“The short story challenge, “I heard from somewhere beside me. Two fellow writers were talking.
“Short story challenge?” I said. I’m always up for a challenge, and this sounded new, different.
“Yeah. You write a short story, at least two thousand words long, every week, for an entire year.”
The wheels in my head started to turn.
“You can totally do it. You write really fast,” one friend said (If you are reading this, you know who you are).
“I could,” I said. I drew that last word out like I was hesitating, but I really wasn’t. I was thinking about how I could do it, what set of prompts I would use that would last an entire year, and just as important to me, how I would share it with my readers.
That’s how the idea was born. Here are some more facts about the stories, and how you’ll be able to read them soon.
Fifty-two weeks. That made me think of a deck of cards. I followed the idea further. Each card could be its own prompt. I could shuffle them—no, I could plan ahead maybe. No scratch that. Shuffle. That makes it more of a challenge, right?
Because I don’t know which card is coming next week. So I started to research things like bridge, pinochle, poker, and even go fish. What game would I use? I was going to write fifty-two short stories in a row, all the same universe, the same genre.
Then I would bundle them as I went along, into novella sized things, then a giant book at the end of the year. This fits in well with my Million Word Challenge that I’m undertaking this year. The first idea was to write fifty-two locked room type mysteries, similar to a game we played as kids. Then I read an article while doing research for something else (you never know where your next idea will come from) and I came across this:
The Solitaire Cipher
Spies use codes all the time, but there is one that is nearly unbreakable. It’s called the solitaire cipher, and you can read about it in detail here, and even create your own code if you want to. It’s a complex, six-deck shuffle algorithm that isn’t dependent on a computer or another device, just a deck of cards. Once you have gone through the complex code setting process, you take another deck of cards, manually arrange them just like the first deck, and hand it to the person you’re going to send the message to.
You never use the same shuffle to send two messages, so the code changes constantly. There are millions of possible code combinations, and although a complex computer program can break the code if you use it twice, the simple use of cards, done properly, will defeat NSA level decryption efforts.
So now if you and your friends really want to pass uncrackable notes in class, you have the tools to do so that even your smartest teacher can’t crack, unless they know the code and get their hands on one of your decks of cards. Of course, to decode it, they will need a couple of hours.
The Solitaire Organization
Take it one step further and imagine if you will (said in Rod Sterling’s voice) that there is a secret organization of some sort. Say that has to do with gambling. This organization uses the Solitaire code to communicate, but they also use playing cards as a part of their identity.
If you mess up as perhaps a customer of one of their establishments or as a member of the organization, another member of the organization might come to chat with you, collect the money you may owe, or administer some kind of sinister punishment.
That’s exactly the premise of this series of short stories. They have been fun to create so far, and I hope they’ll be fun for you to read. Here’s how it’s going to work.
You Can Read Each Short Story for Free (For a Limited Time)
Starting in February, stories will be posted on my blog here once a week and will stay there for a week. After that?
Well, after that they’ll be available for sale on Amazon and other eBook retailers. That’s just in case reading them once was not enough, or if you just want your own copy to read anytime you want. They’ll be .99 each.
Bundles and More Fun Stuff
Every once in awhile, I’ll be bundling stories in a novella format. When I have a few of those, probably around June, I’ll release them in print. There will be unique ways to win those print editions or to purchase them.
And the end of the year, there will be a HUGE print edition including all of the stories, including the exciting conclusion story, the one that ties all the other short stories together.
Once a month, I’ll send out a newsletter recapping all the different books from that month. Want to review them as they are published? You can get them for FREE in your chosen format by joining our review team, which gives you access to free copies of my backlist to review, along with things like the Capital City Murders series and more. All we ask is that if you get free books, you leave reviews whenever and wherever possible. While we can’t make you do that, we do appreciate everything you do to support authors.
Cutting the Deck and Picking a Card
Every now and then I will have a contest where the winner gets to tell me to “cut the deck” or shuffle what cards I have left. Or I will let the lucky reader pick a card from the hand I have in front of me at the moment.
