Spotlight On Joshua Palmatier


Hey, I’m fantasy author Joshua Palmatier, an OWW alumni, a member since almost the very beginning.  I’d like to introduce Zombies Need Brains.  It’s a small press I founded in 2013 because I got hooked editing SF&F themed anthologies for DAW Books.  I would have continued editing anthologies for them, but due to a shakeup in the industry around 2010, they were forced to drop their anthology line (or at least cut it back drastically) and I got tired of waiting for them to bring it back.  So in a fit of insanity in the summer of 2013, I created ZNB.  I wanted it to be a professional market, with professional pay rates, professional cover art, and professional design.  I wanted it to treat writers and artists with the respect they deserve (being a writer myself), and above all I wanted it to succeed while still paying authors and artists on time.

Since those lofty aspirations first took root, ZNB has managed to publish thirteen SF&F themed anthologies, from steampunk vs aliens to sword & sorcery to time traveling bars to were-creatures other than werewolves.  Every year, I pick a few themes I think are cool and then collect a small group of what I call “anchor authors” and, with their help, we run a crowdfunding campaign in order to generate the funds to produce the anthology.  The backers of the campaign are essentially preordering the anthologies, so I k now whether the themes I’ve chosen are actually good or not.  (If they aren’t interesting, then the Kickstarter won’t fund, right?)  All typical for a small press or an SF&F anthology being put on the market today, right?

Well, here’s where ZNB is different.  Unlike traditional publishers that put out themed anthologies (few and far between today), ZNB fills out the rest of their anthologies with an open call for submissions, because I believe in finding new and strong voices in the SF community.  The only way to do that is to let anyone submit.  So while about half of the anthology is filled with known names in the field, such as Seanan McGuire, Faith Hunter, S.M. Stirling, etc., the other half of the anthology comes from the best stories I can find in the slush pile generated by the open call.  Yes, this is a ton of work and those 7-10 slots in the anthology are highly competitive (and getting worse as the number of submissions each year grows), but it’s worth it to find those new voices.  This is something I, as the founder of ZNB, firmly believe in:  open calls are necessary if we want the field to stretch and grow.  Often, the best story in the anthology—or at least the story I think is the best—comes from the open call.  And I love to see a New York Times bestseller right next to an author who’s just made their first professional sale.

ZNB is running a Kickstarter right now where we hope to fund three brand new anthologies with the themes of apocalypses, food, and old tech finding new life.  Click through the link to read more about it and, if you can, back the project!  I’m here, though, to give you all at OWW a little insight into what it takes to get a story from your brain onto our pages.

Let’s suppose you’ve already brainstormed and have come up with an idea that fits the theme.  As you can guess, that’s not enough.  We get a ton of stories submitted where, when I’ve finished reading the story, I end up saying, “OK, that was a cool concept, but there isn’t a story here.”  In essence, the author wrote out their idea, but they haven’t yet taken the time to develop a story around that idea.  And that’s key.  It’s extremely rare for ZNB to accept a submission based on idea alone.  This is why we rarely accept stories less than 2500 words or flash fiction–it’s not that the writing isn’t good, it’s that it’s difficult to get across a completely developed story in that short a timespan.  It’s possible (we’ve accepted one or two in our past anthologies), but it’s rare.

The biggest element missing from the “only an idea” story is a character arc.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s usually a character in the story, but the character is only there in service to the idea.  The story needs to be turned around.  The idea should be in service to the character, causing the character to change in some way throughout the course of the story.  I want to be drawn into the characters and change along with them.  So the character needs to be interesting, sympathetic, and above all engaging.

After capturing my attention, you need to hold it, so the pace needs to be fast.  Remember, this is a short story.  Each word needs to matter, so keep things tight and focused.  Don’t let yourself wander into subplots and secondary threads or secondary characters, as you would with a novel.  Keep yourself on track with the main idea.  You can always expand the story later on into something larger if you want, but for now, focus.  If you’ve already written the story, then during revisions you need to look at the main idea and cut everything else out.  Narrow the story down to whatever is needed for the idea and the character arc.  Everything else must go.  Tighten, tighten, tighten.

Along the way, make sure that the character arc you’ve developed actually relies on the story concept.  They can’t be two separate threads that you just happen to have woven into one story.  If you remove the cool idea from the story, does the character arc still hold up?  If the answer is yes, then you haven’t really found the story behind that idea.  The character arc should collapse when the cool idea is removed, making the story impossible.  The character’s change during the course of the story should come about BECAUSE of the cool concept, not in spite of it.

So, when thinking about submitting a story to ZNB’s slush pile, start with a cool concept.  Build an engaging character arc around that concept.  Mesh the two together.  Tighten the prose.  Let it sit for a few weeks, then go through and tighten it again.  Because that’s what we’re looking for:  a tight, focused story where a cool concept and interesting character arc merge into a stunning work.

