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Inside Out – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Inside Out – The Grumpy Writing Coach

 
 
 
 
       As writers, we face a problem: We’re not the reader. This may sound obvious, but it has important ramifications. Our reader is, in many ways, unknowable, because we have no idea of who will end up picking up our work. We do know some things, though:
       Their background probably won’t match ours. Their tastes will be different. Their age group and education will be different to an unknown degree. And, there’s a 50-50 chance that their gender will be different, too. In fact, it’s unlikely that we and a given reader have all that much in common.
       Given that, how can we write anything that will be acceptable to all readers? The answer is, we can’t. It is literally impossible to write anything that will be viewed in the same way by all readers.
       So, do we accept the fact that the majority of people who read our work won’t “get it?” Or is there a way to eliminate those differences? Obviously, there is, or I wouldn’t be writing this article. The trick isn’t to make our work universally accepted no matter the reader’s background. It’s to make all readers the same.
       What we need to do is to make our reader become our protagonist. If we can make them see the situation exactly as the protagonist does; if we give each reader the same set of resources the protagonist will use; if all readers have the same desires, needs, and imperatives as our protagonist, then they will decide on what must be done next in exactly the same way as our hero will—and do that before the protagonist makes that decision—if they read and absorb that before they read the protagonist’s response to the situation—they will become our protagonist and react as that character does.
       Do that and you avoid the impossibility of making the writing universal. Instead you’ll make your readers universal. And with that as our goal, let’s see how we can accomplish that.
 
       We’ve always relied on presenting the facts accurately, concisely, and dispassionately because that’s how we were taught to write. And it works well for book reports. But when writing fiction, instead of eliminating differences in viewpoint it encourages them. Everyone has their own interpretation of your presentation, based on what the words mean to them. Tell the reader, for example, that the protagonist is at peace, and each reader will take a slightly different meaning from the statement. To some, being at peace means there is no stress in their life. For others, that there is no war, or argument. In Islam, peace is based on submission and surrender to Allah. And there are hundreds of other shades of meaning to that one word. So expecting a reader to know our viewpoint is impossible unless we focus on that reader, and are able to interact with them, so as to refine our words to fit their background and preconceptions. But, make the reader know why the character feels they are at peace by making that reader view the protagonist’s world as the protagonists does, and the reader’s interpretation of the word no-longer-matters. They will feel as the character feels, emotionally, because for the moment, they will have superimposed the protagonist’s view on their own.
       Can we do this using the writing techniques we all learn in school? Hell no. Our teachers spent zero time discussing the nuance of point of view. They taught us how to write dispassionately, with accuracy of observation the most important item. Why? Because most people will do their writing in a business setting, where accuracy is critical. We were, remember, learning skills to make us useful to employers. Those book reports we wrote were practice for writing business reports. Those essays, practice for writing papers and letters. No one explained how to use tags, how to structure a scene, or even basics such as the three questions a reader needs answered quickly when entering any scene so as to have context to make sense of it it.
       Converting the reader into our protagonist requires skills that are unlike those used for telling a story in person, or creating a story on the stage or screen. Our medium is different, and has different strengths and weaknesses. Instead of stressing fact and accuracy we stress emotional connection. Instead of presenting things from the narrator’s viewpoint we presented from the protagonist’s. Same story, but a very different approach to presenting it. And that means a very different tool set must be used in the presentation.
       Our goal, remember, isn’t to make the reader know about the terror our protagonist may be feeling. Our goal is to terrorize the reader. We don’t want the reader to learn about the plot. We want them to live it. If you can make a reader put down your work for a moment, to decompress, because the emotional situation is so intense they can’t handle it, you have a winner.
       In the end, we having name for doing this: it’s called point of view. And POV is the single most powerful tool in your repertoire. It is the thing that makes all readers the same.
       John W. Campbell, a noted editor once wrote an article in which he presented a hypothetical situation involving an observer and a climber. It went something like this:

     Observer: “Don’t climb that tree. If you knew what I know, that’s not just a tree, it’s being used as a power pole, so there’s dangerous high-voltage up there.”
     Protagonist: “If you knew what I know…that I’m a trained lineman, doing my job with the proper equipment, you wouldn’t worry.”
     Observer: “But if you knew what I know, that your safety gloves are from a shipment that contained defective product, you wouldn’t go.”
     Protagonist: “Ah…but if you knew what I know, that we heard about the defect and have inspected them to remove the bad gloves—and that the gloves I use will be pressure tested just before I put them on, you needn’t worry.”
     Observer: “But if you knew what I know…”

       Point of view is critical. In the example above, were the observer made to know the situation as the protagonist does, confusion would be eliminated and the conversation would never occur.
       Obviously, the protagonist could be wrong. He or she could be missing or misinterpreting data, as could the protagonist in our stories. But that’s okay, because both our protagonist and our reader will have the same misunderstanding and make the same mistakes, which drives our plot. And our reader will be just as surprised, shocked, or perhaps pleased to learn of the misunderstanding.
 
