Author Archives: accordingtohoyt

About accordingtohoyt

I am a novelist with work published in science fiction, fantasy, mystery and historical "novelized biography". I also write under the names Elise Hyatt and Sarah D'Almeida.

I Am The Voice That Cries in The Desert

How many times do I have to say it?  If you’re going to write something, research it.

Sure if it’s historical or science and even if you are an expert on both or either, you’re going to make mistakes.  Partly you’re going to make mistakes because you’re human.  Even say, about Elizabethan England, where I know tons of things, there are things I don’t know, and I’ll come across it and go “Uh, they did WHAT?”

Or take when I was writing the Musketeers mysteries.  This mind you was when the internet was but a toddler, just learning to walk, and not able to say “Dada”.  I found nothing about how laundry was done in the time of the musketeers in Paris.  I needed that for Death of a Musketeer.  So I assumed it was done the same way it was done in the rest of Europe and put that in the book and I’m not going to revise it.

Except… it wasn’t.  Not only it wasn’t, but h*ll it wasn’t.  It was done more like in Portugal in my childhood.  If you gave your laundry out to wash, women would take it to the river and wash heck out of it, including beating it with stones, or sun-bleaching it.

Well, in Paris in the time of the musketeers, it was the same except that there were laundry boats anchored on the Seine, and you had to pay rent to use them.  So professional laundresses rented their facilities from boatmen.

I found this out while reading a travelogue of the time that I didn’t come across till I was on the fourth book.

Anyway…. No matter how much you try to make it right, you’ll get some things wrong.

But seriously — not even trying?

Look, I’m going to be blunt here: whatever you learned in school about a time period is not enough.  Those cute little Writers’ Digest “life in” are not enough, not unless what you’re writing is a short story or a book where only a short bit pertains to the historical period, but for the whole thing?  Too many pitfalls.

Those Writer’s Digest manuals are like one of those cheap booklets that tell you how to ask where the bathroom is, or what the cost of something is.  They’re good for the basics, and even then the grammar will be bad, and a word might not be quite what a native would use. If you’re moving to the other country — and when writing you’re moving to the other country for a while — you need to know more.

Yes, I’ve been reading regencies again.  I do this when I have the flu, because they’re predictable and low effort, being a highly formulaic format.  Thing is, though, all the ones I read had thousands upon thousands of positive reviews.  And yet I rarely found one without an error.

I was okay with minor errors, like having women attend funerals (they didn’t, not in the regency.)  It’s the ones that think the regency was Victorian England, or worse Elizabethan England that get on my nerves.  It’s like people watched a movie, sometime, and that’s the extent of their research.

I’ll even roll my eyes and let it go when they have debutantes wearing bright green satin (seriously, guys, they wore muslin and usually pale colors.) or walking alone with their family’s compliant consent.

What gets me is more stuff where, you know, England is not … the way we expect.  Like, during the regency, Elizabeth will be on the throne.  Or the city of London is divided into two sections, Good Ton and Bad Ton (I SWEAR I’m not making this up) or a girl up from the country and walking alone gets picked up by the queen in her carriage (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) because “you looked sad.” Or….

I’ll be honest with you, maybe this was the ONLY mistake in the whole book, but when I trip on it three pages in, I’m not going to read anymore.

Maybe I’m a minority.  As I said, all these books have hundreds of good reviews (then again, Amazon never was very good at getting rid of all the automated reviews, and there are clubs for this, too) but I will throw them against the wall.

And maybe you think I’m being crotchetty, but I tell you, I am the voice that cries in the desert: get off my lawn.

Before you write something in a time period not our own, in a country not our own, in a discipline you only read about, research.

I do it in three phases, first I get a bunch of general books on the time period (this will often involve one of those Writer’s Digest books.

Then those books, in their biliography will suggest others “for further reading.”  I’ll explore a few of those, then read some biographies set in the time.  AND after I write the book, I try to find a beta reader who is an expert in the field, and I run it by him.

Perhaps I’m fussy, I don’t know.  But I know I wouldn’t go on about the plight of moors in Regency England.

It might not be much, but we must each be proud of what we can.



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The Curse Of The Second Novel

I bring you bad news.  There is a curse on a second novel.  To be exact, there is a curse on a second PUBLISHED novel, no matter how many novels you’ve published before.

I’m not sure if this applies to indie novels, I confess, but I think it might, if you have at least had some kind of success on your first book.  Now, it depends on what success is to you.  If you go Martian-big on your first novel (we should all be so cursed) I almost guarantee that you’ll suffer second novel curse on the next.  But it’s possible that if you never at all expected to sell anything at all, and you sell a couple thousand books, you’ll also suffer second novel curse.

What is worse, you can suffer second novel curse when you have “simply” taken a big leap in sales or in PERCEIVED craft.  I know. Ask me how.

So, to begin with, what is second novel curse?

Second novel curse is the near ability to complete a novel after either your first sold novel or a novel that either performed or you felt was way above all your other work to date.

The symptoms are as follows: your novel feels dull, lifeless and flat; you second guess yourself constantly, every step along the way; you’d rather be doing anything, from scrubbing toilets to rotating the cat than writing, and as a consequence, you’re remarkably easy to distract.  Things that would otherwise be no problem at all become insurmountable challenges. Minor colds flatten you and you can’t concentrate to write. The fact that you haven’t vacuumed in a whole 24 hours distresses you; your cat’s love and affection is a major interruption.  As a result, whatever your normal writing period is ten times lengthened.  (For expert mode try, as I did the last time second novel curse struck, being deathly ill and moving three times in a year.  It’s a treat. Most effective block EVER!)

What causes this dread issue?  Beyond its being your second published novel or a novel after a great leap in craft and earnings?


Yeah, I can see you say no you.  And that’s the biggest issue with second novel curse.  You always think “Certainly I can’t be insecure.  I’ve practiced my craft for years.  I know what to do.”  And yet it is.

Take me for instance: The first novel I sold was my eighth completed novel (three of the others have since sold, one is slated for rewrite because I crammed a trilogy into 100k words.  Knew I was doing it too.  It’s a long and sad story.  And the remaining four are in a world I THINK I now know how to approach, but which was a difficult sale for traditional publishing.)  Surely I knew the dance, right?

And yet, right after I published Ill Met and got a contract for All Night Awake, I found I’d forgotten everything about how to write.  In fact I was so vulnerable, I let my agent talk me into discarding my first draft completely, and following his outline (more or less) resulting in a book that isn’t necessarily bad, but which is completely wrong for that series and which of all my books published so far is the least successful EVER, this including some duds I published with small presses under closed pen names.

As it was, it took me going to a hotel for a couple of weeks to finish that book, because otherwise I kept getting sidetracked by the smallest things.

The reason was a fear — panic — that the novel was bad.  Why?  Why would I feel that way when I had competently finished eight novels, and my first published novel had been accepted on proposal, and then promoted to hardcover when the full manuscript was delivered?  Why would I further take the suggestions of an agent who really didn’t have any success in publishing, beyond a few work for hire books?

Because it had taken me so long to get accepted and the process seemed largely arbitrary.  I was terrified that the second novel didn’t somehow meet invisible standards I couldn’t even figure out.  (In retrospect because these were largely arbitrary and couldn’t be guessed.  They had to do with mood of the editor, meeting her, etc, than with objective quality.  Traditional publishing got so many submissions that it had to go beyond “It’s a good/publishable manuscript” so the selections would be subjective.) It is human to believe there must be rules, even when we can’t see them, and to panic when we can’t see them.

The second novel to give me “Second novel curse” was A Few Good Men.  Not writing it.  That was easy.  It was written in two weeks, and it FELT RIGHT.  I still think it is one of the best books I’ve ever written and only Darkship Revenge felt as “good”.  This left me stuttering while writing Through Fire, because it felt like a “second novel” and I couldn’t recapture/recreate the feel I had while writing A Few Good Men.  It hasn’t, btw, been markedly commercially successful, but as an experienced writer I know that how well it does is a function of how the publisher treated it, the cover, and well… luck.

I’ve observed several friends, both traditional and indie going through this as well, so I know it’s not a personal quirk.

So, second novel curse, i.e. an unwonted difficulty in finishing the book after some achievement, whether the achievement be in sales, selling to a traditional house, or even a perceived jump in craft exists.

What do you do about it?

1- Don’t panic.  Yes, I know you aren’t aware of panicking, but become aware of it and then stop it.

2- Realize your novel is at least as good as your “successful” one and probably better, no matter how it feels.  We grow by doing.  Even supposing that you’re sick, not functioning, and you have the dreaded cleaning lady’s knee, it’s unlikely to be that much worse than your “successful” novel that anyone else would NOTICE.

3- For the love of heaven don’t let your insecurity push you to the point you take random suggestions from random strangers.  Use your normal beta readers, and don’t cave in to THEIR suggestions unless three of them return the same opinion (without coordination, which means they don’t know each other or you trust them not to have talked about it with each other.)  Even then, be aware you’re fragile and don’t take suggestions without deep thought.

4- Just write it.  To quote Heinlein “They don’t want it good.  They wanted it Wednesday.” Do realize that even in indie the success or failure of your novel has very little to do with “quality” — even what YOU perceive as quality — and more with luck/finding the right audience, etc.  I have indie friends who are baffled by the one of their novels that sells and sells and sells, and my own best-selling-book was a work for hire which bored me so much I wrote it in three days.

5 – If needed isolate yourself, grab yourself by the scruff of the neck and make yourself write.  At this phase, I often go to a hotel for a long weekend, and finish the book. Brad found that local libraries often rent “study rooms” which can serve the same purpose, if you book them from library open to library close.  Just changing the location and isolating yourself is often enough to get your subconscious unjammed.  If you absolutely can’t even look at it when you’re done (has happened to me) hire a trusted structural editor (I have recommends) and copyeditors and do the minimum you can do.

6- When all else fails, paint by numbers.  If you’re so stuck that your normal subconscious creation won’t come online (it’s happened to me at least three times, usually due to illness, but panic can do it too) do a detailed outline, and color by numbers.  This is why even if you’re a gateway writer and an extreme pantser, you studied structure and diagrammed novels (right?) It’s so that you can fill in with hard work when the magic fails.

7- Eschew the pernicious myth that some writers only have one novel in them.  This is a favorite thing for people to tell you when you’re down in second novel curse dumps.  It’s also bullshit.
As with most bullshit there is SOMETHING in it.  The something is that at that point in your development there might be only one book you’re competent to finish.
However I don’t know any writer — most of us have lived and dreamed and talked story since… since we learned to talk — who has only one novel or only a limited set of stories in him.  We are story tellers.  We were born that way.  Eventually some future civilization might find a cure for the condition, but until then, we pour out stories by function of being alive.  If there’s only one story you FEEL COMPETENT to write, either you’re so scared of failing you figure you’ll dress your success in new feathers and try it again, or your craft is insufficient (this happens to those who sell their first or second novel ever-written, sometimes.)  The cure is to study how to write.  I recommend Dwight Swain’s work, though Card’s book on how to write Science Fiction is also excellent and unencumbered by the tendency of later “how to books” to be “books on how to sell to traditional publishing editors right now.”

Now stop dithering and go work already.  They don’t want it good, they want it Wednesday.  That means you only have a week.  Stop wasting time.



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Editing the Novel

I’ve just emerged from an experience I REALLY don’t want to face again, which is why we hope we won’t have to move out of this house for decades: I had to get a book that had been written through three moves, one half move (son out), one international trip, and one very serious illness, ready for publication.

The problem with this is that like Kris Rusch I tend to write books very fast because that’s as long as I can hold the shape of the outline in my head.

Shape of the outline?  Oh, yeah, here’s the thing: some people plot on paper, sometimes outlines so complete that you only have to add dialogue.  I’ve done that myself, with say the Magical British Empire Books (yes, I am eventually going to issue them.  Right now my time for page proofs and typesetting is very limited, particularly since I’m still the “Publisher” for the whole family.  No, I DON’T actually need you to tell me the sheer insanity of having the main writer in the house also be the publisher.  It’s just that I learned more about how to do it, from covers to typesetting, to converting to ebook — partly because I was too ill to write for a long time — and also that Dan has two jobs, Robert and Marsh have crazy demanding time consuming educations, and my profession LOOKS more elastic, since I can write whenever I’m not asleep or doing something else.  Anyway, right now it’s the publishing and particularly the reissuing that are getting pushed to the back.)  Those books had 100 page outlines, each.  And what I found is that those are deceptive.  They distort the “pacing” of the book and make you misjudge foreshadowing.

I can eventually do a post on roadmaps, and what works for several people when it comes to pre-plotting, but for now let’s just say what works best for me is a rather loose outline, maybe ten pages, handwritten, which then shifts and I go deeper in the book, and realize the precipitating incident won’t work, say, or that the character as she’s emerging would never get that worked up over a snub, or…

In ideal writing conditions — which have happened for maybe ten of my published books — I get a month to write the book.  Half of that is research, particularly for historical, though right now there are two science fiction books causing me to learn way more about brain damage than I ever wanted to know.  Then I have a loose plot, which often just has something like “someone betrays him” for an entire section.  And then I immerse myself in it for two weeks and breathe, eat and drink the novel.  At this point I’m a lot like Star in Glory Road, while she was getting impression of past Emperors.  My food tastes change, my temper is different, my speech and cadences change, and let’s say that my husband has loved some of my characters and despised the others from living with them second hand.

If left undisturbed for this time, the book at some point produces an Eureka moment, at which I’m racing backward to make sure the foreshadowing is there, and forward, to pin the feel of the ending down before it escapes me.  (Like a butterfly, if you pin it disastrously, you’ll ruin it.  In either case, of course, it dies and stops shifting, so you have to make sure you pin it where you want it.)

This is normally when my computer gets a ton of little sticky notes pinned all around the monitor.  My kids, when they were little called it “porcupining” as in “Mom has porcupined the monitor.  She’s doing the final day on a book, and she won’t be herself.”

This book, Darkship Revenge, got interrupted about 1/3 in.  TWICE.  And btw both times I lost half the book, in a cd which disappeared in the move.  (I have now of course, found one.  The other is still missing, but yesterday we located my publishing cd which has been missing for two years.)  And then it’s been near-closing since June.  Except we had one international trip with weather so hot we could not sleep either night or day, then unpacking, then a couple of house and cat emergencies, then younger son moving out, and then in December, when I was maybe three days from finishing, my body thought it would be a rousing idea if I collapsed in the shower.

The resulting doctors appointments (still going on) resulted in novelus interruptus so much, that the entire feeling and sense of the novel changed while I was not writing.  And then I had the Eureka moment and realized that though I bring the characters to upright and locked position and there’s a victory at the end, this book is part of a two-book plot arc.  And that the guy I had planned sequels with had to die.  (Of course.  My subconscious hates me.)  If this weren’t a much better configuration, I’d have forced the end I had written down.  But it was better.  So I spent January fixing the book to fit the new ending.  It is now at Baen, and I have a checklist for editing a fractured novel.  My novels don’t usually need all of these (though some they do, like, are similar scenes always happening in similar places?) but I know other people are messier writers, and Kate is a radical pantser, and her rewrites/edits often involve what I had to do.

So, for people who might need it, here is a non-exhaustive checklist:

1- Is your ending the strongest possible?  I.e. does it leave the most lasting emotional impression in the reader?  If not:

a) Whom does what happened affect/change?  Can you make sure you are in that person’s head at the end, or you get his/her feelings on it?

b) Did you drop an elephant from the ceiling?  Even the most meaningful of deaths or love affairs means nothing if you didn’t foreshadow it.  I know, I know, everyone talks about how it should be a surprise.  Sure it should, but not so much of a surprise, no one saw it coming.  Then it’s just “and then a meteor (or an elephant) killed them all, the end” and the reader is left thinking “well, I wasted my time.”
Go back and foreshadow in such a way that the reader is hoping or fearing the event, but never sure it will happen.  Yes, I know, easier said than done.  But it gets easier with time.

2- Do you have a lot of nonsensical running around?  This is what I refer to “and in the middle of the novel something happens.”  It’s where, unless I’m reading it as an editor (I edit for close friends even though I hate editing, and even though I’ve been very bad lately) or as a beta reader, I just put the book aside and wonder off.  I like action as much as the next person, but the action must be meaningful to the plot, or it’s just filler because you were short on words.  How can you tell, when you’re close to it, if that’s what you were doing?

a) look at the scenes.  Do they advance the plot, either physically or emotionally?  Do your characters get closer to their goal?  Do they learn something that will help them attain it?

b) if not, can you change the scenes, so they push the character towards the goal?

c) if not, can you write new scenes that will do so?

Think of the middle like the three encounters in a fairy tale.  The tasks your character is set by the evil fairy or whatever might seem meaningless, but they must be changing and learning through it, so they can win.  If they’re just random, it will not satisfy the reader.

3- Is the final climax satisfying?

Yep, yep, I know.  You try.  You really do.  But sometimes you lose focus, and the final battle either almost doesn’t happen because you already know who’ll win, so why bother describing the minutia? OR it gets lost in a trailing morass of minor squirmishes.

Lately I’ve found myself having a weirder problem (though not with this last book) in which the final battles are two or three.  This is fixable (but annoying.)


a) what if your final encounter with the big-bad is not a bang but a whimper.  You have been building to this battle for 400 pages, and suddenly it’s over in 3, because, well, the big bad got scared of your hero’s armor of righteousness and imploded.

… your readers will get mad.  I know because some of the authors I read consistently do this, and it drives me bonkers.  So, go back and imagine that final confrontation in greater detail.  Start with “the big bad just pretended to implode… and now…”  For inspiration read the final confrontation in Terry Pratchett’s Thud.  Now go and figure out what to do.

b) Your big battle gets lost in a lot of little battles.  This is particularly common with multiple POV novels.

Choose one, and make that take longer/be more difficult.  Punch it up a lot. If in multiple POV novel, weave your other battles around it, so it starts first and ENDS last.

This is very important.  Your big climatic battle should be the lest one, before the characters are brought to their upright and locked position.  In the epilogue (don’t call it that)/cigarette moment (don’t call it that either) chapter you can give a summary of how the other, little battles went if needed.  BUT the big battle should be the important one, the one in which the central evil or more terrible menace faces your principal character/s.

4-Then there is the rest of the checklist, which is less important but will at times drive you insane:

1- Make sure your character arc is consistent.  Even for minor characters.

2- Make sure any large changes/idea shifting is foreshadowed and given lots of reasons to happen.  “And then he went crazy” is not very satisfying.

3- Make sure all your scenes don’t occur in the same type of location.  If your characters are always having arguments in the bedroom, make them argue in the car.  Maybe they’ll see something that helps.

4- Don’t kill a character twice unless he’s some form of undead.  Even a minor character.  Even in a series.  And stop laughing, this has happened in long running series I read.

5- If you have a brilliant idea and it’s a series, make sure it’s consistent with what went on before/will come after (this is mostly me, I think.  I plot by fits of brilliance.  Or “brilliance” at any rate.)

6- Make sure you have your character’s description consistent throughout.  Particularly minor characters (I’ve found this in published books too.  As in, the tall blond, who was really a tiny brunette.)

7- If it’s a series, make sure that someone encountering book 7 or 9 can enjoy it and go look for the others.  Also be aware this is not always possible.  I think in Darkships I’m hitting the point it’s not.  People who read Through Fire first were apparently, occasionally, bewildered, and the ones who read Darkship Revenge first will be somewhat confused about emotional resonance, I think.  But do what you can without turning half the book into “when last we saw our heroes.”

There are other things you should watch for, such as are your characters always sipping wine?  (One of my early unpublished books had the characters drinking so much coffee that they should have spent most of the book in the bathroom.)  Or “Is my character’s obsession with his hair annoying?” and “Is it meant to be?”

But if you just take care of the above, it should get rid of the MAJOR problems.

And now I’ll go and edit another novel, because life is like that.

First though I drink a lot of coffee, because I’m allowed and I’m not a novel character.


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How to Build A Web Presence

The short answer to this is “Danged if I know.”
I was very shocked at being asked this by an old friend who started writing at the same time I did and who has NOW decided a web presence in the key to her selling.  The fact that she thinks it’s more important than covers is just proof of my theory of writers: we are all just barely sane enough to function, but we have blindspots in which we compete with patients in padded rooms. I love the woman dearly, but her blindspots are wearing blindspots who have seeing eye dogs.

Leaving that aside, I didn’t answer her email. Not because it was out of order, but because it took me weeks of thinking about it to even come up with a glimmer of an answer.  Because it’s not that easy.

I was once at a dinner party wtih Glenn Reynolds of instapundit, the blog whose circulation more or less rivals the New York Times, and he was asked how he became “instapundit.”  His answer was “Like most things in my life, by accident.”

That is, at best, what could be said about my blog.  It has a fairly impressive readership (less now, because this week I’ve hardly been there) of 2 to 4k a day, which isn’t shabby for someone who started after everyone knew blogs were out.  But how I got there is… complicated.

I started it because my agent told me to.  Mostly she was right (sort of) as SOME webpresence is needed to sell at all.

My first two or three years were nothing much.  I was in the political closet, and also trying not to reveal anything about our family life, as the boys were in elementary and middle school at the time.

This meant most of the time I couldn’t think of anything to write about.

This couldn’t go on, so at some point I took gloves off, first about writing and second about politics.  Though if you’re looking for a political blog, that’s not what According To Hoyt is.  It is mostly whatever crosses my mind.

Whatever crosses my mind is often political or shades that way, because my mind was bent that way often by the turmoil that was the seventies in Portugal.  You had to know if someone had scheduled some big thing or if someone was setting fire to cars in an area, because that might be your normal route to school or shopping.

From that wanting to know WHY was a step and developing opinions that didn’t fit anywhere on the Portuguese spectrum was a very small hop for me.  Because I’m me.

What this meant is that in our early days of marriage, where we could barely afford food, we subscribed to three daily newspapers and at least five political magazines.

It’s who I am, and it’s my interest and the lens through which I view the world.  But there are others and they also come out to play in the blog.  Anything from literature and theories on what literature SHOULD be to history to weird science and futurism.  My blog is hard to define, except by its community which is great. EVEN if Alexander Pournelle calls it the Hoyt Home For The Tragically Gifted.

Somehow my blog led to Glenn Reynolds asking me to substitute for him (as one of a team of 6 back then) while he was away, and then to my joining the team permanently as the night dj (NO I haven’t quit or been fired.  I took a week and a half vacation due to trying to finish a book while having a bad head cold.  I’ll probably go back tonight, or tomorrow night at the latest.)

All this, plus Facebook (which I’m trying to cut back on because it’s a people eater) means I have a fairly large web presence, which my kids call “very stompy” (whatever that means.  They turned 22 and 25 and I stopped understanding a word they say.)

How did I get there?  No clue.  How can you duplicate that success?  Boiled if I know.

I can, however, give you some hints that I know helped:

1- Be you.  Don’t try to sound educated, or professorial or anything of the kind, unless that is who you are, naturally.  Just be you.  I swear readers can smell “Phony” a mile off.  Don’t be phony.

2- Part of one: talk about things that genuinely interest you, but not things that are so obscure they will only interest physicists or left handed seamstresses, or something.

3- talk of something other than writing.  Yeah, writing too, it’s who you are, but give value to people who aren’t writers.  MGC, I think, trails behind all our personal blogs in hits, because it’s a writers’ blog.  Like left handed seamstresses, that’s a specialized niche.

4- if you can, particularly in the beginning, get promo from people who have bigger platforms.  Links at insty (instapundit) are good for 4k or so hits in one night.  And some of them will stay.  Try to have one once a month or so.  BUT if you don’t have levers to get to somewhere like that, try for the giants of YOUR niche.  Passive Guy, say.  Or whoever it is who stomps it about where your interests live.  If you have friends who have bigger blogs, offer guest posts, and at the end put something saying “I normally blog at” with link.  I blogged at Classical Values, for a while.  Few bloggers (blogs eat your life too) will turn down free guest posts.  If they do, they’re either bad, you pissed them off, or they have a bad memory and you didn’t remind them.

5- be funny or at least amusing and cultivate a voice, just like you would for novels.

6- Post EVERY DAY.  If, like me this last week, you have to go AWL, have guest posts.  You’ll still lose readers and some of them won’t come back, but it’s better than dead air.  (Trust me.)  I don’t know why post every day works, except through “be habit forming.”

7- Police your community.  I actually have had to ban very few people, but remember the “drunken uncle at the wedding.”  If a poster is just there to attack and is making other people uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to ban him.  He might not be doing anything wrong, but his right to express himself doesn’t trump your right to have your normal commenters enjoy themselves.
Also, if the community gets in an unpleasant rut, nudge them.  My commenters once, while I was asleep, misunderstood something someone posted and attacked.  He got defensive and they ran him off the blog.  You don’t want that, particularly if it’s someone interesting.

People who say they’re not responsible for the tone of their comment sections are disingenuous or clueless.  You can police just enough, intervening to break up things just enough that you keep it from becoming a snake pit without neutering it.

8- It takes time.  So plan it.  I haven’t, and it’s more or less eating my life, so I’m now trying to learn balance.  Remember it’s part of your job, so schedule an hour or so and a visit at lunch, but don’t let it stop your  writing.

9- Is it worth it?  Particularly if you’re political, does it lose you more readers than it gains you?
I don’t know.  I go through periods of thinking so.  Then I get ten people in an afternoon at a con, all of whom started reading me because of instapundit, and I go  “Maybe not.”
I know that I’m selling way better than before I had a web presence and that friends who help people sell tell me that if you don’t have a web presence you just don’t sell.  But you have people like Doug Dandrige who have a sporadic blog and mainly hang out on face book, post amusing memes and the occasional book promo. And he ain’t hurting.  I guess you need to do what works for you.

10- Oh, yeah, don’t over saturate.  By all means, let your blog readers know you have a book coming out, but dont’ do this more than once every couple of weeks, and don’t become like the energizer bunny “buy my book, buy my book, buy my book.”Even at instapundit, where my value is news and commentary, but I can get away with pushing books (mine and others) I know (I see my amazon account) if I link my books, be they new releases or sales more than once a month, people start tuning it out.  So, be sparing with the naked “BUY MY BOOK” even if you think you’re SUBTLY weaving it in your posts.

There was this guy who used to be on panels with me at mile hi who no matter what the theme of the panel was, strong women, made up religions, brass asses, always made the same answer, “In my book, I handled brass asses with a polishing cloth, on page thirty five.  I think I did the right thing, because–”  Don’t be that guy.  Our response to him was between tuning him out and daydreaming of beating him to death with a brass donkey.

So, how do you build a web presence?  I don’t know.  But if you try, you’ll find a way, provided you’re authentic, post every day and don’t bash people over the head with promo.

Good luck.


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Sad Puppies, Gate Keeping, And We DID Build this

I shouldn’t be writing this right now.  I had planned on doing a blast from the past.  I am on deadline, trying not to wreck my publisher’s schedule because my idiotic body decided it was a good idea to collapse in the shower over a month ago and precipitate me into a fun happy time of doctors and tests.

The next test up involves drawing spinal fluid, which MIGHT give me a two week headache.  Which means two overdue books and one that’s not overdue but is due need to be done by the time of the test.  I’ve found interrupting books in the middle makes them almost impossible to finish, so now that we’re done with moves I’d like not to interrupt books.

Which is another reason I shouldn’t be writing this: I’m in the very final part of the book, the time when everything falls in place and comes tumbling down.  I call it “the ahah moment”and anything like, you know, writing a chunk of non-fiction in the morning runs the risk of killing the mood. Sure, I can finish it with paint by the numbers, but it will take longer and not be as good.  When painting by the numbers you miss little things.  Most of all you miss opportunities, as the moment when everything comes together in your mind never happens.  NO, it’s not a perfect method, but it’s the one I have.

So why am I doing this?

Yesterday when I woke up I decided I wasn’t going to go to Facebook.  But I had an email telling me I’d missed a link at instapundit.  (It’s something Vivaldi seems to do.  I put the link in and when I press schedule, it loses it.  I normally notice, but the display was being funky, so I missed three links in one night, which is a record even for me.)

One of the links I missed came from a secret group on Facebook.  I belong to about a dozen of them, and it’s none of your business.  Most of them are science or neat geek stuff.  A few are politics.  This link was at that edge, that it could have been in any of the groups.  So I went looking.  And in one of my normal hangouts I found someone had echoed his post, which was something like “It’s time to make a list for Sad Puppies 5”.

I don’t know how much of this is intentional, and how much was just the poster being stupid, in the sense that his blog posts are normally so scattered you have to read tea leaves to find out what he’s saying.  I have to assume he didn’t know the impression he was giving, or else he doesn’t know me very well, after being with me in various places on line for several years.

On the other hand, this same person had approached me, multiple times by proxy and in person, being very ah, delicate, I’m sure he thought, and asking me if I wanted to share the burden of Sad Puppies, or perhaps off load it completely to him. The fact he even thought this was appropriate as well as his tendency to blog posts his own mother couldn’t interpret is the reason he would be the very worst person for it.

I don’t talk about it, normally, but I berserk.  Berserking is fine, if I’m in a place I can break things and not kill anyone.  This is not often the case.  Most of the time I know I’m about to berserk because the immediate “you can’t do this here” kicks in.  Berserking isn’t an awesome gift, unless you live in the sort of primitive violent society where it serves to make people afraid to attack you.  It might have been useful once or twice in the late seventies when chappies with machine guns thought they owned the world I lived in.  Most of the time it’s an infernal nuisance, and you learn really early to control it before you find yourself holding a desk over the teacher who was mocking you crying and shaking.

Crying and shaking is the result of trying to control it.  And it feels like hell.  So usually I deal with my own emotions in such a way whatever the hell trigger that activates “berserker” doesn’t get pushed.

When I saw that post I went from zero to berserker in no time flat, and while shaking and crying, penned the most scathing answer I’ve ever even anyone.  The core of it, which I’ll expound on later is: Leading Sad Puppies won’t help your career.  (It might not hurt it, either, but it won’t help it.)

But then an amazing thing happened.  Yeah, you won’t believe this amazing thing that happened.

Which is why I’m writing this.

Even before I got to that post, and later in the other post that made me almost berserk again (I don’t think I’ve done this twice in one day since my teens) a friend had commented on how he gave the wrong impression and he should stop it already.  Later on there were also posts on a bizarre theme, one of which (the comments) is what caused the second berserk attack.

The theme was like this: Sad Puppies said they were against gate keepers, but now they’re trying to be gatekeepers.

There are so many missteps in that statement it’s hard to unpack.  First of all, no, Sad Puppies wasn’t against gatekeepers.  Sad Puppies was against the secret maneuvering that went on behind the awards.  (BTW it was never really a secret. When I was coming in, my mentors told me it was all log rolling and I had to roll the logs.)  And which people denied until they stopped denying it, in favor of shrieking at us to get off their lawns, and making up horrible lies about us.  (Unless, of course, you believe I’m a Mormon male.)

Second, in what way were we trying to be gatekeepers when we told an unauthorized person to stop pretending he was leading SP 5?

We were as much gatekeepers as, say, Baen would be when it told you you couldn’t call your indie publisher Baen Books For Real.  It might or might not violate a trademark (fairly sure it would) but more than that it’s false advertising and it violates the right of people to what they have built.

Sad Puppies was started by Larry, true, and he lent it much of its gravity, but he proved what he wanted to prove with SP2: that is, that it had become a log-rolling award.  (I’m still astonished that most people apparently didn’t know that.)

I was supposed to pick it up next, but I was ill and Brad did.  All the same, I dragged myself from bed, after surgery, because I and Kate and Amanda had been in it as much as Brad after SP1, and we could help defend the guys.  SP ate most of 2015 for me, the part that wasn’t devoted to scraping floors and painting walls.  (And keep in mind that “this won’t help your career.”  It really won’t.)

It still ate some of 2016, event though Kate took it, because I’m far more interesting to attack and attempt to discredit.  And 2016 was the year of four moves and one international trip.

To the extent that SP is a recognizable thing beyond the fake news of us being racist, sexist and homophobic, it is so because of my work.  And Amanda’s, and Kate’s.

For someone to say “I’m making the SP5 list” who has had no contact with us beyond writing pseudo-supportive fiction in which he willfully confused Sad and Rabid Puppies is …. astonishing.

And it is more astonishing that a vast number of libertarians apparently believe property rights don’t apply to a movement you helped start, and that it’s censorship when we try to say some Johnny come lately can’t just pretend he’s the leader this year and make it stick.

Seriously.  You believe that everything non tangible is free for the taking?  Go for it.  Let other people put their names on your books and sell them!  Have the courage of your convictions.

While I’m a big supporter of indie and of bypassing gatekeepers, I don’t think I’ve ever said you should have the right to pretend you’re Baen or Tor, or Bantam.

Sure, you don’t need to go through them.  Do your own thing.

This problem would never even have arisen if this eager beaver had called his post “My list for the Hugos.”  (For one, SP is moving away from the Hugos — which is why it’s not a federal emergency that I haven’t the site up yet, but I should have something up by Saturday — and yeah, you can disagree with that approach and want to focus on the Hugos like a laser.  Why you’d want to do that when they’re writing the vote-rigging into the bylaws and have abundantly proved no one not of the clique is welcome is beyond me, but hey, I’m not the boss of you.  You want to continue focusing on the Hugos, you start your own movement.  It’s a free country.  Everyone who has ever run the SP (except Larry whose only answer is “I’m retired”) agrees with the broadening and “unfocusing from the Hugos” view.  BTW, even if you want the Hugos, what I plan to do which a monthly recommendation list, will allow you to warm up for 2018 early on.)  Or he could have called “Neat books I think you should nominate for awards.”

Of course no one cares what he nominates or not, or what he likes or not.  I think you can count his following without having to remove his shoes, which is why it was so important for him to appropriate a name that he thinks gives him gravitas.

And that he’s not allowed to do.  Saying “you can’t take what’s mine, and I helped build” is not gatekeeping.  It is, last I checked, anti-communism.  And if you say — the other side does — that’s what we were trying to do in going for the Hugos: fair enough, except that it wasn’t supposed to belong to any clique.  It was supposed to be the best in SF chosen by ALL the fans.  Now it’s clear it’s the award of a clique, we don’t care about it, and they can keep it with our blessing.

But at the same time we’re going to use what remains of the SP movement to create more word of mouth for good books (including indies, because those tend to have more trouble finding an audience.)  And we’re going to give you material to nominate and vote for the awards you care about.  So they don’t go the way of the Hugo through sheer apathy.

And now if you excuse me, I’m 20k words behind where I should be with this book, and I’m tired of defending what I built from idiots, but let me add that I’m sure this doomed little sycophant thought that if he could only seize leadership of SP he’d become as big as Larry.  Why, we couldn’t ignore him.

Yes, we could.  Larry was Larry before the Puppies.  The reason he’s retired is because the leading of the Puppies (twice) cost him hours he could have devoted to his work.  He could weather that, because it just slowed him a little.  Brad and I, though, have paid for this with a serious slow down in our career.  So has Kate, who is only now writing again.  And in this field, as Brad said in his last post, indie or trad, the best measure of how well you’ll do is how much you write.

Years ago, when I was breaking in, my mentors told me not to run for SFWA presidency, ever.  Because unless you’re one of the darlings who can make it on one book a year, you’re going to regret it.  It will eat your life.  And if it happens at a certain time it might stop your writing long enough to kill your career.

I’ve found that the Puppies is the same thing.  I’m doing it only because I’ve figured out a way to more or less automate it; because I’ll have a lot of support; and because I owe it to the two that took the bullet for me these last two years.

It is not a picnic, though, it is not a publicity coup, and in the end it hurts your writing, which hurts your career.

And what matters at the bottom is your writing.  If your writing isn’t selling, leading the Puppies won’t fix it.  It will in fact make you enemies in the field, including people who want to ingratiate themselves with the gatekeepers and the elites.  I’m fairly sure a stupid hit to my career I suffered last year was a consequence of vocally supporting Larry and Brad.

I’m taking this movement in for a landing and somewhere useful, into a resource that will help fans of the work — not of cons and the right circuits — know what other people are enjoying.  This will hopefully in the future be helpful for the genre and make it healthier, which will distantly benefit me.

But in the short term there is no benefit.  Only trying to do three things at once, and having idiots nip at my heels for being a “gatekeeper.”

Now I’m going to go finish my d*mn book.  Because that’s what matters.



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Stopping Points

So, because I’m broke and also in the middle of a book (which means I’m not looking for one-of-a-kind, unforgettable books, but for popcorn mysteries I can put down and work again), I’ve been reading a lot of books borrowed from Amazon’s program.

I’m finding about 50% books that are so good I have to “kill” them by reading the end, so I can work, and I still read the books, anyway.   just not as urgently.  Which is good, because then work happens.

But what about the other 50% (BTW I want to point out that a) I always bought popcorn books for when otherwise really busy.  I don’t do anything else for fun.  I just read.  I’m BORING.  The reason I’m looking for them in KULL is that it’s cheap and convenient.  I used to find just as many from trad publishing, usually used.  b) I actually am finding a higher level of readable here than browsing the shelves, because there’s less fad-following.  If I happened to hate the fad, I often found very little to read.) Why don’t I like the other fifty percent?

Well, ten percent or so are unexplained.  I just don’t get into them.  No, I have no clue why.  Why do you like some dishes and not others?  Why do your tastes vary with season and mood?  I don’t know.

However, for the other 40% I’ve found that there are broad categories of errors, from the massive to the small that just lead me to fling the book against the wall (virtually, since they’re on kindle.)  And I thought I’d post them here, for the benefit (eh) of those of you working the word vines.  I mean, whether you’re going traditional or indie, you REALLY should not pop your reader out.

I do want to point out a couple of things before I start:

A lot of these errors, particularly the horrendous ones with historical research are from books that were formerly traditionally published, so gatekeepers are not the answer — you have to do it.

Also, a lot of these books that make me grind my teeth and fling them away have great reviews, and some even sell well.  So if you want to tell me to go suck on an egg, go for it.

It’s just that I think even those that have great reviews and sell relatively well are being kept back from true stardom by (sometimes) truly stupid errors.

And, hey, if you have a book out there and it’s not selling and you don’t know why it wouldn’t hurt to check some of the more subtle errors, because those, particularly, tend to throw people out without their knowing why.

So, in no particular order, here goes:

1- Anachronisms and bad history.

I don’t think this bothers everyone.  After all the book set in the regency in which an aristocrat shoots a commoner in the middle of London and no one cares, because the dead man is a “peasant” has tons of good reviews, is a previously-published by prime-crime books, and seems to do quite well.

Maybe I’m one of the very few people who KNOWS that such a thing is more suitable to ancien-regime France than to enlightenment England.

And maybe I’m one of very few people who will throw the d*mn thing against the wall, when a female character in a different regency mystery characterizes the father of another character as a “misogynist” because he doesn’t believe women should be highly educated, and thinks women should get married and be mothers.  For the unenlightened, in the regency that is called “normal male.” And it’s still NOT misogynist.  If she’d called him “Gothic” or “conventional” or even “hide bound” all would be fine, but no, this  probable graduate of an excellent college had to lapse into the lingo of her generation.  And this reader for one was popped clear out.

2- Related but beyond the last: DO YOUR D*MN RESEARCH.

Sure Dan Brown got away with not doing it.  (No, the worst possibly is the one involving the secret service.  Never mind.)  However, he had a huge marketing program behind him, which few of you (traditional or indie) will get.  So–

Look, I’ll forgive a lot, particularly if it’s not the area of history that I know really well.  There is a medieval mystery series (medieval oxford mysteries, if you want to look it up) that I SUSPECT kicks small details around.  I can’t tell for sure, because it’s not my main area of expertise, and I don’t want to check because it might ruin the books, which are good.

However, there are limits, and even someone half-aware as I am of these things, will note an accumulation of wrong stuff, which is when my disbelief gets hanged by the neck till dead.

I gave the thriller with a “Roman” part of its story line a long leeway.  I let the nanny named (I swear) Maria pass with “well, maybe they mean Miriam.  Maybe she’s a Jewish slave.”  A few other bits in the scene seemed off but I wanted to read the modern parts of the book, so I glossed over it.  But the other household slave is called Amy, a name I know for a fact is relatively modern (maybe 200 years) and of French origin (from Aimee) and I also know that info is free on

But then we got to the little girl being introduced to the high priest, who says her name is Rufina AntoniO Whatever.

Oh, hell no.  Even if she had to have her father’s name in there somewhere, she would be Rufina Antonia, and anyone knowing even a little bit of Roman conventions would know that.  Book got walled.  I still wanted to read the modern parts, but if I couldn’t trust the author, why should I trust anything else they said?

This applies to other things too, and has many applications: I’ve been thrown out by wrong words in a language I know, by mischaracterization of places I know (Oh, yeah, sure, Portugal is a South American country.)  I’ve been thrown out by wrong procedures when one goes to emergency, by wrong procedures in an office, by bad economics of scale in a civilization.

Do your D*MN research.  Sure, maybe you’ll get lucky and most of the rubes won’t notice.  But that’s not the way to bet.

3- More subtly, make sure I’m not going “Where am I? Who am I?” like some victim of a traumatic accident.

Look, there are many books out there competing with yours, and if I get to the end of the third page without being captured, then I’ll put it down and move on.

So a) have an engaging character and an interesting situation on the first page b) make sure I know where I am.

Yes, there are ways to write three pages without anyone having any clue if it’s in the present, in the future, in an imaginary world.

Stuff like “Bornil came running through the undergrowth.  The sky was green and ominous above” could be any of them.  And yes, I’ve found it’s possible to continue in this style for pages.

Do me the kindness of making sure you’re describing the scene in your head, and not a generic scene.

Make sure we have a sense of where and when, but mostly of a problem your character must solve.  This doesn’t have to be an Earth shattering problem but it must matter to the voice character.  It could be something like picking breakfast: “Gia sat at the table, in the cafe, and wondered if she should have the croissant” gives us all the information we need to get on with, though you might want to describe the cafe in the next paragraph and use voice and tone so we know if it’s funny, serious, tragic or strange.

Long ago and far away, I was trained to be a journalist (yes, I ran screaming.  Long story) and learned the Who When What and Why thing.  Do try to apply it to your fiction too.  If I don’t know these, I probably won’t care too much what you’re talking about.

If you have exceptional gifts with wording (careful there, the bar is higher than you think) you might capture my attention with a couple of descriptive paragraphs, talking about the weather or whatever, provided they set the mood and give a feel of what’s to come.  But after that you have to give me something to sink my teeth into.

4- Have SOMETHING HAPPEN.  For the love of heaven, something.  Anything.

This mistake is more common in Romance than anywhere else, perhaps because people who are beginning writers think they don’t really need suspense.  After all we all know the couple will end up together, right?

I mean you can just describe your GOOD GIRL character picking clothes, being compassionate, caring for children and kittens, and the main male character madly smitten and — YAWN.

This would all be fascinating, no doubt, if it were happening to ME.  But it’s not.  It’s a book.  And I’d better have some reason to keep reading the book.

In general this is a reason to hope, fear or worry for the characters.

If you’re writing a romance and want to know how a GOOD GIRL can get in serious trouble without meaning to, read Arabella by Georgette Heyer.  You’ll learn how to keep her interesting and sympathetic, too.

For popcorn books I sometimes go ten/twenty pages of the character doing nothing much, if it’s a nice character, but at some point I set that book aside.  More importantly, I won’t remember the book.  This is fatal, because if people don’t even remember the book, they’ll keep borrowing it and get mad at you, and might give you BAD word of mouth.

But Romances aren’t mysteries, you say.  You don’t need to have “something” happen.  Oh, surely you do.  The test in a romance is how your character interacts with the other main character.  Will she lie? will she cheat to get close to him?  Will he misunderstand her?

Yes, I KNOW you hate to torture your characters.  DO IT ANYWAY.  You can reward them at the end, but it will keep people who don’t have them in their head anyway interested in their fates.

By the way, other genre authors do this too, just less frequently.  If it’s a mystery give us some hint of where it’s going to go — if you’re not going to kill the character in the first chapter — or at least something interesting happening (Rebeca is fascinating, long before we realize there’s been a murder. Its fish-out-of-water character and her fears are interesting and we follow to see what will happen to her.)  If it’s science fiction have the character want, need or care for something beyond “oh, cool, science”.  And it it’s fantasy (the second most likely genre to get caught in this) have something beyond a cool world and magic system.  We’ll love your world building when your character leads us through the world, not before.

5- Make your character interesting.

No, I don’t care if she’s a multiple Nobel prize winner who loves kittens and flowers.  What I care about is WHAT DOES SHE NEED RIGHT NOW that the plot will prevent her from getting, and keep me reading to see how she copes with it, and if she gets what she wants in the end.

This goes beyond something happens.  I have read books where the characters are thrown willy-nilly into the middle of wars, into the middle of murders, into the middle of natural cataclysms, but in which there was nothing to drive me to continue reading.

The something that happens must affect the character’s dearest needs or hopes.  And we’re not talking about “I need a walk on the beach and hope for world peace.”  Please.  This is not a beauty contest.

What the character wants MUST be tangible (possible to picture) and attainable.

So, your character is dying for ice cream when the entire world’s technology gets fried and the world gets very hot.  And your character REALLY wants ice cream.  It’s a memory of childhood, it’s… something.  So she has to do something to obtain it.  That engages the reader.

If you have your character serenely watching everything, that means I yawn and move on.


What? Ask the SF/F writers and readers, you mean there is a right way to jump heads?

In most other genres, other than sf/f no one cares if you jump into multiple characters’ heads, one at a time, paragraph by paragraph.

Don’t do it in the middle of a paragraph, it makes it hard to read.

BUT there is still a right way and a wrong way to do this.  The wrong way is where you rob the entire story of interest and suspense.

Take a recent mystery.  The scene is simple: man is closing out his bookstore, looks across and sees a taxi hit a child, the child thrown high in the air, and man knows it was intentional and he has to solve who did it and why.  Right?

Except that it takes almost a chapter (I skimmed forward) to find out the man thinks it’s a murder and wants to solve it (and even then we have no reason to agree with him.  It’s a “hunch.”)

In the first chapter we are in the head of the man closing the shop, the little girl crossing the street, the man driving the taxi, another man doing something (don’t remember if customer or employee) in a coffee shop, the eyes of (I SWEAR) a dog walking by, the mind of a woman going out shopping, and a few dozen others, all so fast, that you never get a coherent chain of feelings or a reason why you should care about this scene.

Yes, I do suspect the writer was laying out clues in the way different people saw the accident, but it is VERY important not to forget that your readers are human.  Before they are engaged in solving the puzzle, they MUST want to, and the only reason for that would be being engaged with a character.

In romances too, it is a very bad idea to show that the couple really loves each other from the beginning and that there are no obstacles.  So if the girl sees a major obstacle, don’t remove it in the man’s pov, or else introduce another, and make sure it’s not something that can be overcome by talking if they would.

7- The inevitable infodump.  Dump it.

Seriously, even if your worldbuilding is the best thing ever, don’t give me 10 pages of it, upfront.  Heinlein the information.  Have your characters act as if the world is completely normal to them, and then give us the information by stealth, in dribs and drabs, in one sentence here and one sentence there.

Because this is something I too was very guilty of once upon a time, TRUST me that your readers need far less info than you think they do.  Sure, they need to know where and when your character is, but they can wait to find out her world branched from ours in the thirteenth century.  And even then, it might be hard to mention the Black Death never happened, unless they know of other worlds. You really don’t need to walk us through every detail of divergence.  If the world is solid enough, we’ll read it, and you can save the “raised in a world where the black death never happened” for your Amazon blurb or your cover letter.

Under this heading, no giving us a list of protagonists upfront is not clever.  People will either skip past or throw the book back.  I’m a throw-backer. If your characters are not memorable enough that I need a reference, I don’t have time for the book.

No, a prologue isn’t clever.  Prologues are sometimes needed, but they should be done amusingly (see Pratchett) not just infodumps.

No, maps aren’t clever.  Yes, some readers (and writers) adore them.  JUST DON’T MAKE THEM ESSENTIAL TO UNDERSTAND WHAT’S GOING ON.

Yeah I know, a lot of besteselling and GOOD authors have infodumps, but it’s like the other flaws: if you’re very lucky, you’ll get away with it.

Do you feel lucky? (Well, punk, do you?) Or are you going to rely on craft and remove every stopping point you can between your book and the reader?

I know which I’ll do.


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Titles From A Parallel World

So, since we’re all a little busy with end of the year and (trust me) crazy stuff, I turned younger son and his timo-streamo-thingy-magic loose and he got some titles of members of MGC from a parallel world.  Some of this make perfect sense with the people we know and love.  Others, not so much.  For instance, I’m fairly sure mine comes from a world in which I took that post-grad thing at Brown instead of getting married.

Anyway, I thought I’d give you a few of these, and then you can come up with parallel world titles for your very own and other writers….


This one either comes from a very strange world, or our very own Pam Uphoff is out Chucktingling Chuck Tingle, over there.


And all I can say about this one is … WHAT?  And also, maybe “I’m so glad he met Barbs in this world!


Another one that’s… UH?


This one I could almost see.  Almost…


Cedar, this is fiction, right? RIGHT?


This I KNOW is fiction.


And this… Kate, are you all right?


THIS one however, is probably just a sidestep


As for this one… Brad, when are you writing it?


And now I’m going to er… run before my colleagues see this.
If you need me, I’ll be in my bunker.


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