Now, take these words to heart, sit down, and write that story.  Good luck!




Spotlight on Anna Kashina

World building in fantasy and science fiction

 World building is hugely important in any fiction genre. Effective world building enables us to create a setting, in which the reader can relate to the characters not only visually, but also in terms of their own sensory experience. A realistic world is essential for a believable story, and it can make all the difference in engaging the reader. Thus, I tend to think of world building tends as the essential first step when starting out a new book.

Authors of science fiction and fantasy face an additional challenge: we are creating a new world from scratch, building off concepts and settings other people are not familiar with. Of course, this is also additional fun. We have all the power in this brand new world, and we get to set all the rules.

So, why do we need rules anyway?

Any world we know contains boundaries, where some things are common while others are truly impossible. The same goes for any created world too. Rules and boundaries are essential to gain the readers’ trust, and think of your world as a realistic one. Watching the characters constrained by these rules makes them much easier to relate to. Without rules, the reader would not be able to develop any expectations following the events in the book. This creates an ungrounded feeling that ultimately prevents the reader from getting emotionally and intellectually invested.

As a fantasy author, I spend a lot of time building my worlds, and I have developed a process that helps me along. It can be tedious at times, but most of the time, it is so much fun.

When I approach the task of building a world, I follow several essential steps. As soon as the idea of a novel is in my head – definitely before I start working on the bulk of the text — I think through the following list of action items, in this order:

  1. The world map. This first step is actually also my very first decision. Is the whole story going to take place in a small village, a city, a country, or a single room? Are my characters going to travel around, and if yes, how far? Are they going to meet visitors coming over from distant lands? Are they going to stay confined and isolated?

 Some of these details can be left for later, but this major decision about the scale of the world has to come right at the start. In my case, I follow this decision by sketching a very crude map, and as I work through my story I continue to populate it with places, names, and key elements of the landscape. I am not an artist, so these initial sketches always look horrible, but they do help.

In everyday life, we use a lot of geographical references in our speech, without even noticing them. “Up north”, “back east”, “over in Cleveland”, “back in Russia”, “in Challimar deserts” – these are very telling details about the world and the characters that people tend to drop into their conversations, and if I have a map with geographical names in front of me when I write, it allows me to populate my characters speech with these references from early on. It really helps to make the world more authentic.

  1. The society. This follows my work on the map, so that the two become closely inter-related. I have a another check list for my work on the society, interrogating it through the following set of big-picture questions:
  • What is this society’s overall level of development? Medieval, Victorian, futuristic, alien? This decision is usually easy, and it is also key in defining the next level of details. In my case, I tend to settle on medieval, before the invention of the firearms, which allows me to devote a lot of attention to the finesse of the blade fights J.
  • What technology is available? Firelight or electricity? Cars, steam engines, horses or spaceships? Guns, swords, or laser blasters? This list can go on, but the major questions like energy sources, transportation, and weaponry, tend to come first. My list is normally fire, horses, and swords, but there could be some cool variations here.
  • What type of housing is typical? Castles? Tents? Apartment buildings? Spaceships? Hives? It could be different for different nations in my world, but it is good here to understand the range.
  • How did this society originate? Are these human settlers on another planet where the traveled from Earth? Is this one of the ancient civilizations that has been here for thousands of years? Are these conquerors that settled here by defeating the locals? Are they a small group of survivors after a major cataclysm?
  • What is the societal hierarchy? Is it a kingdom, a religious order, an oppressed mass under an alien tyrant, or a democratic republic? Again, this could be different for different parts of the world.
  • What is the family structure – if different from ours? Well, I usually include elements of romance into my stories, so I tend to stick to traditional families (and, occasionally harems), but this is something I can definitely imagine playing with at some point.
  1. Elements of everyday life. These, in my initial list, include overall appearance of the characters, clothes, types of housing, common household items, tools and weaponry. And of course, food. The possibilities of food-based world building are endless. In my case, I tend to develop an entire recipe book for each world, even though only a few of these dishes are actually mentioned in the book. Once can tell a lot by what people eat.

 Going deeper into this, I usually also think through the languages people speak. In a multicultural world it is often helpful for everyone to speak some sort of a common language, but it is also fun to give language flavors to different groups of people — e.g., an accent, or differences in pronunciation. These are great details that can add authenticity to the story – but they should be used very lightly. If not, they can easily overwhelm the readers.

  1. In every land, people have certain beliefs – or had at some point. These beliefs tend to factor not only into lifestyles and moral values, but also into speech and customs. (e.g., we all tend to say “my God” even if we are atheists). Curses and swear words are actually very important to the story, and can also be a great tool in characterization and creating some vivid personality traits. Most authors choose to use commonly known curses, but they need to be defined upfront. Some of my characters tend to swear a lot, so I settle on the swear words very early on.

