Category Archives: Writing – how to

In which I tell anyone who will listen things about craft I have figured out the hard way.

Setting fiction in worlds with calendars and clocks

GOING TO ABSURD LENGTHS TO MAKE TIMES AND DATES WORK

There are two parts to verisimilitude: characters and plots.

When you graft a fictional character onto a world in a historical context – changing the name of the president, for example (still missing President Bartlett of the West Wing, not so much the Presidents Underwood of House of Cards), is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, because FICTION.

But there is a significant difference between an alternate history – one which answers what if? questions about what would happen if something changed due to that fictional occurrence (President Lincoln survived the Civil War) – and one which aims to change only a few features of an event, without completely changing the chronology of what happens after.

Because, within wide parameters, most people aren’t important enough to change history, and writing things a little different to end a personal story in a particular way is a perfectly valid fictional technique: you don’t imagine the 1950s differently, but your sleuth solves cases in them.

My fictional world is the real world

I want you to think, when you finish reading my WIP, that you’ve read something that really happened.

But because I chose Hollywood (and Bollywood added to it in the second volume of the trilogy), I need a worldwide stage for some parts, which has resulted in characters at times in very different time zones being aware of or communicating with each other.

Or traveling from one place to another and back.

Or of something they do affecting a different character somewhere else.

Stories aim to give you the flavor of reality

Stories – even very long dense epic stories – give you only a tiny part of what ‘happened.’

Try to document your day. In just one 24-hour day, you perform thousands of actions, make hundreds of decisions. Even listing them in a recording as you go through the day would take forever.

So the writer in a novel has to give you enough of the right kind of scenes so that you think you’ve lived with the characters – but are actually seeing a tiny fraction of what real people would do in that time.

The RIGHT tiny fraction. To give an illusion of time passing and being present.

The writer has to know a lot more than the reader

Or readers will notice the gaps. Call them plot holes, inconsistencies, anachronisms. Or my favorite: refrigerator moments. Because you’re at the refrigerator at 3am and suddenly it occurs to you that there was no logical reason for something that happened in the plot, but you were swept away by the action, and didn’t notice. It may have been Lawrence Block who mentioned no reason for the Estonians to be eating chocolate chip cookies (my memory is very vague on the topic).

Well, I don’t want any of those.

I don’t want readers to say, “Wait a minute – that couldn’t happen!” Because it would pop the ‘suspension of disbelief bubble, and damage the flow.

So I go to a lot of trouble to make sure something might have happened that way.

MOST readers will never notice the hole, or if they do, care.

Funny thing: in my mind, that doesn’t absolve me of the requirement to make sure there aren’t any I can see.

In practical terms in NETHERWORLD

It means that when I do my complicated alternation between characters, and something has to happen on a close timeline, I spend effort making sure that timeline is actually possible.

If two characters alternating are on different continents (a recent example), and there is a plane flight from one of those continents to a place on a third one, I use a lot of convenient time/date software (what time is it in Berlin when it’s 3am in Shanghai?) in coordination with other software which tells me how long the flight will be for a particular aircraft.

Sometimes I’ve had to reset the time for a particular sequential scene.

Other times I’ve had to start a scene earlier or later, build in a gap, or have it end at a different time.

The interesting thing to me has been that when I get that involved in the details of ‘could it work’, I find myself feeling more like a detective than the plotter of a novel.

I’m discovering what happened rather than creating it.

It has been eerie how real the timelines are – and how I’m able to fit the changes in without it rippling through the rest of the scenes.

Some scenes are anchored in REAL TIME

I’ve chosen to insert a character into an actual historical event, so I have to make sure a barrage of physical actions happen around that exact event.

I don’t want a reader to remember something – that year that award ceremony happened on a Monday, not the usual Sunday – and me have gotten it wrong.

It’s enough fiction that I’m putting my characters into that ceremony.

I want the reader to have the spine-chilling thought, “Hey. Wait. Am I remembering it wrong?” because my fictional part fits so well into the past reality.

And it’s not that many years ago.

Next time I may pick something without these real-world anchors!

Or in a fictional universe.

I never realized how much work it might be until I was up to my neck in alligators in the swamp.

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As a reader, what do you do when the glitches are so obvious you can’t ignore them?

As a writer, am I crazy to worry about these tiny details?

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When the WIP forces change on your writing style

I’VE BEEN STRUGGLING WITH A NEW CONUNDRUM

I didn’t expect to, not this late in the middle book of a trilogy.

I capture these thoughts when they happen, hoping to have something to refer to when it happens again.

The constraint here is both the calendar – the end is near, and the content until the last scene is what it has to be – and a sense of pace.

In the real world, things have their own importance, and can’t be hurried – or slowed. Their pace is what their pace is.

In fiction, however, technically every bit is under the immediate and complete control of the writer – nothing happens without her say so – and completely not. Why? Because the pace you work hard to develop as you go seems to have a built-in speed you didn’t put there.

I’m not used to this

All pantsers are familiar with this.

Whereas I, an extreme plotter, like to think I’m in control of everything.

The story takes over.

And you bumble around in the dark until you learn.

Oh, and try doing this with WRITER brain fog!

You can’t write chaos smoothly

But it can’t be completely chaotic stream-of-consciousness either, not for very long on the page: the Reader won’t stand for it.

So it’s a mixture, and, from deep third multiple pov, you have to credibly present a chaotic situation for a character you’ve already developed (starting that way in Chapter 1 or with a new character is a different ballgame), and who is usually much less confused.

So you will get a little indulgence from your audience, but don’t want to presume on that – or they’ll start skimming, and you’ve lost them.

Balance.

So, another skill attempted in the craft.

I wonder what the beta reader will say.

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If you’re a reader, do you notice this kind of thing? And how much patience do you have for a change in how you see characters, especially when they’re under stress?

If you’re a writer, has this one bitten your ankles?

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Is your book optimistic or pessimistic?

Or over-engineered?

WHAT IS YOUR DEFAULT POSITION AS A WRITER?

Why do we read?

To learn about the world and to learn about our potentialities as humans.

Really.

To read a book is to live part of another life.

Optimist or pessimist is a question I ask books.

