Bite-Sized Goals and Mousey Nibbles: Managing Lengthy Projects

Working your way through large, lengthy projects, like . . . oh, writing a novel, for instance, can be overwhelming, can’t it? First you have to write down the words, then you have to fix the words, then you have to fix them a second time, and possibly a third or fourth or fifth time. Then you have to figure out how to get those words out into the world, whether via traditional methods or indie. And while you’re trying to accomplish all of this, you have everyday life stuff to deal with too: jobs, family, chores—as well as non-everyday stuff, such as illnesses, vacations, bad mental health days, holidays . . . I could go on and on.

Of course, it helps to get organized by setting goals and deadlines—to mark on your calendar in bold when you want your first draft to be finished by, when you need to be done with the first round of edits, and so on. But when setting these longer deadlines, it’s easy to underestimate how long you’re really going to need.

I’ve made this mistake many times. I’ve tried to prevent it by calculating out how many words I need to write each day leading up to my deadline in order to reach it—making room for days when I know I’ll have less time to write. As long as I write the prescribed number of words each day, I’ll be perfectly fine, right? But then, life throws obstacles in my path, and soon I’m failing to meet my word counts and falling behind. The farther behind I fall, the more frustrated I get. I move my deadline out. I recalculate my word counts. Then I fall behind again. I get discouraged and overwhelmed over, and over, and I start to think I’ll never finish this darn thing.

Does this sound familiar?

Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you do well with large goals and a daily word count system. Maybe that’s all you need in order to get things done. If so, that’s fantastic! It’s common advice, so it must work for a lot of writers, right? But if it’s not working for you, just as it hasn’t been working for me, I’d like to suggest a few things that have been working for me lately, in the hopes that you, too, will find them helpful.

Make 2-3 Bite-Sized Goals At A Time

I still plan out the large goals (finish draft, revise draft, edit draft.) But I’ve lessened their importance in favor of smaller, bite-sized goals (that, I must stress, aren’t word counts,) and I only plan out a few of these goals at a time. For instance, my goal this weekend was to re-examine my outline, because I’ve discovered I need to throw out some scenes and replace them with brand new ones. I wasn’t writing the scenes this weekend—just taking a look and deciding what I need those scenes to do. My next bite-sized goal will be to outline those scenes. The bite-sized goal after that will be to finally draft those scenes. And . . . that’s it. That’s as far ahead as I’ve planned. Obviously, I have an idea of what I’ll need to do after that, because I know that my ultimate goal is to finish revising this entire draft. But for now, I’m not going to worry about anything further than getting through these next few scenes.

Keeping my goals small and few in number helps me feel like I’m actually making progress. If I look at it in respect to the larger goal of finishing my revisions, it won’t feel like I’ve done much at all. I’ll feel like I’m moving at a snail’s pace, and I’ll get frustrated. So I don’t do that.

Only Work Under Your Best Working Conditions

Pay close attention to when and where you do your best work. Do you get more done in the morning? Then work in the morning and don’t try to squeeze more work out of yourself past that time (unless you absolutely must.) Do you have specific days when you’re less likely to be able to focus? Keep your expectations low on those days. I have a standing appointment every Tuesday morning that tends to throw off my concentration for the rest of the day. I’ve come to accept that if I do get any writing done on Tuesdays, it’s a bonus. I’m better off using Tuesdays to catch up on chores or other things that don’t require me to think too much. I’m having a harder time convincing myself that writing post-children’s bedtimes is also a lost cause. But it’s a fact that I’m usually too tired and brain-drained to do much of anything by then. My best times for focusing are late morning and early afternoon when the kids are at school, so that’s when I make myself sit down and work. I also pay attention to my energy level. If I try to work with my laptop on the couch, am I more likely to nap instead? If so, I’ll make myself a cup of coffee or tea, and work sitting up at my desk. Is my back bothering me to the point where sitting at my desk will make the pain worse and/or distract me? Then maybe the couch would be better after all.

Just Take a Mousey Nibble

Okay, this one probably needs some background. My oldest son is a very picky eater. Always has been. He has texture issues and we suspect he may also be a super taster, because he will often complain about things tasting “too strong.” There was a period when he was younger where he was so anxious about trying new foods, that he would burst into tears at the mere suggestion. That is until one day, he told us that maybe . . . maybe he could just try a mouse-sized bite. A little mousey nibble. A nearly microscopic taste that, like sticking a toe in the water, would help to alleviate some of his fear of the unknown. This still works with him. “Just take a mousey nibble, and if you don’t like it, that’s okay,” we tell him. And so he does. And then sometimes, all on his own, he will decide to take a larger taste afterward.

If, even with your bite-sized goals, you’re still feeling anxious about sitting down to work, or you’re not sure how to get started, or you’re just plain unmotivated, tell yourself that you only have to take a mousey nibble. Open your document and commit to five minutes. You don’t even have to type anything. You can use those five minutes to look over your last paragraph, or glance through your outline, or heck, just stare at the blank screen. Chances are though, once your timer goes off, you’ll be able to settle yourself into your task. And if you still can’t, that’s ok. Take a break and try another mousey nibble later. Maybe it’ll taste different next time.

I hope these ideas are helpful to you. Do you have any other tricks up your sleeve that help you get through large projects? Please share them with us in the comments.



