Plotting by the Seat of my Pants

Should you plot your stories with meticulous care or should you write spontaneously and see where the muse takes you? I know writers who have an almost religious devotion to each approach and there are certainly pros and cons to each approach. My ability to plot stories before I write them has helped me make sales before I’ve taken the time to actually compose them. In this case, plotting can effectively become a pitch. An editor might solicit an idea from me. Afterwards, I go away and think about it for a time and then throw some ideas about how I would handle the story to the editor. The editor then gives me feedback on what works and what doesn’t work. This can be a very exciting process and it’s one I recently went through with an anthology editor and it’s also how I created the outline for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. Hopefully I’ll be able to share news about the story I just wrote before the year is out.

Those who write by the seat of their pants argue that you don’t always know your characters when you start. The more you write, the more you understand their motivations. If you plot, there’s a danger you force your characters to take actions that aren’t true to them as they’ve developed. That’s a valid point, and one of the ways I counter that is to treat my outline more as a set of goals than as a detailed roadmap. For a short story, it tells me what my characters are going to do to set them off in a direction. It suggests complications they may encounter along the way. I don’t always write an ending. Instead, I think of ways the story might end depending on who the characters turn out to be. It’s exciting when I get to the end and the characters do something I don’t quite expect because its right for them. That happened to me this last week and I like the ending much better than any of the ones I actually plotted in advance.

In a novel, the plot points are a little more defined, but again, I try to keep them general enough that they serve as complications the characters encounter. There is a challenge if the characters diverge far enough from the original conception that they don’t encounter the complications laid out for them. At that point, there’s no choice but to revisit the outline. Figure out what path the characters are on and see whether there’s a way to get them to encounter the original complications or see if you just have to create new ones altogether.

Now, if an outline serves as the basis for a pitch, what happens if the story becomes very different from the outline? This is something I don’t worry about too much for two reasons. First off, good editors are more concerned about finding good stories than assuring your story perfectly matched the pitch you gave them. If the story works and doesn’t violate any guidelines, you’ve still got a really good chance of selling the story to an editor who solicited one from you and liked the pitch. Second, when you make your pitch, you’re not likely to give the editor your entire outline. Mostly you’re laying out the initial situation and the problem the characters are going to be faced with along the way. If you resolve those issues in a different way than you envisioned, no problem. The editor doesn’t necessarily know that. Again, what the editor will care about is whether or not the story works.

For pantsers, I recommend trying your hand at plotting a story or two. It could prove a lucrative and useful skill down the road. For plotters, I recommend leaving enough room in your outline to let your characters breathe and do things you didn’t quite expect. You might be surprised at the result!

Editing and Ego

A week ago, I was listening to the Freakonomics Radio Show on NPR and caught a segment where they interviewed Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago. The interview was all about why we are poor judges of ourselves. For example we might think we’re wearing a mind-blowing wardrobe, but no one else notices. Or, maybe a professor thinks they’ve given the most poignant lecture ever, only to put the class to sleep. The interview was actually a rebroadcast, so the transcript of the interview is available online here or you can listen to it here. It occurred to me that Epley’s research gives a lot of insight into both the dangers of self-editing and the care one needs to take when editing others.

In the interview, Dr. Epley makes the point that human beings aren’t especially good at knowing what others think of them. The root of this problem is egocentrism. Epley doesn’t use “egocentrism” in a negative context. Rather, he means that we’re the people most expert in ourselves. So, when we change our hairstyle, we know we’ve made a change and understand immediately why we did it. When we say something, we say it from the context of our life experiences. The problem for us as writers is that our readers may not know everything we know, or even understand it the same way we understand it. Readers simply haven’t lived a life with the same experiences we have.

This is actually why editors are so vital to writing. A good editor has a good understanding of the audience you’re trying to speak to and can tell you where you haven’t been clear, or where they won’t understand what you’re trying to say, or where you may imply something you don’t mean at all.

