What I’ve learned from Hugo House so far


Hugo House is a 501(c)3 nonprofit. It’s a place where people get together and write and share words. There are writing classes, readings, and other events there. I’m taking an eight-week writing course called Roughing It. This is a ‘how to crank out lots of words together’ course. My goal is 5k per week, which is more than I’ve ever written before. So far the results are pretty good in terms of what I’ve managed to create. With the prep I did before class, I anticipate breaking my previous monthly record of 12.5k words in a few days. We do plenty of reading on story structure and outlining. I’ve already discovered some important things thanks to my classmates.

I was dithering about whether my story was more science fiction or romance. One of my classmates had me go into it a little: she asked me whether the love story or the mystery was more important. I said I didn’t know, because they seemed pretty entwined to me. Love and survival are both primary issues we understand. My classmate made me realize, though, that the heroine deals with the mystery for the sake of another relationship: her love for her father. The theme of the book is that it’s human relationships that make our lives worth living. So I’ll dwell more on the emotions and the primary romantic relationship. I’ve always thought of lonely people seeking connections when I thought cyberpunk.

My classmate wasn’t done with helping there, though. She suggested that I had to put the romantic relationship itself in jeopardy. The heroine must fear that loss and must make the decision to fully trust the hero and commit to what the relationship entails. I’d made my heroine change slowly during the course of the story, and had initially thought to just erode her resistance to completely trusting the hero until it was all gone away. It is, however, more dramatic for it to be a crystalline realization for her, and probably more satisfying for him to find he has a breaking point.

The class text has also been useful. We’re reading Franklin’s Writing for Story. He preaches STRUCTURE STRUCTURE STRUCTURE and outlining, and says you have to know what you’re going to write before you write it. Now, while that works on a large scale for me, it’s not useful for when my stories or plots haven’t fully coalesced. With my novel, I’ve had an outline with some blank spots to work from. Very Underpants Gnomes of me, right? But now that I’m almost done with the first draft, I have a much better idea of what the story is, and can see how it works with several kinds of outline. Making outlines happen now that I have the draft will make the novel more structured. I sort of knew all this already, but then I figured out another bit that might save me some work: polish the prose later, after I’ve figured out which scenes to drop. I say that like it will be simple, but ha ha ha, I’m not counting on it.

Sunday I’m taking another class called Narrative Stockholm Syndrome, in which we’re going to explore characters. I’m looking forward to it!


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Series spotlight and giveaway: Hell Squad by Anna Hackett

Series Spotlight

Welcome to my first series spotlight, where I recommend an entire series you can binge on! It’s Anna Hackett’s Hell Squad.

This series is ten books long so far:



In our near future, aliens invade and lay waste to Earth. What’s left of civilization must organize, survive, and fight back against the continued onslaught. The heroes and heroines of the Hell Squad series are among those trying to give humanity a future. Follow them through their perilous journey through post-apocalyptic Australia as they learn what it means to live for each other.

The short novels have tight plotting, fast-paced action, and scorching encounters. Some of the characters are especially memorable: my favorites are Noah Kim of the book that bears his name, Claudia Black of Shaw, and Adam Holmes and his heroine Liberty. The friendships between non-romantic characters and the squad relationships are solid. The romances feature couples who complement each other well and have excellent chemistry. These books celebrate life and love amidst fear and loss.

I enjoy the stunts that appear in the action scenes. I don’t lose track of where anybody is or what they are doing, which is difficult to convey with multiple characters and enemies. Trucks explode, lasers fly, fighter planes bombard, one of the heroines pit-fights some devil doggies…the action doesn’t stop. Even the metaphors used about feelings include percussive words! Speaking of devil doggies, the world has a fascinating bestiary. Fans of alien invasion/monster movies will enjoy the horrible person-sized dragonflies, exploding acidic devil doggies, giant sauropods, pterodon-like creatures, and the biped lizards who appear to be masterminding the invasion. It’s not quite kaiju movie, but I do want to see it in theaters.

I recommend starting with Marcus, which is free, and I recommend reading the series sequentially. There are several big arcs that span multiple books, even if each book stars one couple. You’ll enjoy these more if you’re comfortable with gritty violence. We don’t get any gory details of alien torture, but bad things do happen to various people during these stories.


Anna herself has generously supplied a signed copy of Marcus that I’m giving away. I’ll attempt to ship anywhere on planet Earth. I’m also giving away a Hell Squad ebook of their choice (via Amazon) to two other readers.

How to enter: Comment on this blog post with your favorite movie monster! Mine’s either the Alien queen from the Alien series or Pyramid Head from Silent Hill. Contest runs until 17 September at midnight PDT.

Disclosure: I have received some of these books free for review purposes. I have bought copies of the rest. The ebooks will be gifts from me.

I have my own grumbles about ebook retailer exclusivity, but you can get Hell Squad in print from Amazon/CreateSpace and The Book Depository.

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Engineering practices in writing: Rubber ducking

Blog Writing

I’ve had several scenes designated as “to sketch out” for long periods of time. There are some scenes I find very difficult to plot out on my own. Thankfully, I have John around to ask me questions about the scene, see plot holes I missed, and have me place everything that’s on the table, so I can go forward with new ideas. John and I are both software engineers, so the way we probe at, pick at, and try to debug a story is very much from that background.

If a scene is giving me trouble, I explain the scene sketch, sentence by sentence, to somebody without my knowledge of the rest of the book. I figure out a lot of problems and details this way. It’s the same principle as teaching: when you have to go through everything from other perspectives, you have to get to know your material, in this case a story, better. There isn’t always somebody around to go through the material with, though. An engineer in the book The Pragmatic Programmer carried a rubber duck around to explain things to, so the process is often referred to as “rubber ducking” or “rubber duck programming.”

me and some "ducks"
me and some “ducks”

My duck is not actually a rubber duck. It’s a stuffed animal or figurine. I rotate through them so they don’t get bored. I’m mostly a planner, so I rubber duck or talk to John at the scene planning level. I’ve also rubber ducked with the scene already written if I think there’s something missing or there is an issue. Then I go through the existing scene and try to explain why each sentence is there to the duck.


Some of the principles of my job carry over to my creative life. Have you found this as well?

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Honeymoon reading


This morning I set out to New Mexico with John! There will be plenty of downtime and hanging out at cafes, just letting our brains unknot for a week. I’ll do plenty of reading, I’m sure. Here are some books that I’m thinking of getting to:

  • Aliens in the Barn by Kyndra Hatch. I’m partway through this, and I haven’t met such unique aliens in a long time.
  • Deep Indigo by Cathryn Cade. I’ve read the others in this series and enjoyed them, so why leave that incomplete?
  • Mission: Improper by Bec McMaster. The spinoff to London Steampunk.
  • Hell Squad: Cruz and Gabe by Anna Hackett, because I’ve read the later books and want to be able to fill in a few references.
  • Trapped with the Cyborg by Cara Bristol because I will read most any books with female cyborgs in them.
  • Seth by Eve Langlais because see above.
  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. I’ve tried to read this a decade ago but had some trouble with it. I think it’s important for me to read more about hypercapitalism and classics of cyberpunk.
  • You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty by Dave Barry. Dave Barry was the first humor writer I read as a teenager and I appreciate his talent for the absurd.
  • Devil’s Kiss by Zoe Archer. I love her adventure stories. This is a historical with some supernatural elements I borrowed from the library.

I said recently that I’m not great at “just being” and reading is a good balance between doing and being. Do you have any summer vacation reading plans?

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Book review: Crash and Burn by Cynthia Sax

Crash and Burn cover image

Book Review

The time and place

Unknown time, presumably the future. As in Breathing Vapor, the story takes place aboard various ships and on the planet Tau Ceti, a world colonized by the Humanoid Alliance.

The suspension of disbelief

Space travel exists and humans have colonized it. You can stick chips in your head for communication (at a cost). People built cyborgs as war machines: soldiers with machine frames, wifi links in their heads, and nanomachines.

The quick summary

Safyre, a crack pilot, is on a suicide mission to save her friend. A rogue cyborg who’ve been receiving her transmissions gets in her way, because he knows the place she’s going is at risk and he’s grown to care for her through their voice communications. Can he let her fulfill her promise and still keep her alive?

My squees

I adore Safyre. She’s loyal, stubborn, clever, and skilled, willing to put people ahead of herself. Her friendship is an amazing valuable, and she cares fiercely for people. She’s into being restrained during sex, and I like how it’s presented and integrated into the love scenes. There’s nothing fussy about it, and sometimes one partner has a kink that the other doesn’t have themselves but is cool with going along with. That feels authentic.

Crash is a sweetheart, and the way he treasures Safyre and respects her abilities, letting her take part in her most important mission, is well-navigated. It’s also nice to see a war machine who questions his own purposes and makes his own life. He chooses not to kill, and when he has to look at that resolution and reevaluate it, his dilemma is compelling. I like a bit of existential angst in characters.

My grumbles

Terminology: use of the term being instead of human or person. Sometimes instead of “anyone”, Sax writes “any being”. That felt a bit jarring. Similarly, the almost exclusive use of “my female” and “my male” as terms of endearment. I don’t think being female is Safyre’s most important or prominent characteristic, but others may disagree. It feels primitive in a way that may appeal to some.

The genetic compatibility (fated mate) trope. I’ve never been a fan of it, and I think Safyre and Crash would work just fine without it.

Read if you

  • Can’t get enough of fellows with Brain Computer Interfaces
  • Would risk your life for your best friend
  • Think people with black sclera are hot, too

Skip if you

  • Prefer fluffy happy books where nobody cool has horrible things happen to them
  • Want detailed engineering explanations of how all the cybernetics, space travel, and weaponry work
  • Dislike crude language with your explicit sex

Final Thoughts

Something very dark happens late in the story to people you’ve grown to care for. It’s a haymaker and I thought it gave the story extra emotional depth and resonance, but if you want a light or optimistic book you won’t get that. This is a story that takes place during military struggle, and it’s got some gritty parts.

I look forward to reading Defying Death.

Author site: A Taste of Cyn

Resources: Goodreads / Amazon / Kobo / ARe

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