When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard, Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele, knitting, or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys and three mischievous cats. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

Tallying the Tailwinds


I come from a family of runners and writers. Both pursuits can be difficult and, at times, discouraging. My brother and I were talking about running recently and laughing about the fact that he’d run the same route every morning for months, always thinking, “I have the worst luck. The wind always picks up when I turn back for home.”

We were laughing because of course, this wasn’t true. The wind was there all along. But he wasn’t aware of it when it was pushing him gently along, helping him toward his goal. As runners, we’re aware of our tailwinds for a minute or two, and then we simply don’t notice them. Headwinds, however, are nearly always in our thoughts because they’re quite literally in our faces.

As it turns out, this isn’t an experience unique to running, and certainly not to my brother. In all aspects of life, we are more likely to notice the forces working against us than those working for us. Not because we are negative or pessimists, but because the obstacles are the very things we’re trying to overcome, and therefore they have our attention. The things that are helping us along don’t require our attention and therefore don’t receive it to nearly the same degree.

In psychology, this is known as the Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry. Tom Gilovich of Cornell University has studied this phenomenon for years, sharing his results in scholarly articles as well as this highly accessible podcast interview. It’s a phenomenon that shows up across the human experience, in areas from sports to politics to family matters.

In conjunction with this research, Gilovich also references the fact that who actively practice gratitude—which is, in essence, the act of acknowledging and appreciating your tailwinds—are happier and healthier. Those who don’t are more likely to not only focus on their headwinds—the obstacles in their way—but to succumb to greed and envy, two feelings that are essentially the opposites of gratitude. As you might guess, this does not result in happier, healthier outcomes.

Let’s return, then, to writing. It’s easy to focus on the (valid) writing is difficult for you and on the obstacles you’ve faced and are facing.

But have you tallied your tailwinds lately? Ever? Your list might include some of these:

  • Your education and literacy (For so much of the world, this is not a given.)
  • Access to libraries, and perhaps even a personal library
  • Access to the materials you need to write, whether that’s a brand-new laptop or a notebook and a sharp pencil
  • Writing software (Search and replace! Track changes! What incredible tools we have.)
  • A supportive family
  • Wise critique partners
  • A writing community, including mentors who pay it forward
  • Access to information (Google Earth! Google Translate! Straight-up Google! YouTube! Blogs like this one!)
  • Emotional health, including a heart capable of empathizing with the characters you create
  • Physical health, including healthy hands capable of typing
  • Mental health, including a mind capable of creating
  • A supportive and knowledgeable agent
  • An editor or publisher who champions your book
  • Readers who love your work (whether they number in the millions or we’re just talking about your mom)

My own list includes many of these, and I’m sure there are things I’m missing—advantages I’ve enjoyed for so long that I simply don’t see them. But the very act of writing this list has helped me appreciate all the forces working in my favor. The very act of listing your tailwinds, or even stopping to think about it, can make all the difference in outlook and, as a result, outcome. It’s certainly something I plan to practice on a much more regular basis.

profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of Like Magic and Paper Chains (HarperCollins). She loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. You can find her at on the web, @ElaineBVickers on TwitterInstagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.

Ten Tips for Surviving Book Launch

We are absolutely delighted to welcome today’s guest, Barbara Claypole White!

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I’ve just launched my fifth novel, which means I’ve lost 5lbs and restful sleep. (Last night I dreamed my office had become a medical triage unit.) Book launch turns me ever-so-slightly neurotic and detracts from the joy of hanging out with my characters in my jammies. However, this time around I’ve figured out how to survive with my humor intact:


Look in the mirror, spread your arms wide, grin like you’re accepting a Pulitzer, and say, “I’m a badass author! I launched a novel into the word.” (Repeat as necessary after every one-star bashing on Goodreads.) Anything that exhibits what I call the it’s-all-lovely mindset helps chip away at anxiety.


Take twenty minutes to stop and enjoy the gifts that will arrive on the UPS truck: smell those roses and eat at least two truffles.


Treat yourself to one thing on launch day, even if it’s only a shower. I had an extended cocktail hour with my beloved menfolk, when we talked about the state of the non-publishing world. (Obviously too much alcohol will not help your anxiety, but hey, a little buzz is good for the soul.)


Accept that you have no control over what happens to your book from this day forth. No, really, you have ZERO control. I live in the South, and we rarely get snow. On launch day the weather forecast turned against me—yes, it’s easy to take everything personally—and the 50% chance of rain or sleet was now a 90% chance of snow. I spent launch day morning creating Plan B for my inaugural reading at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, and then had to sort out the caterer, who was baking a book cake. (Public service announcement: book cakes freeze beautifully.) Then I spent another hour rescheduling hair and dental appointments, which is way harder than it sounds. Both my hairstylist and dentist are rock stars in their fields and booked until May. (And my roots were showing, and I have a killer toothache.)


Yes, you will go down the rabbit hole with social media and messages of congratulations, but the next day, step away from your computer. I learned this accidentally after our 90% chance of winter weather dumped a foot of the white stuff on our driveway and I spent the morning shoveling snow, which leads me to…


This is a toughie, but do not compulsively check your rankings on Amazon. If you find that ‘resistance is futile’, set limits: check in two hours, then three, then five, then only once a day. Get it? Got it? Good.


Amazon rankings are not listed in real-time. You will have a much better sense of how the book’s performing on day two. With THE PROMISE BETWEEN US, reviews started coming in quickly, but the book’s rankings didn’t do anything interesting until day three. (Okay, I was weak; I checked.)


