Sunday, December 30, 2007

Peace on Earth

Ah, Chocolate. The Breakfast of Champions Christmas. There's nothing quite like the wriggly-brained nausea you get from eating a litre of candy on an empty stomach to bring back childhood memories. Often in hallucinogenic clarity; it's probably due to your brain cells exploding from the sugar.

I spent a lot of my childhood terrified of nuclear annihilation. It sounds a bit weird now, but I really did live with the belief that I would die before reaching adulthood. For that reason, "Peace on Earth" is still my favourite holiday greeting, so whether or not you celebrate Christmas, I wish you peace wherever you live in this world.

Have a wonderful (and safe; don't snarf the liquor like you did the candy) New Year's Eve, and may we all get paid for our writing in 2008!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

When your hook is dull, you're either gonna lose your fish or cause it pain.

I have a backdated blog entry where I keep track of books I've read. With the year winding down, I took a gander at that post and was surprised to see I've read about 70 books this year.

That slapping sound you hear is me patting my own back. I got into a reading drought while in grad school (ironic how when you're in school, you have no time to read--not even textbooks; everything gets skimmed) and I decided to make an effort to get out of it.

In my post, I also kept track of books I started reading but didn't finish. That list actually provides an interesting statistic.

If I'm going to give up on a book, it usually happens at about page 15.

Fifteen pages. That's all you get! Don't whine about how no one lets authors slide the reader into the story gradually anymore--I know I've got the attention span of a chihuahua on crack, but I'm helpless to change that. What you gonna do? Either give me some candy by page fifteen, or I'm going to go read my friends' blogs instead.

I also kept track of why I stopped reading a book.

Reason #1 why I stopped reading:
"Too much backstory and telling."

Reason #2 why I stopped reading:
"Couldn't get into it."

Reason #1 is self-explanatory, but I'll comment on it anyway. Because of my brother's awesome birthday gift to me, I've been reading a lot of urban fantasy lately.

I don't much like urban fantasy.

Granted, I have been pleasantly surprised to discover some really great urban fantasy in the stack, but on the whole, my opinion stands: I don't much like urban fantasy.

Part of the reason is that a lot of urban fantasy is written in first-person. I like first-person when it's done well, but so often the author uses it as an excuse for the point-of-view character to yabber and yabber and yabber at the reader. Susie Kickbutt talks about her job, her opinion of the world, how she looks, the clothes she's putting on, her ex-boyfriends, and--worst, worst, worst--she blathers for pages and pages about the novel's backstory.

Urban fantasy authors, I beg of thee: show, don't tell. An internal monologue is telling. No matter how engaging your character's voice is, I'm going to get bored if you don't get the party started. Put me into this world; don't just tell me about it. And while you're at it, where's the friggin' plot? Fill me in on Susie Kickbutt's awesome leather pants later.


On to reason #2. When I say I can't get into the story, that usually means the book had neither an engaging character nor an engaging plot development in sight. Stupendous people may have been running around doing exciting things (as I recall, I put several books down right in the middle of a battle scene) but I didn't empathise with any of them and I didn't find the challenges they faced either emotionally or intellectually engaging.

One book I did finish could have very easily been on the list of books I didn't. It was a disappointment on a variety of levels, but what makes that one book interesting is that I remember exactly what got me hooked enough to keep reading it.

I had been bored with the story, despite some rather cool fantasy ideas in it, when a subplot got my attention. It featured a quiet, reserved, and very honourable guard's unrequited love for a princess. I liked him, and I could empathize with his pain. I wanted to see him get the girl.

That one character provided the emotional centre that kept me reading, and lemme tell ya, that book was not worth the effort.

Just one character I cared about. That's all it took. Just one conflict I wanted to find out the resolution to.

What sort of things cause you to put down a book (or throw it against the wall?) What flaws can you overlook and which ones stop you reading permanently?

And just to keep things from turning into a big ol' festering vat of negativity, here's a list of the books I've read this year that I thought were great. Feel free to add your own favourites in the comments, and I'll tack them onto the end of this post.

The Privilege of the Sword
by Ellen Kushner

Point of Honour
by Madeleine E. Robins

Mona Lisa Overdrive
by William Gibson

A Dance in Blood Velvet
by Freda Warrington

The White Wolf's Son
by Michael Moorcock

Story (non-fiction)
by Robert McKee

The Crystal City
by Orson Scott Card

Snow Crash
by Neal Stephenson

Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion
by Dan Simmons

Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors
by Guy Gavriel Kay

Last Light of the Sun
by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Time Traveller's Wife
by Audrey Niffeneger

A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords
by George R. R. Martin

Night of the Wolf
by Alice Borchardt

Book of the Damned
by Tanith Lee

The Silver Metal Lover
by Tanith Lee

Blog Readers' Picks:

From Josephine Damien:

Turn, Magic Wheel
by Dawn Powell

Lying Awake
by Mark Salzman

The Prestige
by Christopher Priest

A Welcome Grave
by Michael Koryta

The Marriage of the Sea
by Jane Alison

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Villain vrs. Hero

One way to increase the stakes in a conflict between your novel's protagonist and antagonist is to make the reader see that the villain thinks he's the hero of the story too. According to him, he's the good guy, doing the right thing. He might have a skewed idea of what the right thing is, but he can rationalize all his actions. He might even be right, once you shift your head into the correct mindset.

Here's a story that illustrates this principle. It's taken from real-life.

A friend of mine had a co-worker who was the office's champion bitch. She was a whip-cracking harridan to her underlings, demanding and unsympathetic to her equals, but the height of charm when the boss was around. She also had a habit of vilifying her co-workers in front of the boss to make herself look better. The woman was grasping and mercenary about promotions, bitter in temperment, uniformly hated by her co-workers, and completely unrepentant about any of it.

One day, during a coffee break, my friend--and she can't even remember why--started really talking to this woman.

It turns out, about fifteen years previous, the office bitch was a stay-at-home mum. One day, her husband--a police officer--went to work and didn't come home. He was killed on duty. Abruptly, this woman who had two small children and almost no job skills had to find a way to survive in spite of her grief.

And she did. She wrangled a job she wasn't really qualified for, then fought to be as good at it as humanly possible. She clawed after every opportunity for advancement because she needed the money, and she sacrificed herself--her life, her joy in life--for the sake of her kids. She kept her family together and even put her children through college.

Inside her own story, she's a hero.

To the people she works with, she's still the villain, although my friend never thought of her that way again.

When the reader can see that the villain isn't really such a bad guy, it increases the tension the reader feels because they do empathize with the villain a little. Remember that empathy means the reader sees themself in the character and subconsciously cheers on this reflection of themself. If they're cheering for the hero, but also cheering--even just a little bit--for the villain, then they're doubly invested in the story and doubly anxious about the story's climax and resolution. They know something bad is going to happen to at least one of the characters that their heart is paying attention to.

Have you ever turned a typical villain inside-out to show the reader how he sees himself as the hero? And if so, how did you do it? Also, describe how the villain in your current work-in-progress sees his or herself as the good guy of their own story ('cause they all do; even the evil overlords and psychotic serial killers.)

Figuring out the villain's rationale is sometimes the most fun part of designing your story's structure, and I'd love to hear how you handle it.

Points -->

Rewritten version of my opening scene here, hosted by the ever-lovely Elektra on the Crapometer.

Pretend you don't know me and give it hell. :-)

Monday, December 10, 2007


Got a request for a partial. Tra-la!

Interestingly, it was an agent who requests query letters only (no sample pages at all) in the initial contact.

So naturally, I am now applying Mr. SuperNice's advice to my manuscript at speed.

Which means I won't be getting a meatier post on writing up after all, at least not for a few days. Sorry--but I'm sure you all understand! :-)

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Bruises Shall Turn Into Pretty Colours

Wow; that was great. Excruciating too, but great.

Nathan himself wrote quite a detailed critique of why he didn't like the pages, and I'm just stunned by that generosity; he really went beyond the call of duty. Yay, Mr. SuperNice! His comments are specific, thoughtful and very helpful.

His readers' comments are pretty consistent also, and although I'm feeling kinda mopey about the verdict, it isn't totally unexpected. I came up with a unique style of writing for this book, which I thought nifty, but which is clearly intrusive. I'm going to have to tone it down and rewrite the novel.


No--no, I'm fine. Just this little nervous tick I've been dealing with. Nothing to worry about. Ahem. Yep; I'm good now. *twitches*

I really am thrilled to have got this opportunity. If I hadn't, the book would still be getting rejected but I wouldn't know why. Now I know. And it can be fixed. *twitches* Even if I'm not looking forward to that.

In other news, the outlining for my next novel is going well! It's starting to look like a plot, although I'm a bit worried about the number of subplots worming their way in there.

I shall have a meatier post on writing up in a few days. I'm just waiting for my nerves to stop dancing the Charleston. :-) Thanks to those of you who popped by Nathan's blog to leave a comment; I appreciated it.

EDIT: Oh! And I forgot to say congratulations to all of us on figuring out how to write a decent pitch! The query letter itself was pretty uniformly praised.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Prince Nathan, Sunny Son of the Empress Snark

Nathan Bransford is one of my favourite blogging literary agents. He's funny, exuberant and give great advice to aspiring writers.

Once in a while, if a blog reader is rejected by him and emails back to give him permission to, he'll critique their query letter on his blog (with author-anonymity in place.)