The one who wins that chance will also win a cool prize, to be determined at that time. Are you ready to read and play along? Want to engage in a short story challenge of your own? Let me know by shooting me an email info [at] unboundnorthwest.com.
I look forward to what this year of stories will bring.
So, if you are reading this, you probably have or are considering joining the million-word challenge this year. That’s fantastic. You have only a few days to get ready. So what steps should you be taking now? Here are some simple tips and tricks.
Set Your Other Writing Goals Accordingly
So if your goal is to write a million words this year, and you break it down into daily chunks of 2,800 words or 4-5K per day with weekends off, you need to have some idea of what you will be writing every single day. In other words, you can’t really start your day without a plan for that many words.
You could do that if you’re going to write a page a day, but this challenge is much harder. You’ll have to plan what you will write and when. You’ll probably need to plan more than one project a day unless you are really dedicated to only one, and super disciplined. Your mind will need variety, and that can only come through planning.
The problem becomes that if you don’t have enough writing planned for the day, you will run out of words long before you reach your word count. Then you’ll be struggling to come up with what to write next. That will produce immediate issues, and it will only take a few days of low output to discourage you.
This means you need to plan to do more writing than you might have originally thought you would do this year, but even each day, week, and month. Remember, eating the elephant is one bite at a time, and you need to plan those bites out daily.
Test Your Process
No, technically you can’t count any words you write before the first of January, but you can use the last couple days of the year to test your process. Is the time and place you have selected to write going to work for you? How much can you actually write in an hour sprint? Two hours? Split sessions? What works for you?
The more you know about your process and how things work for you, the less likely it will be that you will get behind at the beginning of the challenge trying to figure those things out.
On the other hand, hopefully, you know yourself well enough by this point that you know how and where you work best, and your prime writing time each day. If at all possible, set aside that time for your writing and stick with it.
See how your family will react to your new process and potentially your clients as well if you have freelance work to do. If you still work a day job, be sure your writing schedule works around that schedule as well. You may need to write at lunch or on breaks or both, and that may mean making changes to your routines. Try them out if you are working the last couple days of the year and see how your mind and your body react.
Don’t Neglect Self Care
Get up, stand, and walk around often. Don’t sacrifice sleep or exercise for your writing time. Remember, this is a marathon that lasts an entire year. You can sacrifice sleep for a few days, but after even a few weeks, that will take its toll. So will skipping walking, running, or working out.
Watch your diet too. Writers tend to munch as they write, so make sure if you do you are eating healthy snacks. Drink lots of water too. Hydration may seem like an afterthought when writing, but you will be surprised how much exercising your brain will exhaust your body too. Eat foods that feed your brain, and if you need to take vitamins and supplements to stay sharp.
That means planning to have water wherever you write, having the snacks you may want or need, and to plan for restroom breaks and walking around. If you take the right kind of breaks, you will actually be more creative, refreshed, and efficient when you come back to the keyboard.
Practice Being Distraction Free
Close your email programs and social media, or better yet turn off your Wi-Fi as you write. Put your phone on “do not disturb” and let your significant other, if you have one, and others know that you will be unavailable.
Shut your office or bedroom door if you have to. If music helps you concentrate, use it. If it is a distraction and you need silence to write, shut it off.
Remember, if you are going to meet your goals, you don’t have time to wait for your muse to show up. You must sit down and write without hesitation. This means you must start writing. You can always delete words (you don’t have to subtract them) but you can’t count the words you thought about but did not type.
This means when you sit down, you must be laser-focused. No distractions at all. Use the full-screen mode in word, the distraction-free mode in Scrivener, or another program to keep you from looking at other programs. There are even apps like Write or Die that punish you if you don’t write fast enough either with annoying pop-ups or worse, by eating the words you have written.
The point is that whatever helps you focus the best is what you must do. Practice it for a few days before you start and starting will be even easier.
Prep Your Brain to Write a Million Words
Yes, you need to eat brain food, as we talked about above. However, there are other ways you need to prep your brain as well. You will be working it in entirely new ways. Here are some tips to keep the creative edge.