Don’t read reviews that are anything less than 5-stars before bedtime. If you can hold off, binge read all the negative reviews after the book has launched and you’ve rediscovered your happy place. THE PERFECT SON has been out for two and a half years. Yesterday I read all the one-star reviews. As predicted, 50% went after my characters’ use of the f-bomb, 40% were a variation on the theme ‘boring’, and 10% had vaguely useful criticisms that made me nod and say, “Fair enough.” But hey, that book was a Goodreads Choice Awards Nominee for Best Fiction 2015—a category that I shared with Harper Lee—and that fact is tattooed into my soul.


If your deadline is not ticking loudly, take launch day off, but return to writing as quickly as possible. My favorite mantra is, “let writing be the cure,” because the only time I have laser focus is when I write. Writing is also how I process my own emotions and everything that I can’t control (back to anxiety). I spent launch day—ahead of snowmaggedon—co-writing a blog piece with my buddy Laura Spinella. We’ve been sharing the same foxhole since our writing careers began, and as we traded comments in track changes, I shared launch day angst with a sister-in-arms. Perfect.


Newsflash: your novel is unlikely to burst into the world on the bestseller lists, but women’s fiction has a long shelf life, and sometimes the most thrilling part of book launch isn’t the sales’ number. I discovered, by mistake, that THE PROMISE BETWEEN US was included on a list of must-read 2018 books for fans of Jodi Picoult. I’m a huge fan of Ms. Picoult (her books do burst into the world as bestsellers!). That list made me feel like a queen—for far longer that one day.

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bcwBestselling author Barbara Claypole White creates hopeful family drama with a healthy dose of mental illness. Originally from England, she writes and gardens in the forests of North Carolina, where she lives with her beloved OCD family. Her novels include The Unfinished Garden, The In-Between Hour, The Perfect Son, and Echoes of Family.  The Promise Between Us, which shines a light on postpartum OCD, released on January 16th, 2018. She is also an OCD Advocate for the A2A Alliance, a nonprofit group that promotes advocacy over adversity. To connect with Barbara, please visit, or follow her on Facebook. She’s always on Facebook.


Overcoming Your Writing Fears

AKA How My Lame Dancing Skills Applies to Writing Well

We all come programmed to have fears. I’ll tell you mine: spiders, dancing in front of people, the popping of crescent dough rolls when you open them (I hoover in the corner, cover my ears, and make my boys open them. Yes. For real.) And fear of not leaving a big enough mark in this world.

I’ve only overcome just one of those.

Well sort of. I’m still working on it. I used to be afraid of dancing in front of people. There’s a few earned reasons. Number one- I got kicked out of my clogging class when I was a little girl. No one wants an echo shuffle in a clogging class. Number 2- I might look funny in front of others. And that, my friends, I call just plain old dumb pride. Stops you dead in your tracks.

Good enough reasons.

One of the most common fears that people have is fear of failure. I think it is the underlying fear of most of our fears (I most definitely do not want to fail at squishing a spider or not being able to successfully open the crescent dough can for dinner… ok maybe not that one).

Here’s a few things I’ve learned about my failed dancing moments that apply to writing and overcoming our fears of failure. Just let me get one thing straight though. You are going to fail. And it’s going to be your awesome stepping stone to success.

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Practice, Practice, Practice

So. My clogging class was not the only time I ever tried dancing. I paid to go to a dance camp. Whew. That was the biggest mistake in my life. I had only perfected the undercover dancing at high school dances. You know what I’m referring to… the wiggling that looks like you’re dancing but you’re not. There’s the slight head and hip bobbing coupled with tiny knee bopping. I was the master at this lame dance.

I had no clue how to really dance. So, when I went from undercover dancing to hip hopping and slip swishing the cha- cha. My brain and feet got all tangled up.


I tried a couple of other simple dance classes. All of them ending in a disappointed chick. So I can’t dance. And I contemplated squeezing my eyes shut to dancing dilemma forever until… much, much, later in life.

My friends started group dating and invited us to the annual Valentines dance in our little town. Every year we went. My husband and I just participating in the slow dances. That was easy.

But then…

I got brave. I got brave because I learned that I wasn’t the only one who felt funny busting a move. It was obvious some just had the dancing knick-knack in their sack but most of my friends didn’t. We could dork out the moves together.

For months I would practice in front of a mirror. Did I look as stupid as I thought I did? The answer was yes by the way. I loosened up with the Wii Dance game. It taught me some slick tricks. Go ahead laugh. I started bee-bopping in the kitchen. I would close the blinds and practice. I was building my confidence. I was secretly dancing at home before I publicly made my first debut.

Writers Need to Practice, Practice, Practice

And the same thing happened as a writer. I paid for my 1st writing workshop. I found myself dancing with big wig writers that are smooth and quick and their skills seem effortless. I had no clue how to really write. So I went from undercover writing to big plotting, and mapping, and scrapping my whole idea as a writer.

My brain and fingers got all tangled up.

But I wasn’t alone. I found writers with the same frustrations, the same embarrassing down falls, the same feelings of learning and mastering the skill of writing. Then a friend invited me, an undercover writer, to participate with her in the annual NanoWriMo. It wasn’t long though, until I started writing in the kitchen, I loosened up with pre writing games and all those slick tricks. I was secretly writing before I made my first public debut.

It would be a long time before that ever happened.