Guess who got rejected by Nathan recently. *waves*

He says he'll try to have my query critique up today (EDIT: It's up now!). The query that got rejected is centred around the pitch y'all helped me hone in my Bop-A-Goblin! post, so I thought I'd point you all toward Nathan's blog so we can see how our instincts about writing a good hook compare to a real!live!omigosh! literary agent's impression of it.

The good news is he said he basically liked the query letter. Yay, us! We rule! We'll hopefully get to hear details about how well he thought the pitch worked when he gets the post up.

The also-good-in-a-totally-different-way news doesn't pertain to the rest of you, but I'll document it anyway. He said it was the pages he rejected.

Yowie-ow-ouch. How is it good news that he rejected my writing, you ask? Well, because he said why he didn't like it. And he said he might post a short excerpt of the writing (I gave him permission to) with the query letter and give more detailed comments there.

Feedback from a real!live!omigosh! literary agent? Hurrah! *does a goblin-dance* This is fabulous, even though it's going to be acutely painful also. (and, omigosh, public...)

I'm already thinking how to rewrite that first scene with respect to Nathan's initial comment, and I'll do so after I've absorbed his blog readers' comments also and clambered back out of the box of chocolates whence I sought solace.

Of course, I'm not really happy about my writing being rejected, but this is a great opportunity. It also restores my faith in the system; a rejection should be based on the book, not the hook (the writing of which is a mysterious art to most of us; it takes some learning.) And while I still have faith I've written a good book, I can totally see where Nathan is coming from in his criticism of my opening scene. It does need to be slowed down, so the reader gets dropped into the world of the novel more gently.

*sigh* I'd better go test those chocolates to make sure they're deep enough for diving.

Oh, and one more thing:

Yay, Nathan Bransford! *waves pom-poms for Mr. SuperNice*

Friday, November 30, 2007


Yesterday, I listened to the CBC's excellent news radio program "The Current", and a joking comment from it has made me ashamed of my own reactions to a particular news story.

It also made me think about creating empathy for one's fictional characters, but I'll get to that discussion--which seems embarrassingly trite in comparison--in a moment.

You've probably heard this story: An English schoolteacher working in Sudan allowed her class of seven-year-olds to name a teddy bear Muhammad. This was deemed insulting to the prophet. As a non-Muslim, she might have been sentenced to 40 lashes and six months in prison. A Muslim could have got the death penalty.

The Sudanese courts have been as reasonable as they can be, given they're constrained by Sharia law. The teacher was sentenced to fifteen days, with credit for time already served, and she's to be extradited. The authorities have already said she doesn't have to serve her full sentence once she has clearance to leave the country. They're being as sensitive and lenient as legally possible, and I applaud them for it.

Yes, there were protests today calling for the woman to be executed, but the demonstration was only about 1000 strong. Those are the wingnuts. Sudan might not be a particularly nice place, but please don't judge the whole country by its bigots. Every country has 'em.

All the same, I was feeling pretty outraged on behalf of this teacher. I'm an instructor at a college. I'm a woman. I've dreamed of working in an exotic country and I consider extremism in any religion to be frightening and evil. I really empathized with this woman.

What the radio announcer said that re-coloured all my perceptions of this issue was that if the teacher wanted to give the teddy bear a name that elicited zero response from the world, she should have named it "Darfur".


Hundreds of thousands of people have faced starvation in the Darfur region of Sudan. Why did this story about one schoolteacher elicit a stronger emotional response from me than all that horror?

The key is empathy. In my imagination, I can put myself in this woman's shoes pretty easily. I can feel terrified confusion on her behalf. Those in Darfur live radically different lives than I do, even when things are going well, and my ability to empathize with them isn't helped by the fact that I think of them as the number of people affected, not as individuals who are suffering.

Show me one person suffering, and you've got me. Show me a hundred thousand and my heart just faints; I end up feeling very little. It's emotional self-defence that has awful repercussions for humanity.

Robert McKee makes the point in his writing book, Story, that your protagonist must be empathetic. That's not the same as sympathetic; the main character doesn't need to be nice. However, the reader must see something of themselves in the protagonist--they cheer for the main character because they're really cheering for theirself.

Part of the power of fiction is that you can make a bland middle-class person truly understand what it feels like to be a junkie shuddering with desperation for their next fix, or a starving child riding with a desert caravan. In all cases, however, that happens because you made the reader see the parallels between that exotic character's life and their own. This really ties in with my previous post's point, that the reader goes into the world of the novel in order to discover theirself there.

The lesson to take away from the schoolteacher's tale is that if you want your reader to feel horror, make things specific. Focus on one person, not thousands. Then make sure the reader will recognize their own pain inside the character's. You've got to find what's universal and then make the reader see it also.

When you create a character, what do you focus on to get the reader on-side? How do you create empathy for your protagonist?

Do you focus on the character's internal life--on pain, fears, or universal aspirations and yearnings? Or do you create situations to put the character in that the reader will recognize from their own life--perhaps a fight with a malign boss, an immature lover or a hypercritical mother?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Science Fiction and the Art of Striking a Chord

I promise this post will be about more than just science fiction. However, you will have to wade through most of it to discover that.

I finished the first draft of a short story today, which is a breed of beastie I have not written in a long while. What makes this doubly unusual (for me) is that the story is science fiction rather than fantasy. It was also inspired by photographs of Posh Spice, but we'll just ignore that bit of weirdness.

This story got written both as procrastination and preparation for my next novel. I am frankly weak in understanding how to structure a story, so to remedy this, I've been re-reading and slathering highlighter all over Robert McKee's screenwriting book Story. I also decided what I was learning from Story would be best absorbed if I wrote a story of my own as I went along.

I'm very pleased with the result of that exercise, but in a fine example of the cross-pollination of ideas that chronically turns my brain into a flighty little wad of ooh-shiny distraction, this story got me thinking about why science fiction's appeal is waning.

And it is waning--although it's far from dead. Fantasy has taken up the slack, but there has to be a reason why science fiction doesn't grab the attention of general audiences the way it used to when the original Star Wars movies came out. Today, we're all loving Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Beowulf instead. (Although The Matrix got people's attention too.)

In Story, Robert McKee notes that if society changes, genres of story (e.g. science fiction, western, romance) must change their conventions also or lose appeal. He says:

The audience wants to know how it feels to be alive on the knife edge of the now. What does it mean to be a human being today? Innovative writers are not only contemporary, they are visionary. They have their ear to the wall of history, and as things change, they can sense the way society is leaning toward the future.

And that's practically gospel for what science fiction strives to do. Science fiction writers look at today and see a vision of tomorrow in it.

So why have audiences become less interested in that vision?

I went to a physics conference once where the student delegates stayed in the hosting university's residences. The residence doors were controlled by key-card and I remember a friend walking up, swiping his card, grabbing the now-unlocked door and jauntily saying, "Yep. It's the future!"

I think this is the heart of science fiction's problem: It is the future; we're practically the Jetsons. It's hard to fear or be awe-inspired by the familiar, so it has become very difficult for writers--using science fiction's classic conventions--to invoke fear or awe in their readers.

Robots? They're everywhere, with no Father-Of-the-Revolution in sight.

Space travel? Humanity is quite expert in space travel, via robot, and those 'bots send us back interesting data at a nice dependable pace. Space is no longer exciting.

Aliens attack Earth? The cold war ended and we're not feeling paranoid about The Big Lurking Evil anymore.

The perils of virtual reality? Again, it's hard to fear the familiar. Who's afraid of their copy of Halo III?

I could go on. The point is that for science fiction to succeed, it needs to tap into things people are afraid of right now, or excited by right now. Western society has become so technologically sophisticated audiences no longer respond to flashy gizmos and hints of strange new frontiers. The really cool strange new frontiers come to us via fantasy and paranormal stories.

I'll finally get a bit more general: Any genre of writing is susceptible to becoming outdated. If you want your book to really resonate, you need to tap into something that your audience cares about today. Even in historical novels, the audience is looking to see a reflection of itself there in the distant past. They want a story that is relevant to their current life, even if it's set in another world.

Here's an example, and I apologise if it's a touchy one: In the wake of the events of September 11th, 2001, people started thinking a lot more about religion and faith. Extremists of both Christianity and Islam were scaring the hell out of us, and that gave a lot of people reason to examine Christianity and Islam very carefully--especially if one of those happened to be their own religion.

Then The Da Vinci Code came along in 2003 and sold a ba-zillion copies. At that point in time, the world was extremely interested in questioning the politics of what organized religions tell us. The plot of the The Da Vinci Code tapped into that beautifully.

Look at the bigger themes in your current work-in-progress. How do they tap into your fears, or your sources of excitement? Do you think those themes are going to resonate with the rest of the world?

And on a more general level, what sort of things do you foresee the world caring about in the next few years? What shifts in society do you smell lurking over the horizon? As writers, these are the things we should be on the lookout for.

As an aside, my own short story is about how vacuity is winning--gorgeous airheads are adulated, rather than great thinkers and talented artists. That's what bothers me about today's world, so that's what I wrote about. Hopefully, the story will strike a chord with others.

Friday, November 16, 2007


EDIT: There's a rewritten version of the pitch in the comments, if anyone wishes to take another look.

'Tis only natural after doing Goblin's Crucible and writing up my thoughts about it that I would rework my own pitch. After all, that's why the subject was on my brain in the first place; I needed to do this.

Thinking carefully about someone else's work, and then trying to explain your reactions clearly, is one of the best ways I know of to give yourself to a deeper understanding of any subject, so I sincerely thank everyone who participated in the Crucible, because I really do think that experience helped me a lot.

But as usual, I can't tell if my own writing is succeeding at what I set out to do. If any of you are up for a spot of critiquing, here's your opportunity to strike back at the Goblin!

Below is my new pitch. If you're willing to donate a bit of your time and energy, I would love to hear your thoughts on it. Does it make sense? Does it work as a pitch? What do you think could be made stronger?

As always, I am completely open to constructive criticism, so don't hesitate to leave negative comments; I appreciate those also! Thank you very much to anyone willing to let me know what they think, good or bad.

Katirin is smart, courageous, and bold, but she's also a princess of such intensely embarrassing parentage her family forced her into a convent to get her out of the royal succession. Katirin can't think of any fate worse than becoming one of the convent's bland and blissful priestesses, women who share a communal mind, speak on behalf of the god, and do little except sing.

Or rather, she can't think of a fate worse until Esfirre, a fellow disciple, tells Katirin the priestesses aren't the god's mouthpiece at all--they're empty husks puppeteered by a demon. If Katirin and Esfirre don't find a way out of the convent, the demon will devour their souls.

For Katirin, however, escaping telepathic priestesses and an irate nobility isn't enough--not when she can see the demon's predation will one day destroy the nation she should have ruled. Katirin is determined to stop the creature, but she needs to answer one question first--how can you kill a demon that lives in a thousand bodies?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

How to Write a Query Letter Pitch (maybe)

Thank you to everyone who participated in (and is still participating in!) Goblin's Crucible. The following post is my summary of what I think I've learned by doing the Crucible.

As usual, I word this as if I know what I'm talking about, when I probably really don't. However, I do want to share what I've figured out, so please take from this whatever you think is useful, and otherwise, just trust your instincts! You're the writer, and you know what you're doing. :-)


How to write a query letter pitch:

If you can write a great book, then you can write a great query letter, because an effective pitch requires nothing more than the same elements a gripping novel requires.

You have stringent space constraints in a query letter however (one paragraph, possibly broken up into two or three short paragraphs for dramatic purposes), and for this reason, you want to slurp the reader's interest into the story as efficiently as possible.

So let's think about how you first grab the reader's interest in a novel:

Your story's inciting incident--the event that kickstarts the whole plot--is the one thing that convinces a reader to plow through another three hundred pages to find out what happens. For this reason, the inciting incident is also the thing you want to focus on in your pitch. It's the event that most efficiently makes the reader want to read more.

The inciting incident will provide the body of your query pitch paragraph, but it isn't quite enough by itself. The purpose of a pitch is to convince an agent or editor they want to read the whole book, so you want to give them the sense that there is a much larger story about to unfold. You also want to make them intensely interested in finding out how it unfolds.

Since you can't make a person curious by satisfying their curiosity, you do not want to explain the book's plot in a synopsis-like manner. Instead, you want to get the reader emotionally attached to finding out what happens. So--let's think about how that gets accomplished in a book:

Emotional attachment occurs when you introduce the reader to a sympathetic character, and then put that character into a situation that demands the character must act in order to avoid some horrible outcome. The reader is drawn deeper into the story's plot by (1) increasing stakes, (2) intensifying conflicts, and (3) deepening mysteries. (There are probably other things, too; add to this list as you see fit.)

So these are the things you want to include in your pitch also.

Creating a sympathetic character means adding something to the pitch the reader can emotionally relate to. A bit of tragic backstory might make them feel empathy for the character, and showing a laudable personality trait makes the reader want to cheer that character on. You must be very sparing with this stuff, however, because backstory and superfluous elements kill your pitch simply by slowing it down too much.

Your rule for including extra information should be: If it doesn't increase the impact or drama of the inciting incident, remove it. You haven't got space to include pace-killing filler; you must focus on those things that whet the reader's appetite for reading the book--which are the elements detailed in the next paragraph.

(1) Increasing stakes, (2) intensifying conflicts, and (3) deepening mysteries (ect.) are the plot "intensifiers" that draw the reader deeper into the story. Since these suck the reader into the book, you really want to pack them into your pitch also. Due to space constraints, however, you probably only want to focus on two or three of them.

Inspect your story, especially right in the wake of the inciting incident, and pick the plot intensifiers that are most dire, and which will most obviously force your protagonist to take action in order to avoid disaster. Again, remember that your purpose is to make the reader curious about how the situation will be resolved, so focus on the buildup and don't talk about the resolution. At the end of the pitch, you want the reader to understand the protagonist is in a horrible jam, but to only have the vaguest idea how the protagonist might get his-or-herself out of that jam.

The last sentence of your pitch in particular should contain some kind of teaser that makes the reader very agitated to know more. Again, think about the plot intensifiers that follow directly from the inciting incident. Now, pick the one that increases the stakes the most, or ratchets the interpersonal tensions up the most, or which is the most fascinatingly mysterious. This is the thing you end the pitch with--you leave the reader dangling, wondering about how that one last oh-so-horrible complication can possibly be resolved.

In summary, your pitch should be structured as:

1) Inciting incident (with a very sleek minimum of world-building, empathy-building and backstory attached to it)
2) One or two complications that make the protagonist's situation more dire and which will obviously demand action from the protagonist
3) One final whopper of a complication that leaves the reader intensely curious about how that complication can be resolved

The good news is, all of these things are already in your book. Your task is (simply; ha!) to figure out what they are, and use them to write a pitch that is juicy, riveting and which makes the reader so rabidly curious about how the story resolves that they must read the book. Good luck!

A useful trick for verbal pitches:

Spoken dialogue in screenplays is often structured with a modifying phrase at the beginning of the sentence, such as:

If we're going to save the farm, we have to sell that horse.

The reason why this is done is that it forces the audience to pay attention right to the end of the sentence. The modifying phrase lets the audience know that they've only heard half the thought; they need to keep listening if they want to know the full story. It's easier for a person to let their attention drift when the sentence is structured as: We have to sell that horse if we're going to save the farm.

If you're giving a verbal pitch to an agent or editor, you can use this trick to hang onto their attention on a sentence-by-sentence basis. Structure what you say so your sentences have a modifying phrases at their beginnings. Read the two examples below aloud and see if you agree that your attention would wander more during one of them than the other:

1) Jimmy will be stuck taking his sister Lila to the dance unless he can convince the lovely Stella she'll look better on Jimmy's arm than on the rakish Cole Stanton's. Lila is the one who can teach Jimmy to waltz beautifully, however, and she won't teach Jimmy a thing unless he does promise to take her out. Jimmy can get his lessons and get out of his obligation if he can convince his friend Rhett to ask Lila out. Rhett thinks he might be able to woo Stella away from Cole also, unfortunately, and the last thing he wants is competition from Jimmy.

2) Unless Jimmy can convince the lovely Stella she'll look better on his arm than on the rakish Cole Stanton's, Jimmy will be stuck taking his sister Lila to the dance. However, Lila is the one who can teach Jimmy to waltz beautifully, and unless he does promise to take her out, Lila won't teach Jimmy a thing. If he can convince his friend Rhett to ask Lila out, Jimmy can get his lessons and get out of his obligation. Unfortunately, Rhett thinks he might be able to woo Stella away from Cole also, and the last thing he wants is competition from Jimmy.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Goblin's Crucible

Agent Kristin Nelson has been running a series of pitch workshops on her blog, although most of them are really examples/dissections of pitches she thinks work. The original post clarifies what she believes the logic behind a working pitch is; specifically, she thinks you should focus on the story's inciting incident--the thing that starts all the havoc--and not give away the book's ending or too much of its plot. She believes the pitch should read very much like the backflap copy on a published novel.

Keeping in mind that different agents think different things are "right" in terms of what makes a pitch work, and that some may prefer a more synopsis-like query, this approach is making more and more sense to me. The inciting incident of your novel is the one thing that makes a reader willing to plough through 300 pages to find out what happens. In light of that fact, of course the inciting incident is also the perfect thing to hook an agent's interest with.

While I was studying Kristin's examples, I noticed something that ties in with logline advice given in the screenwriting book Save the Cat!, by Blake Snyder, which Josephine Damien pointed out recently on her blog:

"You must be able to see a whole movie in [the logline]."

A lot of the example pitches include a sentence (usually at the end) that performs this function. That sentence doesn't tell you how the story ends; it just gives you the impression that there is a big, interesting story to be told. That sentence is the pitch's hook, and often, the rest of the pitch is there only to give that one sentence its punch.

For example, here's the sentence that ends the pitch paragraph for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone:

"But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives announcing that Harry has been chosen to attend Hogwarts, an elite school for the training of wizards and witches..."

That sentence not only tells you what the book's inciting incident is, everything in the pitch up to that point has been backstory or world-building to set the sentence up so it has maximum impact. The rest of the text was there so that when you read that line, you could see a world of possibilities bloom out of it.

If you haven't noticed, Jessica Faust at BookEnds, LLC has been critiquing pitch paragraphs, and (O happy day! O mindbogglingly-masochistic literary agent!) she has quietly reopened submissions on it. If you want to add your pitch to the queue (of 150+), you can do so here. She probably isn't going to get to it until 2008, but this is still a great opportunity.

Regarding the title of this post: may I suggest a workshop? Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to try to rewrite your pitch paragraph according to this prescription: focus on the story's inciting incident and include at least one line that prompts the reader to envision what the rest of the story is likely to be.

Then, if you submit your pitch as a comment to this post, I'll critique it. (This is because I believe critiquing others' work is a great way to learn things myself, not because I think I'm a fabulous expert or anything. Still, I'll be your beta reader for free, and that's not a bad deal, given the price.)

Try to keep it under 250 words, and if you submit the pitch to the BookEnds blog afterward, then when Jessica gets to it, you'll get to see whether Goblin is a moron or not. :-D

Other people are welcome to comment on any of the pitches, provided they give constructive criticism. While ridicule can be extremely entertaining (as my beloved Evil Editor proves), it is not an effective way to teach. Forcing yourself to dissect the reasons why you didn't like something is an excellent exercise because it sharpens your own understanding. Sneering does not, and it hurts someone's feelings, even if other people do find your comments amusing.

Goblin's Crucible humbly awaits your bravery and submissions.

Monday, November 05, 2007

"Surprise!" said life.

Last night, my husband and I went for a walk, and on our way home, we heard a bizarre noise. El Husbando thought it was a particularly weird bird. I thought it sounded like a mutant cat. We walked by, but something about the pitch of that odd noise made me turn back.

It was a kitten.

Remember the old toy commercial's line, "Weebles wobble but they don't fall down"? Clearly this cat is not a Weeble, because it manages both activities just fine. We estimate it's between three and four weeks old. And yes--given the possibility of a raccoon coming by to clobber it--I am typing this post with a small (very small) black puffball sleeping on my lap.

We saw no sign of Cat-mum last night, nor did our hallooing of the nearby apartment patios turn up any results, so we took Puffball home and did our best in terms of making a bed and litter box for him (her? Seems rude to check.) El Husbando went back to post signs for the owner, but we really can't hang on to Puffball for very long. If I don't get a call by noon, I'll have the SPCA pick him up and will change the posters to let the owner know where to look.

My husband and I are both cat lovers, so this experience is a bit of a hassle and a bit of a treat at the same time. Puffball is adorable but seems so fragile. He wobbles when he walks and falls over when he tries to scratch himself. We're worried about him being away from Cat-mum but can't help enjoying his uber-cute mojo. I'd take a photo of him but, as mentioned, I'm currently pinned in my chair by a snoozing kitty.

I'm also listening to my landlady vacuuming in the hallway and really hoping Puffball stays asleep, because this would be a bad time for a bout of mewing to occur.

Puffball is now safely at the SPCA, having slept through the entire bus ride there. It turns out he has an abscess in his mouth, so he'll need a bit of medical treatment. I donated $50 toward that. After I got back, the owner called also, so it looks like Puffball will be reunited with his family. And...and...

And although I'm sure none of you need to hear this, is there anything quite so stupid and rude as complaining to the person who just did you a favour that the aforementioned favour should have been done in a way more convenient to the one receiving it? Exactly what is the merit of saying things that logically imply you think the favour-provider should at the very least be psychic but preferably that they should own a time machine and go back to readjust the universe to suit you?

@#$& twit; I almost hope the woman balks at the SPCA's vet bill so that Puffball can go to a home containing nicer humans. Yeah, lady; I'm so much more sympathetic to your plight now you've told me the reason a three-week-old kitten was outdoors for the night was because your 12-year-old niece dropped him and you decided it was too dark to keep looking. We found him at 6:30 PM, after all; it's not like it was past your bedtime. Hmm; do I detect a tendency to put your own concerns before those of every other living thing on the planet? Why, yes...I think I do...

Grumble, grumble. </rant> Thank you for your patience, kind blog readers.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Jaye's Blahg recently led me to read this article (and for the record, I have not once caught that girl twirling counter-clockwise; I even did some math to try to get my left-brain ascendant, but still she twirls clockwise.) This got me thinking about the experience of reading.

According to the list of left-brain/right-brain attributes given in the article, the act of reading--of studying shapes and comprehending them to be letters, words and sentences--is a left-brain activity. However, turning those words into a vividly imagined landscape, figuring out the unspoken emotional subtext of the characters, spotting symbolism and even just enjoying the story all appear to be right-brain activities.

I find this utterly fascinating! It seems like a fiction writer's goal is to get the reader's right-brain as deeply engaged in the act of reading as possible.

If you watch the videos in the aforementioned article, there's a really trippy performance by a man who had his corpus callosum (the communication pathway between the two hemispheres of the brain) severed to treat his epilepsy. The man focuses on a dot in the middle of a computer screen while the experimenter causes two images or two words to be flashed on the screen, one on either side of the dot. The man's right-brain picks up on the word or image on the left-hand side of the screen (seen by the left eye; the brain's hemispheres are wired to the opposite side of the body for some reason) and his left-brain picks up on the word or image on the right-hand side (seen by the right eye.)

When the man is asked what he saw, he claims to have seen the image his right eye (and thus left-brain, responsible for speech) saw. However, his left hand (connected to the right-brain) will draw a picture of what his left eye saw. The right-brain apparently can't spell out the word, but if the left eye saw a picture of the word "pan", then the right-brain will draw a pan.

Interestingly, both the right- and left-brains seem able to comprehend either a word or a picture, which tends to give lie to the list of right-brain/left-brain attributes in the article. The right-brain apparently can read, because the man's right-brain demonstrably did so in the video. So when you read fiction, and are vividly imagining the world depicted, which hemisphere of your brain is actually comprehending the words?

I'm sure the answer is that both sides are involved to a degree, but I really wonder if an MRI would show a different pattern of activity depending on whether a person is reading a novel or a scientific article. Would one hemisphere be noticeably more stimulated than the other, depending on the content of the reading? (Someone has probably done this study, but I'm too lazy to exercise my Google-fu right now. Maybe tomorrow; I'll let y'all know if I find anything.)

The other thing I wonder is whether a person whose corpus callosum has been severed can enjoy a novel normally. What if--and this is a nifty idea--what if the right-brain enjoys the novel but the person doesn't consciously know it? They might read an exciting passage, and feel their mood change, but honestly not be able to comprehend why it happened based on the words they just read. Analytically (i.e. according to the left-brain), one passage might seem no more or less exciting than any other, even while the right-brain is bouncing around with excitement because Big Tex just found out Lily-Mae had his baby fifteen years ago and never told him.

And here I am being frantically analytical myself and that dancer is still spinning clock-wise. My right-brain iz teh roxxorrz, apparently.

Understanding exactly what's happening in the brain when a person's imagination is fully engaged in a story could be extremely useful to writers. It might illuminate why certain techniques work better than others for hooking the reader's interest, and it might give us more diabolical tools in our quest to turn the reader into our page-turning zombie love-slave.

BRAINS!!! BRAAAAAINS!!! *droooool* LET ME HAVE YOUR BRAAAAAAIN!! (Both halves of it, please.)

(PS - Happy Hallowe'en!)

(PPS - Ooh! I just thought of something else:

When a child learns to read, they put together the sounds associated with certain letters and then try to figure out what spoken word--which they already know--is created by that collection of sounds.

When they get good at reading, however, they begin to recognise the word by its shape. That is to say, to the child's brain, it isn't a word anymore--it's a picture.

Maybe that's how the right-brain is able to read words (as demonstrated in the video). Perhaps it can attribute the same meaning to both a collection of lines depicting a drawing of a pan and a collection of lines depicting the written word "pan".

Again, I come back to wondering which half of your brain does the reading when you're in the middle of a novel that has completely slurped you into its imaginative landscape.)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Surrey International Writers' Conference: Day 3

Last day at the conference! It was a compressed schedule, which started early, had two shorter workshops in the morning and none in the afternoon.

I went to two workshops I hadn't intended on going to. The first was "Query Letters That Work", presented by agents Mich@el B0urret, S0rche F@irbank, Eliz@beth Ly0n, Nephe|e Tempe$t and Cr!cket Freem@n. It was quite good, although I didn't learn much I didn't already know.

Things I heard there:

If you want to submit to The Knight Agency, note that when one agent rejects you, that should be considered a rejection for the whole agency. Nephe|e Tempe$t also said she likes queries personalized enough she can tell you did actually research her a little, and which that are short and read like the backflap copy of a book. 2-3 paragraphs is all she wants to see; Mich@el B0urret (not with the same agency) agreed with that.

Rules of thumb for multiple MANUSCRIPT submissions (as distinct from multiple QUERY submissions):

1) Yes, send your manuscript or partial to more than one agent at a time, BUT...

2) Let the agent know if the manuscript is already being read by other agents. (They did not say explicitly whether to inform agents retroactively that you've sent the manuscript to a new agent, but my sense would be that it's a good idea. The point is for the agents to know they have competition, so they can hurry if it's a manuscript they're pretty sure they want.)

3) Always let agents know if you get an offer from another agent. EITHER you want to tell them you've accepted the offer (so they don't waste their time reading your manuscript after it's too late) OR you want to tell them you have an offer, but are still interested in working with them, and then ask them to give you an answer one way or the other by a certain deadline (give them a few days to a week).

4) Resist giving exclusives on partials, since an agent with a partial still needs to read the full before they offer you representation anyway.

5) ALWAYS set a time limit on an exclusive (about two weeks is good).