       So how do we do that? How do we gain those necessary skills? How can we turn our narrative around and make our reader view our story from the inside out, as against from the outside in? How do we change our own perspective of how to present a story?
       The answer to that is quite simple. We do that by learning all we can about point of view and the other important skills a writer needs. We add to our existing knowledge, just the way we did, grade-by-grade, as we built our current set of of writing skills. And the more we know, the greater the number of viable choices we have when handling a given situation. The more we know, the better we know what a reader will respond to. And, the more we know the better we get at making our reader feel like our protagonist.
       Simple? Absolutely. Easy? Of course not. If it was easy we’d all be rich and famous. Any profession takes time and practice to perfect. So the question isn’t if it’s easy or hard. The question is, is it worth the effort? And that boils down to: should we continue to write using techniques inappropriate to the task, or should we add professional skills to our toolbox? I don’t think you need my help to answer that question.
       But still, that’s a lot of work, especially given that we won’t know if we have the potential to make effective use of those skills, and to be successful, until we own and apply them. And that’s a big if, especially since most of us are not going to have people lining up to buy our work. So in reality: do we want to be a writer badly enough to to invest lots of time, and perhaps a few dollars to become a writer as a publisher views that term?
       That’s a difficult question to answer, other than to say that if someone can talk you out of writing you aren’t meant to be one. Writers write. It’s what we do. It’s our curse and our blessing.
       Something to keep in mind when making that decision: writing isn’t a destination. It’s a journey, one that lasts a lifetime. And if every day we write with a little more skill than we did on the previous day, and we live long enough…
       So…now that I’ve discouraged you with the news that you probably won’t get rich from your writing this year, let me make a suggestion as to how to begin your transformation from outside-in to inside-out writing.
       A very good article on creating a strong point of view can be found here. It’s based on the work of Dwight Swain, who is notable for having defined many of the techniques that professional writers use, in a clear and concise way. I’d advise you to read the article, think about it, and when it begins to make sense, check the fiction that made you feel as though you were experiencing it, to see how the author made the technique work for that story. And if it seems like something that would help your writing, pick up a copy of Swain’s book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. It both expands on that technique and will show you many others, equally meaningful. Read it slowly, stopping at every point where a new concept is introduced, to think about and practice that point, so as to make it your own rather than to simply learn that it exists.
       And when you finish the book put it aside for six months. Use what you’ve learned, gaining skill and competence. Then, read it again. This time, knowing where he’s going, and better understanding the concepts being introduced, you’ll learn as much the second time as you did the first.
       Will it make you a published author? Naa. That’s your job. What it will do is give you the tools with which to become one, if-it’s-in-you to do that. And that’s the best we can hope for. Maybe it will turn out to be something interesting, but still, success will still elude you. Could be. Happens to most of us. But still, new writers appear all the time. Why shouldn’t it be you? And as they say, you never know till you try.

       Hang in there, and keep on writing.
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Author’s note:
       These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.

 

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A Mirror for the Mind – The Grumpy Writing Coach

A Mirror for the Mind – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 
 
 

     One of the unique abilities humans have evolved is to mentally put ourselves in someone else’s place. We have the ability to watch someone doing a physical act and literally feel ourselves duplicating the action. It’s not a matter of saying, “I do this, and then that,” we physically fire off the proper neurons, but at a level that doesn’t produce overt movement. We are, in effect, debugging the procedure before we try it ourselves.
     It’s a handy ability, and allows us to learn quickly. And it’s so complete an ability that if the one we’re mirroring in our mind hurts themself we’ll feel that pain. Unpleasant though it might be, pain teaches us to be careful, and that mirrored pain teaches us what to avoid, just as would having made that mistake ourselves.
     So what does that have to do with writing? Everything. That ability to mirror action and emotion is what gives us the way to literally pull our reader into our stories as a participant. Done right, we can terrify our reader with a horror story, and make them afraid to turn out the lights—in spite of the fact they know it’s only a story. It’s why we weep when something terrible happens to our fictional friend, and feel triumph at the climax of the story.
     All the tools—the techniques we use—have one and only one goal, to evoke that empathetic ability that places our reader on the scene.
     Our hero is locked in combat, his sword weaving a protective shell around him. We could list each thrust and parry and leave it at that. But that won’t evoke the empathetic sense because it’s impersonal. Instead, as the fight goes on, we have our hero think, He’s better than I am.
     The character has that realization, but the reader mutters, “Oh shit now what?”
     Sure, our reader knows the protagonist isn’t going to die. If that happened the story would be over. So the question is, how can we avoid death? And with that realization, those thrusts and parries take on new meaning, because while we know things are going bad for the protagonist we need time. We need to stay alive till something presents itself as a solution. Now we focus on the events, while at the same time thinking over the possibilities—exactly-like-the-protagonist, which means we are the protagonist, and living that fight.
     Let’s assume that the reader thinks they know what stratagem can save our protagonist—will at least allow escape if victory is not possible. Now, in addition to fighting the battle we’re shouting to our avatar, trying to remind them of that solution. And when our hero is nicked on the hand we curse, and feel the pain. Done really well, we can cause the reader to have to stop and recover because it gets too real.
     And if in our brilliance we not only cause the reader to be shouting encouragement and advice, we provide a better solution, one the reader feels they should have thought of, we have a reader who saying, “I really like this book.” And what more can we ask for?
     Facts? Who cares? Facts only inform. But mirroring the action in our mind as we read—living the adventure. That entertains.

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 

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Amazon Just Might Be Screwing You – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Amazon Just Might Be Screwing You – The Grumpy Writing Coach

 
 
 
 