But, the constant practicing of writing made me crave more writing. All of this practicing was building my confidence. And though my 1st real attempt was a disaster. I just couldn’t let go of the passion for writing.

Just like I was discovering what dancing was all about.

Ignore Cock-Eyed Looks

Ok. So maybe my 1st break out dance wasn’t as beautiful as I planned in my head. Well, there’s no maybe about that. I still remember my long hair somehow flailing above my head. Yes, above it. It swirled and swished and… oh I wished I would have chosen a different dance move.

I looked like a complete dork.

Embarrassing. But… incredibly fun!

I was tired of playing it safe on the sidelines. Watching everyone else having fun at the dances. I was tired of studying their moves and hoping for the same outcome. I could study them all I wanted and nothing would ever come of it. Do you know why?

I was playing it safe.

I was only playing it out in my head. Trying to get better by thinking about it. I wasn’t taking any risks in looking like a dork. I wasn’t risking the fact that maybe busting a move would bust up my neighbor. I love making people smile- even at my own terrible expense. I was observing everything I wanted to do and playing it flawlessly in my head while my feet napped through the whole process.

Oh dread.

I was living a virtual dancing world. It was time to break out of it. In my head it was perfect, smooth, and cool. In real life it was off beat, rocky, and so very not cool. And there were some cock-eyed looks.

And it makes me laugh now. A grown woman flailing about like that.

Oh… are you so embarrassed for me?

Writers Get Cock Eyed Looks Too

It’s fine. I don’t mind telling you how terrible it was. Because you know what, that’s how writing was for me at first. I remember the first real writing contest I entered.

I studied and learned proper moves of writing but I never really put myself out there. I was playing it safe. I only let myself read my writings. I wasn’t getting any better by keeping it to myself. I wasn’t taking any risks so I decided to enter a real contest. The virtual world of writing came out perfect, smooth, and cool. In real life it was off beat, rocky, and not as cool as I imagined it to be. Meh. And I got some cock-eyed comments from the judges.

I got a really low score on my sample. The judges didn’t like it at all. There were 3 judges. In fact they remarked how they didn’t realize what was going on until the end. It was a short 150 word writing piece.

At first it disappointed me.

But after letting that disappointment simmer for a week or more I realized something very important. I had just received the best compliment I could get. I didn’t want them to know what was going on until the end of the piece. I had purposely dragged them along to surprise them at the end. I realized I did exactly what I wanted to do.

And that little failure inspired me to keep writing. So what if a grown woman was flailing about like that? What if her words were all over the place, getting cock-eyed looks?

My failure wasn’t a sign to give up but a signal that I was doing something right with my writing. Maybe it wasn’t the most masterful writing (I can see that now) but the element of truth that I was doing exactly what I was trying to do was exactly the kick start I needed.

If you can pick up the positivity in your failing moment then you draw a strength from it. Find it. It’s there. But don’t give up because it doesn’t end up exactly the way you played it out in your head.

It’s okay.

Learn To Feel The Beat

So with time I never really “mastered” dancing, per se. But, I mastered the art of enjoying what I was doing. I learned to relax and let my body to feel the beat of the music, to not let my head get so much in the way of what I was doing. I let my heart drive the moves. I learned to not necessarily follow the master dancers (I couldn’t keep up) but to boogie to my own beat. I toned down the craziness and honed in on just feeling the beat. My beat. I love it.

I didn’t care so much if I didn’t catch on so fast. No one could kick me out but myself. And I wasn’t going to kick myself out. I stopped caring if I looked funny in front of others. Looking funny was stretching and growing moments.

But most of all, I was having fun: writing and dancing.

So go ahead flail around, go crazy, and have fun. Look like a dork. Get a few cock-eyed looks and know that you are headed for success. Because those that just study writing never become the master of writing. Put yourself out there. Overcome your fears of not making it and looking funny. Get out there and dance.

(And just for the record. There’s no way I’m even going to attempt to master my fears of spiders. Not a chance.)

christie-perkinsChristie Perkins is a survivor of boy humor, chemo, and faulty recipes. She loves freelance writing, blogging, and is a nonfiction junkie. Her stage 4 cancer doesn’t knock down her passion for life and writing. Not a chance. A couple of magazines have published her work but her biggest paycheck is her incredible family. Christie hates spiders, the dark, and Shepherd’s Pie. Bleh. Mood boosters: white daisies, playing basketball, and peanut butter M&M’s. You can find out more about her on her blog at

Writing About Guns Without Shooting Yourself in the Foot

triggerTrigger Warning (heh): This post talks about guns and how to write about them. If that makes you squeamish, please go read something else. Thanks.

Good writing requires research. If you’re writing a story that involves open-heart surgery, you’re probably going to do some in-depth reading on the topic so you don’t get critical details wrong. If you’re writing a novel about hackers, you’ll likely want to consult with a computer expert or two to make sure you don’t embarrass yourself.

Unfortunately, too many writers ignore this advice when it comes to writing about firearms. Even well-respected authors tend to rely on what they’ve learned on the topic from movies, television and the news media. And sadly, much (if not most) of that is just plain wrong.

You don’t have to be a gun expert to write about guns. In most cases, you’re actually better off being as non-specific as possible. Getting into a lot of details about models and actions and calibers is a sure-fire way to put most of your readers to sleep. When details matter, though, it’s important to get them right. Failing to do so can turn readers off to your writing.