Is your book ultimately depressing or uplifting?

Even horrible books can raise spirits, especially by the end of the book. The Diary of Anne Frank does that.

It’s a value judgment.

Doing some research, I spent time reading the Top Reviews for Karin Slaughter’s Pretty Girls (2016).

Top reviewers are the ones who get the most comments or upvotes; the first four pages had negative after negative review (it wasn’t until page 4 that I found two short positive reviews, from readers), many of those from reviewers you would love to get to read your book: Top 500, Top 1000, Vine Voice…

And those reviewers were appalled at the violence against women that was graphically depicted, over and over. ‘Gratuitous’ was used as a descriptor.

Many commented that the writing was good or adequate or competent (workmanlike would have been my assessment, from reading the Look Inside sample provided), but that the choice of subject matter left them sick to their stomach.

A depressing book – depressing author?

Ms. Slaughter is a NYT bestseller.

Apparently, previous books she wrote were not nearly as negative as this one; many of these reviewers commented they would not read another of her books.

Some commented they wished they could scrub their minds of the images, for which they could find no socially redeeming reasons.

Me, I wondered why they continued reading, even if they skimmed.

The optimistic book – optimistic authors?

SF can be pessimistic (dystopias) or optimistic.

Romance is usually optimistic, and those fans who like to read Romance want their ‘happily ever after’ (HEA) ending, and can be very unhappy with writers who don’t provide one. There is a subset of books which end, not with an HEA, but with a ‘happy for now’ (HFN). These books are still hopeful, but possibly more realistic – and also possibly open to sequels.

Thrillers and mysteries can be all over the map – but do deal with the grittier side of life, and more often are pessimistic or neutral, but possibly with an optimistic undertone, say, to a continuing detective’s life.

A special category is the detective who finds happiness

My favorite, obviously, is the definitely HEA ending of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, ending with Busman’s Honeymoon, where Peter and Harriet marry, finally, and solve one last real mystery which sets the tone for their married life. Sayers wrote only two short stories about the pair after that, even though her series was popular and is still popular now.

During all the novels, there was still an optimistic cast to the series: there was a right and wrong, people had principles, and there were consequences – but mysteries were solved and things set ‘right’ where possible. Sayers went on to write theology, so her stories were optimistic because she believed in the possibility.

Jane Eyre is optimistic. Silas Marner is optimistic.

Huckleberry Finn is optimistic. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Heinlein) is optimistic.

You write what you like

And I don’t like ultimately pessimistic books.

Almost every genre can be written either way; even serial killer Dexter is optimistic.

I just want to know that, at the end of the book, things are, or have the potential of being, better.

That covers a lot of territory, but the thing in a book that makes me pick another book by an author is that there was hope at the end.

So if you read what I write, you will be reassured that, whether you like exactly how I have arranged things to happen, there will be an upbeat end.

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Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

And does it show in what you read and/or write?

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Finagling past reality for fictional purposes

Will the real bridge AND CITY be insulted?

REALISTIC FICTION STARTS HERE

What it’s like to insert a fictional character into a historical event for the purpose of telling a story.

The basic question is unanswered: how to take over a historical event and change it.

Such as how to write a thriller with someone else as President!

So, it’s fiction, identified exactly as so in the beginning of the books, and mine to do with as I will.

I doubt someone has to get permission from the White House to change the President – or we wouldn’t have President Bartlett and The West Wing.

So I’m worried about nothing.

Except…

The general rule to changing a name has to be avoiding harm

If you are going to say something negative, it might bring a lawsuit if the named person or organization feels it affects their reputation in some way. And even if a court decides they are wrong, and you get an amazing amount of viral publicity out of this (google the Streisand Effect if you don’t remember it), it is going to take a lot of your time, effort, and money to fight such a suit – and there is no guarantee you will win.

Organizations can have in-house lawyers who eat problems like this for lunch. They will bury you easily – nothing personal – and have no mercy.

Please read books on writing and copyright, and know the legal definitions of Libel (Letter – ie, written – mnemonics mine, probably not original) and Slander (Spoken) and ask yourself, as a start, whether YOU would feel libeled or slandered if you were the subject.

If even you are uneasy, it may be easier to change the name that might get offended.

And you might have to change that to something that is significantly different in enough ways that no reasonable person would be offended (unpredictable).

Where’s this coming from?

For the purpose of NETHERWORLD, I sort of have to insult a famous movie or two, and some actors – in a minor way.

The insult consists in taking away an earned award – and awarding it to someone else, another movie.

The problem stems from everyone’s ‘knowledge’ of how Hollywood works, and what the major awards are from which organizations.

In the same way that President Bartlett is less interesting if he is Superintendent Bartlett of an unnamed or fictitious school district, an actor getting a life-changing nomination for, say, an Academy Award is more interesting than if I make up an organization called FCBM and award my character their Best Actor award.

Along with ‘The White House’ you get an amazing amount of the reader’s foreknowledge of how things work there – which saves a lot of words and explanations.

Along with ‘an Oscar’ you get the same kind of response – red carpet, photographers, exotic borrowed clothing for beautiful women… And the whole suspense thing dragged out as long as possible, followed by one winner and a lot of gracious losers who were honored to be nominated. It’s in your head already, and a writer just needs to mention a few points to trigger a full-blown award ceremony in your mind.

Why do I even bother worrying about this kind of stuff?

Well, first because I’m a worrier.

Second, because I want that identification and value from the awards. I agree with the organizations and the individuals that they are worth a great deal in a career.

Third, because the last thing I need in my state of energy and illness and retirement is some organization getting its panties in a twist because I, well, lied.

Fourth, because I hope to be famous and well-read (not synonymous) some day, I want to do it right, and not leave a mess for my heirs.

Fifth, because, as a writer, it’s my job.

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Have you had to face this choice? If so, how did you handle it? Have there been repercussions?

As a reader, have you ever wondered if the author has stepped over the line? Care to share?

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Loving scenes where the villain wins

HOW TO FEEL RIGHT ABOUT LETTING THE VILLAIN WIN

Some lights are seen better in contrast with dark.