6) If you can't give an agent (who wants one) an exclusive, because the material is already out with someone else, explain that fact to the agent and ask if they would like to see your material anyway. They often will.


The second workshop I went to was "Three Types of Tension" by D0nald M@@ss. It was easily the best workshop I went to at the conference and made me wish I'd gone to his other workshop as well. The session offered a practical "how to do it" look at adding tension.

Things I learned:

"Micro-tension" is writing that attempts to have tension in just about every sentence. The idea is to write so that the reader can't keep themselves from reading the next line, because the last line left them wanting to know more.

Mr. M@@ss noted there are three main types of writing in a novel:
1) Dialogue
2) Action
3) Exposition (shows what the character is thinking or feeling)

Adding tension to dialogue:
Increase the tension between the characters who are talking. They should challenge each other, argue, disagree, try to convince one another, etc. There should always be some question in the reader's mind as to who is going to come out the "winner" of the conversation.

For example, THIS:
A: "Why would anyone attack us?"
B: "Because we're rich."
A: "I suppose you're right."

could become:
A: "No one is going to attack us."
B: "As if you would know. We're rich, and that's enough."
A: "It's never happened before."

Another way to make dialogue tense is to have subtext. The characters say one thing, but the reader can tell those characters have more complicated feelings and thoughts lurking beneath the surface.

For example, "I love you" could be the text--the spoken dialogue--but the subtext might be "I'm terrified of losing you", or "Why are you so damned needy?", or "I'm tired of mimicking the affection we've lost."

Another thing to keep in mind is that while you can never have too much tension in a story, you do need to vary the pattern of it. Otherwise, the reader gets used to it and it stops having impact.

Adding tension to action:
You want the tension to come from within the characters, not from outside of them. That means adding emotions and thoughts to the action (rather than more blood and flying glass). However, Mr. M@@ss noted it is more effective to concentrate on the less obvious emotions and events because that sets your writing apart from a thousand other writers' work.

People are hyper-aware in moments of crisis and will notice odd things. By focusing on less obvious events in the action, you not only mimic that effect, you also create a scene for the reader that is distinct from similar scenes they've read in other books.

Moments of revelation often accompany a moment of crisis (e.g. your spouse walks out forever and your first thought is, "What a relief. I've hated him for years.") Again, you can mimic this effect and set your work apart from others' by including--not the most obvious emotional reaction--but the second, third or fourth most obvious reaction. Furthermore, the reader will be most effectively hooked by an emotion they didn't expect the POV character to feel at a moment like that.

For example, THIS:
Kyle stabbed Hanna in the heart. Blood spurted out of the wound and poured down her front. Kyle laughed in glee and stabbed her again.

could become:
Kyle stabbed Hanna in the heart. Her pupils dilated so sharply her blue eyes turned black. Embarrassment heated Kyle's face and he stabbed her again.

In particular, tension comes from contradictions, conflicting emotions, and emotions that puzzle the reader (without seeming utterly unbelievable, of course.)

Mr. M@@ss suggested the following as a way to reinvent your action scenes:

1) If the action was a film, consider which five or six "freeze-frame" images you could take from that film that would convey all the important elements of the action to another person.

2) For each freeze-frame, pick one non-obvious thing to notice in the scene.

3) For each freeze-frame, pick one non-obvious thought or emotion the POV character would have.

4) Rewrite the scene using just those non-obvious elements.

Adding tension to exposition:
To create tension, you want ideas in conflict and emotions at war within the POV character. They should not be chewing over what they already know or situations that already exist. It is unresolved emotions that keep the reader tense (and thus reading on to find out what happens next.)

For example, THIS:
Angela looked at her mother's now-delicate form. She couldn't believe the powerful woman of her memories could be reduced to such a wraith. Angela wished she could give back the strength her mother had once given to her.

could become:
Angela looked at her mother's now-delicate form. She couldn't believe the powerful woman of her memories could be reduced to such a wraith. Angela wished she could give back the strength her mother had once given to her, but she also ached for the woman to finally be dead.


So now SiWC is over. It was worth it, and I did learn valuable things (I even got up the nerve to walk up to agents and just chat.) I do feel invigorated and excited about the new knowledge, but I also feel solidly despondent. (Ooh, conflicting emotions... Does that make you want to read further down the page?)

I suppose this is natural. The point when you're most likely to feel crappy about your writing is the moment just after you've taken a step forward in your craft. As soon as you comprehend something new, you recognize a bunch of new flaws in your previous writing and hey-ho! The depression sets in.

No need for sympathy, however. I will bounce back from this shortly. :-)

(PS - Is post-conference funk normal? Has anyone else gotten this? Please tell me about your experiences.)

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Surrey International Writers' Conference: Day 2

Today was my "Goblin meets the publishing industry" day. I did go to a presentation in the morning, but I had to leave early for my "Blue Pencil Cafe" session (where a published author comments on your first three manuscript pages.) I went back to that presentation, but I don't feel like I got much from it, so I'll skip giving a detailed description.

The Blue Pencil Cafe session with Pe+er M0rew00d went very well. I'm second-guessing it because of what happened in my agent pitch later, but at the time, I was very pleased (PS - Mr. M0rew00d is a reallyreallyreally nice man; I'm looking forward to his presentation tomorrow.) The first comment he made was that he wanted to know what happened next in the story, and the second was that there was nothing in the pages he could poke holes in. I was delighted to hear both things, of course.

After lunch, I attended "SiWC Idol". This is where a panel of five agents (J@net Re!d, Kri$tin Nel$on, R@chel V@ter, Jen0yne Ad@ms and Cr!cket Pech$tein-Freem@n) listened while a presenter (Author J@ck Why+e and his wonderful Scottish accent) read the opening pages of the audience's manuscripts. The agents stopped him at the point when they would have stopped reading. Then they explained why.

They didn't get to my pages, which is both a disappointment and a relief, because the agent panel didn't even make it through the first page of most of the entries. It was great to hear the agents' reasons for why they were passing, however, as those were quite specific and well-justified. There were a few moments when the agents had conflicting opinions, but surprisingly few, given they all rep different genres.

The really cool part was that one author had their pages literally pounced on by J@net Re!d (she dragged them out of J@ck Why+e's hand) and was asked to come talk to J@net after the presentation. Two more authors also had either one or two agents perk up and ask to see more.

I skipped going to a final presentation, since I would have had to leave early for my agent pitch with R@chel V@ter anyway, and I was nervous. The session went well enough, although I wouldn't call it a success. Ms. V@ter was very nice and gave me specific comments about what was and wasn't working for her.

She didn't have any particular arguments with the writing, although she wanted more sense of place at the very beginning. The main problem was that she was really struggling to wrap her head around the plot. I sincerely hope some of that was due to her being tired after a day's worth of pitches (it was four o'clock), but I'll have to look hard at my query and first pages again. It was a bit distressing to watch her flipping back and forth between the query and the pages with a frown on her face. She didn't say anything particularly negative, but that's a clear sign something is wrong.

And after that, I went home to curl up in bed, read a book, and suck a chocolate bar or three. Tomorrow's presentations look very interesting, so I'm sure I'll be my chipper self again by then.

Oh! And one incredibly cool and random thing happened to me this morning. A complete stranger looked at my name tag and then said she was pleased to meet me--she "knew" me from from comments I've made on J@net Re!d and other agents' blogs. Isn't that wild? Hi, Brenda! *waves* You totally made my day, just by saying hello. :-)

Friday, October 19, 2007

Surrey International Writers Conference: Day 1

I'm back from the first day of the SiWC! I should mention that I registered for the scumby-cheapskate deal, which includes all the conference and none of the meals. This actually has turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, since the organizers do things to encourage networking at the meals, and I feel left out now. *pouts* As a result of me being a scumby-cheapskate, all you're going to hear about is the talks.

All agents, editors and writers mentioned herewith shall have their names altered by the in$erti0n 0f 0dd $ymb0l$, in order to prevent this entry showing up on a Google search of the person's name. I do this only because, despite not having anything particularly negative to say about anyone, I am going to just give my blunt opinions here. Too tired for tact tonight!

SiWc: Day 1

There's about 800 delegates and the mood is lively. The organizers and volunteers are perfect stars; they're all sweethearts and the conference seems faultlessly well-organized.

My "Blue Pencil Cafe" interview and agent pitch session are both scheduled for tomorrow. (Thank Viggo! I was so relieved they weren't today.) During the Blue Pencil Cafe, a published writer reviews the first three pages of your manuscript and comments on it. The agent pitch session is exactly what you think.

My Blue Pencil writer will be Pe+er M0rew00d, and my agent will be R@chel V@ter. Squeal! Both of these were my first choices, so I feel I've hit the jackpot. I'm also probably off the hook for doing a pitch; I've already got a query letter sitting in R@chel's slush pile, so I'll likely just chat with her about her agency, her tastes, the publishing industry, etc.; i.e. this will be my opportunity to network, rather than pitch.


There are only three presentation slots scheduled per day. My first one was with Jo@n J0hns0n, entitled "Writing the Unputdownable Novel". Jo@n was very entertaining, but I learned less from her than I would have liked. However, I did still learn a lot, and I consider it to be valuable information. She writes the kind of convoluted soap opera plots that make me laugh, but damn, she is good at making the pages explode with conflict. She seems to constantly be shoving her characters into situations where you can't see how they'll resolve the issue (e.g. woman 1 is in love with man 1, who is married to woman 2, who murdered woman 1's husband.)

Jo@n outlined eight things that can be used to keep the reader engaged (things that "hook") and suggested they be used heavily at the beginnings and ends of chapters. These things are:
1) Asking a question for which the reader wants to know the answer
2) Creating a crisis/threat/unsolvable problem
3) Anticipating a confrontation or clash between characters
4) Riveting action or compelling (unusual) behaviour
5) Anticipating what will happen when someone learns a secret (Jo@n says readers will happily plough through 400 pages just to see what happens when the hero finds out about the heroine's pregnancy.)
6) Setting up a contest, competition or bargain to be met
7) Forecasting a disaster that will occur unless...
8) Setting a deadline for a decision or some action (an ultimatum)


The second presentation (held after me and my fellow scumby-cheapskates ate our sandwiches in the hall) was with Bru(e H@le and entitled "Seven Secrets of Creating Suspense". It covered a lot of the same ground as Jo@n's talk, but contained a lot more useful information. It was also often hilarious; Bru(e is a very entertaining fellow.

His seven points are:
1) Character: Characters stick in the reader's mind longer than the intricacies of the plot do, so craft their personalities with care. Also, use your characters' personalities to increase the suspense level. One way to do this is to give the character a secret. Secrets have a way of worming their way out, and readers stick with the story to find out what is being hinted at.
(Also, when deciding what details of your character's personality to include in the book, choose those things that affect the narrative drive. Ask yourself:
- What will move this person?
- What will limit their action?
Those are the elements you must include. Everything else is gravy and may be omitted.)
2) Set the hook: Things that will catch and draw a reader in include:
- Humour
- Surprise
- Plunging midstream into the action
- Posing a question
- Foreshadowing
To hook someone, give them just enough information so that they have questions, but not enough information for them to get the answers.
A good writer should hook the reader again and again, particularly at chapter endings.
3) Up the "Uh-oh" factor: Add more danger, of any sort, provided that the danger is something the character cares about. (e.g. A shy person might be required to make a public speech. A ballerina might have her kneecaps whacked by crowbar.)
4) Thicken the plot: Complications (roadblocks) create suspense. So do unexpected twists where the plot goes off in a different direction (foreshadow these as necessary.)
5) Merrily misdirect: Jokes and twists in the plot both depend on misdirection. You create an expectation, and then, instead of fulfilling it, you turn it on its head.
6) Conceal and Reveal: Just give the audience enough information so they realize there is a secret, then reveal it slowly. The point is to build anticipation.
7) Take a Tip From Sinatra: Do It Your Way There is more than one way to accomplish suspense; do what works for you.


The third presentation I saw was "Agent Q & A", featuring Nephe!e Tempe$t, E!aine Spen(er (both from the Kn!ght Agency), Kri$tin Ne!$on and J@net R3id (from the F!neprint agency).

Oh, yes; before I continue, I was given a solemn task to perform at this conference and I have.

Dwight? I swear on the head of my CD-Rom drive (not having a child to swear upon the head of) that J@net R3id is NOT J3nny B3nt. J3nny is blonde; J@net is brunette. J@net wears glasses; J3nny does not appear to. The facial shape is different, the body shape is different. Sorry, fella; I think you have to kill that particular conspiracy theory. Ms. R3id is very funny, however. For the record, she totally could be Miss Snark (as has been rumoured); she seems warm-hearted and passionate, and she offered to read sample pages at the agent pitch sessions so long as the writers bringing them understood she would be utterly ruthless in critiquing them.

The agents covered a lot of topics and seemed to enjoy each other's company a great deal. I didn't learn a lot that I didn't already know, but I was amused. One thing they did cover that I found eye-opening was how to give a verbal pitch (such as everyone at the conference is being given the opportunity to deliver). Nephe!e noted that the greatest pitch in the world counts for nothing compared to the words on the page, and that at the end of the conference, she'll remember almost nothing about the books pitched to her. Thus, she suggested that if you're given 10 minutes to pitch to an agent, plan on pitching for 2 minutes. Spend the rest of the time asking good questions and developing a rapport with the agent. For her, the pitch tells her whether she would like working with you.

J@net suggested the three questions you should ask an agent to make sure they aren't a scammer or incompetent. The third one was the one I hadn't thought about.
1) What have you sold?
2) How long have you been in publishing and what did you do?
3) Where do you think my manuscript would sell?

If the answer to the third question is too vague, it tells you that the agent doesn't know what they're doing. If they say "Random House" instead of one of the sixty-odd imprints of Random House, head for the hills.

One other thing that struck me in this session is that Kri$tin Nel$on's fuzzy-wuzzy blog persona is a little misleading. I think she really is a truly nice woman, but she's also quite aggressive about her business. She was very open about the fact that, given she only sells about 10 books a year, she wants all those books to be six-figure deals. She won't take a book on just because she loves it; she described herself as "quite mercenary" in that regard.

She also noted her blog is not there for the benefit of writers; it's a business tool for her to promote her clients. She provides good advice to writers as the content, but the reason the blog exists is so she can post book covers and create buzz for her authors.

It's a perfectly reasonable rationale, but I was surprised nevertheless.


I am tired, yet buzzed, and I want to prepare more for my session with R@chel, so I'll wrap this up. There will be another update tomorrow! In the meanwhile, feel free to ask me to clarify anything here that didn't make sense (entirely likely, given how my brain feels), or to discuss the ideas of the presenters.

PS - Josephine? You're right; D0nald M@@ss is quite the cutie.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

B-Day Books | And She Pitched Over In a Dead Faint

The majority of my immediate family blasted into town this weekend, which is why work, blog posts, coherent thinking and the laundry are only getting done now. I had a great time, but it's amazing how much loved ones can tucker you out when they set their mind to it.

As a birthday present, my brother left behind two large boxes of books he doesn't want anymore. He did this for me once before and it was one of the best birthday presents I ever got, so I'm delighted the backlog on his shelves has prompted him to do it again. Yay! Books! My nightstand shall be stacked to the rafters with urban fantasy for the next while.

In other news? I'm going to my first writing conference next weekend. Hurrah!

And as part of that conference, I'm going to be meeting with an agent to give a ten minute pitch session.


A pitch. I'm supposed to pitch my book. To an agent. Do I have a pitch ready? NoooOOOooo... Do I know how to create a pitch? NoooOOOooo... Hoh-my-goodness.

Where to begin? Probably the same place I began the synopsis: create a list of the turning points, then add only the important details.

Then practise saying it all without stuttering, which is non-trivial, but still the easy part.

Have any of you done pitches to agents/editors? If so, what advice would you give?

If not, what--if you were the audience for a pitch--would you find most engaging? What would you want to hear about, and what would grab your interest? Conversely, what would make you snooze?

Friday, October 05, 2007

A Boing-No | Muse Under the Microscope

Hurrah! My query letters have arrived in New York!

i.e. I've already gotten an email rejection.

But the reason given was quite acceptable: "not taking new authors in this genre at this time." Yay! My ego lives on to fight again another day! *curtseys gratefully to Speedy Agent*

Although--I do hope that, somewhere in New York, some intrepid person is rummaging the unused SASEs out of literary agents' recycle boxes and steaming the stamps off for resale.

Now: shortly after my last post, I had an idea for another post. A meatier one. An interesting one.

Danged if I can remember what that idea was; I've been trying to recall it all week. So, rather than that presumably-brilliant post, I'm just going to wing it for you, here and now. Brace yourself: you're about to be subjected to the first thing that falls out of my brain.

Inspiration! Yes, what a fabulous idea!

I'm really curious about the science of inspiration. This study by Thrash and Elliot (2004) notes that little work has been done in the field. However, they note some interesting stuff in their paper. For example, they have this breakdown of the components of inspiration:
[I]nspiration has three core characteristics: (a) transcendence, (b) evocation, and (c) motivation (Thrash & Elliot, 2003). Transcendence refers to the fact that inspiration orients one toward something that is better or more important than one’s usual concerns; one sees better possibilities. Evocation refers to the fact that inspiration is evoked and unwilled; one does not feel directly responsible for becoming inspired. Finally, inspiration involves motivation to express or make manifest that which is newly apprehended; given the positive valence of this aim, inspiration is conceptualized as an appetitive motivational state.
So: Inspiration is a great idea coupled with the happy knowledge that you've just had a great idea. Inspiration feels like it came sleeting into your brain from nowhere, and you reallyreallyreally want to act on it or share it with others.

Boy, that all sounds familiar, doesn't it? I think writing your story down and trying to get it published counts as both acting on your inspiration and wanting to share it with others.

I'd love to learn the nitty gritty of what your brain is actually doing during an inspiration, but I suppose it's hard to capture such a moment on an MRI. For one thing, I hear the inside of an MRI machine is pretty dull--which brings me to something else the paper linked to above says:
[I]nspiration tends to occur on the same days as other positive experiences.
I have noticed I come up with more good ideas of my own when I am keeping myself well-stimulated with good art/books/movies/cool facts/groovy science, etc. When I'm being a hermit (which I do enjoy, unfortunately), I'm less creative. Other people's fine works inspire me to create my own. Happy experiences positively affect my writing/artwork.

Isn't it nice to hear you're not really wasting valuable writing time when you go out for a night on the town? You're just priming your creativity-pump!