Read: I know, you are spending a lot of time writing. Read too, things in your genre and professional improvement books. Don’t have time? Stop reading as much on Facebook and social media or binge streaming shows less.
Take a walk: This can be part of self-care too. Exercise is great for you, but a simple walk will often spark your creativity for your next writing session, or for a transition to your day job. Walking has been proven to improve your brain function. Do it.
Limit screen time: If you are writing on a computer, take screen time breaks and cut off your television use at least an hour before bed. Use that time to read or exercise, whatever works best for you. You will sleep better, your eyes will be more rested, and you’ll be more creative.
Do meditation: You’ll want to be in the right frame of mind to write. Before you get started, take a few minutes to meditate and clear your mind of whatever you have been doing up to that point. If you can, do the same thing after you finish.
Your brain is the most important tool you have, so use it to its utmost advantage by keeping it sharp and clear. This will take work, but if you don’t care for your brain, this challenge will be even harder for you.
As you get ready for your kickoff on the first, think about these things:
When writing fiction, leave yourself on a cliffhanger, so that the next day or session, you will want to start writing again to find out what happens.
Do the same with non-fiction if possible. If you finish one thing, start another, even if you just put the title and headings of whatever you’re doing next in a document. It will be easier for your brain to drop back into that writing mode when you are ready to get started.
Think about ergonomics. People get taken out of this and other writing challenges all the time because their workspace or desk is not set up properly, or the space they have chosen is not conducive to the physical demands and challenges of long writing sessions. If possible, have places in your workspace where you can stand, sit, and recline, and alternate between them when possible. You don’t want to end up with carpal tunnel or other physical ailments that keep you from writing.
Try dictation. It doesn’t work for everyone, but you can master it with practice. You can generally talk faster than you can type, so you’ll be more productive if you find a way to make that work for you.
This is a long and hard challenge, but you can do it. There will be some days when it will be easier than others, but the key is to keep going. Evaluate your goals each quarter of the year, and adjust your goal accordingly. There is no shame in lowering your word count goal to one that is more realistic once you find your rhythm and what you can really accomplish. Do that before you quit.
This is a life-changing challenge that will do more for you than just enhance your writing life. Get ready, get set, and when the new year hits, GO!
So from a late-night Facebook post after doing some goal setting and planning for next year to a group on Discord and Facebook, here we are. I thought when I posted the idea of writing a million words in 2020, a bunch of writers would say things like”
“No way, dude. You’re nuts.” (Better than your nuts, if you know what I am saying grammatically)
“I’m behind you. A long way behind you.”
“I hate you right now. How can you possibly write that much? Oh yeah. You work at home and have all the spare time in the world.”
So here’s the story. First, the first time I tried this, I was still working a day job. And if it had not been for some unfortunate events, I would have made it, too. You can do this no matter what your circumstances.
Second, freelance writing is a job with a lot of non-writing things to do. I wish I had all the time in the world, but I don’t. I know you don’t either. That’s why they call this a challenge.
It won’t be easy. Here are some answers to common questions and an explanation of how this all works.
What Words Can I Count?
The answer I have been giving is simply this: you can count anything you want. This is a very personal challenge, but I would encourage you not to include Facebook posts, personal emails, and similar items. You want to count words that are productive.
The reason is the challenge is not all about getting one million words written in a year, although that is the name of the challenge. The idea is to develop a regular and productive writing habit. There is no waiting on your muse to show up—you have an appointment or time set, and you sit down, and words come out of your fingertips or dictation, or whatever method you choose.
I am counting the following projects:
Capital City Murders Novellas (I hope to write 8 this year)
Monster Marshals Novellas (I hope for 2 this year)
Teaching Moments (Novel)
The Good Shepherd (Novel)
Short Story Challenge (one short story a week, minimum 2K word count)
Freelance and Ghostwriting
Writing as a Business for Freelancers (non-fiction)
Blog Posts and Web Content
This multitude of projects is one of the reasons I think this is doable for me this year. You can count the things you want, just be sure they are work-related and productive, they further your overall writing goals (you have those, right?), and that what you have planned fills the word count.
