I’m happy to welcome Dale Ivan Smith this week as the final guest from the newly published Underground anthology from Northwest Independent Writers Association (NIWA). If you haven’t read the prior guest posts from the past two weeks, please do. These people are experts at writing, and each of them has contributed excellent writing advice. Dale gives us a peek into his process, tells us what he is reading, and shows us what he has learned about writing, and tells us where he picked up the best advice.


Born and raised in the great Pacific Northwest Dale Ivan Smith got into trouble in grade school for sneaking off to the library during class. Later, he earned a degree in history, so naturally he became a librarian, and has worked for Multnomah County Library system after graduating for Portland State in 1987.

Dale has his mother to thank for his love of science fiction and fantasy — when he was 15, she loaned him her set of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels and he was hooked for life.

He met the love of his life, LeAnn, at a part-time job while in high school. They’ve been together ever since. She shares his love of gaming (board/card/role-playing/video games), science, literature, and all things science fiction and fantasy.

Dale’s stories have appeared at Every Day Fiction, 10Flash Quarterly (sadly now dark) Toasted Cake, and Perihelion Science Fiction, as well as at Amazon and other online booksellers. Currently he is writing an urban fantasy novel, plotting an episodic super hero serial entitled Weed and revising a weird western, The Hardscrabble.

You can find him at his website, and on Twitter

Story synopsis

My story “On the Vine” is set in a world where Meta humans exist. Jolene Jacobs was a teenaged Meta criminal known as Vine and was part of the Renegades super villain gang brought down two years earlier by a combined justice operation. Convicted of various crimes, she is imprisoned in Special Corrections in San Diego, and is currently in blackout, a state where she is forbidden any contact or even news from the outside while other inmates are also forbidden from giving her any information. Working in a garden plot the Warden has granted her (an irony since her meta talent is control over plants, now blocked by the nullification cuffs all prisoners must wear) she discovers a little glass bottle containing a note claiming her grandmother is very ill. Desperate for information, she is faced with tough choices in order to learn the truth.

“On the Vine” is a prequel story to Weed, an episodic serial novel about Jo and other Meta humans.

Process, tips and what I am reading

Sandra asked me to write a post about my writing process, tips on writing fiction or even what I am currently reading. Uncomfortably close to the deadline for this guest post it suddenly struck me, why not write about all three? In fact my current novel projects my evolving process, my thoughts on what goes into writing fiction and what I am currently are very much intertwined.

Years ago I started out writing stories and novels organically, driving forward with no idea where I was headed, with no idea about how to create a story, and even less idea about how to end one. I wrote two novels and scads of short stories by the seat of my pants, getting nowhere. It was frustrating—I loved fiction. Readers and fellow writers told me my stories had narrative drive with cool ideas and interesting characters but that they didn’t work.

In 2008 I attended my first writers’ conference, and discovered a local author would soon be giving an epic eight-week class on being your own “story doctor.” I jumped at the chance.

The class opened my eyes to the craft of fiction.

I’d read books on fiction writing before, usually skimming them, hoping that I’d magically absorb their insights but not understanding the truth that, like any other endeavor from playing the violin to golfing to surgery, fiction writing can be broken down into parts: character, plot, structure, voice, dialog, setting, theme, point of view, emotion etc.

My mind was blown. The class started at the sentence level and scaled up through scenes and understanding story questions and raising stakes until finally touching on novel structures. The class ended the week before Nation Novel Writing Month 2008. I dove in and wrote my third novel, trying to use what I’d learned, but it was too soon.

It takes time to internalize these insights. You need to practice what you’ve learned. Pick one thing you want to work on, say creating conflict, and practice that for a while, then pick something else to focus on. I went on to take two more classes from the same teacher, Eric Witchey, as well as a one-on-one mentorship with SF author Mary Rosenblum.

Key insights: conflict in fiction comes from what a character desires, wants, needs etc. and that “agenda” being opposed by someone else. Also understanding how point of view works, from first person to third, and the consequences of which POV you choose, as well as understanding how to cue the reader into what is going on.

I went from being a discovery writer to outlining, and sold a story to 10Flash quarterly, then another to Every Day Fiction. I have now had a baker’s dozen of short stories published, and am working on more novels.

When I sit down now to write a story or work on a novel, I rely on my craft, especially a character’s agenda and the conflict coming out of that.

In my current novel, an urban fantasy, I’m working out what the antagonist’s story is, what they want, and how they tried to get it, as well as my protagonist’s story and what she wants.

Because this novel is structured like a mystery, my investigators will be attempting to get to the bottom of what is going on, and so knowing the antagonist’s scheme and story are vital. My protagonist’s story will mirror the antagonist’s, and will be about uncovering the latter.

I belong to a brainstorming writers group, and last month we “fishbowled” my idea for this urban fantasy, blue-skying all kinds of things for the book, asking questions, throwing out suggestions, you name it.

It’s great fun and very inspiring.

Outlining has given me a handle on telling my stories, and lets me play with the story before drafting. I’ll be running my outline past my brainstorming group shortly, and then dive into drafting the novel in December. I’m also drafting a prequel short story in order to test drive my hero, something I recommend.

My writer’s group also talked about mystery “spines” for my novel and fellow member Rebecca Stefoff suggested I read Cuckoo’s Calling, J.K Rowling’s first mystery novel, to give me grist for the mill.

I liked the idea a lot, and added A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane and In the Woods, by Tana French. The first two books feature private detectives while the third is more a very personal police procedural about the fictional Dublin murder squad. All three are well written novels, especially French’s, and all three delve into the mindsets of their heroes.

Lehane and French’s novels are in the first person, and come with all the peculiarities of that point of view—attitude, voice and narrator bias. I’m now reading the second Dublin murder squad novel, The Likeness, and loving it even more than the first. French’s novels each feature a different investigator, which is a brilliant way of developing a series.

French has a very strong voice, not only is a superb storyteller, she’s an excellent stylist.

If you like mysteries, check her out.

Not only am I getting great examples of mystery writing, I’m having a blast as a reader.

I want to thank Sandra for hosting me today. I hope you will check out the stories in the new Underground anthology, edited by Jennifer Willis, including “On the Vine.”

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