Whether you’re writing about guns or diamond mining or pigeon racing or square dancing, always remember:

Dave’s First Rule on Writing About Technical Details

When you mess up the technical stuff, not everyone will notice, and not everyone will care. But those who notice will care.

I have a friend who is a respected firearms instructor. He’s a walking, talking encyclopedia of firearms knowledge. A number of years ago, a best-selling author contacted him and said, “I need you to teach me about guns.” My friend spent days and days on the range with the author, teaching him everything from gun basics to marksmanship to defensive tactics.

I recently re-read this writer’s series from the beginning and it was easy to tell the exact point in the narrative where the author got his firearms training. First of all, the author named a character after my friend, so that was kind of a giveaway. Second of all, the author’s knowledge of weapons and tactics went up exponentially at exactly that point. A little knowledge went a long way.

The Language of Guns

Words, like guns, are tools … and we all know what happens when you use the wrong tool for a job. If you refer to a Glock 24 as an “automatic,” talk about inserting a “clip” into a revolver or describe a character “cocking” an AR15, you’ll reveal to your readers that you really don’t know what you’re writing about. This intrudes on the willing suspension of disbelief, and can lead to readers abandoning your narrative.

Major Categories of Guns

If you’re going to write a story that involves guns, you should probably know a few of the basics. The following definitions are adapted from the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

Handgun: A weapon with a short stock designed to be gripped by one hand, which fires a projectile from one or more barrels. (Subcategories include revolver, pistol and derringer.)

Revolver: A handgun featuring a revolving cylinder that typically holds five to ten cartridges, each within a separate chamber. Before a revolver fires, the cylinder rotates, and the next chamber is aligned with the barrel.

Pistol: Any handgun where the barrel and chamber are a single unit. Pistols can be manually operated or semiautomatic. A semiautomatic pistol generally holds cartridges in a magazine located in the grip of the gun. When the semiautomatic pistol is fired, the spent cartridge is ejected, the firing mechanism is reset, and a new cartridge is chambered.

Derringer: A small single- or multiple-shot handgun other than a revolver or semiautomatic pistol.

Rifle: A shoulder-fired weapon that uses the energy of the explosive in a fixed metallic cartridge to fire a single projectile through a rifled bore—one projectile for each pull of the trigger.

Shotgun: A shoulder-fired weapon that uses the energy of the explosive in a fixed shotgun shell to fire through a smooth bore either a number of ball shot or a single projectile for each pull of the trigger.

Note that some people call revolvers “pistols” as well—that distinction is not entirely agreed-upon. For obvious reasons, rifles and shotguns are often referred to as “long guns.”

If you’re writing historical fiction, there’s at least one other type of gun you need to know about:

Musket: A muzzle-loaded long gun that was the precursor to modern-day rifles. While rifles are distinguished by the “rifling” grooves that spin a bullet while it travels down the barrel, muskets generally feature a smooth-bored barrel.

Because of their smooth bore (and because the musket balls are often smaller than the barrels they shoot through) muskets are much less accurate than rifles. It’s said that rifles are aimed, but muskets are pointed. If you’re writing about the American Revolutionary War and you describe Redcoat soldiers “pointing their rifles” at someone, lots of your readers are going to laugh at you. The earliest muskets date back to the 1500s, and muskets were still in common use through the U.S. Civil War and even up to the turn of the last century.

Readers of historical fiction tend to be pretty particular about accuracy, so it’s worth doing some research if you want to sound informed.

Firing Action

Another way to categorize guns is by their “action,” which is a component critical to their design:

Fully automatic: A weapon capable of firing a succession of cartridges while the trigger is depressed, until the ammunition runs out or a malfunction occurs. Automatic weapons are considered “machine guns” and are highly regulated under the National Firearms Act and subsequent U.S. gun laws.

Semiautomatic: A weapon that fires a single shot each time the trigger is depressedA semiautomatic uses the energy of each fired cartridge to cycle the action and advance the next available cartridge into position for firing.

Machine gun: A fully automatic weapon that fires rifle cartridges (as opposed to handgun cartridges). Machine guns are usually designed to be shoulder-fired, and generally feature a barrel 14 inches or longer. Larger machine guns may be fired from a tripod or bipod.

Submachine gun: A simple fully automatic weapon that fires a pistol cartridge instead of a rifle cartridge. “Sub guns” are often short-barreled variants of light machine guns. Smaller submachine guns, called machine pistols, have no shoulder stock and are not designed to be fired from the shoulder.

The distinction between semiautomatic and automatic is an important one. Lots of smart people get this wrong. Plenty of famous authors get this wrong. Consistently.

The important thing to know about automatic weapons is how rare they are. They’ve been highly regulated since 1934, when Congress passed the National Firearms Act. It’s illegal for civilians to own any automatic weapon manufactured after 1986. Pre-1986 guns, when you can find them, are extremely expensive—$15,000 to $30,000 at the low end—and they require an intensive colonoscopy from the BATF to acquire.

Semiautomatic guns are a different story. They’re nothing special. In fact, the vast majority of guns sold in the U.S. are semiautomatic.

Calling a semiautomatic gun an “automatic” demonstrates either profound ignorance or an intent to deceive. Smart authors need to stop doing it.