How Does This Break Down?
The word count breaks down to just under 2,800 words a day if you write 365 days with no days off. That’s just north of 19,000 words a week. Almost a novel.
As Jim Lambert (not related, but also a writer) put it on our original post, intending to be encouraging: “It’s twice as much a day as NaNo, and twelve times as long.” Okay. Maybe as encouragement that needs a little work. But let’s break it down to what you really can do.
If you write 4-5K words a day, five days a week, you will more than make your word count, and you can still take two days off a week. This also lets you “bank” some words for those inevitable days and weeks when you won’t be able to write at all, or at least not as much. However, you do what works for you.
Trick your brain. Use certain programs to write certain things. Train your muse to show up—you don’t have time to wait for her.
Write every day. Make it a habit. That habit will also chemically change your brain, and you won’t be able to not
Set your calendar as busy. This means for your kids, dogs, spouse, and anyone else who might interfere with your writing. The key is to be distraction-free.
There are also various methods of writing, from timed sprints to multiple writing sessions a day. If you work a day job, this may mean your breaks and lunch hour will also be spent writing. The key is to do what it takes.
In our Facebook group and on Discord, we will have time for sprints and other writing prompts designed to get you moving. Just be sure to have a method, a time, and a place for your writing. The more structured your writing time, the more successful you will be.
You are also welcome to, and encouraged to, set up write-ins and other gatherings in your area. The idea is to hold each other accountable and encourage you toward your goals.
Look, there really is not a failure here. We want you to reach a million words, no doubt, but above that, we want you to develop good, solid writing habits. This challenge is not for everyone. The idea behind goals is that they be achievable but challenging. If you can’t dedicate a few hours a day to writing, you probably won’t be able to fulfill this particular challenge.
Instead, set yourself another one you can achieve. Try a quarter or half-a-million-word challenge to start with, or even something simpler like writing a page a day. Do that, and in a year, you have a book written. This is not a place for judgment or bragging.
However, it is a place for encouragement. Need a sprint buddy? Reach out. Want to have a write in to catch up? Post here. Even if we can’t join you physically, we can virtually. Need a pep talk? Reach out to nearly anyone in the group or your own accountability partner. (Please have one. You will need them, and they will need you.)
We want you to catch up and even be ahead. We want you to succeed just like we all want to succeed.
Questions? Ask in the group page, or reach out to me at [email protected] with the subject line “One Million”. I’ll do my best to answer as I can. I may be busy.
I have a lot to write, and so do you.
What will this challenge do for you? I bet it will change your life. The only way for you to find out is to say “Yes.” Join us?
P.S. Feel free to share this post and the group with your friends. Let’s make this an epic year for every writer in our lives.
Just recently, I got the rights back to one of my books, titled Stray Ally. It did okay in sales, pretty well a few times, and came out in print from a digital publisher. People liked it. There were good reviews on Amazon, and I thought it was a pretty good book overall.
The editor I worked with was thorough and professional. The story idea itself was pretty solid. The publisher I worked with had (and has) a good reputation. The cover was pretty amazing, and professionally designed. A lot of people liked that too. Actually, I still like the old cover.
I thought it would be an easy turnaround. I thought I would simply do a quick brush re-edit and release it with the original cover under my own publisher and brand. Nope. Wrong answer.
Okay, the story was not bad. Let’s get that out of the way first off. Second, I usually don’t read my books once they are written and published. It’s not that I don’t like them, but I am my own worst critic, as I am sure you are your own. So I could spend my life re-writing those first books, or I can move on and write more and better ones.
But in this case, I had to look. And there were issues. I’ve learned things about story and story structure since then, and I left some important elements out of the story. Enough elements that I was not content to just “put it out there again.”
So I did some re-writing and editing. And the story is better now, one I can live with.
I’ve worked as an editor, and I know for a fact that I have gotten better over time. I catch mistakes I never did before, even when it comes to plot, pacing, and story. I’m sure my editor at the time, who is still editing, has gotten better. But there are some things in the old version that I could just not let go.