     A large part of Amazon’s business, these days, is with self-publishers. They don’t sell a lot of books per author, but they will usually sell copies to friends, family, and coworkers. And every million self-published writers who moves twenty copies of their book is exactly equal to the one author who sells twenty million copies. There are millions of self-published writers, so that’s a nice source of income. But that being said, Amazon has a way to add to their profit that most writers aren’t aware of.
     Like Smashwords for their electronic book releases, Amazon accepts Microsoft Word files as input for a Kindle release. The only significant difference in the two files is that Smashwords requires an inside picture and a statement that they are publishing it.
     There is one more difference, though, and it’s the one making Amazon all that extra money. Unlike Smashwords, Amazon, if you take their 70% royalties offer, charges $.15 per megabyte transmitted to the customer, so if your file is just a few bytes over 1 meg in size that’s $.30 in addition to their 30% cut of the profit. Sell a million books with that extra $.15 profit and it adds up to $150,000. A nice piece of change.
     That size limit shouldn’t be a problem, because you have to get close to 135k words before you break the one meg file size in a Word file. As an example, an 85k word novel, as a Word .doc document comes in at about .75 meg, and should deliver to the customer for $.15. It should.
     That same novel, with the inside picture included, for Smashwords, weighs in at .77 meg and yields a converted epub file of .619 meg—including that that internal picture. But when Amazon gets their greedy claws on that same file it inflates to a staggering 3.05 meg. That means a $.60 delivery charge. So if you charge $2.95, which many self-pubs do, Amazon gets:
        Their 30% of the profit: $.88
        Their delivery charge: $.60
        Total paid to Amazon: $1.48 which is roughly 50% of the profit.
     That becomes more interesting when you look at most published novels on Amazon, and check their Kindle files. They nearly all have a file size of well under a meg.
     We could assume that the programmers working for Amazon are inept, compared to those at Smashwords, rather than it being a case of Amazon finding a way to chisel a lot of extra profit out of the self-publishers—while claiming to give the author 70% of the price. But it doesn’t matter because there’s a way around it:
  1. Clean up your file and get all the headers, tabs, and other crap out.
  2. Build your table of contents (more on that, below).
  3. Save the file, using Word, as an HTML file. This removes some Microsoft artifacts stored with the file that might get in the way of the conversion—and which might be part of the reason for the bloated Amazon conversion.
  4. Download a copy of Calibre. It’s a free program, though they would like, and deserve, a donation as a thank you.
  5. Reduce your front cover picture to 600 pixels in the long dimension. This will become part of the metadata.
  6. Open Calibre and paste or load that HTML file you created into it.
  7. Highlight your novel and select, Edit Metadata. In the metadata screen that opens, enter your book’s title, the picture you just created, your name, the tags for the novel, and the “sort” data fields: If your title has “The” as its first word, enter the title minus “the” and follow it with the title, a comma, a space, and “The” (or, for novels beginning with “A” it should read something like: Change of Heart, A). Your sort field entry for Author Name, is your last name, followed by a comma, a space, and your first. If you already have the piece published via Kindle, copy the publication date and the ISBN from the existing Kindle page.
  8. Highlight the file and select the Convert Books feature. Be certain that the output file (top right) is listed as MOBI.
  9. At the bottom right press Okay.
     The MOBI file that results is what you send to Amazon in place of your MS Word file, and the final size will be under the 1 meg threshold. And with a $.15 delivery fee and a $2.95 price their share of the profit drops to 34%. And, you make $.40 more per sale.
     As always, though, review the result via Amazon’s reader, and do that before you push the publish button.

° ° °

To build a table of contents for publication, we can’t use Word’s table of contents feature. Instead:
  1. Bookmark each chapter heading. Use a simple name like ch1 for chapter numbers. No spaces in the bookmark name, and don’t bother with capital letters. And while you’re doing that, you might want to center the chapter’s title and make it bold, to set it off. This makes a neater separation on smaller screen readers. Some people go up in size to 13 or 14 point, but that’s personal preference.
  2. Create the table of contents page by setting it off with a manual page break at top and bottom (Typing a Command/Enter on the Mac and Control/Enter on the PC creates a manual page break). Then, as you did with your chapter titles, center the “Table of Contents” title. Again, many also make it 14 point type, bold.
  3. Under the title, type out the chapter numbers and whatever else should be in the TOC, like samples of other books and author notes, using one line per. You can cheat and copy that text as a group from another book and paste it in, to save typing. It will come with the existing hyperlinks, but you’re going to replace that, so it doesn’t matter.
  4. Hyperlink each line in the table to the bookmark for that chapter. Don’t be surprised if, when the hyperlink is added, the paragraph mark at the end of that line vanishes, and must be added back it. It’s another of Word’s charming foibles. When you finish, you can test that the links are proper by hovering over each entry to see that the hyperlink refers to the proper bookmark. You are going to push the button to see it work for yourself, though, both to be certain it works and because it’s fun, which is the reason for the next step.
  5. Push the Add Bookmark button to get you to the bookmark page. While you’re there, find the “Hidden Bookmarks” checkbox and turn it on. If it’s already on, turn it off and back on because there’s a bug in the code and it won’t show bookmarks that have been added since the box was checked unless you turn it off and on again (don’t you just love MS Word? And people wonder why I’m so grumpy). Delete all hidden bookmarks and close the bookmarks window.
  6. You’re ready to go. Just don’t use any hyperlinks now that you’ve cleared the hidden ones or you’ll have to do it again.

 

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What’s in a Name? – The Grumpy Writing Coach

What’s in a Name? – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 
 
 

     The other day I reviewed a new writer’s story, all about a man named John. In the course of the first few pages John walked, John saw, John said, John thought… The list was endless and boring. By the end of the second page I wanted to throw John in the john. After three I had all I could stand.
     And people wonder why I’m so grumpy.
     Everyone knows that when we tell a story in first person we used the pronoun “I” to refer to the protagonist. No one has a problem with that. So, why is it that virtually no one understands that the third person equivalent to “I” is “he” or “she,” not John, Betty, Susan, or any other name? Turn to almost any new writer’s work, though, and you’ll find the character’s name sprinkled like salt in virtually every paragraph.
     Here’s the thing: we never think of ourselves by name unless we’re addressing ourselves from a third-party position—lecturing ourselves for some reason. What that means is that every time you, as a writer, use the character’s name in describing their action, that’s a-point-of-view-break. Yes, there are times when it’s necessary to use the name because a reader might become confused over who you’re talking about. But those times are few. And readers won’t forget your character’s name if you don’t use it ten times a page. They really won’t.
     And here’s another thing that needs to be taken into account. If we more often use the other character’s names, while sticking to he or she for the protagonist, that makes the protagonist unique.
     Sure we want to use the protagonist’s name, initially, to introduce them. We also want to use the character’s name at the beginning of scenes or chapters so the reader knows who were talking about. We want to use it in dialogue, where the speaker is placing an emotional emphasis by referring to the character by name. But that’s it. Almost anything else is a POV break, and has the risk of distancing the reader from the action that’s taking place. Make sense? I hope so.
     In addition to that problem there’s the use of the possessive, his or her. That too, is often overused, because the reader already knows who the text is referring to. And when we use the possessive we often add verbosity, along with it, that slows the narrative.
     Look at a few examples:
     “As she hoped, her vision was unchanged.” Is that “her” required? Could we not just as easily say “As she hoped, vision was unchanged.” ? After all, who else’s vision could we be talking about, if the character is alone, or if we already know who’s being referred to?
     And with the line, “She moved her hands to cover her eyes with fingertips” wouldn’t it be smoother to say, “She covered her eyes with fingertips?” Of course. Yet virtually every manuscript I look at is filled with unneeded detail, linked to the possessive, like that.
     Small things kill a reader’s enjoyment, each driving in a tiny splinter of annoyance: Unnecessary references; excessive use of the protagonist’s name; unnecessary description. Each is a minor distraction, but such distractions are additive. So anything you can do to remove the unnecessary and distracting words will both speed the narrative and render the author invisible—placing us in the prompter’s box rather than on stage. And isn’t that were we belong?