Misunderstood Concepts

Assault Rifle vs. Assault Weapon

selective-fireAssault rifles, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, are “selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between sub-machine gun and rifle cartridges.” The “selective fire” part is the important part: a true assault rifle has a switch to select between semiautomatic and fully automatic modes. (Some assault rifles include a “three-shot burst” option as well.) This is a very specialized type of firearm, available only to military and law enforcement purchasers, virtually impossible for civilians to acquire. Roughly 99.999 percent of the time, when someone on the news is talking about “assault rifles,” they have no idea what they’re talking about.

barrel-shroudThen we have the “assault weapon.” From a functional perspective, “assault weapons” simply don’t exist. This is a purely political term coined in 1989 by anti-gun politicians who needed to classify an arbitrary group of firearms for the purpose of banning them. On both the state and federal level, “assault weapons” have been defined and redefined in contradictory ways. In many cases, the legislators creating the definitions don’t even understand what they mean. This is humorously illustrated by the famous interview with a politician who, when asked if she knew what a “barrel shroud” was, said it was “the shoulder thing that goes up.” (Spoiler alert: It’s not.)

“Assault weapon” is a completely meaningless term unless you’re writing about the politics of gun control.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the “AR” in AR15 does not stand for “assault rifle.” It stands for “ArmaLite Rifle.” (ArmaLite was the company that originally developed the design.) An AR15 is not an assault rifle (nor is it a high-powered rifle). In truth, it’s a garden-variety semiautomatic that shoots a middling cartridge (.223 or 5.56x45mm NATO) that looks a lot like a military weapon but isn’t.

Magazine vs. Clip

mags-clipsThis is another one lots of writers get wrong.

Clip: A device that makes it easy to insert multiple rounds of ammunition into a gun’s magazine.

Magazine: A device that feeds ammunition into a gun’s action. Some guns have internal magazines, while other magazines are removable. The term is often truncated to mag.

If you’re talking about the rectangular thing filled with ammo that pops into the grip of a handgun, you’re talking about a magazine, not a clip.

Bullets, Shells, Rounds

If you buy ammunition for a rifle or handgun, you’re buying cartridges or rounds. Each cartridge consists of a brass or steel casing (or shell), a bullet or projectile (usually lead, sometimes jacketed in copper), a primer and propellant (also called a charge). Ammunition comes in lots of different sizes, and you have to use the right caliber and cartridge for the gun you’re shooting. Some common handgun cartridges include .45 ACP, .40 S&W, 9mm Parabellum, .380 ACP, .38 Special, and .22 LR (which is also a rifle caliber). Common rifle cartridges include .22 LR, .223, .243 Winchester, .22-250 Remington, .30-30 Winchester, and .30-06 Springfield. There are literally hundreds of different caliber/cartridge combinations.

If you buy ammo for a shotgun, you’re buying shotgun shells, or shotshells. Shotshells are measured in gauge, not caliber. The most common are 12-gauge and 20-gauge. A shotshell is generally a plastic casing with a metallic base, which contains the primer and propellant (or charge). A plastic or felt wad helps keep the powder in place. In front of that is the shot (multiple pellets or BBs) or slug (a single, big-ass bullet). Shotshells are subcategorized by the size of their shot, with birdshot and buckshot being the most common.

Incidentally, ammunition is referred to as rounds because … bullets used to be round.

Other Considerations

Counting Rounds

Don’t tell anyone in Hollywood, but guns don’t come pre-loaded with an unlimited supply of bullets. If you write a gunfight, you need to know the capacity of the gun or its magazine, and then keep track of how many rounds have been fired (and where they went). Does your character carry additional mags or speed-loaders? If not, your character is limited to the ammunition already in the gun.

Most handguns, when they run out of ammunition, don’t go “click, click, click” when the trigger is pulled. Many revolvers do this, but most semiautomatic pistols don’t. In most cases, when a semiautomatic handgun runs out, its slide locks open. Pulling the trigger will do nothing.

Oh, and anyone who’s ever bought a gun knows they’re not cheap. You don’t throw your empty gun at the bad guy when you’re out of ammo. That’s ridiculous.

Manual Safeties

A manual safety is a mechanism built into a gun that, when switched to safe, makes the gun incapable of firing. Some guns have them and some don’t. One guaranteed way to make a lot of your readers roll their eyes is to write about a character unholstering a Glock and clicking off the safety. Glocks don’t have manual safeties. Most revolvers don’t, either.

Most modern handguns (including Glocks) do have multiple integrated passive safety mechanisms to help prevent accidental discharges. These include hammer blocks, firing pin blocks, grip safeties and trigger safeties. This type of safety can’t be switched on or off, so if you mention a character flicking a safety, make sure the gun you’ve put in his or her hands actually has one.

Working the Action

You know the scene where the bad guy appears and the cop racks his slide or pumps the action of his shotgun in dramatic fashion?

Yeah, that’s stupid. Just about anyone legally carrying a gun will have “one in the pipe”—a round already chambered. This is especially the case if the person is a law enforcement officer. Working the action with a round in the chamber just ejects a perfectly good catridge onto the ground.

Hollywood does this all the time because it looks and sounds dramatic. But it’s not realistic.

Guns Are Loud

You know that scene where your protagonist runs into some bad guys, exchanges gunfire, and then hides in a closet or something listening intently for footsteps on the stairs?

That’s bullcrap. Guns are LOUD—especially in enclosed spaces. If your character fires a gun without hearing protection, he or she won’t be hearing anything but a nasty ringing sound for half an hour or so. At the very least, your characters won’t be whispering to each other just moments later, because they won’t be able to hear the whispers.


