Category Archives: Story Problems

Cuteness and work

Here’s one slice of cute. They don’t usually sit together, but Plushie kind of slid into that position after I got up and removed my lap from around him.

The other slice, while I didn’t get a photo, was that this morning when I opened the door to clean cat dishes off the deck, Wisp plopped herself down on my feet and just lay there, inviting me to scratch her belly. I’ve always been nervous about getting that close to her claws, but she seemed to want it, so I did … and she liked it! We still have to find a way to catch her, though (I suspect doing so will set her back to Suspicious, but it needs to be done).

Now, as to work, a pretty good week. Despite having the Oberlin alumni picnic last weekend, I managed to get in my three hours of Sunday writing. So it looks like I can stick with this approach for a while and quit earlier in the day on weekdays.

I have now rewritten Undead Sexist Cliches through Chapter Eight, on abortion and birth control. Now I just have to work on Chapter Nine about the concept of the “sexual marketplace,” and I can start with the next draft, which will add footnotes as well. I also forced myself to read some of antifeminist Mona Charen’s Sex Matters to get some examples of bad sexist language (among other things, Charen blames feminism for making women cry “date rape” if they have bad sex. No, it doesn’t make any more sense in the original).

Working on the book took more time than I expected, so I didn’t get as much fiction writing done as I’d hoped. But I worked on Death Is Like a Box of Chocolates and it’s starting to have an ending. Not a great ending yet, but closer than it was. I keep feeling the urge to set it in the early 1980s but I’m not sure why. I suppose I could just use 1983 as a backdrop but I can’t help thinking there’s something I’m missing. Perhaps it’ll come to me.

Tuesday, I went to the writers’ group and afterwards we went out to Motorco in downtown Durham. It’s a much better place to eat than our usual after-group hangouts and as we’re eating outside, it’s much easier to hear conversations without the background babble building up as it does in enclosed rooms. But due to limited parking in the area and lack of familiarity, I opted for Lyft. This proved more expensive than I expected, and when I called for a pickup at 10:15 PM it took longer to get a ride than I’d anticipated. Perhaps I should switch to my own car next time, but then again I really hate navigating unfamiliar places in the dark.

Oh, and I began thinking seriously about a cover idea for Questionable Minds. I got several suggestions on FB from my friends; I’m thinking a Victorian street with maybe some kind of psychedelic coloring (reflecting the paranormal elements) but I’m not quite sure what people to put on it. Jack the Ripper lurking? Or maybe have an arm wielding a scalpel and Simon’s arm grappling with it, imposed on the street scene? I’ll give it some thought, but I’m on the way there. And I found some street scenes that might do the trick, like this public domain 1867 photo by Thomas Annan below (courtesy of wikimedia commons)

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Wisp likes me!

So this week I went out on the deck to trim some rosemary leaves for a roast potato dish. Wisp was out lying by the pot (like this, although it’s an older photo) and I assumed that as usual, she’d run off under the deck instead of being close to the human.

Instead, she rubbed against me as I clipped the leaves, weaving around my legs, rubbing on my butt, and letting me scratch and stroke her head and back. It was soooo cool.

If I’d had the confidence to pick her up and place her in a carrier, we’d have solved our problem of getting her to the vet. But I suspect she doesn’t like me that much yet. TYG has been trying to snag her with the kind of loop on a pole people use for wild animals, but Wisp’s wary enough to stay away from it. I think the simplest method would be dropping a laundry basket over her while she’s eating, but we’re going to try the pole a few more times.

This was a productive week, though as often happens, it doesn’t feel like it: a lot of the work I did is still in progress, so there’s no tangible result.

I’ve almost completed my proposal for the (hopefully) next pitch to McFarland, Space Invaders. If all goes well I’ll send it off next week.

I pitched my first article query in a couple of months, to The Writer. I think it’s a long shot, but it only took me a few minutes, so what’s the heck.

I posted a blog at Atomic Junkshop in my ongoing series on what comic books are like in comic-book universes. This time up: what was the Marvel Comics in the Marvel Universe like in the 1940s?

I contacted And Magazine again about writing for them, but it looks like a no-go. The current incarnation seems to be more conservative and more national-security oriented than when I was one of the contributors and I don’t think the stuff I want to write will be a good fit (this may explain why my older articles are no longer online there). A shame — I’d really like to reach a larger audience than this blog, though I appreciate all of you who do read me here.

I redrafted Death is Like a Box of Chocolates for the better and read it at Tuesday’s writer’s group. The feedback was helpful, though nobody said anything that helps me see how to end it right. I redrafted Only the Lonely Can Slay and I’m definitely getting a little closer to making it work. Not close enough yet, though. I also read over my untitled Tarot in Hollywood story, trying to figure what I want for the next draft.

I submitted my usual articles to Leaf, although I ended up one short of what I’d intended for the week. My brain just balked and I knew better than to try pushing it.

I finished the rape-cliche chapter of Undead Sexist Cliches, breaking it into two to make the size manageable. The first half deals with cliches about consent (it’s not important. The slut probably wanted to be raped.) and not believing the victim, the second deals with “she asked for it!” and “do we want to ruin his life just for a little rape?” cliches.

My work-week included three hours on Sunday, as it did the week before. It wasn’t as effective, as I was sitting with the dogs that afternoon, but it still feels good getting the last hour of the regular workday to myself.

Oh, and the Medscape video that went live last week has generated more than 1200 hits and some very favorable comments (“Visual presentation from patient makes it interesting and simulates actual consultation.”). So I guess it did some good. To celebrate, let’s look at a spooky tree!

#SFWApro. Weird Tales cover by Joseph Eberle, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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A time hack that works? Could be

I hate working on the weekends. But last Sunday I put in three hours and it went well. And by so doing I was able to take off the last hour of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday without coming up short.

That’s a very big deal. The last 90 minutes of the day are my low point in alertness. It’s worse now that we have the dogs, because I’ve often spent a couple of hours with Plushie and Trixie (adorable though she is) squishing into or around my lap. This usually results with me bending my body into positions that do not promote concentration or clear thought. Today, for example, it’s 2 PM as I write this and I already feel my brain glitching from my position.But I don’t want to just push them away so I can work.

Three hours on the weekend when I’m not worn out and the dogs may be sitting with TYG works much better. And then I can use the freed up hours in the week to read or relax, which feels great. It’s much easier to kick back and play with the pups when work finishes (with Plushie it’s more enduring his barking until Mommy comes home than actual playing) if I’ve had a break first.

Of course there will be weekends that doesn’t work or isn’t possible, but I’m going to give it a good shot.

As a result of the time hack, I had a productive week. I got my quota of Leaf articles in and a little bit more. I redrafted Death is Like a Box of Chocolates and much improved it, but the ending is still a mess. Too bad, as I’m reading it for next week’s writer’s group; I’d thought it’d be another two weeks before I read, but enough people dropped out to speed up the queue. I’ll give it another going over on Monday.

I got a little bit more done on Undead Sexist Cliches (I’m debating giving it a more serious name. Haven’t decided) but I didn’t finish Chapter Five. The amount of rape-related myths to cover is huge. It may end up the longest chapter in the book.

I spent too much time Thursday arguing on FB. One of my Florida friends, while I’ve always found her sweet and lovable, is a die-hard Trump supporter (I know possibly she’s less sweet than I thought) and she’s been posting a lot of pro-Trump, anti-the Squad stuff, so I’ve been commenting, and she’s been commenting on mine … and Thursday I wound up wasting a lot of time arguing (and by the way, calling them “the Squad” puts me in mind of the cover below, so here it is).

I also posted another Atomic Junkshop piece about my least favorite Dr. Mabuse film, Scotland Yard vs. Dr. Mabuse.

Oh, and the video I did a while back for Medscape is now online. I play Gilbert (“My blood sugars at home are ok, and I think my prostate infection has finally cleared up, but I have a new girlfriend and worry whether I am virile enough. As it is, she’s overlooking my fat belly and balding head!” [they shot me neck up, because it seems I’m not fat enough for the role. Woot!]). You have to sign in to see it, but it’s free. I was critical of my body language (some of it seemed a little melodramatic) but given I had no rehearsal, I think I did pretty well.

And now I’m quitting early for the day. Due to a couple of sleepless nights I’m actually ahead of my 35 hour quota — and as I said, I can’t keep working around the dogs much longer anyway.

#SFWapro. Cover by Mike Grell, all rights to image remain with current holder.

 

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Sleepless but productive

For a variety of reasons (restless dogs, restless wife, caffeine consumption even though I know I’m caffeine sensitive) I didn’t get a lot of sleep this week. On the plus side, I managed to put in a full week of work despite taking time out for an eye appointment Tuesday (all good!) and our futile attempt to trap Wisp.

Undead Sexist Cliches is moving along well. I completed the first four chapters, including incorporating all my beta-reader feedback and the various online references and quotes I’d added. Today, instead of writing short stories (I woke up very early and just couldn’t get into it), I went on and reorganized Chapter Five. It’s the chapter on rape apologist bullshit (e.g., it’s not rape if you’re drunk, most rape charges are lies, you can’t punish a good man for one little error) and it has, unsurprisingly, a lot of stuff in it. I was able to break it down into a coherent set of cliches, grouped various as Don’t Believe The Woman, Rape Is The Woman’s Fault, Rape Is Excusable and Men Can’t Figure Out Consent (as a friend of mine said, straight men grasp consent very easily when they’re in a gay bar). I got about halfway through the chapter before my brain began to sludge. So I’m calling it a day.

I worked on Death Is Like a Box of Chocolates and got some ideas for improving Only the Lonely Can Slay. Didn’t get as far with them as I’d have liked, though. And didn’t get any work done on the Space Invaders proposal: I’d scheduled that for Thursday afternoon while the dogs were out, but the two hours spent watching to see if Wisp was dopey enough to be captured killed my focus. I did, however, submit the two stories I don’t already have with a magazine somewhere. That means all my unpublished stories are out. Now I need to start making plans for Southern Discomfort — any agents I haven’t queried yet who might be good targets? Which publishers should I pursue if agenting doesn’t work out?

I also figured out how to work a Square reader for my phone. While I was at Mysticon a few months ago, I discovered it helps to sell books if you can accept credit card payments. So now I can. There’s a fee to Square for each use, of course, but I think it’ll pay off for me.

A good week, though I wish I’d done more fiction. I’ve adjusted next week’s schedule to emphasize more fiction, less Undead Sexist Cliches. Hopefully it’ll balance out, especially as I’m reading at the writer’s group the week after next. I was low enough in the queue I thought it would be two weeks further off, so I need to hustle. Oh, and Leaf has started back up so I’ll be earning actual money come Monday.

I’ll close with a Shadow pulp cover by G. Rozen. Much as I love Doc Savage, the Shadow had the better pulp covers.

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Sherlock Holmes: “One should always look for a possible alternative and provide against it.”

Sherlock Holmes was, of course, talking about double-checking your deductions when he said that: is there another explanation besides your theory? But I think it’s another of those Holmesian lines that applies well to writing. Because the last thing we want is for our readers wishing we’d done something different.

It’s bad if they read our writing and start correcting it (“There’s a much smoother way to say that.”). It’s worse if they start questioning the plot logic: wouldn’t it make more sense if X had done Y instead of Z? And it’s really bad if they finish and think “That’s not how it should have ended!”

This is not a new problem. People have hated the ending of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe for a couple of centuries (sticking with what was historically plausible, Scott has his hero marry the bland Rowena rather than the more interesting but Jewish Rebecca). Only in the 21st century, everyone can get together online to vent or Tweet their displeasure at you, which I imagine feels worse. In the Internet age, even a small group of dissatisfied fans can kick up what seems like a storm of negative criticism.

I doubt it’s possible to write a book so perfect nobody has problems. But I do think/hope it’s possible to write one good enough that the people looking for alternatives are only a minority. And that the majority is enough to make our work profitable.

At the words level, I like Kaye Gibbons’ advice: write and rewrite until the next word feels inevitable. I don’t always manage it, but I know what she means. At the plot level, it includes avoiding idiot plot: nobody should do something dumb just because that’s the only way to make the story work. They should have a very good reason for putting themselves at risk. The ending has to pay off on the story’s beginning; it has to be logical; and it has to be emotionally satisfying as well.

For an case study, let’s look at YEAR OF THE UNICORN, the fourth (others say third) book in Andre Norton’s Witch World series.