The challenge of editing oneself is that you come to your writing knowing yourself better than anyone else. You know exactly what you meant to say when you wrote it. One way to defeat this is to give yourself time. I’m currently editing The Pirates of Sufiro, which I first wrote twenty-five years ago. I have twenty-five more years of life experience and I don’t see everything the same way I did before, so it’s much easier for me to see places where people could misunderstand what I meant or where I had pictures in my mind I didn’t fully communicate on the page. Now, you may not want to wait twenty-five years to edit your manuscript. If you don’t have a publisher who is covering the costs of editing, and you can’t cover them yourself, you really need a beta reader or two. It’s best if they have somewhat different life experiences than you do and are willing to give you honest feedback.

This actually goes a long way to explaining why its dangerous for family to edit your work. We’re often told its because family will spare your feelings. Those people don’t have my family! However, what family do have are many of the same life experiences. What’s more, they hear you every day and have learned what you mean, even if you may not be clear to someone else. So, utilize your family with caution.

I see an important caution for professional editors in Dr. Epley’s remarks as well. Early in my editing career, I sometimes gave in to the temptation to rewrite a sentence or a paragraph. In this case I’m not talking about replacing a misspelled word or adding a punctuation mark. I’m talking about changing the sentence in an effort to make it more clear. I’ve known other editors who do this as well. The problem is that the editor is now silencing the author and overwriting the author with their words. An editor’s job is not to rewrite. Instead, it’s better for an editor to point out how something can be more effective, or perhaps how they understood a paragraph or a sentence to confirm that’s what the author meant. The editor’s job is to point out how a character did something that doesn’t feel true to that character and let the author fix it. Now, I have some authors I work with and we have developed a rapport. In that case, I may take a crack at rephrasing something, but I endeavor to point out that it’s a suggestion and that the author should feel free to change it or even revert the suggestion if I’ve added unintended words.

The bottom line is that we need editors because our egos sometimes get in the way of expressing ourselves as clearly as we could. However, editors need to beware not to let their egos take over the manuscript. Their job is to make sure the author is communicating clearly and effectively.

Celebrating Kepler’s Success

Over the course of nine years, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope helped astronomers discover more than 2700 planets. What’s more, the telescope collected so much data that almost a year after the mission’s completion, astronomers are still discovering planets. As each new planet was unveiled, we’d see an artist’s rendering, especially if the planet was deemed of general interest. In 2012, Dr. Steve Howell took the job of Kepler Project Scientist. Soon after, he came to me with an idea for visualizing planets in a much more immersive way than simply painting a picture. He wanted to see science fiction authors tell stories about the planets Kepler was discovering. That led us to create two anthologies about Kepler’s planets.

The annual Smashwords Summer/Winter Sale is underway. It gets its name because where I live in the northern hemisphere, readers are loading up their e-readers for great beach reading and vacations. In the southern hemisphere, it’s the middle of winter and people are spending time in a warm and cozy place reading. This is a great opportunity to celebrate the Kepler Space Telescope’s success by offering our anthologies for half off the cover price! Read on for more details!


A Kepler’s Dozen is an anthology of action-packed, mysterious, and humorous stories all based on real planets discovered by the NASA Kepler mission. Edited by and contributing stories are David Lee Summers, author of The Pirates of Sufiro, and Steve B. Howell, project scientist for the Kepler mission. Whether on a prison colony, in a fast escape from the authorities, or encircling a binary star, thirteen exoplanet stories written by authors such as Mike Brotherton, Laura Givens, and J Alan Erwine will amuse, frighten, and intrigue you while you share fantasy adventures among Kepler’s real-life planets.

“… the stories represent a glimpse of where science fiction might go if real exoplanets are taken as inspiration.” Melinda Baldwin, Physics Today

You can buy A Kepler’s Dozen for half off the cover price at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/325583


  • NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has discovered thousands of new planets.
  • Visiting, much less settling, those worlds will provide innumerable challenges.
  • The men and women who make the journey will be those who don’t fear the odds.
  • They’ll be Kepler’s Cowboys.