So I fixed those too. Hopefully, I caught them all, and those who read the book after that caught more. I hope it’s perfect now, and I know it is not.
Old cover: great. But new story elements, new editing, all those things told me a new cover was the answer. So I talked to my current designer, and I can tell you that Elle at Evernight Designs knocked it out of the park. The new cover is amazing, and it fits right in with the fact that I have always wanted to turn this book into a series. She also did the cover for Harvested, and many of my other books.
That—well, that is another part of the story.
My Part in All This
Okay, so for a few years I had some personal issues, ones I won’t go into here. So a part of what happened is that I stopped promoting my work in large part, and actually (gasp) took a day job for a while.
The second was that I stopped writing fiction nearly as much. That means the second book in that series—well, it languished. But not anymore. I came out of the other side of that dark passage swinging, writing like crazy. And that meant my muse went: “What about book #2 in that series?”
What about it? The Good Shepherd has had stops, starts, and restarts. But now it is back in the writing mix and ready to be finished. The Dog Complex series is revived.
On September 30, Stray Ally will be revived. You can find it at your favorite e-book seller, and hopefully in print a whole bunch of places too. In fact, you can go to your local bookstore and request that they carry it, or order it for you if you like, or you can order it directly from this website once it is out.
Your own works, five years later? If you are a writer, you might see just how far you have come. For you, the readers? This is probably the best Stray Ally will ever get. But there are more stories coming. I can promise you that.
For many of the state capitals we will write about, I have a confession to make. I haven’t spent a lot of time there. But that’s an exception when it comes to Sacramento.
Due to another writing assignment (I also work as a freelancer) I have been traveling to that area frequently since last spring. What that means is I have been able to go to the Capitol Building, take photos like what I have imagined Nick might take, and roam around the city.
I’ve eaten at a few of the places in the book, been to some of the bars, and actually intend to go back again to visit more of the museums and spend a little more “pleasure” time there rather than “work” time.
But there are some things I can tell you (and show you) thanks to photos, about the capital itself, the park surrounding it, and the city of Sacramento.
The Capitol Building
The Capitol Building, much like others in the Unites States, has a design based on the United States Capitol building in Washington D.C. The current building was constructed between 1861-1874. Two earthquakes, pretty uncommon in the Sacramento area, struck within two days of each other in 1892, and the capital was quickly repaired.
It was listed on the National Registry of Historic places in 1973, and a renovation project started in 1974 and ended in 1982, an effort to restore the beauty of the capitol and to make it more earthquake safe.
The chamber rooms where the assembly and senate meet are located at opposite ends of the building. The Senate chamber is modeled after the British House of Lords, or the upper house. The Assembly chambers are based on the British House of Commons, or the lower house.
There are ornate statues, gorgeous floors, and an integrated museum detailing the history of both the Capitol building and the state of California.
There is a park that surrounds the Capital building, 10 undivided city blocks from 10thto 16th, and from L to N streets. There are a lot of interpretive signs, benches and other places to site, sidewalks and walkways. Walking up to the capitol building through the park gives you a great sense of the building and its history.
Like many other downtown areas, parking is at a premium, but you can find spots along the edge of the park and some surrounding streets, although that is hampered somewhat by construction at the moment.
There is an app like those used in other cities that allows you to pay for and renew parking even if you are not near your car, a good way to save yourself from having to carry change around. Just remember if you are in a rental car to get the plate right, especially if you have other vehicles in the app. Parking enforcement is strict and swift.
Old Town Sacramento
Much of the old town Sacramento historic district was built in the mid-1800’s. There are museums, shops, restaurants, and a great waterfront area along the river. There are wooden sidewalks, restored old buildings and many other attractions in this 28-acre state park that is also a part of the National Register of Historic Places.
There are horse drawn carriages and often living history characters from the Gold Rush era of California’s history.
The Homeless Issue
So you don’t have to drive long through Sacramento, along highway 99 or along the waterfront to see that the city has a homeless problem. There are tent cities and trash in many places.