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 

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Footnote

Footnote
 
 
      “So,” Stan George called as he searched for the mustard. What did they say about the car?”
     Tim Shanken turned from the kitchen counter, and the book-bag he was exploring.
     “What?”
     “I asked when your car would be ready.”
      “They said it would be ready by tomorrow night, at the latest, but I’ll bet they don’t fix the problem. I’ve already brought it there twice for the same thing, and I’m beginning to doubt they have the brains to fix it.” He pulled one of the books from the bag and began to thumb through it.
      Stan backed out of the refrigerator, loaded with an assortment of sandwich makings, closing the door with a nudge of his hip. “I know about that, it took me three trips to get the Ford fixed when the transmission went bad last month. If it wasn’t in warranty, I’d go some place else… Mustard okay?” I’ve got ketchup in the fridge if you want that.”
     “Mustard’s fine,” Tim said with a shrug. He motioned toward the book he was holding. “Is this Mike’s? It’s been a lot of years since I read this.”
      Stan cocked his head to line up with the printing on the cover, then laughed. “Moby Dick? It’s been a few beers over the lips since I had to swim through that one.” He laughed again. “That’s Mike’s all right, but I doubt he’ll get much out of it. He’s already pretty ticked off over the fact that he can’t find the movie in the video store. It’s always been checked out by one of the other kids when he bikes over there to get it. Since they don’t have a waiting list, it’s first come, first served.”
      Tim slipped the book back on the bag and hitched himself up to sit on the tabletop, waving away Stan’s gestured invitation to start making his sandwich. “No, you go on. I’ll make mine after you finish.” He held out one palm in a request for more information as he said, “He’s not a reader?”
      That brought another laugh. “You might say that. If it’s not on video, he doesn’t do a book report on it—unless it’s assigned reading, like this one was.” Stan shook his head and added, “I guess I can’t complain, since lots of the kids do that. When I was a kid, my best friend and I would only do book reports on things we could get in the Classic Comic series.”
      That brought a chuckle, and, “Didn’t everybody? So what’s he going to do? Will he actually read this thing?” He pulled the book out again, hefting it. “This may be pretty heavy going for a modern kid. I read it a couple of times, and enjoyed it, too, but not until college when I had the background to understand it.”
      Stan put down the knife he was using to slice his sandwich, apparently thinking over how to say it without making his son look stupid. Finally, with a cluck if the tongue, he said, “He’ll read it, I suppose. He’s good that way. They told him to read it, so he’ll read it—even if he does find the video for it—just because they told him he has to.” He bit his lip before waving his hands in uncertainty, adding, “I don’t know how to put this, Tim, but…. Mike’s a good kid; he really is. He just doesn’t have any…” In frustration, he spread his hands, finally settling for, “Damn, I’m making him sound stupid, or lazy, and he’s neither. He’s just…” He sighed. “I guess I can’t complain—he does get decent marks. It’s just that he sort of drifts, when it comes to schooling. Like I said, he’ll read it just because they told him to, but he won’t pay any real attention, and he won’t enjoy it. He’ll just… just read it. When it comes to something like that, it’s like the old ethnic joke, where the way to keep someone busy for hours is to give them a card that has both sides printed with, ‘Turn this card over and read the other side.’”
      Tim shook his head. “I think you’re being a little hard on the boy, Stan. He’s a little better than that. He’s at least as smart as my Dan.”
      Stan laid the sandwich he was finishing on a plate and turned to Tim, wiping his hands on a paper towel and moving to where the other man sat as he did. He tossed the towel toward the trash and reached for the book, taking it from Tim’s hand and holding it up.
      “I’m serious. If I would put a note in the middle of this book telling him to start over from the beginning, he will, just because the note is there. The kid doesn’t think for himself. I dearly wish I could get him started doing that, but… Well, nothing I’ve tried so far has worked.”
      “You that sure?” When Stan shrugged, Tim slid off the table and moved to the opposite side of the work counter. He dug in the bag for a roll, and began to slice it, his expression thoughtful.
     “Okay, I’ll take that one,” he said, finally. “I can always use some easy money. Five bucks says he won’t do that.”
      Stan hesitated for a moment before nodding and placing the book on the table. He flipped to a page near the middle, motioning Tim over to join him. “Done! But you have to come over here and write the note for me, so he doesn’t recognize the handwriting and catch on.” He fished in a drawer for a pen, bringing it to the table and holding it out to his friend.
      “Here, just write, ‘Note to students: Stop at this point and return to the beginning.”
      Tim took the pen, frowning. “Let me see if I’ve got this right. The bet is that Mike comes to the note and starts over; that he does this because he’s as dumb as the guy who jumped off a building and stopped to ask directions on the way down. Further, that he does this without asking either the teacher or anyone else if the note applies to him, right?
      “You got it.”
      Tim bent over the book and began to write. “Okay, Stan, but this is easy money. No one is that dumb.”
      “We’ll see.”
 