NOT necessarily permanently – I don’t write downers or tragedies – but so you have done a good job when writing something that, in the long run, enhances the story.

A hero is a hero ONLY in comparison to the obstacle overcome.

The DIFFERENCE between the hero’s HIGH and the villain’s LOW is the STAKES of your story.

The answer to every objection is: Does it make the story better?

Even in a long book, you have only so much space to use the whole palette of emotions that go with your story. You don’t get to waffle about – you have to use what you have, and make it squeal.

This means that you have to be confident enough to do what the STORY needs, even when it hurts – or at least feels odd – when you get to the place where you have to write that the wrong character is winning.

For a while, you tell yourself.

Not permanently.

So the ‘winning’ characters have something to overcome that is worth writing about.

But plotting it to happen and writing the scene are different

I knew what I was going into when I chose to start writing this novel trilogy. It is in many ways a fairytale for grownups, something that is highly improbable in the real world.

But I figured out a way to make it come out the way I wanted.

I found a way to make the ending POSSIBLE.

And, as you might expect, it required some finagling to make it interesting and not trivial.

It required making ‘highly improbable’ ALMOST ‘impossible.’

And then doing the writing to make it happen.

Believably.

To me. Who am picky about plausibility.

Because the characters need to change

Some of them do.

And change of direction requires the application of force.

Nobody changes unless they have to.

And these characters had no reason to go looking for change, except that I wanted them to.

The bigger the change, the bigger the applied force needs to be

The applied force is the stakes, and I needed to make the stakes big enough to make a couple of very stubborn characters change, so it’s really their fault.

But then I got to the actual writing

And I found I had to make the reasons for change credible because the characters had turned into people I cared about.

So the actual writing of the lowest scenes not just in the middle novel, but in the whole trilogy, was hard.

Even though I knew it was coming and exactly what was going to happen.

I had to admit that there was no way around the difficulties I plotted in in the first place. Duh!

So I went ahead and wrote the first of these scenes, and it was as hard as I imagined it would be, and harder because I write linearly, and couldn’t postpone doing it now.

I am proud to say I survived

The story survived.

Some version of the characters survived.

The villain got to win.

At least for the time being, but mostly because it is necessary.

If you aren’t writing stakes you care about, I can’t see the point of putting in the kind of work this is taking. Because it is very hard to let the villain get away with things, even temporarily, because it is necessary to create that leverage for change.

And I had to give it the very best writing I could create – and make every tiny step in the win justified – because otherwise the villain is a straw villain, easy to overturn.

I hope it works for my readers after it works for me.

Or you guys are really going to hate me.

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How do you feel about this kind of story – as a reader?

If you’re a writer, have you ever had to do the same?

I’ve earned some kind of reward.

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When to dump a scene completely

With ice cream, you don’t have to ask where it went!

WHEN IT ISN’T AN INTENSE IMMEDIATE NECESSARY EXPERIENCE

It’s a high bar, wanting only scenes in a novel that are strong enough to leave a reader breathless.

Quietly or dramatically, a scene has to have a reason for being in the story, and that reason has to answer the question: Why is this scene PIVOTAL?

Yes. Every single time.

Scenes accomplish many things at once

The structure and skeleton of a scene offer a place to hang many hats: character development, plot, theme(s), setting, language, the ability to hold a reader’s attention, emotions… I could go on for a long time, or merely post some of my checklists for things which must be considered.

A scene has to be packed with meaning, symbolism, omens, backstory, forewarning, consequences, and costs.

It has to move the story from where it was to where it has to be, a stepping-stone across a great river.

Preferably subtly.

But the scene itself has to have a primary reason to be in the book, and it isn’t as a catch basin for a whole bunch of important little things the author thinks the reader needs to know.

I dropped a scene

I’ve done a lot of things between the complete rough draft and what will be the final complete draft that included rearranging material, moving things to a slightly better scene for them, altering the timelines enough to change the order, switching point of view to a different character, tweaking the goal.

I’ve considered, for each scene, how best to tell its part of the story.

I’ve combine a couple of shorter ones, split some long ones.

I’d have to go back over extensive lists, but I don’t think I’ve completely dumped one before.

It feels weird – but I’m happy I made the decision to ‘kill a darling.’

I was having trouble writing 34.5.

Since I have trouble writing every scene, this wasn’t anything new or startling. I have many ways of writing myself out of these problems, some suitable when it’s the writer who has a previously-unknown problem (the Journal gets a lot of these long explorations of why) and others which work to get around my physical limitations.

I have those checklists to allow me to explore MANY features of a scene in small enough chunks that I can focus on one thing at a time – by the time I’ve gone through all of those, I have the gathered material for that scene all in one place. Then I have systems to organize it. Then it gels. Then I write it.

I was even in a good mood and had had enough sleep.

The material wasn’t compelling as a whole.

There were specific bits that need to be in the book. There were some really nice bits. And there were all those answered questions and placeholder text bits, including some really decent dialogue.

Then I realized that writing this particular scene bored me

And that I wouldn’t be looking forward to rereading that scene when I reread the book, and would probably skip it.

Telling myself the Reader needed the information, presented in a nicely dramatized way, with bells, didn’t work.

And then I really, really looked at the nascent scene, and I admitted to myself that there were 2-3 necessary pieces, which is why I thought I should group them in this scene in the first place, but that it wasn’t enough to do a good job of surrounding them with a scene and let the reader absorb them painlessly.

It won’t surprise you that it was a villain scene – and I’ve given her plenty of room to express her opinions, follow her thoughts, listen to her justifications.

So I made the decision to cut a scene

And immediately knew it was the right decision.

I found a home for those necessary bits in the following scenes and an epigraph which wrote itself. There isn’t anything wrong with them.

And the chapter suddenly got livelier.

I dug into the next scene, and found it compelling, and found a way to make it heartbreaking.

We’re back on track.

This scene should be a doozy. As they should all be, if I had my ‘druthers.

I can always go back and put it in; somehow I don’t think it will be necessary. I’ll leave it up to my beta reader to notice.

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I don’t think this is because I write one finished scene at a time; I’ll find out.

Does any of this ring a bell?

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When to restart a scene from scratch

Yup, blank.