Does Thrash and Elliot's description of inspiration ring true for you or do you disagree? What do you experience when you have an inspiration, and what do you do after you've had one? Does something need to trigger the inspiration or does it come from nowhere? Is there anything you can do to encourage inspiration in yourself? Please tell me your experience!

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Defrosting | A Game!

The refrigerator technique refers to putting your newly finished manuscript away for a month (or longer) to "chill", so you can get enough distance from it to view its strengths and weaknesses objectively. This weekend, I pulled my manuscript out of the figurative fridge and re-read it.

No major problems. *phew*

This means my query letters will be headed out this week.

It also means it's time to start working in earnest on my next project. I have a few ideas, but they aren't a plot yet. Still, I can see my protagonist's face in my mind, and I think he's going to be an interesting character to get to know.

I really don't have much to say tonight that's of any depth (I'll try for a meatier post than this in the next few days), so I thought I would suggest some mischief for y'all to perpetrate in the comments.

Describe what the most interesting character you've ever created looks like (where "interesting" is a term you may define how you please). Please don't tell us about the character's personality, but feel free to try to imply what their personality is like through your physical description.

Then, read through other poster's descriptions of their character. Make up personality profiles for each of these and post those descriptions as a comment also. The character's "mommy" will likely be very amused to see how much you got correct.

I'll start things off by posting my own (current) favourite character's description in the comments. Have at 'er.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


If anyone is going to the Surrey International Writers' Conference in October, I am too. This will be my first conference! Squeal!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

I feel tense, but in a good way.

"Conflict on every page" is a truism of writing. Tension is what makes a book gripping.

You do need tension between your characters to make the story compelling, but I think it's also nice to create tension between the story and the reader. One way to do this is to have a mystery--have the reader be aware there is something happening in the story they don't understand yet.

Another way is to make your characters who are in conflict also both be sympathetic to the reader. In other words, make your antagonists three-dimensional people who the reader can also empathize with. This way, the reader isn't totally sure they want the protagonist to win--or at least, they don't want the protagonist to win too completely--because the reader doesn't want the antagonist burned too badly. The book's climax then becomes an ironic victory, no matter who "wins", because at least one sympathetic character got hurt by it.

When I rewrote my novel, I had two characters who needed depth because they were a little too blandly evil. I started digging deeper and trying to add layers to their personalities. I finessed their motivations, trying to make them more human and understandable.

I'm really glad I did it. I think the story is much more potent now; the stakes are higher and the tension is more acute, both for the reader and for the protagonist.

How many layers of tension do you have in your current WIP? Are the characters in conflict with themselves? Each other? Their world?

Is there a mystery to create tension between the reader and the story? Do you use other methods to create tension between the reader and the story? (If you do, I would love to hear about them! Please leave a comment.)

Are your villains sympathetic, or do you prefer to keep the story's struggle cleanly between good and evil? (Some consider that a crucial trait of high fantasy; the bad guys are supposed to be pure bad so that pure good can triumph.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Books! *drooooool...*


After many weeks of gently ramping frustration over the library strike, I have broken down and bought myself some treats.

Five lovely, juicy treats. They are:

- The Wizard Lord by Lawrence Watt-Evans
(Never heard of the guy, but the writing snagged me.)

- Stardust by Neil Gaiman
('cos really, it's a shame I haven't read more Gaiman than I have.)

- Storm Front (Book 1 of the Dresden Files) by Jim Butcher
(ZOMG, I'm so excited about this one! I've never read this author before, but I pulled a few of these Dresden books off the shelf, read a paragraph or two, and every single one of them hooked me. I think I'm in for a real treat, here.)

- His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novak
(It gets down to business quickly, which I really like to see in a book. I can also probably pass this one along to my dad.)

- The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
(Because I swoon--swoon, I say--over Guy Gavriel Kay's writing.)

Wallet? Somewhat lighter.

Book-itch? About to be relieved. Hurray!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Icky Analogy Ahoy: Proceed at Own Risk

In a lovely case of synchronicity, the Smart Bitches Who Read Trashy Books have a post on the same topic I was puzzling over on the bus this morning: How much creative freedom should an author have? At what point should the editor have the right to say no? Herewith, my thoughts:

The public wants unique, brave and insightful books. We do not want pandering crap.

An author can only create a unique, brave and insightful book if they are given the freedom and authority to write whatever they wish.

However, the public also does not want self-serving drivel.

This is a bit of a subtle issue, but I've decided where I think the editor has to step in.

A writer can write exclusively for themselves; that's fine. However, if a writer wants to be published, then they have to be writing something other people will enjoy reading. Everything else stays in the box under the bed, nice and private.

The writer uses their own talent and instinct to create those wonderful, accessible books, so they have a right to both their ego and to bulldoggishness regarding their vision. However, the writer is still applying their skills to the problem of giving others what they want, and that's not a selfish endeavour.

It's like the difference between sex and masturbation. The former entails caring about the other person's pleasure also. The latter can be completely selfish.

I think the editor's job is to tell the author when they've stopped making love and started masturbating.

What do you think? Where, on the spectrum that has editor-eschewing egomaniacs on one end and spineless critique-group-junkies on the other, should the editor's experience trump the writer's artistic vision?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Write Haiku for Josh!

Only Josh took a shot at the writing game of my last post, and for that, I think he deserves a prize!

Since his answer was oddly haiku-like (see below, with liberties taken),

The wall cups your voice
in its palm and flings it back,
as an echo, to you

I've decided his prize shall be haiku! I provide three herewith, of varying degrees of artistic malodorousness, and I invite encourage dare all of you to write Josh a haiku and leave it in the comments! The rules are: it has to be a haiku (5-7-5 syllables) and it has to be about Josh. Even if you have no idea who the heck he is. :-)

I see that smile.

Want thoughts to ponder?
Just Vogt early, Vogt often;
always more to read!

If you fancy some
jellied marrow, bile pudding,
ask Josh's big friend

A Cheshire wordsmith,
he appears just once a day
but leaves us his smile


Sunday, September 09, 2007

Showing Stars to the Blind

I've got a pretty exciting/scary project at work these days. I'm redesigning experiments for a first year college student who is taking an astronomy course. What makes this unusual is that the student is blind.

Your first thought might be, "Why would a blind student want to study astronomy, which is so visually oriented?"

Your second thought should be, "Because she wants to understand what's out there, same as the rest of us."

It's probably even more intriguing for her because she's never seen the stars. They aren't something she can go touch, so she has to hear about them; thus, taking an astronomy course makes perfect sense.

What ties this in to writing is that typing up her lab manuals has proved to be a nifty exercise. I'm a very visual person myself, and I tend to over-emphasize the visual when I write fiction. For this student, however, I've had to invert my writing style. I have to actively avoid describing visuals.

So, when I talk about outer space, I don't bother describing what we see. I try to create a spatial image in her mind - a three-dimensional sense of how the stars are distributed through space. I describe the spectrum of colours in terms of texture. The way a refractor telescope works can be described in terms of rain falling on a noodle bowl and then bouncing away rather than pooling.

My analogy muscles are getting a heck of a workout. I sure hope it actually makes sense to her. I'm a bit scared; I see the student for the first time this upcoming week.

May I challenge you to a writing game? In the comments, in three hundred words or less, describe something so that it would make sense to a blind person. Really try to get inside their experience. They "see" the world as a space; they think about a room in terms of the distances between objects. Sunlight is heat. Water is resistance to motion.

Go for it. :-)

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Things Wot I Have Learned About Synopses:

Not that I'm finished or even that what I have is any good--and certainly not that I know how to do this well--but I had a bit of breakthrough today in my quest to write a Synopsis That Doth Not Suck.

La Process:
Go through the behemoth, 25-page, dry-as-dust synopsis I already wrote--the one that details everything. Write out a list of all the turning points .
2) Chop out all the turning points that relate to the subplot.
3) Smooth the list of turning points together to create a coherent synopsis, adding plot points and explanations only where needed.

Ta-da! I now have something that at least isn't hideous and boring.

A turning point, as defined in Robert McKee's excellent book on (screenplay) writing Story, is a point of no return in a scene. This is when something gets said or done that is irreversible.

For example, a couple having an argument is reversible. They can kiss, make up, and go back to the way they were before the fight. However, if one of them blurts out that they're having an affair, that's a turning point. The couple might still find their way to a happy ending, but the relationship will never be the same again. That statement created an irreversible change.

Turning points usually accompany one or more characters getting a shock or surprise. This is why even a dry list of turning points makes a decently readable synopsis.

Robert McKee actually suggested this technique as a way to create a pitch.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Query Critique?

If anyone wants to take (another) shot at critiquing my draft query letter, a new version is below: have at it!

You're not obliged, of course. I thank anyone who has a comment to make, good or bad, and I understand completely if you would rather not comment at all. If you would like me to critique something for you in return, just ask; I would be delighted to.

Also, feel free to post anonymously if you really want to rip it up. I welcome (and listen to) all constructive criticism, even that which leaves my ego sobbing in the corner and double-fisting chocolate bonbons. :-)

My concerns: I don't have much sense of place here. I also, to quote from the very wise Conduit's comment on the Crapometer, don't really fill in all the elements of the "(Protagonist's Desire vs Antagonist's Counter-Desire = Conflict) x Plot = Story" equation. The problem is, there are various antagonists throughout the book who have significant counter-desires, but you never actually get to meet the Big Bad Wolf. I promise it works, because the MC has conflicts with nearly every human she runs across, including her side-kick. The Big Bad Wolf, on the other hand, doesn't even have a personality, which is why it stays on the sidelines.