*
 
      Tim pulled the throttle back to stop the engine, bringing the old mower to a halt, as he called. “Hey Mike! Got a minute?”
     As he waited for his friend’s son to walk to the fence gate, Tim fished a plastic bag out of his back pocket and opened it, preparing to empty the grass-catcher. He laid the bag across the mower handle as the boy came through the gate.
      “Yes, Mr. Shanken?”
      Tim studied the boy with interest. Mike was a typical sixteen year-old, awkward with his sudden new size and always slouching in an attempt to keep his eyes at the height they were last year. He was a good kid, and though Tim didn’t know him too well, Mike was a friend to his own boy since they were toddlers.
      “I noticed that you were reading Moby Dick, and I was wondering how you liked it.”
      The boy shrugged. “It’s okay, I guess. I just wish I was finished with it. It’s pretty hard to read, with all that old fashioned language and all. Lots of what they do doesn’t make sense anymore, either.”
      “Oh?”
      Mike shrugged again. “It’s sometimes hard to understand why they get upset over something that would be no big deal today.”
      Tim’s respect for the boy went up a few points, and he decided that his father had underestimated his ability to absorb the story. Casually, he said, “So you’re finished?”
      He shook his head. “No. I would be by now, but there was a note from the teacher, near the middle, telling me to go back and re-read the first part. I guess she wants us to understand it before we go on, and since I don’t, I’m re-reading it. It still doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I see things I missed the first time, so I guess there was a good reason for the note.”
      As the boy walked away Tim reflected that technically he had lost the bet, but certainly not for the reasons his friend gave when the bet was made. He wondered if he had not done Mike a favor with the note. Certainly he would enjoy the story more.
 
*
 
      Stan leaned back in his chair and shouted up the stairs to the kitchen. “Hey Mike, would you bring us some more beer?” He turned back to the men gathered around the card table. “One of the advantages of having children is service like this. When Mike complained that I was treating him like a servant, I told him he gets the chance to have one of his own when he has children.”
      There was laughter as Mike came down the stairs carrying a six-pack from the refrigerator. He put it on the side table and was about to launch himself back up the stairs when Tim stopped him with a hand on the arm. “Did you ever finish that story, Mike?”
      That brought a frown. “No, I didn’t. I’m on the fourth time around, and I still haven’t found what they want me to see, so I can’t go on.”
      “Well maybe if you finished it you could see—”
      “No,” Mike said, firmly, waving his hand in negation. “No, I can see a lot of things I missed, like the fact that the whale is actually symbolic, as is a lot of what is going on in the story, but I don’t think it’s that.” He thought a moment, then sighed. “I guess I’ll know it when I finally understand it, but it’s pretty tough.”
      The boy sounded so troubled, and so sincere that Tim debated telling him of the hoax, but at this point could see no way to do so without hurting the boy.
      “Maybe you should talk it over with the teacher?” He took a breath before saying, “Maybe someone else wrote the note—a student, maybe.” He spread his hands. “You do have to turn in the report, don’t you?”
      The comment about the note being other than from his teacher only brought a stubborn look to the boy’s face, and, “Maybe… but if so, someone found something worth looking for, and I want to see if I can do it for myself. I did the book report on Great Expectations, rather than Moby Dick, since I couldn’t get through it. This is just for me.”
      As Mike vanished up the stairs Tim frowned, then frowned again as Stan said, “That kid’s strange, sometimes.” Tim stared at the empty stair-well for a moment, then, with a shrug, shook himself back to the present. When he turned back to the table he found his friend’s hand extended.
     “Which reminds me, Buddy. We have a bet, and you just lost. Pay up.”
      Itt wasn’t worth arguing so he paid Stan the five dollars, but he looked thoughtfully at the stairs up which Mike had gone.
 
*
 
      Tim pulled to a stop at the traffic light. He stretched the sleep out of his muscles, enjoying the early morning feel to the air. It was a perfect day for a round of golf. He glanced over at Stan, relaxing in the passenger seat, yawning himself awake. “So, Stan,” he said, with a laugh in his voice. “I hate to ask, but has Mike ever finished that stupid book, or is he endlessly cycling up to the note and back to the beginning? He seemed almost obsessed with it the last time I talked to him.”
      Stan turned his head and gave Tim a sour look. “Let me tell you, Buddy, that is one weird kid.”
      “Uh-huh? And?”
      “And, I asked him about it last Monday. He said he was reading it for the tenth time, and that he had a real grasp of the motivations of the people now, and more importantly, the author. He told me he was making a detailed outline of where he thought the story was going, based on his interpretation of the intent of the author. He also told me how he thought it ended, and he was dead on. He claims that before he read it he had no idea of how story went, except that it was about a whale. That’s scary.”
      “Yeah? I guess it is, if it’s true. He could have just forgotten he saw it as a cartoon, or something. You sound like there’s something else, though.” The light changed, and Tim charged forward to block a Toyota intent on jumping into his lane before adding, “You said this happened last Monday. I assume there’s more now.”
      Stan looked even more sour, as he shook his head. “I don’t know if you’d call it more, or just craziness. He’s now into an analysis of the printing process in general. He spent almost an hour just explaining such things as sans-serif type and another on the history of ink pigments. The kid spends half his spare time doing research and half re-reading the first part of that damn book.” He threw up his hands in frustration. “I’ll tell you, Tim. I really don’t know what to do about it. I’m glad he’s learning something, but it’s starting to worry me.”
      Tim drove in silence for a time, then ventured, “Have you thought of telling him who actually made the note?”
      There was an equally long silence before Stan quietly said, “I did. He said it doesn’t matter.”
 