I find it useful to utilize known concepts and elements. For example, a lot of my worlds have Middle Eastern elements, because these fascinate me and I really enjoy writing about them. I also freely draw from my Russian background. Using some obvious elements from known cultures often helps to ground the reader, by drawing on the details they already know. Too much unfamiliar can be off-putting and detract from the story. But it is, of course, very cool if you can come up with something truly original!

In the end, the process of world building in science fiction and fantasy can have a lot of similarities with the process of doing research for a historical novel – except that in science fiction and fantasy, the author is the one to set all the rules.

Only after this initial work do I feel ready to work on the bulk of the main text. But my world building does not end until the book is complete. As I write, I continue to interrogate each setting and each scene for additional details that can help further define the world.

And here is the hardest part. Having gone through all this work of creating a brand new, incredibly cool world I know everything about, the temptation is to tell the readers as much as I know, as soon as possible. How much should I put on the page? How much do I leave unsaid?

In deciding these things, it helps me to remember that any story is first and foremost about characters. In thinking of how much detail to put into the book, I get into my character’s head and try to see the world through their eyes. Even if the world they live in is new and cool to me, it is usually very familiar to them, and the details they would notice first are not necessarily the ones that would stick out to someone seeing this world for the first time. It becomes lots of fun to identify these details, and showing them actually does volumes to highlighting the background that is not explicitly shown at all.

The golden rules I go by here are: “Less is more”, and “Show, don’t tell”.

I took the liberty of including the opening paragraphs of my new novel SHADOWBLADE, which can show examples of some of my world building:

Gassan heard the shouting from all the way down the narrow stone passageway leading to the entrance of the serai. A woman, her voice raising to a near-scream and eventually dissolving into sobs. He broke into a run, noting in passing the slanted crescent of the waning moon peeking in through the narrow window overhead. Not the average hour to expect visitors in the Daljeer command center, disguised as a scholarly hall.

The door at the end of the curving passage stood ajar. Gusts of cool night air washed through the entrance hallway, filling it with the scents of desert rosemary and creosote. As Gassan skidded around the last bend, he caught a view of the moonlit path outside, winding to the city down below. Dark shapes loomed along it, outlined against the white sand. Boulders? Odd. Just yesterday, when he arrived here from the empire’s capital for the celebration of the Sun Festival, the path had been clear. He peered closer, a chill creeping down his spine as the objects began to take shape.

Bodies. Dear Sel.

About the author: 

Anna Kashina writes historical adventure fantasy, featuring exotic settings, martial arts, assassins, and elements of romance. Her “Majat Code” series, published by Angry Robot Books, UK, received two Prism Awards in 2015. She is a Russian by origin, and a scientist in her day job, and she freely draws on these backgrounds in her writing. Her newest novel, SHADOWBLADE, is upcoming from Angry Robot Books in May, 2019.

You can learn more about Anna at her blog:




A young sword prodigy must impersonate a lost princess and throw her life into a deadly political game, in this kinetic epic fantasy novel by the author of the award-winning Majat Code series

Naia dreams of becoming a Jaihar Blademaster, but after assaulting a teacher, her future seems ruined. The timely intervention of a powerful stranger suddenly elevates her into elite Upper Grounds training. She has no idea that the stranger is Dal Gassan, head of the Daljeer Circle. Seventeen years ago he witnessed the massacre of Challimar’s court and rescued its sole survivor, a baby girl. Gassan plans to thrust a blade into the machinations of imperial succession: Naia. Disguised as the legendary Princess Xarimet of Challimar, Naia must challenge the imperial family, and win. Naia is no princess, but with her desert-kissed eyes and sword skills she might be close enough…

Spotlight on Joshua Palmatier

Kickstarters and Open Calls

I’m stopping by Spotlight today to tell you the story of my small press, Zombies Need Brains, because it highlights some of the good and bad changes in the publishing world over the last ten years.  Before I created ZNB, I was writing fantasy for DAW Books (and I still am).  But along the way, Patricia Bray and I got interested in editing anthologies and through a series of coincidences and hard work, we managed to pitch a few ideas to DAW Books.  They were interested in two of our projects, which were then produced … and we were subsequently hooked on editing anthologies.  They were too much fun to do.  We didn’t want to stop.

Unfortunately, there was an upheaval in the industry at this point.  Ebooks were coming into play.  Print-on-demand was becoming more and more affordable, and thus more and more a “thing”.  Traditional publishers were attempting to adjust and react to the new technology and new ideas … and one of their reactions was to take a hard look at their current products and do some major trimming.  One of the big items trimmed from nearly every traditional publisher list:  anthologies.  In general, they don’t make big money for the publishers, so they were on the chopping block.

