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.

Write it Like It’s Hot

Most of us started out in fanfic.  Even me.  It’s just that I started out in fanfic at age 6, in Portuguese.  So when they put me on a panel on your earliest writing in Denvention I had to point out to them the flaw in their reasoning.  Sure, supposing mom hasn’t burned it (she likes bonfires) there is, somewhere around the potato cellar, a composition book with my early, written in pencil and misspelled stories in which I imitated (well, I tried) Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories.  (My favorite was actually the Adventure series, but even at six I knew I wasn’t good enough to write those.) However, supposing I could get hold of it and read it, only those who understood Portuguese and grew up with Enid Blyton’s Kid-mystery series would know what I was doing.

So I read an early joke-story I wrote (and which sold) because I figured what they wanted was weird.

However, everyone else at that table read their earliest writing and it was, without exception, like my earliest writing: self insertion and fan fic.

So if you’re a beginning writer, of any age, and you feel a desperate need to do self-insertion fanfic, congratulations: You’re normal.

(Self insertion, btw, although much ballyhooed as a literary sin is not.  It all depends on how well you do it — I don’t do it at all.  I like escaping the pace behind my eyes.  But I know people who do — and many bestsellers are self-inserters. I can do a post on that later, and how to do it WELL.  Not that I do it, but I’ve been observing it a long time.)

Anyway, that’s how most of us start.  I suppose if you’re over forty, and you swear to me you’ve never done that, I MIGHT believe you.  However, if your first book, at over forty years of age wasn’t that, and was publishable, I’m going to think you’re lying and there are something like 20 manuscripts under the bed.

Which brings us to: it’s still wrong, and you can’t publish that.

I recently came across someone who didn’t know that.  He wasn’t being stupid, he simply didn’t know the inside-baseball of how pro-world-based stories work.  You see those anthologies on Monster Hunter, say, and if you’re a beginner you think “Okay, I’m still in my fanfic phase, but I could play in a favorite world.”  And you probably could.  I mean, those anthos always have one or two relative unknowns who are friends with the author and the editor or both.

But the fact is those stories, to keep the editorial work to a minimum (if you opened up a really popular world, you’d drown in submissions) are “invite only.”

Other than that, there isn’t a heck of a lot of outlet for fanfic.

Sure, if you’re as twisted as I am, and your favorite media properties are things like Pride and Prejudice and The Three Musketeers, not to mention Shakespeare, you can publish your fanfic.  But that’s only if you have the good taste of liking things that are out of copyright.

What if you, in common with most fans (which means greater audience) prefer to write in popular book series, popular movies, popular tv series.

That’s when you are in real trouble.  And don’t for the love of heaven, ever try to publish anything that has any ties to Disney.  They have a bunch of lawsuit-happy lawyers on staff, who will take you to court, even if they gain nothing for it.  What they’re actually doing is putting your head on a pike outside their castle, so other misbegotten barbarians don’t think of fanficking them.

So — what do you do?  Most likely you’ll do what most of us eventually do: you start coming up with your own material, even though at first it might really be a conglomeration of your three or four favorite movies.  That’s okay.  As long as it’s not traceable to a single franchise, and you’re sure the seams between the disparate material are neat enough, you’re not doing anything wrong, and you might be very successful.

Or you can “file the serial numbers.” It’s no big surprise that Fifty Shades of Grey started out as twilight fanfic, substituting S & M for vampires.  Which when you think about it makes sense, bringing the same power relationships to play, while eliminating the most identifiable part of the original material.

I can also do a post on that, and how to preserve what appeals in the material while avoiding being sued. But it’s a whole post, not just a few lines in this post.

Every year, when I had a hopeful (we practically ONLY had hope, though we were working on skill) young writers’ group, we entered the Strange New Worlds contest.  For those who don’t know, this was a star trek fanfic anthology.  Eventually three people in our group got into (different) anthologies.  Not a mean feat, when they MUST have gotten thousands upon thousands of submissions.

HOWEVER, there were 12 of us in the grou and we submitted to it over 5 years or so.  So there were a lot of leftover fanfics.  Usually immediately after the results were announced there was the “great brainstorming” session in which we helped ourselves shave off identifying marks, without destroying the story.

From the fact that quite a few of those stories sold to pro places like Analog and Asimov, I have to assume the filing of serial numbers was effective.

So, the bad news about fanfic is that, with very few exceptions, or if you become big enough or lucky enough one day to be invited to an anthology of JUST that fanfic, you can’t sell it as is.

The good news is that you’re not an inferior writer if you commit fanfic.  Most of us start out that way, many of us still indulge when we have that mythical “free time” thing.  (Not this year.)

Some fanfic, like Jane Austen, can be sold as is, both to publishers and Amazon, and I’ll be honest, I’ve made a tidy bit off JA fanfic.  But that’s because it’s out of copyright.

If your poison of choice isn’t, it’s not the end of the world, though.  You can still shave off the serial numbers and ride that story all the way to the top.  No matter what your opinion of Twilight is, I hear the author sleeps in a mattress stuffed with money.

So, write it like it’s hot.  And then do what you have to do to sell it.



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We’re Lazy, We’re Tired…

So, let’s talk promo.  No, let’s do promo.  And vignettes.  In fact, I’m copying here my post from ATH.  Because I can.  Got a problem?  Bah. You can send us a post, then.

The Oyster Returns to Promo Town

G. Scott Huggins

A Doctor to Dragons

Everyone says it was better in the Good Old Days. Before the Dark Lord covered the land in His Second Darkness.

As far as I can tell, it wasn’t that much better. Even then, everyone cheered the heroes who rode unicorns into combat against dragons, but no one ever remembered who treated the unicorns’ phosphine burns afterward. Of course, that was when dragons were something to be killed. Today I have to save one. Know what fewmets are? No? Then make a sacrifice of thanks right now to whatever gods you worship, because today I have to figure a way to get them flowing back out of the Dark Lord’s favorite dragon. Yeah, from the other end. And that’s just my most illustrious client. I’ve got orcs and trolls who might eat me and dark elf barons who might sue me if their bloodhawks and chimeras don’t pull through. And that doesn’t even consider the possibility that the old bag with the basilisk might show up.

Mary Catelli

Through A Mirror, Darkly

What lies behind a reflection?

Powers have filled the world with both heroes and villains. Helen, despite her own powers, had acquired the name Sanddollar but stayed out of the fights.

When the enigmatic chess masters create a mirrored world reflecting her own home and the world about it, it’s not so easy to escape. All the more in that the people of that world are a dark reflection of all those she knows.

RD Meyer


Seth Gendrickson has worked for the Catholic Church’s Order of Mount Sion since his initial encounter with a vampire during seminary years ago. Finally working his way up to the rank of Hunter, Seth’s first assignment is to investigate a spike in vampire activity in Kansas, an area previously quiet. The region between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River had been a kind of neutral zone for the two main factions – The Assembly of Cairo and Los Muertos. The Assembly hails from Europe, and although few in numbers, is the older of the sects and far more powerful. Los Muertos saw opportunity in the New World, so they established themselves in the Americas and began to multiply. They are young, aggressive, and passionate.

And they’re moving east.

Seth is under orders to figure out what’s going on before an all out vampire civil war brings knowledge of such supernatural creatures into the open and causes societal panic, a situation the Church is keen to avoid. During his mission, Seth captures one of the enemy and interrogates it, but he soon finds that the movement east is less an invasion than it is an influx of refugees fleeing a greater threat. Something is hunting the vampires out west, something more terrifying than the risk of conflict. Seth tracks this threat from California to Japan and across Europe to discover the heart of a conspiracy that stretches back 2,000 years and threatens the future of the world.


The Fantastic Flying Saucer Stories

Lights in the sky. Strange visitors. Clashes between the FBI and a mysterious group of men clad in black.
For as far back as history goes, there has been one unanswered question that just won’t seem to go away: What are those unidentifiable flying objects in the sky? And furthermore, who are they?

With stories spanning the past, present and future, this anthology focuses on this question that has made Science-Fiction great for the better part of a century. Enclosed in this book are stories of survival, as children under the care of a church group rebel against authorities in hopes of reuniting with their family, as well as tales of friendship, as a hunting instructor finds his strange visitors to be not quite so fearsome as the town thinks they might be. Tales of simple curiosity are found here too, as a young couple set up recording equipment in hopes of finding answers, and learn that just maybe this abduction business isn’t for everyone.

Jon M. Jefferson

The Black Medallion

In an age of steam, the world is divided by the power of aether and the shapers who can pull power from crystals. Little magics define the course of lives for those who can use them and those who can not.

Tisdan Thinkledor, a thief from lowtown has never thought of the politics or games played by those in power. His days have been planned from the next purse he can cut to the next mark to be tagged. A life led from station to station along the path of the trains that connect the lives within the city.

Sometimes, it is the little things that change the world around you. A matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, can change the future.

Henry Vogel

The Recognition Run

Recognition Book 1

Jeanine is on the run from someone very powerful. She doesn’t know who wants her dead, or why. She only knows they have already killed her family, and if they catch her, she’s next.

Drake’s family was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now, he drifts from spaceport to spaceport, searching for cargo and running from the grief he can never escape. When Jeanine barrels into Drake’s life, he must push aside his grief and run with her.

But time is not their ally. When they cannot run from their enemies, Jeanine’s and Drake’s only hope is to run toward those enemies. Their only hope is to make The Recognition Run.


Vignettes by Luke, Mary Catelli and ‘Nother Mike


So what’s a vignette? You might know them as flash fiction, or even just sketches. We will provide a prompt each Sunday that you can use directly (including it in your work) or just as an inspiration. You, in turn, will write about 50 words (yes, we are going for short shorts! Not even a Drabble 100 words, just half that!). Then post it! For an additional challenge, you can aim to make it exactly 50 words, if you like.

We recommend that if you have an original vignette, you post that as a new reply. If you are commenting on someone’s vignette, then post that as a reply to the vignette. Comments — this is writing practice, so comments should be aimed at helping someone be a better writer, not at crushing them. And since these are likely to be drafts, don’t jump up and down too hard on typos and grammar.

If you have questions, feel free to ask.

Your writing prompt this week is: rotten


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The Shadows Of What’s To Come

When I was a young writer, verdant as spring lettuce, writing my novels on the hope of publication, and sending them forth to publishers who’d never heard of me, my most common rejection was that “your novel just meanders and has no plot.”

This puzzled the living heck out of me.  In those days I was a plotter, because I was insecure.  Not only did I outline and diagram ahead of time, but I ruthlessly (too ruthlessly) trimmed everything that didn’t advance the plot or reinforce the theme or whatever.

In fact to this day, as a reader, loose and meandering plotting (and my bar for that is MUCH lower than the average reader’s) disturbs me, and unless I trust the writer for other reasons, will get me to stop reading.  I have to discern “the thread” before I can find pleasure in a book.

Being told I had no plot was one of those things.  It would be like you leaving home in the morning and everyone telling you that you were purple.  After a while you decide you can’t see your own color, and I decided I knew nothing about plotting and started stealing structure/plot from other books. (No, this is not plagiarism.  It is at worst stupid.)

It took me years — and six novels out — before I was whining to Dave Freer about how I couldn’t plot for beans, and couldn’t seem to learn it, since I couldn’t SEE what I was missing, when he said “Your plots and structure are fine, but you have to learn to foreshadow, woman.

He then recommended I read Georgette Heyer to learn techniques and that worked somewhat, but mostly what worked was my being aware of the need to give the reader advance warning WITHOUT spoiling the surprise.

That was part of the problem, see.  I thought every new plot development had to be a SURPRISE! — I don’t know where I got the idea, frankly — and the more surprise the better.  So I must not give away what was coming.  Not even by hints.

It’s no coincidence that my first novels that sold were Shakespearean, because being in Shakespeare mode, I felt a need for a Greek Choir of sorts, and for imitating his techniques, and the man foreshadowed.  Heavily, actually, given that he was working on a dimly-lit (by our reckoning) stage, for people in a crowded noisy space, who might miss the first hint, or three.

So, first to start with: what is foreshadowing?

Exactly what it sounds like.  It is things to come casting a shadow on the present.  Think of it as the choir in classical plays, moaning prophecies of tragedy to come.

Most of the time nowadays, unless we’re writing something really peculiar, we can’t do that.  A lot of writers, though, use feelings, premonitions, dreams are very popular, as are someone shaking his head and saying “that boy is going to come to a bad end.” type of things.  Think of Owen Pitt’s confusing dreams in Monster Hunter International.  Actually hold on to that.  We’ll revisit it.

Second: why do you need foreshadowing?  Aren’t SURPRISES! more enjoyable?
Well, no.  This must be a prevalent illusion, because ALMOST every single contest I judge, the good king “goes mad” and becomes evil.

First of all, can we talk cliche, guys?  And one profoundly depressing one, what I call “Brother, nobody is clean.”  Second no.  At that point you lost me, particularly when the good king is the main character or the love interest.

Let’s ignore the cliche part for a moment and see how this could be solved with foreshadowing: NO ONE TURNS EVIL WITHOUT SIGNALLING IT.  It might be that they go so far in the pursuit of good they blur moral lines.  It could be they have a sadistic streak.  It could be a dozen things, but if you show us that first, we’ll be prepped and won’t throw the book against a wall, when you drop an elephant from the ceiling on us.

Also, foreshadowing adds to the tension that keeps us reading forward to find out how things resolve.  For instance, if you have dropped hints that the love interest might be evil, I worry for the main character and will read just to find out if he/she is okay.  You can use this, btw, when the love interest ISN’T evil.  I used it to good effect in Darkship Thieves.

The best image for foreshadowing is this:
Imagine you’re writing about a woman coming home from work, undressing, putting on an evening dress, doing her makeup.  Suddenly, a killer jumps out of the closet and stabs her.

Thrilling stuff, right?

Oh, hell no.  Most of your male readers and some females or all of them depending on how you did it, wondered off long before the killer jumps out.  Those who didn’t will probably leave after that, because the effect is: boring routine, boring routine, boring routine: SURPRISE!

Unless the surprise was foreshadowed in some way (i.e. you know someone is out to get her) it’s just a “Oh, for heaven’s sake, why doesn’t this guy have a plot?  He’s just throwing random things in.”

Now, same situation, but you open the book with this guy who has killed before, and likes blonds of a certain type.  He sees your character out at lunch, finds out where she lives (could be anything including stealing her driver’s license) and takes his lockpick out.

Then when your character is shaving her legs and primping, you suspect there’s a guy in the closet, waiting to jump.  And you are biting your nails in anxiety.

For a thriller, you might actually intercut with shots of him in the closet, watching her.  That raises the tension more, but it’s not suitable to ALL books.

So, what if you’re in first person?  This woman clearly didn’t notice it, or she wouldn’t go to her apartment and be shaving her legs and stuff.

Right.  But her workmates might make a joke about this guy who likes girls who look just like her, apparently.  This is forgotten, because Big Boss comes in with an issue.  Then at lunch, she notices a guy looking weirdly at her, but when she looks at him, he looks away, and he looks so normal, so it’s probably just one of those things.

When she gets home, there’s a scratch on her door lock.  Was it there before?  How many of us examine our door locks?

House looks okay.  Nothing disturbed.  Or maybe there’s a coffee cup on the counter.  Did she leave it there on the way out?

You get the point.  Usually the rule is to give three hints, because your readers can miss two very easily.

The knife out of closet should still be a surprise, mind, but one that connects with subconscious expectation of SOMETHING not right.

A way to do that is to drown the hints in other stuff, like other problems the character is having, (Big Boss) or to make them vague (guy in luncheon place.)  In this Owen Pitt’s dreams were perfect, because they were just vague and suspicious enough that the main character had no very clear idea what to expect.  But the reader KNEW to expect something.

Take your good king that turns evil: his mother, the dowager could tell visitors when he was little he once strangled a puppy in a rage, but he’s turned out a very good king, etc.

Once you have command of this, you can use it in reverse.  Your MC can hate the character on sight and yet you get hints he’s very nice.  He saves a puppy from drowning, pays off a friend’s debts, that sort of thing.

And this is not just for mystery.  Any big developments in your story should be foreshadowed at least three times in different ways.

Are you writing an hidden prince?  Talk about how he was taller/better built than his family of woodcutters.  Talk about how he’s a blond and everyone in the village is dark haired.  Drop casually in that he was born when the whole country was searching for the little prince who was kidnapped from his crib when his parents were killed.

Okay, that should be enough to go on with.  Now go do it.


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Ride Alongs

Yesterday I found myself trying to agree with/explain to a young man how to find the thread of a novel, and how to prune the parts that don’t fit.

I was doing this LONG before I knew why I was doing it, based it on a “gut feel” I couldn’t explain.  (There are things I STILL do by gut feel, including finding the voice and setting the pace of a novel.  I don’t think it’s entirely possible to control every detail of a novel RATIONALLY.  Or at least not for a certain type of writer, which I’d guess I am, which is why I say “the thing isn’t exactly under my control.”)

The problem is this: the gut feeling can lead you astray and the thing it most often leads you astray on is plot, at least if you don’t figure out what you’re trying to accomplish.  It’s your world and your people; you love it like you can’t help loving it, and of course you want to spend way more time there just hanging out with your creations than anyone not invested in it is likely to.

My first book, I was painfully aware that I wasn’t getting “plot” at the level the pros did.  Thing was, ever book I read said things like “Plot are the things that happen.”  Well, thank you very much.  And I suppose the white horse of Napoleon is white?

There are guides, of course, and you can find them yourself, you look for them.  The W plot is a series of try fail sequences, in which the W tracks how well your character is doing at extricating him/herself from difficulties.  You start at the top, the stable situation, but you want something, and you try for it, and when you end, you’re at a lower position.  Then you try again, and end slightly higher, but there is still (the same or another problem) and you try again and–

It’s a mutant W as most of them have at least three try fail, even for short stories, and the low point goes lower and lower, until the climax, when the problems are solved, etc, and suddenly the leg goes shooting back up to where you started.  It looks something like this, for a novel with multiple try-fail sequences:


This type of plot is particularly useful for thrillers, women in peril, hard boiled mysteries and other sorts of plot where your character faces the gates of hell and death is at his side.

It is less useful for plots of interior development, self-discovery or — as my novels tend to be — mixed.

The greatest danger with this peaks and valleys W plot is that you’ll end just having elephants fall from the ceiling at your characters.  I.e. the character’s efforts make things a little better, you need to get him/her in trouble again, so you just have something drop on the character, unforeseen.  That type of plot is tiresome and weirdly gets boring quickly.  The rules of writing determine that your character trip over something the reader can foresee but which is invisible to the character.

Say your character is being chased, goes into an old house to escape. Things get a little better, the house is a place to hide.  But he/she overhears someone plotting a crime.  Worse, the criminals know someone is listening.  Character comes out, into fog, and realizes he/she lost a distinctive, traceable piece of jewelry.  Things get worse.  Character is now being chased by original antagonist AND people who know they were overheard (they might be the same or not, mind you.)

So, why have things get slightly better?  Why the respite of having a place and not being chased, before things get worse?  Well, mostly because otherwise it’s incredibly tiring.  I did this with a book of mind, Mirrorplay (whose title is now being used for something else) because I didn’t know any better.  It was my first novel in a consciously created world, and I felt it was important to do this big heroic thing, and I just had things drop on my character, and he couldn’t escape.  Round about the middle of the novel, that character was worse than dead.  He was lifeless.  And I had no more interest in him.  There’s only so many walls you can drop on a character before he’s pancake-flat.

Turns out the best structure for a heroic novel is Campbell’s hero Journey.  the best destillation of it is the one used by Disney (yes, Disney, deal) which is compiled in the book writers’ Journey.  Your library probably has it, and if not, it’s NOT available on kindle, because eh traditional publishing.  But you can find reasonably priced used copies here.

Thing is that the hero journey is very flexible.  VERY flexible.  And if you don’t have an internal compass to tell you when you’re going wrong, you’re going to get lost in your own head.  So you’d better take some breadcrumbs.

What are the breadcrumbs you can take for this sort of thing?

Well, in my case… with my very first novel that was published, I knew I didn’t know how to plot, and I was sure there was some sort of secret to it, some thing that told you when a plot fit.  I’d got enough rejections telling me I needed to learn to plot.  (Actually they were wrong, I needed to learn to foreshadow.  I had sort of an instinctive grasp on plot, but I didn’t know it and was overthinking it.  (Thank you to Dave Freer who after I had about 8 books out, published, looked at my uh… oeuvre, and put his finger on the problem in a way agents and publishers had missed, and told me “You have to learn to foreshadow, Sarah.  I can see the plot, but one experiences it like something dropped from nowhere.”  (If you want a post on foreshadowing, which I had to learn hand over hand, by observation, let me know, will do that next week.))  So for my first book, I ended up — which was not… abnormal for me in those days — with a 350k word formless blob.

Now, you can publish formless blobs if you’re lucky — I’ve read a number of them, some in mystery — but a) I’m not lucky.  b) unless you have a lot of promo to convince the reader you’re just too deep for normal humans, the reader will get to the end of it and go “now, what WAS the point of that?” which was not the reaction I wanted. c) even if you’re lucky and get some following there ain’t no way you’re going to appeal to a lot of people with your avant garde formless blob.

So I did what writers do when there’s a part of their craft that’s lacking: I stole it.  Ill Met by Moonlight borrows a lot of its plot from Tam Lin.

Unfortunately I still had exactly clue zero what I was doing on the plot front, which means I was easily influenced, and my second agent convinced me my second book, as finished, had no plot.  (It did.  It NEEDED foreshadowing.)  So, he made me rewrite it and superimposed what he seemed to think was the “one, true plot” which was a thriller plot.  Since it sat very uneasily on an Elizabethan fantasy, that book — All Night Awake — traditional AND indie, is my WORST selling book out of thirty many (I haven’t counted recently, okay?  Give me a break. Do you want me to count, or do you want me to write?)

I continued sort of blundering around, looking for a plot, before I developed my current philosophy of plot I THINK around the time I wrote the second Shifter’s book, Gentleman Takes A Chance.  (Available as part of the omnibus Night Shifters.)

So, does that mean that my books up till then had no plot?  Well… no.  In fact Darkship Thieves was written before Ill Met By Moonlight and it has a plot, though it is arguably three novellas shoved together (the second half, the sequence of Thena waking up in the hospital was written first and I thought it was going to be a short story.  When it became clear it was too large to sell anywhere, I wrote the two beginning sequences.  In reverse order.  Because the thing isn’t entirely under my control and also some assembly required.)  BUT it has a perfectly functional plot.

The problem is after I started overthinking it, I had to think myself out of it.  Because that’s how I work.  And it took me to Gentleman Takes A Choice to take full hold of my plot philosophy.

It turns out all those people who told me the plot was that things happened, were right, if unhelpful.

The reasons I can’t tell you how to plot, is that IT’S YOUR PLOT.  Plot is intimately bound up with who you are, how you think, and how you process information.  Also, your objectives for your book.  What I mean is there is no right or wrong way to plot.

Asking me what is the right plot for your book is like asking “Why is a mouse when it spins?”  It can be asked, there just isn’t an answer in this universe.

As to what belongs in a novel and out, you get some useful answers — ahem useful — like “remove everything that isn’t advancing the plot” (which meant I used to cut things to the bone, including character development and leave the reader nothing to hold onto.)  And “your novel must be x length, so cut what you need to cut so it’s x length and still a story.”  The butchery done in the name of that last can’t be described.

Then there’s the slightly more useful — for certain writers — “follow your theme.”  This is particularly useful to writers who first come up with a theme, say “motherhood” or “love of dogs.”  You just remove everything that doesn’t enhance that, though you might end up writing a lot on the way there.

Problem is I’m not one of those writers.  Oh, my novels have a theme, and it’s usually something I’m trying to noodle, because I’m brain is not very useful as a direct-thinking instrument.  Sure, it’s okay if the theme is small enough.  But when I’m trying to digest something big, like an emotional experience, the only way I can process it is by accretion and similarity.  And sometimes I only realize afterwards what the “theme” was.  (Sometimes when I get my first review and go “Oh.”)  Sure, in retrospect it’s easy.  And I know why I’m in that mental cull de sac. For instance, right now there’s a whole lot of mothering and motherhood in my books, because I’m at the almost-empty nest stage, and at a guess my brain is going “So, what was THAT all about?” about the entire “raising the boys” period.

At some point before GTAC I realized what I WANTED to do, which is part and parcel of what plots are in a book.  Sort of the pointing arrow of the objective.

I realized this by trying to figure out why the nineteenth century novels a friend adores and tries to imitate no longer draw or hold (with limited exceptions.)  Which led me down the path of the novels I studied in school, which often had a whole novella or unrelated sequences stuck in, or the path of why Jane Austen has almost no description (she was writing about a small set to that same small, homogeneous set.  This means when she said “it was a handsomely appointed drawing room” to us it’s a puzzle, to them it was a vivid picture.)

This led me to what novels are NOW.  Not all novels, mind you, and I’m not saying you can’t rationally start with theme and build a plot from there.

What I’m saying is that the novel these days has ONE great advantage over movies and games (besides being cheaper to create): it’s easy to create as a unit of emotion.

You can write things in such a way that your readers are ride-alongs in a plot that creates a complete emotional experience.  Sure, movies do it too, to an extent, but it’s a little different, because seeing things happen is a distancing magazine.  It’s harder to remember then as things that happened to you.

However a novel done right means the writer takes a ride-along in the space behind the eyes.  For a time you’re someone else, and you experience something as intensely as if it happened to you.  In fact, done right, it is capable of creating false memories.

This is a guide to the plot, because inviting the reader in is making him your accomplice/co-conspirator.

I was discussing with a friend collaborating on a book of how to write violence for writers (probably four actually and yes, more anon.  We had one very long meeting, and then I left to to to Dallas, so I haven’t sent him the outline yet, and I’m the one supposed to write that.) And we came up with “when the hero kills the villain, if you’ve done things right, you’ve built the need for the villain to die to the point the reader is an accomplice before the fact.  He’s going “KILLHIMKILLHIMKILLHIM.”  long before the last bullet is fired/the sword is driven home, etc.

But it’s not just with violence.  It’s with everything.  If the writer has done his/her job and guided the plot accordingly, by the end you’re riding along with the romance, too, and you want the marriage as much if not more as the main character.

So, in every type of book, if your philosophy of writing is like mine (and I’m not saying it is) sure, use the W or the campbell, or whatever you want.  But when you’re looking at your plot in the cool and dispassionate light of day, keep in what enhances the experience and invites readers into that ride-along, and discard everything that doesn’t.

It’s that simple.  And I think it will take me the res tof my life to master.


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About Those Lost Puppies


So what happened to Sad Puppies this year?

In a form or another, we’ve been getting this question for months.  I thought I had explained back when I announced I was “leading” it, though I’ll confess by now I expected to have done something more about it.

So, what happened?

Apparently what always happens when I’m supposed to lead: my health goes feral.

At least, thank heavens, this year, it’s not that I know cancer or even the fact I have a small brain tumor (it’s a meningioma, in the membrane that covers the brain, so no, it’s not really affecting me, except for my vision, by pressure, because it’s on top of the vision center.  Fortunately all it does is give me a slight double vision, and I trained for that for much of my undergrad.)  It’s “just” autoimmune.  but I’ve had two long and rather horrible autoimmune bouts, which means things slipped.

On top of which WORK has gone feral.  I need to finish at least five more novels this year (I intended to be at four by now) and that’s for traditional, not counting my indie career.  I’ve also picked up a three-times-a-week columnist gig, and there are other potential jobs in the horizon.  (Man, this ruined career sure is a lot of work.)

If we’d planned to do something different this year, I’d have passed it on to Amanda early.  But since what we’re planning has no defined deadline, as soon as we get it up (eh) in the next couple of months, we’ll be fine.  And we want to make sure we do it right.

So, originally, we’d planned to do nothing, and let Sad Puppies ride into the sunset with Kate’s campaign, which did everything the left claimed to want and yet was still subjected to the same complaints as ever.

But the problem with a decentralized, almost leaderless campaign is that it’s prone to be high jacked, and we realized late last year that if someone didn’t announce then someone who was wholly (really) in the rabid camp was going to take it, and make it sound like the campaigns were always one.

Oh, I know.  With Sad Puppies completely silent, the Puppy Kickers have been enthusiastically blaming us for the Rabid decisions.  Pfui. They’re like a back law firm: Obfuscate, Lie and Project.

But there was no point lending color to this by having a self-proclaimed Sad Puppy leader who’d always been on the periphery, who’s barely competent to carry his own hat in a high wind, and who thinks the whole point is to back the Rabid selections. Yeah.  No.  So I announced.

By the time I announced, I knew we’d be “late” for the Hugos.  Which was fine with me.  VERY fine.

Look, guys, I don’t believe in asking people to do things I won’t do.  Last year I didn’t pay the fee to vote, so I was done after the nomination.  Why?

Because the years before we told people to buy supporting memberships and vote.  We told them that our aesthetics were as valid as the neo-Marxist aesthetics the conventional side of the field sticks to.  Ludic enjoyment of fiction is, arguably, a better way to determine what will survive and be important than the markers of “class” and an excellent education used now.  (Yeah I know.  It’s supposedly all about the downtrodden.  Only it’s not really. It’s about showing off the Neo-Marxist aesthetics taught in the best colleges.  A fad, a passing one, and arguably a stupid one.   I don’t have time to explain the difference of aesthetics here, and hey, I did it last week at another site, so: How Do We Evaluate Art in the Kingdom of the Blind Marxist? And to the idiots who’ll come in and say that’s not Marxist critical theory.  Bah.  Before they climbed up their own ass and slapped the cool-hot (what makes a philosophy hotter than 100 million stinking corpses, after all) Marxist moniker on their involuted crap, they were already evaluating literature according to the Marxist parameters of “making a difference” and “fighting injustice” and “criticizing society.” Which has its roots in the left and in social markers for an excellent education.  It’s like medieval scholars showing off their Catholic Orthodoxy, or well… Or Shakespeare writing a lot of propaganda plays about the Tudors, which even Shakespeare couldn’t turn into anyhting but dross.  Which tells you the long term value of this trend.)

Anyway, we told people if we didn’t participate in the process, we had no reason to protest.  So people did.  We did too.

And the establishment called us names, made unfounded claims of cheating, took our money, threw themselves a really big party and insulted our nominees to boot.

After the Assterisk performance, I planted my feet like a Spanish mule and stuck fast to “I’m not giving you one red cent.  You’ll get no more from me.”

Being there, I couldn’t ask people to throw good money after bad.

Our intention was always to just create a page, in which those who register can post reading recommendations, not just of recent years, but of anything that struck their fancy.  There will be a place where you can say when the book was published and if it’s eligible for an award — and not just a science fiction award — and a link to the award page for people to follow, if so minded.  Yeah, we’ll include the Hugo, but probably with a note saying the award is in the process of self-destructing.

Thing is, I meant to have this up before nominations for the Dragon Award opened.  But on top of the comedy of errors above, our website provider either crashed or was hacked, so while trying to survive auto-immune and meeting more deliveries than UPS, I’ve been trying to get it up and running again.  (My author site is down also.)

So, that’s where we are.  We’ll put it up sometime in the next couple of months, and then Amanda and I will run it, and then Amanda will take over  Or Amanda, Kate and I will continue shepherding it.

When we said this before and pointed out that PARTICULARLY indie books need some place to mention them, we were linked to/lectured by someone one the rabid side, because apparently they already have a site, so we don’t need one of our own.

Tips hat to the right.  Thank you kindly.  But you guys are aware your aesthetics and goals aren’t ours, right?

You just turned Marxist aesthetics on their head, and are judging books by being anti-Marxist and how much they don’t support the neo Marxist idea of justice.  That’s cool and all.  To each his own.  And since, so far, your crazy isn’t being taught in schools, it’s slightly less annoying than the Marxist crazy.

It is still annoying, though, because you’re still judging literary value by whether it fits your (at least as crazy-cakes’ as the Marxists) narrative and your precepts.

Look, the Tudors won, okay?  And yet the Shakespeare plays supporting them, all but Richard III which is good for other reasons, are the worst dogs in his repertoire.

The Sad Puppies stand for literature people ENJOY reading, even if their beliefs are not those of the author.  Also, writing that is not pushing any belief, beyond the natural leaking that happens when an author writes something and puts part of him in the story.

We fully support your right to have the recommendation sites for those who read your catechism and who will enthusiastically love and adore Piers Plowman.  It’s who you are, it’s what you do, and why shouldn’t you have a site for those who think like you?

It’s not however who we are and what we do, nor does it fit our aesthetics.  (Yes, this has all been an aesthetic dispute, even if some sides think it’s politics.)

Your recommendations no more invalidate the need for a site of our own than do the recommendation sites from the left, going into exquisite detail about how “other” the author of some unreadable tome is, and how they have just the right amount of vaginitude and melanin.

So, yeah, there will be a Sad Puppies recommendation site — glowers in the vague direction of servers — soon, and then we’ll refine it and improve it through the years to become a place to find enjoyable reads.  And if people want to use it to find recommendations for awards?  I’ve seen worse hobbies.  One of my ancestors used to put “things” in bottles of alcohol.  Weird plants, snakes, that sort of thing. Voting on awards, at least, does not ruin good alcohol.

And that’s where the Sad Puppies are.  They didn’t run away.  They’re just sleeping in the mud room.  Sooner or later they’ll wake and play.  Until then, you can sit and watch the circus and the monkeys, neither of which belong to us.

Which is a lovely thing, as we all on this site have “ruined” careers to work at, which seem to involve a lot of work and, thank heavens, regular pay checks.

I’ll announce the site here, when it’s up.


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Letting The Words Pour Out

This is a post on how to write fast, if you want to.

Note that I’m not saying you should write fast.  Some of you should, some shouldn’t.  I don’t know how your mind works, I can only speak to mine.

There have been awful writers who took forever and there have been awful writers who wrote very fast.  Just as there have been good writers of both kinds.

I remember years ago someone who was published (once) when I wasn’t published at all, telling me that the problem with science fiction was that people required writers write a book a year.  There are and were many things wrong with the field, but that wasn’t it.  Some of the “literary” writers who take years to write books are still unreadable.

I’ve also watched the process of taking years to write a book.  I’ve done it.  It took me three years to write Through Fire.  Most of the time I didn’t write at all.  There were reasons for that: health and moves and a fatal breakdown of self-confidence.  None of which make a book better.

But there is a state I get to, where I can see and hear and dream a book.  And some writers need a year — or years — to do that.

I sort of lapse into that state when I’m not paying attention, possibly because I lived there until my mid-twenties, so to me it’s more important to get out of my own way and let it pour out.

Might not be for you.  I have taken to referring to writing as “the thing isn’t entirely under my control.”  I don’t think it’s entirely under anyone’s control.  It’s very annoying for people like me who are control freaks, because it seems wrong not to control it.  It’s a joke of fate (or G-d) that someone like me who was taught to value steady work and steady application should work in a profession where sometimes my subconscious locks tight and will not let anything out.  But there “the thing isn’t entirely under my control.”  And each person has to find a way to deal with their own writing thing.  It seems to come from different places for everyone.  Sometimes it comes different places for different books.  And we all approach it our different ways.

However, if you can, write fast there are material advantages to it, particularly now.  I wonder what my used-to-be-friend (I gather she has stopped talking to me because of straw Sarah) who thought traditional publishing and its demand for a once-a-year book was unreasonable would think of indie, where the rewards go to the very fast, to those who can put out a book 4 times a year or more?

No, wait, I know exactly what she thinks of it, because I’ve heard others like her lament on their pages and in their blogs about how people “write too much.”

Well, buttercup, you don’t get to do that.  I won’t tell you that “real writers write real fast” but you don’t get to tell me or other writers who write more than a book a year that we should slow down.  This is not the nursery, and life isn’t fair.

I suspect if you’re a slow writer of overmastering craft and talent you can still live, but you don’t get to tell others they should not.

So–  What if you aren’t and you’re still slow?  What if you’d like to write fast?

I can’t teach you to write fast — no, wait, yes, I know what I said, but listen — because it’s not a skill that can be taught.  It’s a skill that can be learned, though.  Like other things of the sort, things not entirely under one’s control, they require you to access some internal switch I can’t reach, to change some internal setting which I can’t touch.  But you can.

I know this because I’ve gone through years of being very slow.  H*ll, I used to be very, very slow.  If I produced two short stories in a year I thought I was doing well.  And I’ve gone through years of writing a novel every two months.  I have a feeling I could write one a week (I could on wordage alone) if I could just figure out how that switch works.  I haven’t yet.

All I can do is tell you what worked for me, to reprogram that switch.  Note the steps are in no particular order.  The first one is what you REALLY need to do, but sometimes you need to approach it through the others.  I’m not in your head.  This is like other things: learning to draw, learning to sing, or even getting in shape.  Each person must do what he or she can at the pace he or she is permitted by whatever it is internally that controls the writing thing.

  • Believe you can.
    Yes, I do in fact know this is much easier said than done.  Like “Just write it” or “believe in yourself” or “stop worrying,” it is the solution, but it is not always one that just comes.
    However in the end, that’s what you need to do.  Believe you can write fast and write well.  Believe other people can write fast and write well.  It might help to research the stories of writers who wrote very fast and very well.  We get told a lot of lies about how long a book SHOULD take, and we believe them, because we have no reference.  But a book should take as long as it takes.  And if it’s already in your head, it should be possible for it to pour out fast.
  • TRY.
    Try to write fast.  I don’t know what fast is to you.  There is a point I call “my head is empty and there are no more words.”  I wont’ tell you at what point I reach that because you’d kill me, and at any time it’s pointless bragging, because when I get lost in my own head there are many, many days of no words at all.  Let’s say I once finished a novel in three days, a novel that still pays well.  And if I could defeat whatever the fatal lack of self-confidence it is that sets in, I could write a novel every three days.
    So try.  This might involve trying new methods, including some that didn’t work for you at other times.  Or vice versa.  Not being entirely under your own control, the writing thing can change METHODS.
    My second published novel was written entirely by dictation. Two years ago, trying to get back in shape, I thought I’d dictate again.  My walk in the morning was completely solitary.  My recorder looked like a phone.  People seeing me would see nothing wrong, and no one was near enough to hear me.
    I couldn’t. My own voice got in the way.  It sounded odd to be talking aloud of things no one else could see.  I shut myself down completely.
    Try, until you find a way you can write however fast you want to.  How fast?  Well, 500 words a day — about where we are at this point in the blog post — is one large traditional book or two indie books a year.  1000 words a day (half my normal blog posts on my blog, usually dashed in an hour in the morning) is two goatgaggers or four indie books.  Set your goal, aim, try it.
    But I said I wouldn’t tell you how fast to write!
    I’m not.  I’m talking about your mechanical method of getting words down.  Dictation or typing or whatever you do.
    Almost all my silences — long ones, not related to moves or health or whatever — come from a break down in my method of getting words down.  Say a computer that’s glitching and forces me to type slowly or eat words.  Medication that somehow breaks the trained link between fingers and mind.  All of that forces me to slow down, and become conscious of the story.  It’s like hearing myself talk about things that don’t exist.  it stops me.  It forces me to concentrate on the words, rather than the story.  It allows me to DOUBT.
    So, whatever method you use get faster at it: take a typing course, put in ear plugs so you don’t hear yourself dictate.  Find a way to do it faster so the doubts don’t catch up with you.
    No, not your real editor, whether you work for him, or you hire him.  He’s an essential part of your process, particularly if you write fast.
    I mean the internal editor. The one who says “Oh, that word wasn’t good” or “what did you write that chapter for?  You know it’s wrong” or any of those other things.
    There will be a time for it, when you’re reading over the book AFTER your betas do, mind you.  For now, he’s just trying to slow you down, because he’s a little desiccated man in round glasses who can’t create anything and doesn’t want you to either.
    Every writer I know who brags about their internal editor and who jumps on little things in other writers’ first draft is NOT a professional writer.  In fact, most of them never finish anything.
    So, don’t let the editor in.  In my worst times, I’ve been known to surround myself with signs that say “No editors allowed.”
    Yes, I know, it’s like “Relax.”  But trust.  Trust yourself, trust the process, let the words come out.  Ignore whether they’re good or bad.  Ignore your doubts.  Just let the words pour out.  Accept the thing is not entirely under your own control.
    Look, many of your stories will suck.  They JUST will.  It actually does not matter at all how fast you write them.  Sometimes it’s because you’re not ready to tell that story.  Sometimes it’s because you’re working through some internal process, some learning thing.  Which means, you will suck and not know it.  Other times, you will think you suck, and your story will speak to everyone else who will consider it your best.
    So, stop trying to impose on your stories standards no one else will impose.  GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION TO SUCK.  Accept some of your stories will suck.  Do you have a favorite author?  How many of his or her stories, objectively, suck, even though you might love them because you like the world, the characters and the author?  If we’re honest about 1/3 of everyone’s stories suck.  And they’re not the ones the author thought sucked, either.  So, give yourself permission to suck.  Don’t reject yourself.  You’re the worst judge of your own work.
    It is a bit of hubris to try to make your story perfect.  Sculptors and weavers in the ancient world left intentional flaws in their work, because they were only human and didn’t want to arouse the envy of the gods.
    Most of us don’t need to leave intentional flaws.  You’re human, there will be flaws.  But sometimes — trust someone who is experienced and has been doing this for 20 years — it is the flaws you perceive when you first write the work, which are the real strength.
    When I started writing I tried to guard myself from the story.  I didn’t want people looking INTO me.  So revelatory passages were considered flaws.  And yet, those are the books people love, and for THOSE reasons.
    So, stop dithering.  Whether you work for a publishing house or your fans, they don’t want it perfect, they want it finished, so they can read it.  FINISH THE STORY AND LET IT GO.  THEN WRITE ANOTHER.

    The very act of writing fast will allow you to defeat the fear of writing fast, and thus will allow you to get faster.  If you’re having trouble, remember the clause above, and just write to the finish.  Tell yourself you’ll never send it out (it’s okay, lies to yourself aren’t sins, or we’d all be condemned) and just finish it.  Then another, then another.  Try a race with yourself.  how fast can you go?  Run from the editor.  Write faster.
    Eventually you’ll surprise yourself, and then you’ll believe and the barriers will tumble down.

    But Sarah, you’ll say, I can’t write a novel in a day.  So I have to read back what I wrote yesterday.
    No, you actually don’t.  Doing so is practically inviting the editor to come and pour doubts into your head and paralyze you.
    If you have a very bad memory leave a note to yourself, something like: I left John and Mary having a heart to heart.  Tomorrow he finds out she stole the thing, and then he has to decide what to do.
    BUT what if your plot — plotted or not — took a turn?  You need to go back back and change things!
    No, you don’t.  Half the time I do that (because I’m an idiot) I find that my subconscious already had the right markers in, it just didn’t bother to tell me.  So, when you’re afraid you’ll forget to change the thing, what do you do?
    Get sticky notes.  Make a note, stick it to your monitor.
    I’ve been known to have three pieces of novel, by the end, all pointing in different directions.  But I have the sticky notes, and I can always fix it in post.
    The good thing about writing is you don’t pay for what stays on the cutting room floor, and no one has to know.
    For my first three published novels, I wrote three times what I turned in.  I still wrote them in six months each.  Write fast, then worry about cutting.
    And often the pieces you leave behind will blossom into other novels, years later.  A piece of Darkship Thieves became the start for the Shifter series.  No, I’m NOT going to tell you which or how.  (Mwahahahahahah.)
    Once you’re done writing your first draft, do three passes: one for coherency, one for word choice, and one for typos.  Then LET IT GO.
    Sometimes things will feel wrong in a book that aren’t wrong at all.  It’s just a new thing you did, and your subconscious is panicking that it’s WRONG.  It might even be a good thing you did, but the subconscious is a creature of habit.
    So let it go.  Send it to 12 people or more.  You’ll be lucky if 6 answer.  The ratio even for published novelists seems to be 1/3.  It’s unpaid work and life trips people up.
    Let the novel go, stop thinking about it.  If six or more of your readers come back and say soemthing is wrong, then consider changing it.  Keep in mind sometimes what they THINK is wrong isn’t what is wrong.  But try to figure out what bothers them and change it.  But don’t devote a lot of angst to it, because you have another story to write.  You’re already writing the next story, aren’t you?
    Well, you should be.
    Seriously.  The moment the story is off your hands and to beta, write the next one.  No, don’t wait for the betas, don’t even think of that story.  Write the other one, because that’s better than detachment or time to make you get over your mental attachment to it, and your tendency to see the last story as perfect or fatally flawed, whatever your tendency.
    Write the next one for the week or month while you wait for the result of betas.
    Editing is work best done in the evenings, anyway.  And if your heart is in the day story, you’ll see the night story more clearly, without prejudice.
    So, do that.  Write the next story. No, don’t stop.  Don’t think.  Don’t pass go and give yourself illusions that you’re going to be perfect.  JUST WRITE IT.
    Nine tenths of art is just doing it.  Just do it.  The thing is not entirely under your control.  Let it go, let it be.  Let the story spool out from your head, onto pixels.  Then bless it on its way and write the next.


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And Then I Popped Him One

It’s very hard to write violence, for the same reason it’s very hard to write sex.  No, wait, there is one difference, most people have experienced sex, but most people have never been in a knife or fist fight.

Even those of us who’ve been in fights have a tendency to blur them in our minds.  In my case perhaps more so, as I think I’m a berserker, because one minute I get the cold realization I’m going to fight, the next second — seems like — I’m trying to squish someone with a heavy oak desk, and five of my classmates are holding me back.  Considering at the time that desk probably massed half of my body weight, I’d say there was altered consciousness there.

Be that as it may, even if you’re fully conscious through a fight, it’s hard to remember it.  The thing is that everything happens so fast.  To spectators (and I watched a deadly or at least a severe injury knife fight before) it seems like words are shouted, and suddenly there’s someone bleeding on the ground, someone looking bewildered, and a spectator is whispering “Oh, no.” while someone else calls the ambulance.

Can you do a scene of violence that way?  Of course you can, particularly if the violence is incidental or a total surprise.  Or frankly, if I want a change of tone.  Consider two characters in a fire fight but they’re winning, and it’s become a game, and they’re bantering, and suddenly one is dead.  I used that more or less (except they weren’t really bantering in A Few Good men.  Except I shouldn’t say I used that, because the death was so much of a surprise, it surprised me.)

But there are other types of violence: the climatic battle, or the character changing one, where the weakling discovers he can fight the big bad.

While I was getting ready to write Darkship Revenge, I met Ray Carter, one of my fans.  When I say I met him, it’s a manner of speaking.  We “met” on facebook, where he “turned into a Maine Coon Kitten” and jumped on my lap.  Normally I’d freeze someone out for that, but he was very non-offensive.

So we started talking.  It turned out he was dying of cancer, so we only really had a month to be friends.  But he was always on line, and I was trying to work and move all at the same time, so I’d send him vast chunks of copy with “what do you think.”

A short story I sent him was 3 k words, until he went “you know, that fight is too fast.”  And then he made me focus on every step of it.

Which is when I realized writing violence is like writing sex.  You have to become conscious of all the little physical reactions, all the steps leading up to the punch.

Sure, for an effect of surprise, you can have “He said something about my mom, and then I popped him one.”

But if you’re doing a weakling’s fight with someone much stronger, you have to drag that out.  And then you get “He said that thing about my mother.  I felt my arm tense.  My fist balled.  I looked back at him and said “If I were you, I’d zip my mouth.”  And he said “That’s because your mother was a traitor.”  My fist hurt from clenching so hard.  He said “She sold out New Peace for–”  My fist went forward of its own accord, it caught him on the side of the face.  It wasn’t a strong punch anyway, I hadn’t thought about it.

“Is that the best you can do?” he asked.  He put his arms up in a fighting stance and came towards me.  He was a good ten inches taller than me and his muscles had muscles on them.

I jumped out of reach of his punch, and he sort of leapt towards me.  In a flash, I was back on the playground, and I put out my foot and tripped him.  He went down like a ton of bricks.

I’d had that happen to me often enough that I figured his head must be rattling, and he must be dizzy from the fall.

He gave something like a groan, and his right knee started to rise.  I jumped on it, stomped on the other one, and, while he was screaming but before he could sit up, kicked him on the head, hard.

He looked at me with dazed eyes.  “No,” I said.  “This is the best I can do.”

Sure, you don’t hit a guy when he’s down, but what business did he have fighting a smaller person and a woman at that.”

Those details could be unpacked more, with what it felt like, and the thoughts she has.

Again, like sex.  It’s not “ooh ah, it felt good.”  You have to go exactly to what was kissed, what it felt like, what was caressed and nibbled, etc.

And fighting is not “He punched me, I punched him the end.”  You have to get close in to every blow exchanged, every scraped knuckle.

Of course, as with sex, you only do that when the fight itself is important, and part of character building.

But if you have to do it, you now have the trick of it.  It’s still a process.  I’m still having to learn it, and I’m nowhere where I should be.

Just keep in mind “Slow it down.  Break it into steps.”  Then write.


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