The protagonist, Gillan, is an orphan (one of her parents has Witch blood) in the Dales, across the ocean from Estcarp. The Dales have just emerged from a war with Alizon, which they won with the help of the shapeshifting Were-Riders; in return, they’ve agreed to provide the Riders with thirteen brides to take home. Frustrated with life in a monastic sisterhood, Gillan contrives to become one of the brides. She winds up paired with Herrel, as much an outsider among the Riders as she felt in the Dale. Unfortunately the unattached riders resent Herrel’s success and distrust the magic in Gillan’s blood. They replace Gillan with a magical clone and abandon the real woman to die. Can Gillan survive?

Norton made a number of surprising choices. She breaks with books one and two to give us a completely different part of the Witch World, one she wouldn’t return to for years. Year was her first story with a female protagonist. Rather than fantasy adventure, it’s a Gothic romance with a Beauty and the Beast element. As it’s first-person POV, the wording is archaic, almost stiff at times (but it does include the delicious line “He kept smiling. It was enough to make one dread all smiles.”). And in contrast to many romances, neither of the leads is stunningly good-looking — attractive, but not godlike.

These choices don’t work for everyone. The Gothic romance element when I first read the book turned me off. So did Gillan’s long quest to catch up with the Riders; it’s an interesting, eerie journey (That Which Runs the Ridges is a very ominous monster), but it’s a solo act, with no-one to talk to or interact with for chapter after chapter. And the point where Gillan recoils from Herrel’s shape-changing feels like she’s acting out of character to advance the plot. While I think most of Norton’s other choices were good, not everyone agrees.

But that’s the risk we all take when we write.

#SFWApro. Cover by Jack Gaughan, mug by the Philosophers Guild. All rights to images remain with current holder.

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Back to the mean and then rising above it

As I’ve mentioned before, my performance, like most things in life, is subject to the law of returning to the mean: if it’s really, really poor, the odds are I’ll do better the following week just from blind chance. Or if I’m doing really, really well, I won’t do as well the following week.

And sure enough, after the last week of April turned into a mess, I had a good, above-average performance the past four days (having been off Monday for my return from South Carolina). My Goals Accomplished for April was only 46 percent, which is exceptionally low; I have no trips anywhere this month though and relatively few appointments so I should do better.

I made another draft of Impossible Things Before Breakfast, read it for the writers’ group and got an enthusiastic response. There was also lots of feedback and problems they thought should be fixed, several of them things I’d wondered about myself. Work on the next draft starts next week.

I also worked on Bleeding Blue, Only the Lonely Can Slay and an as yet untitled story involving Pandora’s Box. Didn’t get far with any of them, though. There was just enough extra dog care to distract me and throw me off-focus when I was trying to concentrate and imagine What Next? But I’ve got four more weeks this month to revisit them.

I did some more research for the Undead Sexist Cliches book (I’ll be blogging about that next week) and went over the last draft part way. I think (as my friend Heather suggested) I need to tighten the organization in each chapter some, but that’s doable. I’d like to finish the next draft this month, but I’m not sure that is. We’ll see how it goes next week. It doesn’t help that I have several topics I want to add to the various chapters, based upon my reading. That seems enough reason to display Caroline Marsh’s suffragette poster above.

I also drew up a rough draft of my proposal for my next McFarland book. I’m quite pleased that I set aside Undead Sexist Cliches to work on the proposal; focusing on one project to the exclusion of others I need/want to get done doesn’t usually work well for me.

I got out on my bicycle for the first time in a couple of weeks and had a beautiful ride.

And I did plenty of Leafs. They make a good go-to project when I’m too frazzed to be creative. I got slightly more done than I’d planned, so I’ll make up the creative time by slightly less Leaf next week.

And avoiding caffeine once again proved helpful for getting in a full night of sleep. Of course I’ve thought my insomnia banished before only to be wrong, so we’ll have to see. I’m hopeful though.

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Old ventures and new

Another good week, huzzah!

Part of the credit goes to TYG. When possible, she’s been doing her morning work upstairs in the bedroom, with the dogs. They’re much quieter up there so she gets to snuggle with them without Plushie demanding attention by climbing on her laptop. That leaves me free to work without distractions too, which is a great start to the morning.

My Leaf articles have started back up, so I didn’t get to put in as much time as I’d expected on personal projects. On the plus side, it’s income! And I’m writing them faster than the last load I was doing, so that’s good.

I’ve worked on Impossible Things Before Breakfast to the point where it’s good to go for the writer’s group. I don’t think it’s close to being done, but I need feedback to figure what it still needs. I hope to revise it again next week for a possible reading at the end of the month (I’m far enough down the list it’s a probable no, but I want to be ready). I also worked on Only the Lonely Can Slay but I’m still running into the same problem: great first third, but after that there’s no tension. I may have found a way to fix that this week, but maybe not.

I also redrafted several chapters of Impossible Takes a Little Longer. Switching to first person is definitely improving the book, but there’s a lot at the start (a secondary villain’s initial attack on my protagonist, for instance) that no longer makes much sense. I have some thoughts for fixing that stuff but I’ll wait until the book is done. I don’t want to end up stuck on revising the first chapter over and over.

I got another rejection on Schloss and the Switchblade, but I also sent out one of my other stories to a different market.

I submitted my old steampunk novel Questionable Minds to a small publisher. While I’m anticipating publishing it myself, it did sell once (the publisher folded) so I won’t give up if there’s an opportunity.

And I finally submitted a Space Invaders query to McFarland. They said to send them a proposal so I may be starting film book #6 before long.

And the weather has been beautiful. Warm enough for shorts, but not really hot, though I did start carrying my water bottle when I go cycling. As you can see, the clover is responding to spring.

Other blossoms, though, have had their day.

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New frontiers in time management!

Yep, once again I have tinkered with my time management approach and found something that works. At least for the moment. But after the constant distractions of February and March, it feels great to be productive again. If I were Dali, all my clocks would be firm, hard, erect … er, I’ll be in my bunk, okay?

For one thing I don’t have any Leaf articles at the moment, which frees up time to do other stuff.

For another I decided to break up my 35-hour week into 20 hours of actual fiction writing and 15 of other stuff: submitting queries, doing major replotting work, paperwork, working on nonfiction (along with Leaf, whenever it starts up again, I’m working on a proposal for a new film reference book. And I’m always hopeful other stuff will come along), research reading, blogging. This was the first week I tried it and it worked well. I had another Alexander technique session mid-week and it was much easier to not lose any fiction writing time this way.

It’s not perfect. It’s very easy to wind up spending the whole non-writing afternoon blogging or doing research reading instead of drafting queries. However so far it does seem to work, and it reduces the amount of deep thinking I do at the end of the day, when I’m at my low point. And if I have to use more time for fiction writing because I have an imminent deadline or something (someday …), I can adapt.

As to actual accomplishments:

I finally found an ending for Only the Lonely Can Slay that I like. It still needs a lot of work, but I have a story arc I can build on, instead of tossing it out every time and starting over.

I have a story arc for Impossible Things Before Breakfast (formerly known as Neverwas) too, but the last quarter is ultra-vague. I know the ending (Susan and Hal save the world and find each other) but I don’t see how to justify it yet. I’ve also lost a lot of the weirdness of the earlier drafts in building up Susan/Hal; I think that’s the core of the story, but I want some of the weird stuff back.

I redrafted Bleeding Blue, following the rather dark story line of my first draft (the ending’s upbeat, though). I really hadn’t intended to write dark, but that’s where my mind is going. The story arc, though, is a mess, more a string of incidents than a plot. So more work!

I did about 4,500 words on yet another novel, Good Morning Starshine (spec-fic/rom-com). I wanted to replot it too but didn’t get very far.

I drew up a query letter for Space Invaders, a book on alien-invasion movies and TV I was working on a couple of years ago (the academic publisher I was dealing with decided on massive cutbacks, so no go). I’m still deciding where to submit it but my query letter is, if I do say so, awesome.

It’s a good start to April. I shall endeavor to live up to it the rest of the month.

#SFWApro. All rights to Dali’s The Persistence of Memory remain with current holder.