Anything you want to add to my list of problems? Or advice on how to address these? I have tried to deal with the concerns expressed on the Crapometer but am unsure how successful I've been.

Thanks again for any comments you care to make; I very much appreciate them!

Dear (Agent name),

Allied with enemies and navigating a tangle of her own lies, a dark-hearted princess hitches her worst impulses to her best ones and finds the heart and potency to battle a demon.

(Personalised paragraph)

Rage curled a fist inside Katirin's heart the day she was forced into a convent so her half-sister could ascend the throne. When a fellow disciple convinces Katirin the convent's priestesses are possessed by a soul-stealing demon that threatens their nation, Katirin aims her rage: she vows to act like the queen she'll never be by killing the demon and saving her people from its predations.

Lies and blackmail cement her family's ire and get her out of the convent. Outright treason destroys her last chance at the throne but deposits Katirin in an enemy nation where she can find useful allies.

The first is a prince as sexy as he is dangerous; Arkadiy wants Katirin to assassinate her family in payment for his help. His carnal relish is offered free. The second is the wizard Lethan, who intends to use the demon to attack his fellow wizards. When he learns Katirin wants to destroy his means to power, Lethan's mercurial temper will turn murderous.

As Katirin dismantles her conscience to save her nation, she learns that a queen always sacrifices something of herself for her people, and that a throne taken away can also be earned back.

DARK HEIR is a 94,000 word fantasy. The full manuscript is available upon request and I have enclosed an SASE for your reply. Thank you for your time and consideration; I look forward to hearing from you.


Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Afterbirth: Synopses and Query Letters

Ooh! That was fast.

Kudos to Elektra and her Crapometer! I emailed her my query letter (for Dark Heir) this morning and it's already up on the site for critiquing. Do feel free to pop by and thrash it within an inch of its sorry life. Inquiring minds want to know: does this suck?

And really, no matter how much it sucks, it couldn't possibly suck more than my synopsis currently does. *sigh*

Has anyone advice on how to write a good synopsis? I've scoured many a website, but I seem to find little except synopsis-writing-for-romance-writers, and this is not too applicable. I know a synopsis should:

1) outline the plot clearly,
2) capture a bit of the novel's "voice", and
3) not induce spontaneous power-napping.

Currently, my synopsis fails on points 2 and 3. Should I go for a juicy back-flap-flavoured tone? The query letter I linked to above was written that way.

I humbly grovel for the wise advice of my highly-talented readers. *grovel, grovel*

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Art of Sketching

When I was young, my brother started playing this new game with his friends, called Dungeons and Dragons. Bro was obsessed; he talked about the game all the time, and what he had to say was riveting to my prying little-sister ears. Dragons? Elves? Orcs and dungeons? Hoo-yeah! That sounded great! What kind of a board did this game have? What kind of pieces?

I was mad to try it, but y'know - being a little sister and all, I wasn't exactly welcome among a crowd of twelve-year-old lads. Regardless, when my brother finally hosted a D&D party at our house, I crept downstairs, desperate to see this game in action.

What I saw was a bunch of boys sitting around a card table with pieces of paper in front of them, talking to one another. Hey! Where were the dragons? Where were the stinkin' elves?

My mom explained that the game took place inside their imaginations. That was a new concept at the time; D&D was the first role-playing game to become that popular. I remained disappointed, but even at that age, I recognised that the game was probably waaaaaaay better when played in the imagination than it ever could have been with cardboard pictures or plastic figurines.

In a previous post, I discussed the power of "showing" rather than "telling" in writing. It boils down to you forcing your reader to actively imagine what's happening in your novel.

Just like in D&D, you couldn't possibly describe the scene any better than the reader could imagine it unassisted. Thus, your task as the writer is to sketch in just enough detail for the reader's imagination to get excited, jump in, and finish the job.

An interesting twist on this idea occurred to me today. Some of the most charismatic characters I've come across are the ones where I didn't have enough detail for my imagination to finish the job. I had enough hints for it to get started, but that was all.

The result was that my imagination scurried wildly, trying to sort that character out. I became hooked, obsessed. I was desperate to find out more.

That's a good state to get a reader into; it keeps the pages turning. The tension caused by having too many viable possibilities to decide which one is correct is quite delicious.

Obviously, the reader is going to want some satisfaction by the time the book ends, but you can leave that to the last page. You can also leave the reader with only a likely hunch, not a definitive understanding of the character. That will keep the reader tortured thinking about your character long after they close the book.

I think this technique works best with villains, who are a bit removed from your protagonist's world-view (and thus the reader's), but it could also be applied to an unreliable narrator .

What characters have you run across in books/movies/television/games that drove you wild with curiosity? Which ones had you pondering their mysteries long after the story ended?

And what sorts of hinted backstory got you fascinated in the first place? Repressed pain? Hidden gentleness? Unrequited love? Concealed malevolence?

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Teh Endses, liek woah


I finished writing my novel today. Tra-la!

Well... Except for doing the final read, final edits, putting it away for a month, re-reading it, doing more edits, changing half the names to - well - less stupid names, re-reading for typos and consistency, doing more edits, writing query letters, writing synopses, researching literary agents...

Et cetera. You know; finished. :-)

I shall try to get a meatier post than this one up soon, but as you might imagine, I'm barely keeping myself from leaping around the room like a puppy right now.

Hmm. Time to buy a new printer cartridge.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Recommending Libraries

In the WHOO-HOO department, I'm now down to one-and-a-smidgeon chapters still to rewrite before I'm finished my novel and can stick it in the fridge for a month to chill. Simple excitement over the prospect of being done has sped the process considerably.

In the OH-POOH department, the library workers in my city remain on strike, and oh, how I miss my library. I support the workers and wish them well in their negotiations, but oh - how I miss my library. *sniffle*

Speaking of libraries, I once read the website of a writer who was very funny, but who had some curmudgeonly comments about library books.

Specifically, she grumbled about people who tell her how much they love her novels - and then mention they borrowed the books from the library or bought them second-hand. Grouch, grouch, says the author. Thanks for nothing; I get no money from that and hey, I'm poor and all. If you love my books so much, toss a royalty my way.

I can see the author's point, but I disagree with her assessment that a person who didn't buy the book new is not helping the writer earn a living.

Word of mouth sells a lot of books. If I hear someone rave about a novel, I seriously consider getting it. And if I do buy it, the author just made a royalty, regardless of whether the original person bought their book new or not. That's a sale the author probably would not have made otherwise.

Recommendations are worth money. Even as a would-be novelist, I'm a fan of the library. First, it allows me to scout for new authors without feeling ripped off if a book proves disappointing. When I do find a writer I like, I will start buying their books new. Second, when I love something, I tell others. That can directly translate into sales for the author. Third, the library allows people too poor to buy new books to be avid readers. Society benefits from that.

In short, I ♥ my library.

If I'm ever lucky enough to have someone tell me they loved my novel - which they got from the library or a second-hand shop - I'm going to grin and say thank you.

And then I'll tell them to please remember to repeat that to their friends and neighbours.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Pole Vaulter of Writing.

I just woke from one of those fabulous weekend naps, the unexpected four-hour kind. I now sit here with the shards of a few dreams still tumbling through my bleary brain, looking out at the tail end of a spectacular day. I feel good, but a bit guilty; I wasted a beautiful afternoon.

Friday was a great writing day, and when I get to the end of those, I usually think, "MUST! KEEP! THE MOMENTUM! GOING!!! Must outline and scheme more! Must write more! Must be even more productive than this! Yes! Yes!"

Which never works. Yesterday, even my husband noticed how lumpish and slothful I was being (although he's a dear about phrasing it as, "You look like you're having a nice relaxing weekend.") And today? Well. That wonderful nap was the apex of the excitement, although I may go for a walk before the sun sets; it's a blitzkrieg of fun here.

I seem to be the pole vaulter of writing; I come trundling toward my goal, face grave, slowly building speed. Then, when I deem myself close enough, in a burst of flailing appendages (mainly fingers), I launch myself at the scene.

Immediately afterward, I lie on my back for a while, staring at the sky and feeling pleased with myself.

What's your metaphor? Think about how you write and fill in the blank in the following sentence:
"I am the _______________ of writing."

Then explain yourself. :-)

Monday, August 06, 2007

Delusions of Grand Finale

I've been rewriting my novel for about a year, and this weekend, I discovered I didn't know what to fix next. So, I embarked on a complete read-through to find out what sucked, and lo! Only four chapters out of twenty-four still suck. Go, me!

In fact, I'm really delighted with most of it. Yes, I'm too close to the work to be objective, but it's still a nice feeling when you're on the swell of the [I'm a talentless hack/I'm better than buttered toast, I am] wave.

One of the weirder things about writing this novel is that I've spent most of the process thinking I'm almost done. Literally, I've spent two years thinking I'd be finished in a month, maybe two.

Holy molybdenum, I'm glad I didn't have any real clue. I would have given up in despair.

But now? I really am almost done. For sure. Liek woah. A month, maybe two. Just don't lay any bets on it.

How common is this delusion phenomenon among writers? Do the rest of you also spend large quantities of time thinking the end is in sight, or do you have a realistic time frame in mind and the doggedness to keep going even when you know there's a long way to go?

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