This is in part due to the climate: even with the hot summers, the sunshine in California is more desirable than the winters further north. It is also in part due to the cost of housing and other factors, but the city and other organizations are looking to make changes that will help. San Diego has developed some very similar tactics, and Sacramento is trying to follow their lead.
The Oregon State Hospital, a mental institution in Salem, Oregon and featured in our book, Slaying in Salem, has a dark history. There are stories of abuse, but not just of mentally ill adults. There are stories of children, housed there because they had no other place to go, and under terrible conditions.
One of the worst parts of the story involves the “Library of Dust” or the “Room of Forgotten Souls.” Both refer to a room discovered through an investigation of the institution by The Oregonian. The room contained over 300 copper urns containing the ashes of unclaimed residents who had passed away there. But there was more. Some of those who were buried in a nearby cemetery were moved, and their grave markers removed and discarded.
The abuse of both the living and the dead sparked outrage in the legislature, and the Oregon government began the demolition of some buildings, the renovation of others, and the creation of an entirely new hospital.
The atrocities are not forgotten though. A part of the hospital is now a museum, dedicated to showing the history of the building and the issues with the care for the mentally ill in Oregon and beyond. It highlights a problem:
There are more mentally ill patients in jails than in institutions nationwide.
The institutions are often very jail like, even maintained by the state Departments of Correction, and offer little in the way of actual treatment.
Funding for public mental health has been slashed again and again and again, both at Federal and state levels.
Often, a jail sentence either makes a mental illness worse, or it causes one in someone who previously was not ill. Sometimes, mental illness directly or indirectly caused the offense the prisoner is locked up for.
It isn’t right. We have two choices. Either we as people can step up to encourage our government to increase funding for public health, or we can take care of it on a private basis.
Either way, something needs to be done, and what happened at the Oregon State Hospital is just one illustration of what can be done when the public takes action.
What happens in Slaying in Salem is tragic. But what happened in real life, the back story? That is much more tragic.
Have you ever heard that the truth is stranger than fiction? That is often the case. We can’t even use some of the best true crime cases to model our fiction stories after. Why? No one would believe things happened that way.
However, there are facts behind the fiction we write. When we talk about guns and shooting them, we need to be accurate. Because readers, at least some of them, know how these things work. We must also be careful with things like how people die, what they look like, and how we find the clues and solve the mysteries we create.
Did you ever wonder about some of the research, and why your favorite thriller and mystery author is being watched by the government? This blog will explore some of those themes and ideas.
The Police and Law Enforcement
Even though sometimes it might not seem like it in real life or on TV dramas, the police and law enforcement officers have rules they need to follow. Most of the time, they do follow those rules. The exceptions are rare. Those exceptions make TV and fiction fun to read, but they are not really consistent with how the real world works.
That is why we, as authors, are careful about what we put in our books and what we say. We want to respect those who protect us, and we want you to understand that they are people just like you and me. Most of them are honest and good at what they do. Like any other profession, there are bad examples though.
For the sake of fiction, we often process evidence quickly. But it doesn’t happen that way in real life. Most smaller cities do not have a forensics department and often have to wait for help. DNA labs are extremely busy and backed up, and if the person’s DNA is not on file, police have to wait until they can match it to a potential suspect. To do that, they need enough evidence for a warrant to collect it.
It’s all rather challenging, and now juries, thanks to fiction, expect this kind of concrete evidence in most cases. It is problematic for both police and attorneys. When we try to be more realistic in fiction, it often makes our books seem slow or dull. So we have to bend the rules just a little.
We’ll talk more about this stuff in upcoming posts, at least once a week, where we deal with the reality behind fiction.
Murder, Serial Killers, and More
Crime is rare, kinda. And violent crime even more so. But many murders every year go unsolved. Want to know why? There are actually a whole host of reasons, and soon we will talk about some of them here, some related to today’s headlines, others related to cases in the past. You won’t believe some of what you will read.
Want to Contribute?
Want to be part of the discussion and share your knowledge in this area? Contact us at [email protected]. We can talk about your story, and even get you published here. For authors and others, this is a great opportunity to promote your books and reach a new audience.
Watch this space. Subscribe to our newsletter. We will be in touch!