*
 
      Tim reached for the phone, hurrying to answer it before it woke his wife. “Hello?”
      “Hi, Tim, it’s Stan. Thelma said you called. What’s up?”
      “Not much, it’s just that I happened to think about your son Mike today. What with the baby being sick and all, I haven’t heard a progress report for weeks. How’s he doing?”
      There was the sound of a long sigh. “How’s he doing? I really wish I knew, Tim. He’s been almost living at the library, lately, and he’s got a whole room-full of books on things like communication theory and the structure of languages. It’s starting to scare the hell out of me, but he’s aced every test he’s taken in school since the start of this thing, so it’s hard to complain. We may have created a monster, or pushed him onto the path of becoming a great scientist; take your choice. I’d rather it be the scientist, but I’m afraid it might be the other.”
      Tim hesitated before saying, “Is he acting strangely in other ways—skipping meals and such?”
      There was a snort of laughter from the phone. “The human garbage disposal skip a meal? You’ve got to be kidding. No, he’s okay except for that. In fact, he’s a lot more fun to talk to now. He reads the paper, and thinks about it, where before he only read the comics. No, I really don’t think he’s going crazy, or anything like that. It’s just that he’s always so… busy.”
 
*
 
      “Tim! Hey, Tim…up here!”
     Tim searched for the source of the call, finally locating his friend Stan at a second floor window. His voice had been half whisper, half shout, and his face bore a look of urgency.
      “Hi, Stan,” Tim called. “What’s up? You look like you’ve just caught Irma in bed with her grandfather again.”
      Stan ignored the attempt at humor and motioned Tim closer to the house. As he approached, Stan pointed toward the porch, stage-whispering, “Front door’s open, come on up here… and hurry.”
      Tim took the steps to the second floor two at a time, wondering what was going on, but afraid he knew.
     
      “He’s been like this for the past hour. Watch him.”
      Stan guided Tim to the door of his son’s room. Inside, Mike sat on the chair in front of his desk, staring at an open book, his body unmoving. He appeared to be looking at the book, but his eyes were staring—as unmoving as the rest of his body.
      Tim turned his head to speak, but Stan stopped him with a hand on his arm, whispering, “Just watch.”
     Tim did as he requested, and a few seconds later the boy reached out and turned the page, only to resume his motionless position. At Tim’s confused look, Stan motioned to the stair and headed in that direction. With a last look into the silent room, Tim followed.
     
      “He’s reading? It sure doesn’t look like it to me.”
      “Me either, Tim, but that’s what he claims to be doing. He says he’s teaching himself to take in the whole page in one single gestalt—of what is, and what was intended to be, and how it fits into the book and the world.”
      “Gestalt? What the hell is that? It sounds like something he pulled out of a psyche book.”
      Stan shrugged. “I’m not sure, but I looked it up, and it means the whole of a thing that cannot be derived from just the sum of its parts. I don’t know what the hell he means by it, though. He’s starting to really scare me and I don’t know what to do.” He looked at his friend, his expression hopeful. “Do you have any ideas? I’m fresh out.”
      Tim blew out a long breath. “None. This thing has really gotten wild. Have you taken him to a doctor?” At Stan’s affirmative nod, he added, “A shrink?”
      Stan looked glum. “A shrink, and a psychologist, and two other kinds of head doctors, too. They love him. They say he’s the most well balanced and intelligent kid they’ve seen in years. They think I’m crazy!” He held out his hands, as though seeking guidance, or at least a little reassurance. “I’m not, am I?”
      Tim thought that over for a time, then asked, “How is he when he’s not doing the yoga thing?” He pointed in the direction of the second floor, indicating Mike’s present activity.
      Stan deflated, leaning back in the chair and shaking his head in frustration. “That’s the hell of it, Tim. When he’s not like that, he’s great. He helps around the house, plays ball, and does all the things he always did; maybe even more. Hell, I’ve never seen him so full of energy.”
      Tim was at a loss to suggest anything, but a question occurred. “Um… When he finishes with that… uh, reading?” He wasn’t happy with the word, but plowed on anyway. “When he puts the book away, has he actually read it—gotten anything out of it?”
      Stan scratched his chin, thoughtfully. “Well, I can’t tell for sure, but he seems to. When he finishes a book, he can discuss what it was about, it just seems a weird way to read. He’d be a lot faster reading it the regular way.”
      “Have you told him that?”
      “Sure, but when I did he said he’s getting better and that he gets much more out of the book this way.”
      Tim was silent for a long time, and when he spoke, his answer didn’t satisfy him. He just couldn’t think of anything else to say. “Well, if it doesn’t hurt him, and he’s okay in every way, I guess it makes him happy. Who knows, maybe he’ll come up with a new way of reading. I’d give it a little while, and keep an eye on him.”
      It was obvious from the expression on Stan’s face that it was not an answer he was comfortable with, but there was little choice in the matter, and Mike’s energetic feet on the stair ended the conversation..
 
*
 
      “Hi, Mr. Shaken. I haven’t seen you for a while. How are you?”
      “Mmm?” Tim turned from polishing the car. “Oh, hi, Mike. I’m pretty fine. We’ve been at the lake house for three weeks.”
      Tim studied the boy for a moment, before going on, noting that he seemed changed since the last time he had seen him. In some indefinable way he seemed more grown up. For one thing, he stood straight, and had a look of confidence Tim had never seen him wear before. There was more, though. Tim just couldn’t put his finger on what it was.
      “Well, Mike,” he continued. “You look pretty happy this afternoon.”
      “I am,” the boy enthused. “I finally broke through yesterday morning, and I have to thank you and my father for making it possible.”
      “Broke through? I’m afraid I—”
      “No, I guess you wouldn’t understand,” Mike said, with a smile, interrupting him. “What I mean is that I finally understand, and now it’s easy to learn.”
      Tim put down the rag he had been using to polish the car, and held out his hands in a request for enlightenment. “Mike, I’m afraid I—”
      “Still don’t understand,” Mike finished, interrupting him once again. He looked thoughtful for a moment, before saying, “It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t have it, but what I now understand is communication, and how it’s really done. It means that I can pretty much tell what you’re thinking by watching your face, and that I can read a page by just glancing at it.” He shrugged. “In fact, if it’s an opinion book, rather than an accumulation of facts, I can usually tell what the thing contains from the first few pages. Most people are far too wordy when they try to say something.”
      Tim blinked rapidly for a few seconds, before Mike continued, speaking for him, and saying, “But that’s not possible, Mike, and you can’t know my thoughts.” He stopped, grinning at the expression Tim was unable to keep from his features, and there was laughter in his voice as he said, “Of course I can’t read minds, no one could do that, right?” He hesitated, still grinning, then went on more gently, moving away from the subject of mind-reading.
      “Anyway, I really want to thank you for making it possible, even if you didn’t have this in mind when you put that note in the book.”
      Tim just stared for a long moment, then tried again. “So—”
      “What will I do now?” Mike put a hand on the Tim’s shoulder, saying, “I’m sorry, Mr. Shanken, I have to remember not to do that. It seems to upset people… Well, in answer to your question, I’ve read everything in the house, so I’m on my way downtown to read the library. Then, who knows? Maybe I’ll go swimming with the guys.”
     