Saddle up and take an unforgettable journey to distant star systems. Meet new life forms—some willing to be your friend and others who will see you as the invader. Fight for justice in a lawless frontier. Go on a quest for a few dollars more. David Lee Summers, author of the popular Clockwork Legion novels, and Steve B. Howell, head of the Space Sciences and Astrobiology Division at NASA Ames Research Center, have edited this exciting, fun, and rollicking anthology of fourteen stories and five poems by such authors as Patrick Thomas, Jaleta Clegg, Anthony R. Cardno, L.J. Bonham, and many more!

“If you’re in the mood for science fiction that’s heavy on the science, pore over this enjoyable collection that takes exoplanets and the American West as its inspirations. The stories and poems in Kepler’s Cowboys imagine wild and risky futures for the first generations of exoplanet explorers as they grapple with harsh environments, tight quarters, aliens, and one another.” Melinda Baldwin, Physics Today.

Kepler’s Cowboys is available for half off the cover price at Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/698694

Setting Mini-Goals

Earlier this week, I received a question here at the Web Journal about how I manage to post so frequently. I gave an answer in the comments, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought a little more insight into my time management process might prove helpful to some people. What’s more, talking about goals seems timely with high school and college graduation season upon us. Of course most commencement speakers raising the subject of goals will likely talk about long-term career or personal development goals. They may talk about goals for the next year or two. What I’d like to discuss are how I turn those longer term goals into more manageable daily goals.

Three of my goals for this year are to revise my novel The Pirates of Sufiro for its 25th anniversary release, edit the novel Battle Lines by Greg Ballan, and post an update to my blog every Saturday and Tuesday. These aren’t my only goals for the year, but these are three projects I’m working on right now.

The first thing that helps me turn a big yearly goal into a more manageable weekly or daily goal is to set deadlines. Deadlines for the blog posts are defined by the fact they have to go live by Saturday or Tuesday morning. Fortunately, WordPress lets me write posts in advance and schedule them. This allows me more flexibility for when I actually write my posts as long as they are written before the deadline.

Deadlines for The Pirates of Sufiro are defined by my promise to my Patreon subscribers that I will deliver at least one revised chapter every month. I know it takes about three to four days to revise a chapter at a nice, easy pace that also allows me to answer email, take a walk, and spend time with my family. By contrast, I only have one “hard” deadline for Battle Lines and that’s the fact that I want it out by November so it’s available at our dealer’s table at the TusCon Science Fiction Convention and available for holiday orders.

In effect, these three goals form part of a to-do list. Other things that go on the to-do list might include daily chores like making dinner, taking out the trash, answering email, or paying bills. With the to-do list in hand, what I do most mornings is to ask myself a question: What do I need to accomplish to make this day a success? The answer will be a list of mini-goals. These may be simple “to-do” items like: mow the grass, write a blog post, make dinner, and take a walk. It could be: revise two scenes of The Pirates of Sufiro, take my daughter out to practice driving, and review a presentation for the next convention. When I look at a project like Battle Lines, I may see how many days I have in the next two to three weeks to devote to editing, then simply divide up the pages among them, so that I have a manageable chunk to edit every day. The specifics are as individual to you as they are to me. The important part is to set manageable mini-goals for myself each day that help me move toward the larger goals.

I like to reward myself when I reach my goals for the day. A typical reward might be to watch a movie from my collection, or read a couple chapters from a book. If I reach a milestone, the family and I might go out to dinner. When I don’t reach my goals, I try not to let disappointment get me down. After all, life happens and sometimes something demands my attention that I didn’t plan for such as a flat tire or an unexpected, urgent email. If I didn’t meet my goals, I try to look back at the day objectively. Did I set too many mini-goals? Did something unavoidable happen? If it’s the latter, I may start my list over again the next day.

If you have any additional tips for organizing your time, feel free to share them in the comments. I’d love to hear them.

