needed, and not preferred if using the electronic text for publication.

To indicate an em dash — puctuation that sets off a phrase — use two hyphens. To indicate … an elipses, use three periods.

Define the end of your manuscript with three number symbols on the last line of the file, like so:


That’s all there is to it. Since text files do not contain formatting information, it is not necessary to specify a font, margins, headers or page numbering. Two notable drawbacks to this Plain Text Manuscript Format are the lack of line spacing to allow for editing marks and the lack of page numbers for referencing areas of text. This is a legitimate concern. Solutions include saving and editing as a .pdf or adding desired additional formatting for a print copy. If printing the document, a text editor can print with page numbers and additional header information. A word processor can add formatting as necessary.

Plain Text for Writers, Part I: A Proposal for a Plain Text Manuscript Format

Plain Text for Writers, Part III: A Quick Guide to Working with Plain Text

Additional Information: