Uncle Jim, undiluted

Editing for authors: because every writer needs a good editor.

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'Twas but a dream of thee
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"Learn Writing With Uncle Jim" started in September of 2003. Well over a year old, the thread shows no signs of losing momentum or popularity.

This poses a challenge for the new reader. There are a lot of pages to read, before jumping in to try and participate in an ongoing conversation.

This is the collected Wisdom of Uncle Jim, from the beginning of the thread--to save new readers from having to wade through all the pages of chit-chat.
HOWEVER--there IS a wealth of information in all that chit chat, to read when you have the time.

I've attempted to put quotation markers around questions Jim quoted, then answered, since I don't think the formatting is going to survive. Some of the archive transfer apparently deleted quoted information on the old board that was formatted in a specific manner. I've attempted to pull that information from the old board, whenever possible.

Any formatting errors are most likely mine. I'll be fixing links along the way, when I get a chance. The spelling mistakes are probably his--but I won't guarantee it.



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13Sep03 to 23Nov03

James D. Macdonald
Learn Writing with Uncle Jim
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Novel-Writing Forum

It strikes me that there's a need for a thread on the art and craft of writing commercial novels.

To that end, I'd like to start that discussion. I plan to put down my thoughts on the elements of professional-quality fiction. I'll answer questions, and go where ever the discussion leads. I'll do some notes on the business of writing too.

Here are my qualifications for starting this topic:

My bibliography

A workshop I help teach every year.

My mutant talent is to make my opinions sound like facts.


I have two basic rules: everything that's said should be true, and everything should be helpful.


There's one other thing that needs to be said, McIntyre's First Law: Under the right circumstances anything I tell you can be wrong.

Okay, and after that pompous lead off, let me say that I'm not going to be talking about novels at all. I'm going to be talking about romances.

Not romances in the Fabio-on-the-cover paperbacks, not the Romance section at Borders, not Harlequin (though there'll be things useful in that genre). Not category romance, or genre romance.

I'm talking about romance in literary theory.

A novel is: A book length work of realistic prose fiction.

A romance is: A book length prose narrative treating imaginary characters involved in events remote in time or place and usually heroic, adventurous, or mysterious.

The thing that the two have in common are that they're book length (call it 50,000 words and up), prose (that is, not poetry or drama), and fiction (some people have said that fiction is when the author tells his own lies; non-fiction is when he tells someone else's lies).

The realism issue, then, is the core of the difference between a novel and a romance. The "realistic" books are the mainest of mainstream; they are the literary works.

The vast majority of the things you find in bookstores labeled "novels" are actually romances. That means:

1) imaginary characters

2) events remote in time or place

3) usually heroic, adventurous, or mysterious

More on all of this later.

I'll try to drop by to talk more after I finish my work every day (except when I'm out of town).

So what do I mean by "finish my work"?

I'm a full-time writer. My sole source of income for the last fifteen years or so has been writing or writing-related. By "my work" I mean ten pages of original prose fiction every day.

That isn't so bad, really. It's only about 2,500 words. It's only two hours or so.

I know, as I write it, that most of it will be changed, moved, or deleted in the revision process. That doesn't bother me. The revision and rewriting and such takes place in another part of my day.

Back before I went full time, I used to hear from people "I've always wanted to be a writer, but I never had the time."

In those days I used to set my alarm clock for two hours early, to make the time. I'd get up at four in the morning to write. If you're a writer, writing is what you do.

So, here's the next bit of advice. This is what my friend Rosemary Edghill calls the "KISS method." (Others call it the "BIC method," for Butt In Chair.)

Pick two hours a day. It doesn't matter which two hours, but make them two hours that you can do every day.

For that two hours, you will sit in front of your typewriter or computer. You will have no distractions. You will write, or you will stare at the blank screen. There will be no other options.

Writing letters does not count. Reading does not count. Doing research does not count. Revising does not count. You will write new stuff, or you will stare at the screen.

No TV in the room. No radio going. No internet. Fill the page or go mad.

Two hours. Every day.

Your body will rebel. You'll get headaches. You'll get colds. You aren't allowed a choice. You will sit in front of that screen even if your head is throbbing.

Some days you will begin writing in a white-hot passion. You'll look up at the clock and discover that three hours have gone by.

You don't get to only do one hour the next day. You still have to do two hours.

Your mind will rebel. You'll want to clean the toilet, change the cat box, mow the lawn. But you won't, because there are no excuses. No, you don't get to reschedule for "later." Two hours, on schedule.

So let me ask you this, when in the revision stage of a ms do you write something new for 2 hrs or just spend days and hrs revising?

Well, it varies. I usually have three projects going at any time, in various stages of finished.

For revisions I take the manuscript (printout) and red pencils and go somewhere entirely different than my normal workspace (sometimes the kitchen, but my favorite is a nice little French coffeeshop down the road a bit) and scribble. After I've done two hours of writing, there's a solid 22 more hours in the day for revising other material.

One trick to revision -- is to read the work aloud. Where you stumble, the reader will stumble. You'll notice different things, too, when you're reading aloud. You're using a different part of your brain than you are when reading silently.

We're not at revision yet, though. First we need the text.

Did I mention that you need to make multiple backups of all your material if you're working on a computer?

I'll give you a minute to make a backup of whatever you wrote today.

See you when you've done.

BTW, I didn't say "no music," I said "no radio." Radios have announcers, disk jockeys, the news, weather ... things that will break your concentration, take you out of that place where the creative things happen.

I like music myself for writing ... I prefer requiems, but maybe I'm just strange.

Whatever helps you get into the state you need to be in....

But there's a warning coming.

Don't couple destructive things with you writing. If you light up a cigarette when you start writing, if you quit smoking you'll find you can't write any more.

Same with drinking booze. Same with eating bon-bons. Coupling bad habits with writing will mean that you'll never be able to shed the bad habits.

One of the popular images of writers is of the guy with a bottle of whisky beside the typewriter.

It probably won't make you a better writer, or even make you a writer at all. It will rot your liver and empty your bank account.

There are twenty-five simple steps to becoming a published author.

Here are the steps:

1. Black ink on white paper.
2. Place your name and address in the top left-hand corner of the first page.
3. Place the title and byline, centered, half-way down the first page.
4. Put a running head (your name, the title, and a page number) in the top right hand corner of every page.
5. Your pages should have one-inch margins.
6. Doublespace your text.
7. Use Courier 10 or Courier 12 only.
8. Type on one side of the paper only.
9. Continue until you reach "The End."
10. Rewrite.
11. Rewrite.
12.....21. Revise
22. Obtain the guidelines for a market that accepts material similar to what you have finished.
23. Follow the guidelines scrupulously when you submit your material.
24. While you are waiting for your rejection slip, start again back at step 1 for your next work.
25. When the rejection slip arrives, send the manuscript to the next market on your list, that same day.


Watt-Evans' Law: There is no idea so brilliant that a sufficiently ham-handed writer can't make an unreadable story out of it.

Feist's Corollary to Watt-Evans' Law: There is no idea so stupid that a sufficiently talented writer can't make a readable story out of it.


Yog's Law: Money flows toward the writer.

Q. Why was the little drop of ink crying?

A. His daddy was in the pen and he didn't know how long the sentence was....


I write under several different names, including my own.

One reason is to differentiate the genres you're working in. If you write manly action and sweet romance, you might pick a Manly Action name for one, and a Sweet Romance name for the other, just so your fans won't get confused when they pick up a book by their favorite author and discover that it's far different from what they expected.

If you're prolific, you might write under various names to avoid competing with yourself.

I do share a name with some other writers. That's one reason I use my middle initial -- to differentiate me from them.

When you're picking a name, don't pick anything that's difficult to spell or embarassing to say. Anything else is pretty much okay.

How many pages in a chapter?

This is as close to a meaningless question as you can get. It's like "How many letters in a word?" or "How many words in a sentence?"

I've seen novels with chapters ranging from a fraction of a page to the entire book being one long chapter.

Listen: Words are symbols for ideas or concepts. Sentences are made of words. Sentences convey thoughts through the relationships among the words. (A fraction of a word may be a sentence.)

Paragraphs are made of sentences. The paragraph is the smallest unit of meaning in a novel. The meaning comes from the relationships among the sentences. (A fraction of a sentence may be a paragraph.)

Scenes are made out of paragraphs. There are no fractional paragraphs. The meaning of the scene comes from the relationships among the paragraphs that make up the scene.

Chapters are made out of scenes. There are no fractional scenes. The meaning of the chapter comes from the relationships among the scenes.

How many pages in a chapter? How many scenes do you have, how long are they, and how do they relate to one another? At the point where one scene doesn't relate to the one that follows, put a chapter break.

The reader's mind can hold only a limited number of things at once. The reader's interest keeps moving. You should strive to make the source of information be the same as the source of interest.

And that's how long a chapter is.

Pace is a function of detail. To slow down a scene, make it more detailed. To speed it up, remove detail.

We're beginning to get into the place where "art" lives, knowing where where and to what extent you'll need to vary your pace.

You will need to vary your pace, for several reasons: one is to give your readers breathing space, to give them time to assimilate what just happened, and to anticipate what will come.

A second reason to vary the pace is so that the audience will know when they've come to a fast part -- they'll have something to compare it to.

A third reason to vary pace is so that the audience doesn't get bored. Poor things, they're easily bored. A bored reader lays your book aside, meaning to pick it up again later, and never does. (Note: the readers can always, always tell if you're bored.)

Okay ... you're doing a set up ups-and-downs, like walking a trail through the foothills toward the mountain. (I kinda like that description -- many small climaxes, rewarding the reader along the road, but the main climax frequently in sight, first at a distance, then closer.)

To answer your specific question, I've not read Bickham's book.


Well, James, if working with a radio on works for you, it works for you. It's not exactly what I'd recommend to new writers; first they should figure out what level of distraction they can handle. I could probably write in the middle of a construction zone -- but I wouldn't suggest that as an ideal place to set up one's desk. I'd say start with mimimum distractions. Folks can always add some distractions if they find that they either can handle them or need them to be productive. (I still wouldn't recommend adding cigarettes and booze, even if they can handle them and they make 'em more productive.)

As far as two hours staring at a blank screen, few if any writers are going to be doing that. We'll fill the screen. Those who find themselves staring at a blank screen hour after hour might rethink the question of whether a career in commercial fiction is for them at that point in their lives.

As far as revision goes, I can produce publishable first draft. By the time I'd been doing this for a while, I'd learned to avoid unprofitable plot threads, I'd learned what works and what doesn't down at the noun-and-verb level -- I've learned to discard thousands of word choices without thinking about them.

Still, revision is vital. Revision means, literally, "looking again." Even if what you say, on looking again, is "Hey, pretty good."

On occasion I've submitted those publishable first drafts. More than once, after the story's come out, I found myself wishing that I had revised a couple of times.

Later on today I'm going to be reading some slush manuscripts for a major publisher. I promise you, whole heaps of 'em will go on the left-hand pile due to insufficient revision. Few if any will go there due to too much revision.

Before closing today's episode: Another advantage of blocking out a regular time for writing is that it becomes your time when no one will ask you to drive the kids to soccer practice or go shopping "because you aren't doing anything."


I'm not talking about academic work, or about screenplays, poetry, or anything other than commercial fiction. What you use on-screen when you're composing is up to you; if you like 8-point PostCrypt, go for it.

However, when you print out your book to submit to a traditional publisher, you shall print it out in 10 or 12 point Courier.

But ... for the revision process, printing the work in some format and typeface that you haven't used before can be useful for seeing the words rather than your memory of the words. There's a place to print out a reading copy in double column Times New Roman single spaced and justified if you want.

Just don't submit it that way.

There are all kinds of ways to come up with wordcount. One of them is to take five pages at random from your manuscript, count all the words on them, divide by five, then multiply by the total number of pages in your work.


Next time ... how to tell where your story starts.

A complex question, Navigator: Income does go up year by year, but you do top out in the mid-to-high five figures for advances (at least I do, in mid-list SF). There's a constant churn below that, as the backlist ebbs and flows, some things go out of print, some are reprinted.

On a tangent off that ... how to keep your books in print. I know there's a lot of talk about how books go out of print after varying alarmingly-short periods. To keep your book in print, write another book. When it comes out, your backlist will get reprinted alongside it.

As to what it costs to submit: the price of paper plus postage. Follow the publishers' guidelines. Some want three-and-an-outline, some want a full manuscript. Follow the guidelines explicitly.

So, where does your story begin?

One way to find your beginning is this: first, write your book. Now go through it to find its start.

Here's how to recognize the start: it's the point where you can no longer summarize everything that went before in a single sentence:

Nothing that Ceclia had seen at the Academy could have prepared her for the first sight of Crymble Manor.

"The appropriations bill is dead on arrival," Senator O'Connor said.

The day after the world ended, Bill got into his pickup truck and drove into town.

Another way to say this is: it's the point where the characters can't decide, To heck with this and order out for pizza. The one-way door has blown shut and they can't get back into the theatre.

Later on, as you gain experience, you can get better at avoiding false starts ("Hesitation marks," we call 'em).

Here's how I figure out where to start my story: I figure out the climax -- something that's really big, cinematic, satisfying, full of action and movement. I take the characters who are there, and back 'em off to some point before that climax, then try to get them to it.

Sometimes -- a lot of the time -- those characters never get to the climax I started with. (There's one climax I've been using for years as a starting point. One day I will get there.)

So here's another way to figure out where to start your story: Put interesting characters in an interesting place, then let them do interesting things. (What's interesting? That's the art, isn't it. Your readers will tell you what's interesting by the sound of rapidly turning pages.)

If the first two chapters of your book are backstory and exposition, and the movement of the plot starts in chapter three, the opening of your book is chapter three. Delete the first two chapters.


Plots start when movement starts. This movement can be physical, or it can be psychological, but it is movement. The human eye instinctivly follows a moving object. It will follow the fastest moving object if several are present. So ... make your plot move, and eyes will follow it.

A chess game doesn't start until the first piece or pawn moves.

My outlines aren't submission-quality prose (though some bits do make it all the way through without change).

They most closely resemble a guy telling his buddy about a neat movie he saw the night before -- bits of memorable dialog, descriptions, but most important the order of the scenes.

Often at this stage I have nonce-names for characters (sometimes they're named for their function in the story: "Bestpal" or "Cannonfodder"). Sometimes the author is a character: The author looked up from couch where he sat taking notes. "Just keep talking, guys," he said. "I'll fix it in the rewrite."

I see novels as having shape. There has to be a pleasing, balanced shape, with all the parts connected, the corners neat, and overall easy to look at.

Try drawing a picture of your book, showing the flow of scenes and chapters. In a bit I might go into my theory of the novel as architecture.

Typing a hundred fifty page outline runs me about two or three weeks.

After that, bashing it around to make it into something worth playing with, then writing from the outline into a finished novel -- that can take some time.

Right you are, Keith. When you're writing, don't slow down.

Yes, you will do research ... you'll need to know exactly what kind of car your guy is driving, but during the outline/first draft stage isn't when I do it.

I'll research a bunch before, and after during rewrite and revision. The rule in the middle is "don't slow down."

Now ...

On movement, and on art.

The way to tell the difference between the real world and art is that art has borders. Pictures have frames, stages have curtains, books have covers. You have to provide the illusion that your created world extends beyond its covers, but you aren't going to need to create that outside world. We'll talk about tricks for doing that later.

I'm going to talk about chess games instead. Chess games are like novels.

I'm going to recommend a book, too: Logical Chess: Move by Move. I'm quite serious about saying y'all should get a copy, read it, play the sample games, understand it. First off, even if nothing else happens, your chess game will improve.

The other thing is this: chess games happen on a board. The board has an edge, a limit. Therefore, it is art.

Now as it happens, there are only three things that can possibly happen in a chess game. White may win, Black may win, or there could be a stalemate. Exactly how those things happen is where the interest comes -- everyone knows before the game starts what the range of possible outcomes is. The good guys win, the bad guys win, or we're returned to status quo antes.

The game doesn't start until the first move is made. In the same way, the story doesn't start until the first character acts.

Your pieces are your major characters. Your pawns are your minor characters.

The way you win the game -- no one can foresee how the game is going to go. Not even the greatest chessmaster can see twenty moves in advance. What the chessmaster does is put pieces in useful places. The chessmaster knows that a knight is most useful on QB3 and KB3. So that's where the chessmaster puts them. (This is called "Playing Positional Chess," and that's sometimes what I call my style of plotting a book. As in, "Why did you have Fred slip a gun into his pocket before he left the house?" "I'm playing positional chess.")

If you have put the pieces in their strongest positions, surprising combinations will appear as if by magic later on. The game will play itself; the book will write itself.

If you get a chess set where one side is Army and one side is Navy, you have a technothriller. If you get a chess set where one side is Spacemen and the other is Alien Monsters, you have a space opera. If you have a chess set where one side is modern college professors and the other is faculty wives, you have mainstream.

The moves are the same.

Really, trust me, get the Logical Chess. Look at it at an angle; it's a writing book.

Well, now, what to put in the opening?

We're going to stick with the chess game metaphor for a while here. In the opening you're trying to put yourself into a strong position for going into the midgame (where the exciting action and the exciting combinations occur), and you do this mostly by getting your pieces off the back rank as quickly as possible. The pieces are your major characters. Get them out there, and get them doing things.

Don't neglect your pawns -- your minor characters. You should cherish your minor characters. They'll save your life. If you have a selection of minor characters you can pull them out to solve problems later in the book.

Now, what to put in that first chapter? (Recall that if your readers don't finish the first chapter they'll never get to chapter two.)

To answer the question of what goes into chapter one, I'm going to grab the first stanzas from a bunch of Anglo-Scots folk ballads. These were the popular songs of earlier times, cooked by the folk process so that only the important and memorable parts remain, they're entertaining, and they tell stories.


Young Johnny rode out on a May morning
With his buckles and his bridles ringing,
And as he rode by the castle walls
He heard a fair maid singing.


The king sits in Dumferlin town
Drinking the blood-red wine.
"Oh where will I get a good skipper
To sail this ship of mine?"


There were three brothers in merry Scotland
In merry Scotland there were three
And they cast lots which of them should go
Should go, should go,
For to turn pirate all on the salt sea.


Okay, what do those have in common?

A person, a place, and a problem. Action and movement. Often a time of year or a time of day.

These are not bad things to get into the first chapter. If you can get 'em onto the first page, even better.

I didn't say one sentence, let alone the first one ... the first chapter is good enough. (You see young, inexperienced writers trying to get everything into the first sentence. This more often than not gives you an opening sentence that looks like a runner-up in the Bulwer-Lytton contest.

But ... do give your readers a reward for reading the first page, a reason to turn the page, then ... you have chance.

There's a reason publishers ask for three-and-an-outline. That small sample will give them an idea of whether you can give readers a reason to start your book, and an idea of whether you know where you're going.

Think with your reader's mind for a moment. When you go to a bookstore, how do you act when you're trying to decide if you want to buy a book by someone you've never heard of?

Go to a bookstore. Hang around. Watch the readers. They are your readers. How do they approach unfamiliar books? Look at the cover... flip a few pages...

Yeah, a few pages. Sometimes just the first page. Grim, right?

You hear lots of folks condemning editors who make decisions based on the first page. Remember what position editors have in the grand scheme of publishing: They are the readers' advocates.

Over a decade ago, I was doing feature articles for a weekly newspaper. A novelist's techniques work equally well for non-fiction -- if you don't create interest and reward the reader for going along, you don't have readers. In both fiction and non-fiction part of the art is in finding and revealing the telling details. The biggest difference is where those details come from, the imagination or research.

Recall also that fiction should be true (for certain values of "true"). The best lies contain the most truth.

We're still talking about first chapters here.

Before I start, how many of y'all went and got a copy of Logical Chess Move by Move? I reccoed that back on page two of this discussion. Go order a copy now. I'll wait.

I'm serious, guys. I'm going to be recommending other books as I go. I'm doing this because I think it'll help you. I know these are the books that helped me.

My next suggestion is also going to be work: Take your favorite novel.

Now, retype the first chapter. Do this with your writer's eye, not your reader's eye. Think about the lengths of the sentences, the lengths of the paragraphs, the sounds of the words. Think about the order of the scenes. Notice the dialog. How are the dialog tags rendered? Where is the point of view?

The point of this exercise is this: Have you ever gone to an art museum and seen the art students sitting there with their easels and oils, copying the great masters? The point isn't to turn them into plagairists, or to make them expert forgers. The point is to get the feeling into their hands and arms of how to make the brush strokes that create a particular illusion on canvas. Writing is no less a physical skill than painting. The words are your paints, the sentences your brush strokes. Following a master, asking yourself, always, why. Why did he or she choose this word rather than another? Why was this scene from this particular point of view? Why did the scene end there?

Writing is an art. Everything is there because the artist (that's you!) chose to put it there. The surface meaning, the deeper themes, those are your choice.

I can hear you saying, "Yeah, right, Uncle Jim. You say 'Retype a chapter,' but I bet you never did that."

Wrong-o, my friends. I did just that (I did more -- I retyped entire books). You can find some of them here, the ones that I still had on disk to convert to HTML and which were in public domain.

At the very worst your typing skills will improve, and that's nothing to sneeze at.

Assignments: Get a copy of Logical Chess Move By Move, and work through the problems. Get a novel that you personally really admire, and retype the first chapter.

More discussion on openings later.


From Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses by Samuel Clemens:

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction -- some say twenty-two. In "Deerslayer," Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the "Deerslayer" tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.

2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the "Deerslayer" tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the "Deerslayer" tale.

4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the "Deerslayer" tale.

5. The require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the "Deerslayer" tale to the end of it.

6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the "Deerslayer" tale, as Natty Bumppo's case will amply prove.

7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the "Deerslayer" tale.

8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as "the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest," by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the "Deerslayer" tale.

9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the "Deerslayer" tale.

10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the "Deerslayer" tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the "Deerslayer" tale, this rule is vacated.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the "Deerslayer" tale.

The entire essay is worth reading.

To balance it, remember that Fenimore Cooper is still in print, and recently had (yet another) major motion picture made from one of his works.

[BTW, and apropos of nothing, Sam "Mark Twain" Clemens is frequently cited by the vanity presses and PoD publishers as a well-known author who self-published. It's true, he did. What they fail to mention is that he went bankrupt doing it, and had to go on the lecture circuit to pay off his debts.]


A part of standard English since the 15th century, "surplusage" is excessive or nonessential matter; or material introduced into a legal pleading which is not necessary or relevant to the case.

What Twain is trying to get across with this rule, "eschew surplusage," is illustrated by your reaction. More plainly speaking, eschew surplusage means speak plainly.

You're quite right, PDR. You will never be wrong if you use Courier.

Paper is cheap.

Recall the reasons for the double-spaced lines, the one-inch margins, and the large mono-spaced font. A human being with a sharp blue pencil will go through and make all kinds of hand notes on the pages. Another human being with a sharp red pencil will go through and make other marks. The process of editing is messy handwork, and requires room.

So, how's everyone coming? Did you do your two hours yesterday? Ready for today?

One thing about being a professional writer: it means you have homework every day for the rest of your life.

You'll also need to read, in addition to writing. You'll read things in two ways: First, for information. Second, for technique.

You will stop reading like ordinary folks do, when you start reading like a writer. You'll be looking at what worked, what didn't, and how the effects were carried out.


Shall we talk about Plot and Story?

I'll just give some aphorisms here. First, from a friend of mine who's one of the most perceptive and talented editors I know:

"Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature."

Plot is the sequential arrangement of consequential actions. This happened, then that happened because of this.

These arrangements are not random. They are a result of the artist's choices. "But it really happened that way!" is no excuse in fiction. As an artist you are not only required to make things happen, you are obliged to have them make sense. Nor can you throw in just anything at any point. You have to avoid digressions. Every word must support the theme, reveal character, or advance the plot. Better words do two of those things. The best words do all three.

Recall that sailing ship a bit upthread, ready to get underway? Think of the elements that advance your plot as sails. Each one properly rigged on its mast and yard adds to the speed of your voyage and the beauty of the overall design of the ship.

Elements that don't belong in the plot -- however diverting they may be on their own -- are like taking those same sails and trailing them over the side in the water. They slow the ship, make it look slovenly, and perhaps put it in danger of capsizing.

Story, now, is the wind that drives those sails. Story is simple. "Who are those guys?" "How do I get home?" "Who am I?" "I saw something neat." "What makes us human?" "Am I normal?"

With story we're back around the campfires thousands of years ago, telling each other who's sleeping with who, what the king's up to, what's up in the next camp over. The fire casts shadows out in the dark, the shadows of monsters and demons and gods. We tell stories about them too. Those shadows are, however, the shadows of humans.

All stories are about people.

"You can get farther with beautiful prose and a plot than you can with beautiful prose alone."

"Plot will get you through times with no prose better than prose will get you thorugh times with no plot."

"I am a professional writer. I tell lies to strangers for money."

"One Damn Thing After Another is a perfectly good plot."

"Anything that doesn't add to the story takes away from it."

It might seem like I'm slagging off prose. I'm not. Beautiful prose is a wonderful thing. It is a necessary thing.

"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug," as Mark Twain said.

Words are your tools. You must make them your friends. If you aren't the sort of person who can regularly ace the It Pays to Increase Your Word Power feature in Readers Digest every month -- become that sort of person.

At the very minimum I expect you to have the following books in your office:

Miriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary

The Chicago Manual of Style

Roget's International Thesaurus


The Elements of Style

There are other useful references, which I may mention later. These you must have, and must use.

The words themselves, the nouns and verbs ... they're the polish with 000 steel wool. They're the hand-rubbed oil stain. They're the carnuba wax buffed with chamois. But if you don't have a solid piece of woodwork to start with, all the finish in the world won't make a piece of furniture.

Yes, I'll be talking about prose, including some of my idiosyncratic pet peeves. There, their, and they're are three different words, with three different meanings. Similarly, two, too, and to. Its and it's mean different things, as do farther and further. You are expected to be expert.

If what exactly I mean by "noun" and "verb" (not to mention "adverb," "adjective," and "conjunction") is obscure to you ... go right now to your local bookstore and pick up some of the test-preparation study books for high school students, and work through the sections on English. It's okay, no shame, but you've got to be good with words.

If you can put together two consecutive pages of grammatical English with standard spelling, you'll be ahead of 90% of the people in the slush pile.


Another note: Yes, William Strunk did self-publish the first edition of his Elements of Style, as the PoD and vanity presses are fond of pointing out. You have to remember that it happened in the days before the invention of the Xerox machine -- Strunk printed up copies of his class notes to hand out to his students, so that they wouldn't have to copy it all down by hand as he lectured.

Which leads very nicely into the next topic: Characters.

Plot isn't the whole of your novel. Plot is more like the ropes and poles that hold up the big top where the circus is going to be held. Plot provides structure, but it isn't the novel.

Nor is story the novel: story is the space inside that big top where the show is going to happen.

No, your novel is in the characters: the bareback riders, the ringmaster, the trapeze artists, the lion tamers. A novel is about people, without the people it's an empty tent.

(And you were wondering where I was going to come down on the plot-generated vice character-generated novels.)

When you are coming up with characters, I beg you make them interesting. Interesting people doing interesting things in interesting places make your novel interesting.

You need to develop characters so that they serve a purpose other than Keeping The Front Cover and Back Cover Apart. Two rules for that: Every character thinks that he's the main character in the story, and Every character thinks that he's the good guy. While you are writing the character (from the main character, to the most minor of minor characters) you're in his head, and those two things are true while you're writing from his point of view (POV).

We beat up our characters. We make them miserable. Writing is about a lot of things; being kind to your characters isn't one of them.

Generally speaking, you need at least two characters in a story; otherwise dialog is very hard to do. How many characters you can handle is a measure of your skill level and the needs of your book. Characters all serve a function in the book. If two characters are serving the same function, make them into one character.

Now, I'm going to add two more characters to your story. These have to be characters, though y'all might not have thought of them so.

First is the author. You are a character in your story. Cast yourself. Then stay in character. Are you a lecturer? Are you a genial host? Are you a salesman? Are you a stranger here yourself?

Second is the reader. You have to cast the reader. Picture the reader. Is she a teenage girl living in suburbia? Is she a sophisticated urban professional? Is he a business traveler looking for something to read in the airport? The reader is why you're doing this. He's a character. See him. Make him consistent.

If you want to imagine you and your reader sitting in your living room (or some other location) while you tell the story, that can work. Just be consistent! We are building a dream, here, creating an illusion. Inconsistencies are illusion killers. Don't let your reader see you palming a card.


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James D. Macdonald
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More on Characters, and a little reward for having borne with me so far.

A story.

Good morning, everyone! Coffee all brewed? Ready for another day in the word mines?

Let's talk very briefly about those characters. We have to put them into conflict, else nothing much is going to happen.

In the chess games, it's white vs. black, because if you didn't have that conflict, you wouldn't have a game.

There're all kinds of conflicts we can use. Man vs. nature, man vs. fate, good vs. evil. Revenge may be a lousy motive out here in reality, but it's powered many novels.

Let me mention one of my favorites.

Anyone can do good vs. evil. The audience knows who to cheer for. The author knows who's going to win. This can get boring, for everyone. (Important safety tip: Your readers can always tell when you're bored.)

If you want to make your characters sweat, and keep your readers guessing, make the conflict good vs. good. Love of family vs. love of country. Search for truth vs. charity and forgiveness. Faith vs. reason. You get the idea.

All that's visible on the surface in your novel is the plot and the characters. The themes, the stories, the conflicts -- those are hidden. You know them; you're the author. You make them consistent throughout, and the reader will believe the plot and believe in the characters, at least until the book is finished. That's the art and the skill. And that's where lots and lots of unpublished/unpublishable writers fall down.

Another thing about the characters: they don't know they're in a novel.

(Generally speaking, the characters in art don't know they're in art. That's why the lights are turned down and the audience is quiet in theatres: so the characters won't realize they're on a stage. That's why characters in the movies don't look at the camera. (Have you noticed how distracting it is, in amateur film, when an actor's eyes focus on the camera?)

Well ... you can have the characters notice they're in a book or on film or on stage (it's called "Breaking the Fourth Wall"), but this is generally done for comic effect. "Bromosel looked at the huge wad of pages in the reader's right hand. It was going to be a long epic." (Bored of the Rings) or pretty much any of the Police Squad shows.

One thing you don't want to do is have a character say something that'll remind the reader that he's just a reader: don't have one character say to another, "You're talking like the villain in a sleazy detective novel," lest the reader say "Wait a minute! He is the villain in a sleazy detective novel!" This can break the illusion. Illusions are fragile things. The chapters you've spent building the illusion will be wasted; it's not entirely certain that you'll be able to get that willing-suspension-of-disbelief back.

The number one lesson to learn about commercial fiction is: We are part of the entertainment industry!

Hi, Jerry --

I've recommended some books and some exercises already ... I'm quite serious about those. Get the books, do the exercises. Develop the habits.

I'll be recommending more books and more exercises as time goes on. Please trust me enough to play along. I can't give you a publishing contract, but I can take you where they grow.

More advice, just for you? Sure:

You've put down timeframes and dollar amounts in your goals. I've seen people do this before; I've even seen 'em figure which year they were going to win what major award. That's counterproductive. Just concentrate on the day, and on the current project. Let the future take care of itself.

Have a life. Go to interesting places, do interesting things. Observe people. You have to be the best observer around. No matter what you're doing, part of your brain should be turning the scene into descriptive prose.

Read widely. Take classes just for the heck of it. You can't know too much.

Consider joining a writers' workshop. Look for one that has at least one or two people with legitimate publishing credits in it. If workshops aren't for you, they aren't for you, but give 'em a try. You'll need a set of trusted friends who'll read your work and give you their honest opinions. No matter how much those opinions may hurt, thank your friends cheerfully and sincerely.

Make every story you write be the best one it can be. Submit them to places likely to buy them (paying markets only). Send 'em out 'til Hell won't have 'em.

There are no right or wrong answers. The only thing you'll know if you listen carefully to what I tell you here is how I work, and what works for me.

Still, there's that professional attitude. If you're a professional writer, writing is your job. Treat it that way. Sure, it's a job you love, one that you'd do even if they weren't paying you for it, but it's a job.

You can get the sweatshirt and wear it proudly.

Now, some other fun things before we start today's nattering.

Here's the Turkey City Lexicon. We can't talk about -- some would say we can't think about -- things for which we don't have the words. These are some words that you might find helpful in thinking about your writing.

Here's something even more fun: The Sobering Saga of Myrtle the Manuscript. If you ever wanted to know the truth of what happens in a publisher's office, this story tells the truth. It's about short stories, rather than novels, but it's still Pretty Darn True.

Myrtle tells the story from the editor's point of view. If you want to Really True Truth about writing a novel from the novelist's point of view, I recommend you get a copy of The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel by Edward Gorey. Here it is as a single volume, or as part of a collection.

The Unstrung Harp is very funny, and devastatingly accurate.


Now, today's discussion. Let's say that you have a full novel all done. Three hundred some-odd pages of typescript in standard manuscript format. What do you do now?

Now is the time to put it into pleasing shape. This is what I call Agricultural Work. This is where you prune and transplant, and fertilize the book. Look at the end. Is everything that happens at the end properly foreshadowed in the beginning? Look at the beginning. Does everything that you planted there have a payoff at the end?

You remember Chekov's saying that a gun that's hanging on the wall in the first act must be fired in the last act. Here's where you hang the gun on the wall. Here too is where you make sure the gun goes off.

I see my novels as having form, like a building. They are a space. The walls go all the way to the ceilings, the walls meet at corners, the roof is in place and pitched to shed the rain, the doors swing easily, the floors are level, and there are plants to mask the ugly place where the foundation meets the lawn (in addition to the pure aesthetic pleasure that those pretty flowers give.

You're looking for balance here. You may need to move scenes, shed scenes, write new scenes. Characters may appear or vanish in this part of the rewriting.

To make a statue of an elephant, take a block of marble and carve away everything that doesn't look like an elephant. The first draft, the thing you vomited out at the rate of ten pages a day, is the block of marble. Now you are cutting away everything that doesn't look like a novel.

As you gain skill and experience, the marble will arrive at this later stage more closely rough-cut than it did the first few times you try. Still you will get to know revision. Revision means, literally, "looking again." Look again at all the parts of your book, from basic plot through character, action, theme, story, text, subtext. You are the master of this world you are creating.

The readers are counting on you for one thing: they are trusting you to find the one perfect ending for this novel. (That's why the Choose Your Own Adventure books flopped -- they were a novelty, not a novel. Not all endings are as good as others. You, the artist, choose one.)

The readers expect to be surprised by the inevitable. This sounds like a tall order. It is. There are a couple of cheap tricks I can teach you, but try for the real thing.

(Cheap trick number one: Start a story arc. Before it reaches its climax, start a second story arc. When that second story arc reaches its climax, substitute the climax for the first story arc. This sounds silly, but it really works. For an example, see Chaucer's The Miller's Tale.)

Okay, before I end today, one more rule of thumb: Unless you're writing War and Peace or the Bible, try to have all your characters on stage and moving by page one hundred.


Kinda a gallimaufry today:

Plots. Please try to avoid the Idiot Plot. An Idiot Plot is one that only works because all the characters involved are idiots. If the only reason something happens or doesn't happen is because otherwise it would be a very short book, come up with some other explanation.

Let me give you an example of an idiot plot, this time from the movies. How many of y'all have seen Tears of the Sun with Bruce Willis? Our boy Bruce plays Lt. Waters, a Navy SEAL who is sent into Nigeria to rescue an American doctor during a civil war. The doctor refuses to leave without taking her patients with her. What stops Lt. Waters from calling his boss on the aircraft carrier on his satelite phone and saying "Give me three CH-46s at the LZ"? Nothing other than that if he did it, the movie would have been only about twenty minutes long. That's an idiot plot.

What stops the characters in your novel, on seeing mysterious lights in the house next door, from calling 9-1-1? Motivate them. Eliminate "because I'm the author and I say so" as a reason things happen.

Sometimes, though, you'll have to have characters behave in basically stupid ways. You have two choices there: either build their characters to show that they're stupid people (reading stories about stupid people isn't terribly enjoyable, at least for me, but maybe there's a market), or get the action going so fast that the readers don't have a moment to say, "Hey, wait a minute! Why don't they just go to the bus station and buy a ticket?"

Next thought: On plots. Plots are simple things, like a piece of string is simple, but they are complex, like a three-strand four lay Turk's Head made with that same piece of string is complex. When you're thinking about plot, and about the shape of your book, consider the classical unities.

These come from Greek drama, and are unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action. In a Greek play (formal as sonnet, those things were), all the action takes place in twenty-four hours (that's unity of time), it all takes place in one location (e.g. the square in front of the temple -- that's unity of place), and everything that happens deals directly with the climax (that's unity of action, and it's a darn good idea, chums).

Your novel probably won't take place in just one location in twenty-four hours. Still, it's probably a good idea to use the minumum number of locations, and the minimum time. If your character flies off to Miami to learn something he could have just as conveniently learned in New York, leave him in New York. If a whole chunk of your novel can be replaced with the words "What with this and that some five years passed," you may have to refine the focus of your book or replace that part of the novel with a chapter break or a line break.

Let us take for an example The Lord of the Rings. The time covered is almost exactly one year, and an action-packed year it is. Yet it starts in the Shire and it ends in the Shire. The hobbits are center stage on the first page, and they're center stage on the last page. You could do worse than to follow this template.

Let me give you another aphorism: The oldest engines pull the heaviest freight. If you were going to write a modern literary novel, you might consider taking The Trojan Women, and setting it among the Mormons of Mesa, Arizona, one afternoon in August, 1965. Vietnam is just ramping up. It's hot.

You've done your research on time and place and modes of speech ... and off you go.

By the time you've done the book won't resemble the original at all; you'll have something totally your own. Yet it will have a structure, and the structure will be sound, and your readers will appreciate it.

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Other random thoughts: On words.

Beware the word "Somehow." You can use it in dialog when the character doesn't know, but you should avoid it in narrative. "Somehow" means the author doesn't know either. This is bad. The reader is trusting you to know what's going on and to guide him to the climax of the book. "Somehow" makes the reader look at you askance and ask "What's the matter with this guy?" It's as if he were following a guide through trackless wilderness, when the guide suddenly gets a puzzled expression on his face and says "Beats the heck out of me."

Example: Our hero is trying to sneak into a warehouse. The door is sliding shut. Then the narrative: Somehow the door failed to close all the way. What? Why didn't it close? Figure this out, author, and come back when you know. Did a mouse get jammed in the gears? Either come up with something reasonable, or give the guy a different way into the warehouse. If you do nothing else, delete the word "somehow." You still have the same action, but without the moment of doubt.

Next: Choose only necessary detail. You aren't constructing a full world. You're giving your reader a blueprint with which he'll construct his own world, which will be consistent with his own needs and experiences. If the room the reader imagines and the room you imagine differ, what of it? Give the reader three points and he'll do the rest. Just be consistent, and choose the important things. If it's necessary that there be a clock in the room, mention it. If it doesn't matter whether there's a clock, don't mention it. The reader may put one there, or not put one there, and it won't matter to the story. The room will be the right room for him.

Readers assume that everything you mention is important. They'll hold those things in their heads. Give them a payoff for everything you mention, a reward for their effort. You can't keep writing checks against your literary account without adding literary capital.

On sentences: There were and It was are weak openings. Not all sentences need to be strong: contrast and rhythm demand that sentence strength vary. Nevertheless, be aware of this fact, and use it as a tool. You are the author. All the words are yours. Be conscious of what you're doing.

Anything that doesn't add to your story subtracts from it. You know what you're doing with your tale; later on students and critics may come by and try to guess, but you know.

Take charge. This is your world, you are the master. Bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha!

Hiya, Jerry --

When's your contest deadline? Deadlines are good things. They concentrate the mind wonderfully.

By "Have a life," I mean don't spend all your time in your room writing. Writers need to get out of the house, talk to people, observe the world. No one can create new worlds until he masters this one.

By "classes," I don't mean writing classes. Those can be good or bad experiences. I don't necessarily think they're required. By classes, I mean things like going to a local college and taking a course in Classical Mechanics, or Origami, or First Aid. Everything, everywhere, fits into your mind, ready to come out when a story needs it. Writers are generalists.

Did I ever mention my Quick Slick Research Method?

When you're getting set to write a story set in a particular time or place, you need to become an Instant Expert on the subject. Here's what you do. Go to the Children's Room in your local library and read a couple of recent kids' books on the subject. That'll get you up to speed, give you an idea of the shape of the material you'll need, and an introduction to the terms and people.

Now go to the adult section, and start reading the adult books on the subject. Start with the big survey books. The Oxford Book of _____ for example. Read only the chapters you need. It's easy to get distracted. Take notes.

Then go to the specialty books. Read the parts that you need (and you will know which parts those are from your previous reading), paying attention to the footnotes (the footnotes are where learned professors float their crackpot theories, or ***** about other learned professors -- footnotes are great fun). Take more notes.

You are now sufficiently an expert on your subject to write your novel. When you've got a decent draft of your novel, take it to someone who genuinely is an expert on the subject to read it and comment on it. Many academics are lonely folks, only too eager to talk with you. Cops and firefighters and emergency nurses love to talk with writers. Coroners will make time in their day to read your book and comment on it. Honest. You'll mention them in the acknowledgements in the front of the book and that's all the reward they want.

On Writer's Digest: this is the Brides Magazine of writing. It's a great mag when you're getting started and planning the wedding. It isn't so good on telling you what to do after the wedding when you wake up the next morning beside some fat guy who snores, smells of sweat, and has stubble all over his chin.

Everyone has a subscription to Writer's Digest once. It's time to reevaluate your career if you renew your subscription. Think about the old maid with the lifetime subscription to Brides Magazine. Yeah, it's like that.

One other thing about Writer's Digest: If an agent advertises there, cross that agent off your list.

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A very short post today. Holidays, kids home from school, you know....

First, a Trick for Analyzing your Writing:

Take ten or twenty consecutive pages, and tape them, side by side, to the wall of your livingroom.

Go stand on the other side of the room.

Are all the pages big grey blocks of text? If so, perhaps you need to break things up with dialog, with paragraphs of varying length, with line breaks. All short paragraphs and dialog? Your reader won't have a chance to catch his breath and assimilate what you've just said. Your text should be varied, just as your story varies. The rhythm of your story will be apparent across the room. Big grey blocks = boring. All jagged = tiring.


Next thing: Two books for you to read, over the weekend. They're novels, but you'll find lessons on writing in them if you care to dig those lessons out.

First, The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars by Steven Brust.

Second, Misery by Stephen King.

Of the two I recommend the Brust more highly. You can buy copies, get 'em from your library, interlibrary loan, whatever.

(Please note, too, that Brust's book is still in print, even though it was first published in 1987.)

Is everyone so stunned that they don't have anything to say?

Why did I recco Misery?

This is all In My Opinion, of course, but books are about something other than the surface plot. What I think this one is about is the relationship between the author and the reader.

The author is the reader's slave, the reader's captive. The reader has control of what we write. The reader also takes away parts of us.

Observe the long descriptions of how the author has to play fair with the reader, and provide beliveable explanations for the events in the novel. The reader will withdraw her approval if we fail to satisfy her, if we fail to make her believe. The discussion, with examples, of how the fictional author makes the fictional "biggest fan" believe that Misery didn't really die at the end of the previous book is brilliant. And it works through the choices the author has to make, why some lines are right, and why some lines are wrong.

I enjoy looking at the why of a thing. If I know why, I can often figure out what needs to happen in some other specific case by looking behind the surface.

The descriptions of what it feels like to be writing (the "hole in the page") resemble what writing seems like to me.

The clues that this is meant to be a writing manual include the long digression on why Corrasible Bond (do they even still make that stuff?) is dreadfully wrong for writing a novel.

So, aside from the action/adventure/thriller surface of this novel, read it as a parable of the creative process as it pertains to writers and their readers (who are we without our readers?) and I think you'll find lessons that can improve your own writing.

All I can really say is that I found it useful.


Reph, not a day goes by when I don't think "Gee, if only I got serious about this I could be really productive." But yeah, we are prolific. That's what it takes to average two novels and two short stories a year, and that's what it takes (at least, that's what it takes me) to make a living doing this.

Reprinted from elsewhere on this board:

Your readers can always tell when you're bored.

Writing is a lousy make-money-fast scheme. If you aren't doing it at least a little bit for love, I can point to a lot of things that will bring you more money for less work.

Next: Observe this diagram.

The area labeled "A" is what fascinates you; what you might write about. The area labeled "B" is what fascinates everyone else, that they want to read about. The area labeled "C" is what's marketable.

You can't guess this in advance.

Take, for example, Maureen F. McHugh. She was fascinated by Chinese people, gay guys, and subways. She wrote China Mountain Zhang. This was her first novel, and it was picked out of the slush pile. It was published, remains in print, and led her to a career in mainstream literary novels.

The books you're seeing now as the Hot New Releases were bought two years ago. The trend as to who's buying what has already moved on. Write what's going to be on the shelf two years from now, not what's on the shelf today.

King is an interesting writer. He's one of the full-blown Calvinist writers; Calvinism tends toward horror. (Once, when asked why he wrote horror, King replied "What makes you think I have a choice?")

(An example of ur-horror, that passionately American genre, is Johnathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." People traveled for miles to hear Edwards preach. When he spoke people would weep, or fall to the floor senseless. That's more than a good sermon: that's entertainment.)

King is also, if memory serves, one of the few writers who has taught English at every level in the American educational system. That's more than a need for money -- that's a love of teaching. I expect that on some level everything he's written is meant to be didactic.

IMHO, however, when he's remembered, King will be remembered for his short works.

Oh, yes, his [URL="http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/isbninquiry.asp?ISBN=0743455967]On Writing[/URL] is highly recommended.

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Elsewhere at the Water Cooler, I find a reference to this essay: How Lucky Can You Get? by whiney Usenet troll M. J. Rose. (See? I can be snarky.)

Okay, guys, go read the article, all the way down to What’s the Problem?

M. J. lacks the publishing experience to figure out the answer to her own question. Y'see, I know exactly what happened to "Carl P." He had Golden Word Syndrome.

His first book was publishable, or would be, with editing. Perhaps a lot of editing. The editor liked the voice, or the story, or some aspect of what was a deeply-flawed but correctable work.

"Carl P" got the contract. The editing process started. Then Carl decided that his words were golden. He refused to participate in the editing process, he vetoed the editor's suggestions, he wouldn't make the changes that would turn his manuscript into a commercial novel, his ego was too big to allow him to listen to a mere editorial assistant. He bought a "STET Dammit!" rubber stamp.

Read the little tale that M. J. tells with that in mind. Makes sense now, doesn't it? The editor's actions aren't inexplicable and unmotivated any more, eh?

Carl P's book was printed as unedited slush, with predictable results.

I recently had a chat with a New York editor who had bought a first novel out of the slush pile. The book was interesting, the story moved right along, the voice was unique -- and it fell apart in the last quarter. The author had no clue how to end a novel for all that he'd started brilliantly.

Where most editors write revision letters, this editor wrote a revision novella.

"What will you do," I asked, "if the author won't make the changes?"

"Put a cheap cover on it," the editor replied.

Here endeth the lesson.



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Hi, Karen --

Just wanted to say that you've been saying good, true, and useful things on this board. And I'm honored that you're posting here ... I love a good romance, but darned if I can write one.

First, the formatting thing:

The only blank lines in your story will be where you expect linebreaks, and those will have a centered # in them, thusly:

"But why are you telling me all this?" Jane asked. She

passed a trembling hand across her brow.


Next morning, Paul awoke to find his refrigerator had gone

off in the middle of the night. Again.

As you can see, you indent the beginning of each paragraph (and each time a new character speaks, it's a new paragraph).

Let's try your example:

"Blah blah blah," he said.

"Blah blah blah," she replied. She then went on to do

something else that was interesting here.

Notice that you end the quoted words with punctuation, either a comma, an explanation point, a question mark, or something else. The comma stands for a period.

I will comment here that "said" is a totally invisible word, and far preferable to all the "said-bookism" synonyms you'll find out there: he bellowed, he shouted, he rasped, he gritted, he snarled, he yelled, he demurred, he apologized, he extemporized, he welded, he [some verb that is not said].


Now on the subject of plots and such:

Many years ago I studied magic. Back when I was six years old, one Halloween night, the firefighters had a Halloween party at the firehouse. I went with my parents. They had a magician! I decided rigth then that I was going to be a magician when I grew up.

I got pretty good at it, if I say so myself. I made money in high school putting on magic shows, doing kids parties and such. It was fun. (It's all the entertainment business!)

Along the way I ran into a book called Magic As A Hobby by Bruce Elliott. In there, I found a line that's stuck with me, that I've found to be absolutely true: "If you know a thousand ways of finding a selected card and only one way of revealing it, to the audience you only know one trick. If you know one way of finding a selected card and a thousand ways of revealing it, to the audience you know a thousand tricks."

I've shifted my focus over the years from magic to writing (a kind of magic all its own -- genuine thought transference!) but that lesson stuck with me.

Up above, I suggested using the plot of The Trojan Women, transported to Mesa, Arizona, in 1965. Suppose you wrote that book. Then suppose you put the plot of The Trojan Women into a novel set in feudal Japan. Then you did another novel with the plot of The Trojan Women, this one set in upper-class Westchester in 2003. Then you used The Trojan Women for a novel set among in the biker bars of Long Beach, California, in 1990.

To the readers those would be very different novels.

A bit upstream Karen commented that all novels are about relationships. I'll generalize that a bit: All novels are about people. Write about people, folks. The rest all follows.

From this you can further derive: You must become an expert on people. You have to learn to see through the eyes of others. You have to understand yourself very well, then you have to understand them.

Now, to reward you: A magic trick.

That's part of casting the author as a character. It doesn't really matter, provided you are consistent throughout the work.

After that, the test is does it work for you?

Hiya, Kim --

No, I've never been on scribendi's bb (and I go by my real name wherever I go -- I'm me, I stand behind my opinions).

Hi, Hapi. Good to see you here. Chime in any time you like.


What shall we talk about tonight?

How about endings?

Books have beginnings, middles, and ends.

If your book doesn't have an end, your readers will be left unsatisfied, as if the chocolate cake they were promised for desert was snatched away from them at the last minute.

I've talked about chess games as a metaphor for the novel. All chess games end. Either with a checkmate, a stalemate, a draw, or a resignation.

Of these, only the checkmate is of interest. We want that checkmate ending to our books. When the reader puts our book down, he should say "I didn't see that coming, but by golly that was the absolutely right ending."

("What do we do if we're planning a sequel? What if this is one book in a series? What then, Uncle Jim?" I can hear you asking.

"My children," I reply, "the book must have an end anyway. You can leave room for more stories in the same world, with the same characters, but this story is finished. Suppose your reader is a sailor, a thousand miles away from shore, six months before he'll get home, and this is the only book on board his ship. Do you want to frustrate that poor swabbie, leave him hanging? No! Give him a conclusion, a satisfying conclusion.")

How to tell you've reached the end of your story:

The characters suddenly don't know what to do next. They wander around. One of them orders out for pizza.

A novel is not life: In life there are always loose ends; the story never really finishes. This is art: Here all the plot threads are gathered together. Sure, you can leave little things lying around ready to pick up in another book, but you can't leave major plot-arcs unresolved. The reader won't stand for it; he will throw your book against the wall; he won't buy your next book. Here's the game: You win if the reader buys your next book.

Do not leave your reader in any doubt that you've come to the end of the story! Imagine a play ... where the audience didn't know to start applauding, when to rise to their feet, when to throw bouquets on the stage. The playwright gives the audience clues that This Is It. If nothing else, when the lights come up, and the whole cast walks on stage and takes their bows, the audience knows This Play is Over, and it's time to go home.

So ... signal that it's the end. Coming to the last page isn't enough. I've run into books where I've been frustrated because the last page wasn't the end of the story. Do not do likewise.

Bad endings: There are three classic errors. One is getting into a land war in Asia. But the other two, almost as deadly are ending your book thusly:

1) It was only a dream.
2) ...and they were all run over by a truck.

Yes, yes, I know. Alice in Wonderland ends with "Oh, I've had such a curious dream!" That book has many other virtues, and the ending is in fact perfect for that book. The danger with using the "it was only a dream" ending with your book is that the reader has been worried about these characters all the way along, he's been hoping for them, fearing for them, and now, suddenly, you've told him that it didn't matter. Yes, it's all a fiction, yet our readers have laughed genuine laughs, shed genuine tears, actually checked to makes sure the windows were all locked, all over our creations. Don't remind him that you just made it up. One of the little fictions of our fictions is that we don't tell them that it's fiction.

The "...and they were all run over by a truck" ending has the element of arbitrariness to it; the author has gotten tired of these toys so he throws them away. Possibly the author didn't know how to end the story, and this presented a convenient way to do it after about three hundred pages. Again, the reader has gotten to care about the characters (at least we hope so, and if the reader is still following along at this point we know he does), and will be upset, perhaps angered, that someone he likes dies for no good reason other than the author said so.

Okay, okay, you're trying to make a point that life is random, brutish, and short, that we all die, and that existence is meaningless. Make your point some other way; this one has already been done.

What both of these endings have in common: The characters' actions didn't matter. That's disrespectful to your readers. Readers can tell when they're being dissed.



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Since HConn brought up the Evil Overlord Plot Generator, here's a lot more about it.

I'm going to recycle a bit right now, from another thread here. [This thread no longer exists]

In that thread, HConn mentioned <A href="a href="http://www.scriptsecrets.net/articles/magnify.htm" target="_new">this site.

The following was my reply there.

(I'm thinking that after this I might blather on a bit about Point of View (POV), but that's for another post.)


Well, books aren't movies (for all that they're both part of the entertainment industry). They're different art forms, both of which need to appeal to a mass audience. Yet, you can learn from them. I'm a big believer in finding lessons about writing in all sorts of non-writing or peripherally-writing places.

From where I sit, ideas are vastly overrated. One of the things you'll get sick of when y'all become Famous Big Name Writers (or obscure, small time writers like me) is the guy who comes up to you and says, "I"ve got a great idea for a book! You write it and we'll split the money!"

Ideas. I've got lots of my own, thanks. Aphorisms: Watt-Evans' Law: "There is no idea so stupid that a sufficiently talented writer can't make it into an entertaining story." Feist's Collorary to Watt-Evans' Law: "There is no idea so brilliant that a sufficiently ham-handed writer can't make an unreadable story out of it."

The Pump Up The Volume method (what this fellow calls "Magnification") can work, if you're the sort of person it works for. It won't give you sex, lies, and videotape but it might give you Armageddon.

Films play games with higher stakes than novels, at least in the terms of cash outlay. For a movie maker, the special effects budget may constrain the storyline. For me as a novelist, it costs exactly the same for me to type "Fred lit a cigarette" as it costs me to type "The world ended with an earth-shattering Kaboom."

Study the story-telling caracteristics of allied artforms, yes. Remember that what you personally are doing is writing a novel.

You want an example of plot, pure plot, driving a work? Try Sweeney Todd In Concert. This performance has no sets, minimal costuming, minimal props, minimal movement. Yet the plot itself, expressed through the characters, pushes us right along. Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, has lots of narrative juice. This particular story has been consistently finding an audience for the last 160 years. When you analyse the themes, you'll find classical roots. I really recommend this particular performance of this particular work. Look at is as an example of Plot At Work.

(Oh, incidentally, John Q sucked.)

Sing it, sister!

I personally want to enlighten, teach, amuse, and touch the hearts and souls of those people who read my books.

So do I. So does everyone. But you know what? If they've thrown your book across the room you aren't going to enlighten, teach, amuse or anything else those readers.

Same as if they put down your book after the first chapter, meaning to pick it up again later, and never do.

You've made a deal with your reader: Give me a couple bucks and a couple hours, and I'll show you a good time. The reader wants you to succeed. The reader is willing to help you out. Just don't give the reader the idea that he's put more thought into the story than you did.

Who was it, Sam Goldwyn, who said "If you want to send a message, call Western Union"? Same with your book. Sure, you can put a message in it. That isn't the reason someone will read your book. Put your message on a different level. On the main level, put this: A story, fully satisfying.

Good point about the detective story. The reader wants you to play fair with him, including putting all the clues on the page, so the reader can solve it right along with the detective. Imagine if you read a mystery where it turned out the killer was some guy you'd never heard of, who'd played no part in the book. It wasn't the jealous boyfriend, the butler, the old school chum, or the dishonest stock broker ... it was some random guy, and the cops find him because he confessed after being arrested for some unrelated crime somewhere around page 300.

Or suppose, on the last page, the police inspector says, "Well, beats heck out of me who did it ... put this one in the Cold Cases file. I've got enough other crimes to work on." That's not going to be too satisfying either.

You made a deal with your reader. You have to carry out your part.

Soon ... POV!

Before we start POV, let's look at yet another list of rules for writing, this time from Elmore Leonard.

Mr. Leonard is a noted stylist; widely published, well respected, best-selling. Pray notice when he says that the word for "said" is "said." He also comments on the author intruding in the book. He has other things of great interest.

What we're going to look at today is this bit: "If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character -- the one whose view best brings the scene to life -- I'm able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what's going on, and I'm nowhere in sight."


The Point of View is the pair of eyes that is observing the scene. Those eyes, belonging to a character, are your camera. Those ears, belonging to a character, are the microphones that pick up the dialog in the scene.

You may or may not tell your readers what the chacter is thinking. You must tell your readers what one particular character is seeing and hearing.

If the character is not in the room for part of the scene, the readers will not see that part of the scene. Therefore you must either:

a) use a different viewpoint character for that scene, or
b) break the scene into two scenes, with a different viewpoint character in each.

Who should be your viewpoint character? Answer: the character who can best see or describe the scene; the most interesting view of the scene, "the one whose view best brings the scene to life."

How can you tell which one's view best brings the scene to life?

Experience. Reading other authors and asking yourself "Why that character? Why that scene?" Writing your own works, and experimenting with the characters and the scenes. You will eventually get the experience to choose a viewpoint and stick with it in each scene.

Your viewpoint character does not need to be your main character, or even a major character. Remember when I told you to cherish your minor characters? This is one of the places where they can come in handy: they're great viewpoints.

You can go through an entire novel without ever seeing even one scene from the point of view of the protagonist.

If a scene isn't working for you, before your try the other two general-purpose scene-fixes (to wit: shortening the scene or cutting it entirely), try this: rewrite the scene from the point of view of a different character.

What the character sees (that is, what he notices) will depend on the character. You remember Holmes saying to Watson, "You see, but you do not observe"? The same thing is true for your viewpoint characters. Each one of them will filter what they hear, what they see, and consequently what they convey to the reader.

Let us imagine a wedding reception. How would it be described by: a) the grooms' father (a military man), b) the groom's ex-girlfriend (an interior decorator), c) the bride, d) a criminal who is there on business, e) a cop who is there as a guest, f) one of the musicians, or g) the preacher?

Each one of them will see different details as important. Each one of them will hear the conversations differently even if they report them word-for-word. Each of them is more likely to stand in one place than another.

How can you keep close point of view? Try this: Write the scene in first-person as told by your viewpoint character. Then recast the scene in the revision stage to third person.

Readers will notice if you change point of view in the middle of a scene! They will be either annoyed, confused, or lost. Writers have a hard time noticing POV shifts -- this is because they are always looking through their own eyes, and know where they are. This leads to the "head story." A head story is one that's in the author's head, not on the page.

Alas, the only story the reader gets is the one on the page.

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In slush I have seen writers change viewpoints as often as three times in one paragraph. This is the sort of thing that gets manuscripts slipped back into return envelopes with one of those little one-page photocopied notes that writers hate to get.

Another viewpoint is the one I call "John Ford's Camera." This is the viewpoint that just sort-of hangs there. It's the Eye of God.

The viewpoint character then is the Author. You. In this case you must be very aware that you, the writer, are a character and maintain scrupulous consistency throughout. (True, you can turn to your audience and address them as "Gentle Reader," though this is seldom seen these days outside of humor, but be ready for the heavy downside too: you are never allowed to use another viewpoint if you're already using your own, and the reader may come to dislike your character.)


Now comes that point of today's ramblings where I throw out little pearls of wisdom.

Here's one: Say one of your characters is the world's greatest political orator. Do not, under penalty of having your book flung across the room by your readers, attempt to reproduce that orator's speeches. Unless you personally are the world's greatest orator, anything you write will fall short of the reader's expectation. (Same rule applies if your character is the world's greatest poet, greatest preacher, greatest writer, greatest anything. Don't try to provide samples.)

What you do is this: Show people's reactions to the character when he's doing his thing. Don't reproduce the sermon, show the congregation falling to the floor weeping.

A better reply in a bit, Debra, but here's a principle:

In writing, you can do absolutely anything if it works.

The "if it works" part is the tough bit. Try, read it carefully, be honest with yourself. Get the reactions from your first readers.

Think of your novel as a video game. Every time you try something, if it works, you get some number of points. If it doesn't work, you lose that same number of points. The fancier and more difficult the thing you try, the more points associated with it.

You'll start the game with a certain number of points. How many depends on the reader -- if he's read and enjoyed a previous work by you, you'll get more points than if he's never heard of you before. If you're writing in a genre he likes, you'll get more points than if you aren't exactly what he was looking for, but he was bored and there you were.

You've got some points, though, or the cover never gets opened.

Now you start adding and subtracting points for "things that work."

If your score ever goes down to zero, it's Bzzzzt! Game over! and the reader throws the book across the room (or, more demurely, puts it down and doesn't pick it back up).

If you want to use omniscent narrator, find an author you like who uses it, read his book critically to see the technique, then go and do likewise.

A sufficiently vigorous story will overcome many rough patches.


Aphorism: Style is what you can't help doing.

I'll try to make it to the library tomorrow to find a Mary Higgins Clark book. Then we'll see if we can find a scene to discuss.

Meanwhile, this bit from an article by Rob Killheffer seems pertinent:


It’s television’s fault. Television and movies. Visual media. In so many of these indie publications the narrative point of view slides around like a hot rock on ice, and observations intrude without any clear viewpoint at all. Consider this, from Thoughtmaster: “a skeletal face…whose shifting features left the viewer confused.” What viewer? Or this: “The voice was surprisingly strong from such a diaphanous figure.” Surprising to whom? Surely not to the only other person in the scene, who knows the speaker well.

These writers’ imaginations have been shaped by visual storytelling, in which there’s always an implied viewpoint — that of the audience, the camera, the peeping lens. They conceive their scenes as if they’re presented on a screen, and when they commit their prose, the camera remains, lurking outside the frame.

There’s no other explanation for scene shifts like those in Exile. As Jeff Friedrick and his pal Carl leave the bar where they’ve met, we’re told: “At the bar, a man turned his head and watched them go. He was tall, and a brief flare of light revealed reddish hair. Before the spotlight moved on, odd points of light deep in green eyes gave the impression of motion.…” Gave the impression to whom? The viewing protocols of film and television help us make sense of it: The two men who have been the focus of the scene get up and head for the door, and the camera pans aside to settle on this watcher. His reddish hair is “revealed” to us, the audience. We’re the ones who receive the “impression of motion.” It’s as if, in these moments, the authors are not crafting prose but working out a screenplay. I recall the oldest and most basic advice offered to the aspiring writer: Read! Read! And read some more! If you want to write a novel, don’t draw your skills from the big — or the small — screen.

The whole article is worth reading.

One of the points about point of view is that you don't need to tell the readers who your point of view character is, so long as you know who he is, and you remain consistent. Your readers are subconsciously constructing a world under your direction. If your blueprint doesn't make the unseen parts line up, the reader will disbelieve.

Alas, my library didn't have a copy of Swan Song. Instead, I got a copy of Moonlight Becomes You by Mary Higgins Clark.

Here's the last scene from Chapter 34:

At six-thirty, dressed for dinner, they sat on the back porch, sipping cocktails and looking out at Narragansett Bay.

"You look great, Mom," Neil said with affection.

"Your mother's always been a pretty woman, and all the tender loving care she's received from me over the last forty-three years has only enhanced her beauty," his father said. Noticing the bemused expression on their faces, he added, "What are you two smiling at?"

"You know full well I've also waited on you hand and foot, dear," Dolores Stephens replied.

"Neil, are you still seeing that girl you brought up here in August?" his father asked.

"Who was that?" Neil wondered momentarily. "Oh, Gina. No, as a matter of fact, I'm not." It seemed the right time to ask about Maggie. "There is someone I've been seeing who's visiting her stepmother in Newport for a couple of weeks. Her name is Maggie Holloway; unfortunately she left New York before I got her phone number here."

"What's the stepmother's name?" his mother asked.

"I don't know her last name, but her first name is unusual. Finnuala. It's Celtic, I believe."

"That sounds familiar," Dolores Stephens said slowly, searching her memory. "Does it to you, Robert?"

"I don't think so. No, that's a new one on me," he told her.

"Isn't it funny. I feel as though I've heard that name recently," Dolores mused. "Oh, well, maybe it will come to me."

The phone rang. Dolores got up to answer it.

"Now no long conversations," Robert Stephens warned his wife. "We've got to leave in ten minutes."

The call, however, was for him. "It's Laura Arlington," Dolores Stephens said as she handed the portable phone to her husband. "She sounds terribly upset."

Robert Stephens listened for a minute before speaking, his voice consoling. "Laura, you're going to get yourself sick over this. My son, Neil, is in town. I've spoken to him about you, and he will go over everything with you in the morning. Now promise me you'll calm yourself down.

It seems to me that the POV is 3rd person omniscient. We'll talk more about it in a bit, perhaps look at the whole chapter.

In each case, we know exactly whose eyes we are looking through, to whom things "seemed" or who "noticed" what.

I will comment that the last line is a great chapter close.

More anon; right now I'm off to have Movie Night at my house.

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Is this all sounding too much like high school English class?

Regardless ... onward!

Black = narrator, or undefined POV.
<FONT COLOR="red">Red = Robert Stephens' POV</font>
<FONT COLOR="green">Green = Neil Stephens' POV</FONT>
<FONT COLOR="blue">Blue = Dolores Stephens' POV</FONT>


At six-thirty, dressed for dinner, they sat on the back porch, sipping cocktails and looking out at Narragansett Bay.

<FONT COLOR="green">"You look great, Mom," Neil said with affection.</FONT>

<FONT COLOR="red">"Your mother's always been a pretty woman, and all the tender loving care she's received from me over the last forty-three years has only enhanced her beauty," his father said. Noticing the bemused expression on their faces, he added, "What are you two smiling at?"</FONT>

"You know full well I've also waited on you hand and foot, dear," Dolores Stephens replied.

<FONT COLOR="green"> "Neil, are you still seeing that girl you brought up here in August?" his father asked.</FONT>

<FONT COLOR="green">"Who was that?" Neil wondered momentarily. "Oh, Gina. No, as a matter of fact, I'm not." It seemed the right time to ask about Maggie. "There is someone I've been seeing who's visiting her stepmother in Newport for a couple of weeks. Her name is Maggie Holloway; unfortunately she left New York before I got her phone number here."</FONT>

<FONT COLOR="green">"What's the stepmother's name?" his mother asked.</FONT>

"I don't know her last name, but her first name is unusual. Finnuala. It's Celtic, I believe."

<FONT COLOR="blue">"That sounds familiar," Dolores Stephens said slowly, searching her memory. "Does it to you, Robert?"</FONT>

"I don't think so. No, that's a new one on me," he told her.

"Isn't it funny. I feel as though I've heard that name recently," Dolores mused. "Oh, well, maybe it will come to me."

The phone rang. Dolores got up to answer it.

"Now no long conversations," Robert Stephens warned his wife. "We've got to leave in ten minutes."

<FONT COLOR="red">The call, however, was for him. "It's Laura Arlington," Dolores Stephens said as she handed the portable phone to her husband. "She sounds terribly upset."</FONT>

Robert Stephens listened for a minute before speaking, his voice consoling. "Laura, you're going to get yourself sick over this. My son, Neil, is in town. I've spoken to him about you, and he will go over everything with you in the morning. Now promise me you'll calm yourself down.


Most of the undefined/narrator paragraphs are probably from Neil's POV.

The 3rd Omniscient POV is a very easy POV to write. Since the author knows everything it's a natural viewpoint. It is gratifying to the author's ego to stand in center stage.

This section, however, points up some of the difficulties of 3rd Omniscient: the author can come between the reader and the story (not a big problem in this book; it has lots of story), and the shifting POV can destroy unity thus confusing the reader.

A couple of minor infelicities:

You look great, Mom," Neil said with affection, verges on a Tom Swiftie: "I love hotdogs," Mandy said with relish, or "My headache is gone," Tom said absentmindedly.

Dolores mused is a said-bookism.

Neither of those things are wrong; they have to be watched lest unintentional humor be added to the stew.

Next post, I'm going to try to rewrite this scene from Neil's POV. (Neil is a major character.) Then I'll try again, from Dolores' POV (Dolores is a minor character.)

From Neil's POV:

At six-thirty, dressed for dinner, they sat on the back porch, sipping cocktails and looking out at Narragansett Bay.

"You look great, Mom," Neil said.

"Your mother's always been a pretty woman, and all the tender loving care she's received from me over the last forty-three years has only enhanced her beauty," his father said. H
e paused. "What are you two smiling at?"

"You know full well I've also waited on you hand and foot, dear," Dolores Stephens replied.

"Neil, are you still seeing that girl you brought up here in August?" his father asked.

"Who was that?" Neil wondered momentarily. "Oh, Gina. No, as a matter of fact, I'm not." It seemed the right time to ask about Maggie. "There is someone I've been seeing who's visiting her stepmother in Newport for a couple of weeks. Her name is Maggie Holloway; unfortunately she left New York before I got her phone number here."

"What's the stepmother's name?" his mother asked.

"I don't know her last name, but her first name is unusual. Finnuala. It's Celtic, I believe."

"That sounds familiar," Dolores Stephens said. "Does it to you, Robert?"

"I don't think so. No, that's a new one on me," he told her.

"Isn't it funny. I feel as though I've heard that name recently," Dolores said. "Oh, well, maybe it will come to me."

The phone rang. Dolores got up to answer it.

"Now no long conversations," Robert Stephens warned his wife. "We've got to leave in ten minutes."

The call, however, was for Robert. "It's Laura Arlington," Dolores Stephens said as she handed the portable phone to her husband. "She sounds terribly upset."

Robert Stephens listened for a minute before speaking, his voice consoling. "Laura, you're going to get yourself sick over this. My son, Neil, is in town. I've spoken to him about you, and he will go over everything with you in the morning. Now promise me you'll calm yourself down.


Before plunging back into Point of View, let me natter on a bit about Positional Chess Plotting.

What this means, to me, is that when I start a book I have a general idea of what I'd like to do with it (checkmate the other guy!), but I'm vague on the exact path that'll take me to that goal.

I know how I want the book to end, yet all the steps in between the start of chapter one and "The End" are as much a mystery to me as they are to my characters. The major characters are the pieces. The minor characters are the pawns.

I do know some things -- the size of the area I'm working in (be it a single room in a single night, or half a galaxy over a span of a millennium) -- and the characters I'll be playing with.

From experience, I know that it's best to get the characters out, early, moving. That they need to control the whole of the game board.

I know, from experience, where each kind of character is strongest. I try to put him there. It may not be obvious at the time why I'm moving a character to some location, but I know if he's there he can be active, and control part of the story.

I know to place my characters so that they guard and support each other. Then, later, when plot starts to twist, my characters are where they need to be. It's almost magical. This is how I arrive at the state where the book writes itself.

Then, as the story drives forward, suddenly the exact way in which I'll arrive at the conclusion becomes apparent, and it will be both surprising (because it's only now been revealed to the characters as it was only now revealed to the author) and at the same time inevitable, the "right" conclusion, since the characters had been heading to the places they needed to be since they were introduced.

This is a rather sloppy description of what I hope will become clear as you play through some chess games, noticing how the master moves, what he knows, what he doesn't know, and what he does because he knows it's the right move even though _why_ it's the right move isn't obvious to anyone at that time.

Let me give you the first three moves, with Chernev's commentary, from one of the games in Logical Chess Move By Move. This one is an example of King's Gambit Declined. White is Blackburne, Black is Blanchard, the game was played in London, 1891. Please follow this with a chessboard in front of you.


1. P-K4

Values were constant in many fields of endeavor, at the time this game was played.

Stories began, "Once upon a time."

Tic-tac-toe players put a cross in the center square.

Checker masters started with 11-15.

Chess masters opened with 1. P-K4.

Despite the researches of the scientists, these remain good beginnings.

1. . . . P-K4

Black opens lines for two of his pieces and establishes equilibrium in the center.

2. P-KB4

An offer of a Pawn to induce Black to surrender the center.

Accepting the gift enables White to continue with 3. P-Q4, and dominate the center with his Pawns. In addition, the opening of the Bishop file will offer White the opportunity of directing his attack at the vulnerable point KB7. This is a tender spot whether Black's King stays at home or castles.

2. . . . B-B4

Probably the safest way to decline the gambit:
a) The Bishop bears down on the center and controls an excellent diagonal.
b) The Bishop supplements the Pawn's attack on Q5 and prevents White from moving his Pawn to Q4.
c) The Bishop's presence at B4, overlooking KKt8, forbids White from castling in a hurry.

3. Kt-QB3

White avoids 3. PxP, as the reply (coming like a shot, probably) Q-R5ch 4. P-Kt3 (even worse is 4. K-K2, QxKP mate), QxKPch wins a Rook for Black.

White's actual move is not as energetic as 3. Kt-KB3, but Blackburne was trying to lure his opponent into playing 3. . . . BxKt 4. RxB, Q-R5ch 5. P-Kt3, QxRP when 6. R-Kt2 followed by 7. PxP gives White a fine game.

3. . . . Kt-QB3

A simple retort to the dubious invitation.

Black continues mustering his forces out on the field of action. In the fight for control of the center, his Knight does its share by exerting pressure on the squares K4 and Q5.


This is a short game, just 18 moves. Please play it out to its astounding conclusion. It perfectly illustrates my theory about positional play in plotting.

Sometimes I'll do things in my first drafts for no other reason than to have stuff to play with later on. I might put the hero, Dick Steeljaw, on the same train as the villain, Rotten Robert, and both of them carrying identical carpetbags.

If nothing comes of it by the end of the story, the carpetbags (and indeed the train trip) can be deleted in the next draft. But if some interaction follows, with surprising results, the effect can seem magical.

(A note on names. In first drafts I often name my characters for their functions in the plot. The hero's buddy may be named "Buddy," while a minor viewpoint character may be named "Walkon" or "Cannon Fodder." Global Search-and-Destroy with a wordprocessor makes giving them all reasonable names easy in a subsequent draft, and makes keeping them straight easy in an early draft.)

Back to POV.

Here's that scene from Moonlight Becomes You, this time from Dolores' POV:


At six-thirty, dressed for dinner, they sat on the back porch, sipping cocktails and looking out at Narragansett Bay.

"You look great, Mom," Neil said as he air-kissed her cheek.

"Your mother's always been a pretty woman, and all the tender loving care she's received from me over the last forty-three years has only enhanced her beauty," her husband said. "What are you two smiling at?" he added a moment later.

"You know full well I've also waited on you hand and foot, dear," Dolores Stephens replied.

"Neil, are you still seeing that girl you brought up here in August?" Robert asked.

"Who? Oh, Gina. No, as a matter of fact, I'm not. There is someone I've been seeing," he continued, "who's visiting her stepmother in Newport for a couple of weeks. The girl's name is Maggie Holloway; unfortunately she left New York before I got her phone number here."

"What's the stepmother's name?" Dolores asked.

"I don't know her last name, but her first name is unusual. Finnuala. It's Celtic, I believe."

"That sounds familiar," Dolores Stephens said slowly, searching her memory. Something she'd read in the paper a week or two ago niggled at her. "Does it to you, Robert?"

"I don't think so. No, that's a new one on me," he told her.

"Isn't it funny. I feel as though I've heard that name recently," Dolores continued. "Oh, well, maybe it will come to me."

The phone rang. Dolores picked up the portable.

"Now no long conversations," Robert Stephens said. "We've got to leave in ten minutes."

The call, however, wasn't for Dolores. She nearly didn't recognized Laura Arlinton. The woman was talking too fast, repeating, "Robert, please? Is Robert there?"

"It's Laura," Dolores Stephens said as she got up to hand the phone to her husband. "She sounds terribly upset."

Robert Stephens took the phone, "This is Mr. Stephens," he said. A long pause followed. Then: "Laura, you're going to get yourself sick over this. My son, Neil, is in town. I've spoken to him about you, and he will go over everything with you in the morning. Now promise me you'll calm yourself down.


The main emphasis has gone from the new girlfriend, Maggie, (in the Neil's POV version) to Laura and the phone call (in the Dolores POV version.)

In the original Omniscient 3rd POV, the reader is left off-balance. This might be a deliberate choice -- we're about half-way through the book, where the reader is meant to be off-balance. This is a thriller, a mystery, and a romance, all at once. We're transitioning from the opening to the middle. In the opening, the writer opens up possibilities. In the middle the themes are balanced, strengthened, and simplified. We're going to start radically cutting down on possible directions the plot could go.

To sound like a high school English class there would have to be lots and lots of nattering on about gerunds and past participles and such.

English is a frightfully difficult language. The grammar consists of exceptions papered over with idioms, the pronunciation makes you wish we'd just stuck to ideograms instead of pretending that we're in a phonetic system (The tough coughed as he ploughed the dough ... I ask you!), and depending on how you look at it English either has just two tenses, or thirty-three. The line between nouns and verbs is porous. English is graced with a vocabularly larger than that of the next two languages combined: As James Nichols put it, "We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary."

Speaking English badly is easy. Speaking it well ... brother, you have a lifetime's work cut out for you.

If you slept through high school English, now's the time to make up those classes. Get a study book, work through the exercises. At the same time, read lots of novels by acknowledged master stylists. Some of it will rub off.

Oh, yes, and Fowler's Modern English Usage Dictionary (get the 2nd edition -- do not get any of the abominable recent editions) is a wonder and a delight. Read it, learn it, love it, live it.

Any thoughts? (other than "that guy is just weird?")

You're just weird. Sorry about that.

Otherwise: Third Person Omniscient is easy to do badly. I think we've already mentioned that it can come between the reader and the story; an additional layer of filtering. It can also become the author showing off, and no one likes a show-off.

Third Person Omniscient is a POV that's often attempted by new writers, since it maps easily to the way they look at their own story. An author can look into anyone's head at any time he pleases. He can go anywhere, do anything.

This is why he shouldn't. Because if something is too easy, the reader can cease to care.

Suppose we're in Third Person Omniscient, and we're in a murder mystery. The reader can become annoyed with the author, because the author knows whodunnit, and isn't telling. Remember above when we said, "Don't annoy the reader, and particularly don't get him annoyed with the author"?

That is where the skill comes in. Using Third Omniscent means you're facing a curveball. Even the best batters can miss curveballs.

Didn't mean to sound like I was putting down HS English classes, they just always annoyed me because we went over the exact same things every year.

I'm not responding to you directly, EJ -- I'm just sayin'.

If you're capable of writing two consecutive pages of grammatical English prose with standard spelling, you're already in the top ten percent of the slush heap.

Writing isn't a lottery -- the talk about the "odds" is misleading -- it's a game of skill. If you write total trash, no matter how many manuscripts you send in you won't get picked. If you write Really Good Stuff, the only thing that'll keep it from being published is if you don't submit it.

The cop that is suspected of a crime and pursued by his own department.

He may not be in his "comfort zone," but he's been moved to where he is active, has choices, and can have others act upon him.

He's been moved off the back row.

It's not what's best for the piece, but is what is best for the game as a whole.

Sure, those sacrifices and combinations that get people to gasp when they see 'em, and have the little (!) annotation when the game is written down.

But the characters don't care about the game as a whole.

Nor do the characters care about the book as a whole. The author, on the other hand, does. Just as a chessmaster will move and perhaps sacrifice his pieces, an author will move and perhaps sacrifice his characters.

Rather than their strongest positions, how about putting the characters into their most interesting situations? This is "interesting" as in the curse, "May you live in interesting times."

It's entirely possible to change POV in the course of revision. If a story doesn't work as third person omniscient, rewrite it as first person and see if it's better. You can do versions in third person limited, then rewrite it as third person dramatic. You can rewrite scenes from one character's point of view, and if that doesn't work, rewrite from a different character's point of view.

For example, our first published short story, "Bad Blood," was written in first draft in third person omniscient, then rewritten in first person. That's the form it sold in. (To the very first market we sent it to, thankyouverymuch.)

If you change POV with every scene change, you can still be in third-person limited.

Right then, points of view:

First person. "I"

The narrator can be the main character, a major character who also observes the main character, or a minor character who serves only as a reporter.

The narrator may or may not be reliable. (The Murder of Roger Akroyd is a classic unreliable narrator.)

The narrator is limited to what that one person knows.

Can you have more than one first-person narrator? Sure. Frankenstein has three first-person narrators, in a nested story.

One thing you can do with first person is create dramatic irony -- the reader knows something that the character doesn't. (An excellent example of this: there's a military museum in Danbury, CT. They have a diorama there, showing off the M3 halftrack. The diorama shows a couple of soldiers, one on a halftrack, the other on foot, having a conversation. The caption on the base of this model is "Relax, buddy, the war's nearly over." The irony is this: they're next to a roadsign that reads Bastogne 25 Km.)

First person can create immediacy and realism. It can also fail by falling into a love-fest for the author.


Second person: You did this, then you do that. Seldom seen outside of "choose your own adventures." If you happen to be a master stylist with a genius for this sort of thing, go for it. Elsewise, try to stay out of second person.


Third person:

You have your choice here: you can do with third person omniscient (the narrator knows everything, can drop into anyone's thoughts), third person limited (the narrator can only listen in to one person's thoughts), or third person dramatic (the narrator is an audience at a play, and can't hear anyone's thoughts).

Third person dramatic is the fastest moving POV, and is really good for action scenes.

There's nothing that says you can't mix 'n match between scenes or between chapters.

I personally dislike the third person omniscent -- since it's easy to do badly. If you are using third omniscient, make sure that the smallest unit in any given person's head is the paragraph. Treat thoughts like dialog that way. And put up markers so the reader will know whose head you're in. Confusing the reader is a bad plan.

Stephen King's Christine goes from first to third then back to first. How successful that is, I don't know, but it's there.

Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov bounces all over the POV map. That may be an artifact of a particular translation, or maybe not.

<a href="http://www.literature.org/authors/dickens-charles/christmas-carol/chapter-01.html" target="_new">A Christmas Carol</a> (and it's seasonal, too!) is in third person omniscient, except when it's in third person limited (it's in Scrooge's POV during the visits of the ghosts).

Here we go from the narrator, into Scrooge's mind, then into Cratchett's mind, then back to the narrator:


He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrooge's, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.

``Christmas a humbug, uncle!'' said Scrooge's nephew. ``You don't mean that, I am sure.''

``I do,'' said Scrooge. ``Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? what reason have you to be merry? You're poor enough.''

``Come, then,'' returned the nephew gaily. ``What right have you to be dismal? what reason have you to be morose? You're rich enough.''

Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, ``Bah!'' again; and followed it up with ``Humbug.''

``Don't be cross, uncle,'' said the nephew.

``What else can I be,'' returned the uncle, ``when I live in such a world of fools as this Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas. What's Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,'' said Scrooge indignantly, ``every idiot who goes about with ``Merry Christmas'' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!''

``Uncle!'' pleaded the nephew.

``Nephew!'' returned the uncle, sternly, ``keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.''

``Keep it!'' repeated Scrooge's nephew. ``But you don't keep it.''

``Let me leave it alone, then,'' said Scrooge. ``Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!''

``There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,'' returned the nephew: ``Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round -- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that -- as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!''

The clerk in the tank involuntarily applauded. Becoming immediately sensible of the impropriety, he poked the fire, and extinguished the last frail spark for ever.

``Let me hear another sound from you,'' said Scrooge, `` and you'll keep your Christmas by losing your situation. You're quite a powerful speaker, sir,'' he added, turning to his nephew. ``I wonder you don't go into Parliament.''

``Don't be angry, uncle. Come! Dine with us to-morrow.''

Scrooge said that he would see him -- yes, indeed he did. He went the whole length of the expression, and said that he would see him in that extremity first.


Having beaten POV into the ground (short, take-home lesson: chose the one that's best for your story) shall we turn to Slick Quick Tricks for Outlining?

Oh, and show of hands: how many of y'all did your two hours of writing today? How many of you have retyped the first chapter from your favorite novel?

I may be away for a few days, so I'll leave you with an aphorism:

Never explain anything to your readers before they care about it.

If your work is going to be published, the editor needs to work on it without distraction, and needs to be able to estimate the finished length of the piece as it'll be printed.

That's why courier ten is the preferred typeface (along with all the double-spaced lines and the one-inch margins).

Editors live by their eyes -- that's why sans-serif fonts are right out.

A <a href="http://scrivenerserror.blogspot.com/2003_12_01_scrivenerserror_archive.html#107099214006983999" target="_new">fine article</a> (and not merely because he quotes me).

Most of the examples usually given of sucessful self-publishing date from before WWII (when the whole face of publishing was very different), in the nineteenth century, or before.

Even then, most of the self-publishing apologists don't mention that Mark Twain went bankrupt self publishing, that Dickens lost money on A Christmas Carol, and that for every famous success there are thousands of others who sank without a trace.

Self-publishing these days works for: a) when the book will be sold face-to-face anyway (e.g. poetry anthologies sold by the poet at readings), or b) specialized non-fiction (town or regional histories; how-to books).

Yes, lightning may strike. No, it probably won't. Remember that in addition to writing a brilliant book, you need to be art director, designer, printer, salesforce, and warehouse. Those last things are non-trivial; professionals make money doing them all, and you'll be going head-to-head against professionals. Do you have the time and money? Will you break even? How big a gambler are you?

There' nothing wrong with self-publishing. I've done it myself. Sunset Creator, in other threads here, is doing it right now, and all I can do is cheer.

There is something wrong with vanity publishing. It's like self-publishing, only with an anchor tied to your leg.

More on other items as we go along. Lots of things have been brought up; I'll try to get to them all.

No, taxinomically, Dracula isn't a novel. It's a romance. A novel is a book-length work of realistic prose fiction. Dracula flunks the Realistic test.

(Other than that -- it was an epistolary romance. That is, it was presented as a set of letters, diary entries, and so on. It was also high-tech and up-to-the minute, set it its own present day -- parts of it were transcripts of that cutting edge technology, the dictaphone.)

Courier 10 and Courier 12 are equally acceptable.

(I thought I was going to be away -- turned out I wasn't.)

"a classmate who (i thought) wrote in a pedestrian way about boring topics. he really worked hard on his writing. kept at it. scott turow. the difference between inspiration and perspiration."

Way, way, way upstream I said something to the effect of "revise, revise, revise."

And rewrite.

Once you have the first draft, or a strong outline, anyway, you have the equivalent of a potter's ball of wet clay. Sure, there's a vase in there somewhere, but all you have at first is the clay.

I'll get practical about how to outline, and how to revise (at least a scheme that works for me), but first, before anything else, you have to have the raw material.

A story in your head doesn't count. What counts is what's on paper. Yeah, it's going to be dreadful. That's okay, I give you permission to be dreadful. The revision process will take care of the dread.

I'll write more on outlining and the shape of a plot in a bit (have to shovel the $#&^@ driveway first).

The quick answer on outline/plot generation/novel-writing software is that every kind I've tried has gotten between me and the story. The only "writing software" I use is a wordprocessor.

Two things that do prove useful (which I've used, at least) are a deck of file cards (sixty-nine cents for a hundred at the grocery store) and flowcharts (written on the back of a Chinese restaurant placemat is a good place to do 'em: about the right size, and hot-and-sour soup helps clarify the mind).

More anon.

Right, then.

The first thing about plotting is this: the reader's interest is always either rising or falling. It never stays at a constant level.

You want the reader's interest to rise over the general length of your book, peaking at the climax. Therefore, your book should start at a fairly low level -- just sufficient for reader to pick it up, and turn the page.

Each individual chapter will rise in interest, to its end. (You may also consider the cliffhanger in this context -- it at once provides closure for the current chapter, and provides a reason for the reader to start the next chapter (to find out what happened next), even though the next chapter starts at a lower level of interest.)

The next chapter will start at a slightly lower level of interest than the preceeding chapter's close, but rise to a higher level at its end than the end of the previous chapter.

You do not want to have your biggest, bestest, most special scene as your opening. The remainder of the book will be an anticlimax. Your strongest scene goes at the end of the book. Your second strongest goes at the half-way point. Your third strongest goes at the 3/4 point.

The source of information in the book and the source of interest should be the same things.

Your readers can only think of one thing at a time (the poor dears). It is vital that you don't confuse them.

Your first scene, your first page, your first paragraph: a) seizes attention, and b) starts with a low level of interest. This seems contradictory, but... remember what you are doing to your readers. You are creating an auto-hypnotic suggestible state in them, in which the page opens up and pictures and sounds show in their heads. This state is fragile, and must be rebuilt constantly.

On confusing the reader: If you have confused the reader, he will stop reading, or will not understand the next thing that happens in your book. Therefore... you must be clear enough so that the slowest reader in your proposed audience (recall that you cast your audience as one of the characters in your book) will be able to follow it, while at the same time having enough going on that the quicker readers won't become bored.


Basic structure of your book:

1. Catch the reader's attention. Do this on page one. There are cheap ways of doing this: Sex and violence come at once to mind. The danger of using cheap tricks is a) you may come to rely on cheap tricks, and thus become a cheap author, and b) the reader may say "That's a cheap trick," and put your book back on the shelf." The game is to a) get the reader to pick up this book from the shelf and take it to the cash register, and b) have the same reader go to the bookstore specifically to buy your next book. Your page one gives you goal (a), the rest of the book gives you goal (b).

2. The introduction. The remainder of chapter one, tells the reader what sort of book he's in ... a cosy mystery, a sex-and-shopping romance, a gothic thriller, a literary exploration of angst ... whatever. This is where you introduce yourself to the readers, and get them to become the audience you want them to be. Are you the detached observer? The helpful lecturer? The comedian? Are they the crowd at a NASCAR track or the crowd at the Pimlico? Interest begins here. Ideally interest starts on page one, near the top, but it's permissible for interest to show up on page one near the bottom. This is chapter one's purpose.

3. You get your theme rolling. The theme will run throughout the book, but you state it here, at the beginning. Recall that I've said that every word must advance the plot, reveal character, or support the theme? Now is the time to state the theme. The Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Splendid Virtues are great themes, and just about simple enough. Theme is both simple, and necessary. If the plot is the engine pulling the train, theme is the track that the plot runs on. You can't get theme going too soon. You can also be fairly bald in stating your theme.

4. The plot starts. Life continues; it's been going on for a while in all your characters, and will presumably continue (except for the ones who die in the course of your book) for some time afterward. But plot, that great literary convention, starts now. Imagine a firedoor in a theatre. Your main character steps through that firedoor, the wind blows it closed behind him. Now he has to do new and different things. Status quo is no longer available.

A word on "plot" right now. Plot is merely a set of consequentially related events. Of which the word "consequential" is the important one. "The king died, then the queen died" is not a plot. "The king died, then the queen died of a broken heart" is a plot.

5. The setup. We're in the early chapters now, and we're giving the readers the preliminary sets of tools and information. The setup may be quite long ... Moby-Dick is around 400 pages of setup, followed by 50 pages of action.

6. Tell your readers what to expect. Readers hate surprises. Bring in the detective, tell the readers that he will solve the crime. Whatever. Just make sure it's clear what's going to happen by the end of the book, and have this out there by the middle of the book at the latest.

7. Now comes the action, the running of your plot. In most books this is the longest, most complicated part of the story.

8. The climax. This is what you've been aiming for; it rewards the readers for staying with you the whole time. You can get quite complex here, with multiple can-you-top-this? climaxes, reverses, twists, and anything that your devious little heart can devise.

9. The bowknot. Tie off all the loose ends. This is the very last chapter, it tells the readers "the story's over, folks!" so they won't turn the last page and wonder why there's no printing on it. This is brief.

That should give you the overall shape of your book, seen from a distance. I see them as actual physical shapes and spaces. How you see them may differ, but the whole of it will be there... though you may not know all the details until the second or third drafts.

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James D. Macdonald
From "Learn Writing With Uncle Jim"
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Now ... on using filecards.

Take a stack of filecards. Number them (I use upper left-hand corner) 1, 2, 3, ... and so on. These are chapters. They're major divisions. They're scenes. They're whatever you want them to be. You may have only two at first, 1 and 2, the opening scene and the climatic scene, only a sentence on each. It's okay, doesn't matter.

You can ignore dialog at this point. You can ignore setting. Now, between these cards, put other cards, numbered 1.1, 1.2, ... 3.1, 3.2, 3.3 ... 57.1... 62.19. You put intervening scenes on these. Things that must happen after one event but before another.

Between 3.2 and 3.3, if you think of something that has to go there, put 3.2.1, 3.2.2 ... and so on. To any level you want.

You are answering questions here: What happens next, and what does the reader need to know so he won't be confused?

Never tell the reader anything before he cares!

Too much outlining will take the fun out of the writing. After you're happy with the overall shape of your plot, that you've got the characters entering, doing things, and leaving, now's the time to type up a strong outline.

A strong outline will be dozens (if not scores) of pages long, and will resemble you telling a friend about a book that you read. You'll include the major scenes, and sparkling bits of description, you'll start to fill in dialog.

From this, write your novel.

After the writing of the novel, comes the revision. This is the smoothing, the sanding, the staining, the waxing, and the polishing of this thing you've sculpted.

Here you do the Agricultural Work. If you have something in your climax, you need to make sure it was properly planted in the beginning. If you have something in the begining that didn't sprout by the end, you need to root it out.

If, at any point you become stuck on what to do next, remember this motto: "Listen! I'm going to tell you something cool!"

I believe I've heard the bit about "And now, I'm going to tell you something really cool" attributed to Steven Brust, who attributed it to Gene Wolfe.

That's Brust I'm quoting.

(I have a little Emma Frost the White Queen action figure on my desk, with a little comic balloon above her head that says "Write your book... NOW!")

More on "interest level" later. I may be using a personal shorthand here -- "interest" and "attention" are different things. I'll expand on this.

Also, I don't have a Grand Theory of Everything worked out. My writing this series of posts is helping me clarify how I think about these things.

Interest takes many forms.

Tension. Plot development. Conversation. Logic problems.

People's minds wander. You have to substitute in various forms of interest to keep that interest growing.

Recall that this series of posts is on writing, not on analysing or criticizing someone else's book.

Yes, the critics will try to figure out your theme. They may be right, they may be wrong. However, you, the author, will be right whenever you state what the theme of your book is because you are the author. When you are revising, you will know what to strengthen, what to cut, and what to leave alone based on how relevant it is to the theme.

Take, for example, our own book (I can speak authoratively on this, being the author) The Price of the Stars.

The theme, stated explicitly in the <a href="http://www.sff.net/people/doylemacdonald/POTSEXPT.HTM" target="_new">prologue</a>, is "Family Matters," or "Blood is thicker than water," with a strong undercurrent of "Planned Revenge."

(If I were writing the book today, I'd have folded the Prologue into Chapter One, since I've learned that many (most?) readers skip prologues.)

A term y'all may not know is quadrigia. That's a four-horse chariot, with the horses all side by side. If any of the horses is stronger, or faster, or slower, than the others, the chariot won't run straight. It takes a skillful charioteer to drive one.

"Quadrigia" was also a medieval term for a theory of sermon construction. The four horses of this quadrigia were the literal, allegorical, moral and spiritual (or mystical) senses. The sermon had to function on all four of those levels, simultaneously, and equally. If any one were faster, slower, stronger, or weaker, the sermon would run off-course.

I'm a believer in hidden structures. You can do worse than to have your novel function on those four levels, simultaneously. Remember, to stand out from the slush, your novel has to have more, and be better, than 98% of the other manuscripts that are piled on the editor's desk. Adding levels of meaning, layers of discourse, a structure, will make your novel stand out.

Writing is a skill. It is an art. Some people can do it unconsiously, but I can't. I'm the calculating, analytical kind of author. So far it's stood me in good stead.

(The book we're quoting from here was continuosly in print for a decade.)

Here's the first page:


On the naming of names, and finding my own meaning.

Nothing happens by accident in a book. The author chooses each word, each image.

Let me explain what the words mean in the brief excerpt above:

First, night. This is the dark night of the soul, the time when the powers of evil are exaulted.

Now... Waycross. On the allegorical level, this book is a refutation of the Manichean heresy. Yes, this is a Christian book. Wanna make something out of it? The name is all the clue you need: Waycross is the Way of the Cross. That's my spiritual level.

Innish-Kyl is taken from an Irish song, the Inniskillen Dragoons:

A handsome young maiden of fame and renown,
A gentleman's daughter of Monihan town,
As she rode by the barracks, this beautiful maid,
She stood in her coach to see dragoons on parade.

Fare thee well, Inniskillen, fare thee well for a while
All thy bright borders of Erin's green isle
When the wars they are over we'll return in full bloom
And you'll all welcome home the Inniskillen Dragoons.

Do I expect the readers to know this? Of course not. It's sufficient that I know it. It'll be a structure for me. (We'll return to this location "when the wars are over," and the main character is a "maiden of fame and renown.")

Beka is Rebecca, a Biblical character. Rosselin is Rosslyn Chapel. Metadi is a contraction of Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin.

These provide meaning for me. If there is meaning for the author, the reader will know that meaning exists.

Claw Hard means to struggle.

Cashel and Raffa sound like cash and raffish, temptation and frivolity that have been left behind.

Thus I define my book, and so start in. The rest of the scene is from the standard furniture of science fiction, subgenre space opera.

"i see your main distinction ... plausibility ... but isn't it just that, if one is willing to suspend disbelief for a second, that makes Drac such a great book?"

Not plausibility, but realism. All fiction needs to be plausible, lest the read say "Oh, come on!" and throw the book against the wall. (That's another reason why you can't use real life straight in fiction. Real life doesn't have to make sense ... fiction does.)

"hey, what's your opinion on character profiles? once again, i can't write without them. what info do you put in yours? and do you use one for minor characters as well as major ones?"

Age, description, eye color, and any details that I learn about the character in the course of writing the book.

Yes, I do them for minor characters as well. This is because the minor character doesn't know he's minor. To the minor character, the story is about him, and he's the good guy.

(Y'all know what a hero is, right? It's someone who's made the "hero's journey." That is, someone who has gone to the realm of the dead and returned. See Odysseus for example. While the term has expanded to mean protagonist, consider making it literally true that your hero has gone on that journey. (You can do this in symbolic terms.) This will resonate with your readers who are, after all, the products of thousands of years of western culture, whether they know it or not.)

When I was in high school, there were times when we had to do essays and we had to turn in an outline. I'd always write the essay first, then the outline.

This can work, too, for your full-length fiction, as a tool for finding plot-arcs that don't go anywhere, loose ends, not-fully-justified actions, and other plot-related bobbles.

"every time I go for the novel, which is what I've always wanted most, I get stuck after a few pages."

I give you permission to write scenes out of order. Later on, you can move 'em around with your wordprocessor. (In the old days, authors would literally cut-and-paste whole chunks of prose. It got messy.)

I also give you permission to write badly. So long as your fingers are moving on the keys, you can write utter tripe. It's okay. You're going to revise it anyway, right?

What I don't give you permission to do is not write. When the Muse comes to your house, she expects to find you sitting in your chair in front of your typewriter. If you aren't there, she'll just go on to the next author on her list, rather than go looking for you.

Make time, every day, and during that time be at your keyboard. There is no substitute for the BIC (Butt In Chair) method.

I work with the current version in hardcopy, and the hardcopy version is the official one.

My wordprocessor allows me to sort files by date, so I know which is the most recent one I've fooled with.


Another note on fonts -- for reading copies, sometimes I'll print out the novel in some font and size that I'm not used to -- Times New Roman double column justified singlespace, for example, to get a look at the text with a fresh eye.

Are prologues death to an unpublished writer? No. Bad writing is death to an unpublished writer.

You merely have to remember that many of your readers are going to skip the prologue and go straight to chapter one.

If your prologue, or prelude, is vital to the story, call it Chapter One, and have Chapter Two start fifty years later.

Regardless of your decision, the first page of your prologue, prelude, or first chapter has to reward the reader enough to lead him/her to turn the page with rising interest. Even if they're just following along out of idle curiosity, at least they're following.


A note on editors. Editors are not the enemy. What they are is readers' advocates. Think of them as a class of super-readers. Evading the editors is tantamount to evading your readers; a foolish course to take.

The great mass of readers out there in bookstores and libraries are relying on editors to do two things: a) guarantee that someone other than the author's mom liked the book, and b) the book was fully formed and polished before it arrived on the shelves.

Just as no one reader will like every kind of book, editors are not a monolithic block. You have to find the fit between your work and the right editor. This can be frustrating; the frustration level can come down a bit by choosing your markets carefully. (I've seen astounding things in the slush heaps at major publishers, things that made you wonder, "Hmmm.... is this guy going through Writers' Market alphabetically and it was just our turn?" because he should know that a house that publishes adult novels isn't going to be looking for a children's spelling book.) Send your stories to places likely to buy them! (Yes, it does pay you to read books that come out from a publisher you're considering.)

(Another note: a cover letter won't sell your novel, but it can certainly sink your novel. A cover letter that contains the words, "I think you'll find my book far better than the kind of trash you usually print" isn't going to make you any friends.)

(A personal note here: When I read slush, I take the cover letter and put it on the bottom of the stack of paper, unread. I don't want to go in prejudiced in any way. If I'm still reading at the point where I hit the cover letter, then I read it, and pass the story up the line.)

(Later, I'll give you an example of A Perfect Cover Letter.)


Take home lesson: Editors are readers. They are your audience. Anything I say about readers, you can substitute the word "editor." Anything I say about editors, you can substitute the word "reader."

If the characters involved in the prologue aren't dealt with until far later in the series, maybe this is the first chapter from a different book. Try this: Drop the prologue, and see if any of your beta readers say "Hmmm... seems like there's something missing."

On the series: write each book as if it were the only book you'll ever write, as if the others don't exist and never will. Sure, they can all be part of a bigger universe, but give each book a beginning, a middle, and an end that's all its own, and is fully satisfying.

These are things I've learned by experience, by getting it wrong and learning better.

I have the early part of the tiger book in very rough draft. It has some literary and perhaps commercial merit. I need an honest beta-reader.

No, qatz, at this point you don't need a beta reader. At this point you need a finished draft.

Don't wear out your beta readers. They are gold. Give them the best, most polished version you can.

I mentioned, briefly, using a flowchart. I didn't go into it in great detail, but I think it might be a direction you might explore. Here's an <a href="http://www.cpuinc.net/~rcjhicks/" target="_new">example</a> of a flowchart on a written source. See also <a href="http://www.technologyevaluation.com/request/main_edge.asp" target="_new">http://www.technologyevaluation.com/request/main_edge.asp</a> for a freebie.

I promised you The Perfect Cover Letter:

Salvatore Luchese
Cell Block B
2nd Tier, #34
Ft. Leavenworth Federal Prison
Ft. Leavenworth, KS 66027

(913) 123-4567


Enclosed please find the first three chapters and an outline for my 120,000 word mystery novel, Mafia Wedding.

My previous works include "Pushing Up Daisys" (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, June 2001, nominated for an Edgar, 2002), and "Sleeps with the Fishes," (Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September, 2002, reprinted in Year's Best Mystery Stories, 2002, Graham, ed., March 2003).

I am currently serving seven-to-ten for racketeering in Ft. Leavenworth Federal Prison.

This is a disposable manuscript.


Salvatore "Sally the Writer" Luchese

encl: SASE



First NAME OF EDITOR SPELLED RIGHT. (If you can't do this, perhaps you need a new hobby.)

Second: Very briefly: length, genre, and title.

Third: Any pertinent credits. Only the most recent and most prestigious. A good sale ten years ago means that you haven't sold anything since. A bunch of 1/4 cent-a-word recently means that you aren't selling. Don't even bother mentioning self-published or e-publications unless you sold enough on your own to hit the Times Bestseller List. If all you have is one or two lower-tier mags, and they're recent, then you might list them. If you've got eight or ten lower-tier mags and they stretch back over three or four years ... better to leave the impression that you're unpublished rather than brand the Scarlet L of Loser on your forehead.

Fourth: Any special qualifications you may have for writing this book.

Fifth: Any other notes (disposable manuscript).

Your name.


The primary purpose of a cover letter is to give the editor something with your name, address, and phone number on it that will fit in a file cabinet. The secondary purpose is to give the editor somewhere to put her coffee cup without putting a brown ring on your manuscript.

Be brief, be professional, and SPELL THE EDITOR'S NAME RIGHT.

Make sure all the major plot threads you have in this book get tied up in this book (or at least come to a satisfying stopping point).

Other than that, if there's too much plot in your book your editor will tell you.

Too much plot and too many neat things happening are not a problem.

"I have a question. How much is too much?"

It's too much when you've allowed the outline to suck up the joy of writing the novel.

It's too much when you substitute writing the outline for writing the novel.

Outlining does not count against your two hours a day. You must do two hours of writing in addition to any time you spend outlining.

For the query letter (I'm talking about fiction here -- non-fiction is a whole nother area) substitute the words "May I send you" for "Enclosed please find."

If you have no prior publishing credits just omit the paragraph beginning "My previous published works include...." Silence is golden.

Remember that the work stands on its own. The reader in the bookstore won't see your brilliant letter. All that counts is the book.

Do not obsess over cover letters.

Hey, qatz -- best of the season to you, too.

Writing is a performing art. We're part of the entertainment industry. As such -- the audience doesn't give us an "A" for effort. They're out there ready to throw rotten tomatoes, no matter if our heart is in the right place.

This is a demanding art; it's difficult. I won't fib to you. If writing were easy, everyone would be doing it.


Now, y'all know that as artists we're parasites, right? If there weren't a real world where would we be? We live in the real world without contributing to it. And what we do, when times are hard, folks can do without better than they can do without food and fuel.

Now, about parasitism: y'all know what a "parasite" is, right? It's a Greek word, meaning "beside the food." Originally parasites were poets who would crash rich guys' parties, and eat all they could, and provide entertainment with their poetry and songs and witty conversation. Until they were thrown out.

So now we all know where we stand in the Great World, right?

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, to all.

Another thought on parasitism in art: We feed off reality. Without reality there could be no art. Therefore it behooves us to be experts on reality.

Until we've become masters of this world we won't be able to make worlds of our own.

More on Realism later.

I have ripped out anything that could remotely resemble the run of the mill stock fantasy world.

I recommend you pick up a copy of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Dianne Wynne Jones. Travel any distance, pay any price, to get a copy. It's got all the cliches, arranged in alphabetical order. It's also hilarious, especially if you've read entirely too many fantasy novels.

Some day when I make my living writing, I will definitely consider working within guidelines that incorporate some of your rules Jim.

Many years ago, when I was first becoming a professional writer, I had a day job. And people would say to me (word was out that I was writing), "I've always wanted to write a book, but I never had the time." And I'd think "You son of a [bleep!]. I set my alarm clock two hours early to make time to write."

For your plot problems: Put interesting people in interesting places, and things will happen. That's the Positional Chess theory of writing. You may not be the sort of writer for whom an outline is useful/necessary. The first goal is to get words on paper. The second goal is to revise the heck out of 'em.

Your readers have six senses. So should your characters!

"I'm not so sure when I do violence how credible it is ..."

First: become a keen observer of the world.

Second: Ask yourself if the violence advances the plot, reveals character, or supports theme. If it does none of those things then it doesn't belong in your book. If it does any of those things, the barest sketch will allow your readers to fill in the parts that they find necessary for their own reading experience, drawn from their own needs and memories.

You are providing folks with a blueprint for a story that they are building for themselves.

Today I found myself reading a bit of slush. Here's some advice I want to pass along:

* Spelling counts.
* Agreement of number is important.
* Keep the tense consistent.
* You're allowed to have more than one sentence per paragraph. In fact, you're encouraged to do so.
* Dialog is one of your basic tools. Learn how to use quote marks.
* Don't make your readers guess about the antecedents of your pronouns.
* You've heard of Point of View? Pick one. Then use it.
* Not all nouns need adjectives; not all verbs need adverbs.
* Assigning emotions to inanimate objects is called the Pathetic Fallacy. First, because it's a fallacy. Second, because it's pathetic.


"Does anyone really submit stories like those?"

As I keep telling people, "If you can write two consecutive pages of grammatical English with all the words spelled right, you're already in the top ten percent of the slush pile."

Short answer: Yes, they do.

Even shorter answer: Arrrrgh!

Notice: Publishing isn't a lottery. Yes, major publishers get thousands of manuscripts. The way they select their manuscripts for publication isn't by going into the Slush Room and pulling out three at random then sending the rest back. This is a game of skill, not a game of luck. If you send in a good (or at least competent) manuscript, odds are good that you'll get published. If you send in bad manuscripts, you won't get published no matter how many times you submit.

Now ... if in addition to having the bare bones mechanics of English prose down pat you can tell a story ... you're in the top two percent of the slush heap where the sales come from.

Trust me on this: I promise you that publishers do not have rejection slips that say "Sorry! Too well-written and original for us!" no matter how many times you hear unpublished writers say that their manuscripts were rejected for having exactly those two qualities.

The mass of unpublishable slush is:

a) Badly written,
b) Trite,
c) Badly written and trite.


Addendum: For Shawn. Sure, use the list. If even one writer Takes the F'ing Hint it'll be worth it.

Next bizarre bit of writing advice:

Memorize this speech. Be able to recite it any time, anywhere, no matter what you're doing. (There will be a quiz.) Practice frequently, and aloud.

I promise you that your writing will improve if you have this bit by heart:


For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?


That's from Richard II, Act 3, scene ii, by William Shakespeare

" For what it's worth, I've never found "advance planning" necessary for scenes that include sex or violence."


How do you decide where they'll go in your story, and what they'll accomplish in your plot?

"But if I lose my spark and interest, so does the writing."

Oh, absolutely. The readers can always tell when the writer is bored, too.

I never said (or at least, I hope I didn't) that this is the only way to write. All I can promise is that those who are following along will learn how I write, which may or may not be useful to them.

I have lots of little idiosyncracies; for example, I dislike the word cluster "and then." "And" means two events happened at the same time, "then" means they happened sequentially. "And then" means ... what? I'll change that group to "and" or "then."

As those who've been reading along know, I'm a very heavy outliner. My outlines are perhaps 3/4 the length of the finished novel. (They're very rough, they tell rather than show, they sketch out people, places, and dialog, they have things like "An exciting battle scene goes here" or "Time to tie up the Second Girlfriend Plot-thread" -- they're darn-near unreadable by anyone but me and my coauthor.) Bits of business are only suggested, and frequently change many times before the first draft. But that's just me.

Every writer has his or her own way of writing, and the more honestly and accurately he or she presents it the weirder it sounds.

Then is an adverb. In "Joe walked to the door, then turned," then modifies turned.

"She typed 'Chapter One,' then stared out the window," is perfectly grammatical; then modifies stared.

"She brushed her teeth, later took a shower," is ungrammatical since it leaves out the word "she." "She brushed her teeth, later she took a shower," while hardly graceful, is grammatically correct.

Right. Better would be "She brushed her teeth; later she took a shower."

A comma splice is infinitely preferable to "and then."

Not to be unpleasant about it, Reph, but you're wrong.

If I draw a single line through the word "and" every time I see "and then," the sentences work better. Every time.

Unless the actions are happening simultaneously -- then I draw the line through "then." That too improves the sentence.

The word cluster "and then" is meaningless. It's an oxymoron. There's no excuse for using it.

Yes, you'll find "and then" in some of our published works. These were added by copyeditors who were, universally, wrong.

"...of a particular friend when Jim made his dictum about the Pathetic Fallacy... "

If you'd read the piece of slush I'd read just before I typed that, you'd have said the same thing.

In your friend's case, assigning emotions to inanimate objects is part of her character and upbringing. Further, it's happening in dialog, not in narration.

You'll notice that I'm not saying that outlines are everything, Note On. I've also mentioned how a book is like a chess game. Later on I'm going to tell folks how a short story is like a lime pie. And how a novel is like a house. How it's like the bottom of a stream. How it's like a box. How it's like a vase.

Don't get hung up on outlines. I use 'em, sometimes, for the things that outlines are good for. Other times I use positional play. When I think about a novel in progress, I see it as a shape, with volume, angles, corners and edges.

I also have a hole open up in the screen, with pictures behind it that I describe. I guess I'm in an alpha state then.

Sometimes I turn off the monitor and type, because the shapes of the words are a distraction from the writing.

All I can do to teach how to write is use analogies. Writing is the thing itself. That's why I've been stressing the BIC method.

As writers we are are defined by the act of writing. Thinking about writing, planning to write, researching, outlining, revising ... those things are not writing. Only writing is writing.

I recognize that "and then" may be an idiomatic expression, and thus acceptable in dialog.

(Unlike "over and out" in radio comms, which is never acceptable anywhere.)

Reph, early on, back at the beginning of this thread, I quoted McIntyre's Law: "Under the right circumstances, anything I tell you may be wrong." I also said that my mutant talent was making my opinions sound like facts.

If your writer's ear tells you to use "and then," you're perfectly free to do so.

Yeah, BIC is Butt In Chair.

It is not oxymoronic; it is redundant, at least as normally used.

qatz, I'm sorry, but I cannot bring myself to agree.

That particular word group is oxymoronic because it says that two events happened simultaneously, and that they happened in sequence.

This is trivial. I don't want to get sidetracked on it. I offered it as an example of one of my idiosyncracies, and you know what? It is one of my idiosyncracies. Call it religious on my part, if you like, to get an idea of how I feel on this question.

Another of my idiosyncracies is that I believe that grey and gray are two different colors, and that the words are pronounced differently. I once used the sentence "The clouds went from gray to grey as the sun rose behind them," and knew exactly what I meant.

I hope this doesn't get us into a huge debate about spelling and whatnot.

For another example of my mountain-sized ego: I've been known to write corrections into dictionaries.

As to grammar: Correct grammar is what native speakers of a language agree is correct grammar.

Further on grammar: A writer can indicate a great deal about a character by using particular grammatical habits in that character's dialog.

Further on that dialog: This requires that we be observant of the world around us, of the people in it, and the ways in which they talk.

Further further on dialog: Book dialog is to the spoken dialog of humans in their natural habitat as a stage whisper is to an actual whisper. Dialog as it is written in a novel is a literary convention.

Experiment: Tape-record an actual conversation. Transcribe it. Notice how much hesitation there is, how many sentence fragments you find, how wasteful and redundant (or elided and obscure) it is, and what infelicitious phrasing the natural stuff has. As novelists, our job is to write book-dialog that gives the impression of natural dialog.


01Jan04--Here's to a happy, healthy, and productive new year.
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January 2004

James D. Macdonald
Learn Writing With Uncle Jim
January 2004 posts

"And?" is correct. "And then?" isn't.

Here's the recipe for the best lime pie in the world:

Pie Shell:

Whites of 3 large fresh eggs, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sugar

Heat oven to 300 F. Lightly grease a 9" pie plate.

Beat egg whites in a medium bowl on medium speed until frothy.

Add cream of tartar and salt and beat on high speed until soft peaks form when beaters are lifted.

Beat in 1/4 cup of the sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, until blended.

With mixer on low speed, sprinkle on remaining sugar and beat until blended.

Spread meringue over bottom and sides of prepared dish.

Bake until lightly browned, about 45 minutes.

Cool in dish on wire rack.

Pie filling:

6 egg yolks, slightly beaten
1/3 cup lime juice
2 and 1/2 Tablespoons grated lime rind
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons cold water
6 egg whites
1/8 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup granulated sugar

Beat egg yolks until thick and lemon-colored.

Add lime juice, rind, sugar, and salt, then beat mixture until throughly blended.

Cook this mixture in a double-boiler until very thick, stirring constantly.

Now add the cold water to the egg whites and beat until stiff but not dry.

Combine baking powder and remaining 1/4 cup sugar and add to beaten egg white mixture. Beat until stiff.

Fold hot lime mixture into half the egg white meringue; fill pre-baked pieshell.

Cover with remaining meringue.

Sprinkle lightly with sugar and bake 15 minutes in a moderately slow oven (325 F) or until meringue is delicately brown.

Serve cold.


This, O dearly beloved, is a short story.


You craft it as carefully as you can, using all your experience and skill. You use the finest ingredients, all in just proportion. At the end it looks perfect to your eye. You cool it for a day; you bring it forth to serve to your guests. But you don't know, not until you take the first slice, whether the inside jelled or if you have some runny lime-flavored egg soup.

At that point you can't go back and remake the pie. Either it works or it doesn't.

Your guests may exclaim over how good it tastes, but they won't look forward to pie next time they come to your house.

True, you can guarantee your results a bit by using potato starch or gelatin. Neither of those produces the texture and mouth-feel that you want. Practice will help, as you learn by experience what thick, very thick, soft peaks, and "but not dry" mean. Yet you'll never be sure, until you take that first slice in front of your guests, that it really worked.

In the same way, a short story either works or it doesn't. Once prepared, using all your skill, you can't go back and revise it into something that isn't lime-flavored runny glop.

Nothing at all will help if your guests don't like lime pie to start with. Some may even be allergic to eggs, or have ethical or moral issues with egg use.


A novel is different. A novel is a wooden crate. If the crate doesn't work, you can take the boards, rearrange them, and try again. You can fill the old nail holes with Plastic Wood. You can go get more wood at the lumber yard to replace a board that isn't working out, or to fill an opening that you didn't intend. Once it's all banged into shape, then you can sand it, stain it, varnish it, put on brass handles and corners, and hang a pretty padlock from the hasp.

People who take your crate can put any number of things into it, and if some of them don't use the crate for storage, they might use it as a coffee table or a place to put a nice lamp.

Novels you can revise. First make the shape, then smooth and refine, then show to your friends.

More on this anon.

All that you can do with a failed short story is write a new short story. The new story will be a completely new one, for all that it may resemble the other (both are made of limes and eggs and sugar).

With a failed crate, you can still take it apart and reassemble it into a new crate, and most of the lumber will be the same physical lumber (though the new crate may not resemble the old crate at all, except in its crateness).


If Our Lord Himself couldn't explain the Kingdom of Heaven except by parables, how am I, a mere man, to explain writing?

(Matthew 13 xxiv-xxxiii, if you're interested.)

A short story is a single joke. A novel is a comedy routine.

There was a lumber camp far up in the hills in Vermont. All winter long the lumberjacks would cut trees, then in the spring drive them down the rivers to the sawmills in the towns below the notches.

One day a stranger came to one particular camp, and was invited in to share the men's evening meal. The air was warm inside, filled with the smells of delicious food and strong coffee. And as the evening progressed, one of the men shouted out "Fifty-seven!" and everyone laughed.

Then another man shouted out, "Twenty-two!" to great laughter and applause, another shouted "One hundred sixty-eight!" and everyone laughed even harder.

The stranger turned to the man seated beside him and asked, "What's going on? Why are the men laughing at those numbers?"

"We've all been up here so long," replied the lumberjack, "that we've all heard each others' jokes. So to save time, we gave them all numbers. Instead of telling the joke, we just say the number."

At that moment, someone shouted out "Two hundred eighty-nine!" and everyone laughed harder than ever. Men were slapping their thighs; tears were streaming down their faces.

"What happened?" asked the stranger.

"Oh," said the lumberjack, "That was a new one."

"Gee," said the stranger, "Can I try?"


The stranger stood up and shouted "Ninety-one!"

Silence. Everyone just looked at him.

The stranger's face turned red, he sat back down, and turned to his companion. "What happened?" he asked. "Why didn't anyone laugh?"

"It's okay," said the lumberjack. "Some people just can't tell jokes."

Any analogy can be pressed too far.

Part of learning how to make this pie is learning what "until very thick" means. If it happens you get it wrong, you try again. The pie you have then isn't the same as the one that didn't work ... because this time you stirred until very thick.

A short story is all of one piece.

A novel is many pieces.

Gracious. Of course <a href="http://www.sff.net/people/doylemacdonald/stories.htm" target="_new">my opinion is my opinion</a>. What else could it be?

No one said to rewrite after an editor rejects a story. The only time you rewrite after you've decided that it's finished and it's time to start sending it around is when an editor opens his checkbook and says "I'll buy this if you make the following changes..." Otherwise once a story's done, it's done.

A story that only needed to have 500-600 words removed from its beginning (and that's closer to two or three pages than one) is one that worked pretty well. Starting a story too early is a common fault. One that lacks a conclusion, that's tougher to fix. Finding the proper conclusion is part of the art here; a perfect conclusion is one that is at once surprising and inevitable. (See notes above on what a "surprise" is.)

Yes, stories that don't work are catastrophes. Either the entire thing works or it doesn't.

"...be ready to cut or change anything, but don't throw out a single word carelessly, and only revise what feels wrong to you," is basically sound advice. Once you've done that ... if the story doesn't work put it in your desk drawer and write a different story.

(Here's some practical advice for the Stir Until Thickened part of the process: Don't use the cut-and-paste function of your wordprocessor at all. Retype the entire thing from hardcopy, making changes as you go. You'll find yourself dropping paragraphs that aren't worth the trouble of retyping, and you'll find yourself adding dialog and description that was missing. Better, smoother ways of phrasing things will occur to you.)

"Is that a genuine recipe? Have you made it yourself?"

Yes, it's a genuine recipe. An old family recipe, in fact. (And I have friends who Really Love it.)

I also feel, making that pie, the way I feel when writing a short story. Whether this means I'm nuts in the head I leave to others.

Perhaps it is a koan.

"Writing a short story is like making a lime pie," the Master said.

The Disciple asked, "How is making a lime pie like writing a short story? It makes no sense!"

"You are quite right," the Master replied. "It makes no sense."

Is there a FAQ or a set of guidelines somewhere?

Yes, real early on: Anything you say must be true, and anything you say must be helpful.

Another quick one: is there any problem with using "now" to refer to a past-tense action? "I now sat at the table", for instance? I've been avoiding this one on the assumption that it was an oxymoron, but substituting "then" doesn't always sound as good.

How does ""I now sat at the table" differ from "I sat at the table"?

If' you're using that as dialog, and trying to differentiate how your different characters speak, perhaps show something about their social class, level of education, or native region, I don't see anything wrong with either phrasing.

Perhaps if we could see that sentence used in a paragraph?

Words are given meaning by the words around them.

"'What a day!' I thought. I was right. It had been quite a day. It all started with the Grand Wizard of Schnorkle...

...and there were a great many things I had done that day, yadda yadda shish bam boom.

NOW I sat at the table. A fly was on the wall. It made me hungry."

Two thoughts came instantly to my mind: Did the readers really need the recap; and was it the fly, the wall, or table that made the narrator hungry?

Try this: Read the passage aloud without "now," then with it. Which sounds better to you?

Within that passage we have (a) an "and then", (b) a "superfluous" now (or is it? What do you think, Jim?), and (c) a shift from the future to the present tense with no warning or explanation.

I think this is thought, or interior dialog. Much is allowed in dialog. Is the narrator revealing character? I suspect he may be.

What's with the leading periods?

I also ask, how fast is the plot moving at this point? Plain, or even clumsy writing will be overlooked if the story is strong and the plot is moving.

(I blush to admit that I haven't read this particular book.)

General principle: You can do anything, anything at all, in dialog.

I quit my day job around fifteen years ago.

Here's what I wish someone had told me before I did so:

First, make sure you have a year's supply of writing contracts to work on.

Second, make sure you have a year's supply of money to live on.

Third, pay down all your credit cards to zero then cancel them.

Fourth, be prepared to white-knuckle your way through life.

Yes, I think I would have listened. Quitting your day job isn't some wild, crazy thing to do on a whim, and it isn't something so compelling that you can't do otherwise. It's a decision to make, with full facts available, and with all sorts of opinions from people who've been down the road ahead of you to look at and evaluate for your own situation.

... if the narrator is *also* a character, a lot of the narration can also be "dialogue."

That's your basic First Person POV. [note--code error on this page to fix later 04jan04 10:34am]

... is called an ellipsis. (If you have more than one, they're ellipses.)

An ellipsis means that one or more words has been left out. You see those a lot in blurb quotes from reviews.

You can use an ellipsis to show a pause in dialog.

"What you must understand," George began," is that Frieda ... has not always been truthful."

(What I'm trying to show there is George pausing to think of how best to say that Frieda lies like a rug.)

You can use them at the end of a sentence to show the words trailing off (in that case you have four dots in a row, one of them being the period).

"The old farm," Joe said. "That would mean Bill and Freida...."

(Joe's voice trails off, as the horrid realization blooms in his mind.)

As long as you're consistent, use of ellipses is part of your style. Do try to keep the stage directions to a minimum, though.

Lots of your fonts have ellipsis characters […]. Don't use 'em in your manuscript. Use three periods in a row to represent ellipses.

What's with the pulsing "EZ" graphic that suddenly showed up on some (but not all) topics on the board?

It indicates a 'hot topic'.

Oh, okay. Never noticed before. What are the criteria, I wonder?


ObOnTopic: I always spell out "okay" rather than use the letters "OK."

Are you allowed in the "learn writing without uncle Jim" thread?

I suppose technically I am, but I doubt it would be polite for me to post there.

Are you really an uncle?

Yes, and so is my brother.

What was impolite was to say "Reph, you're wrong."

I've gone back to edit that to read "Reph, I am unable to bring myself to agree."

It's been the holidays (kids home from school) and a serious deadline (19 January).

I'll continue with Things About Writing pretty soon.

I need to go back through the back posts to see what things I've promised that I haven't talked about.

Hi, Evan --

I'll be away from on-line for two or three days.

Go ahead, post anything you like. But...

Please include a link to this discussion, and to our homepage.

If the guidelines don't specify what the editor or agent wants, write a letter (self-addressed stamped envelope included) asking if they'd like to see a synopsis, three-and-an-outline, or full text of your 100,000 word mystery/adventure story.

The most important thing is that you spell the editor's name right. The next most important thing is that you include that SASE.

If nothing is specified, I would go with a one-sentence length-and-genre description of the book.

That's a good question, sugarmuffin, and one that doesn't have a simple answer.

But that's not going to stop me from trying to give you a simple answer anyway.

At first, the protagonist only needs enough of a goal to get the reader to follow along. This can be a small goal, easily accomplished. It can, for example, be our hero's attempt to get a ham sandwich.

Later on, the larger goals will appear. The character may not know what they are for dozens or hundreds of pages. Some of the goals may not be apparent until the reader has finished the book and is sitting there thinking about it. Some goals along the way may be false goals.

Nevertheless, the character needs to be doing something other than wandering aimlessly at the beginning, lest the readrer only follow along out of idle curiosity.

This isn't to say that you aren't going to be foreshadowing that big, main goal in that first chapter. Foreshadowing is part of what makes the ending you select seem so very right for your book.

The trick to foreshadowing is to put it in during the second draft, when you know how everything is going to turn out.

Thanks for the response.

The funny thing is, so far in the first couple of pages-- which I'm not sure I'll keep -- he is actually stopping at a deli to get a cheese sandwich!

I think I mentioned this in my first post, but I have been trying to do this for a long time; been to a number of writing workshops over the years in the Boston area where I live, even one in Italy. Have a writer's mind, but I realize that I really need structure. Hearing Uncle Jim say what a first chapter should include was like an aha for me, simple as it sounds. I've written lots of bits and pieces of things, have been a paid writer and written a few technical manuals, managed other folks writing technical stuff, but the novel has eluded me.

So thanks for sharing your brainstuff and experience here, Jim, it has given me some inspiration.


And thanks too Eric. Did you really go to that colony?

Hi, AsianJournals.

The funny thing about the Grammar Wars is this:

Grammar isn't really that important.

Once you've gotten up to a workmanlike level, when you're not actively bad, it doesn't matter all that much. If you get one of those PSAT prep books or programs, and you get to the point where you are aceing the grammar section, you're good enough.

You can get farther with excellent grammar and a plot than you can with excellent grammar alone.

Story will get you through times with no style better than style will get you through times with no story.

Your publisher will hire people with excellent grammar to fix yours, provided you've written a compelling story. Your publisher hired you to provide that story.

The Infamous Lime Pie Recipe was back on page 19 of this thread. I promised "More on this anon," but never got to the "anon" part.

Here's more:

The pie tastes just the same, but it looks a lot better, if you make swirls and peaks on the top layer of meringue.


Viewed objectively, all you really have is a very fancy plate of scrambled eggs.

I trust I don't need to explain those two metaphors as they relate to writing your stories?


Show of hands: How many have done their two hours today? How many have finished a book and want to revise it?

That flesh is heir to.

Shall we talk, briefly, about some of the horrible things that go wrong in a writer's life? Sure, why not. Many people won't talk about them, but let's be honest: this isn't an easy job.

First off, you can take this as true. It's easier to sell a first book than a third.

With a first book, anything can happen. It could take off and be a wild best seller. It could become a quiet back-list perennial. It could find its niche. It could develop a fan base. Anything.

Another plus for the first-time novelist: the editor doesn't have to offer a big advance. A couple thousand bucks, the book's his.

The book goes out. It sells some number of copies. This is great. Maybe it earns out, maybe it doesn't. That doesn't matter much; publishers can make profits even on books that don't earn out.

Then you turn in your second book. It too hits the stands. Now here's the problem. Your second book must do better than your first book. A rising career is good. A falling career ... isn't.

Lots of readers will give a new author a chance. Fewer readers will give an author a second chance. If someone read your book and didn't like it, the odds are they won't buy your next book, even if it's radically better. (You wanted reasons why you shouldn't publish a book that isn't quite ready? That's reason #1398.) Word of mouth can be negative, too.

So, if you're on a declining curve, that third book is going to be a really tough sell. Especially since, as a third-time author you should expect your advances to be rising.

At that point it'll be time to change publishers, and possibly to go to a pseudonym.

Right, you think that's grim? Try the Death Spiral.

The Death Spiral works like this: The big chains (and if you aren't in the big chains you aren't in the game) have this trick called Ordering To Net. That is, however many copies of a book Author A sold last time, that's how many copies of his next book they're going to order this time.

Say Fred Goodguy writes a novel, a mystery called Up Your Nose With A Rubber Hose. They print 10,000 copies, and he has a sell-through of 80%. (80% sell-through is pretty good.) That is, of those 10,000 copies, 8,000 sold.

Now Fred's new book comes out, Down Your Throat With A Motorboat. The chains saw that 8,000 copies sold last time, so they order 8,000 copies. Again, Fred has an 80% sell-through, and 6,400 sell. Fred's third book, In Your Eye With an Apple Pie gets 6,400 pre-orders, that's how many are printed, and sells 5,120. Now the big chains are only willing to preorder 5,120 copies of Fred's next proposed book, Up Your *** With Broken Glass, so his publisher declines to exercise their option on it, and Fred's left without a career.

What can Fred do? Go to another publisher and start all over again, under the name Joe Nicefella, with The Broken Glass Affair. Fred 's fans will be wondering why Joe isn't writing any more, while others will think that Fred is just a cheap Fred imitator. And, Fred will get a first-time author's advance at his new publisher. But, on the other hand, he'll get a first printing of 10,000, and the bookstores will preorder them, in hopes that this new author will turn out to be a best seller.

[Note: if your publisher likes you, you may get a name-change and stay where you are: and the name change doesn't have to be big, just big enough to fool the major chain stores' computers. Adding a middle initial to your name has been known to work. Or, printing on the cover By Fred Goodguy Writing as Joe Nicefella.]

These thing may not happen to you. But they can, and there are writers that they have happened to. Just be prepared.

What other bad things can happen?

Your editor bought your book because she believes in it. She's presented it to the other editors and the publisher, she's been shepherding it through production... then she gets hired by another company. What happens to your book?

It's an orphan, that's what. No one to speak for it at the publisher's. No one to boost it to the sales force. It goes to the desk of some other editor who already has a full allotment of books on his desk, and who doesn't love your book as much as the original editor did. He loves his own books better. The editing it gets is more of a lick-and-a-promise than the full deal it needs and deserves.

Bad things happen. Everything is done, but it's at the minimum level. No one, particularly not the author, is happy when the book comes out.

Other bad things? Shall we talk about basket accounting?

That's where you sign a contract for a number of books, but the royalties don't start until they all earn out. If one of them is wildly popular, but another doesn't sell for beans, the popular one doesn't start putting money in your pocket until after it's paid off the dead dog's advance too.

There's more, there's worse -- the bad copyedit. Some copyeditors think that what you really wanted was a co-author.

Then there's the way books have the shelf life of yogurt. They go out, they're on the shelves, and if the readers don't pick up on 'em right away, off the shelves they come to make way for next month's books. There's a sad thing.

The natural state of a book is Out of Print.

But I'll end this story with hope, just like Pandora's box had hope in it.

There's an easy cure to the Off The Shelves in a Month problem. You want your books on the shelves for years, and you don't have what it takes to be a bestseller? (And what that takes is both to write a good book and be lucky.)

Here's how to get your book back on the shelf: Write a second book. When it's published, your publisher will rerelease and resolicit your first book at the same time as your second book. They know that having two different books by the same author shelved side by side will make the public more willing to buy either book than they would one title alone. The bookstores know this too. They're more willing to shelve three copies each of Up Your Nose with a Rubber Hose and In Your Eye with an Apple Pie than they would be to shelve six copies of either one.

That's the secret of bookstore placement, increasing sales, and a happy career: write another book.

Since you started writing another book the minute you finished your last one, there you are.

Shall we mention bad contracts?

I think we shall.

Bad contracts aren't limited to the sleazy side of the street; you can find bad contracts and bad contract clauses right in the penthouse suites of publishing.

Two of the clauses most strewn with landmines are the option clause and the indemnity clause, but don't think because I've not mentioned them that other clauses, or even entire contracts, aren't writer-unfriendly.

Here's where having a canny agent is worth your while. I recall one place that sent out a standard contract to everyone -- with all the really horrid clauses on the last page. Savvy agents (and savvy writers) knew to just throw alway the last page and sign the next-to-last page. Newbies would find themselves ... in less happy circumstances.

Beware: The lawyer you pick out of your phonebook to look over a contract, unless he specializes in publishing, doesn't have a clue where the landmines are.

Nor will I attempt to list them here. Too many varients. Just because I don't mention something doesn't mean it isn't out there.

Shall we mention publishers who pay on acceptance, publishers who pay on publication, and publishers who pay on threat of lawsuit? (If you hang out in the bar with other writers, they'll tell you. They might not put it in writing -- sleazy publishers can be vindictive.)

Yeah, and slow payment? Advances are often divided into three parts: One on signing, one on acceptance, and one on publication. (Varients abound.)

That "on signing" payment can stretch out, so you may find that you can write a novel faster than a publisher can write a check, with the other payments ... sometime.

Here's a word of advice. Never start writing a book that you've sold on proposal until after you've signed the contract, and never turn in the manuscript until after the on-signing payment clears.

More later, perhaps on cheerier things.

Self knowledge, anyone?

Writing is a great way to get to know yourself. You've written something. You've come to The End.


Now, it's time to Read What You Wrote, not what you think you wrote.

Here's something for y'all to read while I think about what direction to go with this.

<a href="http://www.sff.net/people/roger.allen/essays/mistakes.htm" target="_new">http://www.sff.net/people/roger.allen/essays/mistakes.htm</a>



'Twas but a dream of thee
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Out on a limb
February 2004

James D. Macdonald
Learn Writing With Uncle Jim
February 2004

When someone says something better than I can, I'm not shy about pointing others to those places.


You want to know about slush?

<a href="http://scrivenerserror.blogspot.com/2004_02_01_scrivenerserror_archive.html#107573730199787039" target="_new">Scrivener's Error</a>

<a href="http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/004641.html#004641" target="_new">Making Light</a>

<a href="http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2002/02/25/slush/" target="_new">Confessions of a Slush Reader</a>

<a href="http://www.sfwa.org/writing/myrtle2.htm" target="_new">Myrtle the Manuscript</a>

Yeah, yeah, I know; I recommended Myrtle the Manuscript before, but that was a lot of posts ago and not everyone has been reading from day one.

Yes, you did ask about Slick Tricks for Outlining.

I'm trying to figure out if you mean an outline to write a book from, or an outline to send to a publisher.

I'm also re-reading the earlier posts in this thread to see what I've already talked about, and what I promised to talk about later.

I also have a whole 'nother tangent to go off on, about modelwork.

Dialog, yes.

Really quickly, my opinion on accents -- dialect, we call it -- is that less is more.

Once spelling out dialect was common and accepted. Take a look at Kipling's Captains Courageous for example. That's also an example of how the use of dialect can fail. Kipling spoke with a strong British accent himself, and his dialect is based on his own pronunciations. If you happen to know what a Gloucester fisherman's speech sounds like you can derive Kipling's accent from his dialog. (If you try to read his dialog with an American accent, the result is totally weird.)

Nowadays use of dialect has fallen out of favor. You can get by with using a light hand -- having one character say "Sugah," for example, would probably be okay -- but try to get the feel of a dialect with word-choice and sentence rhythm. People from various parts of the country use different words for the same things: frying pan, fry pan, griddle, spider; brook, creek, stream; paper bag, paper sack. A person from one part of the South might habitually say "ink pen" rather than "pen" to mean a writing implement, since to him "pen" and "pin" have the same sound.

Here's where your reading of books being published today will pay off, and here's where having a group of beta readers who are brutally honest with their opinions is worth gold.

As with the rest of commercial writing, the master question is: Does it work? You can get away with anything if it works. Who tells you if it works? Your readers. How do they tell you? With the sound of rapidly turning pages.

Congrats, Tamara!

(Where I've been the last couple of ... days? Yesterday morning I was a guest instructor at the US Coast Guard Academy in the morning, and at two classes at UConn in the afternoon. Before that, I'd spent the weekend in Boston (fans! editors! expense-account dinners! alcohol!) doing professional things.)

Okay, brags and boasts aside....

Shall we talk briefly about the Mid-Book?

That's the dreadful, long, trudgingly weary part of the novel that comes between the opening and the climax.

You have to have this part of the book for several reasons. First, you want to have your novel be novel-length, right? The mid-book keeps the covers from getting too close together. Second, the climax of a novel is bigger and more complex (and operates on more levels) than the climax of a short story. Setting up a climax like that takes time and verbiage. The mid-book is where it happens. Third, the experience of a novel involves getting to know the characters. Your readers can't do that without spending time with those characters.

Still, the mid-book is hard to write, at least for me. The joyful exhilaration of the opening is gone. The slam-bang heady excitement of the climax is yet to come. Here in the mid-book the climax seems far away; all that the mid-book promises is a day of writing, followed by another day, then another... stretching out to the end of time. Crossing an endless plain under the hot sun could hardly be more tedious.

If you're going to give up on your novel now is the time when you'll do it. Joy has leached from the world, all is dust and ashes, the words that formerly had come running gladly to do your command now sit about sullenly pretending you aren't there.

The freedom of the opening is gone. Those choices you made in the first half-dozen chapters are now handcuffs restricting your possible courses of action. You don't see how you're ever going to get to a conclusion, let alone a satisfactory conclusion.

I've used the chessgame analogy before, and I'm going to use it again. The mid-book is the mid-game. You're setting up the checkmate, but it's still anyone's game, and a more confusing time for the player (that's you, author) would be hard to imagine.

Someone else said that a basic plot goes like this:

1) Get the hero up a tree
2) Throw rocks at him
3) Get him out of the tree.

We're at the rock-throwing stage.

Well, this is good to know. If you can't think of anything else, do something nasty to your hero.

How to get out of this quagmire for good? Remember this: A novel isn't just a short story with more words. A novel has layers and levels of meaning, and the mid-book is where they go.

Now you do the variations on your theme. You do counterpoints. You do mirror-images. If your theme is Honor, now you show Disgrace.

Who does these things? Your minor characters! Each with his own story-arc, each with his own climax, all the while you're building toward your main story's main climax.

I wish I could draw you a picture, show the interlacing arcs of story, each moving the plot forward, each developing theme, each revealing character, all coming to minor (yet ever increasing and more-rewarding) conclusions. Perhaps I'll try, later on.

It is a thing of beauty. (Or will be, after revision.)


Uh Oh ... a Pitfall.

How many of you have programmed in BASIC? You remember the <a href="http://www.oopic.com/do.htm" target="_new">Do Loop</a>?

90 LET X=1
100 DO WHILE X<=10
120 X=X+1
130 LOOP

Do not make the middle of your book a Literary Do Loop. That just fills pages with prose without getting anything accomplished. Recall that your goal is to write The Very Best Book You Can. That is, Way Better Than Anything Else Now Being Written. (Aim high, guys.) Wheel spinning will only gain you readers who throw your book against the wall.

The mid-book will still be horror compounded to get across, but, day by day, you'll get through it, until one morning your hero will make a bold stroke, everything that your subconscious put in place will aid him, and you'll realize that you're in the Climax. Hurrah!

That, O my friends, is the mid-book.

So i've finished my first attempt at a novel. NOW WHAT!?

Revise the heck out of it.

Or, by "finished" do you mean "I already read it out loud. I already put it in my desk drawer for three months, then re-read it with my red pencil in hand. I've already sent it out to my beta-readers, and took their suggestions to heart. I already reprinted it using a different typeface and margins, so I could read it with a fresh eye. Now what?"

Now... send it out 'til Hell won't have it.

Go to your local bookstore. Find books on the shelf that are similar to yours. Note down their publishers. Write to those publishers to get their guidelines. Follow those guidelines to the letter.

At the same time, make a list of the agents who you would most like to represent you. ("Because he advertised in Writer's Digest is not a reason why you want someone to represent you!)

Proceed on a two-front approach. Try to get an agent, and try to get published, simultaneously.

Yes, it's easier to get an agent if you've sold a book, but it isn't impossible. Yes, it's easier to sell a book if you've got an agent, but it isn't impossible.

Be aware that you're playing in the big leagues now. No one is going to cut you any slack because you're a first-timer. The readers in the bookstores certainly won't. But ... if you've got a fair handle on English Prose, and if you have a strong story that you tell convincingly, you will be published. Maybe not at the first, or the second, or the third place you send the book ... but it'll happen.

And ... maybe not this book.

As soon as you drop the manuscript into the mail, as it goes off to its first publisher and its first prospective agent ... go back home, put your butt in your chair, and Start Your Next Novel.

Manuscripts are never so much finished as escaped. If you're still in the daily polish routine ... if you're making substantial changes, and they're improvements ... it isn't time to lay it by, not just yet.

If you're taking out a comma in the morning and putting it back in the afternoon, it's time to go to your beta readers.

Do try reading it aloud, and do try reading it reformatted.

Starting your next book now wouldn't be a bad idea. Writing one while revising the last is one way that keeps my batteries fresh. It might work for you.

Here's an article about aiming high.


I've heard of the cover letter that came with one piece of slush: "I think you'll find the enclosed manuscript a cut above the kind of crap you usually publish."

This impressed the editors no end.

Jeff ...

I have a climax in mind when I start. (The climax is usually in the form of a startling visual.)

More than once I've reached a different climax. Heck, there's one climax I've been using for years, but never getting to it.


What you do with your story: Find the right climax for it. How the heck do I do that, I can hear you ask.

One way: Hold your story in your mind as you're drifting off to sleep tonight. Tomorrow morning, write a whole new ending for your story.

(How long a story is this?)

If your last line is the weakest one in the story, cut it. If the last page is weak, cut it. Maybe you've overshot your conclusion?

Put the story aside. Read it again in a few months.

Ask your beta readers for their opinions.

Write a new story, then come back to this one.

Place this story aside, then rewrite it from memory.

Many are the things you can do to fix this story.

The best fix might be: Consider the writing of it as experience. Write a new story, this time with a strong climax. The climax is where you reward the reader for believing your tissue of lies.

Woo-whee, abdel411!

Those aren't simple, easy questions, and there isn't a simple explanation. Lots of different cases, lots of variables, lots of outcomes.

Here, though, are some very simple ones:
The length is whatever length is the best one for your story (you'll learn this through experience).
Who you send it to is someone who is likely to buy it (you'll learn this through research).
Average pay approaches zero (more experience).

Your local bookstore and library are full of book-length works explaining all these things. Check 'em out. Meanwhile, here's a good collection of articles: <a href="http://www.sfwa.org/writing/" target="_new">Read 'em and digest.</a>

Now some general words of advice: First write your book. Thinking about writing isn't writing. Talking about writing isn't writing. Only writing is writing. Write with all the power and passion and skill that you have. Get to The End. Revise the snot out of your book. Then send it on its way to paying markets.

Submitting your work isn't writing either; now it's time to start writing a new book.

Don't ever pay to get published.


The mid-book is "where the exciting action and the exciting combinations occur" (as I said way upstream and <a href="http://boingboing.net/2004_02_01_archive.html#107716444588285115" target="_new">Boing-Boing</a> blogged).

What I'm trying to say here is that the mid-book is (for me) the toughest part to write -- when the horizon recedes by one step for every step I take forward -- and seems to me to be the part of the book when most writers embarking on a first novel quit.

I've tried very formalist outlines (based on visual designs), and I've tried winging it to get through the mid-book. (The mid-book is lots longer than one-third of the book. It's the part that isn't the opening and isn't the climax.)

What I've found is that the stronger your opening, the better you've put interesting people in interesting places, the more easily you can answer the question "What the heck do I do now?"

For this reason openings are hard.

Mid-books allow you to do themes and counterthemes, and sudden shifts ... but that's because you're trying to set up the climax and illuminate it. Novels aren't just Very Long Short Stories. They are a knot where a short story is a string. They are a comedy routine where a short story is a joke.

I'm going to have to do a picture of a plot. I just know it.

1. What are the steps to get them published?

Type them double-spaced on one side of the page ... and submit them with a self-addressed stamped envelope. Same guidelines for manuscript preparation and submission as for any story. (Getting US stamps might be a problem -- International Reply Coupons is the standard answer, but I'm not certain how to work 'em from Russia.)

2. How much should I expect to get for a short story, say 15 pages? Do they pay for word/page/story?

Most magazines pay by the word. 15 pages * 250 words/page * $0.04/word = $150.00. Therefore ... you should concentrate on the best-paying markets. But that's good advice for everyone. Generally speaking, the number of readers you'll have is directly proportional to the size of your advance.

3. Who publishes SF short stories in the US? SF magazines?

Many anthologies and magazines publish SF short stories. Fantasy & Science Fiction, Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction and Analog are three of the best-known/highest paying magazines.

4. Should I take some specific steps for copyright issues? I don't know how US law works in this respect.

Generally speaking, copyright exists from the moment the work first is fixed in tangible form (that is, when it's reduced to writing from an idea in your mind). Copyright registration is generally done by the publisher who buys your works.

Now some more general advice: If you're doing your own translations, makes sure a native speaker of American English is among your beta-readers.

(Note: A beta-reader is one of your friends who is willing to read a draft of your story and make brutally frank, honest comments on it. When you find such a person, honor him.)

check www.ralan.com for a list of professional and semi-professional SF & Fantasy magazines

Another useful index can be found at <a href="http://www.marketlist.com/proindex.asp" target="_new">Marketlist.com</a>

Hiya, TroutWaxer! Pull up a chair, have a beer. Everyone's welcome.

For a really long gap of time, a chapter break is usually appropriate.


.... "Here's to success!" Margrave said, raising his glass.

"Sucess!" Wulfram echoed. The wine tasted bitter on his lips.


What with this and that some five years had passed before Margrave saw Wulfram again....


Something else to ask is, "Why the long gap in time or jump in location? Wasn't a minor character doing anything in that time? Wasn't a major character having an adventure that would shed illumination on an important point in the approaching climax?"

Only show the important parts, yes. But ... have you explored every meaning of the word "important"?

Hey to Envygreen, too!

I don't mind free publicity one little bit. (One note: I'm James D. Macdonald. John D. McDonald is a) A better writer than me, and b) Dead.)

I hope you enjoy The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars.

I didn't mention Writer's Market (and Literary Marketplace)? O dear, I have been remiss! Both excellent sources for markets.

Yes, as soon as your story is done, you send it. But "done" means "fully revised." Don't send out first drafts!

Here's another rule: Never practice in public.
(and yeah, Never let a manuscript sleep over).

To me, Mainstream is a work of realistic fiction set in current times. A Literary work concentrates on prose style above realism.

But that's just me.

Really, what we're talking about are marketing categories. That's a mark on the spine that the publisher puts there to tell the bookstores where to shelve the books, so that people who are looking for a particular kind of book can find it easily.

There are four genres: Prose, Rhetoric, Drama, and Poetry. Everything else is a quibble on how to sell the product for money.

Six weeks between finishing a first draft and starting revisions is entirely reasonable. That gives you time for the book to go through the "How did I write this garbage? If anyone sees this they'll know I'm a fraud" stage without your having to look at it.
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James D. Macdonald

Writing With Uncle Jim

AbsoluteWrite Water Cooler

March 2004

Hapi, all that fits under the general rubric of "playing positional chess."

That's putting interesting things into the first draft, that may or may not play out. In the second draft, I take out the stuff that was planted that didn't turn out to be useful (provide a fun combination, a surprise, or move things along in general).

So ... two groups wiring the same ship, at different places. One for a good reason, one for a not-so-good reason.

Neither goes off.

Though ... if I'd needed to, I'd be set to blow up the ship as part of the climax.

I don't keep a formal list of Fun Things taped to my desk. I just put Fun Things directly into the manuscript as I think of them.

From the <a href="http://pub43.ezboard.com/fabsolutewritefrm3.showMessageRange?topicID=412.topic&start=21&stop=32" target="_new">Hello</a> thread.


I had was,Is It (always,sometimes,never..) necessary to make sure that the reader is forewarned(per sey),that a certain charter has the propensity to do what he may end up doing?? Say,becoming the bad guy,when not expected too ??

Readers love to be surprised, but they hate surprises. This is contradictory, but it is true.

Recall <a href="http://users.telerama.com/~joseph/cooper/cooper.html" target="_new">Mark Twain's rules</a> for romantic fiction, particularly "They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency."

So, you play fair with your readers. You foreshadow all the way through (this foreshaddowing can be symbolic). You don't have your characters break character. The goal is to have your readers say "I never saw that coming," and "That's so right!" simultaneously.

This is art. You do this in the second draft, if pointing up the things that need pointing, using what you now know.

May I recommend a couple of films to you, both of which include a character suddenly and unexpectedly shooting another, yet as you look back on 'em, both well foreshadowed? (Film is a different art form from the novel so lessons from one are not universally applicable to the other, yet both share the drive of narrative....)

Minority Report

L.A. Confidential

Oh, and how about directly telling the audience what's to come? As we all know, the end of Carrie has the town of Chamberlain, Maine, engulfed in blood and fire with hundreds dead. That ending is directly mentioned on ... page five (Signet paperback edition, 1975). Carrie's telekinetic power is mentioned on page one.

Discussion question for the group: While Carrie is the title character, the protagonist is Sue Snell. Support or oppose; be specific, support your opinion with quotes.

Foreshadowing can be as subtle as the weather, colors, or the sounds of words.

Right on.

Plunge ahead to "The End." Even if what you're putting on the page at the time is absolute crap. I give you permission to write badly. You're going to revise anyway, right?

I've found some of my best stuff was writing that I thought was crap at the time I put it down. And some of what I thought was my best turned out to be crap when the re-reading and rewriting stage came. It's a wash.

But it ain't nothin' if you don't have three-hundred-odd pages to play with, capisce?

The second mistake that writers make (after Not Writing the Darned Book To Start With) is to only write one book. Look, the first may not be very good. It may be good but not very marketable. So.... the day you send the first one out to the first publisher, that day you start your next book.

Entirely too many people write just one book, then spend the rest of their lives trying to find a publisher for what may be a fatally flawed manuscript.

1) Books are never really done. They escape.

2) Your beta readers may tell you.

3) Even after laying it aside for a month and re-reading it, you can't see anything substantial that needs fixing.

4) You're tired of it. What the heck, send it out.

"Could you detail how you move your own characters or how I could kick-start my outlining process?"

Tell me, Stefpub, have you run through the example games in Logical Chess Move by Move yet?

Paragraphs ....

The easiest ones are in dialog. Every time a new person speaks, a new paragraph starts.

Else ... every time a new thought starts, a new paragraph starts.

Paragraphs are organized units of meaning.

I think I talked about paragraphs in one of the opening pages of this thread....

First ... Fame!

This thread is mentioned here: <a href="http://www.sillybean.net/archives//001460.html" target="_new">Writing and Publishing 101</a> (Excellent list of links.)

We've been <a href="http://boingboing.net/2004_02_01_archive.html#107716444588285115" target="_new">Boing-Boinged</a>!


Now, another useful link: Gene Wolfe's <a href="http://subnet.pinder.net/onwriting/index.asp?name=./References/19970101wolfe.htm" target="_new">rules for writers</a>. (Mr. Wolfe, aside from his virtues as a writer, is best known as the inventor of the Pringle potato chip.)


To other topics:

A hero, to my mind, is someone in your story who has died and returned from the land of the dead. This may be partly or entirely symbolic.

A protagonist, to my mind, is the person driving the plot, the one whose action or inaction causes the larger action of the book.


How to get characters in motion, how to move them to useful positions:

This is easy: Get them moving! Get your pieces off the back rank. You will learn through experience that the best place for a knight is KB3 or QB3. While gaining that experience, just move them. You'll see what works and what doesn't.

Here's another hint: Put your characters through one-way doors. When you've moved a pawn you can't move it back.

And one more hint: If the positions of all the pieces and pawns repeats thrice the game ends. In a stalemate. Do different stuff.

And recall that all the maneuvering, all the knight-forks, all the pins, have one goal: Checkmate the other king. If you don't have the climax, you don't have diddly.


Now paragraphing: There can be disagreements between authors on breaking the same text into paragraphs. There frequently are disagreements between authors and copyeditors on paragraphing.

Paragraphing can be for rhythm as well as for pure grammar. You are the artist. You are conveying thoughts. How you convey thoughts is part of your artistry.


Last: The best way to learn to write a novel is by writing a novel. Has everyone done their two hours today?

From another thread (http://p197.ezboard.com/fabsolutewritefrm3.showMessage?topicID=418.topic):

You want to see a plot with juice? Try Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett. (I highly recommend this book -- it's got real page-turning power, and Hammett is a major American stylist.)

That plot has since resurfaced in Yojimbo, Last Man Standing, and Miller's Crossing to name just three movies. I'm certain that some or all of that plot has appeared in other novels, in short stories, in movies, and TV dramas.

When you have written the book, you have made the plot your own. The plot is the framework that holds up the tent of your novel, but it is not the novel.

Hi, Beaver --

Best way to establish credibility and get the readers to trust you is to tell them the truth. Don't make up anything you can look up. Do the math.

On your chapter... do you Really Really want me to do a full edit on it?


Drop on down to <a href="http://p197.ezboard.com/fabsolutewritefrm31.showMessage?topicID=206.topic" target="_new">p197.ezboard.com/fabsolutewritefrm31.showMessage?topicID=206.topic</a>.

I'm going to take this thing one paragraph at a time, which means a series of ... 23 posts. At least.

"Style" is what you can't help doing.

Every word should advance the plot, support the theme, or reveal character. Better words do two of these things. The best do all three.

And more excellent links at Writing Links & Links for Writers (http://www.internet-resources.com/writers/wrlinks-fiction.htm)

Recall that some time back <a href="http://p197.ezboard.com/fabsolutewritefrm3.showMessageRange?topicID=257.topic&start=285&stop=285" target="_new">I mentioned the Pathetic Fallacy</a>, and the way it keeps turning up in <a href="http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/004641.html#004641" target="_new">slush</a>.

This is true. An awful lot of slush starts out with personification of inanimate objects. If you can make it work this is okay. But be brutally honest with yourself about whether you've made it work.

*[need to insert link to HapiSofi's post about sex scenes, posted at Uncle Jim's request]*

Thanks, Hapi. That was truly useful.


MacAlStone, you're moving from opening to mid-book. Keep going!

The six senses are:



And welcome, pina la nina! (I'm Jim to my friends, and I hope everyone here is a friend.)

Proprioception is awareness of where your body is in relationship to itelf. How you can tell how close your hand is to your leg, even with your eyes closed.

Yes, I read for pleasure -- all the darned time (Today, Post Mortem by Patricia Cornwell). But I also see books differently than I used to. I might say "Wow, the author sure slipped in some exposition there!"

Part of the trick is now to have both a writer's mind (to see how other writers write their books, as well as how you write yours) and a reader's mind to tell how your book will read to a non-writer.

(Think of a magician doing tricks for a regular audience, and that same magician doing the same routine for an audience of magicians. Each of those audiences will look for different things, and will be impressed by different things.)

Goodness, Dancre -- Beaver used it in his sample first chapter...!

An edited work is still yours.

jeir12 -- nope, I don't edit folks' manuscripts (except for educational reasons, as the spirit moves me). Your best course is to learn to edit your own.

Novella: at least 17,500 words but less than 40,000 words.

But is it more difficult to get published for this type of work?

Nope, easiest thing in the world. But they have to ask you. You don't write the book then submit it, like with normal publishing. Some cheerful editor calls you on the phone and says "Can you write a Spiderman book? Say, by Tuesday?" And you say ... "Sure."

This is getting closer to the slimey underbelly of traditional publishing here, but I have to say, the money's nice. It can keep you going as a writer while you're working on your regular stuff. Those two Spiderman books -- one was written in a week, the other over 72 hours. The dangers are two: you can be seduced by the money so you start doing them to the exclusion of your regular writing, and you can pick up bad habits that carry over to your regular writing.

The Bad stuff is as bad as you'd think (though you're talking pro writers here, who can do How Much for Just the Planet.)

Readers are perverse things.

Some will take your figurative language literally. Others will take your literal language figuratively.

"Her eyes flew around the room before falling to the floor" can provoke ... unusual ... images in some readers' minds.

The test is to try.

Faye, if you want, go to <a href="http://www.sff.net/people/doylemacdonald/" target="_new">my homepage</a> and pick a book.

A general clean-up post, before diving into a weekend that involves a heavy deadline....


Noooo! or NOOOO!

If extra vowels are acceptable, how many is too many? Or is this a purely subjective thing?

I wouldn't use extra vowels at all. How the character delivers the word should be obvious to the reader from the story-telling and character development to that point. "Nooooo!" is close to dialect and stage directions, both of which should be used lightly if at all.

All things are subjective, and if you make it work for you, you've made it work. Alas, spelling out "Noooooo!" and "Yesssssss!" and "Arrrrrrggghhhh!" look very much like shameless padding.


Weren Cole

If a character is important, he/she should be mentioned early, and should be given enough to do while waiting for his Big Moment so that when the Big Moment arrives the readers don't say "Who?" and have to flip back fifty or a hundred pages to refresh their memories.

At the same time, if a character is given a name, the readers will try to hold him in mind, assuming that he'll be important later. (Thus: don't name your characters unless you want them to stay in the readers' heads where they'll take up processing power: it's like naming kittens that follow you home.)

Generally speaking, try to get by with as few characters as you can. And try to have them all on-stage and acting in the first hundred pages.

It's perfectly okay to outline after you've created the first-draft text. The outline will show you where the bumps that need to be filed off and the dips that need to be filled are.

File cards are your friends.

You'll learn how much is too much backstory by writing it, and trying it on your beta readers. But also ... imagine that you are that person. What do you actually say? Realism is also your friend. (This will help you avoid "as-you-know-Bob" dialog, and "Gentle reader" insertions.) Generally speaking, use the absolute minimum backstory necessary to keep the introduction from being completely cryptic.


Rigby Eleanor

No, you haven't written a doorstop by accident. 400 manuscript pages is pretty reasonable.

A novel (at least, a YA novel) can start as low as 40,000 words. You won't start being saleable for an adult novel until around 60,000 words (with the standard Genius Exception: If you've written a work of genius, all bets are off).

So don't worry. As long as the words are the Right words, all's well.



I write for a living.

What you might try is this: If you're too tired of looking at a screen to write fiction after a long day at the office, write your fiction in the morning before you go to work. Set the alarm clock early, and get one of those coffeemakers that will start a pot of coffee based on a timer so it's hot and steaming when you stumble out of bed.



More on Outlining soon.


The chessboard is most clearly visible through the words in The Price of the Stars.

You can pick up a copy here.

You may quote me, with attribution.

For the title and byline being half way down the front - what font size should be used for those

Courier 10 or Courier 12

and is it okay to use something other than Courier for those?

Why would you want to?

And what is a byline?

The line that says "by [authorname]"

The name in the byline can be a pseudonym. The name in your address in the top left corner will be your real name; the name you want on the check.

For the running head - is it okay to just use your last name instead of your full name on every page?


And is it really necessary to put the title?


What font size and style should this heading be?

Courier 10 or Courier 12

What about chapter titles? What font size should be used for chapter titles

Courier 10 or Courier 12

and is it okay to use something other than Courier for those?

Why would you want to?

For titles, bylines and chapter titles - are bolds, italics or underlines acceptable?

Italics and underlines are the same thing (underlining is how you indicate italics). The title will appear as some kind of display font. Your name will appear as some kind of display font. Chapter titles can be italicized if the word would normally be italicized (e.g. a foriegn word or phrase). Usually all of these matters will depend on the publisher's house style. Don't waste time worrying about it.

And also - when should they be used within the story itself?

When you wish to. Italics are indicated with a single underline, bold is indicated with a double underline.

I'm a little hyphen crazy I think and I'm still not sure on the rule on when to use a hyphen or a semicolon or a colon.

Get a good grammar book. A writer who doesn't know how to punctuate is like a golfer who doesn't know how to swing. Your local bookstore will be full of test-prep books for students taking the SAT and PSAT. Those might be a place to start. And if you don't have a copy of Strunk & White, go out now, today, and get one.

Really, I'm not kidding.

Well, I know to use a colon for lists. And a semicolon for two complete seperate sentences within one sentence. Or something like that. I should know these rules by now.

Grammar is your friend. You want to make your meaning clear to your readers. Grammar helps you do that.

Here's (http://ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/index.htm) one place to start.

I return briefly the the Novel-as-chess-game trope, to give you this:

<A HREF="http://www.ex.ac.uk/~dregis/DR/quotes.html" target="_new">Chess quotes</a>

Go, read them, and see how each could apply to you and your novel.

Now, get your copy of Logical Chess: Move by Move. It's a writing book. Really.

When you're typesetting, it's easy to miss italics that appear as italics in the text.

Underlines and double underlines are universally understood by typesetters, they're obvious on the page, and they're easy to add with a red pencil in the editing stage.

Beats the hey out of me, Jen. Knock on doors and call folks on the phone, I'd say.

Lots of things have changed in printing over the last fifteen years. Heck, fifteen years ago being a Selectric repairman was guaranteed full time employment.

I've said that I wished I could show you a picture of an outline. So I think I will:

Here's an <a href="http://shop.webomator.com/cgi-bin/cpshop.cgi?storecrc=cb&target=prod&page=1&trail=&st=&p=bws01.4397456" target="_new">outline for a novel</a>.

"What?" I can hear you say. "That's a friggin' box!"

Oh, dearly beloved, let me explain.

Look at that design. Notice that it has limits; thus we know that it is art. (It also has balance, and symmetry.)

See how the threads intertwine, appearing and vanishing? See how they all form a pleasing whole?

Each of those threads is a plot thread. Each of those curves is a story arc. It's okay to write character names right on the thread, and follow that character through the story. It's okay to name each thread for a theme, too.

When I outline, I don't set up one of those "outlines" like you learn in high school: Roman Numerals, capital letters, arabic numerals, small letters. No. (I'm certain that somewhere there's a writer who uses that style of outlining and makes it work: the master rules are "Nine-and-sixty ways" and "Does it work?") Nor yet do I do a Powerpoint series of Plot Points. (Again, somewhere, I'm quite sure, some writer has done it and made it work.)

Instead, I draw pictures of my plots. And the pictures that I draw are Celtic Knotwork. (For example: our <a href="http://www.sff.net/people/doylemacdonald/wiz1head.htm" target="_new">Circle of Magic</a> series was based on a <A HREF="http://www.webomator.com/bws/data/freeart/celtic/circles.html" target="_new">circle</a>, with six nodes, each linked to the point beside it, to the point two away, and to the point three away. Once the knotwork was complete, I labeled the threads for the characters (Randal, Lys, and Walter), for attributes (hand, heart, head), and for themes (honor, loyalty, stability).)

Then I watched how the threads interacted, which ones were on top, which more buried, and wrote the books based on the interlacing of the cords. If you're wondering why certain characters appear and vanish in the various books, why first one then another is the protagonist, there's where and how the decisions were made.

Here, for your own use, are <a href="http://www.entrelacs.net/en.index.php" target="_new">workshop instructions</a> on creating your own Celtic Knotwork.

You can adapt this to single novels (as I have) by saying that each node is a chapter, and again naming characters and themes as they're moved around and through, come in contact, are brought to the fore, and are hidden again.

Listen, for I will tell you a true thing: Your readers expect order, a plan. Even if they don't know explicitly what you're doing, they will sense whether you're in control.

<a href="http://www.entrelacs.net/en.6.php" target="_new">Here</a> are some outlines that could become dandy novels.

This is the book that taught me how to draw Celtic Knotwork: Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction by George Bain.

Celtic knotwork is deeply embedded in Western thought. It dates back thousands of years. It's ingrained in the hindbrains of our readers. When our readers run into it, even though they don't consciously notice it, their imaginations will play along.

And that, my friends, is one of the ways in which I outline.

Here's a good line from that page of <A HREF="http://www.ex.ac.uk/~dregis/DR/quotes.html" target="_new">chess quotes</a> I gave earlier:


"If you have any doubt what to study, study endgames. Openings teach you openings. Endings teach you chess."

-- Stephan GERZADOWICZ, Thinker's Chess.


So.... let's think about that in writing terms. How many times have I heard "XXX started off well, but it fell apart at the end"? Lots of times, and lots of those times were when discussing why books got rejected.

We spend an awful lot of time talking about openings: opening lines, first pages, first chapters. Not to say those aren't important; if the first page doesn't invite the reader to turn the page that reader will never come to your ending. But ... you'll be able to mess with the opening in your second and third drafts. When you start your novel you may not have a clue what the real opening of the book is; even if you think you do, you may be wrong, and may find this out when you've finished your draft and read it through.

The climax is what pays off the reader for going with you. The climax is what entices the reader to buy and read your next book. (The reader will buy and read your next book, even if the opening of that book is slow, because of the promise of a strong ending.)


"In order to improve your game, you must study the endgame before everything else...."

-- Jose Raul Capablanca, World Champion 1921-1927


The climaxes of novels, however, are difficult to study compared with the openings. The opening exists as a unity, it comes from a blank page, it's creating itself as it goes. The ending, of necessity, grows from the middle and the beginning of the novel. Where we can look at an opening chapter in isolation, it's difficult to look at the final chapter without having the rest of the story in mind. Take, for example, the classic last line from 1984: "He loved Big Brother."

As part of the whole, that's chilling; the epitome of horror. Taken without the rest of the book, it's meaningless.

The last three chapters of Moby-Dick are the novel. All that came before was necessary to allow the reader to understand those three chapters.


"Modern chess is too much concerned with things like pawn structure. Forget it - checkmate ends the game"

-- Nigel SHORT


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Learn Writing With Uncle Jim

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But, again, you may ask, what is the climax?

(Homework: Read a bunch of novels in many genres from literary to best-seller. Identify the climax. Go and do, in your own work, what the masters have done in theirs.)

Here is the one big secret of climaxes, from which all others spring: The reader must be in no doubt that this is the climax.

I said, earlier, that there's only one ending to the novel: The good guys win. I quoted, just a bit above, the last line of 1984. Did the good guys win?

I say yes: and I also say this: you must define, in the course of your narrative, who the good guys are, and what "winning" means. You cannot assume common views in today's society; you have to establish those views in terms of your fiction.

The book that does not so much end as stop, that appears to run out of steam, or where the author got to a certain page count and wrote "The End," those are not good climaxes.

For most writers at most times, "It was only a dream" and "Then they were all run over by a truck" are not going to be satisfying climaxes. (Unless you can make it work, of course. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is an example of the first, All Quiet on the Western Front is an example of the latter.)

I had a beta reader before who criticized me for leaving some things out because she didn't get it -- she wanted the narrator to tell her if the protagonist was indifferent or angry, meanwhile he was "pounding his fists on the window."

If a reader tells you that there's something wrong, he's almost certainly right. If he tells you what's wrong, he's almost certainly wrong.

Which is it?

At which of those points did the audience spontaneously burst into applause?

That is the climax.

Not sure what to think.

What I think is that this is one of the ills of workshopping: The cheapest, easiest crit to give is "I wanted to hear more about XXX." This comes from looking at books piecemeal rather than as organic wholes.

Jim, do you think it would be better for me to just interweave the prologue in the novel's story or leave as is?

I haven't read your book, so my opinion is based on general principles rather than specific cases.

That being said: If you leave it as a prologue, half your readers won't read it.

That being said, I've used prologues in my own works about half the time.

We've been talking about rules? There are no rules. There are only guidelines, some of them stronger than others.

While most people are having great fun skiing down the slope on skis, every once in a while you'll see someone gliding up the slope on an ironing board and making it look easy.

"It works" trumps everything.

"Thanks for your comments Jim."


Actually, Jeri, I didn't answer your question.

Knowing only what I know from what you've posted here:

One concern I have is whether the prologue gives away too much of the story.

The prologue (literally "before the word") has been used, mostly in drama, to explain what's coming, and at the same time give people time to get back from the candy counter, find their seats, sit down, and shut up.

You find prologues in movies and TV shows: those segments of action before the opening titles. These can be badly done: the voiceover in Dark City is an example.

They can be well done. The opening narration in The Fellowship of the Ring (material that Tolkien wisely put in the Council of Elrond chapter, nearly half-way through the first volume, after the readers were engaged and cared about the information) is an example of a sucessful prologue.

Let's look at a couple of other prologues:

From Romeo And Juliet by William Shakespeare:


Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.


Now from Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe:


Not marching in the fields of Trasimene
Where Mars did mate the warlike Carthagens,
Nor sporting in the dalliance of love
In Courts of Kings where state is overturned,
Nor in the pomp of proud audacious deeds
Intends our Muse to vaunt his heavenly verse.
Only this, Gentles: we must now perform
The form of Faustus' fortunes, good or bad.
And now to patient judgments we appeal,
And speak for Faustus in his infancy.
Now is he born, of parents base of stock,
In Germany, within a Town called Rhodes.
At riper years to Wittenberg he went,
Whereas his kinsmen chiefly brought him up.
So much he profits in Divinity,
The fruitful plot of Scholarism graced,
That shortly he was graced with Doctor's name,
Excelling all, and sweetly can dispute
In th' heavenly matters of Theology,
Till swoll'n with cunning of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And melting, heavens conspired his overthrow;
For, falling to a devilish exercise
And glutted now with learning's golden gifts,
He surfeits upon cursed Necromancy.
Nothing so sweet as Magic is to him,
Which he prefers before his chiefest bliss;
And this the man that in his study sits.


Notice several things: First, that they are dispensable, second, that they are brief, and third, that they are self-contained.

So .... Jerir ... tell me about your prologue? Is it dispensable, brief, and self-contained? If it is, then make it a prologue indeed. If not, try it as chapter one, with a particularly long time interval between chapters one and two. See how that reads.

If the rest of the story-telling is strong enough, you'll have an editor who has read your work to comment on the appropriateness of your prologue. If the rest of the writing isn't strong enough, it won't matter.

And... please yourself. Pleasing yourself is a big part of the art of writing.

...the grammar checking function in Microsoft Word... is something that every writer should turn off, disable, and delete from their wordprocessor.

Stronger than love, stronger than hate, stronger than self-perservation, is the desire to mess with someone else's prose.




The white and yellow flowers smelled sweet. A quiet psalm sounded among the whispering trees. The boy looked on with curiosity as large men lowered a coffin into the ground. The headstone stood nearby, a name on its face, every line carved hard and deep and cold. His brother's.

The boy tossed a white rose into the grave. Rain fell and chilled his hands.

His mother’s gentle palm brushed across his eyebrows, then his eyes, his nose, and his chin. Her lips were softer than her touch: She kissed him on one cheek, then the other, then on the forehead. Her eyes were red; tears mixed with the rain.

He shivered. She clasped his hands, giving them a warm squeeze.

He looked up and saw his father--so still, so grand, like the statue of a king. Rain fell, but his father never moved.

I'm not sure that "cleaved" is the word that's wanted here. To cleave is an interesting word, one that has two meanings in English: To split apart, and to stick together.

I don't see using it to describe carved letters at all.

We had some discussion, quite a bit ago, about taking college-level classes to learn to write.

Mostly, to me, courses labeled "creative writing" are a waste of time (except in so far as they get your fingers on the keys, which is never a bad thing).

Yet here I've found something that I think is pretty neat. It's a course called "Reception of the Arts," offered at Penn State, available over the Internet via their "World Campus." The course looks at art (all art), not through the making of art, not through the history of art, but by way of how the audience responds to art.

First, here's the site itself: <A HREF="http://art3idea.ce.psu.edu:16080/art3/" target="_new">InArt 3</a>.

To get into the site, click the "the main site" link.

The site itself is an eye-opener, without signing up for the course. Lots and lots of content here. To start -- look at the vertical black bar on the left. Click on the link called "red cubes," second from the bottom. New index on the left: Third from the top is "humors." Click on that.

You'll see a red square to the right of the black index bar. The leftmost link inside that red square is "melancholy." Click there, you'll get a definition, and a link to Lesson One.

Lesson one is wonderful ... to a large extent it mirrors my own opinions about art. So's the rest of the material on this site. I've been chasing down links on it for hours, and saying "Ooohhhh, that's right!"

This is a Grand Unified Theory of Everything as far as Art is concerned. We're artists, we writers. How the Audience Reacts is very important to us as far as being commercial artists (the reaction we want is "Throwing Pots of Money At Us").

So, read. Be astounded. I was.

Recall just a bit ago the novel 1984 came up? Recall one of the central conceits of 1984 was Newspeak, an artificial language designed to keep people from thinking, by destroying words? (The theory being that people can't think about things that they don't have words for.)

Well, here are some vocabularly lists for y'all. If we want to think like artists, words give us the tools to think about our art. Here you go:

<A HREF="http://art3idea.ce.psu.edu/art3/basics/a_to_f.html" target="_new"> Big Words A to F</a>

<A HREF="http://art3idea.ce.psu.edu/art3/basics/g_to_n.html" target="_new"> Big Words G to N</a>

<A HREF="http://art3idea.ce.psu.edu/art3/basics/o_to_z.html" target="_new">Big Words O to Z</a>

Those lists by themselves are mind-expanding (and will give you a big edge while playing Scrabble, too).

Try 'em. See if they don't add the ability to talk about -- to think about -- what we've been trying to do.

Golly. This is a course that I might take myself.

A bit back I was talking about knotwork as a way to think about plot. Here's all kinds of notes about labyrinths, as expressions of art. It works out to the same concept that I'd developed on my own, these many years past.

Here's a site to bookmark.


Coming soon: Another Way to Consider The Whole Plot.


That was George Bernard Shaw.

(GBS also only ran about two paragraphs of Eliza's dialog in dialect in Pygmalion before he dropped back to normal spelling. Learn from the master, O my child.)

See also, Dr. Seuss's example and illustration: "The Tough Coughs As He Ploughs the Dough."

If you're including lyrics from other people's songs, you have to get permission, and it's you, the author (not the publisher) who has to pay the permissions.

If you need lyrics, write your own.

In any case...

If you're a talented poet, and the poetry enhances the story (reveals character, advances the plot, supports the theme... you know the litany), then do it. Else, don't.

Titles can't be copyrighted.

When in doubt, consult your agent and/or your editor.

Dipping back to page 37 in this thread:

It's funny. She didn't say "something is missing" but "you did not put in such and such." So it seems like she does get it, but she wants some explanations to go with it.

I have to ask ...

Was this story being workshopped at the time, and did the reader have the full manuscript, or only a portion?

Back on page 36 of this thread.... Pthom asked:

<blockquote><strong><em>Quote:</em></strong><hr>So, what's my point? akaEraser asked, "How come we can't just make the italics or bolds or whatever to begin with?" My friend the typesetter is a small outfit; has only a few hundred clients. Uncle Jim, seriously, do the big guys still set type for whole novels by reading 8 1/2" x 11" typed copy? Especially when it's so much easier, quicker, and more error free to do it from a file. I betcha that 95% of us writers prepare our manuscripts using a word processor on a computer.

Surely, modern publishers utilize the most current and efficient technology. Don't they?


Let's see: Yes and no.

For the past several years I've turned in my manuscripts both as hard copy (standard manuscript format) and on disk.

All the editing is done on the manuscript, and I wouldn't want it any other way. I want to see what's happened. If the editing happened in an electronic file, how would I see what was changed, to either approve or disapprove of it?

Next bit: I use WordPerfect as a wordprocessor. Other writers use other programs. I know of one who uses XYWrite. I'm sure there's at least one who uses Peachwrite, another who uses Electric Pencil. There are probably some who use edlin. Heck, if my good old Atari were still working, I'd still be using PaperClip. I liked that wordprocessor. Somewhere there are writers working on original Macs, on Apple IIs, on a Coleco Adam (with the funky tape drive -- remember it?). Even a few holdouts who use typewriters.

I've heard horror stories from my editor chums, too: of the writer who turned in her novel on disk, with each individual page saved as a separate MS Word file. Of the writer whose files came through garbled. Of the writer who had the virus. I recently got done with a project which involved a group of writers each sending me chapter-length files. You wouldn't have believed the hand-fiddly-work it took to turn those individual files into one single coherent file.

All the way through, hard copy is faster, easier, and more efficient.

I bet that the typesetters nowadays take the marked up hardcopy, and at the end transfer the marks from the hardcopy to the text file that the writer supplied.

There's a silly article in Salon today.

<a href="http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2004/03/22/midlist/index.html" target="_new">www.salon.com/books/feature/2004/03/22/midlist/index.html</a>

(You'll have to look at an ad to read it.)

I'm a mid-list writer too, making my living at this game for the past fifteen years. Poor Jane Doe! She's written five books in ten years? What's she been doing with her time?

Most mid-list authors would love to have advances like she got. She's averaging $40K/year. That isn't poverty. She wants to be a writer? She should write. She should write books that people want to read.

A word of advice for her: What do you think pseudonyms were made for? Change your agent, change your name, and get to work.

You want to know my worst advance ? $2,000. You want to know my worst sales? 640 copies in hardcover. (Happy ending there: sold the book to another house, where it came out in paperback and sold over 100,000 copies.) Sales numbers and advances aren't particularly secrets. For heaven's sake! They're printed in the trade mags.

Friggin' cry me a river, lady. On your feet and get moving. Did someone tell you this gig is easy?
UPDATE Joe Scalzi on this same article:
<a href="http://www.scalzi.com/whatever/archives/000703.html" target="_new">www.scalzi.com/whatever/archives/000703.html</a>
UPDATE 2 More from
<a href="http://www.livejournal.com/users/nihilistic_kid/405207.html" target="_new">the Nihilistic Kid</a>.

I remember one software upgrade:

"Don't worry," said the tech. "It'll be transparent to the users."

"Yeah," said the system manager. "Kinda like a helicopter's rotors...."

Two more links for y'all:

<a href="http://www.scalzi.com/whatever/archives/000701.html" target="_new">Ten pieces of very good advice</a>

<a href="http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/004925.html#004925" target="_new">Discussion of that silly Salon article</a> (don't forget to follow the sub-links).

One space or two?

That tells folks if you learned how to type on a typewriter or a computer. Typewriter folks use two spaces after punctuation; computer-trained folks use one.

It's meaningless. Concentrate on telling a good story.

Now some practical advice for "Jane Austen Doe" over at Salon.com.

1. Don't quit your day job.

2. Take that first book, the one that you got the $150K advance on. I'm sure it's reverted by now. Resell it to a small press that will bring it out in a prestige trade paperback edition. A $500 or $1,000 advance is not too small for you to accept. Same with your other books as they revert.

3. That celebrity ghostwriter gig is a good one. Ask your agent to line up some more of those.

4. Drop your old name, whatever it is. Find a nice pseudonym and start again as a new writer. Sure, you'll get new-writer advances, maybe in the $5K range. Grow your career the old-fashioned way, by writing. Who knows? Maybe someday those earlier books of yours will be reprinted as "By Pseudonym (writing as Old Name)." Stranger things have happened.

5. When you get a big advance, put it in the bank.

6. Don't quit your day job.

For someone to enter a field notorious for its small financial rewards, unsteady prospects, and lack of recognition, then to complain about small financial rewards, unsteady prospects, and lack of recognition is ... well, many working writers who read that piece had reactions that consisted of laughing uproariously.

To call Ms. Doe's story a "tragedy" is rather overstating her misfortunes.

For that matter, it takes a certain amount of nerve on her part to call herself a "mid-list writer." She was certainly making front-list money.

Nah, when publishing house offers an unheard-of advance, put it into CDs, with the maturity spread out so you can't spend it all at once.

10,000 sold hard and paper combined, after a $150,000 advance? That wasn't just a mess, that was a disaster. That was the point where she should have changed her name.

If you're the sort of author who sells 10,000 copies, you aren't the sort of author who makes six-figure advances. And this isn't new -- publishing didn't become a business just in the last ten years. Let me whisper to you.... publishing has always been a business.


No, 10% of Nothing isn't one of mine; I don't even know the author (except by reputation). I just think that he's written an important book.

After the intensity of their meeting with the police, Sylvie and Jayson had both felt drawn to the peaceful isolation of the soporific river running through the centre of Georgetown, and they held hands as they sauntered along the bank. The air was warm, almost motionless, and thick with the buzz of insects--it smelled fresh and clean and alive. Several picayune puffs of cloud floated lazily far above, their edges razor sharp against the deep cyan of the late afternoon sky. Sol beat down virtually unimpeded and Jayson's scalp had begun to tingle as perspiration collected in his hair and slalomed down the sides of his head. He was glad of the sensation, it confirmed they were out of the confines of the police station and away from everything it signified. Sylvie walked beside him with her face turned toward the water as it gurgled past.

“Tell me more about your mother, Jayson.”


<blockquote><strong><em>Quote:</em></strong><hr>After the intensity of their meeting with the police, Sylvie and Jayson had both felt drawn to the peaceful isolation of the soporific river running through the centre of Georgetown, and they held hands as they sauntered along the bank.<hr></blockquote>

That's a bit of a run-on sentence. Watch the adjectives: peaceful isolation and soporific river. Is the comparison to Lethe intentional? Is a river running through central Georgetown really isolated? (In the USA, centre is usually spelled center.) Is "sauntered" the exact verb you want?

<blockquote><strong><em>Quote:</em></strong><hr>The air was warm, almost motionless, and thick with the buzz of insects--it smelled fresh and clean and alive.<hr></blockquote>

"Fresh" and "clean" aren't how I imagine thick, motionless air in the center of a southern city.

<blockquote><strong><em>Quote:</em></strong><hr>Several picayune puffs of cloud floated lazily far above, their edges razor sharp against the deep cyan of the late afternoon sky.<hr></blockquote>

Is "picayune" the right word? Is the alliteration intentional? Are the edges of puffs of cloud really razor sharp? Why say "cyan" if "blue" will do? Is either necessary? "Lazily" verges on pathetic fallacy territory.

<blockquote><strong><em>Quote:</em></strong><hr>Sol beat down virtually unimpeded and Jayson's scalp had begun to tingle as perspiration collected in his hair and slalomed down the sides of his head.<hr></blockquote>

"Sol"? Why make the readers pause to figure out the high-falutin' lingo? How is "virtually unimpeded" different from "unimpeded"? Must the reader imagine some unspecified impediment? Does "slalomed" fortify the image of warmth and peace?

<blockquote><strong><em>Quote:</em></strong><hr>He was glad of the sensation, it confirmed they were out of the confines of the police station and away from everything it signified.<hr></blockquote>

Consider using a semicolon between "sensation" and "it." How does having sweat trickle through his hair confirm that he's finished with a police interrogation?

<blockquote><strong><em>Quote:</em></strong><hr> Sylvie walked beside him with her face turned toward the water as it gurgled past.<hr></blockquote>

I'm having a hard time picturing her walking holding hands with him, not watching where she's going. Does the Potomac at Georgetown really gurgle?

<blockquote><strong><em>Quote:</em></strong><hr> “Tell me more about your mother, Jayson.”<hr></blockquote>

I hope we aren't leading up to a coredump of exposition here.

The comments we've seen, about POV shift and direction shift, are good ones. Please consider breaking this up into three smaller paragraphs, with the sentence structures a bit simplified. This is an establishing shot; it should go down fast and easy to put a picture in our readers' minds before we get to the important information.

Imported, and slightly cleaned up, from another thread (http://p197.ezboard.com/fabsolutewritefrm3.showEditScreen?topicID=457.topic&index=17):


Don't worry about scam agents pirating your works.

The only possible thing they could do with your manuscript would be sell it to a publisher -- and we know they won't do that, right? If they knew how to sell manuscripts to publishers they wouldn't need to be scammers.

I'm not a lawyer, and I don't play one on TV.

That being said:

Among the elements of proof in a copyright infringement you'll find "access." Independent creation is a defense against the allegation.

So, for someone to win a copyright infringement suit, you'll not only have your original materials, you'll have your correspondence with that individual.

Now it happens that plagiarism does exist (http://www.themorningnews.org/archives/personalities/accidental_strength.php). For example: Ron Montana's Death in the Spirit House (http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/isbninquiry.asp?ISBN=0385178263) was plagiarized by Craig Strete, who published it as his own. Death in the Spirit House was eventually reprinted under Ron's name as Face in the Snow (http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/isbninquiry.asp?ISBN=0553296337). In this case, however, it was an attempted collaboration gone horribly wrong -- WGA, mailing a copy to yourself, copyright registration, none of that would have helped, hindered, or made a darned bit of difference.

That's the only case that comes to mind in the past twenty years from the world of print fiction of an unpublished work being plagiarised.

Dawn Pauline Dunn and Susan Hartzell (http://www.scifan.com/writers/dd/DunnPauline.asp) plagiarized Phantoms (http://koontz.iwarp.com/phantoms.html) by Dean Koontz for two of their books, Crawling Dark and Demonic Color. In that case, Phantoms was already published, so prior existence wasn't hard to prove, and available for sale, so access wasn't hard to prove either.

One more plagiarism suit (http://www.likesbooks.com/lawsuit.html), this one from 1997: Janet Dailey (http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/isbninquiry.asp?ISBN=0060176970) copied from Nora Roberts (http://www.news-star.com/stories/073097/life1.html); again this involved already-published books.

There have been whacko cases, of course. A lady who claimed (http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/001463.html) that J. K. Rowling copied from her self-published children's books (thrown out of court when it was shown that the plaintiff had manufactured evidence). A lady from New Jersey who claimed that Stephen King had copied her unpublished manuscripts (by reading them through her window while flying by in his airplane) in a case that never made it to court.

Most plagiarism (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/research/r_plagiar.html) cases involve previously printed books, whose contents are lifted in whole or in part for unpublished works. Don't worry about it; just don't copy from someone else's book in your own.

This is without going into derivative works -- using another writer's characters and settings for your own work. No matter how much I like The Lord of the Rings I can't write my own fourth volume. That isn't, strictly speaking, plagiarism.

So ... until you're published, forget it.

On why you might not want to copyright your works before you start sending them around: Say you copyright your manuscript, and start the dance. It sells a year from now. It's scheduled for two years later. So you have a book coming out in 2007 with a 2004 copyright date on it. People spotting it on the shelves for the first time might think it was an old book. Or -- do you want the first editors who come to your novel to know how long it's been batting around the slushpiles of New York?

(I remember one that I saw in the early nineties that had a 1967 copyright on its title page. (I read that one all the way through, each page lifting my eyebrows a little bit higher, as I realized why it hadn't sold in the intervening 25 years. No, I'm not going to tell you the plot, lest the author be here and be embarassed, but I promise you, if I told you, you too would say "Yeah, I see why that one never sold."))

So -- "Poor Man's Copyright" is an urban legend. WGA registration is worthless in print publishing (for all that it might be useful in the world of screenplays). Real, live copyright is of marginal utility, and might do you more harm than good in the print world.

Put it out of your mind. Having your work stolen isn't the first or second thing that you should be worrying about when you're submitting your book.

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James D. Macdonald
Learn Writing With Uncle Jim

March 2004--cont.

Over the course of the past several months I've recommended various books and movies. Here's a all-in-one-post roundup:

Logical Chess: Move by Move

Anglo-Scots folk ballads

The Bulwer-Lytton contest

Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses

Miriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary

The Chicago Manual of Style

The Haunted Author

I Am A Professional Writer

Turkey City Lexicon

The Sobering Saga of Myrtle the Manuscript

The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel

Standard manuscript format

The Miller's Tale

The Trojan Women

Turk's Head

The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars


China Mountain Zhang

"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"

How Lucky Can You Get?

sex, lies, and videotape

Sweeney Todd In Concert

Rules for Writing

Elmore Leonard

My Week as a Pod Person

Moonlight Becomes You

3rd person


The Murder of Roger Akroyd


Captains Courageous




Writer's Market

Minority Report

L.A. Confidential

Writing and Publishing 101

Rules for Writers

Red Harvest


Last Man Standing

Miller's Crossing

Writing Links and Links for Writers


How Much for Just the Planet

My homepage

Chess quotes

Celtic Knotwork I

Celtic Knotwork II

Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction

Circle of Magic



All Quiet on the Western Front

Dark City

The Fellowship of the Ring

Romeo And Juliet

Dr. Faustus

InArt 3

Big Words A to F

Big Words G to N

Big Words O to Z

Mid-List Writer

Joe Scalzi on Mid-List Writer

Nihilistic Kid on Mid-List Writer

Discussion of that silly Salon article

Ten pieces of very good advice

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Accidental Strength

Death in the Spirit House

Face in the Snow



You can learn whether a market accepts these (and whether they accept reprints, and much else) from their guidelines.

The first thing to know is that publishing is a buyer's market. That this is an unhappy thing for the sellers (we writers) should be obvious.

Next, you need to know that if a work is publishable by one it is publishable by many.

When a publisher buys a book, it isn't just some editor somewhere who reads it, loves it, and buys it all in the same day.

That editor will have to present the book to an editorial review board, pitch it to the publisher, work out a profit and loss statement, and find a hole in the schedule (arrived at with the other editors). Those other things will have to happen before the offer is made. If those things are done for a book that's no longer available (since if it is publishable by one it's publishable by many, the same process may be happening or already have happened across town), that's time and money wasted, alone with the editor's prestige among the other editors at the house.

Thus, publishers do not like simultaneous submissions. If you simsub and you're good enough to be published I guarantee that you'll be caught. (If you aren't good enough to be published, no one will ever know.)

The exception to this is the auction. This is agent territory. If you have a hot book by a hot author, the agent may select a few publishers who are likely to Really Want This Book, call them on the phone, and say "I'm auctioning this work." What that means is that the one who comes up with the best offer is allowed to publish it. Happy you! (Unless the book subsequently tanks, then Unhappy You, and it's time to pick a nice pseudonym.)

Yep, that's a disadvantage for the writer. Life's not fair.

That's part of what "buyer's market" means.

But what's your hurry? Are you in a rush to get as many rejections as possible? You sent your manuscript to a particular market because, out of all the hundreds of publishers out there who haven't yet rejected this manuscript, these are the guys you want to see publish your book. Right?

The Best of HapiSofi:

Lee Shore Literary Agency

Need Advice

Agents Charging Fees

Sex Scenes (...How?) Sex Scenes, version II


1st Books was OK




PA Authors

ST Comments I Love It!

All PublishAmerica Titles are in the Library of Congress

Decent Typesetting
Dark Courier. A wonderful submission font. (Windows TrueType font.)

Dark Courier

Can't do the chess thing, can't do the Celtic Knotwork thing?

("Right brain" is supposedly Random, Intuitive, Holistic, Synthesizing, Subjective, and Looks at wholes. I'm not sure I believe it.)

I have two other metaphors for writing a novel. Anon, anon.

Turned in a novel a week ago Monday, turned in a proposal to my agent this last Monday, and I'm trying to get a short story finished by Friday. It's been a bit intense.


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This is part of the longer series on Metaphors for Plot.


My father, W. Douglas Macdonald, was a chemical engineer and an electrical engineer. Most of his life he worked for building materials companies, including Glidden paint, US Plywood, and Eucatex. He died entirely too young, 72, of congestive heart failure secondary to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; that is to say, smoking killed him. (Note to everyone: If you smoke, quit right now.) I miss him very much.

That was his professional life; his hobby was modelmaking, specifically ships and model railroads. He won contests in the 1920s for his model railroad cars. Back when I was young, he let me help him with his modelmaking (talk about your love: the help of six-year-olds can be a challenge). That was where I learned modelwork, which I still enjoy.

All the arts are related; modelwork and novel-writing. Both center on making a world in miniature, a false seeming that convinces the viewer/reader of its reality.

Herewith some lessons I took away, and use in my own works:

No matter how good your model is, it won't be perfect. No matter how much praise you get, no matter what awards you win, you'll never be able to look at that model and see anything but its imperfections.

No one counts the rivets on a moving car.

If you suggest detail, the viewer will add his own details.

The rivets on model cars are badly out of scale. To have visible rivets, they'd have to have heads the size of softballs.

Painted plastic, painted wood, and painted metal all look the same.

It isn't a model until you add people. Before that, it's a clever machine, perhaps, or a toy. Characters bring their own reality, and bring the person looking at the model into the story. Your models tell stories; if you have a car that's got mud on it, or rust, or scrapes and dents, it has a history. The viewer won't know what the dent came from, but he'll know that the car has been places, done things, and subconsciously won't think of it as something that just came from a modelmaker's workbench.


Another thing: there were always hidden things, that only the modelmaker knew about. These made the model real to him, and if it was real to him, it would be real to the viewers. For example, once we made a model of the
submarine USS George Washington (http://www.modelshipgallery.com/gallery/ss/ssbn-598/200-hq/ssbn598-index.html). This was a plastic model with a hinged side that could be opened to show the interior. One of the interior spaces had a door that led to the food storage reefer. My dad built and painted scale model hams, hung them in the walk-in refrigerator area, then continued with the model, sealing that area off where it would never be seen.

Sometimes the best model for a thing is the thing itself: nothing looks so much like a load of coal in a hopper car than crushed coal in a hopper car.

Don't put things square on bases; use diagonal lines. They suggest motion.

A frame makes the model seem more real than it otherwise would appear.

Let the paint dry before you touch it.

If you can't see the world you can't model it.


I haven't built model railroads, though I love doing model ships and model houses.

Herewith are some exercises for y'all; not too expensive, and again (I promise!) will help your novel writing. (Or, anyway, it's helped mine.)

First off, get yourself a nice HO scale paper model house. Two I've done are Cut and Assemble Victorian Cottage and Cut and Assemble Victorian Shingle-Style House. Of the two, the latter has the greater story possibilities.

Build one of the houses. In the building of it, add one interior room. (If you want, you can open doors and windows with your X-acto knife to give other people a chance to see it, or not.) Note: while the instructions don't say it, paint the insides of the chimneys black! If you leave them white, the illusion is broken. If you blacken them, the illusion is strengthened. Anything that
doesn't add to the illusion detracts from it.

Now place the model on a base. Landscape it. (Landscaping can cover a multitude of sins.) Spring, summer, autumn, winter scenes all have different feels.

Add people. These tell your story. If you put in a group of folks having a garden party, it's a different story from the model that has a police car and an ambulance pulled up out front of the house, with detectives, dogs, uniformed police, and a stretcher with a sheeted form being wheeled out the front.

Don't skimp on the people. In my model of the shingle-side house, one figure (of several) cost more than the rest of the materials combined. I found it in a hobby shop, and knew that this was the figure I needed. The more realistic the little plastic people, the more real the entire model will appear.

That's it. Learn to see the world. Discover that tree trunks aren't brown; they're grey. See how the same basic, off the rack things, when arranged in various ways, with you choosing the arrangment, make different, unique, artistic stories. Discover that when you mix paint for your Pullman cars using paint chips taken from real Pullman cars, that they look too dark -- you have to lighten the paint to make it look right. Looking right is more important than being right.

The models don't look like much until you have them all put together, landscaped, populated, and framed. Then ... they're magic.


Now an exercise for everyone: As you drive along, you'll meet cars coming the opposite direction. Look at the other drivers. You have from the moment they come into view until the car is abreast of you to give them names, and brief histories. In heavy traffic you'll be doing a lot of naming and history-provision. Make sure the names and histories fit their appearances.

Right on, Karen.

I tell my readers everything they know -- but I don't tell them everything I know. If you know who your heroine's best friend was in fifth grade, and where she went on vacation in the summer between fifth and sixth grade, your character will be consistent in her later actions, in the story that you're telling your readers.

This is another bit of the modelwork question: A viewer can only see three sides of the model house. He assumes, because he knows what houses generally look like, and because you made the angles correctly, that there is a fourth side. This may not be true, you may not have a fourth side on that model house -- but the viewer will supply it.

The viewer also supplies an interior to that house, even though it may quite literally not exist... that's why I suggest that you build at least one interior room in your model house. You will know that it's there, and your knowledge will be transmitted to the people who see your model, through your increased confidence.

Even if you don't want to build a paper model house (though I suggest that you do -- all of the arts are related) you can still play with the Putting A Storebought Thing Into Another Storebought Setting and Creating Something Uniquely Your Own in the Process by using one of those little Collectible Cottages (http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&q=Collectible+cottages++&btnG=Search) and some model railroad landscaping (http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&q=model+railroad+landscaping&btnG=Search). Here's where to get workshop instructions (http://www.woodlandscenics.com/collectiblehouses.htm) for doing that.

Remember when I said, long ago, that you had to follow along and work the problems to see what I mean? This is another one of those where I suggest you really try.

How many of y'all have memorized that speech from Richard II? How many have retyped the first chapter from a favorite novel?

He longs for a smoke, but he doesn't dare touch a cigarette.


He longs for a smoke, but he doesn't dare touch a cigarette, not after quitting after five years of struggle.

Not enough information to tell which is "better." What's the chapter it's in look like? What's your usual style? What else is going on?

Is it even necessary to mention him longing for a smoke? Me, I'd just say He longed for a smoke and leave it at that.

If you write fantasy or sci-fi, you tend to have to describe the settings, people, etc. in great details because you're putting the readers in a strange world.

I dunno about that. I've written a series of SF books that includes faster-than-light spaceships.

All we know about the way those spaceships work is this:

They have engines.
The engines have tubes.
They need fuel.
A hyperspacial reference block is a neccesary part.
That reference block can get out of alignment.
When it gets out of alignment, you need a synchmeter to fix it.

That's plenty, don't you think?

Remember this: books are about people, and people are people no matter where or when.

Right on, Karen.

Writing/reading is an act of co-creation. (That's one reason writers want readers....)

We don't give folks an experience, we give them the blueprint with which they build their own experience. We give them two points; they construct the rest of the line.

You don't know how much this lady annoys me. She isn't a mid-list writer. I'm a mid-list writer. She's a wannabe front-list writer who's discovering that she might be a mid-list writer (Sob! Horror! Woe!).

Here are a couple more responses to that thing:

This one has some very good advice for all writers.

Here's a dead-on accurate parody of the original weepy article.

You can indicate these with italics (which are indicated by underlines in your manuscript), or by saying "Bill thought," or by some combination of the two.

Entire paragraphs of italics are hard to read. If your book includes entire paragraphs of thought, consider writing it another way, or indicating thoughts in some other way.

Don't worry about it. House style is going to rule in any case.

Oh, yes, another link:

This piece has many insights on writing and the writing life. It's all true, too.

Why 98% of the slushpile is unpublishable.

Is there a difference between these sentences:

Billy was kind to animals.
Billy was not unkind to animals.

In the first, Billy is kind to animals. In the second, Billy could be kind to animals, or he could be indifferent to them. He could be anything at all in relation to animals except unkind to them. The second sentence is more ambiguous.

I'll overlook the obvious differences in sentence rhythm and complexity, though those might take more importance when you're figuring out which sentence to use in a given paragraph.

International Slushpile Bonfire Day (http://www.revolutionsf.com/article.html?id=950)

New York -- One of the most onerous tasks in the magazine and book trade is the sifting of the slush pile. Slush piles, the collection of unsolicited and unagented manuscripts sent to publishers by beginning or would-be authors, are sometimes the source of future literary successes, but more often than not are the source of headaches and indigestion. Many editors privately complain and scream about the uselessness of slush piles, but fearing a backlash from beginning writers who already assume conspiracies keep their work from being printed, very few speak out about the quality and quantity of the material received.

With this in mind, the international literary community announced a special amnesty day for those long-suffering editors forced to sift through manuscripts where everything but the name of the author was misspelled on the title page. April 31, 2002 marks International Slushpile Bonfire Day, where editors and publishers are encouraged to collect all of the unreadable or unusable manuscripts that have built up in their offices, in some cases since 1968, and burn them while drinking wine and singing songs. Since one of the worst offenders is the science fiction / fantasy / horror triumvirate, SF, fantasy, and horror editors are allowed to place the first documents and light the pile when complete.


And while we're at it: Brilliant Sri Lankan Novelists Go Home

NEW YORK, May 14 (UPI) -- Did you ever notice that the books in the airport reading rack -- the books that everyone actuallyREADS -- are never the books that are reviewed in the big Sunday book sections?

You're British, writing in Britain, presumably for British markets? I'd say a British dictionary should be your choice.

I reiterate:

If a reader tells you that there's a problem in your book at a certain point, he's almost invariably right. If he tells you what the problem is or how to fix it, he's almost invariably wrong.


And it occurs to me, this advice seems valuable with regard to lots of other information, as well--setting descriptions, character appearances, etc. In short, all those details that we, as writers, spend sooooooooo much time lovingly dreaming up, thinking through, and writing down in our notebook/compendiums to ensure consistency (wait a sec--were Bill's eyes blue, or brown, in chapter two. . .)

This is related to making every word reveal character, advance the plot, or support the theme. Better still is if the words do two or three of those things all at once. Hold a gun to each word's head and make it justify its existence. Every word needs to be the right word, in the right place. (See above, the discussion of that opening paragraph from a chapter, with the fellow who just got finished with a police interrogation who goes walking by a river with his girlfriend.)

Anything that doesn't add to the story subtracts from it.

Consistency helps you avoid illusion-breaking. But just because you know something doesn't mean you have to tell your readers. The readers will assume that anything you tell them is important, and hold it in mind, expecting you to use the inforrmation later in your story. It's possible to overload your readers.

BTW, if you ever do cut-n-paste all my posts together into one document, if you'd send me a copy....

Sure, I don't have a problem with that, provided there's credit given, and a link back here.

Though, I think I'd like a chance to go through and edit the final document .... and it's likely the discussion will continue.

I (believe it or not!) do intend to write a few more multi-screen posts on Writing.

Chicago Manual of Style? Hah! I got yer Chicago Manual of Style hangin'!

Go Fowler!

Here (http://www.bartleby.com/116/index.html) is the ultimate reference for every question you ever had about English usage. And it's free!

Or, get it in hardcopy (http://www.powells.com/cgi-bin/partner?partner_id=34766&cgi=search/search&searchtype=isbn&searchfor=0192813897), suitable for smacking other members of your writing group upside the head.

It sure is a balancing act trying to convey what you want while leaving enough room for the reader to create an image of the story and the characters for themselves.

This isn't actually hard: Only include those details that are important to the story, and don't include the details until the reader cares about those details.

You pretty much have three choices ...

Shorten the scene significantly -- only one question.

Show the scene from someone else's point of view.

Delete the scene and let your character's subsequent actions reveal her thoughts.

In my never-ending stream of copying my earlier posts from elsewhere: this is from Making Light.


Let's see if I can clarify a bit more about the difference between vanity publishing and recording your own music to sell after your gig:

There's no quality control in the world of vanity press publishing.

With the self-published musician, there is quality control. If the musician weren't at least half-way competent, he'd never have the gig in the first place to sell the disks after the show. And you've already heard his music, and you've liked it enough to want to have a bit of it to take home.

With the self-published fiction author, most times the manuscript is ... slush. No one would read it willingly.

The exception to this is in non-fiction. If you happen to be the world's foremost expert on some obscure subject, you can write and self-publish a monograph and have people pay you for a copy. If you're delivering lectures from the platform, you can say "Copies of my book are available at the back of the hall," and no one will blink. If you're written a local history, you can sell it in a local bookstore -- no interest anywhere else in the country, lots of interest right in that one location.

Note, though, that in all those cases there is quality control. You first have to have a reputation as the world's expert on something, or you have to have hired and filled the hall, or you have to have convinced the bookstore owner to carry your book. None of those things are easy.

If someone says "It's easy. Just give me your credit card...." that person doesn't have your best interests at heart.


Another factor in quality of product in the vanity fiction area is the availablity of legitimate outlets.

If you were living in the 19th c. and you'd written the very best erotic novel in the world, it couldn't get legitimately published, and so would be privately printed. A fair number of the privately printed 19th c. erotic novels are pretty good.

Here, now, if you've written the very best erotic novel in the world, there are any number of legitimate, advance-and-royalty paying, sales in major bookstores, publishers who will be slavering to hear from you. Thus the only erotic novels that are vanity published are either a) very badly written, or b) of such small niche interest that it wouldn't repay publication (the erotic potential of women's right middle toes, and even then if the book is really the Best in the World, it could be legitimately published as Magic Realism and those who liked that sort of thing would get an extra bonus), or c) actively illegal (pre-teen bestiality incest, frex) (And some of those can be well-written too, if you can get past the squick factor).

Getting down to the main point: if you've written the greatest sword-and-sorcery novel in the world, lots of publishers will be lining up to publish you. If you've written a basically competent sword-and-sorcery novel, lots of publishers will be ready to publish you. If you've written a pretty-much-okay sword-and-sorcery novel and the timing's right, the book will get published, though perhaps after a few rejections.

Which means that the only sword-and-sorcery novels that you'll find from the vanity press are the ones where the author's only writing skill is the ability to write a check, and the very, very, exceedingly rare good book whose author was totally scammed. But no one will ever hear of that very, very rare book because readers and bookstores and everyone else go "avert! avert!" when they see the vanity label.

Very few read slush manuscripts for fun. No one reads a second slush manuscript for fun.


I've been reading The Gangs of New York which has some interesting descriptions of con games and swindles from the 19th c., things like selling gold bricks, the banko game, and a variant on the pigeon drop.

In the variant, the con man approaches a fellow and offers to sell him a bag of counterfeit money for pennies on the dollar (one enterprising grifter sent out advertising flyers through the mail making the offer). The bag of money is shown, and the mark is invited to take a sample to any bank to have the bill checked out -- it's such a perfect counterfeit that no bank clerk can detect the fakery. The mark takes the bill, goes, and wow! It really does work! This is great stuff. He comes back, buys the whole bag of counterfeit money, and -- when he opens it -- finds only cut up newspaper. (Need I mention that the reason the counterfeit bill passes muster is because it isn't really counterfeit?)

(Another scam, not mentioned so far in that book at least, involves going to the racetrack and going around advising people about horses that are sure winners. The trick is that you recommend every single horse that's running in a given race to various people. In the course of talking with the mark, you slap him on the back, putting a chalk mark on his coat. After the race, you hang out at the pay window, and watch for people with your chalk mark on his coat. As they're counting their money you come up and say "Hey, remember me? I gave you that tip. How about a tip for me?")

Not too bad a scam.


Back to the literary scams of the current day:

We have some nefarious deeds decribed here:


And more about the Helping Hand Agency here:


Find out the name of the detective assigned to the case!


Here's something:

Not to be confused with the well-known http://www.promedia.com/ we find http://www.promediainc.net/.

Promedia Entertainment has apparently been placing newspaper ads all over the place, selling their training materials.

Who knew that there was such a screaming shortage of script readers in Hollywood that folks who had taken a $50 videotaped course could get high-paying jobs working at home reading scripts?


And ... next, a grammar quiz:


How Grammatically Sound Are You?

I, of course, am a Grammar God.

Frex = For Example (i.e., e.g.).

Hi, Steve Eley, good to see you here!

Yes, I do have fun, and that's excellent news about your novel.

Now a minor brag of my own, and a digression.

First, the brag: We had two short stories come out last year: one original, one reprint. Both of the anthologies they appear in are listed here: VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates) Best Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror 2003.

That's a major review venue, and it's nice to be noticed. The specific anthologies are New Skies and Crusade of Fire: Mystical Tales of the Knights Templar.

In further good news, today's mail brought a royalty check for $17.50. Not much, but those checks have been arriving every six months for the past nine years for one short story in one anthology. It does add up over time; no further work required on our part.

This brings us to the digression:


Here's the way fiction anthologies work:

An editor pitches an anthology idea to a publisher. ("We'll get Stephen King, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, and a few other people to contribute....")

The publisher likes the idea, and writes a contract with the editor, sending the editor an advance. Standard royalties, you know the deal.

The editor then sends letters to King, Clancy, and Grisham, all of whom write back polite notes saying words to the effect of "So sorry, much too busy."

At this point the "a few others" clock in, because one of them can be you. The editor lets it be known that he's reading for an anthology, with the following title, following theme (can be anything from very specific to very broad), that the deadline is this, the lengths requested are that, and off you go.

The editor selects from this vast slush-heap (the size of the slush heap varying by how well known he is, and how widely noised-about the anthology is) the dozen or so stories he wants. Edits them, all that.

If the editor is canny, he will pay on acceptance (you get a better quality of slush that way). If he's stingy, he'll pay on publication. If he's a moron who has spent all the advance money on a flashy website, or a cheap bastard who has decided to keep the money all for himself, there won't be any money at all (don't submit to those anthologies, kids!).

The stories come in, the payments go out (3-5 cents a word, whatever).

The anthology is printed. Most times it sinks without a trace, you take your story and try to resell it to other markets.

Sometimes, though, the anthology earns back its advance. There are royalties! Hurrah!

The editor gets those royalties. You haven't signed a contract with the publisher, you've signed your contract with the editor.

Generally, the editor keeps 50% of each royalty check, and divides the money among all the authors who contributed to the anthology. There are two ways of splitting it up: one is by the page (pro rata, this is called). So if the royalties are $100, the editor keeps $50, and divides the rest among the authors -- your story is ten pages out of a 350-page book, you get $1.43.

The other way is by dividing the money by the number of stories. Same $100 royalty, same $50 to the editor, you your ten-page story is one of a dozen stories in the book, you get $4.16.

The contract you have with the editor will specify how the royalties will be divided; pro rata or per story.

That's the way it's supposed to work.

Now I've had stories where the very first royalty payment was over $800. Selling to a book that sells well is a great way to live. I've had stories that have kept contributing small amounts to the household grocery fund for years -- over a decade in one case. Selling to a constantly-in-print anthology is nice.

What you don't want to do is sell all rights for a one-time-flat-fee (or, even worse, for nothing at all). You want to have profit participation in all of your words, and keep the rights yourself.

End of digression.

Hi, Hannibal --

If you haven't started from the beginning of this thread ... maybe you'd like to?

We'll Always Have Paris

Like I keep saying: Celebrities are in a different ball game from the rest of us.

I've gone into outlining several times upthread.

Basically, the old Roman numeral/letters/numbers outline style is particularly useless for novels, IMHO.

I like things a lot more organic.

The roadtrip/map idea is interesting, and might be useful. As long as you aren't doing it literally.

The way to finish a work is to set aside a time every day during which you do nothing but write. You don't have permission to stop for any reason, or to rewrite, until you've reached THE END. This too is explained in more detail upthread.

While I'm sure details about life in Hungary would be fascinating, I don't think this is the thread to put them in.

Sure, Chris, there are exceptions. Publishing in general is one big exception.

You had a good, valid reason to self-publish. You wanted a limited number of copies by a certain date. That your book sold outside of your immediate family is a plus.

Poetry is one of the genres where self-publication is traditional.

As far as using PoD self-publication or vanity publication as a way to reach the general reading public, though ... I wouldn't recommend it. "The race is not to the swift nor the victory to the strong, but that's the way the smart money bets."


Note on my use of the word "genre" here. There are four genres: Poetry, rhetoric, drama, and fiction.


In other depressing news, the Garfield movie novelization is out. Those of you who have been trying to perfect your craft, and finding the frustration of submitting/rejection/submitting again wearing on the nerves will look at that book (or, worse still, try to read it ... a prize to anyone who makes it all the way to the end of chapter one!) and despair.

That book reads like it was written by a pro over the course of a long weekend, fueled by a pot of coffee and a case of beer; either that or it was written by the producer's cousin who always wanted to write a book.

That book was not published because it was an outstanding piece of literature. It was published because a Hollywood movie gets a novel (paid for out of the advertising budget). Pay no attention to this; it's not part of the set of things that are under your control. Rather, think that the money Hollywood paid to have that book published will help pay your advance, and the money Hollywood is paying the bookstores for placement of that book will help pay the salaries of the clerks who will recommend your book to their customers.

And think that if you get a reputation as a writer who's easy to work with, who can reliably hit deadlines and come in on-length, that someday you may be the pro who gets that movie deal; a five figure advance for a long weekend's work, fueled by coffee and beer.

An outline is a planning document. Some people find them useful in constructing a novel.

Uncle J, did you read the companion book to "Terminator 3"?

I darn-near wound up writing it. But ... it didn't look like the fun-to-money ratio was right on that one, and based on what I heard afterward I was right. Dodged the bullet on that one.

My thoughts on fan fiction?

Well, why not ask me to walk through a minefield instead?

It can be useful when you're practicing at home alone, when you're doing exercises creating plots using predefined characters. However ... that's for you, at home.

You'll eventually have to create your own characters, too. Why not now?

As far as submission material to Viable Paradise, I would rather see something of your own, even if it's less polished, rather than a fan piece.

I'm aware of a line of fanfic erotica stories based on Mr. Spock from Star Trek.

A goodly number of them featuring Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk as gay lovers. Let's not get into a big discussion of fanfic, okay?

People write it. It's okay for you to write it, if you're doing it as an exercise in story construction and plot, where you don't have to come up with your own original characters and backgrounds. Just don't publish it.

(Yes, yes, I know all about the parody and fair-use defenses in copyright infringement suits. This isn't the time or place to discuss them. If you want to write and publish fan fiction, what you do is become a professional writer, then let it be known to the people who own the rights that, if they want to have a novel set in some TV or movie world, you're available. There are lines of Star Trek and Star Wars novels. (In earlier times there were Bonanza novels, Man From U.N.C.L.E. novels, and Brady Bunch novels. I kid you not.) I don't think that J. K. Rowling will want anyone to write a line of Harry Potter novels for her, but hey, stranger things have happened.)

First, work on your own stories: your own characters, your own situations.

You aren't asking for much, are you, Chris?

Okay, open with a noble knight riding along the way. He's got a prancing white horse, a noble gleam in his eye, a hawk on his wrist.

There he goes. Whizz! A crossbow bolt comes out of the underbrush. Hits him in the jaw, he's down, he's out.

The gent with the crossbow comes out of the brush, walks up to the noble knight's body, takes the money purse from the knight's belt. Opens it, takes out three silver pence. Says "Next time, pay your gambling debts."

Leaves the rest of the money, all the rich trappings.

Next, the knight's sword gets picked up by a peasant. He has no use for a sword, but he has a need for a new coulter for his plow. Blacksmith puts it on the plow.

The knight isn't dead, but he's hurt bad. He recovers, but never again is able to speak nor eat solid foods.

The three pieces of silver are melted to make nails to hold together a small wooden chest.

The bread made with the grain grown from the field plowed with that sword has mystic properties.

The knight becomes a monk, goes begging. He's got religion. He can hardly talk, but he can preach.

The monk eats some of the bread, and is cured. He cuts out his own heart, and puts it in the wooden box. He carries it with him.

The kingdom which the knight is no longer protecting is under siege by the Powers of Darkness. (That is, it's so dark that wheat won't grow. Bad weather, bad crops. Only the one enchanted field is still producing.)

The monk determines to find the source of the bad weather-luck. He goes into the wilderness. There he finds an old woman who is starving. He offers her his heart which is in the box. She eats it, and becomes a) strong, b) well, and c) the guy with the crossbow back from the first page.

The monk is now healed, has his heart back, and is able to talk. He returns to where he was heading back on page one, where he becomes the rightful king. The bad weather is over. The enchanted field is never seen again. There is much rejoicing.

The end.


That's a short story. That's a lime pie. For a novel, then's the ship and the chessgame and the house and knot.

So, death and rebirth, journey, power of threes, king's health linked to the land's health, and the sacrament of the Eucharist, all rolled together. After this it's just typing.

I want to know what happened to the hawk on his wrist.

Who did you think was telling the story?

Tell ya what, Chris -- now you can go out and buy some of my short stories. And buy some of my novels, too.

(You want to see me write a novel? I'm doin' it every day. Check your bookstores.)

This is quite enough to start baking the pie writing. When you get to The End, revision and rewrite, make it all smooth.

Once it's done as well as you can make it, send it out to markets likely to buy it. For cash.

That idea looks like about a 7,500 word idea.


The power of threes:

In Western society, Three (http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Numerology.pdf) is a very powerful number. Look at all the things that come in threes. Ready, set, go. Three is the number of perfection. Three rings for the elven kings. The Trinity. The two wicked stepsisters plus Cinderella. Three wishes. Christmas Past, Christmas Present, Christmas Yet-To-Come. The Fates. The Wyrd Sisters.

Pretty much everything that doesn't come in threes comes in sevens. (Or nines, which is three threes. Or forties -- which means A Whole Bunch.)

These things are embedded deeply in our culture. If you use them, your reader won't know why, but your reader will think that this is right.


Too young to be a writer at 23?

I started when I was twelve.

I sold when I was 35.

Everyone's path is different.

If you are sitting in your chair, making your fingers move on your keyboard, putting words on paper you are a writer.

What defines a writer is writing. Go. Write.


Chris: Your assignment is to take that very bare-bones outline and make it into a 7,500 word story by the end of the week. I grant you all rights.

You must write all the way to THE END. (If it turns out different from that outline that's okay!)

Lay it aside for a week.

Read it aloud.

Rewrite it for a week.

Send it to trusted friends for a week.

Revise it for a week.

Send it out (to paying markets only) until Hell won't have it.

That's your penance for making Bambi-eyes.

I have to go write another chapter in a fantasy novel set in the America Civil War, but before I go....

If you want one in Swedish, Främlingens Önskan. I liked that one best of the entire series, though I liked the series quite a bit. That's the series that was based very formally on a six-pointed Celtic knot.

It's a short -- middle grades -- novel.

Here's another novel y'all might like: Uncle Joshua and the Grooglemen.

Buy one! Better still, buy a dozen! They make excellent gifts!

Here, for free, a complete story: The Last Real New Yorker in the World. It should be pretty obvious to you why it'll never be reprinted.


Want to see our Very First Short Story? It's in this book (Werewolves: A Collection of Original Stories). That was the first story we submitted, and the story sold to the first place we sent it to. (Okay, everyone, you can turn green with envy now.)

Want to see the first story I wrote after the Long Dry Period (between when I was 19 and when I was 30) when I wrote no fiction? It eventually got published here (Between the Darkness & the Fire). The story is "The Little Prune that Couldn't Talk."

It too sold to the first place I sent it ... it's just that I waited nearly twenty years to submit it.

a) Perhaps more appropriate in one of the "Share Your Work" groups.

b) We won't revise until after you've gotten to THE END.

c) Keep going.

It all turns to crap between first writing and reading. That's why you put the work in your desk drawer for a month after you've written it, to let it age and let all the crap drain off.

First posted here. (http://p197.ezboard.com/fabsolutewritefrm3.showMessageRange?topicID=521.topic&start=41&stop=41)

And recopied here.


From today's news:

She's a bestselling author -- at 15
Flavia Bujor's European hit now in America

Thursday, April 22, 2004 Posted: 11:37 AM EDT (1537 GMT)

NEW YORK (AP) -- After a few years of starting stories that never got finished, Flavia Bujor decided it was time she completed something.

So at the age of 12, she decided to write a novel. She was 14 when the book was published.


This is relevant in that a) publishing at an early age isn't impossible, but b) it's so rare that it's newsworthy when it happens.

So don't worry.

A couple of aphorisms:

Plot will get you through times with no style better than style will get you through times with no plot.

This comes from one of the smartest editors I know:

Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature.


Literary tastes change.

Here are the best-sellers of the 1860s:

1860 Edward S. Ellis, Seth Jones
1860 Miriam Coles Harris, Rutledge
1860 Ann Stephens, Malaeska
1863 E.D.E.N. Southworth, The Fatal Marriage
1863 A.D.T. Whitney, Faith Gartney's Girlhood
1864 E.D.E.N. Southworth, Ishmael
1864 E.D.E.N. Southworth, Self-Raised
1865 Mary Mapes Dodge, Hans Brinker and His Silver Skates
1867 Horatio Alger, Ragged Dick
1867 Augusta Evans, St. Elmo
1868 Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

Okay, of those you've seen a movie version of Hans Brinker, you've heard of a "Horatio Alger story" (without ever having read one), and you've read Little Women, right?

Look at the list from a hundred years ago:

1900 Mary Johnston, To Have and To Hold
1901 Winston Churchill, The Crisis
1902 Owen Wister, The Virginian
1903 Mrs. Humphry Ward, Lady Rose's Daughter
1904 Winston Churchill, The Crossing
1905 Mrs. Humphry Ward, The Marriage of William Ashe
1906 Winston Churchill, Coniston
1907 Frances Little, The Lady of the Decoration
1908 Winston Churchill, Mr. Crewe's Career
1909 Anonymous [Basil King], The Inner Shrine

Of those, you've seen the movie version of The Virginian and know one line from it ("When you call me that, smile"), and you've never heard of any of the other books or authors, right? (This Winston Churchill wrote historical romances set during the American Civil War and shouldn't be confused with Sir Winston Churchill, the British prime minister during WWII.)

Literary fame is fleeting; times change, tastes change, and the natural state of a book is Out Of Print.

Here ya go, guys: Bestseller lists, 1900-1995.

How many of those books do you recognize? How many have you read? How many are still in print?

You know what might be an interesting exercise? Find and read one book from each year's bestseller list. Shouldn't take you over a year to do it, and it'll prove an education.

Each new chapter starts half-way down a new page.


There are reasons you want to start half-way down a page.

First, the Official Reason: The big blank area allows the editor lots of room to write notes, instructions to typesetters, and so on.

Second, the Real Reason: If there are fewer words on the first page, it's less likely an editor is going to bog down and stop reading on the first page. Once you've got the poor bugger turning pages, you've got him.


Next: Quick'n'Dirty Story Injection Technique.

For the next month, watch a movie every night. You can do this by going to your local video rental place and picking out movies you've never seen before (extra points if you've never heard of them, even more points if you pick genres you don't particularly like), or by going to a local multi-screen theatre at a random time and seeing the Very Next Movie Showing that you haven't previously seen. Big box of popcorn is extra. Checking the movie listings in advance looking for something you want to see is not allowed.

The idea here is to fill your head with Images and Story Fragments. These will slop around between your ears and come out in Story of your own.

Yep, story bits for critique should go in Share Your Work with a note and a link here.

See announcement here: b27.ezboard.com/fabsolutewritefrm16.showMessage?topicID=397.topic

Chris's first bit plus commentary is here.

Geeze, qatz, when you did your market research did you look at Windhaven Press, Sherman Editorial Services, or dymk productions?

Fascinating info, Jeff -- and another reason to take great care when setting a story in a culture not your own.


Fun things:

Preamble to the Constitution, Diagrammed! (http://webster.commnet.edu/grammar/diagrams2/preamble.htm)

The Pledge of Allegiance, Diagrammed! (http://webster.commnet.edu/grammar/diagrams2/pledge.htm)

Those who are playing along at home can try diagramming this stanza from A Visit from St. Nicholas:

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.


Oh, a reflected boast: Sales (http://www.sff.net/people/greg/vppubs.html) by some of our Viable Paradise students.

Though Cultural Information about China and Japan is no more relevant here than details of horsemanship might be.

You need to be aware of as many details as you can, and you need to stay as close to the truth as you can in your fiction, to give your readers the confidence that you, the writer, know what you're doing, and to avoid throwing readers out of the story.

Thus, if you have your character going to room 4 on the fourth floor of a Japanese building, you might have some reader throw your book across the room. You want to avoid book-throwing.


The main thing that you need to do is be consistent. You can be consistent with the real world -- as in the examples given of Japanese house numbers. If you're writing fantasy or science fiction, you need to be consistent with your own creation, sufficiently that the readers will be aware that the hidden structures are solid.

It's not enough to be consistent. You have to be consistent with something.

The primary thing to be consistent with (and here is art!) is that you have to be consistent with your theme. Your book is a lie, through and through, but the theme is true. It's that truth the readers seek. The human mind seeks truth.

Knowing and keeping your theme in mind will provide the answers to plot questions as they arrive. The details will appear if you know your theme.

The theme also governs, and is governed by, the treatment. If you're writing a humor piece, and it isn't funny, it's lost. If you're writing horror, and it isn't scary, you're lost.

Here's another secret: Write your book as if every element, the characters, the plot, the story, the events, were literally true. Find a treatment (serious, humorous, detached, intimate) that best suits the presentation of the theme you're using. Make every detail consistent.

Make every plot point so clear that even the stupidest, most distracted reader will be able to follow it. Make every plot point so interesting that even the smartest, most involved reader will find it inherently satisfying. Be clear without being boring.