So suddenly I had a driving urge to produce anthologies, with tons of ideas, but no interest from the traditional publishers.  I waited a few years, hoping that the traditional publishers would relax and bring the lines back, and during this time print-on-demand evolved even further and, most importantly, a new tool entered the market:  crowdfunding.

At this point, I had an epiphany.  I could create and publish the anthologies myself!  If I could crowdfund for the base funds (which also proved that there was interest in whatever the theme of that anthology was), I could then put the anthologies out in ebook and print-on-demand myself!

And thus the small press Zombies Need Brains was born.  Using the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform, I could raise the funds needed to pay the authors a professional rate, pay the artist a professional rate, pay professionals to design covers and interiors and ebooks, and get the anthologies I wanted out into the world.  It was genius!

I wasn’t the only one to have such an epiphany.  Crowdfunding changed everything, because now you didn’t have to rely on the big guys to provide the money.  With enough effort and work, and with enough support from fans, you could get the backing for the project yourself.  There was a surge in small presses … which produced a surge in new SF&F on the scene, from voices that you might not have ever heard from simply because of the dynamics of the traditional publishers.  Not just a deluge of more markets for short stories, but also new markets for novelettes and novellas and even full-length novels.

Crowdfunding opened up whole new markets for new writers—anthologies, magazines, podcasts, and more.

Zombies Need Brains is proud to be recognized by SFWA as a professional market and even has two stories up for this year’s WSFA Small Press Award.  We’re running a Kickstarter right now for three new anthologies:  PORTALS (stories of worlds connected to each other by a portal), TEMPORALLY DEACTIVATED (stories about … whatever you decide “temporally deactivated” means), and ALTERNATE PEACE (alternate history stories where the divergence from our timeline comes from some kind of peaceful change).  We’ll be doing an open call for submissions as soon as the Kickstarter funds.  None of this would have been possible ten years ago, before the rise of crowdfunding and print-on-demand and ebooks.

If you’d like to see how much work goes into a Kickstarter, and maybe support ZNB latest effort, check out  You can also find out more details about the three anthology themes, in case one of them has sparked an idea for a story.  Once our Kickstarter funds, we’ll be putting up information on how YOU can submit a story and perhaps end up in one of our anthologies.

So put on those writerly thinking caps.  And then get writing!

Zombies Need Brains is a company created by epic fantasy author and OWW alum Joshua Palmatier.  ZNB is a small press that focuses on producing themed SF&F anthologies, funded by Kickstarters.  You can check out ZNB at and their current Kickstarter at


Spotlight On Josh Vogt


                                         The Power of Persistence

These days more than ever, there seems to be constant challenges and threats that we have to fight against–from the macro level in areas like global security to the micro level, like paying the bills or dealing with personal medical issues. It can feel disheartening and exhausting at times, I know. The sense of some new obstacle or problem to handle, maybe when you were just regaining a level of relative calm or stability in life.

But one thing I have learned throughout my writing career and pursuits so far is this: the only time that being defeated is inevitable is when you stop trying. When you stop fighting. Whether that’s fighting for certain values you believe in or fighting for a dream, like getting a book published.

There are many things in life we can’t really control (though we try oh-so-hard). Many elements of the publishing industry are things we can strive to accomplish or obtain, such as getting a literary agent, getting a contract, getting good reviews, hitting a bestseller list, or winning an award. They’re all excellent goals and dreams (and yes, there’s a big difference there), but in the end, you can only determine the outcome of whether you sit down and keep writing. Keep getting those words down, editing them, and sending them out to hopefully get accepted–and yes, hopefully paid for.

I enjoy encouraging and supporting other writers, wherever they are in their careers. The reality, though, is that publishing and writing are difficult paths to follow. We face rejection all the time–yes, even “established” authors. Getting a short story or novel drafted is extremely satisfying, but can be a tough process, especially if you’re always looking to improve your craft and try now approaches. And once you have stories being published, there’s the marketing/promo side of the business that many bemoan having to invest in.

Yet if you don’t persist through those less-fun periods of hard work, seeing a manuscript through to the end…well…then it will simply never even have a chance of success. It won’t get into the hands of readers who would’ve loved the plot and characters. Persistence means getting up each day and getting the writing work done in the hope of seeing that effort pay off. It means believing in what we do even if we feel like we’re getting hammered on all sides for a time.

And it means being able to look back and feel a measure of pride–and even joy–at what you’ve done.

Because you didn’t give up.

Josh Vogt is an author, editor, and freelance writer. His fiction ranges from fantasy to science fiction to horror and beyond, including tie-in fiction for a growing number of roleplaying games. His novels include Pathfinder Tales: Forge of Ashes, as well as the urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Enter the Janitor, The Maids of Wrath, and the newly released The Dustpan Cometh. Find him online at or on Twitter @JRVogt.
