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February staggers to its finish

So my goals accomplished for February as 51 percent. Not surprising given all the distractions and my trip to Mysticon. This week, for example, my late return Sunday meant I got up even later Monday than expected. Because of TYG’s crazy schedule I had extra dog care demands the rest of the week, and I felt weirdly wiped out after Mysticon (I wondered if I came back with con crud but it feels way too mild). Thursday I just threw in the towel and worked on various non-writing projects (dealing with insurance, cleaning, disposing of some old medicines).

While 51 percent isn’t catastrophic, it’s dismaying how little writing I got done. Lots of Leaf which is important, because it pays the bills. But next to nothing on any books or short stories. And yesterday I got one rejection (for No One Can Slay Her) and another story came back today when the magazine folded.

So for March, I’m tinkering with my schedule again. First off, while reducing the frequency I check email has helped, I think I need to start budgeting time for email. It still takes quite a bit of time to get through it all so I should get over my illusion that it’s like five minutes every time I check. Accepting it’s .5 to 1 hour a day will give me a more realistic perspective on how much time I have for everything else (I intend to squeeze some of my other mundane activities like writing pitches and hunting for markets into the same time period, which should be doable).

I’m also going to try cutting back to just one email session, at the end of the day, unless I see something important when I check my phone. After about 3:30, my brain really gets worn out a lot of days. Part of that is having spent much of the day with Plushie in my lap, though I’m not sure if it’s the loss of personal space or the odd positions I wind up sitting in.

Second, I’m accepting that for a while I’ll be spending more time on dog care during the week. I think I can compensate by cutting back my break times mid-morning and mid-afternoon (evenings, for various reasons, don’t work so well). We will see.

Hopefully that will get results. Today went pretty well: I got some more work done on our taxes and Only the Lonely improved a lot from the previous draft. In my first couple of drafts, I kept my protagonist, Heather, almost completely in the dark about what she was involved with. I changed that, but now I’m changing it back. I’m also applying a lot more pressure to Heather from other sources, financial and legal. If I keep ratcheting that up, I think it’ll fly. Eventually.

On the Wisp front, I opened the deck door wide one afternoon when Trixie and Plushie were in doggy day care and then went into the kitchen to get her food. Not only did she not come in and explore, she found this disconcerting enough she retreated to the deck stairs. So not a house cat any time soon, I suspect, no matter how curious she seems about us.

To wrap up, here’s a cover by Greco (whoever that is — obviously not “El”).

#SFWApro. All rights to cover image remain with current holder. Photo is mine.

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Once again, life thwarts my plans

Which is to say, this was a busy week in the non-writing areas of my life.

Wednesday we had the electrician come out to check some of our outside lights. That turned out to be more time-draining for me than I’d expected, as it was a constant “go inside and turn on the lights … turn off the lights … turn them on again …” It paid off (he identified the problem), but it took more time than I’d expected. And left me with very little time to concentrate on anything before the dogs went on afternoon walkies (I settled for research reading, which doesn’t demand creative thought). After that we had the guy in to repair the washing machine; I’m happy to say that after dealing with two other companies, Wright Appliance finally seems to be competent.

This morning I had unexpected extra dog watching, and at noon I had one of my appointments for the Alexander Technique, the body training I’ve been doing since last year.

It’s not just the time each side activity consumes, but the time it takes to get refocused on writing again. And I’m still too slow in my Leafs. Plushie’s neediness in the evening makes it very hard to make up the time then.

I did get a bunch of Leaf articles done, and even going slow, the pay is good. I got some more work done on both Let No Man Put Asunder and Impossible Takes a Little Longer, though those were the big casualties of this week’s lost time. But Impossible definitely works better in first person, as I said last week. However both of them reached a point where the relatively slight plot changes I’ve made so far have suddenly forced big changes in the next scenes. That stumped me quite a bit.

I submitted Fiddler’s Black to a new market, which means all my shorts are out. It’s been a while since that happened. And Southern Discomfort went out to five more agents.

I rewrote Only the Lonely Can Slay a couple of times, but there’s still something missing. It might be that Heather, my protagonist, needs more at stake, or maybe something else? I feel frustratingly close to what I want but I can’t quite jump across the last mental boundary to get there. I may send it out as is to a beta reader or two to get some insight.

So that was my week. On the plus side, I’m not battling a giant monster on a Silver Age Jack Kirby cover!

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