If you aren't consistent, the readers won't keep their suspension of disbelief. They won't live the illusion. They won't pick your book back up.

When one bearing burns out, the engine stops. Pay attention to the bearings. Your details are the bearings that the engine of your plot turns on.

There's even a term for putting too much of your research on the page: "I suffered for my art, and now it's your turn."

Keeping the rule that only words that reveal character, support the theme, and advance the plot belong in your novel should keep you from the worst excesses.

Research your characters, keep them consistent with your research, but (like the iceberg of cliche) 90% should never be seen.

No, no one came down from Mt. Sinai and said "Only one protagonist!"

At any given spot in your story the readers should have no doubt as to which character they're watching. That isn't to say that you can't have several of equal or nearly-equal importance.

As to parallel plots: Everything comes together at the climax.

Heck, I even did one novel with two separate stories, decades apart, told in alternating chapters, that only come together at the climax.

As to the main theme being obvious: All that matters is that it be there, that you know it, and that you stay consistent with it.

Glad your husband liked the pie.

Remember the master rule: You can do anything at all provided it works.

What "works"? Something that the readers accept. More than accept -- they approve with the sound of rapidly-turning pages.

I take it as a good sign.

That's a very good sign. When your readers keep turning pages because they can't help themselves, when they hand back the manuscript and ask, all on their own, "Do you have anything else?" then you're well up the road.

Up above I said: ...the readers should have no doubt as to which character they're watching..

This is because you, the writer, the artist, are directing their attention. The source of information, the source of interest, those are where you want the readers' attention to lie.

Here's your next assignment, everyone: Go to a professionally produced stage play. Watch to see how the director is directing your interest. Sure, there are other things on stage, other people on stage, at any given moment, but you'll find you're looking at one of them. Why? What are the clues?

Now, go see a top-line, critically praised movie. How does the director direct your interest? Why do you look at one part of the screen rather than another? Where does the information that you need to make sense of the climax come from?

Now, go see a professional magician do his or her act. How does he get you to look where he wants you to look? How does he achieve his effects?

Last, read a novel -- not just any novel, but a recent best selling yet critically acclaimed novel. How does the author direct your attention? How does the author get information across?

In all of these, I'm asking you not to watch these various performaces with your Joe-in-the-street eyes. Watch them with your writer's eyes. Watch to see the how, not merely the what. Yes, this may break the illusion for you. You aren't in the theatre to fall under the illusion, not this time. This time you're in the theatre to learn how to make the illusion.

You want to make illusions. Art is art. Art is illusion. Observe, learn, do.

Pay attention to the story-telling styles and modes. Use the information you learn from how others tell stories to make your own story-telling sharper.

Novels aren't movies, but movies are stories.

The address is now p197.ezboard.com/fabsolutewritefrm3.showMessageRange?topicID=257.topic&start=1&stop=20

I hope everyone updates their links. (And that includes you, Jenna -- the link to the Water Cooler on the Absolute Write front page is dead....)

Oh ... and if you just type in Learn Writing in Google, this thread comes up at the #1 hit.

I feel humbled by my success. I'd like to thank all the little people who helped me on my way ...

And that means that I have to come up with a nice substansive post Really Soon Now to justify the trust that y'all have demonstrated.

But first ... I have some galleys to do, for a story that will be coming out this coming October. It's a new adventure of a character we introduced in "Ecydsis" in the Otherwere anthology. (As of this morning Amazon only has 14 used copies available. Get one now before they're gone!)

(The story is "A Tremble in the Air" in Murder by Magic, which isn't even listed at Amazon yet. I'll let you know when it's available.)

In The Unstrung Harp: or, Mr. Earbrass Writes A Novel by Edward Gorey (a book that contains more truth about writing than any ten consecutive issues of Writer's Digest -- what do you mean you haven't gotten a copy yet?) we see Mr. Earbrass attend a literary dinner: "The talk deals with disappointing sales, inadequate publicity, worse than inadequate royalties, idiotic or criminal reviews, others' declining talent, and the unspeakable horror of the literary life."

What, then, are these unspeakable horrors?

I shall speak of them.

Elsewhere I've said that readings and signings and book tours rank slightly above oral surgery on the scale of Fun Ways To Spend Time.

Here are a couple of links you might look at:

A cartoon by Posy Simmonds (via the indispensable Making Light).

An article in The New York Times (via the equally indispensable Scrivener's Error).

Yes, readings and signings really are that bad. They take you away from your keyboard, which is where your major money-making takes place. The way to sell books is to a) write a book, and b) write another book. Suppose you have a really successful signing. You sell fifty books. Say these are $8.00 paperbacks, and you're making 10% royalties on them. You've just made $40, minus your agent's 15%, or $34. Which will get to you ... eventually. After the book's earned out, after reserve-against-returns has been met. In the next royalty period after that. A year? Two?

Did that pay for your gas to get to the store? Did that pay for the time you had to take off from writing? How about food and lodging? But really, it's a great Ego thing if you sell 50 books. You want to know what you'll probably get?


Bigger names than you or me have had no one show up to readings/signings. When John Grisham gets no one to show up (as he did in freakin' downtown Boston on one not-so-memorable occasion), where do you think we're going to fit on the food chain?

Want to talk about ego-killers?

So: survival tips.

First, do a joint reading/signing with another author. That way you'll have someone to talk to.

Second, put a bowl of Hershey Kisses on your table. That way people will come over to at least pick up some free candy. (Don't forget to subtract the price of that candy from your profits.)

Third, do your own press releases and publicity. Don't rely on the bookstore/your publisher to do that. (Subtract the price from your profits. Are we below zero yet?)

Next, when someone comes by and asks you about your book (or asks you for directions to another shop in the mall -- I've had that happen to me) don't tell them what your book is about. They'll say "I don't like [science fiction] [romance] [mysteries] [quirky literary masterpieces filled with wonderful insights into the human condition]." Instead, ask them what kind of books they like. Whatever the answer, find a way in which you can tell them that your book contains exactly those elements they mentioned. I'm sure you can do this ... novels have lots of different things in 'em, you're intimately familiar with your book, and you're creative. Go for it.

Okay, two more things for you to do:

Get and watch "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" (X-files) and "Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense" (from Millennium Season Two -- not yet available on tape or DVD). Those, too, tell the Truthiest Truth about being an author.

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'Twas but a dream of thee
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James D Macdonald

Learn Writing With Uncle Jim

May 2004

I've got to go through this thread and correct all my links to other Water Cooler threads.

And ... I'd appreciate a chance to read over and edit the compiled Wit and Wisdom document.

What do y'all think of creating a book over at CafePress, just as an experiment?

(I don't much like PDF, because it's hard to search, and limiting in its presentation. I can convert Word to HTML pretty easily, and have a lot of room on my own web page, if it comes to that.)

This is CafePress.

They offer a
Print-on-Demand publishing option.

Let's say that the Uncle Jim book was 100 pages.

It would cost out at $9.50 for Wire-O binding, $8.50 for Saddle-stitch, or $10 for Perfectbound. Add in a tiny bit of profit for your humble narrator, and it's $9.15 retail.

Whether this would be Worth It to anyone, I don't know.

I'm not in favor of going over as a group, or of organizing at one website to go visit a community at another website, to argue with them. Now if someone wanted to issue a polite invitation to come over here?

What's the exact URL?

Now I haven't seen the discussion there -- but in general, you write the way you practice writing, and it's possible for someone to get bad habits, for some definition of "bad," writing in a particular genre or style.

I emphasize care in your writing, in choosing your words and images carefully so that they all lead in one direction and support one theme. But that's just me.


Speaking of jealousy, here are some more
Writers' Deadly Sins.

Today in the Author's Toolbag, let's look at Dramatic Irony.

In Dramatic Irony, the reader knows something that the characters in the story don't know.

Let us turn, briefly, to the historical novel
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara.

The scene is in the Confederate camp at General James "Old Pete" Longstreet's headquarters, on the night of 30 June/ 01 July, 1863. General George Pickett has come up to Longsteet with something on his mind....

In this quoted section, General Pickett speaks first:


"Well, sir, now I don't mean this as a reflection upon you, sir. But well, you know, sir, my Division, my Virginia boys, we weren't at Chancellorsville."


"Well, you know we were assigned away on some piddling affair, and we weren't at Fredericksburg either; we were off again doing some other piddling thing, and now they've taken off two of my brigades, Corse and Jenkins, and sent them off to guard Richmond--Richmond, for the love of God-- and now, General, do you know where I'm placed in the line of march? Last, sir, that's where. Exactly last. I bring up the damned rear. Beg pardon."

Longstreet sighed.

Pickett said, "Well, I tell you, sir, frankly, my boys are beginning to wonder at the attitude of the high command toward my Division. My boys --"

"George," Longstreet said.

"Sir, I must--" Pickett noted Longstreet's face. "Now, I don't mean to imply this command. Not you, sir. I was just hoping you would talk to somebody."

"George," Longstreet paused, then he said patiently, "Would you like us to move the whole army out of the way and let you go first?"

Pickett brightened. That seemed a good idea. Another look at Longstreet's face.

"I only meant, sir, that we haven't--"

"I know, George. Listen, there's no plot. It's just the way things fell out. I have three divisions, right? There's you, and there's Hood and McLaws. And where I go you go. Right? And my HQ is near the Old Man, and the Old Man chooses to be here, and that's the way it is. We sent your two brigades to Richmond because we figured they were Virginia boys and that was proper. But look at it this way: if the army has to turn and fight its way out of here, you'll be exactly first in line."

Pickett thought on that.

"That's possible?"


"Well," Pickett mused. At that moment Lew Armistead came up. Pickett said wistfully, "Well, I had to speak on it, sir. You understand. No offense?"


"Well, then. But I mean, the whole war could be damn well over soon, beg pardon, and my boys would have missed it. And these are Virginians, sir, and have a certain pride." It occurred to him Longstreet not being a Virginian, he might have given another insult.


We see lots of technique here -- notice the planting of information right, left, and sideways. This might be a deadly expository lump, or an As-You-Know-Bob, but it is saved by the use of dialog, and the chacterization that is being done for both Pickett and Longstreet.

We are in third-person limited in this scene -- we see Pickett's thoughts, not Longstreet's. Pickett is being portrayed as upset, and as not terribly bright. It is quite clear what Longstreet's opinion of Pickett is.

Lots of good stuff in that scene -- yet what I wanted to point up here was the use of irony. We see Pickett thinking that the war might be over without his men seeing action. But the readers of this book will certainly know that within three days most of Pickett's men will be dead, killed in the doomed hopelessness of Pickett's Charge. That is what adds the poignancy to this particular scene, what might otherwise have been a recitation of facts necessary for the reader to know, but which all of the characters would already be perfectly familiar with. Surely Pickett knows how many divisions Longstreet commands, and surely Longstreet knows where in the column Pickett's men are marching.

Without that use of irony, this scene would be out of place.

Pray notice how every word reveals character, advances the plot, or supports the theme.

What Kind of Writer Are You?

To what should be no one 's surprise, I'm a "Plot Writer."

WordPerfect? It should have a "Save As" entry under "File," where you can save as .RTF.

I use WordPerfect myself (ver. 10 -- I don't know if it'll read version 11 files).

On computer safety:

Zone Alarm freeware firewall

AdAware freeware spyware removal

AVG freeware antivirus

Popfile freeware spam filter

Grr! shareware registry protection

Hints for writers:

The spell checker in your word processor doesn't relieve you of the necessity to proofread your flippin' text.

There, they're, and their are different words. Two, too, and to are different words. It's and its mean different things.

Outside the window she heard a redundant owl.

Can someone tell me just what the hey that's supposed to mean? There was one more owl than she needed? Guys, if you don't know what a word means, look it up. If you think you know what a word means, but it isn't a word you use every day, look it up.


On plot-driven vs. character-driven stories: I think all stories are both plot and character driven. The difference is in the mix -- some have more of one, some more of the other.


You want characters? I got characters.

He's an ungodly albino cop whom everyone believes is mad. She's an orphaned thirtysomething barmaid from a secret island of warrior women.

Those are the characters.

They fight crime!

That's the plot.


Together those make story.


Fresie, have you tried either the Positional Chess method or the Celtic Knotwork method of plotting?

For the chess analogy -- you don't need to play others. Work out the example games in Logical chess and understand why the moves are made.


Celtic knotwork (http://www.abbott.demon.co.uk/knots.html). Gracious. This is hard to do without pictures, but I'll try.

Construct a nice bit of knotwork, using your favorite method.

Let's do a nice linear border-kind of knot. It starts there to the left, runs to the right.

You have various
walls in place to make it interesting.

Now ... over there at the far right, is your climax, right? Who's there? Name the strands that pass through the climax with those people's names. I hope that you have two left-over strands, because we're going to name them for themes, one positive one negative (Honor/deceit for example).

Now color the lines back to the beginning, using different colors.

The opening scene will have those characters who arrive at the beginning (due to walls and such, some characters who were at the end may not arrive at the beginning. Add in different characters for those few).

Now, decide how long your chapters are going to be. Say you're doing thirty ten-page chapters.

Divided the braid into thirty segments.

Look at each segment. Which strand is on top? Which strands are mostly covered? Which are in the foreground? Which are moving most rapidly across the knot?

Those are your chapters, there is your focus, there is your motion.

Now, dream.

Dream, and type.

Someday soon, I may talk about how to use filecards.

Chris's story is here.

Yes. Every scene (not just the major ones, every one) needs to serve a purpose in your book.

You wouldn't glue a flowerpot to the hood of your car and tie a bedframe to the back bumper, just because you happened to have a flowerpot and a bedframe, would you?

Anything that fails to contribute to the story detracts from it.

Oh, Fresie -- that's just a little-bittie story outline. More a summary, really. Please, drop by my home page and pick out a book for yourself. (I've posted the first chapters from most of them.)

Uncle Jim, did you write all those books???

Yes, with my coauthor and beloved wife. As one of the characters says in The Price of the Stars, "It's all for sale."

My grandfather, Johan Esterl, owned one of the first movie theatres in Wisconsin. He'd been a publican; but when Prohibition was on the horizon, he invested in a nickelodeon.

The business did well. Every night he'd stand outside the theatre when the movie got out, shaking hands with the patrons.

"Good show, John!" folks would say.

"Better one tomorrow," he'd reply.

That's the something that's guided me. Give people entertainment. Give them a "better show tomorrow."

Folks, let's raise a beer to my grandfather.

He died before I was born, but all my life I heard about him, and nothing but good.

Several suggestions:

Break up the scenes. Every couple of pages, do a linebreak and switch to a more narrative-heavy scene.

Beware "blue screen work." That refers to actors working in front of a blue screen, where the special effects technicians will later add backgrounds, computer-generated characters, and so on. Don't have your characters working in an otherwise empty sound stage. You need to put in the backgrounds, bits of business, other characters, reactions, and so on.

Read your work aloud. At the point where you get annoyed with the endless dialog, the readers will be too. Put a checkmark in the margin there. Cut everything from that point on.

Find a novel by an author you admire. Find a chapter in that novel that contains dialog. Retype that chapter.

Look for the most telling lines of dialog. Use them to stand for the rest of the conversation.

There's no problem submitting books written in UK english to US publishers, provided you personally are from the UK and speak UK english like a native.

It's when Americans try to speak UK english and get it wrong that editors shake their heads in amazement.

American authors who write faux-Brit often miss things like jumper and torch even while using colour and kerb.

Be consistent with the language you're most familiar with.

If the story is sufficiently strong, the British usage won't matter. If the story isn't strong enough, a translation into American (missing some of the fine points there along the way) likely won't help.

If a publisher buys the work, and they decide to translate it into American idiom, they'll hire their own person to make the changes.

I defer to your expert knowledge, pdr.

I do know that British books that are reprinted in the USA are often "Americanized," and that it's not often the authors themselves who are doing it.

Okay, let's look at a scene.

First, the scene. Second, I'll try to explain word-by-word what I was thinking while writing it.

This is the opening scene from a short story. A bit over five hundred words, it goes three lines onto a third page in manuscript format.

Mrs. Roger Collins stood in the visiting room of her home. "Mansion" would have been a better word. The sun shone in through a bay window flanked by French doors. Filmy drapes kept the sun from bleaching the delicate cloth on the circular table in the center of the room. Spiced air from the gardens gently wafted in.

Mrs. Collins was expecting her friend Mrs. Frederick Baxter. She had something she wanted to talk to Shirley about. Last night the strangest thing happened. Mary Collins had known for years that the house was haunted, because there was a window on the second floor that would not stay closed if it wasn't locked. But last night, in the misty dark of twilight, while entering the upstairs guest bedroom, she saw the translucent shape of a young lady, and the apparition looked at her and she felt --

"Mary, dear!"

It was Shirley, being shown in by Mr. Collins. Mr. Collins had retired at the end of the war, and he had been very helpful during his wife's recent illness.

Mary had the tea things ready, and the tea itself, a nice oolong with a great deal of milk and sugar, occupied their time along with the small talk of doings in the town. Mr. Collins removed himself to his study. He had always played the stock market, and played it well. The war had left him wealthy, still quite young, for munitions had been greatly in demand. The prosperity that the whole nation now experienced made his investments more valuable by the day, while the contacts that he had across the nation gave him insights that perhaps other men didn't have.

Now was the time for Mary to tell the story, for that delightful frisson, in the bright afternoon.

"I'm sure you'll think I'm being silly," Mary said, "but I felt such a feeling of sadness coming from that woman. It was like a palpable wave. I gasped and took a step backward. Then I switched on the light, and she was gone!"

"You're so brave," Shirley said. "I'm sure I would have screamed and run."

"I was too surprised," Mary said. "And it wasn't until the light was on that I realized it wasn't a real woman at all; she was gone. She would have had to come past me to leave the room, you know. I looked under the bed and in the closet, and in the bathroom, but she was gone completely. It was only then that I realize I'd been able to see through her."

"You could? What are you going to do now?"

Mary's eyes sparkled, and she sipped her tea. "I thought it would such great fun to have a seance."

"Are you quite certain? I mean, if you felt this sadness ... that can't be good."

"She wants help, the poor thing," Mary said. "This is an old house. After all these years of opening the window, she's finally gotten to trust me enough to appear and ask for my help."

"What does Roger say about your plan?"

"Oh, I haven't told him. You know what a stick-in-the-mud he is."

Mrs. Roger Collins [Our protagonist] stood in the visiting room of her home. [I'm trying to show an upscale life, also that this is a woman who's taken her husband's name. It shows a social relationship, and a social class.] "Mansion" would have been a better word. [A bit of countersinking there for the benefit of the deaf old lady in the back row. Perhaps this was unnecessary. I might cut this from another draft, or I might not.] The sun shone in through a bay window flanked by French doors. [Simple description, to contrast with the fancier description that's coming in the next sentence. I'm trying to build a picture of the room.] Filmy drapes kept the sun from bleaching the delicate cloth on the circular table in the center of the room. [Lots of adjectives in that sentence, eh? The sun -- our scene is set in California, and our theme is bringing light to dark places (revealing secrets). Filmy drapes are ones that can be seen through. A mystery is obscured, but will be revealed. A character will later walk through those French doors. The table is the location of the seance that's being planned; its shape represents unity. Bleaching the tablecloth suggests that revealing the truth may not be a good thing. That the tablecloth can be bleached shows that it is not white -- it's not pure. That's the secret again, the mystery that will be revealed by the end.] Spiced air from the gardens gently wafted in. [That garden is the location of the climax. The secret is indeed a "spicy" one. It involves adultery, amongst other things. This room is an important location; other rooms in the house are described far less fully. Here the room must stand for the others -- the picture the reader gets will form a template for the rest of the house.]

Mrs. Collins was expecting her friend Mrs. Frederick Baxter. [Straight narrative, introduces a second major (but not main) character.] She had something she wanted to talk to Shirley about. [Lets us know that Mrs. Baxter also is her husband's property, that we're in a certain social millieu. Tells us the character's name (by which we'll know her for the rest of the story). I say "talk to" rather than "talk with" to show what the power relationship is between these two characters.] Last night the strangest thing happened. [Straight narrative, introduces the plot.] Mary Collins had known for years that the house was haunted, because there was a window on the second floor that would not stay closed if it wasn't locked. [Setting the genre. This is a ghost story, in addition to being a mystery. The window is a red herring, by the way, but it will give our characters something to think about and something to do while the rest of the plot works out. It will also motivate our characters to stand where they need to be standing for certain crucial developments later.] But last night, in the misty dark of twilight, [Hammering home the darkness/obscurity imagery; contrast with the sunny day (though the sun is obscured as well).] while entering the upstairs guest bedroom, [Another important location, used in the run-up to the climax] she saw the translucent [The clarity imagery again.] shape of a young lady, and the apparition looked at her and she felt-- [Oh, yes, indeed. Her feelings are very important in what is to come. But we aren't told just yet what those feelings were, because she thinks she knows them, but she really doesn't. I use the em-dash to show that the narrative is broken abruptly by the next bit of dialog. We're in third person limited, here, showing Mary's thoughts. The rest of the story will be in third person limited from the point of view of another character, who will be introduced in the next scene. This is the only time we'll be able to see our protagonist this clearly. We need to build up sympathy for her now.]

"Mary, dear!" [Dialog, breaking in on, and breaking up, that rather long narrative block we just had. Reinforces our protagonist's name. Reveals the charcter of the speaker.]
It was Shirley, being shown in by Mr. Collins. [Generally, it was is a weak opening for a paragraph. Shirley and Mr. Collins are major characters, but not protagonists. I don't want to take the focus off Mary Collins.] Mr. Collins had retired at the end of the war, and he had been very helpful during his wife's recent illness. [If I were doing this again, I'd have said the Great War rather than the recent war, in order to more firmly establish the time. That "recent illness" is very important, but I want to slip it by the readers. Sure, the clue's there, and it's on the very first page, but I don't want them to pick up on it yet. So, I put it in a weak paragraph that's also introducing Mr. Collins (the villain of the piece, as it happens).]

Mary had the tea things ready, and the tea itself, a nice oolong with a great deal of milk and sugar, occupied their time along with the small talk of doings in the town. [A busy, fussy sentence to show the frivolous nature of our main characters, and to contrast with what worse is to come. Reveals character, too -- these are tea drinkers (affected), who artificially sweeten their lives. The milk makes the tea very light and cool -- again the darkness/light secrets/truth theme.] Mr. Collins removed himself to his study. [Get him off stage, so we can get the rest of the plot rolling. "Removed himself" is affected -- we're putting on airs here. The sentence is otherwise quite plain, in contrast to the preceding one.] He had always played the stock market, and played it well. The war had left him wealthy, still quite young, for munitions had been greatly in demand. The prosperity that the whole nation now experienced made his investments more valuable by the day, while the contacts that he had across the nation gave him insights that perhaps other men didn't have. [More of Mr. Collins' character: "insights...other men didn't have" suggests secrecy (and he has a secret, oh my, yes). We talk more about the money he has ... he's nouveau riche. Perhaps he's a poser? I missed another opportunity to plant the timeframe here: Writing "greatly in demand in Flanders" would have done the trick. Someone who has made his money as a war profiteer is not exactly an admirable man. I'm trying to imply that he's not what he really seems, and is not a good person.]

Now was the time for Mary to tell the story, for that delightful frisson, in the bright afternoon. [Short paragraph, simple style, for contrast. The light imagery again. "Frisson" to show the class and style, and affected manner, of the characters. A weak opening on this paragraph, to contrast with the strong one that's coming, and perhaps make that one stronger than it otherwise would be by comparison.]

"I'm sure you'll think I'm being silly," Mary said, "but I felt such a feeling of sadness coming from that woman. ["That woman" is traditionally the name that wives give to their husbands' sweeties. Sadness, grief, woe -- yeah, we'll have that in spades before the end. Being silly? Yes, that's how Mary thinks of herself.] It was like a palpable wave. [Mary speaks in cliche. This to reveal character. She's shallow.] I gasped and took a step backward. Then I switched on the light, and she was gone!" [I'm hitting the light/dark truth/secrets theme again. Also moving the plot right along.]

"You're so brave," Shirley said. "I'm sure I would have screamed and run." [An ironic comment, when we learn what really happened, and see what will happen. Sets up the climax for the reader. Also reveals character.]

"I was too surprised," [You can say that again, sweetie.] "And it wasn't until the light was on that I realized it wasn't a real woman at all; she was gone. [Truth/reality light/dark knowledge/secrets. And a hint of the ultimate secret here. This sentence pulls a lot of freight.] She would have had to come past me to leave the room, you know. I looked under the bed and in the closet, and in the bathroom, but she was gone completely. [Yes, she's gone. If we want to talk about the young woman as being a character, no, she doesn't act in this story. But she's very important, as we'll see. It's important to me to show that she isn't really here, physically.] It was only then that I realize I'd been able to see through her." [The mystery will be revealed. I'm promising the reader that all will be made clear in the end. Making a deal with the reader -- go along with me, believe in ghosts for a minute, and I'll tell you what the reality is.]

"You could? What are you going to do now?" [Good questions. Get the plot moving.]

Mary's eyes sparkled, and she sipped her tea. "I thought it would such great fun to have a seance." [Good innocent fun. But toying with dark powers. All while holding that light, sweet tea. The sparkling eyes are for innocence. Innocence is one of the things that we'll lose when the revelation comes, when the light reaches the dark places.]

"Are you quite certain? I mean, if you felt this sadness ... that can't be good." [Listen to Shirley, Mary! Shirley is the reader's voice here. And she's right. It isn't good. But, if Mary doesn't have her seance this is going to be a very short story. So, holding the seance isn't such a very bad idea (waking the spirits of the dead, and possibly unholy things, isn't such a bad idea?) that we devolve into an idiot plot.]

"She wants help, the poor thing," Mary said. "This is an old house. After all these years of opening the window, she's finally gotten to trust me enough to appear and ask for my help." [Hoo boy is Mary wrong. That red-herring window shows up again. The rest of the story depends from this paragraph. It reinforces what's gone before, and sets up the rest. Very simple style, straightforward sentence construction. I want the readers to understand this one.]

"What does Roger say about your plan?" [Social construct: Mary is controlled by Roger.]

"Oh, I haven't told him. You know what a stick-in-the-mud he is." [But not that controlled. A deeply ironic statement, here, given what will be the final image of the climax. (Yes, mud is involved, and long thin things found in mud. Long, thin things that had been put there (stuck there, one could say) by Roger.]

[At this point we go to a linebreak. We never do see this promised seance, though we'll be told about it several times, and we will see a second seance in the same location with the same characters. The story resumes after the linebreak some weeks later and three thousand miles away, with a whole new character being introduced. Mary has a problem, a mild one. She wants to find out about the ghost. Working out that knowledge will take the rest of the story. We'll learn along the way that what she thought was her problem is nothing compared to what her problem really is.]


I took the bit about the window that won't close as a signal that Mrs. C isn't very rational. She'll believe any New Age nonsense that occurs to her. The house must be haunted? Well, it's a big house, probably an old one. Things in old houses often don't work. If your window won't close, you don't call an exorcist, you call a carpenter. (This lady is wealthy, empty-headed, and bored. She's looking for some excitement.) Then she sees a ghostly figure - right, she's worse off than I thought.

This is exactly right. And the window is just a window that doesn't work properly. Mrs. Collins is, in fact, mentally unbalanced. That's her "recent illness."

"The sparkling eyes are for innocence" - I understood them differently. I thought they were for mischief.

This is also implied. It's a School Girl All American Nancy Drew Girl Chums Together kind of image. She's also doing something naughty -- she's planning to do something behind her husband's back.

Their ages can be whatever works for you. What Mrs. Frederick Baxter (named for the owner of the Baxter Building, where the Fantastic Four have their headquarters) does with her purse, and how she greets her friend (air kiss? handshake?) doen't move the story forward, so I skipped it. Imagine what you like, it won't affect the story I'm telling. She's named Shirley for Shirley MacLaine (believer in the supernatural) and Shirley Jackson (author of some spooky short stories, including one about a haunted house). Roger is Brit slang for sexual intercourse, Collins is a mild alcoholic drink. Mary is a very common female name, it also is the given name of both the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene (the prostitute).

Mr. Collins will speak, later on, when he meets the next character. Right now he's not important; he's being introduced to get him in the story, and moving around. He'll be on the last page; he needs to be on the first one. We meet Frederick Baxter, once, briefly, later on. He has exactly one word of dialog.

Stick-in-the-mud is also a good description of how Roger dies at the climax. There's a reason I used that phrase (which is also a cliche, further revealing character), as the last line of this scene. Last lines occupy positions of power.

This scene is from a story is called "A Tremble in the Air." It's forthcoming in Murder by Magic edited by Rosemary Edghill, Warner/Aspect, November 2004.

This story brought in $370. If the anthology earns out there will be royalties, but you can't count on that. After an exclusive period, I'll be free to attempt to re-sell it to other markets that accept reprints.

No agent was involved -- agents don't generally deal with short stories.

I picked this one for a couple of reasons. One, it's a recent story so I do remember what I was thinking at the time, and Two, it's a sole-byline story, so all the word choices were mine, rather than a co-author's.

This is the final draft of multiple drafts, of course. The first draft was sketchier. The material needed to support the climax wasn't there since all the details of the climax hadn't been written. Material was added, dropped, and moved.

In the manuscript, the first page break came after "...during his wife's recent illness." (By that point I need to have the editor so interested that he/she will feel compelled to turn the page.) In the book itself, the first page break will come after "... at her and she felt --" (By that point the reader should be so interested that he/she will feel compelled to turn the page.)

Yes, it's true. You really do have that little time to interest the reader. Anything that doesn't move the story forward holds it back. Writing -- storytelling -- is an act of co-creation with your readers. The readers always put in their own interpretations, add things that have meaning for them, ignore things that they don't care about.

I've left two perfectly good explanations for the events in the story, one occult, one mundane. The reader is invited to play with them.

Specifically, I took the window from The Amityville Horror, where it was supposedly a real example of haunting, and made it mundane.

Meanwhile .....

A good set of guidelines. I don't know how good the publisher is -- they don't mention little things like what they pay -- but they've got some great guidelines.


Permission granted. Please provide URLs to my homepage and this discussion.

May I be so bold as to ask where you teach?

"It's the exposition, darling. I has to go somewhere."

First, from Shakespeare's Henry V, Act I scene ii:


Then hear me, gracious sovereign, and you peers,
That owe yourselves, your lives and services
To this imperial throne. There is no bar
To make against your highness' claim to France
But this, which they produce from Pharamond,
'In terram Salicam mulieres ne succedant:'
'No woman shall succeed in Salique land:'
Which Salique land the French unjustly gloze
To be the realm of France, and Pharamond
The founder of this law and female bar.
Yet their own authors faithfully affirm
That the land Salique is in Germany,
Between the floods of Sala and of Elbe;
Where Charles the Great, having subdued the Saxons,
There left behind and settled certain French;
Who, holding in disdain the German women
For some dishonest manners of their life,
Establish'd then this law; to wit, no female
Should be inheritrix in Salique land:
Which Salique, as I said, 'twixt Elbe and Sala,
Is at this day in Germany call'd Meisen.
Then doth it well appear that Salique law
Was not devised for the realm of France:
Nor did the French possess the Salique land
Until four hundred one and twenty years
After defunction of King Pharamond,
Idly supposed the founder of this law;
Who died within the year of our redemption
Four hundred twenty-six; and Charles the Great
Subdued the Saxons, and did seat the French
Beyond the river Sala, in the year
Eight hundred five. Besides, their writers say,
King Pepin, which deposed Childeric,
Did, as heir general, being descended
Of Blithild, which was daughter to King Clothair,
Make claim and title to the crown of France.
Hugh Capet also, who usurped the crown
Of Charles the duke of Lorraine, sole heir male
Of the true line and stock of Charles the Great,
To find his title with some shows of truth,
'Through, in pure truth, it was corrupt and naught,
Convey'd himself as heir to the Lady Lingare,
Daughter to Charlemain, who was the son
To Lewis the emperor, and Lewis the son
Of Charles the Great. Also King Lewis the Tenth,
Who was sole heir to the usurper Capet,
Could not keep quiet in his conscience,
Wearing the crown of France, till satisfied
That fair Queen Isabel, his grandmother,
Was lineal of the Lady Ermengare,
Daughter to Charles the foresaid duke of Lorraine:
By the which marriage the line of Charles the Great
Was re-united to the crown of France.
So that, as clear as is the summer's sun.
King Pepin's title and Hugh Capet's claim,
King Lewis his satisfaction, all appear
To hold in right and title of the female:
So do the kings of France unto this day;
Howbeit they would hold up this Salique law
To bar your highness claiming from the female,
And rather choose to hide them in a net
Than amply to imbar their crooked titles
Usurp'd from you and your progenitors.

Now read the same speech, translated into Damon Runyon-speak by Mike Ford. (http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/005174.html#47815)


That was, I think, four drafts.

First, I get the big outline of the story down. I throw in lots of stuff while writing; later I'll remove things that don't turn out to be important.

If I mention some object in the opening, the readers will expect me to use that same object in a meaningful way at the end.

I look at the end to make sure that everything that's been used there has been adequately mentioned earlier.

I make sure the tension/action curve is moving in the right direction.

(Take that seance. I mention that it's going to happen, in the scene you read. Then comes a one-two-three: We hear about it, it's a description in a letter. This is lower-tension. Next we hear, it's being described verbally. Third seance scene: We witness a recreation of that seance, and watch it live, in person, right in the room. That seance forms the center point of the story; it's a breaking point, and from that we go into a brief valley, then swoop up to the top of the climax.)

Chris, is your story Absolutely Done, Ready To Send Out (all the steps I outlined finished)? Read by your friends, re-read and revised after a week in the desk drawer, all that stuff?

What I do for fun is my own business, y'know. Just because someone's become a major league ball player doesn't mean he can't knock a few balls around with friends at a picnic, right?

Here's Pericles, Prince Of Tired Plots (http://www.yarnivore.com/francis/archives/000367.html), The Skinhead Hamlet (http://www.sa.rochester.edu/drama/skinhead.html), and Romeo and Juliet Performed by Peeps (http://www.theplainjane.com/peep_plays/rj_scene01.html).

I'm not entirely sure you're interested in writing commercial fiction, Solitarely, so I'm not sure what help I can give you.

Once, many years ago (for reasons that seemed good to me at the time), I drove from Norfolk, Virginia, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, without benefit of a map or pre-planning. I mean, Pittsburg is northwest of Norfolk. Head northwest and look for the signs. What's the problem?

Around about three o'clock in the morning, in (I think) West Virginia, at an all-night diner by the side of a secondary road, I asked the nice young waitress "How do you get to Pittsburgh from here?"

She thought a moment and said, "I'd take a plane."

You might think that most writers can handle the noun-verb part of writing and reliably produce grammatically solid prose. You'd be wrong. I see tons of stuff that is only written in English by the most generous standards.

You know how I keep saying that if you can produce two consecutive pages of grammatically-correct English with standard spelling that you're already in the top ten percent of the slush pile? Believe it.

The second thing is this: Newer writers have a hard time figuring out what is part of the story and what isn't. They haven't yet figured out how to cut away the non-essential. My harping on how anything that doesn't add to the story detracts from it is also quite true.

The last thing is this: The writer needs to get past the trite stories. The inconsequential stories. The ones where the reader says "Oh, yes -- been there, done that." The ones where the reader says, "So what?"

I've recommended Brust's The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars. That novel speaks directly to the sudden "ah-ha!" moment when you're no longer just putting down words but are suddenly writing.

The way to reach that "ah-ha!" moment is practice. Become fluid, become proficient. Work on more than one level at once.

But isn't that the hardest part for a new writer? To know what is "original"? It's very subjective. What makes an "alien invasion" or "murder mystery" story fresh and exciting or "seen that show before" dull?

Yep, it's the hard part. But ... if you can do the Grammatical thing, and you can do the No Waste thing, you're in publishable terrritory already. If you can get the Original thing as well, now you're in Consistently Publishable land.

You're mistaking surface appearance for originality.

Imagine chess sets. You know, you have your Staunton pattern chess sets. You have your Elves and Orcs chess sets. You have your Star Trek Enterprise and Klingons chess sets.

Those aren't the game.

The originality comes in the moves that those pieces make, not in what they're painted to resemble.

Chris -- you've gotten it to a stage where you would, possibly, send it to an editor?

You re-read it after it sat in your cellar, and you think it's Pretty Good?

Okay, tell you what: mail it to me. .RTF attachment.

[email protected]

No need to publish it to the net.

-- JDM


.RTF is a file protocol. It stands for Rich Text Format. Your wordprocessor should have it as an option under "Save As."

The nice thing about .RTF is that any wordprocessor can open a RTF saved by any other wordprocessor and maintain formatting, and RTF won't carry macro viruses.

Some great advice
here. Although it's specifically about poetry, it's applicable to writing in general:

What would I recommend as far as "trying your hand?" Start by slavishly imitating poets you admire. This is the opposite of the standard advice that you need to concentrate on "finding your own voice." ... Your own voice will take care of itself as your craft matures. Your own voice will, if you're going to have one, insist on emerging. In the meantime, learn the craft.

Punctuation, yes. What do you want to know?

(Punctuation tells us when to breathe.)

Okay, here's a rule for you:

You are allowed one exclamation point per novel. Use it wisely.

No, Jules. I'm exaggerating. A little.

You'll need to hold a gun to each exclamation point's head and make it justify its existence.

A story is as long as it is. Make sure all your words are the right ones. When you have only the right words, and all the right words, then look for a market that accepts material like yours. All markets are looking for the right words; none are looking for the wrong words.

50K words is a novel. To be commercial -- is there a subplot that perhaps needs a bit of firming up to properly counterpoint the main plot? See if there's 10K of character development or theme that got slighted in the pruning, or was never written in the first place.

If not--50K it is, and start sending it out (usual cautions about beta readers, reading it aloud, and so on).

Meanwhile, you aren't excused from your requirement to spend two hours today writing original prose.

Um, what was the question?

Generally speaking, once you have a minimal competency in punctuation, it doesn't really matter.

Avoid total howlers. That's all you need do.

If you can tell a story, the pubisher will hire a copyeditor to fix your punctuation. You'll read over what the copyeditor did, pull out your "STET dammit" rubber stamp, and remove those "corrections" you don't agree with.

It's a non-problem.

Let me expand a bit.

Remember, while you're writing every day, you're reading every day, too. Professionally, traditionally, published works.

The best you can get your hands on. (Life is short -- too short to read another Xanth novel.)

You'll be seeing sentence structure, word choice, punctuation, storytelling, in action on a daily basis. You'll learn how it all fits together -- more so since now that you're writing you'll be more attuned to notice all the technical bits and pieces that make up the written language.

Do your reading, do your writing, and let nature take its course.

Modify it according to what's possible, for your situation, Chris.

You know yourself and your situation, best. For me, self-discipline is important.

I've already mentioned setting the alarm clock two hours early to make writing time. There's the lunch hour for reading a paperback. An hour of revision in the evening instead of TV. Saturday afternoon down at the seashore reading a chapter aloud to the gulls and waves. Make something you can live with.

Please, don't let anyone tell you that this isn't hard work. I'm sure you've heard that before, I tell you again that it's true.

Well, here's what you can do. Drop by a bookstore and pick up one of the high school Grammar Review workbooks with lots of sample problems in them. The SAT Prep books might do you. Find one that you like, read it, take the sample tests, review what you got wrong.

That's really all you'll need.

Thanks, Sonic.

The next book'll be even better.

Euan, without reading your work I don't have a clue.

Here's something that you can try, yourself, though.

Do you have a favorite novel, where you have great sympathy with the characters?

Read it with an eye toward how that author did the trick.


Do your characters have lives? Perhaps you won't put those lives in your book, but do you know them?

The fellow who got killed. Who was his first girlfriend? Why did they break up? Where was his favorite vacation place? Did he have a pet when he was young?

Tell me more about your book, okay?


Oh, yeah, one more thing: When readers tell you that there's a problem, they're almost always right. When they tell you how to fix the problem, they're almost always wrong.

Now: On using filecards.

Take a stack of filecards. Number them (I use upper left-hand corner) 1, 2, 3, ... and so on. These are chapters. They're major divisions. They're scenes. They're whatever you want them to be. You may have only two at first, 1 and 2, the opening scene and the climatic scene, only a sentence on each. It's okay, doesn't matter. You can ignore dialog at this point. You can ignore setting.

Now, between these cards, put other cards, numbered 1.1, 1.2, and so on. You put intervening scenes on these. Things that must happen after one event but before another.

Between 1.2 and 1.3, if you think of something that has to go there, put 1.2.1, 1.2.2 .... To any level you want. You will have the whole of your novel there, though you may not know all the details until the second or third drafts.

You are answering questions here: What happens next, and what does the reader need to know so he won't be confused?

One of the smartest editors I know says "Never tell the reader anything before he cares!"

Too much outlining can take the fun out of the writing. Too much outlining can substitute for writing. Only writing is writing. Thinking about writing isn't writing, talking about writing isn't writing, planning to write isn't writing. Outlining isn't writing.

After you're happy with the overall shape of your plot, that you've got the characters entering, doing things, and leaving, now's the time to type up a strong outline.

A strong outline may be dozens (if not scores) of pages long, and can resemble you telling a friend about a book that you read or a movie that you saw. You'll include the major scenes, and sparkling bits of description, you'll start to fill in dialog.

From this strong outline, write your novel. Some people, having written an outline, put it aside and write their books from memory. I can't say that's a bad thing.

After you're done writing of your novel comes revision. This is the smoothing, the sanding, the staining, the waxing, and the polishing of this thing you've created.

Here you do the Agricultural Work. If you have something in your climax, you need to make sure it was properly planted in the beginning. You add foreshadowing to the start and middle of your book.

You read your opening. If you have something planted in the begining that didn't sprout by the end, you need to root it out.

Your minor characters are characters.

That is, they have hopes, dreams, plans. When they die, those plans are cut short.

They are each the hero of their own stories. They don't know that they aren't the main character and are only there to move the plot along.

They also need to be motivated by something other than "the author said so."

I know this is a case by case question, but are there any general ways of making chapters interesting?

Interesting people in interesting places do interesting things.

Note the verb: "to do."

A character moves, either physically, mentally, or emotionally.

Short anwer: Stuff happens.

You want plot? You want interest? I got 'em both right here.

Observe Stuff Happening in the fifteen minute version of Troy.

See if you don't read to the very end.

Yes! Stealing this plot is Okay!

Jim, if your writing here has gotten locals bought a dozen of your books; two dozen, even; how many cents per hour does it come to?

Not a whole friggin' lot, Piano.

But I tell you what, guys. Yeah, it's nice that you buy my books. Really, I want you to. Dozens. They make excellent gifts. Don't forget to review 'em on Amazon, either.


What would make me happier would be for y'all to get some of the other books and films I've been recommending right the way along in here. Really, not kidding, these works will explain concepts I'm trying to get across. I'm not recommending them just to fill space. Get 'em, read/watch 'em (or build the model), understand what I'm trying to say.

This is where the coach says "You get out of it what you put into it!" and all the players yell "Yeah!" and they go and beat the powerhouse school that everyone thought was going on to the State Championships, and the mysterious benefactor comes across with a huge donation so that Old Pivnich Tech can stay open rather than being sold to a real estate developer, and there's a happy ending when Billy and Sally (quarterback and cheerleader, respectively) pledge "We'll always be true!" and get married, the end.

Quitters never win! Winners never quit! Drat those torpedoes, just drat them!

(Notes on Billy and Sally: For a while, there, it looked like Sally was going to marry (or at least go all the way with) Sam, quarterback of the powerhouse school that everyone thought would win, but at the last moment she remembered that Billy was her true love, so she turned down Sam's improper suggestions, went back to the sorority house to put her BIC and write original prose for two hours, then scampered to the stadium during the final minutes of the Big Game in time to cheer Billy on so that he was able to make an 80 yard pass with just seconds left on the clock, winning the game.)

Meanwhile, get the books I suggested
and read 'em.

Each passing day I only seem to realise what my novel lacks.

This is good. This is learning the craft.


Some people have asked me how to track submissions. I know that there are some software packages out there (some quite pricey) that track submissions.

Let me tell you how to track submissions.

You have finished your book or story (and I mean finished -- all revisions done, ready to go).

Make a master copy of that story.

Put it in a file folder.

Make a list of all the markets you can think of that are suitable for this story. Start with the best market you can think of -- for whatever "best" means to you. (For me, "best" means most prestige/highest paying.) Each story may well have a different list.

Put these markets on a sheet (or two sheets, or whatever) of paper, ranked from first to last.

Put this sheet with the master copy of your manuscript.

Send out the manuscript to the first place on that story's list.

When the manuscript comes back (and it probably will), draw a line through the address of the publisher who just returned it, and send it that same day to the next place on the list. Continue until you have a line drawn thorugh every market on that story's sheet.

Have new markets opened up since you made the list? Try there. If no new markets, put that story to bed in your desk drawer for a minimum of one year, then re-read it with an eye to rewriting it.

Now, suppose a market writes back saying "yes" to a story. Circle that publisher's address on that story's sheet. Go to every other file folder you have, and put that market's address on your list, immediately under the last crossed-out address (provided it is a suitable story).

Suppose a publisher writes back with a rejection, but with the note "try us with your next."

Cross out that publisher on that story's sheet. Go to all or your other stories' sheets and put that publisher (provided it is a suitable market) directly under the last address that you crossed out.

Simple, easy, no problems.

The master copy of the manuscript is so you can photocopy a new one if the one that comes back is worn-looking, or if you are using disposable manuscripts.

What do I mean by "suitable market"? Don't send your hard-boiled private-eye stories to Little Bitty Bunny Tales magazine. Don't send "My Happiest Christmas" to Buckets of Blood magazine. You're still responsible for knowing the market.

Meanwhile, write another darned story.

A high-quality photocopy is indistinguishable from the output of a laser printer (they use identical processes).

We're not in the days anymore when photocopies turned out white-on-black, or when photocopies were on that dreadful slick paper.

You're making your photocopies from the master document each time, not submitting a copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy.

So yes, photocopy submissions are allowable. With disposable manuscripts, even expected.

(When you're getting ready to send a manuscript back out, take a moment to run through it to make sure it still has all its pages, and no one's turned one of them upside down or something.)

(And yes, Courier does use less toner.)

Two things, paritoshuttam:

1) Write the full book and see how it reads. You can shuffle and reshuffle the order of scenes in second and third drafts.

2) As a general principle, only violate strict chronology for the very best of reasons.

But I see the danger of going in a linear way--I am not able to build up the suspense, the anticipation.

That's what "foreshadowing" was invented for.

The Cask of Amontillado by E. A. Poe is an exercise in foreshadowing.

Take, for example:

The man wore motley. He had on a tight-fitting parti-striped dress and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells.

(Montressor is dressed as a fool; Fortunato fools him.)

"Come," I said, with decision, "we will go back; your health is precious. You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was. You are a man to be missed. For me it is no matter. We will go back; you will be ill, and I cannot be responsible. Besides, there is Luchresi --"

"Enough," he said; "the cough's a mere nothing; it will not kill me. I shall not die of a cough."


"I drink," he said, "to the buried that repose around us."


"You are not of the masons."

"Yes, yes," I said; "yes, yes."

"You? Impossible! A mason?"

"A mason," I replied.

... but it's just such a BIG thing to approach.

One word at a time, one page at at time.

We were still calling our first novel "the short story" when we'd hit page 200. Talk about "unclear on the concept...."

From another thread [link is dead] :

What agents do:

You're hiring an agent for his/her expertise.

An agent:

a) Knows which editors are looking for what properties. The agent is better able to fit a given manuscript with the house most likely to offer on it,

b) Is able to negotiate a more advantageous contract, knows what's a good deal from a particular house,

c) Keeps track of money coming in, contract terms, reversions, and so on,

d) acts as a guarantor to the editor that the manuscript is worth reading, and is appropriate to the house; this moves the manuscript to a higher position in the to-read pile,

e) can arrange "auctions," which are a formalized form of simultaneous submission,

f) can make suggestions to improve your manuscript before submission.

The agent is a go-between, to handle the business end, so you and the editor can pretend that all you're interested in is art.

Note: The best agent in the world can't sell a bad manuscript.

More important: The best agent in the world won't even try to sell a bad manuscript. Editors know this. That's what makes the guy the best agent in the world.

A useful agent has sold books that you've heard of.

So ...

Take a book that you've read and liked. Find out who agented it. Write to that guy.

Where in New Hampshire? Waaaaaay up north. Think "Canada" and you're about right.

Hi, Julie --

Would you believe me if I said "I don't know?"

It really depends on your book. No one said your book even has to be divided into chapters.

Some rules of thumb:

A chapter is a comfortable length to read at one sitting. If your chapters are ten to fifteen pages, that works for a lot of people. Three-to-four page chapters give a feeling of breakneck pace, which might work for a thriller, or might not.

The question is -- where does the break feel natural to you?

A chapter ending contains a reason for the person who put the book down last night before he went to sleep to pick your book up, rather than watch TV, start another book, or play touch football.

Sub-plots -- as long as the reader isn't confused about where they are in the plot, anything you do is okay. Do not confuse the reader.

Your hooks don't need to be obvious at all. (Being too obvious can give your novel a rather Hardy Boys feeling.) They just have to be there.

Do you think that (generally speaking) the reader would feel somehow cheated if, by the end of the story, the 'bad' from the beginning becomes 'good' too (only that a different kind of good ), and the initial 'good' moves towards 'bad' (from a different perspective than that at the beginning).

Well, golly. You've just described the theme arc in the first three of our Mageworlds (http://www.sff.net/people/doylemacdonald/mageworl.htm) books . (Buy one! Bettter still, buy a dozen! They make excellent gifts!)

Or, as someone else (my beloved co-author, to be precise) once said: "The conflict of good vs. evil is all very well, but if you want to make your characters squirm, try the conflict of good vs. good."

Is all foreshadowing that subtle?

It certainly can be. The entire atmosphere of your book is an artistic space that you create, where everything points to its end. You are responsible for providing the information to the readers, though it can be in very small ways.

When I make a stew I don't dump in the entire box of salt.

Isn't it possible to be too subtle?

Sure. It's all possible. This is why we call this particular trade an art.

If this were a science we could look up a table that would tell us how much and what kind of foreshadowing to use.

Write ten to fifteen pages per day, and you'll have ten novels per year.

See how easy it is?

On the other hand, The Killer Angels (http://www.powells.com/cgi-bin/partner?partner_id=34766&cgi=search/search&searchtype=isbn&searchfor=0345348109) uses tons of internal dialog and none of it is italicized.

So ....

Be consistent with yourself, and see how it reads.

If anyone was thinking of applying to the Viable Paradise Workshop (http://www.sff.net/paradise/), the deadline is about three weeks away.
If you aren't into a week-long workshop, I'll be at Writers' Weekend (http://www.writersweekend.com/) in Chicago, 17-19 June, 2005.

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'Twas but a dream of thee
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James D. Macdonald
Learn Writing With Uncle Jim
AbsoluteWrite Water Cooler

June 2004

1. Rewrites: This question was asked a couple pages ago, but I don't think it was ever answered. When you *re*write, do you take a pass through on each issue individually (e.g., one pass for scene order, then another for adequate description, a third for consistant characterization, etc.) or do you smooth over the rough edges on *everything*, one pass at a time?

Sometimes this, sometimes that. Use whatever method works for you. You're going to be re-writing your story a lot of times. You won't let it out of the house until all of those issues are covered. What order you do them in, one at a time or all together, will be invisible to your readers.

2: On agents: It seems like very few markets in my chosen genre (SF/F) accept unagented manuscripts. Meanwhile, most agents want a only query letter, and no one reads manuscripts any more. So it seems like a case of "you need an agent to get a book published, but you need a published book to get an agent." Comments? Do I need to pay my dues by writing short fiction first? Or am I mischaracterizing the issue?

Having an agent isn't necessary in order to get a novel published, but it helps. Being published isn't necessary in order to get an agent, but it helps.

The one thing that's truly required is having an outstanding manuscript. If by "paying your dues by writing short fiction" you mean "practicing enough so that your manuscript will shine," then do so. The one thing you must have is that manuscript.

3. Bios: I have plenty of credentials, just none related to fiction writing. Am I correct in assuming that no one cares, and my bio is essentially a blank sheet of paper? What is relevant, in the fiction world?

What is relevant in the fiction world? If your story is about a gerbil breeder, and you breed gerbils, then say so. Otherwise, who cares about those furry little rodents?

What is relevant is a) recent, impressive sales, and b) life experience directly related to your current story.

4: Slushpiles: I've heard plenty of stories, here and elsewhere, about the awesome lack of quality found in slushpiles. But are there ever any gems? Uncle Jim, have you ever found anything worthwhile in a slushpile? Or, rather, the real question is: how often do publishers actually publish out of the slush?

Yes, I have found stuff in slush piles that has gotten passed up the line. If there's ten pieces of crud for every good story or ten thousand pieces of crud for every good story it doesn't matter if you've written the good story.

Think about it this way: with the exception of people like Paris Hilton, absolutely everyone you see on the shelves came out of one slushpile or another. (And Paris Hilton didn't write her own book; the acutal author started out in a slushpile somewhere.)

5: On writing: A question on the passive voice. I know that active verbs are preferred. However, I come from a background in technical writing, where the passive voice is often used, and I try to be conscious of my own use of active versus passive. There are times that the passive voice just sounds better to me; however, I'm suspicious of my own sense of the matter. Can you give some examples of situations in writing where the passive voice is preferred, or is it always verboten? Or, used in moderation, is it a style issue?

It's a style issue. This is where reading a lot of current fiction will help you. This is also where retyping published fiction will help you.

My inclination is to do the following: Use Trumble for all references, until my heroine is permitted to use Harry, then use Harry for the heroine’s and author’s POV, and only use Trumble in the other characters’ dialogue.

You might find it interesting to read The Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoevsky. You'll find the characters calling one another by a wide variety of names, from very formal to very informal.

Have a plan, be consistent. Your readers are your friends.

For what it's worth, Doyle and I did exactly the same trick with names in The Stars Asunder and A Working of Stars.

I kinda think it worked.

What do you guys think about speed writing?

You mean this?

Me, I'm a fast typist. I'm very much in favor of keeping your fingers moving on the keyboard at all times.

Generally speaking, anything that helps you get words on paper is a good thing.

I'd take any beta readers I could get. Sometimes people who hate the genre will give you the best, most insightful comments.

I wouldn't prep them in any way. (You won't be prepping the readers in the bookstores, will you?)

The only guidelines I'd give them would be "please be honest."

Regardless of what they say, thank them. And mean it.

If you're looking for readers outside of a narrowly defined genre, you have to look at all readers and all expectations. Think of Michael Crighton in contrast with Uncle Orson: Card's books may be objectively better SF, but Crighton reaches tons more readers.

Go, and write your book.

Do it now. Come back when you have ten original pages or two hours of new writing.

The reason we're called "writers" is because we write.

That's wonderful, Yeshanu.

Once the words are on paper we can play with them.

Speaking of which, I'm planning to play with some words later on tonight. Everyone's invited.

Way back here we started writing a story, sort of on a bet, sort of on a dare. Sort of as a learning experience.

Now the story is written.

Shall we play with it some, at least the first scene?

I think we shall.

Remember, this is just black marks on a white page (or electrons making phosphors glow on a screen). It's not about the author, it's about the words.

Discussion/rewriting of this story will take place in the Share Your Work forum.

'Said' is invisible.

The way a person says something should come to the reader from their understanding of the character, the circumstances, and the words the character is saying.

Many times 'said' itself isn't needed -- just sprinkled in often enough that the reader doesn't get lost.

Now ... having said that ... English is a wonderful language with lots and lots of words. If it's necessary to your story, yes, absolutely, use some word other than said. Just be sure that it's necessary, and not caused by not-as-well-written-as-possible dialog.

(Beware of adverbs combined with "said," lest you wind up with a Tom Swiftie: "My headache is gone," Tom said absentmindedly.)


Let me quote from a book review I wrote a long time ago:

I choose now, at random, page 253. Here are the "said" words, in order:

* "Belano whispered,"
* "Wareagle reported,"
* "McCracken muttered,"
* "rasped Sal,"
* "Wareagle said."

Finally got one. I was hoping for a shutout. Oh, well.

Alas, it must be late.

A Tom Swiftie is unintentional humor:

"I love hotdogs," Mandy said with relish.

"The prisoners are coming down stairs," said Tom condescendingly.

"My frog is dead," he croaked.


(But yes -- don't you find meaningful description better than shortcuts? You're the author; you should do the work, not force the long-suffering reader to do it.)

(This doesn't mean that longer descriptions are better than shorter stuff. Depends on the mood you're setting, and your style.)

As noted above, if you type Learn Writing into Google, you get this thread as your top result.

So I'm kinda interested in the nigritude ultramarine challenge.

Has anyone of you guys ever submitted the usual '3 chapters and synopsis' even if the whole novel has not been finished yet?

I do it all the darned time.

Is this just asking for trouble?

Depends. Are you a first-time author, or do you have a long track record of writing publishable novels and hitting deadlines?

To bring together in one place various of my comments from other threads:


I'd say that a tiny bit of creativity combined with a willingness to sit down and do the work will beat the heck out of gobs of creativity combined with a dilettante spirit.

Practice doen't help a bit if you're practicing mistakes over and over again.


Practice helps if you're improving, if you're thinking about what you're doing, if you're reinforcing what works and suppressing what doesn't.

I've run into writers who've written their million words, whose millionth word was as cruddy as word one. Mere typing doesn't teach; seeking feedback, and taking it, may.

-- Age, Experience, and Writing


I know, "Keep a journal" is almost universal young-writer advice. It's almost always a waste of time, too.

Taking Notes on Life [This link is dead]


Many (most?) bestsellers are soon forgotten. Check out the bestseller lists from half a century ago. How many have you even heard of, far less read?

"Bestseller" is a genre as much as "romance," "western," or "mystery" is a genre. You'll find poorly written bestsellers in exactly the same way (and I suspect the same proportion) as you'll find poorly written horror novels, military novels, or lawyer novels.

"It's crap but we sell a ton of them" is itself a genre, and a particularly hard one to break in to.

Remember Sturgeon's Law: Ninety percent of everything is crud.

As we get older, as we read more books, works that once might have seemed fresh, new, even daring become "been there, done that."

It's the down-side of experience.


Traditionally published authors get their families, friends, and mailing list to buy their product. Vanity authors aren't the only ones who use that business tactic.

Sure, and Scientologists are required to buy a certain number of L. Ron Hubbard's books to keep them on the best seller lists.

I think it's pathetic all the way around.

On the other hand, if y'all want to buy my books (http://www.sff.net/people/doylemacdonald/), please feel free. (This isn't to put any of 'em on any bestseller lists, it's because I think they're dandy books, and I want to be read. Buy 'em used if you like. Cheaper for you that way.)

Best sellers [dead link]


All it takes to make your manuscript "solicited" is that you sent a query letter and they said "Sure, send it along."

Even for the ones who say "no unagented," all that's happened is the location of the slush pile moved, from the publisher's office to the agent's office.

There's even a category called "agented slush." That is, submissions from agents no one's ever heard of.

Slush happens.


A bad agent is worse than not having an agent at all.

A useful agent is one who has sold a book you've heard of.

Here's an interesting article (http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/004772.html).

(Note: that site is semi-broken. If all you see is a bunch of ads and "loading" in the top bar of your browser, click on the "back" icon on your browser until you see text. If the text ends at the bottom of the ads, press your F11 key twice. That should get you the rest of the text.)


"How long does it take?" is out of your hands.

Instead of giving yourself an ulcer, write another book.


Speaking of "unknown agents" it's not unheard-of for writers to print up some nice letterhead as the "Morning Dew Literary Agency" or summat, and submit their own works as if they themselves were an agency.

Sure, that gets 'em past the "no unagented manuscripts" hurdle, but it still puts 'em in the "agented slush" pile.

Need I say that this is a terrible idea?


The agent is for your next book, and the book after that. The agent is for your career.

And ... for the book you just sold ... sure it's sold, but the contract hasn't been negotiated yet. The agent should be able to get you better terms on the deal you've just been offered. The agent will also track rights and royalties, and resell this work after it reverts.

Look, agents aren't required. But they sure are nice to handle the business end of things.


If bad writers could sucessfully fake being good writers, they wouldn't be bad writers.

-- <a href="http://p197.ezboard.com/fabsolutewritefrm3.showMessage?topicID=588.topic" target="_new">Why slush piles?</a>


There are only seven (some say eight) plots in the world.

The differences come in how you combine them, and what furniture you put around them.

For you next assignment:


Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett



A Fistful of Dollars

Miller's Crossing

Last Man Standing

Compare and contrast. How are the plots similar? What makes these stories different?

Another axiom:

All art is in conversation with other art.

Our own works are commentaries on the works we've read.


Man against man, man against nature, man against himself, and man against God.

The other plots are: "The Brave Little Tailor," "The Man Who Learned Better," and "If This Goes On (or, "What If"). Some say "Reader, I Married Him" is the eighth plot.


-- <a href="http://p197.ezboard.com/fabsolutewritefrm3.showMessage?topicID=594.topic" target="_new">Plot problems</a>


When I see a manuscript with a copyright notice on it, dated ten or twenty years ago, believe me, it doesn't give me a happy feeling.

In any case, copyright exists from the moment the work is fixed in tangible form. All that registering buys you is the ability to go for punitive damages.

The books that get plagairized are the ones that are already published. Unpublished manuscripts ... I think I've heard of it happening. Once.

(I know that you hear wild stories of unscupulous agents kidnapping hapless slush manuscripts and selling them to pirate presses in Shanghai. I find this hard to believe for two reasons: First, if the unscrupulous agents were able to sell anything they wouldn't need to be unscrupulous, and second, why would the pirates want to print unedited slush by Joe Noname, when for exactly the same cost and effort they could print a Dean Koontz or Stephen King book?)
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I think that most editors who see a copyright notice on an unpublished manuscript say "What a maroon!" or words to that effect, and read the story however far it carries them.

I'm not saying that there aren't folks who are offended. But it's probably an insignificant number.

You sometimes put rights for sale on a short story, but not on a novel.

Me, I only put rights for sale on a manuscript if some of the rights have already been used. There are lots and lots of rights you can sell, all to different markets. First North American Serial rights. First World Anthology (Exclusive of the British Commonwealth) rights. Exclusive Reprint rights. Non-exclusive Reprint rights. Dramatic rights. Electronic rights. Serialization rights. Back-of-the-cereal-box rights. Printed on cupcake wrapper rights.

If the story's never sold anywhere before -- it's all for sale. The contract you sign should specify exactly which rights the publisher is buying. And in this -- like everything else -- it's all negotiable.

I didn't know there were "Harry Potter" cupcakes!

If there aren't that'll mean that someone at Scholastic missed a marketing opportunity.

Oh, and the best seller list? Been there. That and $2.50 will get me a double-shot mocha latte.

(Actually, there isn't a "the best seller list." There's lots of best seller lists. USA Today. New York Times. Locus. The Picayne Press. Lots and lots of best seller lists. You're not half doing your job if you can't honestly put the words "best-selling author" on your second book. If you have half-way decent distribution you'll be on someone's best seller list.)

-- <a href="http://p197.ezboard.com/fabsolutewritefrm3.showMessage?topicID=586.topic" target="_new">Copyright</a>


...does that mean you write them all simultaneously?

Well, yes.

These are other things that are going on at the same time as the main action, that are supporting, or contrasting, with the overall theme of your book.
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-- <a href="http://p197.ezboard.com/fabsolutewritefrm3.showMessage?topicID=589.topic" target="_new">Subplots?</a>


Anyone following this discussion who hasn't yet read (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) by Agatha Christie needs to go out and do so now.
"Withholding information" isn't necessarily a good plan either. We're trying to give information to our readers. We go out of our way to make sure the readers have the information. Information is what the readers are using to create pictures in their heads.

If you want to conceal something from your readers, tell them, but put it in a low-interest place, or mixed in among other things.

I recall reading a thriller some years back. In this book, the protagonist's sister is having a torrid love affair with a US Senator named "Sam."

It wasn't until sixty pages later that the author revealed that "Sam" is short for Samantha, and the Senator is female. Woo! Good job, author! I've now got to mentally re-cast sixty pages-worth of the pictures I'd drawn in my head.

Never mind that every single character in the book would have known Sam's gender, the author decided to conceal it from the reader in order to carry out some surprise or another.

That was the point where I threw the book across the room.
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-- <a href="http://p197.ezboard.com/fabsolutewritefrm3.showMessageRange?topicID=579.topic&start=1&stop=20" target="_new">Confident but Confused Protagonist</a>


I have to agree with aineg -- word choice and sentence rhythm can take you farther than dialect will.
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-- <a href="http://p197.ezboard.com/fabsolutewritefrm3.showMessageRange?topicID=552.topic&start=1&stop=20" target="_new">Phonetic Dialog</a>


I've gone the made-up pronoun route in a story where we had three genders. (The third one was "ne.")

I've also gone (in a novel where a biologically female character went disguised as a male for big chunks of the story) with she/her when she was dressed and acting as a woman, and he/his when she was dressed and acting as a male.

If you really want to use the correct unknown-gender singular pronoun in English, it's they/their.

(If anyone wants a hotdog they can come over here.)

Before anyone gets their panties all bunched up, "they" has been a perfectly acceptable singular pronoun since Geoffrey Chaucer. Shakespeare used "they" as an unknown-gender singular pronoun, Edmund Spenser used it, Jane Austen used it, George Orwell used it. It's only the silly prescriptive-grammarians who think that "they" can't be used as a singular pronoun.
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-- <a href="http://p197.ezboard.com/fabsolutewritefrm3.showMessage?topicID=581.topic" target="_new">androgenous characters and pronouns</a>


Don't even think about revising until you have 300 pages or "the end," whichever comes last.

You won't know what you have until then.
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You'll find your style. Style is what you can't help doing.
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-- <a href="http://p197.ezboard.com/fabsolutewritefrm3.showMessage?topicID=577.topic" target="_new">Changing Gears</a>

Uncle Jim, I'm just a beginner, newbie, first timer, hopeful and persistent aspiring writer Is it a different story then?

Finish your book. I mean finish it. All the writing, all the re-writing, all the revising.

Only then should you think about trying to market it. Until the book is done you may not even know what your first three chapters are.

Improve your chances for Friday night...

...85 percent of women said a man could increase his chances of getting a date by talking about a favorite book.

Y'see, Liam, when you're a best seller you can get a double shot mocha latte for only $2.50.

Another reason to write that book....

Critters is a pretty good group by all accounts.

You could also ask your local librarian if there are any off-line workshops around. Librarians tend to know that sort of thing.

Workshops aren't for everyone, but you might give it a try.

Find new beta readers -- ones who are willing to tear you apart.

Develop your own critical instincts, too. Look at your writing carefully.

And -- you know something? I can't read long blocks of text on screen either. I print stuff out double-spaced, work on it in hard copy, then comment on-line, when I do that sort of thing.

Okay: Titles.

I've been thinking of creating an Authors' Title Generator, which would run on your computer, and which I could sell to aspiring authors for $449.95 (plus tax). It would come in a very attractive box.

What it would do would be ask you a number of questions about your book, then ... you click on the "Title" button and it ignores what you just typed in. It just prints out a random line from Hamlet. (Coleridge, and the various Restoration poets also give good title.)


Either a title will come to you, or one won't. The editor is going to change the title anyway, so this doesn't matter much.

If the editor is discarding manuscripts based on the title alone ... I pity da fool. His loss.


On Red Harvest, sure, we can have a discussion. (Probably in its own thread. Is this the best board for it?)

So does that mean you can submit an ms without a title - and it will still go over well?

Nah, it means that you'll just have to slap a few words at the top of the manuscript so you'll have something to put in the running header.

Free titles:

More Native to the Heart
My Virtue or My Plague
No Wind of Blame
What I Do to the Grass
An Erring Lace
Caverns Measureless
This League of Blood

A title should be:

1) Easy to spell, and
2) Not embarassing to say out loud.

Beyond that, make it something meaningful to you. Or not.

The editor is expecting around 5,000 words of active prose, single spaced, present tense, that tells the complete plot of the book with the major characters and major plot points fully laid out, including the surprise ending.

Think of someone telling his pal about a moive he saw last night. That's the sort of level of detail that you're going for.

Me, I don't use the apostrophes. But remember that an apostrophe doesn't mean possession -- it means that one or more letter was left out. (In the case of possessives, the letter is 'e').

Call it "speculative fiction," and give the titles of a couple of books with the same look-and-feel....

Another neat toy: An ISBN Checksum Calculator.

Simple things amuse me.

All that "no unsolicited manuscripts" means is "send us a query letter first."

Yes, they still have slush piles. (If nothing else, then for the agented slush.)

For publishers that accept unsolicited manuscripts (John Wiley, for example), check Writer's Market.

Many (most?) small presses accept unsolicited manuscripts.

Think you can add that material in one paragraph in the Chapter One part of the synopsis?

Three days later she still hadn't turned up....

Need I mention that in the right story, at the right place any one of those sentences could be the absolutely right one?

This is not a science, measured with stopwatch and micrometer. This is an art, an art where the one rule is "It works."

Happy Bloomsday.

Who knew it would be this easy?

... to do while you're avoiding writing:

Fold a paper pressman's hat.


Notice that the instructions are given in terms of publicity.

(Further note: If you get a big enough sheet of tinfoil the same instructions can be used to make a tinfoil hat that will keep the CIA mind-control satelites from taking over your brain. Very handy!)

(Further further note: We had a novel wherein one of the characters used silver foil to fold a hat to keep vampires from reading his mind.
Hunters' Moon. Buy one -- better still, buy a dozen! They make excellent gifts....)

(Further further further note: This is the same hat that the Carpenter is wearing in the classic illustrations by John Tenniel for "The Walrus and the Carpenter." Isn't literacyfun?)

(Today's assignment: After you've folded your paper hat, wear it, and while wearing it memorize
"The Walrus and the Carpenter." (You didn't think you'd get off easy, did you?))

Julie, what can I say but write the book and see if it works?

Four or five paragraphs -- if necessary you can set 'em in italic.

If the information is only necessary at the end, you can put those four or five paragraphs pretty much anywhere before the end.

As you write the book, consider other places to put that info. But until you reach "The End," there's really no way to tell what's right.

(Asking your readers to hold that info in mind for the entire duration of the book ... I dunno. See what your beta readers say. When they reach the climax have they already forgotten what was in that brief lead-in?)

Is the scene, all on its own, memorable, interesting, and fast-moving?

I don't know any of those things. You do.

Without further ado, take it away, New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/11/nyregion/11impeach.html?pagewanted=1)!

HARTFORD, June 10 - A state employee and longtime confidante of Gov. John G. Rowland solicited a $32,000 loan from the nonprofit foundation that supports the governor's residence so the governor's wife could publish a children's book, "Marvelous Max, the Mansion Mouse," according to documents released on Thursday by the House committee investigating whether to recommend impeaching Mr. Rowland.

The foundation's lawyer rejected the idea as inappropriate. But the chairman, Wilson Wilde, later wrote a series of personal checks totaling more than $41,000 to have the book illustrated and published. In a telephone interview on Thursday, Mr. Wilde said that at the time he expected profits to benefit both Patricia Rowland and the Governor's Residence Conservancy.


According to an affidavit submitted to the committee by John Tucker, president of Norfleet Press, the book's publisher, the book has not even sold enough copies to repay Mr. Wilde in full. "No profits have yet been made and I would be happily surprised if there were any profits in the future," he wrote.

Wow. You can't buy publicity like that. (Or maybe you can.) She did everything she could, went and did the bookstore signings (http://www.justbooks.org/holiday_catalog/page_4.htm) like she was supposed to, did the whole Published Author thing. But it wasn't enough to earn out. So, guys, who wants to step up and help out Mrs. Rowland, poor old Mr. Wilde, and the nice folks at Norfleet? Buy a copy of Marvelous Max, the Mansion Mouse now! (Soon to be a collector's item.)

The illustrations are really nice (they're by Wendy Rasmussen).

So.... I guess publicity isn't everything, is it?

Is there any hope for us mere mortals?

Yes. Every single published writer I know started in the same place -- as Joe Nobody in the slush pile.

The difference between them and, say, Mrs. Rowland, is that they did the work.

No amount of celebrity or publicity will overcome a poor book.

Rather than "paying her dues" by opening a checkbook (or a political sycophant's checkbook), Mrs. Rowland should have paid her dues by learning how to write.

There are some things money can't buy, and the respect of your audience is one of those things.

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'Twas but a dream of thee
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Out on a limb
July 2004

James D. Macdonald
Learn Writing With Uncle Jim
July, 2004

Did ya miss me?

Time to start catching up....

I'd use Metric if the character would think in metric, English if the character would think in english. This is a chacterization problem.

Do you know how Canada got its name? These three Canadians were trying to think of a name for their country, so the got a Scrabble set. The first one reached into the bag, pulled out a tile and said, "C, eh?" The second pulled out a tile and said, "N, eh?" The third pulled a tile and said, "D, eh?"

On dialect -- you don't need it. Use word choice and sentence rhythm then let your readers provide the right amount of accent for them.


As you know, Tennessee Williams wrote his plays in dialect. Now imagine this: A group of students from the Sunny South, whose natural accents were the magnolia-scented tones that Williams was trying to reproduce. Imagine them trying to pronounce the the written dialect phonetically. Trust me, it is weird sounding.

You can derived Rudyard Kipling's personal accent by reading the dialect he uses in Captains Courageous, if you know what a Gloucester fisherman's natural accent sounds like. You have to read the dialog with a British/Indian accent if you're going to come up with something at all accurate.

Dialect was formerly used more often in fiction than it currently is. Styles change. Please, if you're planning to write in dialect, reconsider your decision.


Hi, Joanna --

I am wondering what you think of writing exercises.

First, no writing is wasted. Any writing you do can teach you something of the art if you let it.

Second, writing exercises can help get you past the blank screen or blank sheet of paper problem. Some people freeze when faced with that faceless nothing. So use 'em if they get you going.

Beyond that, it's my opinion that sitting down and writing a story all the way to "The End" will teach you more than any number of writing exercises.

Hiya, Laurence!

In a third person past tense novel, is it too distracting to have (a) dream sequence(s) as such:

Character A dreamed:
Continuation of narrative in third person past tense

That could work. Try it, see how it reads, see what your beta readers have to say.

For me, the hard-copy printout of the day's work (made at the end of each day) is the official version.

Those printout pages go, hole-punched, in a binder. Each page has, as part of its header, the filename.

Filenames: Chap1.wpd, chap2.wpd, etc. Next version: chap1_1.wpd, then chap1_2.wpd, chap1_3.wpd ... then chap1_1_1.wpd and so on, as high as it needs to go.

When it's nearing the end, Final1.wpd, final2.wpd, and so on.

Files go in folders, on two different computers, with a floppy-disk backup of each file.

From Another Thread

The over-all rule is that every word in your novel should advance the plot, support the theme, or reveal character.

Vulgar language is just a special case of dialect.

The author must take his/her audience into account. The reader is a character in your book. You cast the reader the same way you cast any of your other characters, the same way you cast the author as a character.


The F-Word Song (http://members.aol.com/berrymanp/alyrics/fword.html)


The language you use will be determined by

a) your genre,
b) your audience,
c) your artistic choices.


It all varies. Remember the "reveal character" thing.

(Also, Steve is quite right -- Our purpose is to entertain and communicate.... If the readers have thrown our book across the room we've failed in our purpose.)

Now for examples:

In Tournament and Tower (http://www.sff.net/people/doylemacdonald/WIZ2EXPT.HTM), the first line in the first draft read:

"This f*cking sucks," said young Randal as he threw another forkload of stinking sh*t over his shoulder.

As submitted:

Slap! Randal swatted a stinging horsefly that had tried to make a meal from his shoulder.

In Aquatech Warriors (http://www.sff.net/people/doylemacdonald/swift6.htm), the first line in the first draft read:

"Jesus Christ, Tom, get your f*cking hands off my tits!" said dark-haired Mandy Coster.

As submitted:

"You said we were going on a tropical vacation," Rick Cantwell grumbled good-naturedly to his friend Tom Swift.

On the other-other hand, Tiger Cruise (http://www.swordsmith.com/books/tiger.html) has various military characters, ranging from the Captain's Wife (who would never use a vulgarity) down through junior enlisted who say things like "Those f*cking f*ckers aren't f*cking around!" right there in the printed book.


In the real world I know an ex-Mormon who routinely swears like a truck driver, but who in moments of extreme stress and pain (like dropping something very heavy on a foot) will blurt out "Criminty!"

Off to literature again, Studs Terkel, on one book, has a Chicago gangster who, whenever he attempts to swear, automatically bows his head when he says "Jesus!"

That's characterization.

I have always been taught never start a sentence with 'And' or 'Because.' Are these considered acceptable as good grammar now, or do they fall under what is considered style?

I would be very careful of either in narrative.

You can do anything you want in dialog.

A quote from my beloved co-author:

"Where did we get the idea that 'hard' and 'fun' were antonyms? The opposite of fun isn't hard, it's boring."

Without arguing the character of Spike (I think that the seeds of his redemption are planted early on), I may comment that no one's 100% anything. Characters are mixtures of traits, some good, some bad, some sympathetic, some not.

The balance and mix is what makes 'em work.

One disadvantage that series television has (as compared with novels) is that it's impossible for the writers to go back and revise the first chapters to make them fit with the end.

A lie is something you tell to get a lay.

To be a bit more responsive:

"He came up over the rise to town and looked down into the valley where all the homes lay."

Lay is the past form of to lie. (Since lie changes to lay rather than just adding -ed to become "lied" we call this a strong verb.)

"To lie" means "to be situated" or "to recline." This is an intransitive verb. That means that it doesn't take a direct object.

The present participle of "to lie" is "lying," the past particible is "has lain."


"To lay," on the other hand, means "to place" or "to put." This is a transitive verb -- it must have a direct object.

The present participle of "to lay" is "laying." The past form and past participle are both "laid."


A participle is a verb that's being used as an adjective (to modify a noun).


The confusion rises here: the past form of "to lie" is spelled the same as the present form of "to lay."

To add to the fun: "To lie" (to make an untrue statement) is a weak verb (forms the past tense by adding -ed), and doesn't take a direct object. Its present participle is "lying."

"To lay" is even more fun.

To beat down with force (Sir Reginald began to lay about him.)

To bury (Sir Reginald was laid in the churchyard.)

To copulate with (Sir Reginald got laid in the churchyard.)

To set in position (Sir Reginald laid the table.)

To put on a surface (Sir Reginald laid plaster.)

To place an immaterial thing (Sir Reginald laid stress on grammar.)

Sir Reginald also laid rope, laid plans, laid taxes, laid a bet, and laid his Aunt's ruffled feelings. Meanwhile, Sir Reginald's hen laid an egg.

That's a whole lot of laying going on.


Hang/ hung:

"To hang" means "to suspend from above."

As a strong verb, hang changes its form in the past to become [/i]hung[/i]. As a weak verb, used of people in terms of exection, it adds -ed to become hanged. "She hung the picture," vice "Fred was hanged." On the other hand, Sadie hung onto the rope all night.

Hang on the Bell, Nellie (http://www.scoutorama.com/song/song_display.cfm?song_id=241)

"The stockings were hung by the chimney with care/ In hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there."

-- A Visit from St. Nicholas (http://www.kidsdomain.com/holiday/xmas/stories/niteb4.html)


"'Shoot and be damned you rogue' said he/ 'And you'll be hanged and you'll be hanged for murdering me'."

-- Sovay (http://www.pthill.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/zsovay.htm)


"I'll be hanged!" Sir Reginald exclaimed, when he saw the wallpaper Lady Anne had hung in the parlor.

Tenses of words:

Oh, dear.

Depending on who you believe, English has only two tenses (present and past), or thirty-six. Or some number in between.

English is a fiendishly difficult language.

Anyone have any strong feelings on roof top versus rooftop?

Just be consistent. When the book is bought (as it will be if the story is compelling, regardless of whether you use roof top or rooftop) the publisher will give you a copy editor who will change it to house style.

If the story isn't compelling, the book won't be bought, regardless of whether you use roof top or rooftop.

From another thread (http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=7178):

That said, there are a lot of common questions about this industry (how about self-publishing? simultaneous submissions ok? do people really get discovered in the slush? do I really have to use that godawful Courier?) whose answers could be collected in a FAQ. The arcana of Key Lime Pies and Celtic Knotwork should stay in the thread where it is.

How about self-publishing?

Don't do it, unless you're writing specialized non-fiction for a defined niche audience.

Self-published poetry is standard.

If you're going to self-publish, actually self publish. Don't go to one of the vanity presses that have started disguising themselves as "self-publishing services."

Simultaneous submissions ok?

Yes, if and only if the publisher says "simultaneous submissions are okay" in their guidelines.

Do people really get discovered in the slush?

Yes. With some exceptions every author you see on the shelves in your local bookstore came out of one slushpile or another.

Do I really have to use that godawful Courier?

Yes. Don't ask why, don't argue, just do it.


Lime Pie

Celtic Knotwork

To quote from one of our own works (isn't a huge ego wonderful?):

"Son of a wizard-glamored troll!" Kay yelled, and slammed his fist into the stone wall. "The hairy little wart isn't ever going to forget that I used to beat him up regularly when I thought he was just my baby brother!"

That's from "Holly and Ivy" in "Gawain and the Green Knight" (yes, I do read Anglo-Saxon, and several dialects of Middle English -- the latter I know well enough to have composed an original work), which is sorta important because the story here is a comedy retelling of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight."

Thus I show cussing.


In the course of my career, I've been published by:

Byron Preiss Multimedia/Pocket
Harcourt Brace
Harper Junior Books

In no case did I have to go to a bookstore manager to ask for my works to be shelved. In every case I found (when ego scanning) one or more bookstores with copies of each work already on the shelves.

Those who tell you that only 1% of authors see their works stocked in bookstores are fibbing; among tradtionally published authors, darn near 100% see their works shelved in bookstores without any intervention on the author's part.

How long it will be shelved, and where it will be shelved I can't tell you. But shelved it will be, since publishers only make money if they sell books to the general public.

As for the claim that publishers don't market the books of first-time authors:


Ask yourself if this is likely: The publisher acquires the book for some amount of money. They then spend some amount of money on editing, a cover, printing, and warehousing.

Then ... the publisher makes no attempt to recoup that investment? Come on! They're throwing away that money for the fun of it? They'd be out of business in no time if they did that. They have to be doing everything they can to make a profit on those books. The only way they can make a profit is by selling them. The only way they can sell them is to get them into bookstores. So there you go.

"A lot nicer"? You didn't see me making faces, sticking out my tongue, and wiggling my fingers in my ears.


Oh, yeah, and ego thing.... we've got a story that was written in pure dialog. Around 800 words. It's published in Vampires (http://www.sff.net/people/doylemacdonald/vamphead.htm) (Jane Yolen, ed.), and has been continously in print for the past eleven years. (Royalty checks twice a year, o yassss!)

Available used starting at $0.99. Buy one, better still, buy a dozen. They make excellent Labor Day gifts.

This, my friends, is why I prefer selling short stories to anthologies rather than to magazines. Magazines, one-time payment, it's off the stands in a month. In an anthology, same payment, but the chance it'll stay in print and earning money forever.

For anthologies -- first, you have to learn which anthologies are open. This may be a matter of networking, or it may be a matter of reading the trade magazines. When editors have open anthologies they put out the word in places where it's likely they'll find writers.

Cruise your bookstores. Editors who have put out anthologies in the past may be working on others. Write to them.

Some anthologies are open to previously published works. Query. (We've got one story that's been in three anthologies so far.)

The way this sort of thing usually works:

The editor proposes an anthology to a publisher, saying "I'll get Stephen King, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, and a few other people...." If the publisher buys it, they give the editor an advance to put together the anthology.

The editor sends invitations to Stephen King, John Grisham, and Tom Clancy, who all send back polite notes saying "So sorry, much too busy...." At this point the anthology opens up, and you have a chance to be one of the "few other people."

The editor pays you per word out of that advance he got.

Your story is edited by the editor, and, after the entire anthology is turned in, by the publisher.

Now it's published. Nothing much happens until the book earns out its advance. Then ... after the advance is earned out, the anthology editor keeps half of each royalty check and divides the rest pro rata among the authors. If the anthology is selling well, this can be ... an astounding amount of money. We had one 10,000 word story that sold for $0.05/word. That was $500. Okay, fine. The very first royalty period brought another $800. Things kept up like that for quite a while. That anthology eventually went out of print ... and we sold the same story to another anthology for a whole 'nother advance. I think that story's well over a dollar a word by now.

So, let's look for some open anthologies for you...

Go to Google and search on the following keywords: Submission Guidelines Anthology (http://www.google.com/search?q=submission+guidelines+anthology)

Use the same standards you would for any publisher: Is this advance against royalties? If not, you aren't interested. Is this a publisher you've heard of, that has bookstore sales? If not, you're not interested.

Subscribe to various writers' newsletters. Open anthologies are announced there from time to time. Remember, sometimes the opening is very brief -- a month. I know of anthologies that have filled in a week. It's highly competitive. But so's all of commercial writing. Don't let that slow you down.

Do not ever pay to get published.

Oh, dear, JoannaC. How can I answer your question without reading your novel?

General principles:

You're always in the middle of the story, yet you never have to explain everything that's gone before.

People refer to things. Have them refer to important information naturally. Avoid the dread "As You Know Bob" dialog.

The source of information and the source of interest should be the same.


Mr. Earbrass had much the same problem in The Unstrung Harp. How he solved it is never mentioned. This is a common problem. I've had it too.

Possible solutions:

Come right out and tell the readers, in your role as narrator. Maude, a pleasant, blue-eyed girl, had thumbs that constantly pained her since her accident at age twenty-five.

Bring in a stranger, who can ask another, more knowledgeable character. "What's the matter with her?" Fred asked.

Fact is, if your characters are well-realized remarkably little backstory needs to be given explicitly.

Why is exposition necessarily a bad thing?

Exposition is a bad thing if and only if the reader doesn't care about the information.

First, make the reader care. Then you can get away with a block of text where the narrator just sits there and expounds if you want to do it that way.

Look at
Moby-Dick for a novel that's 99 44/100% exposition.

If the reader is going to skip over the paragraph looking for the next interesting thing, then the writer doesn't need to put that paragraph there to start with. Leave out the things the reader is going to skip.

The first question is: Do the readers really need to know about Sadie's unfortunate automobile accident? If so, do they need to know about it explicitly? Can it be summarized in a sentence? Or will it be better brought forward through a thousand subtle things, in the gestures she makes, in her word choices (both the things she says and the things she doesn't say)?

This is the art, my friends.

Does word of Sadie's accident advance the plot?

Does it support the theme?

Does it reveal character?

Now: Find a favorite book. An author you really enjoy. Someone of whom you say "I wish I could be him when I grow up!"

Take that book. Go through with a
highlighter and mark all the exposition. See how that author did it.

Guys, over the course of the last darn-near ninety pages and nine months of discussion I've handed out lots of assignments. Show of hands, here: How many of you have done them?

<scold> Yes, learning to write is difficult. Yes, it's time consuming. Yes, it feels like you're back in school. I'm only recommending things that I've personally done, and that through my own experience I've found useful in understanding writing and becoming a stronger writer. Guys, this isn't a joke. Do the flippin' work. </scold>

You want an open anthology?

Guidelines here: http://www.cascadiacon.org/Anthology.htm" target="_new

To be published by Windstorm Creative, Make sure you read their guidelines too.

Next assignment: Write a story for this anthology and submit it.

Will your story be bought? Probably not.

But I promise you, the only stories that will be bought are the ones that were written and submitted.

Unwritten stories never sell.
Unsubmitted stories never sell.

After that, it's a matter of skill, craft, and luck -- but less luck than many people would have you believe.

This is getting far afield from novels. But only way to get professional sales is to a) write professional-quality prose, and b) submit it to professional markets.

If your backstories are more interesting than your main story, then you have the wrong story.

Amen, brother.


This falls under Category 12 in the list of Reasons Books Are Rejected. A working editor explains:

1. Author is functionally illiterate.

2. Author has submitted some variety of literature we don’t publish: poetry, religious revelation, political rant, illustrated fanfic, etc.

3. Author has a serious neurochemical disorder, puts all important words into capital letters, and would type out to the margins if MSWord would let him.

4. Author is on bad terms with the Muse of Language. Parts of speech are not what they should be. Confusion-of-motion problems inadvertently generate hideous images. Words are supplanted by their similar-sounding cousins: towed the line, deep-seeded, incentiary, reeking havoc, nearly penultimate, dire straights, viscous/vicious.

5. Author can write basic sentences, but not string them together in any way that adds up to paragraphs.

6. Author has a moderate neurochemical disorder and can’t tell when he or she has changed the subject. This greatly facilitates composition, but is hard on comprehension.

7. Author can write passable paragraphs, and has a sufficiently functional plot that readers would notice if you shuffled the chapters into a different order. However, the story and the manner of its telling are alike hackneyed, dull, and pointless.

(At this point, you have eliminated 60-75% of your submissions. Almost all the reading-and-thinking time will be spent on the remaining fraction.)

8. It’s nice that the author is working on his/her problems, but the process would be better served by seeing a shrink than by writing novels.

9. Nobody but the author is ever going to care about this dull, flaccid, underperforming book.

10. The book has an engaging plot. Trouble is, it’s not the author’s, and everybody’s already seen that movie/read that book/collected that comic.
(You have now eliminated 95-99% of the submissions.)

11. Someone could publish this book, but we don’t see why it should be us.

12. Author is talented, but has written the wrong book.

13. It’s a good book, but the house isn’t going to get behind it, so if you buy it, it’ll just get lost in the shuffle.

14. Buy this book.

Go here for the full article and discussion. (I've recommended this site before. Really, go there, and do a couple of weeks' reading.)


Other examples of "Author Has Written the Wrong Book" might include Little Women by Tom Clancy.

I'm afraid I don't have the answer to that question, Maestro. If I had the answer, I'd bottle it and sell it -- after I'd drunk a whole lot myself.

When the answer comes back, "Isn't working," all we can really do is use different words in another order to tell a different story. Maybe the next one will be better.

This is why we have to be introspective, and honest about our works. If we learn nothing, likely we'll keep repeating the same mistakes rather than finding new and original mistakes to make.



The Copyright Office is conducting a survey to improve the process of searching the public records of the Copyright Office and making them more accessible to the public. The Office is studying the potential for converting the analog copyright records (1790 to 1977) to digital format and making these records accessible via the Web. Your input will help define the priorities and requirements needed to accomplish this goal.

The survey is available on the Copyright Office website at
www.copyright.gov. Click on "Please take our survey" under Hot Topics.


I wouldn't tell you, Shawn, or Jim Ritchie, or Karen Ranney, or any of the published pros how to write -- all I promise is that people who read this thread will know how I write, and if some can learn from that enough to move from not-yet-published to published, then good on them!

Not that any of us are beyond learning new things....

The over-all assignment: Write every day.

Assignment One Get, read, and play through Logical Chess Move By Move.

Assignment Two Go to a bookstore, watch readers selecting which books they want to buy.

Assignment Three Retype the first chapter of your favorite novel.

Assignment Four Read The Sun, The Moon, and The Stars and Misery.

Assignment Five Watch Sweeney Todd In Concert

[the following links will be added later]

Assignment Six Get and work through a high school review grammar workbook; get and read Fowler's Modern English Usage Dictionary.

Assignment Seven Memorize the Hollow Crown speech from Richard II.

Assignment Eight Watch Minority Report and L.A. Confidential.

Assignment Nine Read Red Harvest. Watch Yojimbo, Last Man Standing, A Fistful of Dollars, and Miller's Crossing.

Assignment Ten Learn how to do Celtic Knotwork

Assignment Eleven A round-up of books, movies, and articles. Watch the movies, read the articles, add the books to your library.

Assignment Twelve Build a model.

Assignment Thirteen Read one book from each year's best-seller list.

Assignment Fourteen Watch a movie a night for a month.

Assignment Fifteen Diagram a sentence from A Visit From St. Nicholas.

Assignment Sixteen See a stage play, watch a movie, watch a magician.

Assignment Seventeen Watch two particular episodes from X-Files and Millennium.

Assignment Eighteen Bake a lime pie.

Assignment Nineteen Memorize The Walrus and the Carpenter while wearing a paper hat.

Assignment Twenty Highlight the exposition in a published novel.

Assignment Twenty-One Write and submit a short story to an open anthology.

Assignment Twenty-Two Write your novel!

Okay, I did all that. Now what?

You've finished your novel, then?

Submit it, following the publishers' guidelines, to paying markets. Send it out 'til Hell won't have it.

Meanwhile, start work on your next book.

Our dialog-only story. (http://www.sff.net/people/doylemacdonald/vamphead.htm)


Nobody Has to Know
J.D. Macdonald & Debra Doyle

about 790 words

"What do you know about vampires?"

"Not much. They drink blood. They turn into bats. They die if they get hit by sunlight."

"Where did you learn that?"

"It's what I see in the movies. Why?"

"They have it all wrong, you know."

"Have what?"

"The sunlight. If you believe the movies, sunlight burns vampires, or explodes them, or makes them melt."

"That's wrong?"

"Yeah. All daylight really does to a vampire is make him ordinary. He can't change his shape into a bat or a wolf, heisn't any stronger than he was during his other life, and he ages one more day."

"Sure. So what's the point?"

"Just trying to explain why you never see me at night, that's all."

"Are you saying that you're a vampire?"

"That's right. Nights, I turn into a bat and go hunting for blood. Days, I go to school and get a little older. I want to look a little more mature."

"Why are you telling me all this?"

"Because I like you, is why. Nights, you guys are lunch. Days, you're safe. See? No fangs during daylight."

"This is about the weirdest story you've ever told, and you've told some weirdies. There's no such thing as vampires."

"If you say so."

"You don't have to believe me. Just so you know what's true. You know why I'm doing so well in History? For me, all that stuff was Current Events."

"Too freaky. Listen, there's the bell. Let's get to class."


"You know the thing you were talking about the other day?"

"You mean me being a vampire?"

"That's right. Why did you tell me?"

"I wanted you to know."


"Gets kind of lonely, nights."

"Listen, I got to go. See you later."

"Yeah, later."


"Are there lots of vampires?"

"No. Not lots."

"But vampires live forever, right?"

"Right. But there aren't a lot."

"Why not?"

"Why are you asking? Do you believe me now?"

"No. That was just another one of your freaky stories."

"Then why are you asking me about how many vampires there are?"

"Oh, never mind."


"We're very careful about who we make immortal. And the guy who becomes immortal, he has to want it too. Mostly it's older people who want to live forever. Young people think they'll live forever anyway."

"I don't. I don't think that."

"Neither did I. That's why I wanted to make the change. Now I just want to look a little older."

"How do you make someone a ... what you are?"

"It's the easiest thing you've ever done."


"When did you get to be a vampire?"

"Immortal. We say immortal."

"You didn't say that when you told me about it to start with."

"I wanted to use words you'd understand."

"You think I'm stupid or something?"

"No, it's not that. I'll tell you about me. Right after the Great War, in 1919, I got sick and I was going to die. The family doctor, we didn't know it, but he was immortal, and he really liked me. You know, he'd delivered me, he'd been to my parents' wedding. The whole routine. His partner used to make all the housecalls, but one night he came himself. Old friend of the family. Said either I could live forever, or I could die before morning."

"I know what I would have chosen."

"That's why I'm telling you now."


"Will people think I died?"

"Yeah, if you want them to. You can get buried, come out at night, go back before dawn. That sort of thing. Or you can keep on going to school. Nobody has to know."

"Let me think about it."


"The blood thing. That's been worrying me. Do you really have to drink blood? That's gross."

"You don't have to kill anyone. You don't need much to keep going. You can go places, do things. You're strong, you can fly. You can make people do what you want to by just looking at them. That's the best part."


"My parents are getting a divorce."

"I know."

"How do you know that?"

"Like I said. I go everywhere, I see everything."

"I wish I was dead."

"I know."


"How about the crosses and garlic?"

"There's a down side to everything. Just stay away from them. You won't miss them."


"Will it hurt?"

"Only a little, and not for long."

"Will you do it for me tonight?"

"You'll have to invite me in."

"I'll be ready. What time?"

"Nine. See you at nine."

"People will be sorry when I'm dead."

"You'll get to watch and see who cries."


"I've been thinking. About those weird stories you were telling. Listen, forget it."

"Too late."



Milton, what I want you and every writer to do is this:

Think about your craft

Practice your craft.

After Google, there's always calling the publisher on the phone and saying "Hi! Who agented [title of book]?"

Or there's writing to the author, care of the publisher, with SASE, and saying "Hi! Who's your agent?"


And there's asking your old chums Ann and Victoria. They might know.

Karen Ranney and Jim Ritchie are two of the other pros who post here from time to time -- though I've not gone and asked who might be behind various screen names. My basic position is that we're all writers here -- maybe at different places on our paths, but we're all writers. Anyone who puts finger to keyboard is my brother or sister.


I have a really good chair. I also recommend lots of situps and crunchs, and walking twenty minutes a day is a good plan.


I also recommend those ergonomic split-keyboards. They allow you to type with your wrists straight rather than bent, and lower the chance of carpal-tunnel syndrome.

Have heard to avoid agents/publishers listed in Writers Market and similar publications because EVERYONE uses them and agents and publishers listed are burnt out on newbies.

If you avoid them, who's left?

Seriously, you should avoid agents who advertise in Writer's Digest, but ...

Publishers and agents are in business to find the one-in-a-hundred newbie who can tell a story. If that's you, you can ignore the other ninety-nine. The editors and agents slip rejection slips into envelopes all the time. What's one more?

Or can this character get a pass?

I can't possibly say without reading your novel.

Consider -- is this character a counterpoint, or a contrast to the other characters?

Is everything he does motivated? Is he natural? Does he have a mix of traits? Is he, in any way, arbitrary?

Suggestion one: finish your book.

Suggestion two: put it in your desk drawer for a month, then re-read it.

You may find that you've answered your question.

1) The reader will automatically bond with the first character they meet. Show the protag a) with a problem, and b) doing something. The eye will follow a moving object. If two objects are moving, the eye will follow the faster-moving one.

2) As much as necessary to advance the plot, support theme, and reveal character.

See above, previous advice about taking a published novel and retyping the first chapter yourself. How does your favorite author do these things?

Then, Julie, don't worry about it, and please yourself. Ask more beta readers for their input.

When beta readers tell you there's a problem they're usually right. When they tell you what the problem is they're usually wrong.

Okay. Let's see what we can do for you, madeya.

Possibilities: The first one that comes to mind is that the ending you have in mind for this story isn't the right ending.

So ... go to that 3/4 point, and go in some different direction. Forget what you had planned for them. See where the characters take you.

Second suggestion: Put this book in your desk drawer and write a whole 'nother novel, beginning to end. When you've done that, take this one out, and re-read it. Perhaps a solution will occur to you then. Or perhaps you'll say to yourself, "The desk drawer is the right place for this novel," and you'll continue in your own writing life in a different direction.

I'll only be intermittantly on-line over the next while. Family matters, y'know.

In my absence, I've asked Editrx to look in from time to time.

Hanging out in nursing homes gives you lots of reading time.

Have you missed me? (I'm still not fully back.)

I have thought of a wonderful exercise for y'all, though.

See ya again soon....

I've been doing more reading and less writing than usual lately.

I've been thinking about what to read, in view of becoming a better/stronger/more interesting/more commercial/happier/richer writer.

My thoughts were these. If you want to be a world-class writer, it strikes me, you study with a world-class writer. You have your target -- you know what genre you want to write in -- so... find the award winners in that genre, and read those books.

Life is short. We will only read so many books. There are more books in the world than anyone could possibly read. Do you have a minute to spare to read tripe, trivia, and trash? Is tripe, trivia, and trash what you aim to write yourself?

I've already assigned you to read a pile of bestsellers (best seller is itself a genre). Think of this as a complement to that assignment.

Therefore: Next assignment, folks. Name your genre, pick up the award winners in that genre for the past ten years, and read 'em. Read 'em with your critical eye, with your writer's eye. How did the author tell the story? How were the effects produced? How are they similar? How are they different? See how the masters did it, go you and do likewise.

So: The Lists.

The National Book Award

1994 A Frolic of His Own - William Gaddis
1995 Sabbath's Theater - Philip Roth
1996 Ship Fever and Other Stories - Andrea Barrett
1997 Cold Mountain - Charles Frazier
1998 Charming Billy - Alice McDermott
1999 Waiting - Ha Jin
2000 In America - Susan Sontag
2001 The Corrections - Jonathan Franzen
2002 Three Junes - Julia Glass
2003 The Great Fire - Shirley Hazzard

World Fantasy Award

1994 Lewis Shiner, Glimpses
1995 James Morrow, Towing Jehovah
1996 Christopher Priest, The Prestige
1997 Rachel Pollack, Godmother Night
1998 The Physiognomy by Jeffrey Ford
1999 Louise Erdrich, The Antelope Wife
2000 Martin Scott, Thraxas
2001 Declare, Tim Powers
2002 The Other Wind, Ursula K. Le Guin
2003 The Facts of Life Graham Joyce

The Pulitzer Prize

1995 The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
1996 Independence Day by Richard Ford
1997 Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhause
1998 American Pastoral by Philip Roth
1999 The Hours by Michael Cunningham
2000 Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
2001 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
2002 Empire Falls by Richard Russo
2003 Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
2004 The Known World by Edward P. Jones

The RITA Award (Romance)

Many <a href="http://www.readersread.com/awards/rita.htm" target="_new">sub-genres</a> including historical romance, regency romance, romantic suspense, paranormal romance, contemporary romance, traditional romance, and inspirational romance.

The Edgar Award (Mystery)

1995 The Red Scream, Mary Willis Walker
1996 Come to Grief, Dick Francis
1997 The Chatham School Affair, Thomas H. Cook
1998 Cimarron Rose, James Lee Burke
1999 Mr. White's Confession, Robert Clark
2000 Bones, Jan Burke
2001 The Bottoms, Joe R. Lansdale
2002 Silent Joe, T. Jefferson Parker
2003 Winter and Night, S.J. Rozan
2004 Resurrection Men, Ian Rankin

The Bram Stoker Award (Horror)

1994 Dead in the Water by Nancy Holde
1995 Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates
1996 The Green Mile by Stephen King
1997 Children of the Dusk by Janet Berliner & George Guthridge
1998 Bag of Bones, by Stephen King
1999 Mr. X by Peter Straub
2000 The Traveling Vampire Show by Richard Laymon
2001 American Gods by Neil Gaiman
2002 The Night Class by Tom Piccirilli
2003 lost boy lost girl by Peter Straub

The Nebula Awards (Science Fiction)

1994 Moving Mars by Greg Bear
1995 The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer
1996 Slow River by Nicola Griffith
1997 The Moon and the Sun by Vonda N. McIntyre
1998 Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman
1999 Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler
2000 Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear
2001 The Quantum Rose by Catherine Asaro
2002 American Gods by Neil Gaiman
2003 Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon


Being a writer means that you have homework every day for the rest of your life.

But ... we're readers too, we writers. Primarily, we're readers. We write because no one else has written exactly the story we want to hear.

This is a light burden.

Trying to get through Winston Churchill at the moment. He was amazingly popular in the early 1900's and I'm trying to figure out WHY?!?!

Look with your writer's eyes. What is this writer trying to do? What is he giving to his audience?

And remember, the reason that when the British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill wrote, this person is why the British chap wrote as "Winston S. Churchill," so that he wouldn't be confused with the best-selling author of historical fictions.

but it occured to me that going that route will put my protag in the situation he fears most. At this point, I was fighting that. And really, I do know that's what you're supposed to do with those characters.

My long-time writing partner says, "Writing is about a lot of things, but being kind to your characters isn't one of them."

Believe that.

When you can't get to the ending you imagined, that's a clue that it's the wrong ending. Find a new/better one.

There's one ending that I've been trying to reach for eight novels now.

Be true to your characters; be true to yourself. That's what's required of the novelist.

1. Someone who reads alot and know a good book when she reads one
2. Someone who may not be a writer herself -- sometimes writers can be jaded.. you want an unbiased perspective
3. Someone you can trust -- very important
4. Someone who can be really candid and honest -- tell you straight up without sugar coating anything; but see #3.
5. Someone who knows something about your market/genre.

And another -- someone who has never read a word of yours before; someone who doesn't know your world, who doesn't know your voice. The naive reader in the bookstore. The first reader at the publisher.

Are there any questions that would help a beginner improve, but which no beginner ever seems to think of asking?

Oh ... my ... Ghod....

Without reading the thread you reference....

Listen, young writer. You ask what you need to do, to improve? You want to know the secret?

Write your story... write your novel... then write another one.

And for heaven's sake think. Think about what you're doing, what worked, what didn't. Be honest. Be brutal -- with yourself.

But, above all,write.

The trick is, as the original question poses: who should be your perfect beta?

I have a perfect beta. Just one person (and no, it's not my co-writer). But there's one person who I write for, and that's my beta.

To her: Thank you.

And -- I've been a beta. I remember one person. I read her novel, and my comment was (among other things) that I didn't see why the heroine and the villain didn't push the hero off the top of the nearest bell tower and make bets on how high he'd bounce.

She never asked me to comment on another novel.

That novel was never published.

(That author has published other novels.)

Honesty. If you're a beta, be honest.

Is it time maybe to archive this thread as LEARN WITH JIM 1 and start anew? Just a thought.

When we reach 100 pages. Perhaps.

I imagine then the first dozen posts of the new thread will be links to the old one, to the Best Of posts.

I'm also thinking of doing a FAQ.

Q. How Do I Become a Writer?

A. By sending your writing to editors likely to buy it.

Q. What editor is likely to buy it?

A. One who has bought similar things in the past.

Q. What do you mean "bought"?

A. Sent a check for cash money, to the tune of at least $0.05 cents a word.

Q. How do I know who has bought similar things?

A. By reading the magazine/imprint for which the person edits.

Q. How do I submit?

A. Double-spaced, on one side of the paper, with one-inch margins.

And so on ....

Many years ago, when I was young and innocent, I went to a presentation by a Famous Author, with questions after. And I wanted to be a writer, even then. And I raised my hand, timidly, near the end, and asked "How does one become a published writer?" or words to that effect.

And the famous writer answered, something about inspiration, and vision, and much else that wasn't particularly useful (in that it took me fifteen years to figure out the answer to my question), which was, "Type it on one side of the paper, double spaced, and send it to someone likely to buy it. For cash."

Let me tell you a true thing: if you have a talent for prose fiction (and most people don't -- I swear to you, most people don't), and you've practiced so that your talent is developed -- there are folks who will pay you cash money. You have a rare talent. You are one among a million. You deserve money for what you can do. Do not sell yourself short!

But your first, or your second, or ... need I go on? Your efforts need to be practiced.

Not only must you be good enough, you have to be good enough to go head to head against people who are as talented as you (or more!) and who have been practicing for twenty years.

In the words of Dirty Harry: "Ask yourself, punk, do you feel lucky?"

Guys, I've been talented all my life. I've been writing for forty years. I've been publishing for a bit over fifteen of them.

This is work. This is not just raw talent, this is work. Don't let anyone tell you differently.

Oh, dear, Joanna.

First, you might want to read The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (http://www.powells.books/cgi-bin/pa...h/search&searchtype=isbn&searchfor=0809001608) by B. Traven.

Now, consider these possiblities:

While these people are on the island, a bio-engineered plague kills everyone else on earth. What is the treasure worth to them now?


The billionaire is still alive, and for reasons of his own wants these particular people corralled. Either they're capable of thwarting his plans elsewhere in the world, or he's planning Weird Medical Experiments.


There never was a billionaire; this is just another stupid reality TV game show. When the participants realize this, they destroy the cameras, go to New York, and take over the network that had been sponsoring it. One of our heroes becomes a prophet, but is only able to reveal where lost bread boxes can be found. Since few people have bread boxes any more, and fewer of them lose 'em, this isn't too spectacular. The soldier is accused of having murdered the head of the network. The jury returns the verdict "Justifiable Homicide."

The night before the treasure hunt is to begin is a perfect time for the plot to take a wild turn. Whatever happens should call off the game.


I've thought about this a little more.

What's the theme of this book? Who are the characters, really? Once you know those things, you'll have a better idea of which way to move the plot. But since the Pakistani businessman is plotting it for you as you go ... I don't know what to say.

Maybe the Weird Medical Experiment is a mutated form of VD, bioengineered by the billionaire in a failed attempt to create a means of restoring his failing manhood, which has the powers of being a) a true aphrodasiac, and b) horribly fatal. The story is a clever commentary on HIV/AIDS.

Hi, Kate --

I left off the Hugos because I already had a list of SF award winners, and didn't feel like handing out too much homework.

"Were" is the subjunctive -- it expresses conditions or events that the speaker wants to happen, hopes to happen, or imagines happening. Usually you find "if" preceding "were."

"The boss would be happy if you were there."

You can use "was" informally or in dialog.

Technically, a novel is a book-length work of realistic prose fiction.

What exactly "book-length" is, now ... if you're asking for a definition, it's anything above 40,000 words. If you're asking, "What's a commercial length?" think about 60,000 words. If you're asking, "Is 200,000 words too long?" the answer is maybe -- for a first time author. Or maybe not, if they're all exactly the right words.

Your first goal is to have the right words, and only the right words, in your book. After that figure out whether it's a commercial length and what category to put it in.

Here, try this: Go to a bookstore or library, find some recent crime novels, and count the words. (To count the words: take five random pages. Count the individual words on them. Divide by five, then multiply by the total number of pages in the book.)

I look at this "book-length" project of mine and realise it doesn't actually fit any category ...

If you have a compelling story compellingly told, what exact category it fits into won't matter ... let the editors and the marketing people at the publishing house figure out what kind of cover to put on it.

Remember that Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife has been marketed as fantasy, science fiction, horror, and romance at various times its publishing history.

Marketing categories -- if your story is good enough they'll invent a marketing category just for you.

As Kate mentioned, the chains have noticed real reader reluctance to buy a book by someone they've never heard of that's priced over around $25 (and reluctance among readers to buy books priced above $28 even among authors they've heard of and like).

When that's combined with the philosophy that some of the majors have expressed that "If it's worth publishing, it's worth publishing in hardcover," you can see a hit to the mega-doorstop novels.

That being said -- you need exactly as many words as it takes to tell your story. If you're over 120,000 words, and every one of them is a necessary word, go with that.

Oh, Ghod, not more grammar wars.

I've read two Grisham novels -- The Runaway Jury, and A Time to Kill.

Later on today I'll try to hit the library and grab a couple of Grisham's works, and play with a couple of pages here.

I'll also try to remember to give you my Fire Door Theory of Novels.

I pulled The Summons and The Street Lawyer out of the library today, and looked at A Time To Kill over at Barnes&Noble.

I defy anyone to read the first page of A Time to Kill and not go on to finish the first chapter -- I know I did, standing there in the bookstore.

I'll be looking at the other two books shortly, and maybe doing some retyping here.

Remember the master rule: Does it work?


Sometimes later books by popular authors get sloppy, in some ways. Sometimes its that they aren't being edited as closely (that happens for all sorts of reasons -- if anyone ever hears me say "I want a no-editing clause in my next contract" you have my permission to come to my house and mock me in person). Sometimes the author has run out of the earlier fire, and is cruising.

Readers are more forgiving of authors who have shown them a good time in the past, and will work with them a bit longer and a bit harder.


Oh -- here's
my WorldCon schedule.

Do you alternate for sound, variety, or what?

Variety, sentence rhythm, and to reinforce the character's name for the reader.

She'll spend an awful lot of the rest of the book in one disguise or another, using other names.

Wouldn't the book sell well, even if it was complete rubbish?

It would -- perhaps. Readers are wiley creatures, and sometimes will leave everyone scratching their heads. The Bridges of Madison County?

More important, given that publishers have limited resources, why would the editor put a book she knows is complete rubbish number one on the list and advertise the heck out of it? Doesn't that editor have any good books? Are the other editors at that publishing house sitting on their thumbs?

A nice cover, yes. A good blurb, yes. Make it read as well as it can, of course. But if it's rubbish and the editor knows it ... the resources aren't going to be there for more.

The author said that the publisher was getting stricter with word counts, and would not accept anything over 120k (while in the past up to 150k was okay). A second author, with published short stories in the best pro markets (also SF), said they were given the same limits for their first novel (from TOR).

It's more likely that that was specific advice for specific authors, who may write fatter books than the story will support.

*[compiler's note--sorry this took so long, the board went down and ate the whole thing, edited links and all, and it took a bit to reconstruct it--(now saved in a word doc on my hard drive. *sigh*)]
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'Twas but a dream of thee
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Out on a limb
August 2004

James D. Macdonald

Learn Writing With Uncle Jim

August 2004

Oh, no! A typo! I shall die of shame. (And I shall also go back and edit that....)

