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Posts by Margaret Ball

Unwelcome visitor

Recently my old acquaintance Tenebra came to visit. I came across her sitting by the fish pond.

“How come you always show up when I’m three-quarters done with a first draft?”

“It’s the perfect time to visit you,” she said. “If you listen to me, not only will you stop writing this book, but you’ll have wasted the time you already put in on research, plotting and writing.”

“That doesn’t make me more inclined to listen to you.”

“No? Then why are you sitting by this pool, chatting, instead of going indoors and writing?”

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It’s axiomatic

Real Life has been happening fast and furious around here, so I’m reposting from my blog, with a few relevant thoughts about writing added.

Don’t worry: there will be no math.

People will keep mis-defining axioms. To boil the definitions I’ve been seeing down to the simplest possible statement: “An axiom is a statement which is self-evidently true.”

Uh, no.

Axioms are more like rules of the game. For example, let’s look at some poker rules, because nobody confuses the rules for any type of poker with  self-evident truths, right? And poker is an easy example for me, because I learned it sitting under the kitchen table and sneaking beers while the nominal adults in the family bet and bluffed.

(Caveat: this is not intended as a complete set of instructions for any given type of poker; I’m trying to keep it down to the minimum necessary to prove my point.)

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He said, she said, and who said?

Too often, when we think about dialogue, we think of two people taking turns in strict alternation. Today I’d like to look at expanding the dialogue, with some examples from Connie Willis, who has a genius for mixing it up, with three, four or even more people talking across each other and sharing information or, more likely, misinformation.

Sometimes it’s mainly for comic effect, as in this passage from Blackout: two people trying to talk to each other about times and places while a third person is on the phone, reading out a printout of, guess what, times and places.

“August seventh?” Phipps asked Badri. 

“That’s right,” Linna said, “1536,” and Michael looked over at her, confused, but she was back at the phone, reading off a printout. “London, the trial of Anne Boleyn—” 

“Yes, the seventh,” Badri said to Phipps. “The drop will open every half hour. Move a bit to the right.” He motioned with his hand. “A bit more.” Phipps shambled obediently to the right. “A bit to the left. Good. Now hold that.” He walked back over to the console and hit several keys, and the folds of the net began to lower around Phipps. 

“I need you to note the amount of temporal slippage on the drop.”

“October tenth 1940,” Linna said into the phone, “to December eighteenth-”

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Context and Misdirection

Misleading the reader is always fun, right? That is, as long as you don’t cheat. (And let’s not get into the argument that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is cheating, not today anyway.) One way to do this is to present the reader with only some of the information – say, the part that makes the protagonist look guilty as sin – while reserving the exculpatory context for later. And no, unlike everybody else in the known universe, I’m not talking about FISA applications. The rest of this post will be examining an example of misleading-by-omission found in Orkney folklore and Child 113.

I expect a number of you know the song “The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry.” It’s a song that’s always irritated me; it tells of a selkie who shows up before a mother and her child, claims to be the child’s father, tosses a purse of gold in her lap and takes the kid. I always wanted the mother to say, “Not with my baby, you don’t, and take your money back!” In fact, I wrote a short story in which just that happened.

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Practically Painless Backgrounds


The original colonists of Caspicia had not exactly been Earth-normal types. They were nut cases and dreamers and visionaries, each of them convinced that they had paranormal powers that set them apart from the rest of humanity.

Some of them had been right.

But after twenty generations of interbreeding had distributed those powers among the population, many had forgotten their origins. Merelinde’s family were among them. They prided themselves on an exclusive line of descent from the most important colonists and considered themselves superior to the other families.

“The opening is boring – all background, no story,” Frank told me.

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Is this Trip Necessary?

I’ve seen a lot of advice for pantsers here on Mad Genius Club, but not so much for plotters. I’d like to discuss something that I suspect is more of a hazard for plotters than for pantsers: the unnecessary scene.

I consider myself a semi-plotter. A book usually starts as a prose summary of about 5000 words with notes for specific scenes and snippets of dialogue I want to use. (I am told that normal writers write much shorter synopses. Piffle. There’s no such thing as a normal writer, and this length is what works for me.) Read more