You know that scene where the hit man shoots his “silenced” gun and there’s a tiny little sound like a mouse fart and the target collapses to the ground? Complete bullcrap.

Earlier this year, a prominent U.S. politician tweeted: “When someone gets shot by a gun with a silencer, it’s quiet. Witnesses might not hear. Police will be less likely to track down the shooter.” This is exactly the type of thing you expect from someone who learned everything they know about guns from Hollywood.

First of all, “Silencer” is the name of a specific product created by Maxim in the early 1900s. The generic term is suppressor. Suppressors are regulated by the National Firearms Act, the same law that controls the sale and distribution of automatic weapons.

Second of all, a suppressor only partially reduces the sound created by the rapid expansion of gasses at the muzzle of a gun. It doesn’t do anything for the telltale crack that occurs when a bullet reaches supersonic speed (1,127 feet per second, at sea level). Most suppressors reduce a gun’s noise output by about 30 dB—just enough to shoot without hearing protection and avoid permanent hearing loss.

If your character fires a big handgun (say, a 1911 chambered in .45 ACP), each shot generates up to 162 dB of noise trauma. Suppressing such a gun can “silence” it to around 132 dB, which is still louder than the noisiest rock concert or NASCAR race. A suppressed .22 rifle could be as quiet as 112 dB, or even a little less if low-powered subsonic ammunition is used. But that’s still roughly the same noise output as a household leafblower.

Any gunshot, suppressed or unsuppressed, is going to be heard by the people in the next room—and probably across the street. Suppressors don’t “silence” anything. They just muffle really really loud noises so they’re only really loud.

Most People Can’t Shoot

Seriously—most people can’t hit the broad side of a barn from 50 paces. And yes, this often includes law enforcement.

Shooting is a skill. It’s one that must be perfected through hours of training and practice. A top competitive shooter can blow through 25,000 or more rounds of ammunition in a year. Military snipers will shoot far fewer rounds, though they make every round count. Also, to be fair, their ammunition is much more expensive.

By comparison, most police officers shoot fewer than 200 rounds per year. Law enforcement qualifying tests are notoriously easy to pass, and most departments allow their officers to retake the tests as often as needed. It’s not hard to find stories of extremely poor shooting by law enforcement personnel. In one notorious case, two NYPD officers fired 16 total rounds to take down a single bad guy … while also managing to wound nine innocent bystanders.

I don’t mean to knock LEOs. Sure, they carry weapons, but their primary role is to investigate crimes, not prevent them. Most departments have very little budget for live fire training. Also, most officers never fire a single shot while on duty, and many don’t do much shooting outside of the qualifying range.

If your character is a firearms noob in a high-pressure situation, he or she probably won’t be pulling off amazing feats of marksmanship—especially at distances beyond a couple of yards.

Even in the hands of a trained shooter, handguns are only accurate for so far. You know that scene where James Bond shoots down a helicopter from a moving boat with a single shot from his Walther PPK? Total baloney.

Kinetic Energy

A person doesn’t get blown back 20 feet when hit by a bullet. This may look dramatic, but it ain’t realistic. A bullet just doesn’t have enough kinetic energy to do something like that.

There are plenty of videos on YouTube showing the effects of bullets on ballistic gel (an analog for human tissue) or animal corpses. I won’t post any links here, but it’s really easy to find that kind of thing, if you need to know more.

Shooting to Disarm or Wound

You know that scene where the cop takes careful aim and shoots the gun out of the hand of the bad guy? Pure nonsense. Likewise, the whole “shoot the bad guy in the leg to wound him” thing is complete hogwash.

Anyone with any law enforcement or self-defense training knows that you don’t “shoot to wound.” You “shoot to stop the threat.” If a situation calls for the use of deadly force, a trained shooter will aim for center mass, or the middle of the torso. Aiming for a person’s gun hand only increases the likelihood that a defender will miss and hit an innocent person. It also increases the chance that the shot will miss, and the defender will end up being hit by return fire.

Character Counts

Much of this goes out the window if you’re writing in the voice of a character who doesn’t know much about guns. In the movie “Stand by Me” (which is based on a fantastic novella by Stephen King), Chris Chambers shows his friends his father’s 1911 service pistol, which he’s brought along on their journey. Gordie asks, “Ya got shells for it?” It’s totally the wrong word, but Gordie is a kid and he probably doesn’t know better.

We don’t expect Gordie to know the difference between a cartridge and a shotshell. But when a soldier or police officer in your story uses incorrect terminology, it sets off warning bells. Similarly, no trained shooter who wants to actually hit his target would hold a handgun “gangsta style,” but a gangbanger (or a wannabe who’s watched Boyz N the Hood too many times) might actually do that.

If your characters are going to display their ignorance of guns, it’s a good idea to cue your reader that the mistakes they make are the characters’ mistakes … and not yours.

John picked up an empty magazine and tested the spring. “How many bullets does the clip hold?”

“It’s a standard thirty-round mag,” Mary said, trying to hide her irritation. “Why?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Just curious, I guess.” He picked up the rifle and fiddled with the charging handle. “Is this how you cock it?”

“John!” Mary yelped, pushing the muzzle aside. “Stop being an idiot and put that thing down!”

What to Do?

Are you feeling overwhelmed yet?