Spotlight on Josh Vogt

Author and editor Josh Vogt’s work covers fantasy, science fiction, horror, humor, pulp, and more. His debut fantasy novel is Pathfinder Tales: Forge of Ashes, published alongside his urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Enter the Janitor and The Maids of Wrath. He’s an editor at Paizo, a Scribe Award finalist, and a member of both SFWA and the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers. Josh author photo



Strategies for a Standalone Sequel

Over the years, I’ve noticed a common complaint among authors. Namely, that writing the second book in a series can be even more difficult than writing and publishing the first one. I often wondered how that was possible. After all, once the first book is out there—whether it’s the first in a trilogy or a longer series—then isn’t all the initial hard work over and done with? The setting is established. Main characters have been introduced. Systems of magic have been explained. And you’ve also overcome the primary hurdle of getting the book published at all.

After Enter the Janitor came out last year, I focused on getting The Cleaners Book #2: The Maids of Wrath to print. And while I discovered some of the potential stumbling blocks other authors had spoken of regarding sequels, I also tried to give myself a unique challenge in my approach to the next entry in the series. Specifically, I wanted to make the story as standalone as possible, so that new readers could pick it up without having to go back to Enter the Janitor. Of course, I’d love for people to read every book in the series as it comes out, but I for at least the first handful I’ve planned in the Cleaners lines, I’d like them to be as accessible as possible on their own. Backstory and context might help, but I don’t want it to be an absolute requirement for someone to discover and get engaged by a particular novel.Maids cover

So what did that mean for The Maids of Wrath? It meant that alongside bringing back some characters and stringing along certain subplots from Enter the Janitor, I also had to find a particular balance in presenting both new and old elements. For instance, if every time a character first came onto the stage, I spent several pages explaining everything that happened to them in Book #1, the plot would come screeching to a halt. However, new readers needed a basic foundation of prior events in order to understand who this person was, their motivations, and general role in the plot—otherwise they might fail to be engaged or might become so confused they just get kicked out of the story.

In other words, I needed to keep moving the story and characters forward while keeping them rooted in the series history thus far. One technique I used was having a main character stay as a relative “newbie” to the world of the Cleaners. Despite the strides she made in Enter the Janitor, Dani is still pretty inexperienced when it comes to corporate policy and procedure, plus knowing what to expect from the various types of Scum or forms of Corruption they might encounter. So she’s still in a position to ask lots of questions, observe things she finds odd, and explore new situations.Janitor cover

The second technique I used was shaking up the status quo for most of the characters. A lot changes by the end of Enter the Janitor, and so there’s plenty of opportunity to demonstrate the current state of affairs—or call back to earlier situations—when The Maids of Wrath kicks off. For Ben, even though he’s been a Cleaner for years, he’s dealing with some pretty unique circumstances and still has to face plenty of unknowns about his own future. So he’s seeing a familiar setting from a fresh perspective, which lets readers do the same.

Lastly, I put my trust in the readers. Personally, I enjoy stories that force me (to a degree) to puzzle out some of what’s come before. To me, this means the author assumes I’m an intelligent person and can figure things out as I go. I don’t need to be spoonfed, and I believe most readers feel the same way. Everything might not be totally clear from the get-go and a reference or two might be missed, but the important dots will be connected along the way.

All of this hopefully results in a story that, while a sequel, is one people can jump right into without further ado—though if folks are inspired to go back and check out Book #1 afterward, I certainly won’t stop them!

You can find Josh at or on Twitter @JRVogt.

Spotlight on P.J. Thompson

Folklore Thursday has become a regular feature on many social media sites and blogs. Lovers of mythology read the posts and links that show up, writers find a treasure trove of story prompts and are given new ideas. Some of the best posts I’ve seen have been written by OWW alumni PJ Thompson. I’m very happy that PJ agreed to share one of her posts with us. I hope you find a story of your own hiding in PJs words.

Glastonbury Tor and the labyrinth of the soul


glastonbury 1
Many (many) years ago, after being a gobshite, I visited Glastonbury Tor and had an epiphany. Such things are not unusual there, from what I understand, and many people go especially to seek out transitional moments. Although I’d read about the Tor for years and it was high on my list of places to visit in the West Country, I didn’t go specifically seeking a pivotal moment. I don’t think one can obtain them to order. It just worked out that way for me.

Perhaps it was because I drove around the West Country for eight days on my own, but I had a number of profound experiences on that trip. If I’d had companions, perhaps I wouldn’t have been as hungry, or as internal. Perhaps discussion and camaraderie would have diluted the experiences. I don’t know. I’m just glad I received these gifts—for certainly, transitional moments are gifts.