SOMETIMES YOU CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE

I gather a lot of pre-written material when I start a scene.

I also have a lot of lists of prompts I fill out which remind me to think of various aspects of a scene, from the internal twist to the various beats to the emotions I wish to invoke in Readers, so I’ve created a lot of new material now that I’m about to write this scene.

And I have one bugaboo, what I call the Old Text (OT), the original polished-but-primitive draft that I wrote when I had the three books in the trilogy plotted out, and wanted to see that I could make it logically from the first line to the last.

The Old Text can be missing, a few paragraphs, a scene in the wrong point of view (pov), or even, in the worst case, a

PERFECT FINISHED COMPLETE SCENE IN THE CORRECT CHARACTER’S POINT OF VIEW.

Except it’s not right.

And every attempt to take what you have and rework it, rearrange it, change it, edit it, tweak it

doesn’t work.

It’s still wrong.

Worse, it’s throwing you off and keeping you from getting into the character’s pov so you can fix things.

For those times you have a secret weapon:

You can choose not to keep ANY of what you wrote before.

Or only a couple of tiny new pieces you just wrote that you know are in the right pov.

Or an image or two, reworded of course.

Or the time/day/date.

Or even the idea of the scene.

But you don’t have to because there is no Scene Police Division

down at writing headquarters.

No one who can make you, encourage you, or even try to persuade you.

Just because you wrote it gives it no rights.

Just because it was finished, complete, polished, and has impeccable grammar and spelling, punctuation, and capitalization, and you worked for days on it way back when you wrote that particular version, it has no integrity or separate solidity: it is just as friable as your grocery list.

With me, it means I am really stuck.

All the journaling in the world can’t fix something that needs to be plowed under and redesigned from the bottom up.

I just redid a scene like this – from a blank page. After getting fairly close to…something.

I had so much new stuff to put into the scene, and such a solid Old Text version, I thought it might be one of the few things that survived from that draft.

Nuh uh.

Maybe if I had published the scene as a story fifteen or twenty years ago when I wrote this particular little gem, and spent days or weeks getting it to be the best I could do back then. It might have been a book I removed from my backlist after getting much better with the newer books.

I’m glad I didn’t publish that older draft.

Even I had the sense to realize it needed a lot of work.

The new version is so much better.

But I hadn’t realized that the OT had so much power.

I didn’t want to start from scratch. I didn’t want to dump everything.

I wasn’t sure I could write something better, or come up with an entirely different version of the original idea.

That’s just the FEAR talking. Trying to protect me from wasted effort (old and new).

So I labeled the old contents ‘draft version’, and left it where I could get to it easily if I needed to swipe something from it.

And I started a blank file with the words: ‘just putting this here so the page isn’t blank’

And I started all over again, paying special attention to how that character operated, felt, saw, listened and wrote it again from the top.

Then I deleted ‘just putting this here so the page isn’t blank’, proceeded with my other steps to get a scene into final usable state, and didn’t insist it contain any of that old but good stuff, and …

It’s finished. It came out far better. I wrote the new version in a day or two, edited and polished it, and it doesn’t look at all like the OT.

I still can’t imagine any amount of tweaking that would have turned the previous grammatically-correct-but-completely-wrong and progress-blocking scene into what I signed off on today.

It hurt. A lot. All that nice clean text!

But sometimes you have no choice but to start from scratch.

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Stubborn opinionated determined author at work

You can’t guarantee the results

Isn’t ‘effort’ the same thing as ‘work?

After I wrote the above, I realized that I think of them separately (personal choice), with effort being the whole mental atmosphere surrounding what writers do – from paying attention to things other people never notice, including information on publicity, covers, and selling – and work being actually sitting down and turning that attitude into things such as a finished ad or a description that rocks or any number of other ‘deliverables.’

WORK‘, of course, includes the writing itself, the finished words on the page of a pdf you are about to upload to Amazon or others.

And know it’s the best version of the story you are able to provide that mysterious elusive creature, the Reader.

After that, Amazon takes over and supplies copies of the WORK to those who pay for it.

For many of us, Amazon is currently publisher and distributor, for a hefty portion of the rewards (30% for ebooks, more for print books). I am currently okay with that. Because that equation is far worse on the traditional publishing side, and many of the benefits to using them (editing, covers, advertising, promotion, reasonable advances, royalties) are on the path of the Dodo bird.

Writing successful fiction requires two additional things:

Finding your potential readers, and

Getting them to try your writing.

If you haven’t truly written a good book that readers would buy if they only knew about you, YOU’RE WASTING YOUR TIME when you promote and advertise and stand on your head to do PR. You may fool some of the people some of the time, but that is rarely a recipe for commercial success.

Indeed, after reading some authors’ latest ‘work’, I know I will never read another from them.

But the whole discoverability part of writing is hard, tricky, and requires the one thing I don’t have: energy and the capacity for endless self-promotion.

If you have written ‘a good book’ for a segment of the population

the satisfied readers should be clamoring for more.

If you have more (backlist), they have a lot to discover and enjoy.

If not, well, keep working. And some readers will never get that pleasure from you again, but it won’t be your fault, if you’ just keep truckin’.’

And hope for some luck, or ‘Here a miracle occurs,’ or going viral, or catching someone’s eye…

Some of us will simply have to hope for an afterlife, and wait to ask Margaret Mitchell what happened to Scarlett. Assuming she still cares – the afterlife runs on different rules, I believe.

And now I’m going off to nap, followed by keeping my nose to my particular grindstone.

I do so want to finish. It’s coming nicely. And every time the idea that life might be easier if I spent it entertaining myself instead of torturing myself with imaginary people, I have managed to fight that attitude off.

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What are the things in your life that you will never give up on?

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The value I’m offering MY Readers

You’ll never get it back

A blogger’s question made me think:

HOW MUCH TIME do my potential readers spend looking for SOMETHING, ANYTHING interesting to read before finding a few possibles,

and

HOW MUCH MORE TIME do they spend starting and then giving up on books that pass their initial selection process – BEFORE they find one they like and actually enjoy reading to the end?

Readers may have preferences, but the good ones, the educated literate WHALE readers – the ones who read a lot of books, hard books, complex books, and often buy them in hardcover (which I will produce when I have 1) a lot of time, or 2) Amazon lets me into their beta hardcover program), and then RECOMMEND them to their friends – are often happy to just read ‘a good book.’

Because their appetites are not satisfied – no matter how many books are on their To Be Read piles.

They are not looking for ‘more of the same vampire books.’ Or ‘the latest James Patterson book.’ Or another ‘clean Romance.’

They are let down by what they read (have you seen how many NEGATIVE reviews there are on books such as The Goldfinch? They won’t all be people who can’t handle the complexity and bought it primarily as a coffeetable book!).

They want what writers are counseled to produce: a good book

So it got me to thinking about my writing, and what I am trying to produce, a good story, a book that is worth the time invested in reading it, a book which will make the same Reader want the next in the trilogy.

It’s easier for me to vet my potential Readers than for me to try to please everyone (an impossibility).

So I’m going to try to QUANTIFY the ineffable

There’s an example: If you are potentially MY Reader, either you already know what ‘ineffable’ means, or you will figure it out from context and a dictionary – because you like words and enjoy pinning down ones you’ve seen before but don’t remember exactly what they mean. And either way, it will give you PLEASURE just sitting there on your page.

If ‘ineffable’ appearing in your reading material is annoying because you think the writer’s being elitist or you’re done with SAT words, your are NOT my potential Reader.

Because ineffable came to my mind as what I wanted to say (and I did a quick check to make sure I didn’t have it mixed up with something else – fatal to the point I’m trying to make). Something unquantifiable because it is big and complex: how to help Readers know the value of my work – to them, the only people they are really interested in satisfying.

Everything else is miscommunication.

And I’m going to quantify it in a very me way

I’m going to make a list of books which have influenced Pride’s Children by being favorites of mine still years after I’ve read most of them, and why.

I’ve done this on Goodreads when carefully looking for potential reviewers, using the Compare books feature, especially if they’ve reviewed and I can see if our reasons for loving a book are compatible.

All you have to do to find out if you are potentially a Reader of my fiction is to see if several of these hit you in similar ways.

For the actual writing part – because we can love the same books without me being able to produce a coherent sentence in a similar style – I will make my standard recommendation: go to Amazon, to the print version – because my formatting is part of how I want to write. The ebook is available and I love it, too, but ebooks have reflowable text on purpose so you can change fonts and sizes to suit you; great for reading, not so great for seeing if you like everything about the author.

  1. Read – but don’t get hung up on – the description; these are always being tweaked to occupy the very limited real estate on the book’s page. It is an indicator, not the definitive reason for choosing or not choosing a book.
  2. Read some of the reviews. I’d choose several of the top reviews (most of the longer 5* ones from older men) and maybe a couple of the few negative ones (you’ll know what I mean if my writing will appeal to you). Go for the long ones – but not the ones which summarize and ruin the plot: you’re looking for reviewers like you.
  3. Read a few pages of the Look Inside! – by the end of the third scene you will have met all the point of view characters, by the end of the first chapter or two you will have picked up the as-needed style of alternating them, and by the end of the sample, if not much sooner, you will know if – in your opinion – I can write.
  4. Ten or twenty minutes spent will tell you all you need to know. And you should spend that on a potential book; Pride’s Children PURGATORY will take you a good while to read.

That’s it: checkout my list of influencers and read a bit of the actual writing, and then, if you’re one of us, buy in your favorite format and get to reading.

I can guarantee it’s a good story; after all, it has occupied all my usable writing time for the past twenty-one years, I’m almost finished with volume 2 (which ends well but still leaves you wanting more), and volume 3 is completely plotted and exists in rough draft form (so you know I know exactly where we’re going).

What kind of a good story?

Well, here is a partial list of the themes woven in there somewhere:

  • Family matters
  • Love is based on trust
  • Children matter – and must be protected
  • Beliefs are important
  • Beliefs lead to action
  • Right beliefs lead to right action
  • Dignity matters
  • Good will prevail
  • Life throws stuff at you – how you handle it is who you are
  • You can’t stay married to someone who doesn’t want you
  • Some people are objectively better than others
  • Integrity matters
  • Evil exists – and can’t be excused
  • Love transcends age
  • We have a capacity for intense love: of a character. Of an actor. Of a story.
  • Disability themes: how common it is, the intrinsic value of the person who is disabled, and the empathy I want developed in readers and the world.

And the overall theme: How you live your life PROVES what you believe. And believe in.

Now for those influencer books:

(you will want to have read – and liked or have been affected by – at least several):

  • Dune (plus Dune Messiah and Children of Dune)
  • Jane Eyre
  • Wuthering Heights
  • On the Beach, Trustee from the Toolroom
  • The Thorn Birds
  • The Left Hand of Darkness, Roccannon’s World, Planet of Exile
  • Leviathan’s Deep
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
  • Great Expectations
  • Frankenstein
  • Strong Poison, Have his Carcase, Gaudy Night, Busman’s Honeymoon, Talboys
  • Rebecca
  • Exodus
  • Lucifer’s Hammer
  • A Tale of Two Cities
  • Dr. Zhivago
  • The Exorcist
  • The Dying of the Light (also named After the Festival), A Song for Lya
  • Ender’s Game
  • Huckleberry Finn
  • The Foundation trilogy
  • The Crystal Cave, The Last Enchantment
  • The Complete Sherlock Holmes
  • Brave New World
  • The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
  • Black Beauty
  • Silas Marner
  • Snow Falling on Cedars, Our Lady of the Forest
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass
  • The Handmaid’s Tale
  • The Three Musketeers
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • GWTW
  • Way Station
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz
  • The Name of the Rose

A good serving of these plus a familiarity with Shakespeare and the Bible.

That’s basically it

Spend a bit of time vetting your reading material – you will be spending hours of your life you will never get back – and then settle in to a nice long encounter.

You may also pray for good health for the writer; in this case, she needs to be semi-functional to be able to write at all.

IF you are persuaded, leave a comment saying why – feedback is crucial to writers, especially if you want more work from them.

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The necessary odd story pivot scene

WHEN YOU DIDN’T REALIZE HOW IMPORTANT A SCENE WAS

I write these posts when I get an epiphany (and interestingly enough, it is set right before the real Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th, 2006).

I did what I always do, and gathered enormous amount of material related to the scene in progress – and went through my usual process of trying to turn the most important parts of what the Reader needs to know at this point into a coherent scene.

Almost always when I get to this point in my writing process (and I’ve written much about that), the scene almost self-organizes, includes some of the bits of dialogue I’ve developed during the process, and gives me trouble until I get it written.

Then I clean it up, check against my lists, run it through AutoCrit, and am usually happy to move to the next one.

And occasionally I get massively stuck

Which drives me crazy, and then drives me to picking apart what I’ve done, writing in my Fear Journal, and generally making a mess of everything.

Until suddenly the subconscious hits me upside the head with a ten foot Pole (to thoroughly mix metaphors), and I somehow figure out what’s wrong.

And then add it to another list: THINGS I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN.

Or at least expected!

Which are embarrassingly obvious after that point.

Sigh.

Endings and beginnings are fraught

This scene is essentially the last one in this section of the plot. I knew I needed it, structurally, and threw it in, moved some content around, and left it as a stub in my very detailed Scene list in the Dramatica file.

But I did NOT have a rough draft (the very rough draft of everything I have has been proof of my ability to create a story from nothing, and still serves as an anachronistic paper map to the path) for this scene.

Because, in many ways, I was still learning plotting when I finished the first plot (for Dramatica initiates, had my storyform down to 1) and wrote the rough draft to flesh out the ideas. Only Sandy, my long-suffering writing partner at the turn of the century, has seen the rough draft – and I hope she’s forgotten.

The storyform was then revised permanently in the great Reorganization of 2007.

So, I had somehow known SOMETHING WAS NECESSARY HERE,

thrown it into the mix, and moved on to more important things, such as writing PURGATORY.

And of course that’s what landmines are for: to make you sit up and pay attention.

To put this all into something more understandable: my usual process led me to gather enough material for this important transition pivot, but I hadn’t realized it was an important scene.

I thought it was a simple ‘cleanup and move on’ scene.

And of course it did no such thing as self-assemble.

The important ones on whatever scale never do.

Because they’re something new, and you haven’t done it quite that way before, and your subconscious doesn’t know HOW.

So, no template. So, no assembly possible.

And then, in the wondering and thinking and journaling that goes about when I get stuck in these little quagmires, I suddenly realized that we had reached the top of one mountain, the view was spectacular in all directions (see image), and it was going to matter, a lot, exactly how we got down.

For specifics, and so you might recognize it later, we move from the Czech Republic to Ireland. Over the course of a couple bits in several scenes.

And it is a major turning point in not only this chapter, but this book, and the whole trilogy, because the bottom has been hit, and the Reader doesn’t yet know how the characters are going to climb out, because climb out they must.

Apologizing for the contradictory images and the many cliches, I go now to write this scene, somehow, because I have to.

And that’s not bad.

**********

As a question, do you remember your turning points, and how wobbly they felt?

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Oppression and misrepresentation rampant in fantasy fiction?

The following is a reblog from Janna Noelle, a writer I’ve been following for a long time. She writes fantasy and is very careful and systematic about it (I’m still waiting to read the debut novel when it’s published), and always has interesting things to say):

I’ve been thinking about how magic is often represented in fantasy.

I’ve written previously about how many SFF stories (poorly) represent post-racial societies. My issue with magic is a close cousin to that topic.

Magic is frequently connected to oppression within the story world. Often it’s illegal, with practitioners doing so in secret while on the run and/or in hiding from the armed forces of a state-sanctioned death squad seeking to exterminate them.

It’s an obvious attempt by fantasy writers to draw a thematic comparison to the real-world oppression of marginalized people.

It doesn’t work…”

Please go to her blog to read WHY it doesn’t work – Janna is very coherent.

I don’t read much fantasy, and don’t write it, but it hit me immediately that she’s nailed it.

She has all kinds of other great posts, too.

Do self-published authors owe other SPAs?

IS SAYING ANYTHING THE HEIGHT OF ARROGANCE?

On this blog – and in comments – and on Facebook…, I am constrained by the available options for text and emphasis and images.

I live quite happily between the limits imposed by the constraints, find my own way of doing what I need to do (most of the time) so I can write the way I prefer.

And, as a member of various online groups, come into contact with other authors.

On occasion, we will exchange or list our book titles with/for each other, and I will see what choices someone slowly becoming a friend has made in self-publishing, from cover to content to interior book design.

And then the hard part comes: if I see potential that is not realized fully because of relatively small, benign problems, I am, mother-hen-like, pulled strongly toward saying something, making a small suggestion that would improve, IMNVHO (in my not very humble opinion) their work.

Their PUBLISHED work.

Who am I to make recommendations?

Someone who has read an enormous number of books – and has self-published exactly ONE so far.

Someone who went into excruciating detail in preparing Pride’s Children PURGATORY to look as good as the best traditionally published work (limited by Amazon and their paperback POD (publish on demand) capabilities), and, of course, my own learned-in-time skills, and spent months getting the ‘look and feel’ of the paperback, and the look of the ebook, to my own standards.

Someone who took a lot of advice from people who would give it.

And who rejected gobs more from people I didn’t end up respecting for their opinions.

Traditional publishing is not mine to condemn

Because, although every one of my opinions had been informed by what I’ve had to deal with in READING those books, I have no control over their choices, nor do I crave any.

Things such as tiny text on the page, double-spaced, surrounded by huge amounts of white space, and with a gutter so narrow you have to break the spine to read the words that edge it.

Or as pale gray text.

Or as fonts (leave that one alone).

Or… (insert here the things you hate the most about traditionally-published books that seemed deliberately designed to make it hard to read).

But self-publishing has an image problem

We are accused – and all SPAs are tarred with the same brush – of being, well, crap.

We are assumed to not be able to find a traditional publisher who will takes us on, regardless of the small to non-existent advances, predatory contracts, miserly royalties, accounting mysteries, and complete lack of control that we are pretty sure we’d have to live with if we tried.

And, unfortunately, I have to agree with a lot of the complaints (again, regardless of the fact that much traditionally-published material is of poor quality itself).

So what should I DO?

The question crops up almost every time I read an SPA’s work (and buy, usually because I’d like to find out how the story ended, and the price is usually quite reasonable (<$10) if you buy an ebook, compared to the ridiculous prices for traditional ebooks): do I say anything?

To the author, directly, in an individual and gently-worded email which he or she can peruse – or not – in PRIVACY.

Should I couch it in ‘best practices’ language?

Should I include a copy of something with some of their particular awkwardnesses minimized (including, but not limited to, a piece of their own work)?

Should I point to an example that I consider ‘correct’ and make a comparison?

Because what I DO do, is to never buy a book from them again.

And never (okay, once so far) recommend their book.

IOW, leave them in their happy ignorance of my elevated standards and practices, happy in their own devices, which probably include… what?

Intelligent authors make unintended or misguided choices

There are basically three explanations:

  • they don’t know
  • they know and don’t care
  • they know – but have no clue how to fix the problems

And may or may not appreciate a busy-body telling them.

But lack of quality affects many things down the chute from just writing the damn thing: read-through, recommendations, reviews, and ultimately the ability to write fiction profitably.

I have kept my mouth shut – so far

Figuring nobody appointed me standard-bearer.

Figuring that as long as I monitor my own work, I’m doing the most that I should.

Except that that niggling perception among many readers that self-published work is crap affects ME. And I have to work very hard to distance myself from the crowd when trying to persuade a reviewer to read MY stuff.

So I’m throwing this out there to see what my readers think:

  • Should I try to improve the breed? Or
  • Should I try to make sure the readers I want think of me as a good outlier?

And should I ever use my own pretty work as an example when interfering in other writer’s God-given right to make their own choices?

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Writer’s difficult decisions mirror human life

THE HARDEST PART OF WRITING…

is what you put your characters through, to tell your story.

Yes, this is what you created and delivered them for. They are your babies, but they were always meant for sorrow, because no good story avoids sorrow.

Writers of fiction are making a point: if I extract the relevant parts of human life, and clean them up so they are tidier and cleaner than the mess that can be real life, can I show that the story has a moral, something I’m trying to say?

There is so much to tell

that it is impossible to tell it all within the confines of the longest epic poem or novel series.

The clock starts counting seconds even before the birth, and doesn’t stop until reaching ‘The End.’

And still the writer, even the one who creates a world which encompasses the whole life of a character in one piece, must discard MOST of that life, and pick only a few high points, hoping to use those to tell you something.

Stories teach

So what will the writer choose to teach?

And what pieces of that character’s life will the writer use as salutary or insalubrious examples the Reader should consider following?

Not the boring parts, not necessarily the exciting parts.

But often the points where the character, a relative unknown to even the author at its conception, makes mistakes. BIG mistakes. Very BAD decisions.

And when we get to creating and writing those mistakes, we may suddenly find that we really wouldn’t have ever done this to our now-child if we had been thinking more clearly – because we love them, and this will HURT. A lot.

Not a bad place to be – as a parent or an author

Our writing choices are better if we care.

If we are going to hurt, damage, punish, instruct a character, it better be worth it.

To both of us.

But it is natural, first, for the author to flounder about, wondering if this torture can be bypassed, whether it is really necessary, whether we should be the ones to inflict the damage.

It’s a testament of a kind to Pride’s Children

that every single time I have hit this point, I have steeled myself, stuck to the original plan which came to me in one piece, ‘vouchsafed’ as I like to say only to me, and written through the pain (mine) and the sorrow (theirs) because that IS the story.

Characters become very real to you when you spend twenty years with them, which I will have spent sometime this year.

They also become more determined, and more pigheaded, more what you made them, more willing and able to carry the burden.

Like the actor chosen to play the villain, they have gotten enamored of their role, and are giving it everything they have.

They would be quite annoyed if the author watered down their part – which now belongs to them and is their chance to shine on stage.

I have enjoyed very much the preparation of Shakespearean actor Anthony Sher, which he writes about in The Year of the King, as he prepares for the role of King Lear. Whether the king is the true villain of the play or not, his decisions are momentous and affect the lives of all the other characters.

Actors live for such a role.

My characters are fictional, but…

Sure they are. I tell my brain that all the time. It doesn’t listen.

No real people are harmed by whatever I do to them.

Yup.

So why do I keep finding myself at this point, where I have to justify to myself what I am about to write them through?

Is it more that it exposes MY worldview?

There is some of that.

But I sat down with this feeling today and realized I get my worldview from the world, the one we all live in.

I’m not one of the experimental science fiction authors who create entire races of very different characters (Olivia Butler does a superb job of this).

I strive for such absolute realism in my writing, from ‘right behind the characters’ eyeballs,’ that you will feel this happened to you – until you close the book.

I want you to live another LIFE

I want you to think very hard about what you would do if faced with the kind of consequences that are determined by the behavior I’m espousing by showing you a character doing it.

And be glad, or maybe experience regret and longing, that they don’t actually happen – to YOU.

So this is my job.

And I go back to it with all my prejudices reinforced.

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Is deep research a writer’s peril?

RESEARCH IS GOOD, RIGHT?

Writers like me spend a LOT of time doing research to set a novel in time and place, to select the best time of day for a scene, to subtly (we hope) slip a reader into an alternate reality where we are going to tell a story that should keep the reader turning pages far into the night.

To create a world that the characters and the reader can explore for a certain distance off the main story path, we have to know a LOT more than the reader, or the shallowness of the setting will show through the words somewhere, and the lack of fit among all the pieces set down as background will leak through into the reader’s subconscious, taking the reader out of the story to wonder ‘if that could even happen.’

NETHERWORLD has several movies in it, and my current section is the shooting of a movie based on certain parts and unanswered questions in the life of the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, author of what is commonly known as ‘the Alice books’:

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.

The amount of ‘information’ out there on this popular author (and mathematics teacher at Christ College, Oxford) is staggering.

There are entire societies dedicated to his books, his life, his work.

He is a well-known historical character, and many others have staked their reputations on writing about him.

What’s my motivation?

Even non-actors have seen an actor in a movie ask the director, What’s my motivation?

Because HOW you say something, in fact, how you use your whole body to say something, depends on WHY you say it, the motivation that gives the lines written by the scriptwriter a connection to the whole world of the movie.

Good actors go much deeper than that to create their own version of a character, to use their time on screen to make us believe the character so deeply that it’s a shock to see that actor – in a different role! “But he was so good at…” is a common reaction.

A good movie has more

The motivation for making that movie at all, for expending what can be millions of dollars on a particular story, for bringing that story to a fully-realized version that may some day be an immersive 3-D experience for viewers who participate in the movie as a character (we’re getting close with virtual reality – it’s only a matter of sufficient processing power in computers), depends on whether the investment can be justified, made to pay because there are so many people, worldwide, who want to watch (and later, to be).

Go on about how the good stories are distillations of an internally consistent process that requires knowing all the possibilities – and choosing the ‘best’ for the gut of the movie. And the actors work hard at figuring out why.

Which brings me full circle to research

And a character of mine, an actor, doing the research for a role he will play, but deep research, research that goes beyond reading the materials handed to him, or discovered in the easy-to-get-to online sources such as Wikipedia (a huge resource I support every year).

But the characters all come from me, so if they need to do research, guess who’s doing it for them?

It takes time.

It takes time away from the writing. That’s the dangerous part.

It is real research, research into primary sources such as biographies, sometimes histories.

And it is research that has to be stored, savored, coordinated (all those sources don’t agree with each other), until it is used to produce action in the character in the novel – and writing of that action by the author of the character in the novel.

Well, I have been down the rabbit hole again. Found all kinds of fascinating things, some of which I did not dig deep enough to find when I set this section of NETHERWORLD up, years ago. The slow brain makes it even slower.

And now, darn it, I have to figure out how to use all that research to give the character his motivation, and the readers something that keeps them turning pages late into the night.

My kind of author works hard for the readers she craves.

We aim to please.

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Tagline, logline, pitch are the hardest writing ever

A PLOTTER SHIFTS WORD ONE TO CHANGE WORD LAST

One of the hardest tasks a novelist faces is answering the question:

“What is your book about?”

And every writer will face that over and over and over.

I’ve saved this post from Writers in the Storm since 2013.

When the novel you’re trying to describe is going to be as long as Gone With the Wind, and tops out over the course of a trilogy at around a half-million words, reducing ‘about’ to a few words is a feat that brings most writers to their knees.

The lucky ones, traditionally published, probably don’t have to/get to make these decisions (for which they trade complete control of their work and pitiful royalties forever) – because their publisher makes the decisions for them (usually without much input from the writer), and then, again for the lucky ones, uses the results to market the book.

I’ve known since the beginning

Which is why I spent a long time learning exactly how to achieve the ending I wanted for Pride’s Children: and ran scenarios from beginning to end over and over until the beginning made the ending, in my mind, inevitable – and I was ready to write the definitive version.

The process is a time loop for plotters like me, and doesn’t determine the words readers will ultimately get – only the story that I want to leave in their minds, the life lived, the consequences of the choices, the necessary paths.

As in a play, what the theater-goers see as spontaneous and happening before their very eyes needs to be so completely memorized and rehearsed that the actors never say a word out ot of character.

Other people write differently; this is how I do it.

What I’m trying to say here is that I have many versions of tagline, logline, and pitch, created and struggled with over the years since 2000, but I’ve never comfortably answered the question of ‘about’ when asked, and stutter like an unprepared schoolgirl when it comes up.

But I hadn’t dared. Which seems silly.

Those who forget the past (or ignore it) are condemned to repeat it

All that happens is you have to keep doing it, over and over, like Groundhog Day or Russian Doll, because the question doesn’t go away.

Can’t go away – as long as there are readers.

Why now, halfway through NETHERWORLD?

Because I am exhausted from fighting this particular battle, and stuck in the deep chasm of having to write what I planned to write way back then.

Because challenges not faced come back to haunt you.

And because I think I got it.

Finally.

Sidetrack for a minute into the writer’s greatest fear: Appearing ridiculous

Also sometimes known as biting off more than you can chew.

And choking on it.

But what I didn’t know in 2000, when what I’m about to post was almost as clear as it is now, except that I wasn’t sure, hadn’t put in the hard work to make sure, that I could come anywhere near to achieving what I was setting out to do.

As you probably know, mere appearance never works.

Failure is fine – there is no shame in attempting to become an astronaut, and not making the cut (I did, and didn’t). But you have to try, and you can’t skip steps. And you can’t wish for proficiency when what you need to do is find a way to learn (ie, the 10,000 hours trope, which is really a lot more hours if that’s what it takes).

Delusions of grandeur, Impostor Syndrome, Fear of Failing

They take their toll.

Why does it matter so much?

Because the world has removed so much of what I can do that what’s left is pitiful.

Because I have this one thing that I value, that keeps me sane, called writing.

And where I have all the control and all the responsibility, because not a word goes out without my say-so.

So I thought about all of this, and worked on it for months, and then let it sit.

I’m ready to let them be public, even though some will not be fully realized until the end of Book #3:

**********

Tagline: Pride’s Children is

The Great American Love Story.

Logline:

To safeguard a powerful actor, a damaged writer must first salvage herself.

Pitch:

When a reclusive bestselling novelist crosses paths with the rising actor of his generation, she finds her capacity for obsession is not dead. The friendship that develops when his next movie films near her rural refuge, and he fulfills his promise to visit, creates a challenging bond that threatens to destroy her. But when America’s Sweetheart decides she’s the one who will engender with him Hollywood’s supreme dynasty, can the writer navigate the razor’s edge from friendship to forever love, and save his unborn children?

Mission statement: what you are trying to achieve

To make the mainstream reader live three lives so closely from the inside, right behind the eyeballs, that reading Pride’s Children is a roller-coaster ride which makes the ending inevitable and utterly believable.

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For better or worse, they are now on record.

The writing proceeds.