If you want to check out my Patreon site, it’s at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. As I say, if you pledge a dollar each month, you’ll get to read each new chapter of The Pirates of Sufiro as its revised. What’s more, another goal I’ve set is to remove the ads from this blog. Your support at my Patreon site can help to make that happen.

Trimming Files

This weekend finds me at El Paso Comic Con. If you’re in the Sun City this weekend, I hope you’ll drop into the convention center and say “hi.” In the week leading up to the convention, I’ve been working on a project that’s both tedious and fun. In effect, I’ve been working as an assistant sound engineer on the audio edition of my own book, Firebrandt’s Legacy.

I’m working with Eric Schumacher of Seelie Studios to create a full-cast audio book. Eric is in the photo above, to the left. Creating full-cast audio adventures has always been a goal of Hadrosaur Productions and our partnership with Seelie is a way to help make that happen. I’m very excited that a vital member of the cast is Geoffrey Notkin, the multi-award winning host of the Science Channel’s Meteorite Men series, who will be narrating the audio book. That’s him on the right in the photo above.

The process of creating the audio book started with Eric chopping my story up into the parts each actor would read. He and I worked together to cast the parts, then he’s been bringing each actor in to read their lines. What happens is that Eric creates an audio file for each actor reading several different takes of their line. Each take might involve a slightly different emotional nuance or emphasize different words in the hopes of finding just the right dramatic impact. Now this is where I come back into the picture.

We now have long audio files with each actor saying the line several different ways, plus each of these files has all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes. There’s discussion with the director about the reading plus there’s some laughing and joking. My job has been to create individual audio files of each individual take and catalog them in the order they appear in the story. Eric will then review these files with the audio editor and combine them into the final audio book.

What we’re recording right now is just the first chapter and I already have over a thousand audio files. As you can imagine, the process of trimming and the final process of stitching these back together will take a while. Now, each chapter of Firebrandt’s Legacy is a stand-alone short story. Once we finish this first chapter, we plan to release it, then start a crowdfunding campaign to finish the book. Our goal will be to raise enough money to pay all the actors, the director, and the audio engineers a fair salary for the amount of work it’ll take to record the remaining fourteen chapters.

I’ve been having a fantastic time listening to each actor’s interpretation of the story’s characters. In fact, I even have a part in the audio book as well and I’ll talk more about that closer to release time. In the meantime, you can learn more about the collaboration between Hadrosaur Productions and Seelie Studios by visiting http://www.bookmediasolutions.com. If you want to be notified of the crowdfunding campaign when it starts, be sure to sign up for my newsletter at http://www.davidleesummers.com. If you don’t want to wait for the audio book campaign and would like to help make this a reality right now, be sure to check out my Patreon page at http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. If you sign up there, you can even read the entire book through the posts and get a sneak-peak at the re-edited edition of The Pirates of Sufiro that I’m currently working on.

A New Look for the Hadrosaur Website

Hadrosaur Productions is currently working on several new projects. We recently released my new book, Firebrandt’s Legacy, along with Fallen Angel by David B. Riley. We plan to release the exciting novel Armageddon’s Son by Greg Ballan later this month and Sheila Hartney tells me we’re currently getting some great submissions for our anthology Exchange Students. We’re also branching out and collaborating with Seelie Studios on an audio adaptation of Firebrandt’s Legacy and we have even more exciting things in discussion that I’m not at liberty to talk about yet. Because of this growth and because technologies are changing and more and more people browse the web on their mobile devices, we realized it was time to give our website an upgrade.

The goal of the new site was to create a clean layout that’s easy to navigate and understand. We have the updated logo Laura Givens designed for the company that appears on all our recent releases. New books are featured on the front page. The store link will take you to a page that shows all of our titles. Each book is now given its own unique page, which makes it easier to search for and allows authors and others to easily link to favorite books.

The new site is still something of a work in progress. The long-term goal is to put all of the books and their related data into a database which can be queried and to allow custom searches of our products. Right now, the “store” page is just a hard-coded page showing all of our products, but we know this will likely get unwieldy as our product line grows.