Back in those days I didn’t have to take a bus to the Tor. I parked my rental car on the road that runs behind it and walked up to it through the countryside. I’d read that some people believe the terraces ringing the Tor are the remains of an ancient three-dimensional labyrinth that pilgrims used to traverse to gain…Well, theories vary, and many discount the idea entirely. The terraces go round the Tor seven times, ending at the pinnacle where the remains of St. Michael’s church now stands. It resembles the Cretan labyrinth, so they say, and if the theories are correct, it’s part of a long continuum of ancient ritual. A search for enlightenment? The prelude to a sacrifice? A journey through the maze of the soul? Who knows? You can read a fascinating analysis of this by Geoffrey Ashe here.

I myself approached the top of the Tor mostly as a feckless tourist, partially as excited quester, blundering along the path that cuts through the “labyrinth” and heads straight to the top. I got disoriented at a certain point about halfway up, where a clump of bushes surrounded a bench with a sheep resting its head on the backrest. I no longer remember why I grew insecure about the path—it’s a fairly straight ascent, after all—but I did. I looked down the Tor to see if I could ask someone if I was “doing it right” and spotted a young man several terraces down walking crossways along the Tor. “Is this the right way up to the Tor?” I yelled. He stopped and gave me a “what kind of a gobshite are you?” look before nodding and continuing on his journey. It was only much later when I was off the Tor and back at the B&B that I realized I’d interrupted his journey through the maze. I’m not stupid, but sometimes I’m not smart. Perhaps my idiotic interruption was part of the tribulations the mazewalker had to go through to reach enlightenment? One can only hope.

I continued on in my gobshite way, reaching the tower on top of the Tor and for some reason was granted a moment of grace. Grace is always mysterious, and often goes to the underserving. It’s not just for Christians, either. I’ve noticed that even pagans are sometimes granted grace.

Or maybe it was just endorphins from the long climb. I say that as a nod to science, which I love and respect, but mostly I’m not inclined to look this gift horse too closely in the mouth. It was a moment of personal fulfillment and I am grateful for it.

Here’s part of what I wrote about the experience many long yarns ago:

It was another cold, gray day when I got to the tower, and not too many folks around. For the moment, I was alone at the top with the tower. There’s a doorway on both sides and in the middle a pit with evidence of a recent campfire. The inside of the tower is like a vast chimney because there’s no roof, and I had a strong sense of stepping away from the world.

And I was overcome by an odd, strong realization that I was at a crossroads. I remembered an image from a book I’d recently read about a doorway on a mountaintop, and I had the unshakeable conviction that if I stepped through one doorway of that tower and emerged on the other side, my life would never be the same. But I had to choose to step through, at that precise moment in time, in the full knowledge that I accepted and welcomed the change, agreeing to something new and different in my life. I hesitated, known devils being preferable to unknown ones, but for once my timidity didn’t win. I stepped through.

glastonbury 2


Picture caption: Alchemy: The Invisible Magical Mountain And the Treasure therein Contained

On the other side of the doorway, the Tor descended gradually towards a plain of green fields and hedgerows, and to the northeast lay the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey and the town itself. A group of four sheep grazed just below the crest, heads down and disappeared in shadow, backs like tight balls of cotton floating above the hill. In the distance, the sun broke through the clouds, a shaft of silver illuminating the sky and downslope lands, while the area around the Tor remained in shadow. All except the backs of those sheep, whose whiteness caught the sun and glowed white-gold against the dark, shadowy green. The moment pierced my heart with its beauty, and I felt . . . as if the bargain I’d struck with life had been accepted. I don’t know if it was magic, or plain old motivation, but my life really wasn’t the same after that. That year—that trip and the sense of empowerment it gave me—started a cycle of changes that set me on a new path.

I have a photograph of the moment when the sun illuminated the sheep. A pale echo of the experience, but thanks to Canon, Kodak, a good color lab—and maybe a bit of grace—the dramatic lighting on the backs of those sheep came through. Whenever I really look at that photo, I am right back there, in that place, having just concluded my bargain, and realizing (maybe for the first time) that my life really was what I made of it and that the only one I really had to answer to was myself.

glastonbury sheep

PJ Thompson has been writing ever since Miss Cooper in second grade played a moody section of Peter and the Wolf and asked the class to describe the cinema in their mind. Having unleashed PJ’s creative hounds on an unsuspecting world, Miss Cooper retired to have children while PJ eventually got her BA in English from UCLA. She was a member of the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction and Fantasy for several years.

A native of Southern California, PJ has found that her home state provides a natural intersection between mundane reality and alternate reality. Her fiction tends to reflect that state of flux, and to showcase the remarkable eccentrics who have wandered west from all over the country.

Read more of PJ’s posts on her Folklore journal and her livejournal account.

Spotlight on Marsheilla Rockwell and Jeffrey J. Mariotte

Marcy and Jeff spotlight





Most writers work alone, spending months inside their own heads while writing their novels. Collaboration is a skill–and an opportunity–not all of us have, and when looked at from the outside appears just a little mysterious. This month partners Marsheila (Marcy) Rockwell and Jeffrey J. Mariotte agreed to share a little about writing their latest collaboration, 7 SYKOS, a SF/H/thriller that has been described as The Walking Dead meets The Andromeda Strain. Marsheila (Marcy) Rockwell and Jeffrey J. Mariotte have written more than 60 novels between them, some of the most recent of which are The Shard Axe series and a trilogy based on Neil Gaiman’s Lady Justice comic books written by Marcy, and Empty Rooms and Season of the Wolf by Jeff. They’ve also written dozens of short stories, separately and together. Their collaborations include the novel 7 SYKOS and short works “A Soul in the Hand,” “John Barleycorn Must Die,” “V-Wars: The Real HousewiVes of Scottsdale,” and “The Lottons Show.” You can learn more about Marcy and Jeff, and find news about upcoming projects, both collaborative and solo, at and


Q: Where did the idea for 7 SYKOS come from?

Marcy: I don’t even remember anymore. We’re both fascinated by psychopaths and how they become what they are, so we knew we wanted to explore that in a book. The rest just sort of happened.

Jeff: The initial impulse for 7 SYKOS came from a book I was reading about the unique brain structure common to many psychopaths. It struck me that there might be a situation in which only psychopaths would be able to survive and thrive. I was driving, I remember, and as the story was playing out in my head, I called Marcy and said, “Hey, how about this…”

Marcy: Well, there you go. Sometimes his memory is better than mine. 😉

Q: What was your favorite part of writing the book? Do you have a favorite (non-spoilery) scene?

Marcy: The back-and-forth with Jeff, playing the what-if? game, and bouncing ideas off each other. That’s something you don’t get writing alone, and it made the process more fun. As for a favorite scene – that’s hard; there are so many I like for different reasons. I guess the scene in the pool house, because it was cathartic.

Jeff: I think my favorite part was doing the research. Learning more about psychopathic brains, and traveling around the Valley of the Sun with Marcy to find appropriate locations, was all fun and fascinating. Taking her to the huge Bass Pro Shop in Mesa and watching her reaction was great, too.

Q: Marcy, what made you want to start writing with Jeff? How is writing with him the same or different from the other collaborations you’ve done?

Marcy: I was actually quite flattered when he asked me if I wanted to collaborate on something. Jeff has so much more experience in this industry than I do – when we first started working together, I think I’d only written three novels to his 50+. And, of course, I liked his writing and thought it would be a good fit with mine, so I jumped at the chance to work with him. It’s been a really rewarding experience so far.

As for how it’s the same or different from other collaborations I’ve done, that’s easy – I’ve never really successfully collaborated on prose with anyone else, so the fact that it works and works so well with Jeff makes it a very different experience from any I’ve had before. Part of it, for me, has to do with trust – my writing comes from a deep (usually pretty dark) place, and I have to really trust someone to be able to share the process with them. Luckily, with Jeff, I do.

Q: Jeff, what made you want to start writing with Marcy? How is writing with her the same or different from the other collaborations you’ve done?

Jeff: Since first reading Marcy’s work, I’ve had great respect for her talent. We have a lot in common, creatively and in other ways, but different life experiences, so we each bring something to the table that the other can’t, and we’re enough alike that it meshes very well. By the time we finish a project, I often can’t remember which of us wrote what, which means we’re able to smooth everything into one consistent voice. Every collaboration is different, but with Marcy, it’s a true partnership, and the work we do together ends up being the most creatively satisfying collaborative work I’ve ever done.

Q: What are the hallmarks of a Mariotte/Rockwell story?

Marcy: Well, the hallmark of a Rockwell story is that it’s dark and twisty and usually features a strong female protagonist. I bring those things to my collaborations with Jeff and he brings some light back into it. And some magic and romance, too. Plus I make him write the fight scenes, because I hate those.

Jeff: What she said.

Marcy and Jeff cover

Q: Which do you prefer, collaborating or writing solo?

Marcy: It depends. I like the creativity that flows when Jeff and I work together. He’s better at plotting than I am, so that part of it is not such a struggle when I write with him. But I also have projects that I’ve been working on for a long time where it would be hard to give up full control and share.

Jeff: They’re two completely different animals. Sometimes I’m asked if I prefer writing prose fiction or comics, and the answers the same. There’s very little real comparison, because it’s not like two different shades of red, for instance, it’s like a shade of red and a lead guitar riff. Each has its unique pleasures and unique struggles, and I love doing both, but ranking them is impossible.

Q: What’s your favorite collaborative work to date? Favorite solo work?