No amount of research can equal the experience of sending rounds downrange. If you’re going to write about guns, you owe it to yourself to actually do some shooting so you know what it feels like. And you don’t have to pay a firearms instructor to for one-on-one time at the range. Practically everybody has a friend who’s part of the “gun culture.” It might be that friend of yours who’s a hunter, your cousin in law enforcement, or a neighbor who’s a competitive shooter. Just approach the person and say: “I really want to get a little experience with guns. If I pay for the ammunition, would you take me shooting?”

From my experience, most gun owners love to take newbies shooting. Make sure you go somewhere safe and always follow the Four Rules of gun safety.

Finally, if your story involves a lot of firearms, invite a knowledgeable shooter to be a beta reader. Ask your reader to pay special attention to the gun-related content in the manuscript. Your story will benefit from having an expert double-checking the details.



Postscript: I like to practice what I preach, so I had my friend (the one mentioned at the top of this post) check my work in advance of publication. He made some great suggestions, which I have incorporated into this piece. He also asked me to be a guest on his weekly radio program. You can listen to the program here. It’s the 1-06-18 show. My segment starts around 00:11:50.

David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, shoots guns, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play is published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at

Professional Etiquette for Writers

OR, You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Angry

In their book, Million Dollar Professionalism for the Writer, Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta lay out the following bit of advice:

“Never, never, ever, never, never, never, never ever be a jerk.”

I’m half tempted to offer a hearty “Amen!” and end this blog post right here, because I’m not sure you’ll ever hear a better suggestion on how to act as a writer, nay, as a human being. But in the interest of hitting my word count, allow me to expand on this idea further by way of a real-world example.

A few months ago, I attended a writer’s conference with my sister, Lisa. In addition to both being published authors, Lisa and I have worked in the publishing industry for many years: she as an editor, and I as a slushpile reader. We had both taught classes at the conference, and Lisa was ending the day by taking pitches from some of the attendees.

At the close of the conference, I found myself waiting outside the room where Lisa was hearing the final pitches of the day. Realizing that the pitches were taking longer than expected, I pulled out my laptop and proceeded to catch up on a few work items as I waited.

Shortly thereafter, a man approached and asked if he could take the seat next to me. I agreed, and we introduced ourselves. He mentioned that he had attended one of my classes earlier, and that he had enjoyed it. I thanked him and asked if he was waiting to pitch his story. He replied that he had already pitched to Lisa earlier, and that he was waiting because he wanted to ask her a follow-up question. He then began to ask me about reading in the slushpile, how long I had been doing it, and how I made decisions as to what I recommended versus what I passed on. They were the sort of questions I get asked all the time from new writers, and I was happy to answer them in a little more detail.

Our conversation was moving along quite nicely when I began to sense that he was inching towards pitching his story to me. He kept bringing the conversation back around to the book he was working on, and while I was trying to remain friendly and supportive, I was also trying to subtly convey the message that I was not the person he should be pitching to, especially when I didn’t initiate a request to hear about his book.

farmto table.png

Unfortunately, my new friend wasn’t picking up on the message. He grew bolder, the conversation became more and more one-sided, and he proceeded to dump more and more of his book on me. I didn’t want to be outright rude to him, but I was becoming more annoyed with him the longer he went on. I kept trying to indicate that this wasn’t the time or place, and that I wasn’t the person he should be talking to, but he wasn’t hearing me. By the time he pulled out a three-ring binder and started showing pictures he’d downloaded that represented what he felt his characters would look like, and launched into a presentation of how his insanely complicated magic system worked, I’d had enough. I faked an incoming phone call, and excused myself to the other side of the room.

A few minutes later, Lisa exited the pitch room, only to find herself face to face with this fellow, who excitedly asked if she remembered him (she did), and if she had any questions about what they had discussed during his pitch session (she didn’t). Lisa looked at me and screamed a silent “SAVE ME” with her eyes. I immediately came back and we excused ourselves from the situation.

As soon as we were out of earshot, we began to debrief each other about our experiences with this person. Not only had his pitch session been a train wreck of infodumping and Internet photos (which Lisa had expressly told him not to show her), it turns out he had been emailing Lisa and other people in the office for a few weeks already. In fact, by the time we arrived back home, we both discovered that we had brand new emails from this guy waiting for us. And we were both annoyed.

Now, there’s a lot to be said for confidence, gumption, and general sticktoitivness in terms of how you present yourself. And it’s good to stand out a bit from the legion of other writers out there. But folks, hear me loud and clear on this point: you want to stand out for the right reasons!

You should practice your “elevator pitch” in case someone wants to know what your book is about. And if they ask, then go for it. But always—ALWAYS—be a professional. Don’t be THAT GUY or THAT GAL. Don’t ambush people with your pitch if they haven’t asked for it. And especially don’t get under the skin of the very people whom you are hoping will read your book and decide its future.

Because if I’m the guy who ends up reading your book in the slushpile, then you want me to be as happy as humanly possible. You want me to be sunshine and rainbows and little animated birds fluttering about as I read. You don’t want me to remember the time you trapped me at a writer’s conference and wouldn’t let me go until I had heard about every single character and plot point. You don’t want me going into your story already irritated with you. In the words of Bruce Banner: “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”

If you want to be taken seriously as a professional writer, then you must act like a professional. Publishers don’t want to work with writers who are self-important divas, who can’t take criticism or direction, or who are just plain difficult.

In short: Don’t be a jerk.

Can I get an “Amen!”?


Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.