      Tim watched him go, and had the thought that he ought to go find Stan and ask for his five dollars back.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Author’s note:
     I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, and got here from Facebook, pressing the “Share” button at the page bottom will let others know the story is here, and give them the chance to read it, as well.
     
     And if my little story pleased you, I’m glad. There are other stories posted, as well. You and others like you are the reason I write. If it did bring a moment of reading pleasure, take a moment to rate it. Feedback matters to me. And if you’re in the mood for something a bit longer. make a stop to look at my novels, and read the excerpts to see if they please, as well.
 
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Posted by on November 11, 2011 in Short Story

 

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Wolves In Hiding – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Wolves In Hiding – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 

Wolves In Hiding


 

      Thank you for your recent submission. Unfortunately…
 
      So begins the response to that fragile carrier of your hopes and dreams—the query letter.
      We’ve all been there, and it hurts. It hurts a lot. But it’s how the writing game goes, so we shrug, hone the query, and fire off another batch… and another—while depression deepens and self-worth hovers one notch above absolute zero.
      Then it happens, you discover the ad in the back section of Writers’ Digest: Agent accepting new clients. And best of all they’re looking for unpublished authors! Sure, your daddy told you that if something sounds too good to be true it probably is. But hell, if we had an ounce of brains we wouldn’t be writers, would we?
      With trembling fingers you stuff a query into an envelope, cross your fingers, and hurry to the post-office. A week later back comes amazing news. They like you! They like your work enough to want to see more. They like you so much that your brain turns off, and you never question that terribly reasonable explanation of why you should also send a shovelful of money along with the manuscript. “The sample chapter was wonderful,” they gush. “But since so few unpublished authors have it exactly right the first time, we need to see the entire manuscript, just to make sure the loose ends are tied up.” And surely you can’t expect a busy agent to give up precious time without charging you a teeny little service fee, can you? Well can you?
      You sure as hell can. The simple truth is that an agent or editor who makes a living through selling other people’s writing can recognize writing skill in a paragraph and marketability within a page. You prove that true each time you take a book from the rack at your local bookstore. When was the last time you read more than a few pages before you decided not to buy? The difference between you and an agent or publisher is only that they shop from the comfort of their desk.
      No reputable agent charges a fee for reading. Engrave that statement in stone above your desk. They’d love to charge, if for no other reason than in retaliation for having to spend so much time wading through crap submissions. But they don’t, because the rules of The Association Of Authors’ Representatives, the AAR, forbids that.
     And reputable agents don’t, as a rule, recommend a specific editor to an unknown writer who’s making a submission, though they may suggest editing. Edit Ink*, the most notorious example of abusing that suggestion, paid a commission to the agent or publisher who recommended a client. A submission to one of their shill agencies (never a member of AAR) was likely to bring a letter suggesting that they might be interested… after editing. And, “oh yes, we’d suggest you use our good friends at Edit Ink.” The insidious part of that is that the agency—who made a fifteen percent commission if you took the bait—and Edit Ink are in different parts of the country. There couldn’t be an unsavory connection there, could there? There were millions of dollars charged for editing work done by college students and new grads working at minimum wage rates, money that will never be recovered.
      Book-doctors are another thing to avoid if you write fiction. Why? Use your brain. If someone could take your book and fix it so it would sell, they’d be selling their own work and making a lot more money. And forget the idea of giving your manuscript to a published author in return for cover credit for supplying the story idea and rough draft. All new writers lust after that one, but any competent writer can fire off ideas faster than you can record them. It’s writing well that’s hard. That author would have to know your story as well as one they wrote, in order to meaningfully rewrite it. Starting from scratch is easier and more profitable.
      Read those advertisements carefully for the scam tip-offs, like the mention of representing poetry or short stories. No reputable agent represents poetry. The fifteen percent agent’s commission on what the average poet makes on a sale won’t pay postage for the submissions. And no reputable agent is interested in short stories because the effort of selling a three-thousand word short is exactly that of a selling one-hundred-thousand word blockbuster. Any agent who claims to sell either poetry or short stories is to be avoided, and those who request a “one time reading fee” or money in advance for reproduction and mailing, are to be laughed at.
      So how can you tell if you’re ready to submit your work professionally?
      • Study writing. Craft is invisible, but necessary, and as I mentioned a few issues ago they didn’t teach it in grade school. Some of my personal favorite books on the subject are: Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain; GMC: Goal Motivation and Conflict, by Debora Dixon; Sol Stein on writing, by Sol Stein; and Writing the breakout Novel, by Donald Mass. And if you’re broke, look for Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones in your library. It’s an older book, but a good solid introduction to writing technique.
     But, those are just a few. Everyone has their own favorite, and there are many available.
      • Do your research. Don’t submit a two-hundred-thousand word family saga to Precious Gems, or fiction to an agent who specializes in cookbooks.
      • Join a critiquing group—one composed of writers whose work you respect—people with skills matching (and hopefully, exceeding) your own. Your local library is a good place to find notice of what’s available. Almost nothing is as useful as the feedback you get from a writer of greater skill.
      • Find a grammar fairy to touch your manuscript with stardust. You want nothing to distract the editor’s eye from your glorious prose.
      • Study under the masters. Once you know what you’re looking for, analyze your favorite authors to see what made you like them. Look at how they handle dialog and characterization. Do they favor long sentences or short? Rewrite one of their scenes in your own style, and then compare the two for content and readability. Did you tell as much in as few words? Did you stay as focused? Do your words flow into the reader’s mind as smoothly?
 