Much of the credit for site’s new look goes to my daughter, Autumn Summers, who went over the old site with a critical eye and re-coded much of the site into a more mobile friendly version. In order to add pages, this means I’ve had to learn the hypertext preprocessor language, PHP. Now that she’s gainfully employed as a software engineer, it’s hard to say whether she will have time to continue site development, but she has given me a solid leg up and helped me learn new skills.

People familiar our displays at conventions know that I not only carry books published by Hadrosaur Productions, but books I’ve written or edited for other presses. We used to list these books on the site, but decided in this upgrade to focus on products that actually carry the Hadrosaur Productions imprint. Again, when we develop the database capability, we’ll likely expand our offerings to include all the books we carry at conventions.

As always, if you purchase one of the books I’ve written from the Hadrosaur Productions site, I’m always happy to autograph it for your before it’s sent out. Just place your order, then go to the “Contact” page and send a message letting me know that you would like the book signed and if you would like it personalized, or if you just want a signature. Allow a little extra time to receive a signed book because my observatory schedule sometimes keeps me from being right there as orders come in.

So, what are you waiting for? Go to http://www.hadrosaur.com and browse the store. I bet you’ll find some great books to read this spring and summer. What’s more, many of the books are available for only half the cover price!

A New Cover for The Pirates of Sufiro

As I mentioned in Tuesday’s post, my first novel, The Pirates of Sufiro, is now 25 years old. I gave Laura Givens the challenge of creating the cover for the anniversary edition. As we spoke about it, we decided to return to the idea I first had for the book’s cover, we decided that it should feature Suki, Firebrandt, and Roberts, the three people for whom the planet Sufiro is named.

We also discussed the background and how the book has a space western kind of vibe. Laura took that idea and created something that looks both futuristic and rough-hewn. I imagine this is Sufiro around chapter four of the previous edition. (In my rewrite, I’ve added a chapter, so it would be chapter five of the new version). This is when settlers from Earth have joined our three marooned pirates and have started to build a town called Succor. Without further ado, here’s a look at the new cover:

Here’s the description from the back of the previous edition: The Pirates of Sufiro is the story of a planet and its people—of Ellison Firebrandt the pirate captain living in exile; of Espedie Raton, the con-man looking to make a fresh start for himself and his wife on a new world; of Peter Stone, the ruthless bank executive who discovers a fortune and will do anything to keep it; and of the lawman, Edmund Ray Swan who travels to Sufiro seeking the quiet life but finds a dark secret. It is the story of privateers, farmers, miners, entrepreneurs, and soldiers—all caught up in dramatic events and violent conflicts that will shape the destiny of the galaxy.

I don’t really expect to make any changes to this description. I am making changes in the new edition, but all of this will still happen. My goal is that if this is the edition of The Pirates of Sufiro that you read, you can still pick up a previous edition of the sequels and not be lost or confused about what happened before. I’m filling in details and I’m hoping the new edition will have a more satisfying structure and be told from more effective points of view.

One of my big realizations while working on the new edition is to see that The Pirates of Sufiro is really a compilation of three novellas. This has helped a lot when thinking about the structure. The first novella tells the story of Firebrandt, Roberts and Suki exploring the planet and making a life there along with the first settlers who join them. The second novella is set a couple of decades later when a new wave of settlers discovers a rare mineral on the other planet’s other major continent and upsets the balance of life there. The third novella happens twenty years later when Edmund Swan arrives, a little like the classic western hero, to set things right.

At this point, I expect the new print and ebook editions will be out around the beginning of 2020. However, you don’t have to wait that long. I’m posting chapters as I revise them to my Patreon site. If you sign on as a patron, you can read the chapters as they’re completed and I’ll give you a link to download the finished ebook when it’s done. What’s more, I’ve been sharing some old artwork and photos from the days when I first wrote the book with my patrons. Check it out at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers