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The dangers (?) of Editing

An eye-catching post title at Writer Unboxed: The Dangers of Editing

What could that mean?

–Getting lost in research wonderland and never emerging? But that really isn’t editing, so:

–Getting trapped in never-ending attempts to make everything utterly perfect, so that you never hit publish? That seems more likely.

–Trying to solve one problem and making changes that accidentally screw up something else in some awful way? Not that I would know anything about that. Except it’s wise not to delete older versions of your manuscript until you’re quite, quite certain the most recent version is the one that is actually going to move forward. As a side note, you’re not really certain of that until you hit publish and/or reach the page proof stage of the traditional publication process, whichever.

–Trying to apply too many people’s incompatible advice? (Make it more commercial! Make it more literary!)

–Trying to apply ONE person’s advice, but the advice is wrong for the book or wrong for you, so you lose what is good about the original book? I’m sure that happens. I’m pretty stubborn, and I don’t generally pay that much attention to advice unless my response to that advice is OF COURSE! WHAT WAS WRONG WITH ME THAT I DIDN’T SEE THAT? Which is, in fact, often my response. I think it’s (often) quite clear when advice is totally correct versus totally off-base. But I could see a writer tying herself in knots for this reason.

So, what does the author of this post actually have in mind?

I edit books for a living, so I know it’s true that writing is rewriting. But I’ve sometimes seen clients fall into editing traps that can cause real damage to their work.  Although some simply waste valuable writing time, others get so caught up in the wrong kind of editing that they either lose sight of or actually blot out their vision of the book.

Okay, so that’s sounding more like my last suggestion above.

All right, the author of this post is actually listing out different kinds of editing traps. Here they are, in brief — click through to read the whole post —

a) Starting to edit too early

If you start delving into detailed rewrites before your story, with all of its interconnected character and plot threads, is in place, then you are probably not doing all the editing you need.  You cannot know how a character’s voice should sound until you know who they become.  Nor can you judge the importance of descriptive details or the relative weight of different events until you know where your story is going. …  

Hmm. I sort of agree. But not really. I am pretty sure you can and do know your character’s voice from the beginning. How else can you write the character?

I imagine someone who writes from a detailed outline (not me, in other words) can re-write as they go. But I can too. I find polishing one scene helps me get into the next scene. It’s not a waste of time — it helps me move forward. That’s true even if I wind up cutting the scene later.

There are times I write a transition scene or whole chapter even though I have a pretty good idea I’m going to cut that material later. But it’s not a waste of time. Sometimes I just need to write that extra scene or chapter in order to get to the next scene or chapter.

It’s true, though, that when someone says they’re stuck four chapters in and can’t get farther, the best advice may be: quit looking at those four chapters and put words in a row until you have a lot more chapters.

b) You can also start too late, working and reworking entire drafts to try to nail down details that can only become clear through line-by-line editing.

Hmm. I’m trying to imagine what this means. Having read the explanatory paragraph, I’m still not entirely sure. Line-by-line editing IS editing.

Well, moving on.

c) Editing way beyond the point of diminishing returns.  … I promise you, you will always find something else to fiddle with.

Yes, that’s one I had in mind. It can be tough to declare your baby is all grown up and throw it out of the nest into the world, but you certainly have to do that eventually. It’s absolutely true that you will never, ever open that manuscript and find nothing to do. You will always, always fiddle with commas. And you’ll probably be right to fiddle with commas! But you have to stop sometime and toss the fledgling out to fly.

As a side note, for obvious reasons I wasn’t interested in trying to actually work on anything last night. I re-read little bits of Tarashana instead. I immediately noticed commas I would like to fiddle with.

It’s always the commas. There’s just no end to fiddling with commas.

Anyway, moving on —

d) Fear of letting go.

That’s a thing, but it has nothing intrinsic to do with editing.

Not a bad post, really!

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Gradually, then suddenly

Sevenwoods Epiphany CGC RN RA RE CD CRN CRA CRE CCD

9-28-2005 – 7-21-2021

Pippa 2021

So. You may have seen Pippa, even if you never linger over dog pictures I post here or elsewhere. It’s Pippa who appears in my author photo, here:

Pippa 2008

That was a good while ago. We were both so much younger. She was, oh, about two or three years old She was beautiful – even if you don’t know much about Cavaliers, you can see that. When I sent that picture to my editor, she said she thought the dog in the photo might be artificial because she was too cute to be real.

Pippa was beautiful all her life. I never showed her in the breed ring because her bite was off. She gave me one litter of puppies, but I didn’t keep any, unfortunately. Then she had pyometra, which put an end to any chance of another litter. Her puppies were doing fine last I heard. They’re thirteen now, I guess.

That’s hard to believe, even now, that Pippa’s puppies are old. That she was old.

Actually, I’m not sure she was old. She wore her years lightly. It wasn’t her age that brought her down.

Pippa was such a happy dog. She made me laugh. Her attitude really was “The lark’s on the wing, the snail’s on the thorn, God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world!” Pippa decided when she was born that the world was arranged just right, with herself at the center, and she never had reason to change her mind. Also, she was amazingly photogenic:

Pippa wasn’t just beautiful. She was also the best performance dog I’ve ever had. “RE” stands for Rally Excellent, and that is a tough title to earn. The exercises are complicated, like “Heel – standing stop while handler continues forward – turn and face your dog – sit your dog – stand your dog – return to your dog – heel forward.” I’ve only ever put that title on two of my dogs. The one who enjoyed performance most was Pippa. She could literally learn a new exercise ten minutes before we went in the ring. She did that now and then, when AKC added a new sign to the rally ring and I hadn’t realized. I’d get to the show, look at the new sign, quickly watch a video of how to do that exercise, and teach it to Pippa right there at the show. Then we’d go in the ring and she’d do it perfectly.

She had four or five RAE qualifications too – that is where you show in Rally Advanced and Excellent on the same day and qualify in both. It may tell you something about Pippa that her first time in the ring for RAE, we went in the ring for the Excellent round and I gave her the signal to sit at heel, and the judge asked – they always ask this – “Are you ready?” I said, “Ready,” and Pippa leaped in the air and whirled in a circle and I thought, Oh, whoops, not ready, not ready! She did the whole course about twenty feet in front of me. She took jumps the right way and then spun in circles and came back to me across the jump the wrong way. I have no idea what our score was. Zero, conceivably.

I took her back in for the Advanced round. I told the judge I knew we had non-qualified for the day, but I wanted to show that Pippa truly was trained and really did belong in AE. Of course she did every exercise absolutely perfectly. At the end, the judge said, “Well, I guess she really is trained – your score would have been a perfect hundred!”

Both performances were just … so Pippa.

Pippa remained my demonstration dog for all kinds of obedience until she was fourteen. It didn’t matter that she went deaf early, when she was seven. I use lots of hand signals anyway, and Pippa knew to look at me to keep track of what I wanted next. She loved people, but she knew how to ignore distractions and watch me. You wouldn’t have been able to tell she was deaf unless you knew. I could take her anywhere and she would enthusiastically greet every single person and then focus on me and do a fabulous demonstration of silent obedience exercises. I could use tiny, practically invisible signals for her. She was such an impressive performer her whole life!

I didn’t breed Pippa. I got her when she was a tiny puppy. She could practically disappear, especially since we had lots of snow the day after I brought her home:

She had such tremendous attitude right from the first. Once, ages ago, when we were at a show, I opened the window of the hotel room because the a/c was broken. Then I left Pippa and my two Papillons while I went down to get stuff out of the car. When I returned to the room, the two Papillons were sitting in front of the door, waiting for me to get back. Pippa had jumped on the bed, on the windowsill, out the window onto the balcony, and then up onto the balcony railing, three stories up, so she could look down at me in the parking lot. There she was, balanced on that railing. I called her, she jumped back onto the balcony and trotted back to the window and jumped back into the room. I closed the window. I’m not sure I ever mentioned that to Pippa’s breeder. I expect you’re reading this now, Sue, so let me tell you, that little incident probably took ten years off my life. Obviously it didn’t take even a minute off Pippa’s life. It takes a lot to faze a dog that confident of herself and her place in the world.

She never had a significant heart murmur. Cavaliers mostly do, eventually. Pippa didn’t. The cardiologist used to listen to her heart and exclaim, “Oh, right, I remember this dog!” Pippa went gray, but she never lost her vigor or liveliness. At fourteen and a half, she could still leap to the back of the couch, which was one of her favorite perches.

Then, in August 2020, she developed symptoms consistent with a brain tumor. Phenobarb got the obvious symptoms under control immediately, but slowly – very slowly and gradually – Pippa began to lose her sense of balance and – I think, though this was harder to tell – her eyesight.

She still was not old. She would run up the stairs two at a time. I just had to be ready to catch her if she lost her balance and fell. Because she was moving so fast, when she did fall, she would really fall – a high-velocity tumble right at the top of a flight of stairs. Not very often. But I spotted her up every single time and caught her when it happened. And remembered to close puppy gates so she couldn’t go up or down without me.

She jumped to the back of the couch even then. I had to lift her down and ask her to stay on the couch seat with me. She stayed off the back of the couch just to humor me long before she lost her ability to jump up there.

She loved to go for walks. She could trot fast as long as the ground was level. She loved to play with her “Buster cube” type of toy. I could take her to the park with other dogs and make our usual circuit – I’d forget she might have trouble and we’d be halfway around the park before I remembered. She did fine.

Gradually her sense of balance worsened. In December 2021, I was carrying her down flights of stairs. By May, I was also carrying her up. By June, she was trotting less and walking more. This wasn’t weakness. She wasn’t old. She just did not have the sense of balance she needed to trot. If another dog trotted right next to her, then she could trot too. You hear sometimes of one dog acting as a seeing-eye partner for a blind dog. It was a bit like that. Dora would sometimes trot shoulder-to-shoulder with Pippa and they would both move out pretty briskly. But any kind of uneven ground was tough for her. She began to lose her balance walking on tile floors. I’d hear a sort of sliiiide-thump and look around and she’d be lying on the floor because she’d lost her balance and her feet just slid out from under her. Sometimes she needed help to stand up again.

You know, we often think, or imagine, or hope, that a much-loved pet might die in her sleep, gently, when she is ancient. That we’ll be spared the need to make that kind of decision. I always knew, from the first seizure in August 2020, that that wasn’t likely for Pippa. She wasn’t in pain. There was never any urgency. It was always a matter of adding up Things Pippa Can Still Do and Enjoy and deciding whether those things were enough. This July, that list finally seemed to get too short. She wasn’t uncomfortable, though, so I set a date for the end of the month. I figured that would give me time to prepare.

(Nothing ever gives anyone time to prepare.)

Last night after dinner, I took the puppies out, sat with them for a bit, carried the first one back up the stairs … and found that Pippa had suffered some sort of crisis. The details are unimportant. I don’t know whether the brain tumor caused this, or whether it was something else, but it was a crisis. It was enough. I called my vet’s emergency number and asked her if she minded coming in right then, that minute. Fifteen minutes later, she met me at the clinic and let me in and, well.

Pippa still felt pretty good. Right up to the end. She was happy to say hi to my vet. She licked my nose when I put my face near hers.

I buried her in the woods near my house, where all my lost pets are buried, just as the sun went down, burning red through the trees.

That’s all.

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Opening a Mystery Novel

So, what with the lecture on the mystery and suspense genre and then your recommendations, I now have a good handful of new samples of books on my Kindle.

As you may know, I read fewer books per year as I used to, what with spending a lot of time writing. Perhaps as a result, I’m also a lot (really: a lot) less patient with a book these days if it doesn’t catch me pretty quickly. Which emphatically doesn’t mean that a book has to start with a bang; I’ve noted before that a quiet beginning can be very engaging for me. But if I’m not caught by the opening pages, I’m unlikely to make it more than ten pages before deciding that, well, there are lots of books and not that many minutes in a lifetime. It can happen – it did, in fact, recently, with a book that isn’t actually out yet; I didn’t much care for the opening chapter but wound up loving many things about the book, which, well, never mind. I’ll tell you about it when it’s available. But as a rule, I need to be engaged fast or I just set the book aside.

That means character.

Well, I suppose it’s actually a combination of character, style, and setting. You could also say voice, quality of the writing, and worldbuilding — I mean all of that. I like mysteries with historical settings, so worldbuilding in those is a lot like worldbuilding a secondary world fantasy.

All of those elements are important. For me, plot comes very much after those elements, although sometimes I do read and enjoy a book primarily because of the plot. Not mysteries, as a rule. As a rule, for me, mysteries are all about character, style, and setting.

With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at the opening of these mysteries I just picked up. All these authors are new-to-me except Kipling, because hello, Jungle Books. I’m sure I read other books of Kiplings many years ago. Who wrote The White Seal? Yep, that was Kipling, I thought so. Well, I was all about animal stories when I was a kid. That story has some pretty grim scenes for a kid, incidentally. But it’s an excellent animal story. There’s an unintentionally hilarious review on Amazon, I see. Here’s the review: Fiction is one thing, but, some stories should be left back in the day when ignorance could be used an excuse for a “cute” representation of wildlife. Poor example of a children’s story.

Nothing could be less cute than the representation of seals in this story. Seriously, I wonder what book this woman actually read?

Anyway, let’s take a look at these mysteries:

1. Bruno, Chief of Police, by Martin Walker.

On a bright May morning, so early that the last of the mist was still lingering low over a bend in the Vézère River, a white van drew to a halt on the ridge that overlooked the small French town. A man climbed out, strode to the edge of the road and stretched mightily as he admired the familiar view of St. Denis. The town emerged from the lush green of the trees and meadows like a tumbled heap of treasure; the golden stone of the buildings, the ruby red tiles of the rooftops and the silver curve of the river running through it. The houses clustered down the slope and around the main square of the Hôtel de Ville where the council chamber, its Mairie, and the office of the town’s own policeman perched above the thick stone columns that framed the covered market. The grime of three centuries only lately scrubbed away, its honey-colored stone glowed richly in the morning sun.

Well, that certainly starts with the setting! That’s very nice. Warm. Pleasant. Soothing, even. We haven’t yet been offered any clue about who this person is. The detective? The murderer? The victim? In anything but a murder mystery, “the man” would be the protagonist, but in a mystery, he could be any of those.

This is either a very distant third-person narrative or an omniscient narrative. That’s a difficult choice for me as a writer, but it can work for me as a reader. Ah, reading on a bit, I see we have a good deal more scenery and discover, eventually, that this is the titular Bruno himself, which did seem likely. That’s good. I do prefer not to start with the murderer or the victim, though I tolerate that in a mystery.

Anyway, I like this beginning. It’s not emotionally engaging. That would take a less distant protagonist. But this is pleasant to read and I enjoy this elaborate drawing of the setting. Two out of three – style and setting. I would certainly go on with this story. And, you know, it’s the first of a longish series, so that’s always good if you like the first book.

Next:

2. All Shall Be Well by Deborah Crombie. This is Book 2. Reviews suggest the author hasn’t quite hit her stride in the first book, the description of the plot didn’t really appeal to me. I preferred the sound of this one. Besides, I really liked the title.

Jasmine Dent let her head fall back against the pillows and closed her eyes. Morphine coats the mind like fuzz on a peach, she thought sleepily, and smiled a little at her metaphor. For a while she floated between sleeping and waking, aware of faint sounds drifting in through the open window, aware of the sunlight flowing across the foot of her bed, but unable to rouse herself.

Her earliest memories were of heat and dust, and the unseasonable warmth of the April afternoon conjured up smells and sounds that danced in her mind like long-forgotten wraiths. Jasmine wondered if the long, slow hours of her childhood lay buried somewhere in the cells of her brain, waiting to explode upon her consciousness with that particular lucidity attributed to he memories of the dying.

She was born in India, in Mayapore, a child of the dissolution of the Raj. Her father, a minor civil servant, had sat out the war in an obscure office. In 1947, he had chosen to stay in India, scraping a living from his ICS pension.

Of her mother she had little recollection. Five years after Jasmine’s birth, she had borne Theo and passed away, making as little fuss in dying as she had in living. She left behind only a faint scent of English roses that mingled in Jasmine’s mind with the click of closing shutters and the sound of insects singing.

Not bad, but not quite as engaging for me as the one above. Why not?

Well, first, this is almost as distant a third person as the first book offered. Second, I know from the back cover copy that Jasmine is not the protagonist. She’s going to die. That makes me want to hold her at a distance. I’m not sure I care about her enough to be interested in details about her parents. Also, I’m put off by She was born in India. What’s wrong with the past perfect tense? This is the exact sort of situation the past perfect is meant to handle. I know this is a stylistic choice. It’s a common stylistic choice. It’s just one I happen to dislike. This type of locution sets my teeth on edge every single time I see it. It’s so common that I will tolerate it, but still, teeth on edge.

Would I go on with this book? Sure. But that’s because it was recommended by a commenter here, not on the merits of this opening. I don’t hate this opening, but it’s not particularly appealing either.

3. The 39 Steps by John Buchan.

I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick. I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun. “Richard Hannay,” I kept telling myself, “you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.”

It made me bite my lips to think of the plans I had been building up those last years in Buluwayo. I had got my pile – not one of the big ones, but good enough for me; and I had figured out all kinds of ways of enjoying myself. My father had brought me out from Scotland at the age of six, and I had never been home since; so England was a sort of Arabian Nights to me, and I counted on stopping there for the rest of my days.

But from the first I was disappointed with it. In about a week I was tired of seeing the sights, and in less than a month I had had enough of restaurants and theatres and race-meetings. I had no real pal to go about with, which probably explains things. Plenty of people invited me to their houses, but they didn’t seem much interested in me. They would fling me a question or two about South Africa and then get on to their own affairs …

Well, that’s quite a contrast with the ones above, isn’t it? First person, with a strong, clear voice from the first. Not that I particularly like Richard. He seems like kind of a jerk. But this is a smooth, breezy style that’s easy to read. I wouldn’t read a whole book from the pov of this guy if he just wandered around feeling hard done by and unappreciated, but I suspect the story is going to give him something to worry about besides boredom with London and the lack of a pal to go about with.

I like the atmosphere. This is a completely different way of establishing the setting. The first book on this list, Inspector Bruno, steps back and pans a camera across the scenery for the reader. This one drops the reader directly into the setting. Also, I can’t help but notice the appropriate and smooth use of the past perfect. I’d go on with this for some pages, waiting to see Richard gets more appealing or if the plot thickens fast enough to catch my interest. I think the latter is more likely to happen first in this particular story.

4. The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld

I quite like the cover, but find the title almost unreadable in this font. I guess the author’s name is supposed the be the important part.

There is no mystery to happiness.

Unhappy men are all alike. Some wound they suffered long ago, some wish denied, some blow to pride, some kindling spark of love put out by scorn – or worse, indifference – cleaves to them, or they to it, and so they live each day within a shroud of yesterdays. The happy man does not look back. He doesn’t look ahead. He lives in the present.

But there’s the rub. The present can never deliver one thing: meaning. The ways of happiness and meaning are not the same. To find happiness, a man need only live in the moment; he need only live for the moment. But if he wants meaning – the meaning of his dreams, his secrets, his life – a man must reinhabit the past, however dark, and live for the future, however uncertain. Thus nature dangles happiness and meaning before us all, insisting only that we choose between them.

For myself, I have always chosen meaning. Which, I suppose, is how I came to be waiting in the swelter and mob of Hoboken Harbor on Sunday evening, August 29, 1909, for the arrival of the Nord-deutsche Lloyd steamship, bound from Bremen, carrying to our shores the one man in the world I wanted most to meet.

Wow! What a different type of opening. Pretentious philosophy, and quite wrong too, which is off-putting. Happiness is living in the moment! Happiness and meaning are mutually exclusive! I don’t agree at all. I’m thoroughly out of charity with the narrator, whoever he is. And yet! The last sentence I quoted above would make practically anyone turn the page, surely, no matter what the reader might think of this person’s philosophical treatise about happiness versus meaning. Aren’t you interested to find out who this one man in the world might be, and why he’s the last man in the world the narrator wants to meet?

Now, actually, the narrator here is Sigmund Freud. How about that? Did anybody know that already? If it’s a revelation, does that change how you feel about the story? For me, it guarantees that I’ll go on. I don’t need to like Sigmund Freud to be interested in where he goes and what he does and – incidentally – in the way he goes about solving a murder, because that’s where this story is heading. With Jung and I think a couple other historical figures we might recognize, too.

Such a remarkable idea for a murder mystery!

5. Death at Rainy Mountain by Mardi Oakley Medawar.

They say that we came from the Crow. Before that, from the Mandan. Maybe we did. Personally, I don’t believe it. I do believe in the stories that tell about a time before the Lakota came from the north country and when we, the Kiowa, like the Southern Cheyenne, lived near the Black Hills. But since the time of my grandfather’s grandfather, we have lived in this place, a verdant land just above the Red River, a river that separates our country from Texas. For all of my grandfather’s time this has been our homeland. And our most sacred place within this homeland, the Rainy Mountain.

In the summer season of 1866, I was somewhere in my early thirties. Thirty-two, thirty-three maybe, no more than that. What is clear in my mind is what a terrible summer that season was. It all began to go wrong when our principal chief, Little Bluff, died. For thirty-three years Little Bluff had been responsible for keeping an independent, furiously stubborn people, lacking even the basic understanding of the term compromise, united as a single race. Then, to our great dismay, he died. Not on the battlefield, further adding to his legend with a richly deserved hero’s death, but in his sleep, like a tired, used-up old man. Only to honor him would the six bands and the multitude of sub-bands converge at the humidity-drenched base of the Rainy Mountain during the full and punishing heat of summer, fighting mosquitoes and, as it almost happened, one another.

We Kiowa have never lived as the white man has portrayed us, in big groups, in a gigantic village sprawling across the prairie. It’s a very romantic notion, but stupid. Consider the practicalities. Each band and sub-band had its own chiefs and minor chiefs. A band generally comprised sixty to eighty lodges, a sub-band, twenty to thirty. When the entire Nation came together it made for an impressive sight of thousands of lodges stretching along a river. But we could not live that way. …

I am disappointed by this opening. I have a sense of place, but barely, and that’s it. I have no sense of the narrator yet, except that he is emotionally distant from this setting, maybe emotionally distant from the story itself. This is quite different from The 39 Steps. Both are first person, obviously, but Buchan’s opening pours the reader into the perception of the narrator, who is definitely part of the world he’s describing. Here, I don’t think it feels that way at all. The first four sentences start to build a sense of the narrator as a person, but after that, this reads a lot like a history textbook cast into first-person narrative form. Which is what it is, as the author tries to establish this setting by throwing a lot of historical and anthropological details into these first paragraphs. The immediate setting gets lost as we are dragged into an lecture about the traditional structure of Kiowa tribes. I’m not interested, which is remarkable, as I actually *am* interested. But I’m not interested here. If I were reading a nonfiction text, I’d be fine with learning how big tribes and sub-tribes were, and I’d be asking about how many people there might be per lodge and what is family structure like and so on.Here, I want to start the story.

Once the story actually starts, this might improve. But remember this sentence? What is clear in my mind is what a terrible summer that season was. This story is forecast as a tragedy, or at least the reader is apparently going to be dragged through terrible events. I’m not interested in enduring a terrible summer! Flipping ahead, I see the history lesson goes on and on. We shift from broad history to more personal history, but it’s taking forever to start the story. Oh, there. Finally. And even now, I still have no sense of the narrator as a person.

As far as I’m concerned, this beginning doesn’t work well. I don’t think we have any sense of the protagonist. I don’t think we have a very good feel for the setting – I don’t feel like I’m drawn into this setting. This world doesn’t feel real or immediate to me. That’s what I want, and I’m not getting it because all this description of the history and the region is too academic and textbook-y for too long. It does get more interesting as the history gets more personal. But I’m also not impressed by the style. The language is correct, but the sentences aren’t beautiful, or even particularly smooth. I had great hopes for this based on the comments from the lectures on the mystery genre, but, well, I might read the rest of the sample. Or at least another few pages. But this is looking like a story that I probably won’t finish.

I wonder if I might like the second book in the series better. Once the setting is established and Medawar no longer feels she has to explain everything, maybe she can relax and just write the story.

6. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

There’s a tremendous amount of front matter in this book. After some thought, I’ve decided to skip ahead past this, that, and the other, and start with chapter one. Here’s where the story actually begins:

It was a beautiful morning at the end of November. During the night it had snowed, but only a little, and the earth was covered with a cool blanket no more than three fingers high. In the darkness, immediately after lauds, we heard Mass in a village in the valley. Then, a the sun first appeared, we set of toward the mountains.

While we toiled up the steep path that wound around the mountain, I saw the abbey. I was amazed, not by the walls that girded it on every side, similar to others to be seen in all the Christian world, but by the bulk of what I later learned was the Aedificium. This was an octagonal construction that from a distance seemed a tetragon (a perfect form, which expresses the sturdiness and impregnability of the City of God), whose southern sides stood on the plateau of the abbey, while the northern ones seemed to grow from the steep side of the mountain, a sheer drop, to which they were bound. I might say that from below, at certain points, the cliff seemed to extend, reaching up toward the heavens, with the rock’s same colors and material, which at a certain point became keep and tower (work of giants who had great familiarity with earth and sky). Three rows of windows proclaimed the triune rhythm of its elevation, so that what was physically squared upon the earth was spiritually triangular in the sky. … 

Beautiful sentences: A+.  Setting, A+. Intellectually entertaining, no question about that. The protagonist himself is rather opaque, even unavailable, at least for now. Would I read further? Absolutely.

There’s a longish prologue that starts like this: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. … This is not exactly reading like an introduction to the story, nor like a short story in itself, which is one way to make a prologue work. That’s why I skipped ahead. Before the prologue, there’s a note about the organization of the book. Before that, there’s a fictional introduction that explains the story to come is actually the translation of a mysterious manuscript. That’s an awful lot of front matter before the story itself begins, and then we have this very scenery-heavy beginning. This could all work for me; I’m enjoying the style. I like long, ornate sentences. That is, I like them intellectually. Right now I’m the opposite of emotionally engaged. But I would read further. That’s what style can do. I’m not turned off by anything and I’m entertained by the style. That won’t carry me through a long novel, but it will carry me through the first chapter. After that, we’ll see.

Now, I know this is a famous book. Some of you must have read it. What did you think?

7. Kim by Rudyard Kipling.

He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-ammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher – the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that “fire-breathing dragon,” hold the Punjab, for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror’s loot.

There was some justification for Kim – he had kicked Lala Dinanath’s Boy off the trunnions – since the English held the Punjab and Kim was English. Though he was burned black as any native; though he spoke the vernacular by preference, and his mother-tongue in a clipped uncertain sing-song; though he consorted on terms of perfect equality with the small boys of the bazar; Kim was white – a poor white of the very poorest. The half-caste woman who looked after him (she smoked opium, and pretended to keep a second-hand furniture shop by the square where the cheap cabs wait) told the missionaries that she was Kim’s mother’s sister; but his mother had been a nurse-maid in a Colonel’s family and had married Kimball O’Hara, a young colour-seargeant of the Mavericks, an Irish regiment. He afterwards took a post on the Sind, Punjab, and Delhi Railway, and his Regiment went home without him. The wife died of cholera in Ferozepore, and O’Hara fell to drink and loafing up and down the line with the keen-eyed three-year-old baby. Societies and chaplains, anxious for a child, tried to catch him, but O’Hara drifted away, till he came across the woman who took opium and learned the taste from her, and died as poor whites die in India.

Here we have an opening that does what the Rainy Mountain opening did not do: it carries the reader straight into a probably unfamiliar historical setting. Kipling does this by including unfamiliar details without explaining them or shifting from the story to a lesson about the history of the region. The history that is included – Kim’s own history – is intimate, not broad-scale. The details are immersed in the world, without the author pulling back to painstakingly explain what is meant by half-caste or what it means to “pretend” to keep a shop or whatever.

I will also pause to note that when Kipling starts to describe long-past events with the simple past tense instead of the past perfect, he does it so smoothly that it works just fine and doesn’t jar me at all.

It is, of course, not really fair to compare any random writer to Kipling.

I should add that, though the setting of Kim is enough to draw me through the first pages, if we don’t actually meet the character and start the story pretty soon, I could get bored … I see in a few pages, we do start the story. It’s not at all clear that we’re heading into a spy novel, but it’s clear that things are happening and I assume those things will kick the story into motion.

Okay! So that’s seven mystery or suspense novels. What do you think? Any work particularly well or particularly badly for you?

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Progress report: by golly sometimes I can tell i’m a writer

So, as perhaps might be expected, I’ve been making rather slow progress on this and that ever since the puppies were born. As a reminder, they’re almost eight weeks old. Nearly two months! Lack of sleep was a thing, plus inevitable distractions, plus the puppies taking up a lot of mental space in my head. When I’m really writing, it’s the reverse — I’m more living in the story I’m writing, without too much mental space devoted to trivial things like real life.

Writing the above comment reminds me of and perhaps was inspired by a few lines from Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, incidentally. What a delightful story that is. Contemporary YA, which I don’t read a lot of, but whoever got me reading Rowell, thank you! I appreciate it! I re-read that story over the past few days and was particularly struck by this quote … let me find it … ah, here it is: when Cath is pouring herself into writing Carry On, she thinks to herself that real life is something happening in her peripheral vision.

What a great phrase that is. I mean, that’s just perfect. It feels exactly like that to me. I know some of you are also writers. I wonder if that strikes you as well as expressing the feeling of writing, when it’s working well and flowing downhill and all that.

Anyway, you can see this coming — this weekend I suddenly settled down and wrote 47 pages. About 9000 words. Edit, I mean about 14,000. Wow, that was really a great weekend.

Mostly on Sunday, because I just stayed home all day and didn’t go anywhere at all, and I am just such a hermit, I really enjoyed that.

So whipping through that many words was very satisfying. Just the fact of doing it, plus enjoying it. A lot of that was due to the puppies being more ignorable. I mean, they’re still very cute. Ultimately cute, in fact. But they’re doing fine and eating well — dry kibble, yay! — and bouncing around outside, and I now frequently take them out, then bring them in and let them tumble around in the living room while I keep half an eye on them. Sure, there have been a few accidents. Not very many, and besides, that is why I have enzymatic cleaner handy on the kitchen counter. I feel it’s bad luck to put it away until the puppy is six months old. It’s going to be sitting on the counter a while.

Yes, I can ignore even this amount of cuteness

I bet it won’t surprise you that all those pages were set in the Tuyo world. Nothing else — almost nothing else — has ever moved so fast so reliably for me.

I’m sure I’ll cut a bit, but at this point it’s pretty obvious that Keraunani is going to be longer than Nikoles. Still much shorter than any book in the main trilogy. I’m guessing about 70,000 words total, something close to that. Fairly close. 75,000 maybe. It’s two interwoven narratives, one taking place concurrently with Tarashana and the other taking place eight years previously, so well before Tuyo. Esau is the pov protagonist in both. His narrative is third person, same as in Nikoles. The flashback part features Lalani, while the current part naturally involves Keraunani herself. I’m at 60,000 words as of this morning, and while there are a few chapters to go plus a fair bit of smoothing things out, I expect a couple of you will get a request to beta-read this story before we get quite to the end of summer.

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Unexpectedly busy week

I suddenly needed to drive to St Louis twice, once early Tuesday morning and again VERY VERY early Wednesday morning. This gave me a chance to listen to, oh, about a dozen lectures from The Great Courses “Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction.”

Of course the title is silly, or perhaps meta — there aren’t any “secrets” of great fiction. I commented on that before, when I ripped into the professor’s take on cozy mysteries. And I kinda stopped listening to these lectures at that point. But I guess I was in the mood for this topic, because I just let the lectures run for about two hours each way on both days, and I did enjoy the lectures quite a bit. Many interesting topics, and every now and then the professor even managed to hit a mystery writer I’m familiar with, such as Tony Hillerman. It’s been a long time since I read Hillerman’s mysteries. I liked them quite a bit. I should revisit that series.

It’s a bit apropos given my recent reading, because somewhat to my surprise, Sharon Shinn’s recent collection includes several murder mystery stories, very outside her normal range. Except, come to think of it, for Wrapt in Crystal, which is in some ways — in a lot of ways — a murder mystery.

The three murder mysteries are “The Sorcerer’s Assassin,” “In the House of Seven Spirits,” and “Chief Executed Officers.”

The first is very tongue-in-cheek, which is signaled by every character being unpleasant in an over-the-top way, particularly the first-person protagonist. I guessed part, but not all, of the solution.

The third is almost as light in style. I didn’t actually believe in the basic premise about the nature of the alien species, but it’s an enjoyable story nevertheless. I didn’t guess the solution, though I’m not surprised in retrospect.

I liked “In the House of Seven Spirits” best. It’s also a light story, but not quite as feather-weighted as the other two. Plus I just liked it. I like the protagonist to be a nice person. It’s a shame she lost the ghosts, though no doubt it’s just as well they all moved on. And as she says, she can get a cat. In this one, I didn’t guess the solution at all. I really thought, well, never mind.

I will add, I’m having trouble which story in this collection I actually like the best, but it’s not one of the mysteries. It might be “The Unrhymed Couplets of the Universe.” Not sure, but I liked that one a lot.

But back to mysteries! As it happens, there’s a relevant post at Book Riot today: DOES SOLVING THE MYSTERY MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

When I was younger, I was a mystery writer’s dream reader because I never solved a mystery before the big reveal. I would get completely absorbed in the set up, the crime, the clues and misdirections, and I never looked ahead or took the time to puzzle it out on my own. I might have made the occasional guess, but I was usually wrong, and I was almost always delightfully surprised by the big reveal. And I would have stayed so happily oblivious if I hadn’t decided that I wanted to write a mystery myself and therefore had to start looking at mystery novels with a critical eye. Writing a mystery is no small undertaking, and there are many considerations that go into plot, but the biggest question I found myself asking was, Does it matter if the reader can solve the mystery before the protagonist?

What do you think?

I don’t generally care whether I solve the mystery before the protagonist. That’s not important to me at all. I’m like the author of the linked post, only more so. I get absorbed by the characters and the details of the setting and don’t even particularly care about the clues or the misdirections. I may make a casual attempt to figure out whodunit, but it’s a very casual attempt because I don’t actually care.

There’s an exception to this rule:

I hate, hate, hate if the protagonist is stupidly missing ultra-obvious clues and therefore I figure out the mystery first.

I remember one Anne Perry mystery, don’t remember which one, where all the way from the murder onward I was thinking, “Or, you know what, maybe the murderer is THE ONLY PERSON TO WHOM THE PHYSICAL EVIDENCE POINTS.” I should add, I like Anne Perry’s mysteries as a rule. I was just baffled at how dense the police detective was in this one.

Or in Margaret Maron’s Winter’s Child, that’s another example. I reviewed it here. I don’t think I have ever in my life read a mystery where the solution was so blindingly, blazingly clear, and where the protagonist had to be more dense in order to not see this extraordinarily obvious solution.

However! All that aside, generally, I don’t care whether I solve the mystery before the protagonist or not. It’s fine either way. For example, I thought the mysteries were not super mysterious in Barbara Hambly’s historical mysteries with Abigail Adams as the protagonist, written under the name Barbara Hamilton, but that was fine, because the historical setting was so well evoked and the characters so well drawn.

Now, this Book Riot post is pretty good. The author of the post, let me see, Tirzah Price, makes what seems to me a good distinction between mysteries and thrillers, which is also relevant to the series of lectures I’m listening to, which is concerned with both mysteries and suspense novels. I’m listening to the lecture on spy novels right now.

Anyway, then Price discusses two mysteries, one where she figured out whodunit and the other where she didn’t. Let me take a look — oh, this is funny! The first book she discusses is The Searcher by Tana French, and you all know how I felt about In the Woods. So, hah, no, I’m not likely to read The Searcher. Sorry, but when I dislike a book that much, I’m not likely ever to read anything else by the author. Now if a regular commenter here pointed to one of French’s books and said, Oh, but you should try this one, I probably would, but otherwise no.

However, Price’s discussion of this book is good.

The other book she discusses is The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur. Well, that is certainly a most evocative title. It sounds like a pretty good book, too.

Price sums up her post this way:

These days, now that I’ve written a few mysteries of my own and read with a much more critical eye, I want enough information that I can start putting the elements together myself, but I don’t necessarily want to guess the whole who, how, and why of a mystery before the big reveal. I would not be satisfied if I was totally off-base about the mystery during reading (and I’d argue that a book that completely misleads its readers probably isn’t a successful mystery) but I read mysteries for the intrigue and the questions, so of course I want to be surprised in some way.

I don’t read mysteries for the intrigue and the puzzle; I read them for setting and character and essentially story. But, although I don’t (generally) care if I get all or most of the whodunit elements right before the big reveal, I do agree that if the novel completely misleads the reader, that’s not a great mystery. I can’t offhand think of a mystery that does that.

If you read mysteries, do you personally generally solve the mystery before you get to the end and have it handed to you in the big reveal? And do you care?

And, if you’ve read a mystery lately that stood out to you in some way, what was it? For me, it would be Wrapt in Crystal. But this lecture series has made me scribble down some names — including, to my considerable surprise, KIM by Rudyard Kipling, as an example of a spy novel, did not see that coming — anyway, I may be trying a good handful of new-to-me mystery and/or suspense authors in the near-ish future.

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Are fictional characters copyrighted?

This question, posed and answered at Jane Friedman’s blog, surprised me. I thought the answer was obviously yes. Nobody can lift Harry Potter out of Hogwarts and drop him into their own fictional world and write a story with him as a character. If they do, that’s fanfic and technically illegal, though I know a lot of authors are fine with fanfic and I don’t see a problem with it myself.

But that being so, why is there a question?

Here are some highlights from the post:

Courts have held, in certain circumstances, that fictional characters are protectable in their own right.

So I guess in other circumstances, they aren’t. That still surprises me.

A character must be well delineated to be protected.

This apparently means that Gandalf the Grey might be protected, but The Old Man Who is a Wizard definitely is not. That makes sense. I can certainly see that broad categories of characters can’t and shouldn’t be protected under copyright law, any more than “school for young wizards in training” can be protected under copyright law.

A character is protected under the “story being told” test when he dominates the story in a way that there would be no story without him. 

And this is probably why fanfic is technically breaking copyright law: because most of the time, the fanfic story utterly depends on use of a well-delineated, well-known fictional character.

While on the subject of fanfic, I think this is the beginning of the excellent fanfic starring Byerly Vorrutyer and Rish. If you haven’t read it, you might want to take a look.

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How important is this character?

Here’s a post at Book View Cafe: Characters, Their Care and Feeding

There are vital, primary characters (the protagonist, the antagonist), secondary characters (companions, love interests, foils), and (to use film terminology) bit players, walk-ons, and extras.

One way we signal the reader about a character’s relative importance is by whether or not we give them names. The professor is less important in the reader’s mind than Professor Denning and Professor Denning is less important than Professor Joseph Denning or Joe.

All true, and it’s a difficult point. Sometimes it seems unnatural for one character not to refer to another by name, and then there you are, kinda stuck. Or sometimes you have a good handful of extras in a scene and you feel that the reader is likely to mix them up or lose track of them if they don’t have names.

This post — it’s by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff — offers some good tips about how to manage that:

Let’s say you’ve got a technician who appears in a scene or two in your book. You can identify him by giving him a visual trait—carroty red hair. This visual trait allows the reader to identify him as an individual through unique tags—”the carrot topped tech” or “the red head” or through other characters reacting in some way to the brightness of the guy’s hair.

Yes! This is a good way to handle this problem, and no doubt results in many minor walk-on characters being, say, bald, or having a scar on the face, or as above, having red hair.

You can even provide no identifying characteristics except “the thug on the right” and that’s enough to keep a fight scene clear, even if your super-competent protagonist demolishes three or four or more bad guys in one brief scene.

More at the linked post, of course.

I tend to name characters if they might be somewhat important later. Or if this is a walk-on character, but his backstory just unfolded to me and I think he might become a more important character, but I’m not sure.

This sort of thing sometimes results in an named character, maybe even one you personally like, who doesn’t turn out to have anything important to do after all. The best way to handle that is most likely to meld that character into another character or remove him entirely. This is often a tedious job, but there you go. I will just add — no need to inquire too closely as to how I found this out — that it may be wise to do a global search for his name, to make absolutely certain you have cleared every single mention of this character out of your manuscript.

I’ll add, as a related issue, that there are definitely times when a situation would logically call for more people. For example, when Aras goes into the winter country in Tarashana — oh, that’s up to 43 ratings on Amazon, nice to see — anyway, I think it would have been reasonable and sensible for him to take more soldiers with him. I mean, not sixty or anything like that. But four, five, eight maybe. But good lord above, I had so many important secondary characters already going along. Did you ever count them? Aras, Ryo, Rakasa, Bara, Geras, Suyet, Lalani. And then Tano. Eight people! And I had to handle them in such a way that the reader never forgot anyone was there and they all seemed to actually be there all the way through. The entire reason Aras took only two soldiers with him was to keep the numbers down for that journey for my sake, not for his. Hopefully I made that sound plausible, but everything else was just an excuse.

This reminds me of yet another related phenomenon: killing off the parents of younger protagonists in the backstory. Sometimes there’s an important reason that’s connected to the plot, such as, oh, actually quite a few of mine. In The Floating Islands and The Keeper of the Mist and Black Dog, the death of the parents in the backstory is crucial to setting up the story. Some others too, probably. But sometimes the sole reason to kill off one or both parents in the backstory is to clear out the cast of characters and thus make the story easier to write. This was the case for Kehera’s mother in Winter of Ice and Iron, for example. In fact, some of these dead parents are never even named. It’s enough trouble coming up with names for characters that are alive and doing stuff during the story! Every name you don’t have to invent spares you that little bit of attention to put toward doing something else.

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Should authors review books?

I do find this sort of question, as seen here at Writers Unboxed, a little odd.

Of course you have a right to write reviews—we’re all readers! Readers get to have opinions!—but you should give some thought to what you want those reviews to accomplish. Do you want to boost other authors and recommend the books you loved? You can do that by writing positive reviews of the books you loved and just not writing about books that don’t fit into that category. If, on the other hand, you want the internet to reflect the complete record of everything you read and what you thought about it—positive or negative—go for it. But remember that some authors can’t help reading their reviews, and your name is going to be associated with that negative review. 

The bolding is mine.

I think this is largely a no-brainer. There is absolutely no reason not to write positive reviews of books you love, whether or not you are an author. So why ask the question: Should authors review books? Yes. yes, if you are an author, you absolutely should review the books other people write.

You should write glowingly positive reviews that are also honest and perhaps mention something that might not work for just every possible reader. The author of the book will love that, or at least it’s hard to imagine otherwise. There’s no reason to hesitate. Onward!

So the actual question is: should authors write negative reviews of other people’s books? That’s a much harder question. I’ve only written negative reviews about three times.

Once, I utterly panned a book. I put that review only here on this blog. I did not feel it was necessary right to put a truly negative review on Goodreads or Amazon.

Wow, was that a terrible book. Looking back on it, just … wow.

I’ve put one fairly negative review on Goodreads and Amazon for one specific book, Control Point by Myke Cole, and I’ve left it there. I had very specific reactions to certain implausible plot points and I think those were fair. I did think the actual writing was fine and said so.

For Tana French’s In the Woods, I posted a review of the “Wow, this did not work for me at all, even though it is beautifully written” type.

I kind of think those may be the only negative reviews I’ve ever posted.

I think it’s not only tactically wise for an author to generally post positive reviews, but in general, I truly prefer writing reviews of books I love and posting those here and hopefully seeing you all comment about the same book.

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Public service message

Invisible fences will not keep your dog safe.

This message brought to you by the elderly Labrador mix I picked up this morning.

The dog with two collars, one meant for an invisible fence plus another collar, but no tags.

The dog with a cataract in one eye, so I guess that would make it even harder for her to see hazards such as the cars on the nearby highway. Not that any dog is competent to navigate a highway.

She was sweet as pie, a well-cared-for pet, who immediately jumped in my car when I raised the back, sat quietly during the trip to my vet, and trotted into the clinic wagging her tail.

Is she chipped? Beats me; they’ll check when they’ve got time. Either way, this dog is probably heading for a stay at whatever facility animal control takes stray dogs. Hopefully her owners will find her. Someone plainly has cared for this dog, so I imagine they’ll be looking for her. Regardless, almost anything is better than her dying in agony with a crushed pelvis on the highway.

An invisible fence —

–won’t stop someone from coming onto your property and stealing or hurting your dog.

–won’t stop a stray dog from coming onto your property and killing your dog.

–most of all, if your dog goes through the fence for any reason, she will not be able to get back to your house because the fence will shock her if she tries to return. She may well get lost. She will quite possibly wind up miles from your home.

If you have an invisible fence and you are trusting that fence to keep your dog safe, you are primarily trusting to luck. If that luck runs out, your dog can very easily wind up in a terrible situation.

I will let my Leda sum this up, because her head tilt is so expressive.

Update: I hear the Lab mix I found this morning has been reclaimed by her owner. I hope after this, they take care to keep her safely off the roads and out of the woods and at home! And put a tag on her collar!

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Progress Report: They grow up so fast

Very pleased to find that every puppy has cheerfully transitioned to eating softened kibble. They have no idea what I mean when I point out that they could have done this two weeks ago and saved me a lot of hair-tearing as I tried to find something they would eat.

Also, the puppies all get to spend half an hour or so playing in the living room after they’ve been outside. They are faking being housetrained. Very few accidents. It’s all a matter of timing and supervision and getting them outside or back in the puppy room at strategic intervals, which I’ve failed at … twice, I think. Two accidents so far in two weeks with five puppies is pretty good!

Ruby girl looks JUST like a teddy bear.

The ruby girl is not merely very teddy-bear-esque, she is also very person-oriented. She likes to be fed by hand, one piece at a time. She’s willing to eat out of a bowl, but sitting on someone’s lap is just better. I think she is going to be a very affectionate little girl.

Committed to destroying the world

The black-and-tan boy is happy to try to destroy shoes or dog beds or the couch, but fortunately does find dog toys an adequate substitute. Such a charmer.

Tri Boy and Tri Girl Two

I think these two are going to be steady and affectionate. Tri Boy is another lap puppy. Tri Girl Two is a lot like him. They certainly are a lot alike. I still have to look two or three times sometimes to be sure which one I’m looking at, even though as you see their face markings are somewhat different.

Really, the standout from this litter is —

Tri Girl One attempts to destroy my slipper

So, my brother visited this past weekend, and I don’t know who started it, but by the end of the visit, we were calling this puppy Devil Woman. Now, that won’t be her registered name — which needs to start with an O — and I can’t quite see saying, “Devil Woman, Sit!” But obviously this suggests a lot of possible call names. Saffron, Bridget, and Yolanda all leap to mind. Of the three, I prefer Saffron. I can very easily see calling this puppy by that name. I think she will be witty and beautiful and (for a Cavalier) very independent — though I trust not duplicitous and backstabbing.

As a side note, my friend Deb tells me she’s now having exactly the same problem with a puppy that I had with Tri Boy and before him with Leda and her sister — a thrifty puppy that grows properly for the first week, but at some point in the second week suddenly needs extra formula every day in order to continue gaining, even though he looks perfectly healthy. It’s a mystery. At least I could say that in my experience, these puppies do just fine if you provide the support they need. Once weaned, they’re perfectly normal and gain just like any other puppy. It’s nice (in a way) to know that someone else is seeing this exact same phenomenon.

She nearly lost two of hers to a freak accident when they were born. Wow, puppies are so stressful. I’m sure glad my babies are out of the risky period and into the madly cute stage. I’ve imposed a 1000-word minimum for the present. That is such a trivial number of words. It would be ridiculous not to be able to hit that minimum every single day, even with Puppy Cuteness interfering. I haven’t (yet) declared that this word count has to apply to one specific project. But we’re halfway through July, nearly, and by gum I’m going to make some real progress on something this month.

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