      The odds are against us succeeding. That’s a given. The success rate for manuscript sales by a new author is less than one in one-thousand—with good reason. No one is searching the stores for a book with your name on it other than your mother, so editors are looking for something extraordinary, not a “good enough,” novel. They already have more “good enough” writers than they need.
     But in spite of those odds, lightening does have to strike, so it could well be you. That kid shooting baskets in the playground could wind up stuffing them in as part of a professional team, and you could be the next great author to be discovered. So keep on studying and keep writing. If nothing else it keeps us off the streets at night.
     Just keep your eyes open and your wallet closed.
 
 
 
* Now out of business. To see a history, visit http://www.sfwa.org/beware/cases.html

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 
 

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Craft? What’s that? – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Craft? What’s that? – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 

Writing Craft? What’s that?


 

     Hello, it’s me, your grumpy old writing coach, pressing my arthritic fingers to the keyboard in order to destroy your new writer aspirations of fame. It’s my only remaining hobby, but that’s okay, because it’s also a service to humankind. If I can talk you out of writing I’ve saved you long boring nights at the computer, and I’ve saved many, many editors the annoyance of having to read your crap. Plus, I sleep better knowing I’ve destroyed someone’s dreams.
     Today’s lesson is: your writing sucks. Please feel free to respond with poison-pen letters. I find a day without one depressing.
     Okay, on to the bashing. You’re a creative person, or you wouldn’t be interested in writing fiction, so let me start with a thesis:
 
          1. Creativity without craft is nothing.
          2. The craft of writing fiction is taught in damned few high schools.
          3. It therefore follows that you have no craft.
                    Therefore: You are nothing.
 
     The world is filled with people who have not a shred of creativity, and require none. The cabinetmaker who’s spent decades honing woodworking skills, but who builds only tried and true designs, enjoys well-deserved acclaim. The doctor who treats you with care, compassion, and knowledge is a prize. The technical writer who produces readable and concise manuals is the ideal employee. Even the hack writer who turns out mindless, formulaic drivel gets by with no creativity. But: Picasso, with creativity but without craft, would have been a cipher, useless. The Mensa member driving a taxi because learning craft in some field is beneath him or her, is a taxi driver, no more. Picasso was, first, a fully competent journeyman artist. Adding creativity to that platform yielded a map for the less creative to follow.
     Take the tightly disciplined writing of the journalist, add a bit of genius, and you have Hemingway. Take John Smith without craft and you have “John who?”
     The vast majority of people suffer from having gone to grade school. They’ve been taught how not to write fiction by people who can’t. Worse yet, they’ve been tested to be sure they’ve not accidentally done something right. Finally, patted on the back for being ignorant, they’re turned loose, secure in the belief that they’re ready for a career in storytelling—a celebration of the blind leading the blind. And if you, as a member of that great mass of “they” go into education you have the honor of perpetuating that stupidity.
     My point should be obvious: Writing, like any craft/profession, is complex, arduous to learn, and is the horse your creativity must ride. The good news is that it’s fun to learn—as much as I hate to admit that anything is fun.
     Okay, so you stink at writing, your mother stinks at writing, and your friends do, too. And it isn’t going to get better with time and experience, I’m pleased to say.
     Why? Because no matter how hard you throw an egg down the damn thing still breaks—and always will until you begin to work on the real problem, in this case craft—or lack of it.
     New thesis (not because I’m trying to prove a point, I just like to be argumentive): People don’t read because they like the story, they like the story because of what they read.
     Ask anyone why they open a book and you’re going to hear, “For the story.” That’s a lie. They read for the misery, the suffering, and the disaster heaped on disaster. They read for the blood. They wallow in suffering, and a really good murder has them drooling. Try selling a story in which a nice guy meets a nice woman, has a nice courtship, lots of nice kids, and a pleasant retirement. See if anyone wants to pay to read that.
     But take the husband and give him a secret career as a spy-chaser. Let his wife catch wind of it after more than a decade of thinking him a mild-mannered salesman, and you have the makings of a story in which their teen aged daughter ends up suspended from the nose of a VTOL fighter-plane staring at the pilot and saying, “Daddy?” Isn’t the plot of True Lies, more fun than, Mary and John Grow Old Together? Except… if Mary has a lover, who is really…
     So why do we read? To worry, of course. To be interesting, a book has to be more fun than our own life. It has to be more dangerous, too. If we decided to try a bit of spying we would probably end up looking like a colander and leaking gore—and maybe radioactive blood. Not exactly the most desirable outcome.
     But by becoming Ian Flemming’s Agent 007 we can not only take absolutely insane risks, we’re guaranteed to live through it—even if we die. With a book in her hands the mousy bookkeeper who has come home to an empty apartment and a boring life can romance the man who in life wouldn’t even notice her. She can put on the skin of the woman she only wishes she could be, and live the adventure that would leave her quite dead in real life. With a book providing the wings she can fly!
     Okay, now that I’ve demolished your dreams of selling that manuscript you’ve been typing I feel a little better, so I’ll go see what’s in the fridge, or maybe taunt Dog-Breath for a bit. When the happy mood fades I’ll come back and maybe annoy you some more. Till then, an assignment:
     The setup: Our lives are an unending chain of linked events. You have stimulus, followed by response, which causes the next stimulus, which causes…
     The task: Take a look at your writing and ask yourself if every single act by your characters—every thought, movement, and decision—is a response to some stimulus your reader will be aware of before the act occurs.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 
 

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