In reading unpublished writing (which I am occasionally asked to do), it always seems painfully clear to me from the first pages who has talent and who doesn't.

To which I say: Sometimes. Sometimes someone who seemed totally hopeless returns some years later with something Really Good. You've heard how many pro writers have early works that they wince to re-read, who thank Ghod that the editors they sent 'em to rejected them. This too is true.

Yes, I've read unpublished stuff (a lot of it) that should stay unpublished, where I've said "This guy has talent." That's why the line in the rejection letter that says "send us your next" is a hopeful one.

It's also true that judging your own work is difficult, and knowing if you have talent is darn-near impossible. (Have I mentioned how many Big Name Pros have "Imposter Syndrome"?)

Here's how to tell if you are good enough for someone to offer you money:

a) Someone offers you money.

Before then, if you're unsure about submitting your work:

b) Your beta readers ask you if you have anything else for them to read.

Better still:

c) Friends of your beta readers ask if you have anything else for them to read.

Jim and others:

Do you have a list of final things you check before submitting a manuscript?

I check to make sure all the pages are there and nothing horrible has happened to the formatting (like chapter twenty-two being printed in 8-point Garish, and everything from page 403 to the end underlined). Sometimes the running headers get screwed up in entertaining ways.

By the time I submit a manuscript I've read it so often I'm sick of it. Darn-near have it memorized. And how it feels to me is boring.

Really, read The Unstrung Harp (http://www.powells.com/cgi-bin/part.../search&searchtype=isbn&searchfor=0151004358/). That'll tell you the truth.

But I can tell you a funny story.

As some of you may know, I write with my wife. And as others of you know, we live in far northern New Hampshire.

There we were. We'd finished Starpilot's Grave (http://www.powells.com/cgi-bin/part.../search&searchtype=isbn&searchfor=0812517059/) (a fine book; everyone should buy a dozen -- they make excellent gifts).

It was all printed out, tidily boxed, all's well. We were driving down to New York to spend the night at my mother's house, then take the train into New York City to meet our editor for lunch (and when editors take authors to expense-account lunches, it's worth the drive from far northern New Hampshire). Besides, the deadline was the next day (nothing like cutting it close).

And as we drove out of town, I turned to my wife and casually said, "You know, the middle doesn't work."

"Arrrghhhh!" she agreed with me.

Fortunately we had the novel on disk with us, and the computer with us, and the printer with us. (These were letter-quality dot-matrix days ... show of hands, kiddies, do you remember them?)

By the time we reached New York some seven hours later, we'd sort-of figured out what to do ... add a space battle. To reveal character, advance the plot, and support the theme.

It wasn't just adding one chapter, though. All the foreshadowing had to go into the earlier chapters, and all the results had to go into the subsequent chapters. It changed everything.

So.... first thing I did on arrival was sit down and write about twenty pages of original text, while Debra went through the first chapters and marked where the foreshadowing would have to go. Then while she was re-writing the new chapter and changing the first part of the book, I and my red-pencil were adding, deleting, and changing stuff in the back end of the book.

Now you all recall that dot matrix printers were slow in those days -- especially when you switched 'em to Letter Quality. Debra was still entering the changes in Chapter Two when we started Chapter One printing. And I figured how fast the pages were coming out, and calculated that at the current printing rate, we'd just catch our train.

This seemed to be working fairly well, right up until the safety feature on the printer clicked in.

It seemed that if the print-head got too hot, the printer would pause until it cooled, to keep from burning out the printer. It was August, a hot sticky night in August. And the safety feature shut down the printer. At that moment, we didn't care about the darned print head -- we could get a new printer if this one burned out -- what we didn't have was time.

Taking the lid off the printer so it wouldn't trap heat didn't help -- they had a cute little safety interlock to keep the printer from working while the lid was off.

Which is how that printer wound up with its lid off, with a paperclip jammed into the safety interlock, and a fan blowing at the print head.

We made the train (though I spent the trip into the city pulling the ears off the paper -- that was in the day of fan-fold sproket-drive computer paper). I noticed one typo on the way, corrected it with pen, and continued. The edges of the paper went into a wastebasket at Grand Central.

But we made it.

Well, I thought it was a funny story, anyway....

A serious answer to the question every writer gets asked:

"Where do you get your ideas?"

The answer is:

I'm the sort of person who gets ideas. Lots of them. If you don't have ideas popping into your head all the darn time, perhaps a career as a professional writer isn't for you.

What is it that untalented writers seem to lack?

Think of it as dating the Muse.

Some guys take the Muse out, and most of the evening is spent in painful silence. The guy delivers the Muse back to her apartment, they shake hands, and that's that.

Some guys take the Muse out, things get hot and heavy in the back seat of the car for a while, she gives him a passionate kiss at her apartment door, then the door slams and she never returns his phone calls.

Some guys wake up the next morning, walk into the kitchen and find a chick wearing nothing but one of his shirts. She's got a happy smile on her face. She's making pancakes.

"Who are you?" the guy asks.

"I'm the Muse," she replies. "Don't you remember last night?" She starts frying bacon.


If you can recognize which relationship with the Muse the writer has, you can tell who has the talent.

Note: Just as guys can have different relationships with young ladies at different points in their lives, so too can writers have different relationships with the Muse at various points in their lives.

I get the feeling that if Grisham submitted the first few pages of on of his novels to you, you would tear it to shreds. He does too much stuff that doesn't advance the plot, introduces millions of names of characters that never get developed or even mentioned later, and so on.

The first two pages of The Summons, by John Grisham:

Chapter 1

It came by mail, regular postage, the old-fashioned way since the Judge was almost eighty and distrusted modern devices. Forget e-mail and even faxes. He didn't use an answering machine and had never been fond of the telephone. He pecked out his letters with both index fingers, one feeble key at a time, hunched over his old Underwood manual on a rolltop desk under the portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest. The Judge's grandfather had fought with Forrest at Shiloh and throughout the Deep South, and to him no figure in history was more revered. For thirty-two years, the Judge had quietly refused to hold court on July 13, Forrest's birthday.

It came with another letter, a magazine, and two invoices, and was routinely placed in the law school mailbox of Professor Ray Atlee. He recognized it immediately since such envelopes had been a part of his life for as long as he could remember. It was from his father, a man he too called the Judge.

Professor Atlee studied the envelope, uncertain whether he should open it right there or wait a moment. Good news or bad, he never knew with the Judge, though the old man was dying and good news had been rare. It was thin and appeared to contain only one sheet of paper; nothing unusual about that. The Judge was frugal with the written word, though he'd once been known for his windy lectures from the bench.

It was a business letter, that much was certain. The Judge was not one for small talk, hated gossip and idle chitchat, whether written or spoken. Ice tea with him on the porch would be a refighting of the Civil War, probably at Shiloh, where he would once again lay all blame for the Confederate defeat at the shiny, untouched boots of General Pierre G. T. Beauregard, a man he would hate even in heaven, if by chance they met there.

He'd be dead soon. Seventy-nine years old with cancer in his stomach. He was overweight, a diabetic, a heavy pipe smoker, had a bad heart that had survived three attacks, and a host of lesser ailments that had tormented him for twenty years and were not finally closing in for the kill. The pain was constant. During their last phone call three weeks earlier, a call initiated by Ray because the Judge thought long distance was a rip-off, the old man sounded weak and strained. They had talked for less than two minutes.

The return address was gold-embossed: Chancellor Reuben V. Atlee, 25 Chancery District, Ford County Courthouse, Clanton, Mississippi. Ray slid the envelope into the magazine and began walking. Judge Atlee no longer held the office of chancellor. The voters had retired him nine years earlier; a bitter defeat from which he would never recover. Thirty-two years of diligent service to his people, and they tossed him out in favor of a younger man with ra-

The first two pages of The Street Lawyer, by John Grisham:


The man with the rubber boots stepped into the elevator behind me, but I didn't see him at first. I smelled him though -- the pungent odor of smoke and cheap wine and life on the street without soap. We were alone as we moved upward, and when I finally glanced over I saw the boots, lack and dirty and much too large. A frayed and tattered trench coat fell to his knees. Under it, lawyers of foul clothing bunched around his mid-section, so that he appeared stocky, almost fat. But it wasn't from being well fed; in the wintertime in D.C., the street people wear everything they own, or so it seems.

He was black and aging -- his beard and hair were half-gray and hadn't been washed or cut in years. He looked straight ahead through thick sunglasses, thoroughly ignoring me, and making me wonder for a second why, exactly, I was inspecting him.

He didn't belong. It was not his building, not his elevator, into a place he could afford. The lawyers on all eight floors worked for my firm at hourly rates that still seemed obscene to me even after seven years.

Just another street bum in from the cold. Happened all the time in downtown Washington. But we had security guards to deal with the riffraff.

We stopped at six, and I noticed for the first time that he had not pushed a button, had not selected a floor. He was following me. I made a quick exit, and as I stepped into the splendid marble foyer of Drake & Sweeney I glanced over my shoulder just long enough to see him standing in the elevator, looking at nothing, still ignoring me.

Madam Devier, one of your very resilient receptionists, greeted me with her typical look of disdain. "Watch the elevator," I said.


"Street bum. You may want to call security."

"Those people," she said in her affected French accent.

"Get some disinfectant too."

I walked away, wrestling my overcoat off my shoulders, forgetting the man with the rubber boots. I had nonstop meetings throughout the afternoon, important conferences with important people. I turned the corner and was about to say something to Polly, my secretary, when I heard the first shot.

Madam Devier was standing behind her desk, petrified, staring into the barrel of an awfully long handgun held by our pal the street bum. Since I was the first one to come to her aid, he politely aimed it at me, and I too became rigid.

"Don't shoot," I said, hands in the air. I'd seen enough movies to know precisely what to do.

"Shut up," he mumbled, with a great deal of composure.
There were voices in the hallway behind me. Someone yelled,

Discussion in a bit....

But first, both of those excerpts ended in mid-sentence. Who doesn't want to find out What Happens Next?


Yes, this was brought up early on, and the answer is: Author's Choice.

For me, a chapter break happens at a natural break in time/place/character/action that's more than a line break, less than a Part.

For me, I try to arrange things so that those natural breaks happen every ten to twenty pages.

For me, the end of a chapter has a miniature climax, and a cliffhanger, that points to the start of the next chapter.

For you ... maybe something different.

Imagine the look of surprise on my face when I found that AW regular HapiSofi's comments on WorldCon (http://p197.ezboard.com/fabsolutewritefrm11.showMessage?topicID=438.topic) were picked up by my second-favorite hangout, Making Light, a literary Blog, as well as being commented and expanded upon in a couple of Live Journals.

Since I'm going to
be at WorldCon myself, all I can say is "right on," and "read, learn, and inwardly digest."

I'm thinking of starting a Son Of Uncle Jim thread, Real Soon Now.

But ...

Before we go there....

Uncle Jim Does an Info Dump.

Here's the first several pages from a short story ("Jenny Nettles" in
Bruce Coville's Book of Spine Tinglers). Note how much info is dumped, and how little story is going on.

Now ... let's see how many people are still following at the bottom of this post, and who wants to see What Happens Next:

Jenny Nettles
Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald

2600 words

On October the fourth of the year 1773, the brigantine Jenny Nettles, merchantman out of New Bedford, made port. No sooner was she tied up than the crew was at work with block and tackle, with hammer and chisel, unshipping the figurehead.

They lifted it up and swung it ashore, the carved and painted wooden statue of a woman in Highland garb, and laid it down on the pier. Then six men on either side they carried it shoulder high to the nearest churchyard. They dug a grave, lowered the figurehead in, and said the words from the Book. When they were done they filled in the grave, set up crosses at the head and foot, and returned to the ship without a word.

None of the crew ever shipped in Jenny Nettles again, and more than one of them left the sea for good after that voyage. But not a soul among them would ever say why.


She was built in Halifax in 1755, and christened Jenny Fraser.

The owner was a Scotsman, a Fraser of Strathglass. In the bloody year of '45, when the Scottish clans rose up against the crown of England, John Fraser was a new-married man. With a wife to keep, and a child on the way, he stayed out of the fighting. He obtained a certificate of immunity -- an official paper showing that he had never fought against King George II -- and after the uprising ended in bitter defeat for the rebels at the Battle of Culloden, he trusted in the certificate to protect him from King George's soldiers.

But the redcoat troops who came through Glenmoriston and Strathglass cared nothing for a scrap of paper. He was a Highlander, and that was enough. He was taken prisoner as a rebel and a traitor, and sent to the hulks -- the prison ships anchored in the river Thames.

There he remained for the best part of a year, while he and the hundreds of others who shared the rotting holds of the prison ships grew thinner by the day, until their bones could all be seen. Many died. The corpses were removed only when enough of them had accumulated to make it worthwhile to hire beggars to haul them out.

After an endless time when the only light he was a square patch of blue in the deck above, John Fraser and his fellow prisoners were haled out on deck, divided into groups of twenty, and forced to choose lots. One man in each twenty was hanged. The rest were transported -- sent to England's colonies in America, with no hope of ever returning home.

John Fraser had come to Halifax unwillingly, but he prospered there as he had never done in his native Scotland. In time he became a wealthy merchant. But he never forgot the wife and child he had lost when King George's soldiers came killing and looting their way through Glen Cannich. And when he built his first ship, it was christened Jenny Fraser in his wife's name.

Jenny Fraser was a sweet sailer and had lucky passages, bringing good fortune to her owner and to those who sailed in her. But the time came when John Fraser died in Halifax -- of weariness after a hard life as much as from any mortal illness -- and the Jenny passed into other hands.


In 1764, Jenny Fraser was sold for the first time, and in 1768 she was sold again. The first buyer kept the old name, seeing no point in changing what the ship had done well with, but the second, a New Bedford Yankee, had no great liking for another merchant's name on a thing that was his. Nor did he care for wasting ceremony on an object of wood and hemp and canvas. He had the old name painted over and a new one lettered on the sternboard, all without a proper christening, and the ship was called Jenny Nettles from that day on.

By 1773, when she left Liverpool for New Bedford with a cargo of Irish linen, fine china, and cotton manufactured goods, no one aboard the brigantine remembered that she had ever been called anything else.


Halfway through the voyage, the wind died....
2600 words
Very quickly --

Australia can be considered foreign rights. Depends on what the publisher bought. If they picked up North American rights then you won't see the book outside North America.

If the publisher picked up World English rights, you might see UK and Australian editions, or in any other english-speaking country.

Or other rights and rights packages.

Alas, so far none of my books have sold in Australia. I weep, I sigh. I'd like it if they did. The rights are available; if you're a publisher send me a note; I'm sure we can work something out.

Meanwhile, for all others:

This is a page called
Slush. It's from Sharyn November, the editor of the Firebird imprint (Penguin USA's YA reprint line). There is much good advice on that page, and many fine links from it.

Another fine article, with much to teach us:

New York Times Magazine.

There are two different books with the title "Conan the Magnificent." One was by Steve Perry, the other by Robert Jordan. Both were from Tor Books.

Robert Jordan and Terry Brooks are two different people; I've seen them both in the same room at the same time.

(To answer your question: there are all kinds of ways to avoid having your real name show up on the copyright page of your book. Let your publisher handle this.)

I know that there are a lot of questions hanging fire and discussions that I've promised, and I will get to them.

In the meantime: some definitions to help push through the jungle.

Print on Demand

  • A business model
  • Prints after orders are received
  • Non-returnable books

Trade Paperback

  • Whole-copy returnable paperback
  • Usually 6"x9" trim size, but can be the same size as mass-market paperback ("rack-size trade paperback")
  • Intended for bookstore sales

Mass-Market Paperback

  • Stripped rather than returned
  • Intended for non-bookstore outlets (news stand, grocery store, etc.)
  • Distributed in the same way (and often by the same companies) as magazines and newspapers

Digital Printing

  • A technology
  • Converts a digital file to a finished book one at a time using a machine such as a Xerox Docutech
  • Low setup cost
  • High per-unit cost
  • No economy of scale

Offset Printing

  • A technology
  • Uses large presses and photographic plates to create many books rapidly
  • High setup cost
  • Low per-unit cost
  • Major economy of scale

Vanity Publication

  • A business model
  • Author pays the cost of publication plus a percentage to the publisher
  • Publisher has title to the physical books on the day they're printed

Self Publication

  • A business model
  • Author pays the cost of publication
  • Author has title to the physical books on the day they're printed

Traditional Publishing

  • A business model
  • Prints before orders are received
  • Returnable/strippable books
  • Publisher pays author for rights to publish
  • Publisher has title to the physical books on the day they're printed
By the way, what are the implications of an incorrect Copyright statement in a book and do I have some kind of collector's piece on my hands?
Dunno -- but you might have a novel plot on your hands....

I know I've been slacking, and I owe a whole bunch of replies here (as well as the Firedoor Theory of Novel Construction), but:

For ammolsb ...

You might as well ask me "How long is a piece of rope?" Being able to write and publish two novels per year is a heck of an ambition. Sure, it can be done (I've done it), but I can't say how much you'll earn. What genre? What publisher? How are your sales?

Short answer: Plan on zero. That way you'll only get happy surprises.

I think it's intensely interesting to dissect what makes that the case, and how just a few wording changes can result in such a drastically different feel.

This is why I say that you have to go through your book word-by-word and make every word justify its existence. Some people are naturals -- I can't help them, I can't hurt them. Me, I'm not a natural. I have to think about everything (though I only do it in second and subsequent drafts).

The first draft is for getting the story in place. If you don't have a story, you don't have a novel.

Lots of other things to talk about, no time to talk about 'em. For me, the "and then" discussion is a religious one, so there's no point talking about it. I'd originally offered it as an example of one of my eccentricities.

On suspense, and openings:

Consider the film D.O.A.. The protagonist has to figure out who murdered him. (He's been given a poison that has no cure, that hasn't killed him yet, but gives him limited time to discover whodunnit.) Consider the books that are one long flashback, after a present-time opening paragraph. Consider a change in POV character or narrative voice.

There's no one right way to do this. You as the artist will decide which is the best way for you,for your book. Try different versions in different drafts. See which read better. You don't get a prize for "almost works."

Much earlier in this thread, Uncle Jim disagreed firmly.

I still disagree firmly. The "and then" word cluster is always and everywhere wrong, illogical, and unsupported by any valid laws of grammar.

"And then" can be used in dialog to show that the speaker is illogical, ungrammatical, and wrong.

Good list, Ptom....

I put up the first two pages of a couple of Grisham novels (http://p197.ezboard.com/fabsolutewritefrm3.showMessageRange?topicID=257.topic&start=1941&stop=1960) a while back, and never did anything with 'em (though I'd intended to).

Does anyone want to take a whack at analysing those two excerpts in light of the breakout novel "page turner" checklist?

(If the readers haven't turned pages one and two, odds are they won't be turning pages three, four, or a hundred-and-four either.)

In The Summons, our protagonist won't get around to opening that darned letter for another two pages.

Oh, and Tammy? Interlibrary loan really is your friend. I live in a town of 2,500 (55 miles by road from the nearest bookstore) -- and I can get anything I want.

In the case of The Street Lawyer, the character's problems go from "Oooo, I'm standing next to a smelly bum," to "How do I get the smelly bum out of the office?" to "How do I avoid getting shot in the head?" all inside two pages.

I'm confused there, Jim --

What't the difference between putting a hook in the first paragraph, and engaging our curiosity in the first paragraph?

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Out on a limb
James D. Macdonald

Learn Writing With Uncle Jim

September 2004

I'm not at my usual computer; I'm enroute to WorldCon right now (see some of you there!).

Briefly --

First page of novel that has parts:

Your name
City, State, ZIP


Part One

Chapter One

He was a dark and stormy knight....


Formatting is not such an exact thing that people will sneer at you for not having the precisely "right" number of spaces between the chapter heading and the first line of text. What I'd do in that case is put "Part One" where normally I'd put "Chapter One," then double-space, put "Chapter One," then double-space, indent, and start the story.

You get into the pathetic fallacy when you say something like "She felt the angry muzzle of the gun pressed into her side." Even then, I can see using phrases like that for spice. Just don't over-do it, and make sure that it reveals character.

(Side note: when discussing hypothetical phrasings, recall that the paragraph is the smallest unit of your story. Look at the sentence in a paragraph to see how it sounds and how it flows.)


In third person, the narrator can see everything, but can only enter one person's head at a time. You can say "Ralph felt himself coloring" or "Irene blushed" without breaking POV if you're in Ralph's head (provided Ralph can see Irene).


I promise to come back and do much fuller comments on stuff all the way back to the Grisham, soon.

And I still owe y'all the Firedoor Theory of Novel Construction.​
What do you mean by a "set piece"?

For me, a set piece is a special/spectacular action section that functions pretty-much as a unit, while foreshadowing is preparing the reader for events that will happen later, so the reader won't be blindsided. (Readers hate surprises.)

You're constantly doing foreshadowing.

It sounds like the space you're seeing after the quote mark is part of the quote-mark itself -- since it's monospaced it isn't closed up to the following character as closely.

No, a 450 page manuscript in Courier 12 won't scare an editor even if it's only 86,000 words. What will scare him is if those words aren't the right words.

There's still a lot of hand work with pencils that takes place on our manuscripts. Those pencil marks take room. Give the editor, line editor, copy editor, and proofreader some space to work with.

We just sold a book on proposal (three-and-an-outline) to Avon/EOS. $40K advance. Now we just have to write the darned thing. The working title is The Land of Mist and Snow.

Here's the first chapter. Remember, this is unedited first draft.

Chapter One

In the winter of 1862 I was an idler; assigned to the War Department office at 88 Whitehall Street in the city of New-York after my ship, USS Tisdale, burned when the Rebels took Norfolk.

Time weighed heavily on me, for while my brother officers were gaining rank and experiencing sea-time in maintaining the blockade and chasing the raiders, I was filing papers in an obscure office. I feared that my career would be stalled, if not derailed entirely, the goal of command at sea forever placed beyond my reach.

So it was that a messenger found me laboring at my desk, checking one long bureaucratic list against another, an envelope from the Navy Department in his hand with my name on the front. I fairly tore the envelope from his hand and opened it.

What it contained was indeed the answer to my nightly prayer. I was detached immediately from my current assignment to travel by fastest available means to the Naval Arsenal at Watervliet, to inspect and take possession of a dozen ten-inch Rodman guns, thence to accompany them to the place where USS Nicodemus might lie, there to take my position as head of her gunnery department. Nicodemus was new construction; I would be a plank owner. Nicodemus, I was informed, was even then fitting out in preparation of her sea trials.

The remainder of the morning I spent in checking out of my temporary billet, drawing my health and pay records, and turning over my responsibilities to a hapless civilian clerk.

I had been staying at a hotel under per diem. I lost no time in packing, and the afternoon saw me at the Hudson River Railroad station in my dress blue uniform, purchasing a ticket to Albany. Spring approached; dusk fell later each day, but it was still full dark before a carriage deposited me at the gates of the arsenal.

A Marine guard directed me to the duty officer, who saw to my placement in the Bachelor Officer Quarters. There I said my prayers and went to sleep, wondering what kind of craft Nicodemus might be. I had not heard of her before, though in an eddying backwater such as my office at Whitehall Street that would not be a surprise. Still, a sloop of war mounting a broadside of six Rodmans and, I supposed, lesser pieces besides, would be impressive enough. I was well satisfied with my prospects.

Morning found me in the Arsenal commander's office, presenting my compliments and my orders. The commander, a pleasant enough fellow named Winchell who had preceded me by two years at the Academy, greeted me and offered to accompany me himself on my inspection tour of the guns. I felt it was hardly my place to refuse, and I was just as glad to talk again with a sailor; my previous tour had placed my among civilians and invalided Army men, landsmen all.

As it turned out, he wanted to do more than talk of mutual acquaintances while showing off his command to an outsider. He wanted to pump me for information, information that I sadly lacked, and which baffled me as well.

"You see, Johnny," he said as we entered the sheds facing the Hudson where the guns stood, "they're cast to spec, though why the devil the specs were written that way eludes me."

The guns stood in a burnished rank, gleaming the yellow-gold of brass.

"Brass cannon," I said.

"Yes, brass, as ordered," Winchell said, and here he gestured to a chief petty officer standing by, the crossed cannon of the gunners mate on his right sleeve. "And virgin brass too; never before cast into any other shape."

The chief strode over and presented his leader with a sheaf of paper, which he reviewed, then handed to me. It was the casting history of each of the Rodmans, from the first smelting of the copper and zinc to the present.

I checked over the cannon carefully. I was no stranger to ordnance; the lives of myself and my shipmates, not to mention the defeat of our enemies, were dependent on the flawless construction and operation of the cannon. I requested an inspection mirror and a light, and examined every inch of the barrels, inside and out. They did in fact seem flawless.

I turned to Winchell at length. "You can be proud of your work," I said.

"Do you wish to examine the ammunition as well?" he inquired.

"To the same specifications?" said I.

"The same, virgin brass."

"I can't believe it will be necessary to handle each ball," I said, which brought a smile to his lips. Winchell gave orders that the cannon were to be crated and loaded on a barge for transport. He then invited me to join him for a belated lunch. I accepted with pleasure.

Over cigars at the officers' club, I made bold to breach the question directly.

"Where is it that these guns that I just signed for are to be shipped?"

"To Brooklyn, for the Navy Yard. So say the lading documents. They are being loaded onto a barge even now. A steam tug will tow them. Beyond that, I know nothing."

Across the river in Manhattan I had not heard of a ship under construction that required brass cannon. I asked Winchell directly if he had ever heard of such a vessel.

"No, indeed not. But I can scarcely hear of everything. Perhaps she's been laid in Boston."


He kindly walked me to the barge at quayside where my dozen Rodmans, neatly crated, now lay side by side on a barge. Crates that I supposed contained brass shot filled a second barge. We shook hands, saluted, and I presented my orders to the master of the civilian tug that was to take me down the river that I had only lately ascended. The pilothouse of the tug was cramped, and the smell of the engines pervasive, but I eagerly accepted the offer to make the journey there.

A brisk wind was blowing, and the slush turning to ice, while the sun dipped toward the western hills. A young enlisted man brought my seabag from my quarters and laid it on the fantail of the tug, lashed to the rail. Towing hawsers were made fast to the barges, and with our whistles screaming out we made way down river. The sun set as we steamed along, the lighthouses of the Hudson illuminated, as we made our way to the East River of Manhattan and to the Navy Yard on its eastern shore.

We came alongside a brig, TRIUMPH lettered on her sternboard in gold leaf, where we were evidently expected, for the watch soon appeared with a lantern, a ladder dropped to our deck, and a working party swung out booms to load the cargo from the barge to the brig's hold.

I clambered up the ladder, my boat cloak swirling around me, to salute the quarterdeck and the officer of the deck.

The degree of activity surprised me, and I said as much, for I had expected the guns to be loaded at first light, no sooner, for the night was a dark and a bitter one.

"Dark and cold, you'll get used to 'em where you're going," the officer said. "We sail with the tide or miss a day, and that won't make the old man happy, not a bit."

He concluded reading my orders by the binnacle lamp, then handed them back to me and instructed the messenger of the watch to take me below and show me to the captain's quarters, then to my own.

The captain, as it turned out, was "Uncle Joe" Suffern, of whom I had heard good report. He was a seaman's seaman, and a fighting captain. Why he was assigned to such a small vessel and such an insignificant role as running coastwise cargo I could not then imagine.

"Last of the Nicodemus wardroom," he said, having offered me a seat in his cabin and a glass of port. "I envy you. The outfitting should be done soon. I imagine sea trials shortly."

"Nicodemus, sir?"

"You are not aware? You and your guns are being transshipped to the Naval Experimental Shipyard, Thule."

"I confess that I've never heard of that shipyard, sir."

"Neither had I, until I was assigned to run cargo there. Not to breathe a word about the place to anyone, not even to a sweetheart or a wife, those are our instructions."

"What can you tell me about Nicodemus?" I asked.

"Nothing," he replied, "for I have not seen her myself, though I have been involved in her construction for over a year now."

Our conversation was interrupted by a messenger who announced the loading complete and the cargo made fast for sea. Captain Suffern excused himself, directed the boy to show me to my cabin, and took to the deck. I followed the messenger toward the waist, where I was to be placed in a cabin shared with another lieutenant. My seabag was already there, lying on the deck beside a stanchion.

I traded my boat cloak for a short jacket of thick wool and ascended the ladder to the main deck. The boatswain piped single up all lines, and the crew, well drilled, hurried silently to obey.

"Cast off," came a voice from the quarterdeck, and the line-handling party on the pier dropped the mooring lines from the bollards. The same tug that had carried the guns from Watervliet pulled us stern first into the stream, then cast off.

We hoisted sail, and beneath topgallants and the glittering stars passed beneath the Battery. I could see the War Department building, one window on the top floor illuminated by the lantern of a late worker. I imagined that it might be my relief burning the midnight oil and raised my hat to him as we passed.

As we entered the Narrows the word was passed to make full sail, and the little brig fairly bounded forward under a fresh breeze. By sunrise we were out of sight of land, the ship's head east by north, shaping a course for who knew where.


Although I was not slightly obligated to do so, I had myself placed on the watch bill, and stood my watches on the quarterdeck observing the sea, listening to the crack of canvas, hearing the groans of the cordage and tasting the salt spray on my lips.

The high North Atlantic is no easy sea, nor was this passage completely peaceful. For twenty-four hours we battled mountainous seas under storm-jib alone, while Uncle Joe stood on the quarterdeck as if he were rooted there, using all his skill to see us through.

Still, a week and a day after our departure from New York, light came without a sun, and we sailed through chilling mist so thick that it might be cotton wool; so thick that the foremast was not visible from the wheel, the sails dropping and the only sound the bell struck by the quartermaster as he turned the glass each half hour.

"We're close now," Uncle Joe said, and instructed the Boatswain to commence sounding. Thus we proceeded, making bare steerageway, for most of the day, the fog never lifting, but occasional bits of ice floating by on the sullen swell.

Toward the end of the forenoon watch, a voice from out of the mist cried "Ship ahoy!" and the lookout sang back, "United States Brig Triumph!"

With a plash of oars a cutter came alongside and passed us a line, and within an hour, as dark was falling, I found myself standing on a wooden pier attached to a stony shore. Through the mist nothing else could be seen save a warehouse, a heap of coal, and, incredibly, an ornate railway station. A single track ran beside it, and a locomotive attached to a passenger car and ten flatcars stood waiting.

I entered the station in search of both warmth and enlightenment. Once within, I was gratified to find a jolly pot-bellied stove nearly red from the fire that burned inside it, and a Navy petty officer sitting at a desk. I saw that his hat bore the ribbon "Nicodemus", so I strode up to him and enquired where the ship of that name might be found, that I might present my orders.

"A bit of a trip yet, sir," he replied. "First, I must ask if you are carrying any gold or silver or any items made of iron."

"Why, yes, all three," I said.

"Before you can board the train for the yards," the man said, "I must ask you to leave them here. For your silver and gold money I will exchange greenbacks. For watches and rings you will be given a receipt. As well as your sword, any pistols, and so on."

This was most unusual, but in the course of my career the Navy had asked many unusual things of me. The man was sober and serious in aspect, so I complied.

"I suppose the nails in my boots will pass muster?" I said with a smile.

"No, sir. I must ask you to leave them behind as well. We've felt boots, sir, and warmer they are than standard issue." He reached beneath his desk and pulled out a pair. "Here, sir, let me make your receipt, and I'll put all your goods in the lockroom with the rest."

I passed through the other door of the station to the platform, and onto the passenger car. The words "Department of the Navy, Thule Shipyards," were painted along its side. I could see my brass cannon being loaded onto the flatcars. At last I was to find out what manner of vessel I had been assigned to, and whence the mystery. I noted that the locomotive also was made of brass, as were the rails on which it stood.

Without my watch I could no longer tell the elapsed time, but it was not much longer ere the locomotive gave a lurch and we were underway.

I was the only officer in the railway car. Some half-dozen other men rode with me, bluejackets wearing the uniform of Nicodemus and the sullen expressions of men returning from liberty. If that railway station was the only place they had to go for entertainment, small wonder that they looked dour. I did not speak to them, nor they to each other, and truth to say I dozed. I suppose the trip lasted some hours.

Nights are long in the far northern latitudes, and it was still dark when a whistle from the locomotive and a slowing of the train announced that we were nearing our destination.

With a final chuff of steam and squeal of brakes we came to a halt. I stood, shouldering my bag, and stepped from the car. The air was thick with mist, and curiously lighted. A pervasive glare surrounded the station, a twin to the one where I had embarked. I soon saw that it came from gas lamps set on poles, one every twenty feet or so.

I walked back along the platform to inspect my cargo. The crates were covered by a rime of ice perhaps an inch and a half thick. Even as I watched, a working party appeared, ghostlike in the fog, with wagons and teams of horses, their breaths steaming into the mist. They began working to shift the crates. The utter rapidity of all the evolutions I had witnessed so far, combined with the silence in which they labored, impressed me.

The liberty party had by this time debarked the train as well to shuffle through the station. I turned to follow them. I had no desire to get lost in the cold and fog on an unfamiliar base.

Wherever they went, they went quickly, without the roistering that is almost universal at fleet landing. What I found on the other side of the station was a long wall, half again as tall as a man, broken by a gate whose lintel bore the words: THULE EXPERIMENTAL SHIPYARD, then, in smaller letters below, Authorized Personnel Only.

How likely is it, I asked myself, that unauthorized people will find themselves standing here? Indeed, it seemed to me that I stood at the edge of the world.

For all the ferocity of the sign, no guard stood at the gate for me to present my orders to. Nor was there a sign of the group of sailors I had been following. The mist had swallowed them. The light was brighter here, though, and ahead of me I thought I could make out a tapping sound, though what could be producing it I could not tell.

Since my eyes told me nothing, I decided to follow my ears. The ground was all of clean snow, but trampled flat in a welter of footprints leading in every direction.

The fog was thick, as I mentioned. I could scarcely see the poles holding the lights before bumping into one. But the tapping sound ahead of me grew louder, so I persevered. My cheeks were stinging with the cold, and my lungs hurt with the effort of breathing.

Before long I perceived that I was no longer walking on trampled snow but on ice, perfectly smooth. And then I came to the source of the sound: a party of sailors, swinging picks, chipping away at the edge of the ice. Beyond then was black water, and beyond that the smooth sides of a ship. The line of sailors went out of my sight to the right and left. Among them were some with long-handled rakes. When a piece of ice was chipped free, it was swept up and away.

I turned to my right and walked behind the sailors as they engaged in their peculiar task. It seemed as though they were endlessly laboring to keep the ice away from the sides of the vessel. I walked sixty paces before the line turned, a ninety-degrees to the left, and I followed it to pass under the ship's bows, then thirty paces after another corner. A third corner took me under her stern. I was not surprised to see the name Nicodemus painted in dull gold on the sternboard. Another turn and thirty more paces brought me to where I supposed I had started, without a clue as to how to get aboard the ship. No brow, ladder, or companionway had appeared during my circuit, nor had I seen a boat in the water.

At that moment I saw a light moving on the deck above me, so I sang out, "Hello the ship!"

"Aye aye!" came the answer.

"Lieutenant John Nevis, United States Navy, reporting as ordered for duty aboard USS Nicodemus," I shouted back.

"Oh, bugger," replied the voice. "Go to the house and report to the captain in the morning."

"Bugger yourself," I called back, cold, tired, and annoyed. "I haven't a clue where this house might be."

"Hopkins, take the lieutenant in tow and stow him away, would you?" the voice called. A moment later, a young sailor stepped up beside me, saluted, and reached for my seabag.

"You'll learn your way around here quick enough, sir," he said. "But you might as well know that they don't do things here the way they do anywhere else in the fleet."

That I could well believe, though I had no desire to show over-familiarity with the enlisted by telling him so. I believe Hopkins understood my silence, for without another word he shouldered my bag and started off. I followed, from the ice to a slope, all snow covered, and thence to the porch of a pleasant house of clapboard, its shutters closed tight against the night.

"Here you are, sir," Hopkins said, saluted, then faded away into the fog. For my part I returned the salute, turned the knob, and pushed into the vestibule. The three officers inside the house quickly introduced themselves: Lieutenant Dodge, Lieutenant Vincent, and Passed Midshipman Seaton, all line officers.

"Come," said Lieutenant Dodge after I had introduced myself. "You must be half frozen and completely tired after your journey. Let me show you to your cabin here ashore."

"Gladly," I replied. "But first, tell me, what manner of place is this?"

"The God-damnedest shipyard that I've ever seen," Dodge replied. "If the Navy needed to build in a dark, cold, and cheerless place, the Charlestown or Portsmouth yards would have served the purpose quite adequately. Lovely duty here; there's a girl behind every tree."

"I did not see any trees . . . ." I began, then quieted.

Dodge shouldered my seabag, and led the way up the stairs to a corridor on the upper floor. Seaton followed with a kerosene lamp. He opened the first door on the right, and we all followed in.

The furnishings were spare, but adequate, with two narrow beds, a washstand, two desks, two chairs, and two wardrobes. A register in the floor let heat from the fire below flow up, though not much of it; the exterior wall's inner face glittered with ice.

"This bunk is mine," Dodge said, pointing to the one closest to the window, "and that press. Stow your gear where you will." He lighted a candle from the lamp, then he and Seaton departed, pulling the door to behind them.

I could see my breath in the air of the room. Nevertheless, the bed looked entirely inviting. I stood my seabag in the wardrobe, hung my clothing over the back of a chair, blew out the candle and by feel alone crawled between the cold sheets. I said my prayers while curled in a ball, only my nose sticking out, and soon fell asleep.

What seemed an instant later, a tremendous hammering fell on the door. I started upright. The window was as black as it had been when I arrived.

Before I could say a word, an enlisted man in a peacoat and gloves entered, and placed a lighted lamp on the near desk.

"Good morning sir," he said, but did not stay for reply, instead tramping out and shutting the door behind him.

I rose and dressed, wearing the same clothes I had traveled in, and with the lamp descended to the drawing room where I had encountered the other three officers the night before.

Some hours had apparently passed. The card party had been cleared away, and the three officers I had met the night before were dressed with coats and gloves of their own. My own coat was over my arm, and I donned it now, placing the lamp on the table.

Two other officers had joined the others I already knew, bringing our company to six.

"Ah, there you are," Dodge said. He had been consulting a wheelbook, which he replaced in his inner pocket as I arrived. "Off to break our fast. Join us?"

"With pleasure," I said, for my last meal had been a hasty one while still coming to land the day before.

"Come on, then."

The six of us went out of the door, down the steps, and made our way in a gaggle across the creaking snow to a long and low structure, where smoke rose from chimneys at each end and a line of windows glowed yellow.

We entered, and, Dodge in the lead, walked between tables with benches, filled with sailors all eating their morning portions. We proceeded to a spot half-way down, where a thin partition set off a single table with chairs.

One officer was already there, a sheaf of papers under his hand, ship's plans. He looked up when we all arrived, rolling them and placing them in a case leaning against the partition.

"Welcome to the mess," Dodge said. "Time for introductions all around."

These were quickly performed. The gentlemen I had not met the evening before were two more passed midshipmen, by the names of Williams and Bash, and the officer who had met us was a lieutenant named Cromwell. I was given to know that he was the engineer of Nicodemus.

"I viewed the ship briefly on my arrival," I said to Cromwell, "and did not see sidewheels or a sternwheel on her. Will you be using an Ericsson screw, or are the wheels not yet mounted?"

"Propulsion is no concern of yours," was all he replied.

That's "first draft" as in "may have major changes after we get to THE END."

This first chapter is roughly 1/3 the length of the first get-the-words-on-the-page draft. That draft ended in a different place, had false starts, mounds of detail that were cut with huge sweeping red-pencil marks, and otherwise was a mess.

Alas, I no longer have the first version of the chapter.

I do have some very-first-draft around here, though... which I will post if I'm ever feeling particularly masochistic.

Yep, 5,000 to 10,000 copies is a reasonable number to expect for a first novel.

With a first novel, you'd be lucky to get into 50 bookstores.

Sez who? Your publisher has a full-time marketing department trying to get all of their books into every bookstore in the country.

(If your publisher doesn't have that marketing department, why are they your publisher?)

First novels can get wider distribution than second or third novels. Hard to believe, but true.

Off the top of my head, that sounds a lot like TELL, TELL, TELL.

Well, yeah. That's what description is. Balancing act, that's what this art is.

Pick the significant details, give them, let the readers fill in the rest according to their experiences and needs.

How do you avoid that second and third book letdown because the first one only had average sales?

It isn't that the first book only had average sales. The first book's sales are what they are; no one holds 'em against the author.

The problem comes if the second book's sales aren't better than the first book's. A rising curve is good, a falling one is bad. You see the logic.

What do you do then?

Write your third book under a pseudonym, accept a first-author advance, and try again.

The editors aren't fooled; they know who you are. The bookstores aren't fooled. The readers aren't fooled. But that's the way it works.

Remember the theater owner in
Shakespeare in Love saying "It's a mystery"?

It's a mystery.

(Note: If the first book Really Tanks, not just average sales but abysmal sales, the time to change your name and enter the DAW Books Witness Protection Program comes a bit sooner.)

(Note Two: Some people run two or three pseudonyms simultaneously, so that if one of their names isn't having a great career they can switch their efforts to a name that's doing better, rather than having to start as a "new author" again.)

(Note Three: If one of your names does Very Well Indeed, your earlier books under your other names can be reprinted as "By Joe Buffalo, Writing As Fred Finque." In case you ever wondered what that sort of byline was all about.)

I wonder if I'm going to have to explain the Death Spiral soon?

At least in my state you can use any name you want, so long as you don't have fraudulent intent.

Now ... usually, you put the pseudonym you want to use in the byline, with your real name in the address block.

If you're trying to keep the whole thing secret from the publishers, have your agent submit the story under your pseudonym (that's how "Christopher Pike," the YA Horror novelist, did it).

Don't imagine that when you submit your novel, that's the last you'll be talking to the editor until you see it in the bookstores. You'll have lots of opportunities to discuss what name you want on the cover.


Now about the Death Spiral. This comes from some chain bookstores' practice of Ordering To Net.

Say we have a happy young author named Anthony Aardvark. He's written a swell little mystery called Up Your Nose With a Rubber Hose, it's being published, and all's well.

The big chains see a new author. They don't know how he'll do, maybe he'll be the next John Grisham? Who knows? They order 10,000 copies for their various stores. (The books are returnable, so it doesn't hurt them to do it.)

Publishers often set printings based on pre-orders. 10,000 copies get printed, plus a few extra to take care of the indies and such.

Up Your Nose With a Rubber Hose comes out, and gets an 80% sell-through (which is pretty good).

(Sell-through is the number sold divided by the number shelved, times 100%.)

That is to say, 10,000 were shelved, 8,000 were sold. (The rest were returned for credit.)

Now Mr. Aardvark submits his next novel, In Your Eye With A Lemon Pie. The last one sold pretty well, he's gotten a slightly higher advance, all's seemingly well ... but the chains are Ordering To Net. 8,000 sold last time, so they only order 8,000 this time. That's where the printing is set.

Again, Mr. Aardvark gets an 80% sell-through; 6,400 are sold.

He submits his third book, Down Your Throat With A Motorboat. The chains are still Ordering To Net, so they only order 6,400. (Notice that there aren't enough copies to go on the shelves in all the bookstores where Rubber Hose was shelved -- readers there who liked the first book and would buy the next book by that author don't find it, don't buy it, and pick up some other book instead.) The publisher only prints, perhaps, 7,000. Out they go, there's an 80% sell-through (still a good sell-through number), and 5,120 are sold.

Mr. Aardvark submits In Your Hand With A Rubber Band. The chains will only preorder 5,120 -- it isn't worth the publisher's time to print so few -- so Mr. Aardvark is released from his contract. The good news is that he keeps the advance. The bad news is that any time his name pops up, the computers at the chain store say "order 5,120 copies."

What can he do? He changes his name to Basil Basingstoke, and submits In Your Hand With A Rubber Band under a new title with his new name. He only gets a first-novel sized advance, but! The chains, seeing a New Author, figure that this guy could be the Next John Grisham, and preorder 10,000 copies of The Rubber Band Affair by Basil Basingstoke.

(Perhaps some of Mr. Aardvark's fans will complain on Usenet that Basil Basingstoke is just a cheap Aardvark ripoff. Perhaps not.)

So that's one of the Horrid Things that can happen to authors.

Yeah, Emerald, just one. You want to hear some of the bad stuff?


Just out in paperback reprint is this anthology with a story by handsome and witty <blink>me</blink> in it.

Buy one! Better still, buy a dozen! They make excellent gifts! Everyone in your whole family wants a copy!

Nah. If I'd said "Everyone in my family wants a copy," then it would be a candidate for PA.

Technical note: On ezboard, square brackets will get you a font change. Angle brackets will get you angle brackets.

Only if, for some reason, the radio button in the reply window got changed from HTML to ezCodes.

Uncle Jim, how does one get past the death spiral problem....

First, write and sell a book a year. Every time a new book comes out, the publisher will resolicit the other books you have with them. They'll order your new book to net, and perhaps a few more of the older ones. (Little known but true: two books side by side by the same author make both of them more likely to sell than a singleton.) All of those sales count for the "net" for the book after that.

Second, with any kind of luck, your book will sell more than were printed and ordered. The book goes back to press, to fill the orders from the bookstores. (If a book sells out, they'll order more.) It doesn't have to happen in every store, just enough stores. How many stores is "enough" is a secret that the big chains don't share.

Third, bring out other books from different publishers. Say poor Anthony up there had two different novels come out from two different publishers. The chains order both to net, but it's separately: 8,000 of one, 8,000 of another. Those have an 80% sell-through, it's 12,800 sold total, but they're both listed under Anthony's name -- so whatever novel he sells next will get 12,800 preorders, with print runs set accordingly.

All books that go to your name count. Having multiple books in print simultaneously is your goal.

Does this tell against the slow writers? Yeah.

The other way is to break out, to have a runaway best seller. Lightning strikes. That's in the hands of the readers, the darlings.

Here's the anthology with the story whose first scene I ran (and analysed) a while back in this thread.

It's out now.

<A href="http://www.sff.net/people/doylemacdonald/murder_magic.htm" "target="_new">Murder by Magic

"How do novelists in the UK (like J K Rowling) get around that if they only produce books for one publisher?"

Two things: She's a break-out best seller, and she's writing a book a year.

[Update:] Oops! I thought you were asking how J. K. avoided the Death Spiral. Sorry!

How do you approach a romance between your characters?

The same way I approach any interpersonal actions with my characters. Interesting characters doing interesting things.

What exactly is the aim of this romantic subplot? Does it support the main plot? Why do you feel you need it?

The general rule still holds: If it isn't working, take it out.

Whew, Publishorperish, that's a tall order. (I've been trying to answer this question for the last hundred odd pages here.)

A novel isn't just a Really Long Short Story.

One way to write a novel would be to just start. Write every day, and when you come to "The End" around page 300, you have a novel. Then you revise the snot out of it.

This is as good a place as any for me to put in the Fire Door Theory of Novels.

Imagine a guy sitting in a movie theatre, enjoying the show. For some reason he gets up and walks out the exit door. It slams shut behind him, and locks. He can't get back into that movie, and for him that show is over.

That's the point where your novel starts.

He wanders around looking for a new movie. He goes in, perhaps after some trouble finding a theatre, he catches some of the middle of another movie. But he isn't enjoying it. He walks out the exit, the door slams shut, he can't go back. But it's dark, cold, and raining outside. Maybe that movie wasn't that bad -- but there's no going back.

You're now in the middle of your novel.

Our hero wanders more, finds a friend who knows where there's a show he'd really like, loans him money and dry socks, and together they sit down in another really good movie just as the opening titles start.

That's the climax of your book.

Maybe that works for you, maybe it doesn't, but that's one way to look at the shape of your novel.

(Failing that, put an interesting person in an interesting place, give that person an problem, then follow him or her around until all the problems that arise are solved.)

(This is also the time for me to say, Start at the Beginning of this thread and read forward. Lots of good stuff in here.)

Welcome, Elizabeth!

Sometimes I wonder if I should do an index to this thread.

Other times I wonder about extracting the good parts into a single file, an e-book or summat.

Then I look at everything else I have to do and put off doing anything.

Again, welcome.

People who are looking for copies of Murder by Magic can see if it's on the shelf of your local Borders bookstore by using the <A href="http://www.bordersstores.com/search/search.jsp?tt=gn" target="_new">locator at <A href="http://www.bordersstores.com">www.bordersstores.com

(Yeah, yeah, I know, it's shameless self-promotion, but hey, I'm an author. I'm allowed.)

ISBN 0446679623

You can use that same locator to look for your favorite books, too. Your other favorite books.

MURDER BY MAGIC isn't over at Amazon.com, I've noticed.

Amazon is scrod again. As usual. Borders has it, Barnes & Noble has it, Powell's has it. What can I tell you?

(I don't see another dime unless the book earns out, and after that it's a pro-rated share of 50% of the royalties. Number of pages in my story divided by number of pages in the anthology times 100%, times 1/2 of the money. Short stories aren't how you get rich. You do 'em for love, or for practice, or to do something that you can't get away with in a novel.)

(I do have a funny story about that. My elder son wanted a mountain bike for his birthday (this was some years back). Well, household finances didn't look like that ... then the day before his birthday we got a check, royalties from a short story in an anthology. $800. Wow. We took that as a Sign From On High that he was supposed to get that bike, and so he did.)

(That story was "Uncle Joshua and the Grooglemen," currently reprinted in New Skies (http://www.sff.net/people/doylemacdonald/new_skies.htm), available in both hardback and paperback. Buy one! Better still, buy a dozen! Do your Christmas Shopping Way Early!)

The next anthology with one of our stories in it is scheduled for February.

Now there was something else I was going to talk about tonight, but I've been overcome by a gloomy thought: By the time he was my age, Edgar Allan Poe had been dead for ten years -- and by then he'd invented the modern short story, the science fiction story, and the detective story.

"Your first power is in your choice as to where you put your greatest attention."

That's a really great saying.

(After that, at least with writing, it's where to direct the readers' attention.)

We did several comic books, back a few years ago (and scripted and got paid for more that never came out -- volatile business, comics).

We can see several similarities between comics and novels, though, other than the obvious one that both tell stories.

You have your dialog. That's in balloons.
You have your narration. That's in the little square boxes.
You have your description. That's in the pictures.

You have your point of view -- this is quite literal.

And in comics, as in novels, the amount of detail is related to the narrative speed. When things are going fast, look at your illustration. It's far less detailed. In the slower sections, amount of detail picks up.

...rejected by her publisher as too different from her usual humourous chick lit style.

That's definite Pseudonym Time. I have different pen names that I use for various genres, because I don't want to confuse the readers.

I'm not the only one who does that, either.

Mind if I join in?

Welcome to the party!

(I'm a volunteer EMT, myself.)

Get comfy. Here's a beer. If you want to come out from under your Lurk Hood, would you like to mention the names of your novels?

(It's really true, folks: it's harder to sell a third or fourth novel than it is to sell a first one.)

This isn't for you, specifically, but your comments reminded me that I was going to recommend a couple of articles to y'all:

<A href="http://www.sfwa.org/writing/restart.htm" target="_new">Jump-Starting a Stalled (Or Dead) Career

<A href="http://www.sfwa.org/bulletin/articles/stalled.htm" target="_new">Stalled Careers, Writer's Block, and Monsters Under the Bed

Those are far better bits of advice than Jane Doe Austen's whiney article in Salon ever offered.

Then the guy who was pestering the hero so much in the first movie shows up and tries to weasle in on the hero's date ...

Sure, why not?

The important thing isn't that we're at the movies, the important thing is the firedoor.

Y'see, there has to be a set of defining "you can't go back" moments in the book. Ones where status quo antes isn't an option. One where the protagonists can't say, "To heck with this" and go back to their seats and be passive.

Take Moby-Dick for an example. One firedoor is when the Pequod pulls away from the shore. At that moment Ishmael can't go back to being a schoolteacher. A second firedoor is when Ahab appears, and forces the crew to swear that they will sail 'round the shores of Hell itself, but they will catch the white whale. The third firedoor might be when Moby-Dick is sighted and the crew launches its boats.

The protagonist does something. He or she is in motion. (Note: this can be purely symbolic or psychological motion, but motion there must be.) The protagonist has choices, and "Screw this, let's get some popcorn" isn't one of them. The door has closed.

But are there other things to consider?

Rising sales curves are the master item, of course, but:

Publish with more than one publisher.

Keep short stories coming, to keep your name fresh, and introduce you to new readers. (The number one reason someone buys a book is because they've read and enjoyed a previous work by the same author. This previous work can be a short story.)

Be willing to accept a lower advance from a publisher who can promote your work effectively, rather than a higher advance from one who may be less effective.

Keep the novels coming too.

And -- make every work your best work. Don't get lazy.

Beyond that, there's an element of luck. The public is fickle.

Hi, Beth --

I assume your works have all reverted?

Have you considered finding a smaller publisher who does reprints who'd like to have 'em? Somewhere amongst America's 4,000 small presses there has to be one.

But maybe not. The natural state of a book is Out Of Print. Time to change your name and restart?

...if it is Out of Print, I can still get it from the publisher?

No, you can't get it from the publisher. I expect that there's a Hidden Hoard in a warehouse. Does Amazon have a case in the back somewhere?

One of the Vicious Publisher Tricks, to avoid reverting a book, is to put a book Out of Stock (technically that's between printings ... but if this goes on too long, if it's permanently out of stock, it should be listed as Out of Print).

Your contract should have something in it about how long a publisher has to bring a book back into print after it's out of stock. When you have a book that's permanently out of stock, you order a copy direct from the publisher. If they can't provide it, and don't bring it back to print in the contracted time period, you can ask for the rights to revert. Then you can resell the work to another publisher.

(Note: The "rights" here aren't the copyright. You've kept that. This is the right to print in hardcover, in softcover, in North America, whatever rights were granted in the section of the contract cunningly labeled "Grant of Rights.")

Why a publisher might list a work as Out of Stock rather than Out of Print: to hold onto the rights, just in case you suddenly got hot and they wanted to bring out a big edition. This is yet another of the Horrors of the Literary Life that plague authors.

(One of the things agents do is keep track of these things, to either get back the rights so the book can be resold, or to press the publisher to return it to print, so that it's once again in the bookstores. The way publishing is supposed to work, the publisher can hold onto the rights only so long as they're actively selling the book. They stop selling, the author gets the rights back.)

We've turned short stories into novels on two occassions. In one, the short story turned into the first three chapters ... then continued. In the other the short story made up the central portion of the novel, and bore scant resemblence to the original.

Turning short stories into novels isn't the easiest thing I've ever done.

One of my fellow instructors at Viable Paradise (http://www.sff.net/paradise/) recommends Understanding Comics () by Scott McCloud as an aide to understanding novels and stories in general.

What horror shall we talk about tonight, good friends?

How about "Reserve Against Returns."

Now you know, when you sell a book to a publisher, you get a nice monetary advance. (If you don't, you're either in Special Circumstances, or Working In the Bad Part of Town.)

Now this is an "advance," which is to say, an advance against royalties. A loan. When your book earns back that money and repays the loan, only then do you get additional checks. (This is the happy state known as "earning out.")

Now publishers don't like to write checks. This is an observable fact. (I know: I've written entire novels faster than they can write a check -- I can tell there's going to be another Sorrows of the Author's Life episode based on that.) So, to save themselves from writing any more checks than necessary, they try to figure things so that how much you'll probably earn in royalties is about equal to how much they pay you as an advance. If they're wrong, if your royalties don't pay back the advance, that's okay. You don't have to repay them. (And if someone wants you to pay back the unearned portion of the advance you are definitely in the Bad Part of Town.) (Next trivia point: It's entirely possible for publishers to make a profit on books that don't earn out. Don't ask why or attempt to understand it; only know that it is true.)

But suppose they're wrong in the other direction? Suppose you earn more than the advance. Happy day, right? Money in the pocket, let's go down to Burger King and it Supersized?

Not so fast, Bucko.

Remember, bookstores don't buy books, they only display them. At any moment they could return those books for credit. If the publisher has already paid you royalties for those books, then they lose. Publishers hate losing.

So, enter the Reserve Against Returns. This is money that you've earned, that they owe you, that they hold onto on the off chance that copies of those books will be returned and it'll turn out that they didn't owe you that money anyway. What the publishers know is how many copies they shipped -- they don't know what will come winging back.

Exactly what the reserve against returns is, is a secret. They won't tell you how big a reserve is being held. But due to my skill with correlating information, keen observation, and a drop or two of sodium pentathol, I have a fair idea of the numbers.