Marcy: It’s hard to pick just one; we’ve written several short stories that I’m really proud of. But probably my favorite would have to be 7 SYKOS. I think we created some interesting characters and have a fresh take on some old ideas and I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s received. As for solo work, I’m really fond of my Eberron stories and would love to be able to go back and play in that sandbox someday.

Jeff: 7 SYKOS is my favorite collaborative work, but the short story “The Lottons Show” runs a close second. My favorite solo work to date is the dark thriller EMPTY ROOMS. I’ve just been rereading a novel that comes out later this year, DEADLANDS: THUNDER MOON RISING, and it’s holding up well, too.

Q: Anything else you want to add?

Marcy: Just that folks should follow us at our websites and on FB/Twitter to keep up with current and future projects. Thanks for having us!

Spotlight on Tony Peak

Tony peek

Tony Peak isn’t just a member of OWW, he’s an Active Member of the SFWA and an Affiliate Member of the HWA. His debut novel Inherit The Stars was published by Penguin Random House in November 2015. His interests include progressive thinking, music, wine, history, Transhumanism, and planetary exploration. Happily married, he resides in rural southwest Virginia with a wonderful view of New River. This month Tony tells his personal “agent story” and gives some advice. Find out more about Tony and his writing at:

Finding an Agent

For those of us seeking to turn our writing passion into a career, having an agent is crucial. Finding one can be daunting and even intimidating. I’ll share my own experience in finding one, as well as debunk a few agent myths.

I was fortunate enough to get my first novel, INHERIT THE STARS, published by one of the Big Five without an agent. While that’s a story for another time, this small feat did give me some leverage—I’d proven myself without benefit of a middleman. It still wasn’t a guarantee of representation, though. But it did give me more confidence when querying agents, which is something everyone needs. Many writers fret over their query letters, trying to make them perfect little snapshots of literary genius so that The Agent will go bonkers and offer representation.

Some advice on queries: give agents the scoop on your project, make sure you’ve done the research (so that your book fits that agent’s tastes), and leave it at that. Most will not care if you’ve read their blog, or that you follow them on Twitter, or if you absolutely love the work of their clients. Sure, flattery might help, but you’re offering a business partnership, not selling yourself into literary serfdom in the hopes of Making It Big. Don’t come across as a desperate wannabe who still writes fan fiction — which leads into my next point.

Be professional. This means more than simply formatting your query correctly, or avoiding emoticons. It means stating your expectations, knowing your genre, and knowing what your plans are (is this book a standalone, or could it be a series?). It means being courteous, humble, and confident, without coming across as arrogant. This is very important if you speak to an agent on the phone, which is the next step.

Don’t call agents directly, unless they ask you to. Send them a query email. A fellow professional suggested that I call agencies directly, since I had a Penguin contract — I’d made it through the slush pile after all, right? Wrong. You’ll get the agent’s assistant every time, and for good reason. Follow their specified process. If the agent is interested, you’ll know, and within a few days. Sometimes within hours.
Tony's cover Inherit the stars

The Big Phone Call, the first time it happens, is cool, frightening, and invigorating. Mine came from a well-known New York agent, so I was nervous as hell. To my credit, I maintained my sanity long enough to answer all of his questions. The conversation went very well; he would look over my Penguin novel and let me know if he was interested in having me as a client.

That initial communication is a huge confidence booster. It shows that, hey, I might have a real chance at this after all. It means that so-and-so agent actually took the time to call ME, and talk about MY work. Writers need that boost sometimes. Don’t let it go to your head.

A few days later, the agent emailed me, turning me down. He liked the work, but wanted something else at the moment. I admit, I was a tad depressed…but not for long. I sent out more queries to other agents. The next week, I received replies from five different agents, wanting to read my other manuscripts. I spoke with another on the phone, and she sounded very intrigued. I should have been on Cloud Nine, right? Nope. It was still an exciting process, but The Big Phone Call had prepared me for this. I wasn’t nervous any longer. I could just be myself in these interactions, and let me tell you, that is golden.

Then I got a call from a third New York agent (NY is key, people) who was very interested. Best of all, he had already bought my novel and was several chapters into it—and he was enjoying it! During our first conversation, he offered representation.

I declined for the moment, stating that I had to let the other agents know that I’d received an offer. That goes back to being a professional. Plus, play your options. Weigh the pros and cons of each agent before making a choice.

This last agent represented some high-profile science fiction authors, and on top of that, he completed my novel over the weekend, and loved it. That finalized my decision. No one else had expressed that much enthusiasm, coupled with such credentials, in my work. That’s what you want in a business partner.

So I accepted his offer.

Everyone’s experience will be different, but remember: agents are not Superhuman Gatekeepers of the Literary Realm. They are real people, who love what they do. Love what you do, don’t give up, and I’m sure you’ll find an agent who is right for you.