Before we continue, you need to know that royalties are generally paid semi-annually (in November and April), and that royalties are paid on the cover price of the book, regardless of what discount the publisher gave to the distributor or the bookstore. (There are exceptions to this, but they are small, minor, and rare.)

Now ... here you are, happy writer! You have gotten a $5,000 advance for your novel, against 10% royalties, and the book is selling for $10 a copy. And, in the very first royalty period (because your book is both briiliant and exactly what everyone wants for their birthday) some 5,000 copies sold. Joy, rapture! Your book's earned out, right?

Not so fast, bucko. Maybe it has, maybe it hasn't. Maybe every one of those people who go the book for their birthday will say "Yech!" and return it to the store. So the publisher figures, in the first royalty period, a 100% reserve against returns. No matter how many people bought, you aren't going to see a dime.

How about next royalty period?

They firgure a 75% reserve against returns. (Now they've already been paid for those 5,000 copies, and they've gone back to press and shipped more, but y'know? Maybe they'll be returned.) By now 10,000 copies have shipped, but the publisher says, "Hmmm ... could be returns, y'know" and only credits you with $2,500. Your book has been out for a year, and has brought in $10,000 in royalties, but sorry, chum, that advance still hasn't earned out.

Six months later, the reserve against returns is going to be 50%. Your book continues to sell, now 15,000 copies have shipped, but only $7,500 of the $15,000 you've brought in will be remitted to you (after subtracting the orginal advance, the publisher cuts you a check for $2,500. (He'd rather have the money in his account earning interest for him, than in your account paying for macaroni and cheese.)

Another six months -- your book's been out for two years now -- and the reserve against returns is down to 25%. Say you've sold another 5,000 copies in the last six months. That is to say, by now, 20,000 copies shipped, and you should have $20,000. But reserve! You're only credited with 15,000 of them, so your royalty check is $7,500.

Finally, next royalty period, the reserve against returns drops down to 0% (they've made tons of money off you; the publisher's paid off his yacht and his kid's braces). Say you sell another 5,000 this royalty period. By now you've sold 25,000 books, total, and only been paid $15,000. So now you catch up, with a nice check for $10,000. From now on, a book shipped is a dollar, and all's well.

Except this is a very unrealistic picture I've given you. A book that sells 10,000 a year for three years? Wonderful, but books tend to go out of print lots quicker than that. It isn't at all uncommon to get the final payment, the reserve that the publisher has been holding onto all that time, at the same time you get the notice that your book has gone out of print. When none are printed or shipped for a year, and they give back the rights, it's hard for 'em to argue that they're still waiting for returns.

Shall I talk about Basket Accounting?

That's when you sign a multi-book contract. In basket accounting, no book earns out until they all earn out. Anything above the advance that the first book brings in is applied to the unearned advance on the other books in the contract. You don't see a dime until after the entire advance for all the books is paid back.

So, anyway, that's the latest episode of As the Stomach Churns, the Horrors of the Literary Life.

Is it better then to sell them one at a time, even if you're planning a trilogy or series?

Yes, but see if you can.

Y'see, the publisher is betting that you'll do well -- so they try to get as many books as possible under contract all at once, so you're getting First-Timer advances on all of them. They get three books cheap, rather than your price going up each time.

(The happy fellow in the story above, who sold 25,000 books on his first novel with the $5,000 advance -- it would be reasonable for him to come back and ask for a $25,000 advance next time. But ... if the publisher was cagey and offered him a two-book contract for $10,000 ... would he say no to that? And they've just saved $20,000 on the next book's advance.)

Next hint: If you aren't ready to walk away from the table at any time, you don't have any business negotiating.


It is possible to negotiate a multi-book contract that isn't basket accounted. Just be aware that for some publishers that might be a deal-breaker. That's where having an agent comes in handy. The agent should know what the clauses you can negotiate are, and which ones the publisher won't budge on.

How you represent a character's thoughts varies. Most commonly, I think, they're italicized, but as long as you're consistent, and the reader isn't confused about what's being spoken aloud and what's just being thought, it doesn't really matter.

Here's a suggestion: Pick up a recent book from a well-known author. Read it. See how he or she shows characters' thoughts. You do the same.



'Twas but a dream of thee
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Out on a limb
October 2004

Good friends --

What I've been up to lately ...

My mom died a week ago Wednesday, after a protracted illness (cancer). The funeral was Saturday, the interment Monday (1,200 miles away), and the reading of the will and appointing of the executor yesterday.

This has led me to be remiss in several of my commitments, posting in this thread not the least of them.

I'll be at Viable Paradise all next week. When I get back, more activity from me, eh?

Rather than filling this group with expressions of sympathy, please consider making a small donation to the American Cancer Society.

-- Jim


Here are some post-workshop sales (http://www.sff.net/people/greg/vppubs.html) by some Viable Paradise graduates.

Their successes are their own, but I still feel proud of them.

Hi, all.

I'm back from the workshop.

Here's the
first review by a student.

More when I recover some....


Addition: A photo of me. Is this ego, or what?

Addition two:
Another Student Report

Originally posted here

This overview will be so abreviated and simplified that it'll almost count as a parody of the real story, but this is it.

Cast back your mind to those thrilling days of yesteryear. We're looking at the 1930s now, the Great Depression. Books were a luxury item, mostly available in the "book department" of department stores. There were fewer than a hundred bookstores in the USA, located only in major cities. The Book-of-the-Month Club provided reading material to those who subscribed in the heartland. Public
libraries, supported by tax revenue, provided the other source of books that most people could find.

But there was another source of reading material, one which was available in every town. Those were the newspapers and magazines. And the newspapers and magazines were put on newstands, in drug stores, in bus stations, by what were called Independent Distributors, or IDs.

Now the IDs handled time-sensitive material. Yesterday's newspapers are fishwrappers. Last week's copy of Life, you couldn't give away. The IDs would pick up the day's papers from the printing plant, and drive them out along their circuits. They paid the printer for so-many copies. But there's always some left over. You don't want people to come to your drugstore and not find a copy of the Herald and this week's Time, would you? And the IDs didn't want to pay for stock that didn't sell. So they got credit for the unsold copies. To prove that a copy was unsold, they would tear off the front cover of the magazine, or the masthead of the newspaper, and return only that (the rest going into a Dumpster).

The grocery, or drugstore, or bus station, or newsstand, owner wouldn't have to worry about stocking periodicals -- a guy in a truck would show up every morning, or every Monday, pick up the unsold stock from yesterday or last week, and leave today's, or this week's, stock. The store owner only paid the driver for the ones that sold, and didn't have to pay to have stuff on his shelves. Easy source of cash for everyone.

Now, in those days of the late 1930s, there were giants in the earth. And some of them were Max Schuster, Dick Simon, Ian Ballantine, and others who noticed that there was this distribution system already in place. At first the paperbacks were lower-cost reprintings of existing hard covers. Later came paperback originals. But these fellows saw that by making paperbacks available through the ID system, they could make a bundle. And so they did.

This also made paperbacks strippable. Unsold copies would have their covers torn off and returned for credit on the next order of books. They were treating books exactly like magazines. The ID system wasn't set up for returns, and so there were no returns. Those books that didn't sell were stripped and replaced by others that might sell better. Think of a paperback as a funny-looking magazine and you'll get the right idea.

Paperback covers reflected this, too. You were wondering about all the girls with large bosoms and scanty clothing? The covers were being designed to appeal to truck drivers, the guys who were actually choosing which books to put on the racks. (There was also standard advice to paperback writers in those days to show up at the warehouses where the IDs picked up their stock at four in the morning, bearing coffee and donuts, so that the drivers would remember Joe Author as a good guy, and maybe take another carton of his books around. Remember: people don't buy what they don't see.) Books were all the same size to fit the standard wire racks.

These were mass market paperbacks. Mass market, as opposed to "the Trade," that is, the bookstore trade. Trade books were whole-copy returnable. Hardcovers are trade books. Trade paperbacks are whole-copy returnable (they're sent back to the warehouse, restocked, and shipped to other bookstores).

Printing a hundred thousand copies of a paperback brought the per-unit cost of a paperback down so that you could still make money if you threw away half of the books you printed. The IDs provided a way to put a hundred thousand copies in front of potential buyers. The IDs varied in size from some that owned fleets of trucks and covered half a state, to others which were one guy in a stationwagon who covered one side of town. The IDs tended to know their markets pretty well, and knew to stock more romances in the drugstore next to the beauty parlor, more action/adventure in the bus station near the Army base, more science fiction at the news stand by the high school, and so on.

(Please note that for the IDs books were never more than a sideline: They were far more interested in making sure there are multiple copies of TV Guide beside every supermarket cash register in America than selling Jay Random Writer's books -- books were there because the IDs were already sending a truck to these different places, and the truck might have some spare room after the copies of that morning's newspapers were loaded.)

This happy situtation took us through the forties, the fifties, and the sixties. Books went out in great numbers, were sold in great numbers, and everyone was happy, more or less. Yes, the books had shelf-lives that depended on whim of the truck driver, but whaddya want? And there were turf wars, and Mob influences, and much that was less than Kosher, and the books had covers that you wouldn't want your mother to see you reading. But this is America!

Several things started to happen after that -- the rise of the malls brought bookstores right to mid-size towns. You no longer had to look for books at the grocery store. Maybe Waldenbooks wasn't that great, but compared to a wire-rack at the bus stop it was heaven.

The malls made Piers Anthony a best-seller, with the lease-line dumps offering pre-teen porn at lunch-money prices. Their time came, and departed. Now we are seeing the rise of the superstores. We've all heard of Amazon.com, right? All of Amazon's sales equals that of just two Barnes&Noble superstores. Put not your faith in princes, nor yet in on-line sales. If you can get your book into Amazon but can't get it into Barnes&Noble, it's game over.

Then the world changed for the IDs. Out in Seattle, the Safeway corporation was dealing with some forty IDs for various books and periodicals at its various store locations. So one day the Safeway chain said to the IDs, "One month from today, we will begin doing all of our business with only one of you. Start bidding."

"You can't do that!" said the IDs.

"Watch us," said Safeway.

And soon enough, rather than the patchwork of IDs in Seattle, there was only one, the rest bought out or bankrupt. And this wave spread across the nation, so that where there had formerly been hundreds or thousands of IDs, there are now perhaps a score; near bankruptcy from their fight with the other IDs for survival, less profitable because they had to offer deeper discounts to the stores to be the one that would be given the contract. And they didn't know their markets well, and instead of hand-selecting which books went into which slots where, turned to safe and reliable choices -- big name authors, reprints of best sellers -- and the implosion continued. Grocery stores couldn't compete with mall bookstores on books. The grocery stores have been going back to what they do best -- selling groceries. There are not only fewer IDs filling wire-rack spinners, there are fewer spinners for them to fill.

We are now coming out of that period of flux. The mass market paperback has been wounded, some say mortally, but the trade has expanded, so that we're now seeing rack-sized trade paperbacks -- that is to say, they have exactly the same trim size as those paperbacks designed to fit the wire-rack spinners, but are whole-copy returnable. Impossible to tell at a glance from mass market, right
down to the glossy lurid covers.

This story, you may notice, has little to do with techology -- the ability to print many cheaply -- and a great deal to do with distribution. Recall the adage that amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics? It's the same in bookselling. Amateurs talk printing, professionals talk distribution.

Again, orginally posted elsewhere, over two years ago....


This story, you may notice, has little to do with techology -- the ability to print many cheaply -- and a great deal to do with distribution. Recall the adage that amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics? It's the same in bookselling. Amateurs talk printing, professionals talk distribution.

And where, you may ask, does this leave vanity/POD books from the majority of vanity/POD publishers?

They're neither strippable for credit nor whole-copy returnable. They don't fit anywhere into the distribution system. Nor do many of them have standard discounts. So ... they're never going to show up on wire-rack spinners, since the IDs don't have a mechanism for ordering. They aren't going to show up on the bookstore shelves since they aren't returnable. And because of that and the fact that they don't have standard discounts, the bookstores that order them would have to set up at least two accounting systems -- one for each vanity/POD publisher, and one for every other book in the store. Small wonder that few bookstores are even willing to order vanity/POD books -- if the customer decides, when the book comes in four to six weeks later, that he doesn't want it, the store's stuck, they've had to do special bookkeeping on it the whole way, and if the customer does take it they've made less money on the whole transaction as a percentage of cover price than they would with any other book -- while costing more in resources. Barnes&Noble, which partly owns iUniverse (though they've been dumping their investment and now own a far smaller part) has a policy of refusing to order iUniverse titles.

This brings us around to Bookstore Economics.

The books on the shelves at your local bookstore didn't cost the bookstore owner a dime. They are on consignment from the publisher. The publisher sends around sales reps, the bookstore decides how many of each title from each publisher's catalog they want to stock, and the publisher ships them.

The bookstore sells some of those books, and reports to the publisher how many were sold. The ones that sell -- with a standard discount of 40%, the bookstore sends in 60% of the cover price, and keeps 40% for themselves. For deep-discounted books (certain best sellers, others being highly promoted) the discount is 60%, so the bookstore keeps 60% of the cover price. That's why you can see bookstores offering New York Times Bestsellers for 50% off, and they're still making money -- 10% of cover price times an Awful Lot of Books adds up to some serious coin.

Publishers can offer these discounts because when you print a lot of books the unit price is very cheap indeed.

Authors with standard royalty deals get their royalty based on the cover price -- never mind if the bookstore sells them for 10% off, or 50% off. That's another place where vanity/POD publishers in general screw authors -- they offer
royalties on "net," the amount that they get from the bookstore, rather than cover price. Since they have to offer a discount of some kind (though few offer the standard discount) the author is making a higher percentage of a smaller number -- often in terms of real money the vanity/POD author is making less per sale than a standard royalty author makes on a book with the same cover price.

Okay, back to the bookstore. After a while, if a book that's on the shelf isn't selling, if it's a trade book the bookstore owner sends it back and gets a new title to put in its place. If it's a mass market book the bookstore owner tears off the cover, sends that back, and orders new books to put in its place. How long this cycle is depends on the store. Superstores tend to have far longer shelf times than mall stores. Independent bookstores are all over the place on this.

Let's see -- publishers also pay the bookstores for placement in the stores -- those books on the table by the front of the store didn't get there by accident, or through some bookstore employee's happy thought. Same for the ones displayed at the ends of the bookshelf, on the endcaps. Why do you think that all the L. Ron Hubbard books have had prominent placement for years? Their publisher is paying the bookstores to keep them on the shelves.

Why do they do this? Because people buy what they see on the shelves. Just being displayed in a bookstore is a major part of getting readers.

1) When you use a quote from someone who is dead, do you still have to contact publishers or whomever for permission to use the quote if you go ahead and name the person prior to or after that quote?

How big a quote, for what purpose, and is it still under copyright?

2) When something is written based on a true story, no matter how fiction that true story may sound, and the names are all changed to protect those involved, does the author still have to get permission from the individuals?

Permission for what? To quote them? To use their story? Are you going to be looking at a libel suit somewhere along the line?

This is where I do my near-famous "I Am Not a Lawyer" dance.

Advice, though? I've got plenty. Tell the best story you can (I assume this is a novel, because I'm talking about novels here). After you've sold it, inform the editor that it's based on a true story. After the editor does the obligatory face palm, perhaps she'll say, "Great! We'll put 'based on a true story' on the cover!" Let the publisher's legal department help you out.

Remember: The words "But it really happened that way!" won't save a novel. Fiction has to be believable. Real life doesn't operate under any such constraints. Change stuff to make it work in terms of a novel.

Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were all based on the same real case.


Corrie Tenboom's "There is no pit that He is not deeper still."

Corrie ten Boom. "There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still."

I don't see a problem with that quote, properly cited.

Write the book that's the right length for your story. If every word serves its purpose, the right word in the right place, then your book will be its proper length.

Rather than writing to the market, write your book and find its market.

Today's Neat New Toy: Google Desktop.

Indexing and search on your own personal hard drive, integrated into your Google results.

I agree. Do the research. Your readers can tell if you skimped.

Let's see -- where do you live? My sister works as a reenactor at a living history museum focused around 1870. You'll find those sorts of places all over. The reenactors are very familiar with their periods, and know all kinds of things. They love getting questions on the obscure stuff -- it gives them a chance to show off -- and the authenticity it'll give your story, even if you don't use any specific detail, will pay dividends.

Or -- go to the library. Get a recent children's book on the subject. Read it, then head to the adult section to look up the areas you've identified as ones where you need specialized knowledge.

Let me recommend The Foxfire Book for old-time country life.

Throw in a serial killer and four hundred pages of padding and you'll have a thriller to rival Stephen King

There's a bit more to it than that.


On other notes -- while primary sources are great if you can't get the information any other way, as a writer I go to secondary sources for my initial research. I don't need to be an actual expert, I just have to look like one from out front.

Still, being a writer means you have homework every day for the rest of your life.

I am heartbroken to note that no one has yet reviewed Murder by Magic () over at Amazon.

If you read it -- loved it, hated it, something in between -- please drop by and write a review. Honesty is always appreciated.

Speaking of research:

Writers are terrorists.

Bread Loaf Bakeless Literary Prizes.

Looking for: Book length fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

Bad points: $10 entry fee.

Good points: Publication with Houghton Mifflin.

Deadline: 15 November 2004.

Full details at the link.

Sure, luck has something to do with it -- but you don't get lucky unless you have a manuscript in hand, and unless you're at a place where luck happens.

The rest is up to the readers, the darlings.

What do I do?

I'm going to the library, where there aren't any televisions and there's a line for the internet, to do some editing.



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James D. Macdonald
Learn Writing With Uncle Jim
November 2004
Another possible market (short story): Guidelines Here.
For the folks who haven't gone to the link, here's the pay on that last anthology:

For First Print and Electronic World Anthology Rights:

* For pieces over ten thousand words: Twenty dollars.
* For pieces between five thousand and ten thousand words: Fifty dollars.
* For pieces five thousand words and under: One hundred dollars.

Authors will also receive two copies of the anthology on publication.[/

Niven's Laws For Writers (http://www.larryniven.org/stories/nivens_laws.htm)

1) Writers who write for other writers should write letters.

2) Never be embarrased or ashamed about anything you choose to write. (Think of this before you send it to a market)

3) Stories to end all stories on a given topic, don't.

4) It is a sin to waste the reader's time.

5) If you've nothing to say, say it any way you like. Stylistic innovations, contorted story lines or none, exotic or genderless pronouns, internal inconsistencies, the recipe for preparing your lover as a cannibal banquet: feel free. If what you have to say is important and/or difficult to follow, use the simplest language possible. If the reader doesn't get it then, let it not be your fault.

6) Everybody talks first draft.

Don't fill in the guy's reactions to most stuff. Let the readers fill that in for you, from their own experiences. Show what happened, show what your guy does and what he says, move on.

For me George RR Martin and Mary Gentle have it about right.

So ... read their books with your hi-lighter in hand, and mark the characters' reactions.

As an artist you're reading books differently than the regular readers. You're trying to see how the author created the effects, so you can do the same.

From More PA Woes:

I was wondering if you’d tell me how you received permission to write Star Wars novels?

Real briefly -- I'm not Ann (nor do I play her on TV), but I've done a bunch of licensed work under the name "Martin Delrio."

You don't contact them, they contact you. Nor do you write the book in advance, or send them a query. After your first book comes out from someone else (which proves you can write a publishable novel), you get a call one day from your agent, saying "NameOCompany needs someone to write a NameOShow novel. You interested?" You say, "Sure am!" You get the information from the rights holder. Depending on who you're dealing with, this can be very small or very large.

If they haven't given you an outline to start with, you write an outline and send it to them. If they don't like it, you write another outline. If they don't like that one, you write yet another....

You write the book. If they don't like it, either they make changes or you make changes until they do like it.

As far as protecting your original bits -- forget it. They have squads of lawyers, and the contract will spell out that the entire work is the property of the company that hired you.

My best advice to you would be to write your story as an original novel. If the only reason someone would read it is because it's Star Wars, it isn't much of a story. If the story is strong enough, you can use other names, other places, other characters, other events, have a chance of selling it on your own, and keeping all rights.

You probably won't sell in the numbers that having the words "Star Wars" on the cover would give you, but you'll have the start of your own career.

Short answer: the people who write the tie-ins are already established pros.

Martin Delrio: notice the initials, M & D.

(There was an historical Martin Delrio, a witch-hunter. The novelization of Mortal Kombat was his first book since the sixteenth century.)

Ya know, if we can't add new messages, this thread will drift away off the front page. Maybe time for an index, and a Son of Uncle Jim?

Holly Black's Writing Resources

Hi, Jason -- I too stopped writing shortly after I left high school, and started again when I was 35.

Best of luck to you, and find joy in what you do.

No, I've never done a Star Wars novel.

(I have, however, fixed the link -- thanks for picking up on that!)

I've done Mortal Kombat, Prince Valiant, SpiderMan, and Tom Swift, though ...

Me, I use words for numbers zero through ninety-nine, then numerals for 100 and higher.

Just be consistent, and be prepared for the house style to rule.

On other topics, my two Tom Swift novels were Monster Machines and Aquatech Warriors.



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I don't mind your making a personal copy for your personal use, TJ.

As Jim states, "Above all, tell a good story."

And the master rule: If it works, it's right.

does the date a manuscript arrives make any difference?

Not in book publishing, so far as I know.

Found via the always-amusing Making Light, this discussion of writing sex scenes. Find all ten parts by following various links. The writer here is Sara Donati (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/external-search?tag=madhousemanor&keyword=sara+donati&mode=books), author of the Wilderness series.

We've said before that it's okay to break rules, as long as you do it for a purpose, you know what rule you're breaking, and above all, that it works.

Here, for your delight and edification, are two examples of Rule Breaking from the realm of visual arts.

Le Bar aux Folies Bergere by Edouard Manet. Notice that the reflection in the mirror is impossible.

Second, observe
L'Empire des Lumieres by Rene Magritte. A night scene with a daytime sky, both painted realistically.

Always ask, Does it Work? And notice that both of these artists are technically skilled. Other, lesser, painters wouldn't have carried it off.

Report to the Authors Guild Midlist Books Study Committee.

Long ago I posted the first couple of pages of a couple of Grisham novels, and promised to talk about 'em.

At long last, part of my life is cleared away enough for me to do it.

So... without further ado ...

The first two pages of The Summons, by John Grisham:

Chapter 1

It came by mail, regular postage, the old-fashioned way since the Judge was almost eighty and distrusted modern devices. Forget e-mail and even faxes. He didn't use an answering machine and had never been fond of the telephone. He pecked out his letters with both index fingers, one feeble key at a time, hunched over his old Underwood manual on a rolltop desk under the portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest. The Judge's grandfather had fought with Forrest at Shiloh and throughout the Deep South, and to him no figure in history was more revered. For thirty-two years, the Judge had quietly refused to hold court on July 13, Forrest's birthday.

It came with another letter, a magazine, and two invoices, and was routinely placed in the law school mailbox of Professor Ray Atlee. He recognized it immediately since such envelopes had been a part of his life for as long as he could remember. It was from his father, a man he too called the Judge.

Professor Atlee studied the envelope, uncertain whether he should open it right there or wait a moment. Good news or bad, he never knew with the Judge, though the old man was dying and good news had been rare. It was thin and appeared to contain only one sheet of paper; nothing unusual about that. The Judge was frugal with the written word, though he'd once been known for his windy lectures from the bench.

It was a business letter, that much was certain. The Judge was not one for small talk, hated gossip and idle chitchat, whether written or spoken. Ice tea with him on the porch would be a refighting of the Civil War, probably at Shiloh, where he would once again lay all blame for the Confederate defeat at the shiny, untouched boots of General Pierre G. T. Beauregard, a man he would hate even in heaven, if by chance they met there.

He'd be dead soon. Seventy-nine years old with cancer in his stomach. He was overweight, a diabetic, a heavy pipe smoker, had a bad heart that had survived three attacks, and a host of lesser ailments that had tormented him for twenty years and were now finally closing in for the kill. The pain was constant. During their last phone call three weeks earlier, a call initiated by Ray because the Judge thought long distance was a rip-off, the old man sounded weak and strained. They had talked for less than two minutes.

The return address was gold-embossed: Chancellor Reuben V. Atlee, 25 Chancery District, Ford County Courthouse, Clanton, Mississippi. Ray slid the envelope into the magazine and began walking. Judge Atlee no longer held the office of chancellor. The voters had retired him nine years earlier; a bitter defeat from which he would never recover. Thirty-two years of diligent service to his people, and they tossed him out in favor of a younger man with ra-

Chapter 1

The book will be divided into chapters. No epigram, no chapter names.

It came by mail, regular postage, the old-fashioned way since the Judge was almost eighty and distrusted modern devices.

We start with pronoun without an antecedent. "It" here probably is "the summons" of the title. We've got a bit else going on here -- we're introduced to a character "the Judge" (with capital we can tell this is a name, or stands for a name), and a bit about him (age eighty, distrusts modern devices). That's characterization. An object, a person, and characterization. Not bad for sentence one.

Forget e-mail and even faxes.</

Bolsters the old-fashioned impression, and bit of a change in rhythm. Sentence one was nineteen words; sentence two is five.

He didn't use an answering machine and had never been fond of the telephone.

Yet more on the Judge's old-fashioned, and even odd (not fond of the telephone?) ways. The lack of tech is mentioned three times in the first three sentences -- this will be important before the book is done.

He pecked out his letters with both index fingers, one feeble key at a time, hunched over his old Underwood manual on a rolltop desk under the portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest.

More characterization, and some physical description. Action. The Judge is hunched (we already know he's old), he's feeble (since typewriter keys don't have feebleness as one of their attributes, it must be the Judge's typing style). The roll-top desk suggests age, as does the "old" typewriter. We're getting some physical scene-setting (notice that only important details are mentioned -- we don't know if he has carpets or a hardwood floor, we don't know what the lights look like -- but we the readers are already forming a picture. One important part of this scene -- it gets the position of power at the end of the sentence -- is the portrait. Nathan Beford Forrest places the Judge in the South (Forrest was a Confederate general), and reveals an unpleasant fact about the Judge's character -- Forrest founded the Ku Klux Klan. This sentence is much longer and more complex than the two that preceeded it. It's nearly the length of the first three sentences combined. The author wants us to slow down and pay attention.

The Judge's grandfather had fought with Forrest at Shiloh and throughout the Deep South, and to him no figure in history was more revered. For thirty-two years, the Judge had quietly refused to hold court on July 13, Forrest's birthday.

More about the Judge's age, his heritage, and his career. The title "Judge" is restated. This is also a small info dump for the readers who have no idea who Nathan Bedford Forrest was. By the end of the first paragraph we have a pretty good picture of a character, along with the unresolved question of what "it" is -- giving us a reason to read on to paragraph two.

It came with another letter, a magazine, and two invoices, and was routinely placed in the law school mailbox of Professor Ray Atlee.

Quite the busy little sentence. "It," still not identified (although we can puzzle out that it must be a letter since it comes with "another letter"), leads us to our second character. Professor Ray Atlee has a name as well as a title, we know that he's in a law school. The connection with the previous paragraph, aside from the letter itself, is that "Judge" is a legal title.

He recognized it immediately since such envelopes had been a part of his life for as long as he could remember.

"He" here is Ray Atlee, our second character. "It" is the letter, probably "The Summons." (Summons, too, is a legal term.) We learn now who it was who was seeing the Judge pecking away at that Underwood -- it was Ray, who got that flash when he saw the envelope.

It was from his father, a man he too called the Judge.

Relationship between the two characters, characterization, implication of a cold upbringing. We're filling in Ray, too.

Professor Atlee studied the envelope, uncertain whether he should open it right there or wait a moment.

We're a bit formal with Ray, for now. We don't know him as well as we know the Judge. We're also reinforcing that he's got some social standing, as a professor. And we're getting a feeling of doubt. Should he open the envelope? Why wouldn't he? Why the hesitation? Suspense. While Ray is being introduced here, he's still sharing the stage with that envelope.

Good news or bad, he never knew with the Judge, though the old man was dying and good news had been rare.

An important fact. We knew the Judge was feeble and hunched. and old. Now he's dying. We still don't know what's in that envelope.

It was thin and appeared to contain only one sheet of paper; nothing unusual about that.
We're back to calling the envelope "it," just as in the first word of the novel. We're beginning to put a lot of weight on that envelope. We're also seeing more of the envelope; thin, but not unusual. An object of significance, particularly if we consider that it's probably the title object.

The Judge was frugal with the written word, though he'd once been known for his windy lectures from the bench.
More characterization of the Judge, pulling us away from Ray. And so we end paragraph two, a second character introduced but the focus firmly on the Judge (and his envelope). So ends paragraph four.

It was a business letter, that much was certain.
Focus back on the letter, once again "It."

The Judge was not one for small talk, hated gossip and idle chitchat, whether written or spoken.
Characterization. The sentence, by itself, is clumsy, and will slow a reader down. The pacing here is important. The author wants this information to be absorbed.

Ice tea with him on the porch would be a refighting of the Civil War, probably at Shiloh, where he would once again lay all blame for the Confederate defeat at the shiny, untouched boots of General Pierre G. T. Beauregard, a man he would hate even in heaven, if by chance they met there.

The paragraph ends with a long, complex sentence, characterization of a man living in the past, with a hint of a question of whether the Judge would go to heaven when he died.

He'd be dead soon.
Very short, very punchy, particularly when contrasted with the last sentence of the previous paragraph. We already had this information, now the author restates it, far more vividly than "the old man was dying." We're all dying ... but for most of us it's not going to be "soon." This is a great paragraph lead-off sentence. The impact is greater here, after we'd already been introduced, than it would have been had this sentence been used as the first sentence of the first paragraph.

Seventy-nine years old with cancer in his stomach.
Short, punchy, purely factual. Giving hard data to the impressions the readers already had.

He was overweight, a diabetic, a heavy pipe smoker, had a bad heart that had survived three attacks, and a host of lesser ailments that had tormented him for twenty years and were now finally closing in for the kill.

"Tormented him for twenty years." We're feeling sympathetic for the Judge now, after an unsympathetic portrayal up to this point. This is also a long, rambling sentence after the previous two body-blows, giving the reader time to catch his breath.

The pain was constant.

After that breather, a quick jab. Reinforces the pain motif.

During their last phone call three weeks earlier, a call initiated by Ray because the Judge thought long distance was a rip-off, the old man sounded weak and strained.
Reinforcing the old-fashioned anti-tech ways of the Judge, putting in some characterization on Ray and the Judge's relationship. Spreads the story out to more than just this moment ... whatever's been going on we have a human time scale. Twenty years, seventy-nine years, since the Civil War -- those are too long for a reader's mind to wrap around. Three weeks -- that's doable.

They had talked for less than two minutes.
Characterization, reveals their relationship.

The return address was gold-embossed: Chancellor Reuben V. Atlee, 25 Chancery District, Ford County Courthouse, Clanton, Mississippi.
Finally, the Judge has a name, and we're given a very specific location, rather than the vague South. Once again, we're focused on the envelope, as we have been at the beginning of four of the five previous paragraphs. Gold-embossed tells us about the character, and his social station.

Ray slid the envelope into the magazine and began walking.
Aren't we going to open that envelope? The suspense! Plus a bit of characterization -- he doesn't want to touch or look at the envelope.

Judge Atlee no longer held the office of chancellor.
Ah -- but he's still using the old stationery. Frugal (we already have been told he is), or is it vanity, or pride? Those are deadly sins.

The voters had retired him nine years earlier; a bitter defeat from which he would never recover.
Ah. It's pride. A bit more history, too. It isn't the stomach cancer that's killing him -- it's his electoral defeat. The source of his pain?

Thirty-two years of diligent service to his people, and they tossed him out in favor of a younger man with ra-
Thirty-two years of honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest.

More on the source of the Judge's discontent. And here we are, at the bottom of page two of the printed book, and that darned envelope still hasn't been opened.

Okay, show of hands -- how many of you want to turn the page and find out what happens next?

We have two characters -- the Judge and Ray -- and one object, the envelope (The Summons). We have a pretty good idea of one location -- and it isn't the location where the envelope and Ray are standing, even though it looks like Ray will be the viewpoint character. All of the information we've gotten about the Judge could well have come from his head, summoned up by the view of the Summons in his academic mailbox.

That's a rockin' opening, guys. Nothing wasted.

Go you and do likewise.

Question for you, drgnlvrljh:

In the first quote:
Quote: He waited in the dark, across the street from the coffeehouse. It had been closed for over an hour, now, but the person he was watching for hadn't left yet. He was cold, and tired, but he was also patient. He'd been searching for her for nearly twenty years, another hour or so would not matter, now.
Who's the viewpoint character? Is it the mysterious stranger himself?

It's not outrageous for him not to mention his own name.

I don't see a problem with what you've presented here. Of course, to make any kind of detailed suggestions I'd have to read the whole thing, and even then I'd have to lead off with "In my opinion...."

Have you finished your first draft yet?

"Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration."

Thomas A. Edison, Harper's Monthly, 1932

Could I bother you for a possible example?

She hung cheerful curtains in the bedroom.

He made the notes with his angry pen.

The playful wind made the childrens' kites soar.


Like any spice, a little enhances, too much makes the meal inedible.

Can anyone produce publishable work? Of the ones who can't/don't, is it because they aren't learning or because they don't have the spark

Can anyone become a marathon runner?

Well -- given a certain baseline level of good health, perhaps. No guarantee that they'll come in first, but they'll probably cross the finish line.

What's more certain is that, no matter ones' innate running ability, those who don't log the road miles training, and those who don't enter the race, won't cross the finish line.

Most people aren't naturals, or geniuses. Many can plug along, get better, and reach a minimum level of competence.

Remember: If the minimum wasn't good enough, it wouldn't be the minimum.


As I said elsewhere: Someone with one drop of creativity who works hard will get farther than someone with an ocean of creativity who doesn't do the work.


Repeating the same mistakes over and over isn't practicing correctly, and won't get you anywhere.


Let's try a different analysis. This will be words per sentence, number of commas, and number of sentences per paragraph, for the full paragraphs. I'm looking for varying rhythms.

Paragraph 1:

19 (2)
5 (0)
14 (0)
32 (2)
24 (1)
16 (2)

Paragraph 2:

23 (2)
21 (0)
12 (1)

Paragraph 3:

17 (1)
22 (2)
16 (1 semicolon)
20 (1)

Paragraph 4:

9 (1)
17 (2)
55 (5)

Paragraph 5:

4 (0)
8 (0)
40 (4)
4 (0)
29 (2)
8 (0)

How do you deal with taxes, if your book is bought?

Schedule C, with quarterly estimated taxes.

Quicken plus TurboTax.

For those of you who don't want to slog through the whole thing, at least check out the conclusions on page 7.

Nevertheless, for those who are doing this "writing" thing as something more than a hobby, it's worth your while to read the entire report, and other reports, and everything else you can get your hands on, to try to understand the business.

No one source contains all of the truth. The many, combined with your own observations and experience, can approach it.

I have no idea about their height/weight/hair colour, except that one guy is black.

Then don't say anything about their height/weight/hair color. If it isn't important to the story, let the reader fill in something that's meaningful to him.

If, in the course of writing the story, you learn that one of the characters has to be a 300 pound blond guy, and another has to be under five foot tall and a redhead, well, that's great (I use filecards to record this stuff as I'm writing). In the second draft you go back and put in the descriptions when the characters are introduced.

As you write the book, trust me, you will come to know what your characters look like.

Regardsing Setting, is it better to use fictional city/town/street names and base it somehwere you know, or use the real place and maybe add a few extras for effect?

Either could work -- author's choice.

You have advantages and disadvantages either way.

With a fictional city, no one is going to object that there's no such place as Eddie's Pawn Shop on Fifth and Elm, and there's no Fifth Street anyway -- it was renamed Pascal Drive in 1983.

With a fictional city people are going to say "Funny, I never heard of Dunton, and why don't all these people make their lives easier by moving to Sacramento?

With a real city, your readers will have mental pictures of the place already, so there's less work to do in building your setting. You can spend more time on your story. You can also research the place, and find interesting details that can help make your story come alive. (And you can go visit the place, have a great time, and write it off on your taxes. (Note: Take the advice of a tax professional before you do this.))

Unfortunately, a real city may not have real places that you'll need, and may trip you up -- see Pascal Drive, above. The natives may give you a hard time. And you may have to make sure that somewhere you're using as a set isn't real. If you make the owner of Gino's Pizzaria a serial adulterer and have him come to a sticky end, you may want to make sure there isn't really a Gino's Pizzaria in that town. The owner might get perturbed.

Anyway -- authors have gone both ways. I'm sure in your reading you've found both. If you can make the setting seem real to your readers, you've got it licked. Faulkner used Yoknapatawpha County, and there never was such a place. Ed McBain uses New York City, and there certainly is.

You want advice? Put it in a real place that you know. Later on, if need be, you can use the mighty hand of Global Search and Replace to change all the names.

I will add my agreement to those who were baffled or bored by the beginning of The Summons. It would never have occured to me that the painting was of a KKK man, nor would it have placed him in the South in my mind. I live in Canada, so references like that go right over my head - shouldn't an experienced author like Grisham realize that he writes for an international audience?

Perhaps he's writing for an international audience -- but he's also writing for himself. Grisham personally is a middle-aged Southern lawyer.

Not all books speak to all readers. That's why there are a lot of books, and why we need to see your book.


For those of you who are catching up -- there are lots of exercises along the way. I seriously recommend that y'all do 'em.

I mean, if I ever meet you in person I'll expect you to know how to fold a paper hat, and be able to recite poems and quote Shakespeare.

(Will that make you a better writer? Yes.)

Okay, new exercise for y'all: Go get a movie on DVD, a recent one with lots of "extras." Now watch it. Then watch it with the director's commentary. Then watch the deleted scenes. Watch the alternate endings. Understand why it is that those scenes were deleted. Understand why the actual ending was the one that was used. (A great film for alternate endings is
28 Days Later.)

Are we making movies? No, we're telling stories. The arts are related.

Next exercise: Get a big box of
crayons. Get a big tablet of paper. Sit in your kitchen and draw some object, in its setting. The point here is to learn to see things. Find the details. Find the colors. See the shapes and relationships. Make it real. Use up all your paper. Make every picture the best it can be.

All the arts are related.

It's said that if you fold a thousand cranes (http://www.monkey.org/~aidan/origami/crane/) in a single year that your prayer will be answered.

Perhaps it will.

Get yourself a whole mess of
origami paper, and start folding cranes. Pray that you will become a better writer.

Before the year (and the thousanth crane) is done, I promise that you will be good at folding cranes. You'll be able to fold cranes without looking. You'll be able to fold cranes in your hands without needing a table to crease them.

Will you be a better writer? Perhaps your prayer will be answered.

Then, for the next year, take the time that you spent folding cranes, and write words. At the end of the year, I promise you'll be a better writer. Just as you got good at folding cranes with practice, you'll get good at writing.

Perhaps your earlier cranes didn't turn out too well. You worked on your technique, you made sure the edges met exactly, you learned to make your creases sharp.

Perhaps in your earlier writing the stories didn't turn out too well. You'll learn to describe your characters exactly, you'll learn to make your plots sharp.

Folding a thousand cranes is a good thing in itself. (At the very least you'll always have a party trick with which you can amuse a child.) Rather than praying to become a better writer, pray for health and peace for others. When you're finished with your cranes, string them as a mobile and donate it to a hospital.

Best wishes to all in this holiday season.

Joan, if that's what's best for your story then that's what you should use.

Yes, it's a fiendishly difficult POV to use ... well. Is your skill up to it? Octavia Butler can manage because Octavia Butler is an excellent writer.

Not every pianist can play every piano concerto. Some are more difficult than others; some pianists are more skilled than others.

What can I say? Try. The master rule is Does It Work.

(Note: If you do it and it works, editors and readers won't care if you're a first timer. What tips the scales against you is not carrying off what you attempt.)

On the subject of a thousand cranes, and not about writing at all....

Welcome, Fillanzea. As you'll discover from this thread, for me everything is about writing.

If you devote as little as six minutes a day to writing, for a year, and you use those six minutes fully, your writing will improve. How much, that I can't say.

Do you have any specific tips for writing in this POV? Anything you'd recommend watching out for or ways to use it most effectively?

Alas, no. I don't have any specific tips. There aren't any cheats that I know of for writing omniscent third.

(For third limited, one cheat is to write each scene in first person, then translate to third in the next draft.)

The only thing I can suggest is that you take a stack of works by major talents written in third omniscent, and analyse them. See how they work. See what the author is doing. Retype whole chapters. Break them down sentence by sentence. Use highlighters to mark the shifting viewpoints.

Does this sound like you have to teach yourself a masters-level literature course?


Then, into the deep end of the pool with you. Write your book.

Remember Yoda? "There is no try. Do ... or do not."

Something you really don't see a lot of is second person:

You picked up a rock, felt the cool weight of it in your hand, and threw it at Jane. Jane swore at you and ran off.
Consider that there may be a reason why you don't see second person too often. Aside from the Choose Your Own Adventure books, a fad that has happily run its course, I don't recall pure 2nd ever being published at book length.

Another thought:

A thousand would take six minutes a day for a year... I suspect that it would take more time than that to improve me much as a writer.

If you type 40 words per minute, in that year you will have typed a novel.

Alas, Jim, they've been back for some time now.

Aieeeee! Run away! Run away!

You see a door before you. Do you:

A) Open it (go to page 57)

B) Turn and fight (go to page 96)

C) Throw the flippin' book out the window (go to the bookshelf and get something where the author figured out the best ending for the story)

Thanks for those two references. I've not read either book.

Something for me to do....

Is this an accurate look at writing fantasy/sci-fi? And how have you gotten through it - that feeling of "they're not gonna believe this"?

You're in my world there. I write mostly SF/Fantasy (with excursions into technothriller, horror, and non-fiction).

Okay -- first, if you're going to lie, only tell one. And make it a big one. Your readers will allow you one whopper.

Second, tell the truth as much as you can. Your readers will be willing to believe in dragons, but they won't stop believing in oxygen. Make the dragonfire work with the physics and chemistry of reality.

Third, you have to be absolutely dead-accurate truthful in the psychological realism. You're telling stories about people. Make those people real.

SF/F are a little bit tougher than the mysteries and romances and such set in the modern every-day world. Not only do you have to tell the story, you have to build the world. And you have to do both at the same time.

My advice -- take some recent award winners and some recent best-sellers, go off somewhere quiet, and analyse the heck out of them. You aren't reading them as a reader now, you're reading them as a writer. See how the author achieved the effects.


I found this just today,in one of my magic books (Hugard & Braue's Complete Guide to Card Tricks and Techniques), and thought of y'all:

Amongst card conjurors there is the belief that the expert achieves his results by means of prodigious skill, that his methods call for extraordinary application and tedious practice. The authors cannot stress too strongly that it requires no more practice to perform a sleight correctly than to perform it badly. Where the expert shines is that he has gone through the hard work of thinking out the correct method; he has experimented by the hour in searching for the easiest and best technique. For him it is a labor of love, rewarded by the inner glow which comes when at last he sees how to improve the sleight, or when he devises a clean-cut method of attaining a result in a given trick. It is this secret knowledge which makes him the craftsman he is.

Substitute the word "writers" for "card conjurors," and "story" for "trick"; the rest falls into place.

But now that I’ve been studying up on ancient time-keeping to set up something real for this world I’ve created, it’s kind of frustrating to see that others (at least in my limited reading) haven’t addressed the issue. People travel from planet to planet and there’s never any mention of adapting to different lengths of day, even though here on Earth we have to adjust going from one coast to another.

You might enjoy my own Mageworlds books, where you'll find two clocks side by side, with local time on one and standard on the other, and terms like "local apparent north."

We assume that everything is in translation anyway, so the use of terms like day, week, month, is fine. We don't use Tuesday and October because they have Earth-specific references -- to the god Tyr, to the eighth month. (Note: Even Tolkien, who was keenly aware of language, slipped up on this from time to time.)

When we, here, on earth, say "I walked all day," we don't say "I walked three Jovian days." The characters refer to their own experiences. One of the ways SF builds worlds is through showing what the characters assume to be true. The readers compare that assumption with their own assumptions.


Why are the hero's two friends physicists? Well, were they college roommates? Was the hero stranded overnight on a broken down bus with a bunch of guys coming back from a Physicist convention? Did they shop at the same all-night supermarket? Do they sing in the same choir? Did they serve in the military together?

Why are you friends with the people you know? How did you meet?

Here's advice -- put the book in a drawer for a month. Work on something else. Then read your story aloud, with a red pencil in your hand, to make notes in the margins.

Heck, read 'em in the order they were written. That means start with The Price of the Stars (which is a dandy book, by the way, and went through I think seven printings before it finally went out of print). (It'll come back into print when the next Mageworlds book comes out, which will be about a year after I write it....)

You have a different experience depending on where you enter the series, of course.

(And -- for each book I found beta readers who'd never read any of the other books, so as to clear up questions that new readers might have along the way.)

Do I just accept that the first time I put something down much of it could be wrong or misplaced and keep going until THE END and then revise the WHOLE thing?

Allow yourself to put down the not-quite-right word. Allow yourself to type [look this up] or [fix later].

You won't be submitting your first draft... so treat it like a first draft. Use it to block things out, and find out what the book is about.

Continuing the discussion from earlier in this thread:

The first two pages of The Street Lawyer, by John Grisham:


The man with the rubber boots stepped into the elevator behind me, but I didn't see him at first. I smelled him though -- the pungent odor of smoke and cheap wine and life on the street without soap. We were alone as we moved upward, and when I finally glanced over I saw the boots, black and dirty and much too large. A frayed and tattered trench coat fell to his knees. Under it, layers of foul clothing bunched around his mid-section, so that he appeared stocky, almost fat. But it wasn't from being well fed; in the wintertime in D.C., the street people wear everything they own, or so it seems.

He was black and aging -- his beard and hair were half-gray and hadn't been washed or cut in years. He looked straight ahead through thick sunglasses, thoroughly ignoring me, and making me wonder for a second why, exactly, I was inspecting him.

He didn't belong. It was not his building, not his elevator, into a place he could afford. The lawyers on all eight floors worked for my firm at hourly rates that still seemed obscene to me even after seven years.

Just another street bum in from the cold. Happened all the time in downtown Washington. But we had security guards to deal with the riffraff.

We stopped at six, and I noticed for the first time that he had not pushed a button, had not selected a floor. He was following me. I made a quick exit, and as I stepped into the splendid marble foyer of Drake & Sweeney I glanced over my shoulder just long enough to see him standing in the elevator, looking at nothing, still ignoring me.

Madam Devier, one of your very resilient receptionists, greeted me with her typical look of disdain. "Watch the elevator," I said.


"Street bum. You may want to call security."

"Those people," she said in her affected French accent.

"Get some disinfectant too."

I walked away, wrestling my overcoat off my shoulders, forgetting the man with the rubber boots. I had nonstop meetings throughout the afternoon, important conferences with important people. I turned the corner and was about to say something to Polly, my secretary, when I heard the first shot.

Madam Devier was standing behind her desk, petrified, staring into the barrel of an awfully long handgun held by our pal the street bum. Since I was the first one to come to her aid, he politely aimed it at me, and I too became rigid.

"Don't shoot," I said, hands in the air. I'd seen enough movies to know precisely what to do.

"Shut up," he mumbled, with a great deal of composure.

There were voices in the hallway behind me. Someone yelled,

Chapters are numbered in words, no epigrams, no chapter titles.

The man with the rubber boots stepped into the elevator behind me, but I didn't see him at first.

Two characters in the first sentence: the man with the rubber boots, and "me," the narrator. Setting: an elevator. Description: rubber boots. Off and running in sentence one. First person POV.

I smelled him though -- the pungent odor of smoke and cheap wine and life on the street without soap.
More description, both of the man in the rubber boots (someone who smells like a street person) and the narrator (someone who notices).

We were alone as we moved upward, and when I finally glanced over I saw the boots, black and dirty and much too large.

More description. This will be an important character. As the elevator moves upward through the building, the narrator's eyes move upward on the street person. This is the first time we see the boots, even though they were mentioned in the first sentence.

A frayed and tattered trench coat fell to his knees.
Up the street person's body. Building a picture. Still early enough in that if the reader has any misapprehensions about what the character looks like, they can be easily corrected.

Under it, layers of foul clothing bunched around his mid-section, so that he appeared stocky, almost fat.

Is 'almost fat' a mistake here? The use of the word 'almost' can be a sign of lazy writing: e.g. He looked almost happy. That's asking the reader to do the writer's job of finding the right word. But this, here, is using the phrase 'almost fat' to define the earlier term 'stocky.' This is clarification, not sloppiness.

But it wasn't from being well fed; in the wintertime in D.C., the street people wear everything they own, or so it seems.
Giving the location (Washington D.C.) and the season (winter). We're still in the elevator, but the outside world is being defined.

He was black and aging -- his beard and hair were half-gray and hadn't been washed or cut in years.
Black and aging. Notice the parallelism with the boots: black and dirty. We've gotten all the way up to the man's face. Nice progression, and mild suspense as we're wondering and being told what the man looks like. This falls in line with the principle that we answer the readers' questions a moment before they ask them.

He looked straight ahead through thick sunglasses, thoroughly ignoring me, and making me wonder for a second why, exactly, I was inspecting him.
Back to the narrator's character. Also a bit of mystery about the boot-man. Sunglasses inside an elevator? And his eyes are concealed.

He didn't belong.
Summarizing the previous paragraph, and bringing the point home for the deaf old lady in the back row.

It was not his building, not his elevator, into a place he could afford.

More countersinking.

The lawyers on all eight floors worked for my firm at hourly rates that still seemed obscene to me even after seven years.

Okay, we're going into a law office. More on the narrator's character -- he's making a lot of money, and he's uncomfortable with that. He's been there a while -- seven years. We presume that the narrator is a lawyer. Ambiguous whether he owns the firm.

Just another street bum in from the cold.

Reinforcing that it's winter. Reinforcing that this is a street person. Bringing up the possibility that this isn't the first time it's happened. "Just another..."?

Happened all the time in downtown Washington.

Answering the question. Happens all the time. Momentarily unpleasant, but nothing to remark about. But our narrator is remarking about it, so ... we're expecting something odd to happen. New source of suspense.

But we had security guards to deal with the riffraff.

More on the building, more on the characters, more on how this is a known problem with a known solution, but ... the hint that this time security guards won't work.

We stopped at six, and I noticed for the first time that he had not pushed a button, had not selected a floor.

Location is specified, and another odd detail is supplied.

He was following me.

I made a quick exit, and as I stepped into the splendid marble foyer of Drake & Sweeney I glanced over my shoulder just long enough to see him standing in the elevator, looking at nothing, still ignoring me.
The longest sentence we've seen so far -- a bit of a rest for the reader after the shorter, choppier, more suspenseful opening bits. We're told the name of the law firm, and given more on the relationship that's been growing between tthese two people. (Still don't know if the narrator is male or female.)

Madam Devier, one of your very resilient receptionists, greeted me with her typical look of disdain.

A third character, with a bit of characterization.

"Watch the elevator," I said.

"Street bum. You may want to call security."

Dialog, power relationship, and still business as usual.

"Those people," she said in her affected French accent.


"Get some disinfectant too."

Characterization of the narrator.

I walked away, wrestling my overcoat off my shoulders, forgetting the man with the rubber boots.

Suspense builds, along with tiny action detail.

I had nonstop meetings throughout the afternoon, important conferences with important people.
Important people, as opposed to the unimportant bum. Yet the bum has had a lot of ink so far, and the important people have had none. The bum is important, and will be involved in nonstop meetings, betcha.

I turned the corner and was about to say something to Polly, my secretary, when I heard the first shot.
Woo hoo! The day has just gotten weird. The first shot implies a second shot. We've also met another character, Polly, and gotten a bit more of a hint about the narrator.

Madam Devier was standing behind her desk, petrified, staring into the barrel of an awfully long handgun held by our pal the street bum.
I wonder how he saw that? He's turned the corner, after all. His heading back isn't described; it's not important right now. We've gotten back to the main character (the bum). We've introduced something that makes the bum important. "God made men; Colonel Colt made them equal."

Since I was the first one to come to her aid, he politely aimed it at me, and I too became rigid.

Our narrator is either brave or foolish.

"Don't shoot," I said, hands in the air.
Dialog and action.

I'd seen enough movies to know precisely what to do.

Sense of unreality. Comparing this to a movie. (It would have been an error for the author to have said "I've read enough books." That would remind the reader that this is just a novel.)

"Shut up," he mumbled, with a great deal of composure.

I'll let him get away with using a 'said' word. More characterization.

There were voices in the hallway behind me. Someone yelled,

'There were' is a weak opening. This will contrast with the very strong bit with the handgun we just saw, and give the reader a break. 'Someone' is also indistinct.

Now... we're at the end of page two.

Show of hands, how many want to know what happens next?

I've used this sentence to demonstrate poor POV technique.

I can't say that I agree. Do you have a problem with "The first time I saw Fred he was standing outside a bar, his hat pulled too low over his eyes, looking like a man with nowhere to go and in a hurry to get there."

Now the narrator there doesn't know Fred's name at that moment, but that doesn't stop him. In first person past tense, the narrator can use any name he wants for a character, provided it's something that he learns between the time the character is introduced and the point where he's telling the story to we the readers.

When the Knight with the Singing Sword walked through my door he wasn't yet a knight. He didn't have the Singing Sword, either. He was just a punk kid -- or so we all thought. Those of us who hadn't seen him move.

I think that what Grisham was trying to do was make "The man in the rubber boots" the first five words of the novel.

The guy in the boots is a main, if not the main, character. (I'm not certain, from these first two pages, that he isn't the street lawyer of the title. He's certainly a street person.)

How does everyone feel about:

The man with the rubber boots was standing in the elevator behind me, but I didn't notice him at first.


(Notice has about the same meaning as one meaning of see, but it has two syllables to see's one.)

"Was standing" is much less active than "stepped into."

"See" also means "notice," "be aware of," or "pay attention to."

You're allowed one whopper per book (whether it be space aliens or street bums in office buildings). If you're telling a whopper, the first page is a great place for it.

Literal meanings aren't the only things that authors have to balance. There's also the connotations of words, and the words' sounds. Then there's sentence rhythm. You have to balance it all.

Writers earn the ability to start their current works slow by ending their last works strong.

The man with the rubber boots stepped into the elevator behind me, and I didn't notice him at first.

I'd go with 'but' rather than 'and.'

Please remember that the smallest unit of meaning in our stories isn't the sentence, it's the paragraph.

(Paragraphs can consist of nothing more than a fragment of a word, but still....)

So let's look at that whole first paragraph:

The man with the rubber boots stepped into the elevator behind me, but I didn't see him at first. I smelled him though -- the pungent odor of smoke and cheap wine and life on the street without soap. We were alone as we moved upward, and when I finally glanced over I saw the boots, black and dirty and much too large. A frayed and tattered trench coat fell to his knees. Under it, layers of foul clothing bunched around his mid-section, so that he appeared stocky, almost fat. But it wasn't from being well fed; in the wintertime in D.C., the street people wear everything they own, or so it seems.
Taken as a whole this is a physical description of one main character. (I also note this time around that the street person is wearing a trenchcoat, that is, the lawyer's uniform. I wonder if he'll turn out to be a lawyer who's down on his luck?)

This paragraph deals with appearances. "He appeared" ... "it seems." To me that suggests a contrast with reality.

Once we have the bum with a handgun in the lobby of a law office, and the shooting starts, we won't have a lot of time for descriptions.

Could this book have profitably started with our narrator hearing the shot, and coming around the corner to see the bum facing Madam Devier?

It would be torn apart by people who think they know better but don't.

Tell you what, HConn -- how about post two pages from either a) a published work, or b) an unpublished manuscript, without telling anyone which it is, right here, and see what we have to say?

But since it's Grisham, we say "he's allowed to have one big whopper."

Actually, I think I've been saying that since long before Grisham came under discussion.

I've got a story in the upcoming anthology Cosmic Tales: Adventures in Far Futures.

Buy one. Better still, buy a dozen. They make excellent gifts.

Do we go easier on published authors because they are published?

Due to Other Commitments (TM) I haven't yet commented on the excerpts presented here.

I think you'll find that I'm equally hard on both published and un-published.

(I have, in fact, been downright cruel to published works. Not to the authors -- to the works.)

The basic thing to know is that you don't have to be as-good-as currently published writers to break in. You have to be better. This is because the publishers already have writers who are exactly as good as their current crop.

By George he's got it! I think he's got it!

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Happy Thanksgiving

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